The Nintendo Game Boy – 25 Years Later….

So the Nintendo Game Boy is 25 years old. I’m in the UK, so we didn’t actually get it here until 1990, but I didn’t get my own one until the summer of 1993 – around the time of my birthday, in fact – my family got it for me in the Southend-on-Sea branch of Argos, bundled with – surprise, surprise – Tetris! I think Tetris came free with absolutely every Game Boy back in its first phase, so it was weird to see it also available as a stand-alone game that you could buy in the shops. Didn’t everyone have this game? I suppose if you bought a Game Boy second-hand then you might not have had a copy, and to be fair, you had to have a copy. It is so heartening to know that the Game Boy’s flagship game was such an intelligent one. Seriously. I took the time to play one of those retro-compilation games for the Xbox that put together a barrel load of old Mega Drive games and I was staggered by how brain-dead so many of those games were – just punch, punch, punch, jump, jump, jump, kick, kick, kick and so on. With Tetris you had to be on the ball, all the time. It was a great game, except for the fact that it didn’t appear to have an ending. It just got faster and faster until it was physically impossible – for your eyes and your fingers – to keep up. I like games to have an ending, even if nearly all endings to games back then were shit. I just like closure. Almost as bad was when games ‘rewarded’ you by sending you back to the very start of the game so that you had to play it all over again, albeit this time with slightly more difficult opponents. Grr.

The Game Boy’s portability was the obvious and vital key to its success. Coming after the 8-bit wave of consoles – Nintendo’s NES and Sega’s Master System – the Game Boy games were far from cutting edge in regards to graphics and sound. They weren’t even in colour for God’s sake. The games weren’t that much cheaper than the 8-bit ones either. Somehow £29.99 for a Game Boy cartridge felt like a rip-off. No wonder I got so many of mine cheap and second-hand. Also – wanted to go 2-player with your mate? Well, you had to have one of those connectivity cables and your mate had to have his or her own copy of the game!!! Yet so many of us took the console to our hearts because, because… you could play the thing outside. Yeah, everything’s portable nowadays, but back then it was only Walkmans and Game Boys. The freedom of playing a computer game outside that wasn’t one of those crappy Game & Watch thingies was a joy unparalleled. Speaking of Tetris – it seemed perfect for the Game Boy. Have you ever tried playing it on a home console? It never felt right. Too big a screen for something as small and intimately confined as Tetris. True, the 2-player option was a far easier proposition, but knowing you could see what your mate was up to on the other side of the screen made their sneaky moves feel a lot less sneaky. It felt more of an attack when you couldn’t see what they were up to on their own Game Boy.

Design wise it was a classic of simplicity – a lean, no-nonsense grey, two (just two!!!) control buttons, the necessary ‘start’ and ‘select’ buttons and yes, yes, yes – a headphone port! I never understood it at the time but I could see how the tinny soundtracks to all those game could drive anyone not playing them at that moment completely nuts. Now you could shut out all those other humans and lose yourself entirely! I also think the Game Boy was the first ever console to have absolutely every single game begin with the same identifiable logo and sound. Not every Master System game began with the Sega logo, and I don’t think any NES game began with any standard logo. The Game Boy games would always start with the ‘Nintendo’ text scrolling down to the centre of the screen, culminating in that two-note ding that can bring a tear to any nostalgic-waxing gamer these days.

Power-wise, the Game Boy took four AA batteries and they lasted a healthy amount of time to be honest – there was also an AC adaptor for home use which meant you didn’t have to waste those batteries unnecessarily. Compare this to Sega’s attempt to conquer the portable market – the Game Gear- which definitely had the edge in some regards such as its colour screen, but its battery life was minimal and expensive to maintain. I never owned a Game Gear, and I always wanted one – the TV tuner sounded fantastic (never knew how well it worked in reality though) – but no one I knew had one, so how could you ever swap or sell or buy games to your mates? Also, the one game I did play on it was Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which merely took the Master System version and strangely cropped the screen so you couldn’t see what was coming until you were already dead. Now some fans liked the fact that this made the game more difficult, but it pissed me off to no end. Besides, why would I want to play a smaller, inferior version of a game that was already out for the Master System? That’s what gave the Game Boy an edge, that its Mario games were not mere copies of the NES versions.

While the NES had the first three Super Mario Bros games and the SNES had the formidable Super Mario World, the Game Boy was all too aware of its limitations and wisely didn’t try to Xerox those games to fit on a small monochrome screen. Instead it blessed itself with its own unique game – Super Mario Land – that was intentionally designed to fit inside its smaller scale and didn’t feel cropped or compromised as a result. True, there was some pixel blur when you made Mario run instead of walk, but overall this felt like the perfect alternative sequel to the original Mario game – not as anomalous as Mario Madness (Mario 2 in the US and Europe) but not as insanely difficult as The Lost Levels (Mario 2 in Japan). Here you had the tried-and-tested fun of the overground/underground levels (not to mention the plethora of secret rooms) but you could also fly an aircraft, which officially made it cooler than the original. Also, the final credit music used to get me close to tears. I don’t know why, I always found it so beautiful and strangely sad. That I only ever got to hear this music by completing the game made it all the sweeter. The fact that I can hear this music on youtube at the click of a button has robbed it of its magic for me.

That was probably my all-time favourite Game Boy game, but there were plenty of others that I recall – here’s a rundown of some of the games I remember playing.

Bart Simpson’s Escape from Camp Deadly – Simpsons in shock ‘not shite’ video game cash-in. The show itself was remarkably a remote presence in my life for a good while so I jumped on anything with their name on. As spin-offs go, not as good as the ‘Deep, Deep Trouble’ single by Bart and Homer, but what was?

The Castlevania Adventure – atmospheric platformer with vampires. Perfect. Was a real favourite until my copy mysteriously vanished. Cue many tears.

Dynablaster – Insanely addictive maze/blow up the bad guys strategy craziness commonly known as Bomberman that admittedly wasn’t as much fun as the multiplayer versions available on home consoles where you could trap your mates between a dead end and a bomb and watch them squirm ‘til the fuse runs out.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch – I think this must have been very cheap when I bought it as even as a stupid kid I knew all too well the general crappiness of movie tie-in games. Amazingly, I remember this being quite entertaining.

 Hyper Lode Runner – definitely a second hand purchase (I don’t even recall getting it with the box or instructions) and a platform with a little bit of strategy thrown in.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening – aka Zelda IV. Massively popular, highly acclaimed, vastly epic, and yet it didn’t do it for me. I guess I had already been spoiled by the astonishing A Link to the Past on the SNES.

Revenge of the Gator – it was a pinball game, and an alligator was involved somehow. I played this one a lot.

Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan – simple platformer but so much fun I must have re-played it and re-completed it at least 678 times. The music in the sewer levels still reverberates inside my skull to this day.

Tennis – it was tennis. Simple, straight-up tennis. Yet it worked for me. I got so into this that I was genuinely disappointed to find out how difficult the sport was when I tried it in real life.

Come to think of it, there were absolutely loads of Game Boy games I never played, and never will. The games were expensive back then, and from what I recall from relevant magazines from the time like Total!, there was a fair amount of crap as well, but the ones I did play, I really, really played. Less was more, and I definitely got my money’s worth back then. A lot of those games have probably dated appallingly, so I’m tempted not to revisit them– let the past be the past. Besides, for me – it’s the memory of the whole gaming experience itself, not just the game, that I love. A warm summer evening, sitting cross-legged on the patch of ground overlooking the car park near the back of my house, playing Super Mario Land as the sun started to set… beautiful.

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Sorcerer (1977) review

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Sometime back in 1977…

“Hmm… what’s this? Coming soon from the director of THE EXORCIST… SORCERER!”

“Yeah, Sorcerer! Sounds supernatural, sounds scary, sounds out of this world! Let’s go see it!”

“Oh wait, I don’t think there aren’t any sorcerers in it.”

“Okaaaaay, so it’s not a horror? Not even a fantasy?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well what the hell is it? What is Sorcerer?”

“I think it’s the name of a truck.”

“Fine. Well, is this truck EVIL, like in Duel or something like that?”

” No.”

“So it’s just a fucking truck? Just a bunch of ugly, unwashed criminals driving a fucking truck?”

“What else is out?”

“STAR WARS?”

“Sold!”

The above exchange of words may very well have taken place in many a household perusing the cinema listings in their local newspaper. Sorcerer was a disaster when it was released. It had already been a troubled production, spiralling over budget to the extent that it involved two major studios to finance it. Many critics savaged it. It did not make its money back. That vague, misleading title did it no favours whatsoever. Nor the fact that it was a dark, slow-burning, grim tale of non-heroes in desperate times. No humour. No happy ending. No real stars either – true, Roy Scheider had starred in the at-the-time most successful film ever, but was Jaws a hit because of his star power? I doubt it. One of the reasons that Spielberg’s film worked so well was precisely because of Scheider’s unpretentious, everyman persona. Some critics didn’t like the fact that Sorcerer was a remake of cineaste favourite The Wages of Fear, a remarkably tense French thriller from the Fifties. How dare Friedkin tackle such material? This was more sacrilegious than what that girl did to herself in The Exorcist! So Sorcerer tanked. Then it disappeared.

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It’s easy to see why Sorcerer floundered against Star Wars. The latter was unlike anything else – an extraordinary step forward into the new blockbuster era, where awe, fantasy, escapism and the sheer joy of the moviegoing experience was taken up into the stratosphere, beyond it, in fact – way up into the stars. A grim, earthbound trek – no matter how unbearably suspenseful or brilliantly made it was – was never going to stand a chance. I’m not going to fashionably slag off Star Wars for stealing Sorcerer’s thunder – George Lucas’ film set in stone the cinematic era of my youth, ‘the Second Golden Age of Hollywood’ as Homer Simpson would put it (although he insanely thinks the era never ended!), so I’ll always be forever grateful, even if Star Wars has dated somewhat compared to its two sequels, and as a film in itself is one I find myself going back to less and less.

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The first act is a bravura example of deliberate slow-pacing – it takes nearly half-an-hour to fully introduce our four characters. These are not very likeable protagonists – an assassin, a terrorist, a fraudster, a getaway driver – but we’re with them as they find themselves stuck in the world’s most humid, dank village, somewhere in South America, where the only employment available is from the nearby oil factory. However, when a disastrous incident there leads to a formidable fire, all the jobs are gone. The only way to put out the fire – and bring back the jobs – is to extinguish it with nitro-glycerine, and the only supply is a highly, HIGHLY unstable batch that’s liable to detonate with even the slightest nudge. Getting the supply to the fire involves a 200 mile truck journey over the most treacherous terrain imaginable – only the most suicidal or desperate would take on such a mission, but our four anti-heroes (in fact, anti-hero sounds way too generous, there’s barely anything heroic about these guys) are the ones for the job. Well, three of them are – the assassin only gets the job at the last minute via cutthroat means. And so the journey begins.

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The latter half of the film is essentially an extended set-piece – that’s an hour of on-the-road, agonising suspense that feels utterly real because it is utterly real. No CGI. No back projection. Real trucks, real scenery, real danger. The original Wages of Fear was formidably white-knuckle inducing but Sorcerer takes it to the next level – the ultimate level in fact – in regards to sheer force-of-nature, hellish wheelbound tension. The most celebrated sequence involves the world’s ricketiest rope bridge and the men’s attempt to cross it. Seriously, this bridge is practically falling apart – travelling over it is madness. And yet that’s what our characters – and the filmmakers – did. Even if the weather wasn’t atrocious it would be an insanely risky sequence. That the wind and rain (and the trees) are practically attacking the characters makes this particular stretch of the journey an absolute nightmare to endure. It’s a remarkable sequence – possibly Friedkin’s most impressive, jaw-dropping moment come to think of it. Think of the car chases in The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A, crank up the tension (yet slow down the pace) and just marvel at how it was all done. I mean, how the hell was it done? Sheer knife-edge excitement gives way to one hell of an obstacle in the form of a HUGE tree trunk, deadly soldiers and the world’s weirdest desert valley. By the end the effect is exhausting, almost hallucinatory.

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There’s greatness throughout – the fiercely unsentimental approach makes for a gut-punching, at times shocking journey. There’s no Hollywood glamour at all – even the presence of Roy Scheider doesn’t make it feel like a blockbuster. He’s never looked so grimy, shabby or shaken up. The photography and location work is incredible – you feel like you’re right there in the dirt of the village, the heat of the fire, the density of the jungle. German electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream deliver a stand-out score – their first ever soundtrack, and far, far, far from their last – that really adds to the moodiness. The ending is appropriately downbeat – unimaginable any other way, frankly. Bizarrely, the film is still rated PG in the US – this was from the era when you could get away with a lot more in a so-called family certified picture. We get two F-bombs during the first act for starters, and there’s a fair bit of bloody violence too. The UK settled for the more appropriate ‘AA’ (over 14’s only) and eventual ‘15’ certificates.

In regards to public availability, Sorcerer drifted on the fringes. Here in the UK we never seemed to get any kind of home video release, and there doesn’t seem to have been a television screening since the early 1980’s. There were VHS and Laserdisc releases in the US and a full-screen Region 1 DVD release back in 1998 and I can only vouch for the quality of the transfer in regards to the latter. It was dreadful – blurry, washed-out and pan-and-scanned, totally compromising the amazing visuals. Warner Bros.’ new Blu-Ray is a revelation and it is an absolute joy to see this film look so good. I’ll be disposing of my old DVD tomorrow.

 

The Real Ghostbusters Episode 16: Play Them Ragtime Boos (1987)

ImageHa-ha. See what they did with the title there? Later on we’ll get Boo-Dunit, Ragnarok and Roll, Moaning Stones, Ain’t NASA-sarily So… all of them pun-tastically dreadful. Actually, scratch that – I really like Ragnarok and Roll, that’s a good one. And these are just the ones from the good era of the show – I quickly glanced at some of the episode titles from the crap era, and I won’t even give them the dignity of naming names here. Besides, Play Them Ragtime Boos is another delightful early episode, the one with the jazz ghosts. We start off with the most innocuous start to any episode ever, just a musician on a shack in the bayou, playing away, not bothering anyone, just doing his thing….and then he disappears. He leaves the instrument behind, so I take it that’s not haunted. Hardly the most intense opening, but I like it – these ghosts are not overtly malevolent or evil (though their actions do bring about catastrophic potential), they’re just cool cats lost in music, that’s all.

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The guys are on their way to New Orleans for a convention but all Peter’s interested in is Mardi Gras. Ray tries to cheer him up by promising him a great stay at the hotel they’ve booked – from the brochure it looks terrific, except we soon find out that it was written in 1932 and the actual Hotel Bordeaux is a complete dump. It is almost at one with the swamp. Oh well, at least the owner is a beauty named Marie, so Peter forgets about comfort and instead tries to get laid. Well, this is a children’s cartoon, so ‘getting laid’ is not really appropriate, but us grown-ups know what he’s after.

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Night falls and the guys have got off to sleep relatively easily (can’t be that uncomfortable then) but something’s in the air – all the townsfolk are outside sleepwalking in their jim-jams and Ray (only Ray) wakes up from his slumber in a state of possession (or ‘preternaturally induced hypnogogic ataraxia’ according to Egon) and joins the crowd. Egon notices this and knows something is wrong. Peter half-notices this and blearily asks for a sandwich. That’s quite a heavy snack for someone who’s only just woken up – I can’t handle more than a bit of toast and coffee in the morning myself. Turns out that the local jazz band is playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ and nobody can resist it. Well, I suppose it’s a fine standard and difficult to ignore, but by the end of this episode you might have gone the way of the crazy after hearing it too much. Anyway, this supernatural jazz is making the clocks go backwards, and not just for show either. Time itself is running backwards, with all the happy townsfolk blissfully unaware that they themselves are morphing back into 1930’s attire, while the town itself is going seriously old-school, changing from knackered old resort to hip ‘n’ happening halcyon spot. Peter’s well impressed and joins the dance, but Egon (clearly immune to the powers of trad-jazz) sees past the glitz and knows that none of this is good. Before things can go any further, Marie turns up and sprinkles some glitter over the band (but they don’t turn into The Glitter Band) and they disappear. In one odd shot, their instruments fall to the floor of what should be a gazebo, but appears to be some kind of out-of-this-world outer-space zone. All the streets become shabby again and the townsfolk return to their present-day state, one of whom really, really looks like a more rotund Ray.

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Marie, a fully-fledged mambo (a voudou/voodoo priestess and not a ‘mama’, as Egon goes on to correct Peter) helpfully explains just what’s going on – the leader of the band, Malachi, was a killer jazz player back in the day but died in the forties. He’s come back as a ghost to bring back the glory days (completely unaware of the subsequent rise of rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, disco, the whole indie scene, grunge, drum ‘n’ bass and dubstep among other things – actually this was made in 1987, so scrap the last three) by playing the same tune over and over again, and the more people he possesses, the more powerful he becomes. Now, as malevolent spirits go, Malachi’s plan to turn a worn-down old town back into a swinging party scene is one of the most seemingly harmless and actually most damn enjoyable schemes ever. Why can’t we just let him get on with it? Ah, but there’s a side-effect, as we’ll discover later.

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Okay, so Malachi’s a ghost, so let’s bust him, right? Wrong. The guys are on vacation, which means all their gear’s back at home. No worries, Janine can send it over to them, although when Egon rings her the next morning, their phone call distracts the poor girl enough so that Slimer can pinch her chocolate doughnut. By the way, Janine’s clearly in on Peter’s scheme to somehow get to Mardi Gras, almost landing him right in it over the phone. So let’s focus on what exactly is wrong with Malachi’s otherwise pretty cool plan:

Winston: So this time warp stuff could be a problem, huh?

Egon: Yes, it could even lead to chrono-synclastic infundibulum.

Peter: Let me guess, that’s bad right?

Egon: Imagine a world totally without progression – from past to present to future.

Ray: It would be an inverse, chaotic, ever-present now. Remember, time is what keeps everything from happening all at once.

Now that is spectacular stuff. Great, great writing. All of a sudden, Malachi is here to make sure everything goes his way, by turning up with his band, playing his signature tune to such a strength that the guys and Marie end up going way back to the American Civil War, dressed up in all the appropriate attire and everything. The flow of time is breaking down, and to make things worse, they’re literally in the middle of the war, with the South rampaging towards them from one side and the North from the other. Now this would be the most inescapable, portentous, doomed act break cliffhanger ever were it not for one thing. As soon as we enter Act 2, the guys are immediately hurled further back in time for no other reason than the writers realised they couldn’t kill off their title characters. This isn’t like Game of Thrones where anyone’s fair game – simply put, you cannot kill all of The Real Ghostbusters halfway during your fifteenth episode with more than a hundred episodes left to go.

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Luckily the funniest gag in the episode saves the day as the guys find themselves sent back so far in the past that Louisana hasn’t even shown up yet on the map – they’re neck-deep in water, their hair is all shaggy, they’re wearing ‘fur bathing suits’ and there’s a ravenous sea monster about to eat them all. Cue this delightful exchange:

Egon: Hmm. It appears to be a megaladon. That would narrow down the era somewhat.

Winston: NEVER MIND THE ERA! WHAT DOES IT EAT?

Egon: Er, anything smaller than itself, I believe.

Now Egon is on top form for so many reasons during this scene, the most obvious being the way he delivers that last line so straight-faced as everyone goes absolutely crazy and desperately tries to swim away. Also, before any of that, Winston says ‘guess who’s coming to dinner?’ Having a black character quote the title of one of the 20th century’s most famous films about racial tension couldn’t have been an accident, could it? Is the megaladon racist? Or is it just a funny line? I don’t know, but I can’t think about megaladons without thinking of the bad-movie classic that is Shark Attack 3: Megaladon, which starred entertainer, singer and Captain Jack himself John Barrowman and boasted one of the most jaw-dropping ad-libs in B-movie history.

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Anyway, the writers once-again realise they can’t have their cast eaten by a prehistoric shark, so they send the guys and Marie back to the present, where they continue to swim on dry land until they realise just how stupid that is. Peter is the last to suss out that they’re actually safe and everyone stares at him looking stupid until he quite matter-of-factly gets up, dusts himself down and frankly admits he’d rather not be here. Now the guys or Marie didn’t do anything to get themselves out of their two near-death experiences, so I guess it must have been Malachi, or the general craziness of the time collapse. We never do find out.

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Ray and Winston decide to head off to New Orleans to pick up their gear, and Peter goes crazy, as it means that they have the opportunity to go to Mardi Gras, but at least Marie’s still around for him to harass, except she’s not interested. Oh well, Egon brought a spare PKE meter to work out how to deal with Malachi – they can match his music with some music of their own, but as Peter says, who cares? Once they have their proton packs, they can just trap Malachi, job done, sorted. Oh, wait – the proton packs have been shipped to Hawaii by accident. Gutted. Oh well, maybe they can create a proton pack with any spare parts from the conference they were originally meant to be attending before all this Malachi business put a spanner in the works? This means driving right past Mardi Gras in a classic example of ‘so near, yet so far’ agony for poor Peter. By the way, one of the Mardi Gras floats looks pretty scary. They find the parts they’re looking for and get started on their new proton pack – well Ray does, as Winston and Peter seem to be merely relaxing in their chairs watching him work.

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Meanwhile Malachi is playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ AGAIN, so hopefully this anti-social nuisance can finally be disposed with. Egon is nearly fried when he touches the proton accelerator – seriously, it practically electrocutes him! Peter jokes about finding a bomb shelter but all the townsfolk start to turn old-school, so there’s no time for humour. Ray blasts the band and they disappear, but a major cost – the proton pack has gone into overdrive. In the show’s most laidback approach ever to an impending disaster, Egon casually informs Ray that he might want to remove the proton pack and walk away from it. They’re both remarkably cool given the pack is emitting the most urgently terrifying alarm noise ever. The pack explodes spectacularly and leaves a crater in the ground. Peter remarks ‘so much for plan A, time for plan B’. Oh, I thought the original proton packs were plan A, then this failed makeshift one was plan B and now it was time for plan C. Either way, this latest plan is a peach, and the reason why fans like this episode a lot. This is where the guys become rock stars! Remember Egon’s earlier suggestion that their own music could counter-oscillate Malachi’s own? Well, despite the fact that Winston can’t even play the kazoo, the whole thing should be easy as all the notes have been set out for them – all they have to do is supply air, something that Peter has plenty of, as Marie swiftly remarks. Nice one. Peter leaps at the chance t play guitar – that was inevitable, I suppose. Snappily, his guitar shapeshifts into different models right there in his hands, but Malachi’s playing that damned tune AGAIN, so there’s no time to waste. But how can the guys match this guy? Well, what’s more primal than jazz? ROCK ‘N’ ROLL!

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With Ray on drums, Winston on saxophone, Egon on bass and Peter on guitar (complete with new clothes), the Ghostbusters band start to play – however, their idea of rock ‘n’ roll is not Little Richard, Elvis or early Beatles – no, it’s more the slow and smoochy last dance stuff, a bit Enchantment Under the Sea from Back to the Future, you know? Malachi is visibly frustrated, so his band continue to play their song, seemingly with more oomph from the look of their playing, although this doesn’t affect the sound of the tune one bit. The guys then shapeshift into a new combo and jump from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, knocking out a bit of tried-and-tested Tahiti (the instrumental bits of ‘Party on His Mind’, which was playing during the Mardi Gras sequence earlier) and at one point changing their attire so that they resemble Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The killer move is saved for last, as they turn into a soft-metal outfit with outrageous hair – Egon’s admittedly already remarkable hair is given extra purple and blue, not to mention a spiky mullet effect, Winston’s hair turns green, Peter’s hair now resembles a more feral version of Egon’s regular do and Ray sports a Mohawk! Classic!

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This is way, way too much for Malachi’s band, who are sent back to oblivion. And you know why they failed? Stagnation. The Ghostbusters band displayed more growth and progression in their single minute of music than Malachi’s did for the whole episode. The growth rate of Malachi’s band can’t even be charted. They were treading water in a sea of retarded sexuality and bad poetry. Okay, that last bit was from a review about Spinal Tap, but the same theory applies. Music is like a shark. You stop moving, you die. Unless you’re AC/DC or Status Quo, where you can keep knocking out the same thing and still sell records. Anyway, Malachi’s band leave their instruments behind, just like the guy did at the start of the episode, so I guess the instruments really weren’t haunted.

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So everything’s okay – all that’s left is an awkwardly timed post-script where Peter’s off to Mardi Gras, despite the protestations of everybody else. They try to get a word in, but Peter’s not hearing it. The thing is, the others really don’t seem to be trying very hard to interrupt Peter – if they really wanted to get across what they were trying to say, they would have tried a lot harder than this. Turns out Mardi Gras is over, and the post office are sending the others on an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii to make up for the earlier delivery mishap. Peter’s already off though, so I’m thinking that the others’ utterly half-hearted attempts to reason with him were totally false and that they really, really didn’t want him to come to Hawaii. Either that or the direction was just a little off during this epilogue. Oh well, aloha.

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A Beginner’s Guide to The Sound (1979-1988)

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Adrian Borland on vocals and the guitar. Graham Bailey on the bass. Mike Dudley on the drums. Bi Marshall and then Colvin ‘Max’ Mayers on the keyboards. Together they were The Sound.

Criminal. What happened (or didn’t happen) to this band is criminal. In an alternate universe, The Sound made it big, their music a virtual set of standards for the rock and pop world. Yet they never made it big. What was it? Was it that in lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Adrian Borland they just didn’t have enough of an obviously photogenic frontman? On the records themselves, Borland commands the scene effortlessly, but if we compare other lead singers of the time, maybe he just wasn’t as brash or beautiful or outspoken, loud, quote-worthy, whatever. The band arguably did themselves no favours with that dull, prosaic name of theirs. Maybe they just lacked that killer single. Maybe it was because they didn’t commit to music videos. Maybe they were just one epic gloom and beauty band too many in an era crammed with them. The Sound were one of many overt post-Joy Division bands, but even though both lead singers took their own lives, and even though there are many a Sound song that is wracked with despair, the majority of the band’s output burns with life, energy and passion.

This is not going to be a diatribe against other contemporary bands that hit the big time and left The Sound behind. The two most obvious contemporaries were U2 and Echo and the Bunnymen. U2 have always been one of the easiest bands to knock – their immense popularity, the Marmite presence of Bono, the statements, the bluster, the lack of subtlety. The Bunnymen were a classic example of a band that had the magic and lost it, but the brilliance of their first four albums can never be denied. Essentially, there’s enough room in my world for all three bands, but The Sound have that extra-special something that exists because of their obscurity. They’re a special band to me because not many people have heard them, and it’s like they’re still my little secret. When I say not many people have heard of them, I mean the general public and yes, people I personally know. In this day and age, when even the most esoteric and obscure bands can be name-checked and referenced, The Sound barely gets any kind of retrospective these days. The only example is an article in Uncut, the same article that got me interested in the band. After a great (if incomplete) reissue program by the Renascent label over a decade ago, their albums soon became out of print again, with only the odd live album or US-reissue here and there to keep their legacy fresh. This month however sees the release of a box set from Edsel that contains their first three albums as well as a load of extra stuff like BBC sessions, B-sides, live tracks and studio outtakes. For me, this is pleasure overload. But for those who know nothing about the band, here’s my little retrospective covering their mighty run of studio albums. Not covered here are the band’s earlier incarnation as punk band The Outsiders, live albums and any post-Sound solo albums.

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So, 1980’s Jeopardy (following an at-the-time unreleased album called Propaganda) is the debut, and what a debut. This is one of my all-time favourite first albums and it remains one of THE most vital post-punk LPs ever; it cost only £800 to record (!), and its energy, imagination and dramatic tension throughout can barely be contained. Even in Simon Reynolds’ superlative study of the post-punk era that is Rip it Up and Start Again, The Sound are mentioned in passing just the once, and it’s only in reference to the wave of groups who emerged from the breakthrough success of Joy Division. They deserve more than that. This is the kind of album where the words `dramatic’, `blistering’ and `heroic’ were made for; Borland’s strident vocals are thrilling and stirring, whilst the band play for all its worth over eleven songs of simmering, edgy and occasionally explosive rock. The opening song is an astonishing blend of quiet/loud, which jolts itself from a suspenseful, almost Neu!-like rhythm (with spooky keyboards layered on top) verse with the immortal “I…. (I!!!!!!!!!!) can’t escape myself!” which is one of rock’s most heart-stopping moments, no lie! “Heartland” doesn’t let up on the excitement for a second (“you gotta believe”, indeed!), “Missiles” is wracked with tense drama and “Night Versus Day” is eerie, beguiling and strange all the way. These songs are Jeopardy’s most spectacular highlights, but the truth is that everything here is great, be it the yearning “Hour of Need”, the surprising and effective use of brass in the cracking chorus of “Words Fail Me”, the slinky beats of the title track, the straight-up, energetic charge of “Heyday” and “Resistance”, the brooding “Desire” or the panoramic drama of “Unwritten Law”….it’s all fuelled to the nines with magnificent guitars, thrilling rhythms and atmospheric embellishments that make it one hell of an astounding, formidable debut. Critics went ballistic for it, and it pointed the way towards The Sound making it huge; they’d up the ante even more so for their even better second album.

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From the Lion’s Mouth could have, SHOULD have, been the one to make them as big as those other `big’ bands such as U2, Simple Minds or Echo and the Bunnymen….yet it just didn’t happen. Critics loved it. The public ignored it. Such a shame. With producer Hugh Jones (who also produced Bunnymen’s immortal second album Heaven up Here) breathing air and space into the band’s formerly intensely direct sound, this grand, powerful album managed to be epic without being bloated. The opening “Winning” swirls and slinks through dramatic keyboards and beautiful guitars over the kind of optimistic, determined lyrics (“I was gonna drown, but then I started swimming….I was going down, but then I start winning”) that sadly have a retrospective sting in the tail knowing what would come later. Still, the song is so stunning that you really believe in the simple directness of the lyrics and become swept up in Borland’s strength in the face of adversity, despite the reality of future events. “Sense of Purpose” is just too damn irresistible to accept as anything other than one of post-punk music’s most searing anthems, the incredible, white-hot “Contact the Fact” is almost as gripping as everything on Jeopardy put together (!), “Skeletons” will blow your mind from start to finish; honestly, it’s three minutes of pure adrenaline! “Judgement” is wracked with drama and beauty, and it’s as this stage that I can’t believe From the Lion’s Mouth can get any better…..to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t.

Nevertheless, the latter half of the album is still very, very special, be it the powerful, militaristic beats of “Fatal Flaw” (which builds up to a strong finale), the almost-as-good-as “Sense of Purpose” cracker that is “Possession”, the straight-up punk blast of “This Fire” the misty balladry of “Silent Air” or the rumbling, dramatic epic “New Dark Age”, all of which have their classic moments to boast. When this fantastic album failed to live up to commercial expectations, The Sound’s record label wanted the band to head even further into a mainstream direction. To say the band didn’t exactly comply with those wishes was an understatement, as their next album would prove…

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All Fall Down was the sound of The Sound seemingly not giving much of a damn about making a hit record; their previous LP did sound like a hit, yet sadly it wasn’t. The band’s record company, wanting the Sound to make another From the Lion’s Mouth (yet one that actually….you know, did well in the charts), were shocked by what they’d heard at the album preview; where were the tunes? The result was another commercially unsuccessful album, leading to the band being dropped by their label. So, is All Fall Down really as difficult as its minor reputation makes it out to be? Not really. It’s not as strident or vital as the first two albums, that much is true; this is dark, claustrophobic and murky stuff. It is often hypnotic and very powerful, especially on the first three songs, which go some way to explain why some fans rate this album as the band’s masterpiece. The opening title track is like a nursery rhyme turned inside out and twisted; the insistent, intense music is amazing, rising and rising, while Borland’s vocals are striking and more foreboding than he’d ever been before. This gives way to “Party of the Mind”, which sort of resembles a hit song, albeit one that sounds a little unhinged; it’s got a terrific guitar hook and a really wild, eerie and thrilling finale that, in its own way, is just as magnificent as anything on the first two albums. An out-and-out classic arrives in the form of the incredible “Monument”, which remains one of the band’s (or anyone’s, come to think of it) most affecting and beautiful ballads; gorgeous synthesisers, lovely guitars and an immortal chorus where the words “rise and rise….rise above” and the music reaches a superb, dramatic peak. This is definitely one of the top five Sound songs of all time and a thing of great beauty.

The excellent “In Suspense” has an off-kilter, edgy and distinctive rhythm, not to mention a cracking chorus, while “Where the Love Is” wraps up the first side with its powerful, quietly simmering and occasionally cathartic mood as well as its stellar guitar and piano hooks. Side two begins with “Song and Dance”, which opens up with some spooky synthesiser and piano interplay before exploding into an intense, tortured blast of guitar sound and eventually into a straight-up Sound rocker in the style of the first two albums. “Calling the New Tune”, with its great chorus, is one of the more radio-friendly songs here, though Borland’s weirdly treated vocals through the verses make it just as weird as everything else here. “Red Paint” has plenty of tension and energy to spare, the dark “Glass and Smoke” an extended, discordant and eerie epic, and “We Could Go Far” is a blindingly fine closer, understated in the way it exudes an unnerving yet strangely optimistic and romantic atmosphere; the guitars and the synthesisers here are so damn good in their own quiet, subtle way.

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After lurking in the dark, the band emerged into the sun for their next release, and it seems maddening that the Shock of Daylight EP didn’t produce anything successful. It’s easily their most commercial and accessible work, yet this more radio-friendly sound did not dilute the impact of the band’s power. In fact, and it sounds strange, it almost enhanced it! From the Lion’s Mouth gets the most praise, but Shock of Daylight is a personal favourite of mine. Six songs, all terrific, almost all potential individual singles, none making a mark on the public’s consciousness.

It kicks off with one hell of an opening blast in the form of “Golden Soldiers”, which might startle fans of early Sound with its shrill, wired opening piano attack, not to mention the most deliriously single-friendly chorus the band ever gave us, and what a thriller it is too! “I could be so golden…” sings Borland as the band give it everything and come up with a total pop classic that flies through its three minutes in a flash. The second side of this EP offers an equivalent, arguably even better pop classic with “A New Way of Life”, which is so passionate, so exciting, so driving and thrilling, with magnificent guitars and another wonderful chorus. However, the EP’s best guitar charge comes with the closing “Dreams Then Plans”, which simmers with urgent optimism and shimmering, shivering passion, occasionally breaking out into such exciting euphoria that it beggars belief that this band didn’t make it, on the evidence of this EP in particular. The guitar charge in question comes in around 2:11, where everything comes together and the heavens part and there’s no doubt that The Sound are The Great Ones. “Dreams Then Plans” is my favourite song on this EP, though second song “Longest Days”, with its thick bass intro and searing guitar, is another major, major highlight, as is the slow-burning, chilling “Winter” and the lovely “Counting the Days”.

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Heads and Hearts is often very good, even if it’s their least consistent effort. However, any album with “Total Recall”, “Restless Time” and “Temperature Drop” (three of their best) is well worth your time. The opening “Whirlpool” is pretty dark considering it follows the mighty euphoric rush of Shock of Daylight, and has power and drama in abundance. This is taken to a higher level with `Total Recall’, which has as much urgency but with a break in the clouds too, especially in its stirring chorus. The pulsing `Under You’ (with its’ we wake up and go to sleep’ lyric that recalls “Heroes”-era Bowie) would be a gem if it wasn’t for those bits of saxophone which lurk in the corners and threaten to spoil everything. They certain don’t do `Love is Not a Ghost’ any favours, wrecking a perfectly exciting song halfway through with a rotten little solo. In-between these two songs is the simmering `Burning Part of Me’, which is pretty good, but we need another out and out gem to pick things up, and `Wildest Dreams’ comes close, a subtle slow-burner that really grows on you. Oddly enough, despite the clutch of great songs to boast on Heads and Hearts, it was `One Thousand Reasons’ which was chosen as one of  the singles. It’s fun, and the verses have a quivering, exciting understatement to them, but I find the song as a whole pretty, I don’t know…average? It’s okay, it’ll do. Not bad! But not great. Lacks the magic of the best Sound songs. Better, much, much better is `Restless Time’ which mixes a pretty bleak, desperate lyric with an absolute stormer of a tune that’s just breathtaking. Awesome chorus, awesome singing, thrilling playing, just an absolute classic! `Mining for Heart’ has a droning, eerie sway to it, and `World As It Is’ is a brief but occasionally soaring little gem. The best is saved for last though. Oh god, the autumnal “Temperature Drop” is so beautiful, so very, very beautiful. One of my favourite songs. The chilling breeze of the verses give way to an astonishingly powerful chorus where the guitars conjure lovely, bittersweet melodies. The best closer to any Sound album (Shock of Daylight doesn’t count, it’s an EP!), even more so than the terrific “We Could Go So Far”, `You’ve Got a Way’ or `New Dark Age’. That’s saying something.

File:Thunder Up cover.jpgAgain though, no sales. The Sound’s final album (bizarrely omitted from Renascent’s reissue program) was the mighty Thunder Up, which sounds as triumphant an album as is possible for an a band that would have little to no impact on the mainstream music scene at the time. Despite the darkness of the last half, it sounds valedictory, as conclusive a final chapter as something like Abbey Road. ‘Kinetic’ is absolutely phenomenal – one of the most exciting songs ever, living up to the promise of its name and then some. Without ever lapsing into bombast, it revs itself up to thrilling peaks and dizzying ascents. When I made myself a 2-CD Sound compilation years back, I ended the whole thing on ‘Kinetic’, because after that where the hell can you go? ‘Barria Alta’ and ‘Hand of Love’ sounds like Christmas. They sound like a hug of warmth in the cold night. And because they’re not about Christmas, you can listen to them all year long. ‘Iron Years’ has such a silly synth-hook that might prove distracting at first, but the song’s greatness shines through and through. ‘Prove Me Wrong’ is brief but brilliant, a real ray of sunshine. ‘Acceleration Group’ a guaranteed crowd-pleaser – oh, if only they had the crowds at the time. Saying that, The Sound were huge in The Netherlands – at least they had the sense to recognise greatness. The final half of the album is a bit of a comedown – the atmospherics a lost town that’s been ‘shot up and  shut down’ – brutally effective and magnificent but chilling nonetheless. The beautiful piano introduction of ‘You’ve Got a Way’ gives way to a deeply dramatic, coursing epic that tears through the darkness.

They split up in 1988. The Sound’s recorded legacy is one of the finest in all of rock and pop. Don’t leave them behind.