Fletch Talks: The Film Podcast (Jan ’15)

Happy New Year! Okay, so we’re one month past all of that already, but never mind – listen the first of our monthly podcasts (listen or download for free via the ‘Commentaries’ link to the right) as Mark and I discuss what we saw at the cinema throughout January. Under discussion will be:

  • Joy
  • The Revenant
  • Creed
  • Room
  • The Big Short

Enjoy!

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Film Review: Police Story III – Supercop (1992)

Policestory_poster

Jackie Chan’s back in what was, at the time, his biggest and most jaw-droppingly spectacular action comedy – it doesn’t really matter if you haven’t seen the first two, as aside from the return of previous characters the plot is just a convenient wraparound for all that amazing action. By the time the UK got the fourth one, any thought that potential audiences would be long-term fans of the first three were low enough that the title was changed from Police Story 4: First Strike to the more marquee friendly Jackie Chan’s First Strike. I didn’t even realise that latter film was a sequel to the other three until I did my homework. I still haven’t seen the original HK cut of First Strike, so all I’ve experienced is a choppy, awkward and silly dubbed version – therefore for me the series peaked with Part III, which boasts action so good it still stands up over twenty years later.

The plot involves Chan’s supercop (seriously, it’s not just a case of the film’s title and promotion commenting on our hero’s super-ness, the characters even refer to him as a supercop) going undercover, with the help of Michelle Yeoh’s bad-ass partner, to infiltrate a drug cartel – bog standard stuff admittedly, though there’s some farce thrown in as Jackie ends up bring his new gangster friends back home to visit his ‘family’ in order to keep his cover going. His boss shows up in drag pretending to be his mum. Yet despite the film’s general comedic tone, where even the action has a gleefully knockabout approach, the drug element is played admirably straight – when the film was re-edited and dubbed for US consumption (complete with Warren G. and Adina Howard on the soundtrack!), references to drug mules with condoms of narcotics in their stomachs, as well as a bit where a woman is persuaded to inject herself with heroin were cut out, which I suppose made for a more consistent tone, but one that lacked the edge of the original version. Still, despite these dark moments, as well as the odd bit of ruthless lackey dispatching from some pretty threatening bad guys, Supercop is mostly a joy – the fight scenes are eye-poppingly fast and hilariously elaborate, and Chan and director Stanley Tong go one further, throwing in some seriously amazing pyrotechnics, aerial stuntwork and dangerous car chases – one bit where Michelle Yeoh is hanging off the side of a moving van is amazing!

Bizarrely, the music score finds the time to fit in a couple of cues from Danny Elfman’s Batman score during the helicopter section of its action-packed finale – seriously, the bit from when the Caped Crusader shrouds Vicki Vale in his cape when he takes her camera and the final few seconds from the opening title theme just show up out of nowhere! Weird! So yeah, it’s a hit, apart from one unforgivably stupid moment of weak scripting – the bit when Ka Kui’s girlfriend reveals our hero’s true identity in a crowded lift is lazy writing at its mind-bogglingly insulting. Absolute crap. Overall though, this is a total joy of a film. This is real action. Fuck CGI, I say. But you all knew that. Deep down, you all knew that.

Into the Night (1985)

From a time when Jeff Goldblum was a lead actor. Those were the days!

intonightOS

One of John Landis’ more overlooked gems, this is a delightfully offbeat comedy thriller that has nothing special to boast plot-wise, but more than gets by thanks to the often unpredictable tonal swerves (poor doggie), not to mention some winning performances – remember when Jeff Goldblum was a leading star? We should have loved him more at the time – now all we get is the news that he’s going to be in the upcoming Independence Day sequel. Meh. Here he plays Ed, an aerospace engineer whose life is going nowhere slowly – he suffers from insomnia, his work is boring, his wife is having an affair… it’s enough to make a man go out for an aimless car drive to the airport, you know? That’s when a terrified smuggler named Diana jumps onto his bonnet trying to get away from killers. The killers are Iranian, and given that this is the eighties, this is one of many films of that time where all Middle Eastern characters are dodgy/crooked. One of the killers happens to be played by the director, who is not Iranian, but passes off as such convicingly. He doesn’t talk, and if you’ve heard Landis speak, then you know why he didn’t do so playing the part of an Iranian. There are around sixteen other directors who make cameo appearances in this film – Landis was awfully fond of doing this, and Into the Night might be the apex of such shenanigans. For some though, this was the height of self-indulgence. I didn’t care, to be honest – I didn’t recognise all of them anyway, the obvious exception being David Cronenberg, who shows up at the start.

Anyway, Diana the smuggler is played by an extraordinarily beautiful Michelle Pfieffer (the camera loves her, and I guess I do too – it’s been that way since I saw Grease 2), and she gets poor Ed caught up into a convoluted plot that probably makes sense if you can be bothered to think about it. The most important thing here is that the film succeeds on sheer brio and charm – the pacing is surprisingly lesisurely, which makes sense given Ed’s exhausted-but-can’t-sleep condition, and the blending of physical comedy with surprisingly tough violence gives it all an edgy excitement. A very welcome element is the appearance of David Bowie as a moustachioed hitman who only gets a couple of scenes but makes the most of them, especially in the first where he exudes utterly genial charm whilst forcing a gun in poor Ed’s mouth. Pity we never find out what happens to his character though. This, plus a rather casual attitude to another supporting character’s murder two-thirds in does mean that the film is somewhat guilty of being pretty slapdash. There’s also the overcooked bluesy score which dates the film a bit – it’s that eighties blues style which manages to make this usually timeless form of music utterly tied in with its time, and not in a good way. Have you ever heard this Eric Clapton song called ‘Same Old Blues’? It came out in the mid-eighties and is basically the same old blues that he’s relied on for most of his career, except now he made it all contemporary by covering everything with slabs of synth. It’s not great. Stick with ‘Behind the Mask’. Don’t recognise it? Yeah, you do. It’s the one that goes ‘who do you love?’ about a millon times. It’s brilliant. So is Into the Night, by the way. It’s slight, it’s forgettable, but having seen it for the first time in twenty years, I’d forgotten just how much fun it was.

Oddly, the film seems to end in the exact same way as Landis’ later film Innocent Blood, but without all the vampire references.

RIP David Bowie: A Look at the ‘Berlin Trilogy’

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David_Bowie_-_Heroes

Bowie-lodger

Low. “Heroes”. Lodger.

Three albums so good that it’s easy to forget that David Bowie had already made three or four or five absolute masterpieces before them. He had hit so many peaks during those golden years of 1970-1980 that he seemed virtually untouchable. I’d hate to think that we’ll never get another artist of the likes of Bowie in the near future, but it does seem such a difficult proposition. His musical legacy is a frighteningly brilliant one, and he’s likely to remain my all-time musical hero. Out of all his wonderful music, it’s what’s often been referred to as The Berlin Trilogy that has got to me the deepest.

I was wondering, did David Bowie himself ever call his masterful run of studio albums from 1977-1979 ‘The Berlin Trilogy’? Critics and fans do so, but given that only one of the three LPs – the middle one – was actually recorded in the capital means its a rather misleading title. Some of Low was recorded in France and Lodger was recorded in Switzerland and the US. Another title that’s been applied is ‘The Eno Trilogy’, but this is totally misleading, as it makes it out like Bowie and Eno were the only collaborators on these albums, which sorely downplays the achievements of producer Tony Visconti (Eno was never the producer), Bowie’s killer band, as well as guest guitarists Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew and Ricky Gardiner. How about we call it the ‘European Trilogy’? Yeah? Yeah?

No?

Oh well. Actually, even lumping them as a trilogy never does Lodger any favours. It always sets that splendid album up for a fall when you listen to it after Low and “Heroes”, because even though it shares its predecessors spirit of experimentation and adventure, it doesn’t have, you know… any of those instrumentals on the second side that we loved. None of it was ambient. It always feels like the odd one out, but if you don’t think much of it on first listen, please, please stick with it. I listened to the trilogy out of sequence – of the three, “Heroes” was simply the only one I could get my hands on at the time. The other two came later.

I was lucky enough to have the music and presence of Bowie instilled in me from a young age, and a fair enough spectrum it was too. Earliest examples I can think of are Labyrinth (so that’s any prejudice I might have had towards the 80’s stuff halfway-tamed already), the ‘China Girl’ 7” that was in our house (ditto) and little incidental moments that affected me, like being too scared to watch the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars concert late one night on BBC1 because I though there might be real, huge arachnids on stage.

Most impressive of all though, was the awareness that my aunt and uncle had a David Bowie record collection. Their LP stash was infinitely better than anything we had at home, and as I moved further into my teens I was keen to investigate. However, vinyl was a sacred, fragile, scary thing back then, and it was both unofficially agreed betweeen me and my uncle and I that wasn’t to touch the LPs, so it was cassettes for me. One Bowie album that was available on chrome tape rather than vinyl was a copy of “Heroes”, and I went for this one because of, unsurprisingly, the title song. It was one of Bowie’s hits that had already broken through to my consciousness, and this was back in the day when there was no rhyme or reason to my Bowie knowledge. For example, I assumed that since 1980’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’ namedropped Major Tom, then it must have come out the same time as ‘Space Oddity’ eleven years earlier.

However, unlike the glammier stuff I knew like ‘Changes’ or ‘Starman’, “Heroes” didn’t feel so obviously rooted in the past – you know, clearly from the early seventies. It felt alien and futuristic, strangely contemporary, which wasn’t surprising given its second wind of popularity in the 90’s as an Elder Statesman’s Classic, occasionally and incongruously blended into the tracklisting of various Best Anthems Ever compilations of the time amongst all the Blurs and Oasises (or Oases, if you want to get all grammatical an’ shit). It still felt new. In fact, it felt more fresh and exciting than most of the Britpop stuff on all those contemporary mixtapes.

This was the first instance of me finding music of the past more interesting than the music of now, something I’ve still found difficult to shake. Why waste my time with the charts of the late nineties when the past had this much good stuff to offer? Now before hearing the album, the only version of “Heroes” that I knew of was its single edit, which is a whopping three minutes shorter, but at the time I didn’t know what I was missing. Even at only three minutes the song is a classic, but without the build-up of those lost verses, Bowie’s escalated vocals seem a bit too-much, too-soon, though this was an opinion I only formed in retrospect.

What is it about this song? I mean, the most obvious thing is that it’s beautiful. Direct, yet mysterious. Accessible, yet original, and even experimental. On the surface it’s a great, anthemic, sing-a-long classic, yet listen here, there and everywhere. Over it’s six minutes we have a suspended, distilled aura of pure liquid sound. It’s difficult to know where one instrument starts and the other one ends. It’s a warm caress of swirling, dreamy, sensuousness, a gleaming, gorgeous spacecraft of a song, bursting at the seams with emotional power. For many it’s the man’s peak, and when I’m in the mood, it may very well be true for me as well. I must say though that these days I do miss the time when the song was all it was, and by that I mean when there were no cover versions by Bob Dylan’s son, Oasis or X-Factor contestants. Back when it wasn’t being used in adverts. Or in a film. Back then, “Heroes” the song was it and only it for me, and it was a beautiful thing. It still is, but you know how some people can’t bear “Stairway to Heaven” anymore? Well, I still love “Heroes”, but it’s not as pure for me now as it was then. Except when it catches me unawares, and then it’s just like the first time.

The problem with the brilliance of “Heroes” the song is that for a while I didn’t bother with the rest of the album once I had acquired it. I just rewound back to the title track every time and listened to it over and over again. I was so taken by those dense, dreamy layers of synthesisers, the yearn and passion of the vocals and the striking imagery that I was afraid that the rest of album wouldn’t match it. So I’d keep rewinding “Heroes” over and over again. By sheer clumsy rewind technique, I’d always end up hearing the end of track 2 – ‘Joe the Lion’ – fading out before the main feature, and that song sounded nothing like “Heroes”. It sounded like a right old mess, to be honest, so I didn’t investigate further.

Then one day it happened. I can’t remember the specifics, but I listened to the whole thing in my bedroom, and it was my first ever instance of listening to an ‘old’ album all the way through. Until then I had only listened to new stuff, chiefly the music commonly referred to (now often pejoratively) as Britpop, but it turned out that the future of my musical pleasure lay in the past. What’s great about ‘Heroes’ is that the title song, whilst a centrepiece, is definitely not representative of the album as a whole. The album is quite a twisted kaleidoscope of pop turned inside out and then given a drink or three.. well at least for the first half anyway. The first two songs, while rarely rated in the higher echelons of the Bowie canon, are nevertheless quite delightfully mad, off-the-chain pop nuggets, way more unhinged and mad-robotic than anything else I’d ever heard by the man. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ chugs and splutters along thrillingly with its mechanised groove, beginning with what sounds like a android’s main processor being turned on, but get this – the android’s malfunctioning a bit, in fact it might be a little bit crazy. However, the rest of the band are too scared to go near it or piss it off, so it’s best that they just play, and maybe play a little bit crazy too, just to settle the machine down. Appropriately, given that this is the only true Berlin-based album, the backing vocals sound like ghoulishly decadent German cabaret – listen to the way they sing ‘daaahling’, it’s almost like a pantomime vampire troupe.

‘Joe the Lion’ is stupid crazy – partly, it’s about a pissed-out-of-his-nut man offering spiritual guidance to whoever will nail him to his car. This is based on an actual performance artist, Chris Burden, who really did this to himself. It begins with the album’s wild card, guest guitarist Robert Fripp, shredding the living shit out of his instrument. His introduction to the song will give anyone with a pulse an adrenaline rush– the rest of the band join in, and then Bowie comes in, sounding really drunk – I love hs vocals here. With the exception of the insane performance he gives on Scary Monsters‘ ‘It’s No Game (No.1)’, this album boasts some of his most mental singing. When he sings ‘this is the kiss off‘, it sounds like ‘this is a piss-up‘, which is utterly appropriate. When he sings ‘you’ll never know the real story’, it always makes me giggle, as does ‘you get up and SLEAH-EAP’. After that it’s “Heroes” itself, so let’s move on to ‘Sons of the Silent Age’, a wildly melodramatic song, a lot like the more theatrical Bowie of yore – and it wasn’t until a little later that I realised just how funny it was when a friend of mine started pissing himself laughing during the chorus. I guess it’s the way he sings ‘BAEEBY, BAEEEBY!’ in a totally unshackled and totally deranged manner, and then these backing vocals come in, singing ‘sons of sound, sons of sound’ like they were performing for a radio jingle. It’s so over the top and yet crammed with superb lyrics that even though it’s arguably the album’s weakest track, it’s still an utter pleasure. I keep meaning to find out what the hell all that ‘listen to Sam Therapy and King Dice’ malarkey means, though. One day.

But not today, cos ‘Blackout”s on. What the hell was Bowie taking during these sessions? He admits he’s under Japanese influence, and I can only imagine unquantifiable amounts of booze. This shit is wild. ‘GET ME TO THE DOCTOR!!!!’ he pleads, followed by ‘GET ME AWF THE STREEEEEEETS!’, which may well be, hands down, the most ridiculous vocal delivery he has ever given. Fripp fripps his way through some fripping brilliant guitar frippery. It’s total guitar freak-out mode, but it isn’t fretwankery or anything muso like that – this is lightning strikes once-style madness. The rest of the band keep it all together, and there’s even a gloriously hooky middle stretch (before the ‘DOCTOR!’ bit) where a radio-friendly single might have been salvaged. Its presence in the middle of all this madness only makes it more wonderful. Side one of “Heroes” is amazing – live-wired, passionate, romantic, insane, but side two goes totally in the opposite direction and barely speaks a word. First up is a kind of in-road towards what will turn out to be another world entirely, made up of atmospherics and mood. The delightful ‘V-2 Schneider’ is a sedately groovy, vapour trail of a (near) instrumental, with militaristic drumming and some oh-so decadent saxophone – it still sounds totally fresh and strange, a real one-off.

The next three tracks are something else though. When I first heard this album, looking at the handwritten tracklisting on my borrowed cassette, I was trying to work out where one piece ended and one began, although to anyone with half a grain of common sense, it’s pretty obvious. But still, back then I wasn’t used to tracks so effortlessly blending into one another like this. They would normally fade out or stop dead. A bit of silence, then the next track. But here, we had a fifteen minute or so stretch of uninterrupted music. And where was Bowie in all of this? Well, he was playing the sax, playing the koto, doing his thing – just not singing. I had never heard a Bowie song with no singing. Obviously, a song without singing isn’t really a song, but you get my drift, or at the very least are tolerating it. Thank you.

‘Sense of Doubt’ might seem a bit on the nose at first with those ‘DURM-DURM-DURM-DURRRRRRM’ piano notes, a hook that is NONE MORE DOOMY, so much that I almost laughed the first time I heard it, but the magnificent ambience seeps through, and the piece turns out to be fabulously moody. There’s a bit two thirds in when this melancholic synth creeps in and it’s absolutely beautiful. Still, if you thought that song was a little too lacking in melody, ‘Moss Garden’ will not be your cup of tea. It’s practically all atmosphere. Extremely pretty ambience. Bowie plucks away on his koto, and Eno infuses the air with his intoxicating synth mist. Wow, that sounded pretentious. Well, what I mean to say is that ‘Moss Garden’ sounds like its title. Maybe I should have just left it at that. It’s a very beautiful, relaxing piece, but prepare for a mood shift as the skies darken and ‘Neukoln’ drifts into view – this is a really bleak piece of work, really impressive, so atmospheric, and about as far away as average rock ‘n’ roll as it is possible for such a huge star. Bowie was really off away in his own orbit here, and his sax playing is deliberately atonal and scary. We know he can really play that thing – it was the first instrument he was given – but he’s using it to almost resemble a wounded, howling animal at the close of the track. It could have made for a really pessimistic ending to the album, but Bowie’s masterstroke is to end the album properly with ‘The Secret Life of Arabia’, which along with “Heroes” is the most mainstream thing here, a dazzling, exotic slice of ambient-tinged funk that glitters like a magic carpet over the sand dunes in the starry night. It’s also the second song on this album that features a reference to ‘one-inch thoughts’.

As first exposure to older albums go, “Heroes” set the bar outrageously high. It’s an established classic, yet it’s also far wilder and weirder than your average standard rock LP. It is original, artful, still-fresh and delightfully unpredictable. As an introduction to Bowie beyond the hits, it was a brilliant one, and I knew I wanted more. So, what next? Well, months later I borrowed a cassette from a good friend of mine which had Scary Monsters on one side and Low on the other. Scary Monsters is a brilliant album, but that’s for another piece. Back to Low.

Low.

Wow.

Wow. That word looks a bit like Low, doesn’t it? There’s only single differing letter, but I guess it doesn’t sound the same, so let’s move on. Yeah, move on, move on. Bowie was well and truly moving on with this album, the most astonishing step forward he had ever and would ever make. Incidentally, Bowie would record a song called ‘Move On’ a couple of albums later, and that was brilliant too, but it’s not on Low, which may very well be my absolute favourite thing by our man ever. Now that’s a stupid thing to say, because tomorrow it might be Station, or Heroes, or Scary Monsters, or Hunky Dory, or Never Let Me Dow

Woah woah woah, let’s not get stupidheaded here.

God, the likes of Tonight and Never Let Me Down seem so far very away from all of this. All of this. All this depression, burn-out and anxiety, admittedly, but it did inspire the man to create some amazing music. Like I said, wow. So in a nutshell, Bowie had been wiped out and driven essentially mad by years of success topped with years of drug abuse, paranoia and a very, very bad diet – escape was necessary. Plus, he said, he didn’t want to be another LA success and end up being the next Rod Stewart or something. So it’s off to Berlin we go, along with Iggy Pop, and there they’d rest, recuperate and make a few albums that would only, oh… I don’t know, go and change the future of everything and all that. Iggy’s two records – The Idiot and Lust for Life – were written with Bowie, produced by him and are pretty bloody excellent. They were both released in 1977. Also in 1977, Bowie released Low and “Heroes”. I mean, HUH? That was a very good year.

Low is a strange album – everything is upfront and personal, yet as ‘confessional’ albums go, it’s one of the least straight-forward and most experimental you’ll ever hear. Gone is the grandeur, the spectacle, the excess, the overwhelming Bowie-ness of yore. Also, despite being part of a trilogy, and despite being often lumped together exclusively with “Heroes”, it shares little with that album except for a inclination for side 2 instrumentals. “Heroes” is insane, triggered, frenzied, overwhelming and bursting with energy. Low is drained, worried, paranoid, nervous and ill at ease. It’s probably one of the most naked Bowie albums of all – the album sounds futuristic, off-kilter, occasionally uncommercial, yet it also feels strangely comforting, like Bowie’s in the room with you. It has an intimacy, warmth and humanity not normally present with him. For me, it was like a cassette tape of secrets, a close-knit, emotional yet atmospheric, funny yet sad and funky yet amorphous experience. I think I heard it at the right time in my life – on the eve of a big shift in my life, the likes of ‘A New Career in a New Town’ was the soundtrack, and not just the track itself. It was my memory of the track, impossible to shake off. I was about to move away from home, and this song encapsulated all the fear, excitement, mystery and sadness that I was feeling.

The fragmented, scattered first side of Low might seem spotty and incomplete on first listen. It certainly felt that way to me. That Bowie didn’t sing on the first track wasn’t as shocking to me as it must have done to listeners back in ’77 (it was his first ever without vocals), as I’d already been exposed to his instrumental side on “Heroes”, and besides, the music on ‘Speed of Life’ is one of his most beguiling, catchy and exciting from this whole era. ‘Breaking Glass’ however, totally threw me on first listen. Definitely one of the leanest, sparsest things Bowie had ever recorded, it fades out before the two minute mark, as though someone had accidentally leant against the fader just when the song might have got going. That totally took me unawares – hey Dave, where’s the tune gone? I think I was almost pissed off at that. Definitely unsatisfied. The squiggly synth bubbles of ‘What in the World’ were also pretty striking. On first listen it sounded like a bit of a mess, frankly, like someone playing Pac-Man at hyperspeed. The vocals (that’s Iggy Pop in the background) are occasionally lairy and a little drunk sounding. Compared to the grandeur of “Heroes” and ‘Life on Mars’, this sounded like a pub band let loose on the house keyboard. Then there was ‘Sound and Vision’, one of Bowie’s least conventional hits, albeit one dressed up in a highly accessible tune – more than half of the song is musical build-up. I used to be a bit ambivalent towards this one, given that it was used in a Blockbuster Video advert here in the UK which only made it sound like a ad jingle. We don’t really get any straight-up normal songs until ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’, which was an immediate success for me, as was the barrel-house piano of ‘Be My Wife’. Still, these two feel smaller, more insular than anything of similar note of previous Bowie albums. Finally there’s another instrumental to close side one, ‘A New Career in a New Town’, which was an immediate hit with me.

For all the out-thereness of side two, the fragmented first side of Low actually proved to be the slower success for me. Nearly all the tracks with vocals felt unfinished to me, whereas the instrumentals seemed fully-formed and they won me over immediately. They were and still are some of the most amazing instrumental music ever created, but we’ll delve into those later. Let’s stick with side one, listen to it again and skip to the moment where I loved it just as much as the second side. Upon listening further, I realised that the episodic nature of Low‘s first side is precisely the point, and it works so well. Soon enough its fragmented approach becomes a kind of genius – it keeps you on edge, never settling into a staid pattern. By fading in on the first track we almost feel like we’ve already missed a bit of the Low experience, and that potentially can put you at unease. Not to mention that its the only Bowie album not to begin with a piece featuring his vocals. ‘Speed of Life’ is utterly mesmeric – as one of the only tracks on side one that was an instant hit with me, its pleasures have never been an issue. It’s a hypnotic, groove-locked chug-fest, with fantastic synth layers and a band (amazing now to think it’s almost the same band as  the one on Station to Station) re-wired and re-programmed to deliver a funk that’s been roboticised and given a new circuitboard to operate from. As an instrumental it works because it doesn’t sound like a backing track – there is really nowhere for Bowie to place his vocals over, it’s a complete piece of itself. Even though its built on repetition, a few extra glimmers here and there stand out, like when the ‘chorus’ melody comes back after what I guess was the ‘verse’, and there’s just this little extra dreaminess to the synth-line that just sends quivers down me. It sounds like the future. I’d like to think it was this little moment that made all the New Romantics go giddy with pleasure and save up money to buy a KORG. Another bit is when the ‘chorus’ comes back for its last run, and the bass just has that little extra ooomph. Gary Numan must have heard and loved that bit, right?

‘Breaking Glass’ sounds incomplete because it is about a fractured psyche – ending it so early befits its unresolved tension. It’s also as coldly funky as an ice cube down the back whilst on the dancefloor. It sounds so rigid, but it’s also bursting to cut loose, and is kind of brilliant. When it was given more time to breathe, get funky and make clear its point, like on the live version on Stage (actually a really entertaining, lively take), its extensions felt somewhat redundant. ‘What in the World’ is hilarious yet chilling – ‘what are you gonna say to the real me?’ is one of Bowie’s more mysterious questions/warnings. ‘Sound and Vision’ has persevered with me and it’s utterly fantastic. It’s amazing to think that such a chirpy, happy sounding song that did really well in the charts has some pretty bleak lyrics, of which ‘pale blinds drawn all day/nothing to think, nothing to say’ is one of the more striking couplets. ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’ is drenched in a thick fog of synths – it’s a total wooze, dreamy, swirling and utterly fatigued. It’s full of resignation, yet there’s something romantic about it too. ‘Be My Wife’ is the first side’s most instantly melodic charmer, a simple, plaintive call for companionship sung from the point-of-view of the perennial traveller (‘I’ve been all over the world/I’ve left every place’ is a lyric that looks forward to Lodger’s restless first side), boosted by an insistent piano hook, utterly charming vocals (Bowie has rarely sounded so naked and pleading here, but not in an overwrought way, just in a simple way that befits the straight-up proposal of the title) and, outside of the song itself, in that lovely video that has our man sing to us in a stark white room. ‘A New Career in a New Town’ has the same kind of Geiger counter beat that Kraftwerk pioneered a few years earlier and is a wonderful instrumental that, as has been often noted, succeeds in sounding optimistic and nostalgic, happy and sad, with gorgeous harmonica throughout. Its placing on the end of the first side prepares us for the great journey we are about to take on the other side.

The second side of Low is held in such regard that  for many it’s pretty much the Second Side of Abbey Road for the seventies. ‘Warszawa’ is hands down the most moving and otherworldly piece of music Bowie has ever (co)created. It sounds desolate, yet also deeply comforting – not for nothing has it been used to score film scenes of both lonesomeness (Christiane F.) and intimacy (Control). Low‘s second side is arguably the furthest Bowie ever set foot outside of the mainstream, at least for such an extended stretch of album time. ‘Warszawa’ has devastatingly sad melodic changes, evoking the dignified, regal air of a state funeral. It is definitely in my Top 10 Bowie tracks of all time. ‘Art Decade’ is altogether more tranquil, and despite the air of eeriness, is almost blissful – it sounds like a navigation through an ancient museum somewhere in the depths of Atlantis, but that could just be me. With its bubbling, flickering waves of synth, it’s a strangely becalming piece, almost like meditation music, but not as bland-sounding as that. ‘Weeping Wall’ is a lot more disconcerting, an askance, creepy piece that could almost act as an alternative soundtrack to the video for ‘Look Back in Anger’, where Bowie slowly goes mad whilst transforming, Dorian Gray style, into the visage of his own portrait. It also sounds like horror movie music, the Italian giallo kind that goes for deep unease rather than outright fright. ‘Subterraneans’ is one of the sparest, quietest and saddest finales of any album – it has a vague travelogue feel to it, as though we’re travelling down autobahns in the middle of the night, with barely another car to drive past. Lonely saxophone (the only thing on this piece that grounds it with the presence of a human participating – that and the spare vocals at the end), flickering, nocturnal guitars and Bowie’s ‘failing star’ lyric all combine to suggest something is dying, yet it’s almost like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, as there might be something on the other side? Who knows? It really sounds like a step into utterly mysterious darkness, like what Major Tom might have encountered after transmission had been cut and he decided to venture off into space with only himself company to discover what lies beyond. No one else will know what he sees. Just him, but who can he share his sights with?

Low‘s second side is a remarkable achievement, and even more so when you consider it came from a man who’d already performed amazing things, and would continue to do so. Put together with its fantastic, off-kilter first side, and we have an outstanding work. For most artists, Low alone could be considered more than enough to elevate them to the pantheon of genius – for Bowie it is just one of many classics. Speaking personally, it might very well be his absolute classic.

Such was the power of Low and “Heroes”, not to mention the brilliance of other albums I would hear since, that Bowie was swiftly becoming my hero. Of course I was taking in so much other music at the time as well, so it wasn’t like I was just into him and him only. Yet the sheer volume of brilliant music from just this one man, meant that he would be a regular fixture in my listening habits, and thanks to a helpful 1999 reissue of his output from 1969’s David Bowie (aka Space Oddity) to 1988’s Tin Machine, all those albums were ready for me to buy and devour. I went about my acquisition of the Bowie catalogue with no real rhyme or reason – it certainly wasn’t without consideration for my wallet however. I wasn’t going to buy everything. I had heard that Tonight, Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine were distinctly below-par, so they wouldn’t be listened to for years to come, but others were swiftly purchased – Scary Monsters would be next up as I had already heard it on the flipside to that taped copy of Low, and soon the likes of Station to Station, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane would be gleefully devoured. Actually, I shouldn’t forget Let’s Dance, which, whilst not as uniquely brilliant as its predecessors, is still a mostly fantastic slab of utterly commercial 80’s pop that I’ll always have time for.

As for the third instalment of our trilogy, the still relatively neglected Lodger, I was wary of listening to it for a while – I used to take music magazine reviews awfully serious in my teens, and when I read a Q retrospective to commemorate the 1999 reissue campaign, I noticed that the album got a paltry two stars. Before hearing Lodger all I knew were the three big songs – ‘DJ’, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ and ‘Look Back in Anger’ – as I’d seen the promos on the VHS Video Collection – ‘DJ’ was cool, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ was hilariously super-catchy and ‘Look Back in Anger’ was proving to be one of the best Bowie songs I had ever heard. In the end I took the gamble and bought it (the same day I bought The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, incidentally) because in the end it was Bowie, and any album with those three songs has to have something going for it. One thing I vaguely remember was being ill in bed when I first listened to it.

Bloody hell, never listen to albums for the first time when you’re bed-ridden. There’s a good chance that music will forever be associated with being sick. I can’t listen to Tori Amos’ ‘Cornflake Girl’ without feeling queasy because it was always on the telly or radio when I had the cold sweats and shivers back when I was thirteen or so. One thing I’d end up hearing about Lodger was that not everyone was really happy with it, and that its sound was often referred to as ‘muddy’. I think the word I was thinking of at the time was…. queasy? Occasionally there are violins that sound warped, almost diseased, like on ‘DJ’ and for a few seconds in ‘Repetition’. ‘African Night Flight’ is a head rush, almost dizzying, discomforting. Adrian Belew’s guitar playing throughout the album is deliberately atonal and aggressive. Even the nicer songs have a kind of foggy, hazy sound to them, like the bookending tracks.

God, I was harsh on this album ages ago. Lumping it in with Low and “Heroes” didn’t do it many favours. Aside from the same spirit of experimentalism and occasional Euro-influence, it’s mostly a very different kind of animal than its two predecessors. The most obvious one is that there are no instrumentals, which made up for a chunk of what made the last two special. And while Low and “Heroes” flowed beautifully and were neatly divided into distinctive sides, Lodger is all over the place. All the singles are on the second side. Songs just kind of fade out or go off into messy, jammy endings, but while I had come to accept it in a song like ‘Breaking Glass’, which ended early and had some kind of brutal point to it being so short, the surprisingly early finish of a would-be blockbuster like ‘Fantastic Voyage’ seemed even more perverse than anything before. As for the messy ends, they’re there on ‘Red Sails’ and ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, the latter of which even closes with all the band switching instruments for extra chaotic effect! Pretty much all ten songs on Lodger don’t really gel with each other – exceptions being the vague travelling lyrical theme on the first side, and the duplicate melodies on ‘Fantastic Voyage’ and ‘Boys Keep Swinging’.

In addition to accusations of muddiness, extra criticisms was that the band sounded bored, the tone was listless… all in all, not really an exciting proposition. And while Lodger is many, many wonderful things, one thing I didn’t get from it at the time was warmth, and when I was listening to it ill in bed, far from my childhood home and wanting something to pull close to my heart, it didn’t do it for me. ‘African Night Flight’ was just a racket. ‘Yassassin’ was just plain goofy. ‘Move On’ didn’t move me. ‘Repetition’ was interesting and dark, but fizzled out, felt too slight. Same with ‘Red Money’. I liked ‘DJ’ but I didn’t love it. Only ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ before it all goes sloppy and the whole of ‘Look Back in Anger’ were winners for me, and given that I had all those other Bowie albums, not to mention other albums (remember, I had bought Pet Sounds that same day), and well, Lodger kind of just fell by the wayside.

But it would come back to get me.

Lodger is a classic.

I mean, yeah, it’s all loose and sloppy, but its ramshackleness soon turns out to be a real virtue. Lodger is versatile, constantly surprising and really, really enjoyable. Almost all the songs are killer, so who cares if they don’t flow as neatly as other Bowie albums have? Fair enough, ‘Fantastic Voyage’ might have done with a middle-eight and an extra chorus to give it some weight, but neither are here, and what is here is quite splendid. Maybe fading out early gives the song some kind of transient beauty, I suppose? It’s a strong, sweeping ballad, quite beautifully sung in the choruses. It also sounds like Bowie is gearing himself back to normality – even though Lodger‘s a weird album, it also features Bowie stepping back into the mainstream – three of the songs had fantastic videos that signalled the future of MTV. ‘Fantastic Voyage’ also has an a less internalised subject matter – in this case war – that was not there on the impressionistic, personal world of the last two albums.

Okay, so far, so normal, but then ‘African Night Flight’ comes in, which is very experimental indeed. And I stagger to think that at one point I wasn’t enamoured with its track, for it is one of the most insanely brilliant, one-off songs Bowie has ever recorded. It sounds like Talking Heads’ ethno-rock in advance, the chanting vocals on the, er, I guess you could call it a chorus, are totally thrilling, Bowie’s rap-speak delivery is fantastic – just try to keep up! I’ve had a tendency to put this song on loop when I’m feeling particularly mad. It is a whirlwind of sounds, effects, words and imagery, and it is quite, quite fantastic. Again, why the hell did I never like ‘Move On’ so much? The galloping beat, the almost hilarious directness of the opening lines (‘Sometimes I feel the need to move on/So I pack a bag and move on’) and the backward sample of ‘All the Young Dudes’ is utterly genius, at once totally recognisable and yet alien and weird. It makes you want to get out there and see the world! Everybody sing – ‘whyaaaaayyyaaaiiiooooo/whyyeeiiiooohhhooooo’!! Bloody brilliant!

‘Yassassin’ is still properly silly to me, and if I had to list my least favourite song from any of the Berlin Trilogy, it would be this one, but it’s got a lazy, loping charm to it. To be honest, it’s the only song on the album that I only listen to within the context of the album, whereas ‘Red Sails’ was one track I did love in those early ambivalent Lodger days, even if I felt it kind of fizzled out near the end back then (not now, I love all of it). Now that I’ve come to adore what I’d recognise as the Neu! beat, I love all of the song. This is the most driving track on the first side of Lodger, and guitarist Adrian Belew really has a lot of fun here. ‘RED SAILS!!!’ Bowie yells, like he’s Errol Flynn leading his hearties out to battle. The synths reach a kind of glorious blue horizon peak two-thirds in, and then Bowie sings some cobblers about ‘THE HINTERLAND! THE HINTERLAND!’ and Belew rips his guitar to shreds. ‘DJ’ is probably in the third-division of Classic Bowie Singles, which still puts it endless leagues above most other artists – it begins a three-track gold run of Bowie Pop. All of a sudden Bowie has gone New Wave, and the eighties are just around the corner. It’s a lost gem, this one – considering its title, it’s odd that I never hear it on the radio.

‘Look Back in Anger’ is a total, total rush. It wasn’t a single, but was obviously so good that they made a video for it. The whole song sounds like it’s falling down the stairs. The piano and the drums are practically tripping over each other as they try and regain their balance. The guitar sears and soars and cuts through the speakers. Bowie sings in his absolute best OTT theatrical style. There is nothing in ‘Look Back in Anger’ that is less than outstanding. It is one of my absolute favourite songs ever. Three minutes long and every second a pulse-pounding rush of excellence. ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, a kind of glam stomp that’s been mutated, is one of the funniest Bowie songs of all – the lyrics are gleefully camp (‘unfurl the flag’, ‘life is a pop of the cherry’ and of course, ‘when you’re a boy/you can wear a uniform’), but it’s been noted that the song is also a forewarning of the eighties, the coming of Thatcherism, encapsulated in that ‘you’ll get your share’ moment. It’s all a deliciously sugared pill though – the glorious double-tracked vocals on ‘when you’re a boyyyyyoooiiii‘ just before the chorus one of many splendid touches. It’s impossible not to grin with this song. When my girlfriend and I visited the Bowie exhibition at the V&A years back, I stuck around to watch the whole of the ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ video on large-screen loop more than once.

‘Repetition’ is another total diversion however. It’s a very unusual Bowie song in that it is unequivocally about something, an issue – in this case domestic abuse. It’s a jolt to hear Bowie singing about something so real and specific. For the most part we’re observing the male abuser, the one who takes out his frustrations of an unfulfilled life on his wife. Bowie’s delivery is deadpan, almost as though he’s a drained, helpless observer who can only narrate from the outside – his ‘don’t hit her’ interjection is the one moment he speaks directly to the abuser, while the bit when he speaks as the husband, (‘can’t you damn cook?’, he demands) is less a POV character identification (we’re definitely not being asked to side with him), more a cold mimicry, as though he’s simply reporting the incident to us. As songs that deal with issues like this go it’s not overstated and it proves that sometimes less can be more. It’s a chilling song. Musically it’s amazing. The beat is cold, robotic and sinister, and given the title, appropriately monotonous, as though the events of this song are doomed to repeat themselves night after night. Only the short, sharp snatch of violin that arrives in between the first and second verses is totally unexpected (it never returns either) and it’s one of the most out-of-left field musical surprises in Bowie’s entire output. It is one of the most unique Bowie songs, and one of his most strangely powerful.

‘Red Money’, though I didn’t know it at the time, was a reworking of ‘Sister Midnight’, the opening track from Iggy Pop’s solo debut album The Idiot, which Bowie was heavily involved with. Interesting that the melody that kicked off Bowie’s Berlin era is the same one that ends it. The lyrics are totally different this time however, and instead of the murkiness of the original, this new take, despite the air of mystery and foreboding, is nevertheless a sprightlier proposition– also, few Bowie albums of that decade have ended with such a direct line as ‘such responsibility/it’s up to you and me’. It ends one of Bowie’s least coherent but most re-listenable works – the love for this once dismissed album is only increasing over time. Unlike Low and “Heroes”, Lodger is not in my top 5 Bowie albums, but I still adore it. Sometimes, this whole Berlin trilogy thing is a load of cobblers. You can lump Low and “Heroes” together easily, but Lodger is Lodger. It’s its own beast. Yet it looks as though all three albums are destined to remain considered as a whole. I just spent the last seven thousand words doing so.

David Bowie died a few weeks ago. His death has affected me like no other famous person’s passing has. This appears to be the case for many people, going by the public outpouring of grief. I had heard Bowie’s new album before he died, and it is a startling, thrilling work – I reviewed it here and was banging on about how this was the most exciting thing he’d done in ages and that he was on a roll. When I woke up the next day to discover he had died, it felt totally unreal. How could he be gone? And why did it hit me so hard? It could be that for me, it feels like he’s always been there, and I suppose I felt he would always be here. I still can’t accept that he’s gone. He was David Bowie.

Of course, David Bowie was human just like the rest of us, but he seemed beyond the reach of other musicians and stars, most of whom seemed so much more rooted on Planet Earth than him. He wasn’t a perfect pop star – he made mistakes (although there’s never been a period in his career that I didn’t like – seriously, go and listen to Tin Machine II right now), but his range and scope remains more breathtaking than any other artist. This piece I’ve just written has barely touched upon the other music he made outside of the Berlin albums. You know, the other music, the stuff from where dreams are woven, the music that, it’s reasonable to say, changed many a young person’s life. I mean, even if he’d only released Low, “Heroes” and Lodger, he still would have been a special someone to me. That he did all that other stuff just beggars belief. He has and continues to soundtrack my life, inspiring fascination, excitement and wonder like no other single artistic individual. I think he may very well be the only pop star that I have and will always truly love. Bye, ta-ta David. Your music will live on.

David Bowie: Blackstar (2016)

A classic. 

Blackstar_album_cover

The Bowie juggernaut is well and truly at top speed with Blackstar, a tremendous consolidation of the fact that Bowie is Well and Truly Back. A few years ago he came back from a lengthy musical silence with the surprise single ‘Where are We Now?’ and The Next Day, an album that had critics and fans salivating over how good it was, even though it wasn’t quite that good. I think a lot of us were just so happy he’d stepped out of the shadows and hadn’t deivered a stinker. Personally, I thought that album was a little too safe, a bit too ‘Bowie as rock’s elder statesman’, not that much different from the similarly good but not great Reality. Still, in retrospect, it did a lot of right things, such as getting him back in the limelight in the first place, delivering at least a half-an-album’s worth of gems, plus hinting at possible future directions, such as on its most bonkers and exciting track (‘If You Can See Me’). Blackstar takes that song’s frenzied pulse, as well as reworking both sides of the single (‘Sue’/’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’) he released to support his umpteenth compilation released a year or so ago, and the result is his best albums in ages. I’m not going to churn out that whole ‘best since Scary Monsters‘ spiel, because that does all those excellent albums he’s done since a disservice. One thing Blackstar definitely does better than anything since Scary Monsters however is structure – this is his most satisfyingly put-together work since before compact discs and their whole slackening of quality control took over. A mere seven songs, and everything is in its right place – seven excellent songs, I must add.

The outstanding song is the title track, released as a single (though only as a download), backed by an astonishing video that was properly freaky, mental and fascinating. The song itself begins with a skittering, nervous electronic pulse, a creepy and atonal saxophone, Bowie’s vocals as melodramatic and quiveringly weird as anything he’d done in the seventies. It’s all hushed, sinister, foggy and cavernous, but then a mid-section reaches for the skies and delivers a melodic stretch that’s probably his most lovely pop hook since, oh I dunno, ‘Loving the Alien’, I suppose? It’s absolutely gorgeous – people have even compared it to something out of Labyrinth, and no, they’re not being insulting. They love that film! The creepy stuff comes back for the ending, including a seemingly deliberately badly played flute, and the final result is at once grand, scary, beautiful, funny and extremely well produced and performed – the standard-rock stomp of much of The Next Day is nowhere to be heard here – Bowie’s brand new band have given his sound a right proper kick up the arse. Only Tony Visconti has returned from the previous album, and as ruthless as Bowie’s jettisoning of personnel can seem, it’s obvious that his new players are just what he needed.

‘Blackstar’ the song would have been even longer than ten minutes were there not a limit enforced by Apple over how long singles can be if they’re to made available from the iTunes store. Hmm. Seems a long way since The Orb managed to pull off releasing that forty-minute ‘Blue Room’ single, doesn’t it? Anyway, ten minutes is still magnificently epic, and there’s barely a second’s pause before ‘Tis a Pitteeeeee She Wuz a Whooooooore’, which, in its original B-side version was bloody good, but now has been given even more oomph – the drums really kick, Bowie gives it everything (his occasional yelps are reminiscent of the exclamations he’d deliver on underrated Earthling song ‘The Last Thing You Should Do’), occasional synth-twinkles are a pleasurable touch and all that saxy squonking make it a thrilling riot of noise and performance, and while I admit that I can really take or leave (mostly leave) the wilder, free-form end of jazz, its influence on this album is really exciting and totally fresh-sounding. There’s also been comparisons made with Scott Walker’s 1984-onwards approach of increasingly uncommercial and almost scary art-performance, but Bowie has never been one to completely relinquish his love for a killer tune, even at his most out-there – remember, even Low had a whole first side of skewed but still catchy-as-hell pop, while ‘Heroes’ refused to go out into that bleak night on the scary ‘Neukoln’, preferring to leave us dancing with the ebullient ‘The Secret Life of Arabia’. So even while there are songs that definitely remind me of Climate of Hunter (which to be honest, did itself have a song or two aimed at the charts) and Tilt, there’s something thrillingly accessible about this album. It’s got shedloads of hooks even while it’s being freaky as anything.

Second single ‘Lazarus’ is a dirge with a bassline that The Cure would have been dead proud of, and this is probably the least immediate song here, despite being one of its least outrageous/musically confrontational. It’s a melancholic respite, potentially one to drift by without leaving too much of an impact on first listen, but its beauty seeps through. Stick with it. ‘Sue (In a Season of Crime)’ is another reworking of a recent song, but while that original was a bit too much of an admirably performed, immaculately strange but nevertheless straight-up free-form jazz (pretty much Bowie pastiching the form), here it’s been given more of a Blackstar feel, and instead of Bowie just aping jazz, though it’s the sound of jazz taken ’round Bowie Country. The song now sounds more like it belongs to him, and it’s all the better for it. Restless, wired and exciting – it’s simultaneously more assaultive than the original version but more accessible – more evidence of Bowie’s commercial/uncommercial tension.

The last three tracks are the ones that anyone who hasn’t heard Blackstar yet won’t have had any exposure to, and they are the album’s most secretly pleasurable. This is despite (wait – that’s because of) ‘Girl Loves Me’ being utterly deranged – the stalking, gently stomping groove is deliciously askance and seductively creepy. Bowie’s brilliant Polari-inflected lyrics, unhinged vocals and unforgettable ‘where the fuck did Monday go?‘ (this is definitely the most sweary song Bowie has ever released) refrain marks this one out as a genuinely moody and weird highlight. ‘Dollar Days’ is just plain gorgeous, mind you. The saxophone here is smoother, more melancholic and the song just has the haze of late night jazz bars – well, the kind of late night bars where alien spacecrafts hover overhead. The guitar near the end is understated but particularly beautiful. You may almost need to supress a tear of joy when the harmonica comes in on sighing, lovely final track ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’, because it sounds just like the one that was such a highlight on the beautiful ‘A New Career in a New Town’ from Low, which was a piece that frankly ached with nostalgia, future uncertainty and alienation – this dreamy new song sounds like it could have fit nicely on Heathen, one of many latter-day Bowie albums that was heralded as his Great Big Comeback before other things got in the way, be it so-so follow-ups, initial overexcitment turning to calmer, cooler receptions or simply personal situations in the life of David Bowie. Blackstar is different is that it actually follows up one of those Great Big Comeback albums, yet turns out to be even better than The Next Day in almost every way concievable. If you loved Bowie’s tremendous, if wildly messy (and given the lack of follow-ups, conceptually unsatisfying) 1995 1.Outside, then you’ll love the similar off-kilter approach but structurally far more concise and successful of this new work.

It’s too early to start lumping this one in with All Time Great Bowie Albums – my thoughts on this are too fresh and those seventies albums are too brilliant/canonical/close to my heart to even approach, but I’ll tell you this – Blackstar is a) a great album, b) a great Bowie album and c) what more do you want? The first two are more than enough.