Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Golgolgolgolgolgolgolgolgolgol: 1

Sometimes I just want to put some beautiful clips of football up, without having to write a long post about some Uruguayan or Bulgarian player from the 80s to accompany them. They speak for themselves, anyway, unless I say they don't, in which case I'll add a witless comment.

Anyway, the beautiful game:

Almost the best part of this is that he misses:

He doesn't miss:

Matias Fernandez:

Dejan Savicevic, a little genius:

Hugo Sanchez, making that Ronaldinho effort look easy:

Diego Maradona, playing for Spurs. No, seriously:


Sunday, November 25, 2007


"An Irishman I am, begorrah! With a heart and a spirit on me not crushed be a hundred years of oppression. I'll be getting me shillelagh out next, wait'll you see." - Martin McDonagh, "The Cripple of Inishmaan"

"In Bruges" should come out in the UK next year. Its pitched as a dark comedy-drama, following two hit men (played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson) who have to lay low in the titular Belgian City after a bungled job. Out of their element and faced with a film shoot in the City, the two men slowly start to fall apart. Ralph Fiennes plays their psychotic boss.
I haven't seen it yet, obviously. But I've been looking forward to it since I first read about it when it was in pre-production. That synopsis and the cast - many people have a problem with Colin Farrell, I realise - may cause you to ask why, which would be understandable.

Well, the why is Martin McDonagh, Writer and Director of "In Bruges". The title of this post is a bastardization of a Time Magazine headline to an article on McDonagh, reading "O'Casey Meets Scorsese". Born to expatriate Irish parents in South London in 1970, McDonagh split his childhood summer holidays between his Father's native Roscommon and Mother's native Galway, both in the West of Ireland. He seems to regard himself as an Irish writer and all of his plays have focused on Ireland to some extent. His keen outsiders eye is tempered by enough Insider knowledge to give his plays an authenticity and density which helps to ground them when the more cartoonish elements threaten to tear off into the sky. Perhaps "cartoonish" is the wrong word. McDonagh's plays are inspired, not by other theatre, but by cinema. His work recalls that of Scorsese and Malick and Lynch, all of whom he has claimed as inspirations. His work is also often compared to Quentin Tarantino's, both in terms of its high quotient of pulp, and because of his brilliant dialogue.

If there is a playwright McDonagh has been inspired by, then that is David Mamet. He has said that "American Buffalo" is his favourite play, and his work often reverberates to similar rhythms as Mamets', with the repetitive ping pong of his dialogue given a comedic twist by being spoken in an Irish accent with Irish dialects. He has written two trilogies: The Leenane Trilogy, comprising "The Beauty Queen of Leenane", "A Skull in Connemara" and "the Lonesome West" and The Aran Islands Trilogy, comprising "The Cripple of Inishmaan", "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" and (the unseen, unproduced) "the Banshees of Inisheer". These plays are all extraordinary mixtures of black comedy and drama, full of physical violence and powerful, passionate language. They are all extremely funny, too. McDonagh has an enviable way with a one-liner, and he twists and contorts his plots without ever causing his characters to lose any credibility. He has won a fistful of Drama awards and prizes for this work. His 2003 play, "The Pillowman" is perhaps his masterpiece, a drama laced with horror and allegory, lacking in his usual humour, and without the Irish context of his earlier work. It would seem the perfect play for a cinematic adaptation, but McDonagh was already preparing to move to cinema with some custom-made writing.

His 2004 Short film, "Six Shooter" tells the story of Donnelly (Brendan Gleeson) and his train journey home of the day of his wife's death. He encounters a probably insane young man, who sits facing him, and is forced to deal with his attitude to death and his faith. It is McDonagh's theatrical work in miniature - funny and violent and bloody and dramatic, authentically Irish, and brilliantly acted. It won the 2006 Oscar for Best Short Film, ensuring that McDonagh would get financing for his first Feature length film. Which is where we came in.
In Bruges trailer:

So, what now gives me pause about "In Bruges", aside from Ralph Fiennes trying so hard to be Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast" (and how can an Englishman who lives in London manage such a baaad London accent?)? Well, I'm a bit haunted by Conor McPherson. Another young Irish playwright, around McDonagh's age, McPherson enjoyed a similar sudden breakthrough and success in Dublin, London and on Broadway within a few short years. They were even lumped together by some very lazy journalists as if they formed the vanguard of some new theatrical movement, despite the differences in their work. While McDonagh's strength has always been his fantastic dialogue, McPherson's early plays are all based on monologues - an actor addressing the audience, interacting with nobody else on stage. the first time he broke away from this device was with "The Weir" (1998) where he instead structured the play as a storytelling contest - so that actors performed monolgues to one another and the audience as part of the story. One quality their work did share was the tangible influence of cinema, and McPherson made a move in that direction much earlier than McDonagh. He first wrote "I Went Down" (1997), a decent little Irish gangster comedy (starring, yes, you guessed it: Brendan Gleeson) directed by Paddy Breathnach. It bore some resemblance to the Guy Ritchie brand of post-Tarantino crime cinema, with its quirky criminals and eclectic soundtrack. McPherson then directed an arty adaptation of his own play "This Lime Tree Bower", retitled "Saltwater" (2000) with Brian Cox. Its not a bad film, tight and focused, and if McPherson had perhaps allowed himself to develop modestly from there, he would have been alright.

But instead he made a leap to writing (with Neil Jordan) and directing "The Actors" (2003), a disastrous comedy starring Michael Caine and Dylan Moran as two thespians involved with smalltime gangsters. Obviously intended as a classic caper-style romp, the film features its two leads dressing up in drag and various colourful disguises, and is woefully unfunny throughout. It also wastes and misunderstands Dylan Moran's unique presence, treating him as if he were Mike Myers, showing off a range of "hilarious" voices and facial expressions. Also wasted are the rest of a fine cast including Michael Gambon and Lena Heady. Unsurprisingly, given the films complete commercial failure, McPherson has not yet returned to cinema. Now, "In Bruges" looks a lot better than "The Actors", or indeed "I Went Down", which it superficially resembles. McDonagh is a better writer than McPherson, I think. And the trailer made me laugh - aloud, no less - more than once. But still I worry. McDonagh has a great enough talent that he could actually give something new to cinema, if only he can get over that first hurdle of his debut film. Then the second hurdle of his follow-up. David Mamet did it with "House of Games" (1987) and "Things Change" (1988) by staying modest and sticking to his strengths. I'm hoping McDonagh has the sense to do the same.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Los Paranoias

From wikipedia:
Beatlesque (pronounced /ˌbi:təl'ɛsk/) is a term used to describe rock and pop bands and musicians who were influenced by The Beatles and make music that is very similar. New bands are promoted as being "The next Beatles" or "The new Fab Four", and members of the media refer to musical acts as being "Beatlesque".

The Beatles' influence is so pervasive, it can be hard to quantify. They influenced just about all popular music that came after them in one way or another, whether that be in songwriting, publishing, image, approach to albums and singles, live performance, promotion.... But their direct influence is easier to trace. In the early days, their mix of R&B, skiffle, the Everly Brothers and girl group harmonies were copied by many other Liverpudlian and British bands. Even bands like the Rolling Stones, who would come to be invoked commonly as everything the Beatles were not, were influenced by them in their formative years, going so far as to cover a Lennon-McCartney song. Once they had left their earlier rock & roll style behind them and become a more ambitious and expansive rock band, in the late 1960s, then it was more specific aspects of their sound that followers began to ape. But when people use the term "Beatlesque" they are usually referring to an attempt to sound like the Beatles between 1966 and 1968, the psychedlic era, when their records seemed to explode into technicolor and they began to explore the limits of recording technology and the form of the popular song. But even in this era, they
BEatles sound was almost impossibly eclectic and diverse. Once they stopped touring and became a studio-based band, they listened to and digested all of the pop culture of the late 60s, and you can hear it in their records. Its part of what made the music of that era so exciting - the Beatles and their peers were listening to each other, bouncing off one another, replying to one another. So John Lennon ripped off Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross" for "Sun King" off "Abbey Road". Paul McCartney read an interview with Pete Townshend where he talks about a Who song as being the heaviest, loudest thing ever done, and writes "Helter Skelter" there and then. Jack Bruce sees Jimi Hendrix's very first London performance, and inspired by him, writes "Sunshine of Your Love", which Hendrix will later cover. Brian Wilson gves himself a nervous Breakdown trying to outdo "Sgt Pepper."

What this means is that any band trying to sound like The Beatles are attempting the impossible. They can sound like specific Beatles modes - a McCartney piano ballad, say, a string based anthem, maybe - but it is impossible to replicate such a wide range of influences and talents in any one song. Oasis, often referred to as inspired by the Beatles (not least by themselves) really sound nothing like them. The guitar sound on "Definitely Maybe" may be modelled upon the guitars on "Revolver" and the use of strings on songs like "The Masterplan" and "Whatever" may recall the Beatles songs backed by big orchestral arrangements, but the songs themselves are far more rudimentary and the sense of adventure across albums entirely absent.
Nobody really sounds like the Beatles. Except briefly, on a song here, a song there. These songs: a fantasy tracklisting for a "Beatlesque" compilation (excluding some of the really obvious stuff like Tears for Fears' "Sowing the Seeds" and the work of Klaatu, mainly because I don't really like them).

1. ELO - "Mr Blue Sky"
Really, this could be a dozen ELO songs. Jeff Lynne plainly worships the Beatles, and has spent a large part of his career trying to perfect an approximation of their sound. He hasn't done a bad job, either, and the fact that he can write a great hook and is something of a production genius has helped. He eventually became friends with George Harrison, produced "Cloud Nine" (his most Beatlesque solo album), was a member of the Travelling Wilburys, and was finally brought aboard to produce the new songs on the Anthology records. I love ELO for their insane ambition, the scale of the sound of their records - every song sounds widescreen - and Lynne's lovely way with a melody. This song, recently given a newly hip profile by its use in the "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" trailer, was the immediate standout on my first ELO record, a secondhand vinyl copy of their Greatest Hits I bought when I was in College. It always sounded like it wanted to be the Beatles, too (Lynne used to refer to it as "I Am the Walrus Part 2"). The big arrangement, with strings and horns breaking through into the song every so often, the funny, cartoonish backing vocals, the booming drum sound, the massive chorus, the snatch of radio broadcast at the beginning, the nonsense lyric, the epic, pounding coda which tails off wistfully into a beautiful string and vocoder moment - its all very 1968. Its also a great song to either close or open a record. It closed that fantastic "Greatest Hits" album, but here its got to be the opener. It sets the tone.
YouTube Link

2. Badfinger - "Come & Get It"
The Beatles, alongside a few other bands, basically invented Power Pop. But it was only one of the many coats they modelled, whereas the bands who defined and solidified the genre were dedicated solely to that particular coat. One such band, Badfinger, were big Beatles fans - signed by Apple, the Beatles label, named after an early and subsequently abandoned title ("Bandfinger Boogie") for "With a Little Help from My Friends", they even received this McCartney composition as a gift from their new patrons. The McCartney demo is on Anthology 3, and its identical (impressively, given that McCartney played all of the instruments himself) but the Badfinger version slightly shades it. It has a plump bass sound, rolling alongside the piano melody, and an identifiably Lennon and McCartneyesque harmony on the catchy chorus. Badfinger would go on to write a couple of classics of their own ("No Matter What", "Without You") before tragedy tore the band apart, but they never did anything quite this good again.
Youtube Link

3. Bob Dylan - "4th Time Around"
He influenced the Beatles - especially Lennon - as much, if not more than they influenced him, and that is exactly what this song is about. Apparently he played an early acoustic version for them when they met in 1965. Which Lennon then ripped off shamelessly - you can hear it in the melody and the lyric - for "Norwegian Wood". Dylan in turn altered his own lyric to comment directly - "Everybody must give something back, for something they get" and "I didn't ask for your crutch, so don't ask for mine". But there is a light, almost poppy quality to this song which does suggest the Beatles, and perhaps an acceptance of its own lovely tunefulness not always present in Dylan's work from this era.

4. Julian Lennon - "Saltwater"
Julian Lennon is cursed, somewhat, by the fact that he not only looks but also sounds so much like his father. But then I suppose he has made a small, thwarted little career out of that fact. And on a song like "Saltwater", he intentionally plays up to it. It begins like "I Am the Walrus" played at the wrong speed - that carousel organ sound playing a two note melody. Then Julian (the subject of "Hey Jude", as if the whole Beatles thing wasn't already enough of a millstone for him) just adds an escalating series of Beatles references as the song progresses, all the while sounding more like his father than ever before. Theres a McCartney-esque middle eight and a Harrison guitar line thrown in. Plus - and this is the kicker - the lyric is an insufferable little lecture on enviromentalism (First line : "We are a rock revolving around a golden sun") reminiscent in its way of "Imagine". Meaning that it has none of the scathing wit of Lennon Sr. in his prime. What it does have is a lovely melody, and a winning earnestness. Its not a patch on Julian's other big hit "Too Late for Goodbyes" but it sounds waaay more like the Beatles than that does.
YouTube Link

5. Emmitt Rhodes - "Long Time No See"
I don't think I've ever met anybody else who likes Emmitt Rhodes. Prior to the inclusion of "Lullaby" on the soundtrack of "The Royal Tenenbaums" I don't think I'd ever met anybody else who'd even heard of Emmitt Rhodes. I once bought one of his records in a secondhand shop and the guy behind the counter laughed and said that nobody had ever bought an Emmitt Rhodes record from him before, and he'd worked there 8 years. But the thing is, Emmitt Rhodes is a sort of neglected little genius. And he virtually invented Power Pop. And had an obvious McCartney fixation. Emmitt Rhodes was the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with The Merry-Go-Round, a baroque-pop band from L.A. in the late 60s, and when they split he went as Solo as possible - writing his own songs, playing every instrument and producing the subsequent records at home. With his first album, "Emmitt Rhodes" (1970) he produced something of a minor classic. But it was slavishly indebted to McCartney, in tone and musical and vocal style. Rhodes seemed to have studied the drum, bass and piano sounds and arrangements McCartney favoured, and he deployed them well throughout his own music. What makes it work, what stops it from crippling him straightaway, is the fact that he was a great songwriter. His melodies stand up for comparison with McCartney's and his arrangements and playing are superb. He has borrowed one of the keys to McCartney's work - every element seems melodic. McCartney, in his best work at least, doesn't just write a bassline or a guitar riff to move the song along to the catchy bit, he makes the bassline a melody, he makes the riff a melody - its like he sees opportunities for hooks in every corner of a song. Rhodes copies that, and he copies it well. I could literally pick any of the songs off that first album for this slot and it would fit perfectly. But I'll go with "Long time No See", perhaps the best song on the album, and the darkest and rockiest. McCartney would be proud of it.

6. The Knickerbockers - "Lies"
The first time I heard this I thought that it was some Beatles song I'd never heard before. The Knickerbockers produced such an artful Beatles impression - including a lead vocal that sounds just like Lennon in his Rock & roll days - that this song was a big hit, their only one. But its more raucous than most Beatles songs from that early era, rocks harder, feels wilder somehow. It sounds like The Beatles as they were portrayed in Ian Softley's "Backbeat", in their raw Hamburg days, before the teenyboppers and mind-destroying fame. Its a great song in its own right. But damn, it trys so hard to sound like the Beatles.
YouTube Link

7. Jellyfish - "The King is Half Undressed"
Jellyfish never had a chance at being successful. Playing 60s-inflected powerpop at the height of Grunge wasn't the greatest career plan and it didn't work out all that well. They split after two albums but those two albums are stuffed with amazing songs. Those songs are all obviously derivative of great bands, from the Who to Big Star to Queen to Elton John. "The King Is Half Undressed" (alongside "Babys Coming Back", recently covered by McFly) was the closest they ever got to a hit, and it sounds like about 5 other songs, but in a great way. It sounds less like they wrote and recorded it and more like one of them pulled it out of the air, fully formed. It sounds like the Beatles, too, if they had focused on the power-pop strain of their songwriting and had enjoyed access to 1990s recording techniques. It rocks, and the backing vocals for the chorus go "Ba Ba Ba Baa". Its absolutely awesome.
YouTube Link

8. Sleepy Jackson - "Good Dancers"
Luke Steele's songwriting has a heavy Gram Parsons influence, but you can always hear some Beatles in his music too. Thats mainly because he seems to have modelled his guitar playing on George Harrison. He has that same clean slide sound, flutey and melodic, and if anything, he does it even better than Harrison. Its to the fore in this song, which has a Lennon-esque melody and a great harmony on the hook (evocative of "No 9 Dream" for me) and even breaks down into a backwards guitar-cum-sitar coda, just in case you missed th eHarrison references.
YouTube Link

9. The Rutles - "Cheese & Onions"
Its just plain strange that the Rutles, a Harrison-endorsed Beatles parody from the "All You Need Is Cash" mockumentary were given some excellent songs by the musician-actor playing their Lennon (Ron Nasty) Neil Innes. But then, the Rutles-inspired Spinal Tap produced a couple of good songs too, I suppose. The Rutles aren't as funny as the Tap - metal is funnier than the Beatles - and the parody is only really mildly amusing, but the songs are great, and the Rutles went on to become a real band, touring and releasing a parody of the Beatles anthology in the 90s. This is easily the best song, later covered by Galaxie 500, perfectly capturing the Beatles vibe from 67/68 and managing to stay funny as it does so. Best lyric: "Do I have to spell it out? C-H-E-E-S-E-A-N-D-O-N-I-O-N-S, oh no."
YouTube Link

10. Nilsson - "Without Her"
Harry Nilsson is best known for his versions of two songs written by other songwriters, Fred Neil's "Everybodys Talkin" and Badfinger's "Without You". But in the early days of his career, he suffered from an obvious Beatles obsession. His 1967 album "Pandemonium Shadow Show" features a cover of "you Can't Do That" which contains several references to other Beatles hits in its vocal arrangements. He would go on to become drinking buddies with John Lennon in his late 70s L.A. "Lost Weekend" years, while also writing the music for a vaguely "Yellow Submarine"-ish musical, "The Point." He also wrote some extraordinary songs. This one is founded on a melody played mainly on a bass guitar and its interplay with a single line of cello and a flute. It sounds something like the Beatles early experiments with using strings in "Yesterday" and on "Eleanor Rigby". Plus its a lovely song, and Nilsson had an absolutely immortal voice. The YouTube version below is acoustic, therefore less Fab-esque, but still great.
YouTube Link

11. Cotton Mather - "My Before and After"
That "Revolver" guitar sound is one of the Beatles modes that bands find easiest to replicate, and so you hear it in a lot of work. Its that chiming, bright sound, heavier than the Byrds sound, full of melody yet weighty and rich too. Oasis approximate it but make it a bit louder, a bit more 90s. Lots of Power Pop and Britpop bands, from Fountains of Wayne to Menswear, ape it to one degree or another on various songs. Cotton Mather get it just right, all the way down to the thin Harrison lead fills. Singer Robert Harrison does his best to sound like Lennon, too, and this is even a Beatlesque song, catchy and rocking to just the right proportions.

12. Crowded House - "Not the Girl You Think You Are"
He's never been and never will be fashionable, but I think Neil Finn is, well, a genius. He's written a fistful of stone cold pop-rock classics, and he has always reminded me of Paul McCartney. Firstly because of his unbelievable facility with a melody, secondly because of his gift with harmony (especially when combined with his brother Tim), and thirdly because...well its hard to articulate. His songwriting just seems to glow with a sort of warmth, a joy and humanity you don't hear in many others songwriters work. But it was there in McCartney's work at one point. In saying that, this Finn song actually sounds like John Lennon, from the woozy fairground organ to the high register he employs on the gorgeous chorus. Its a shambling, delicate piece of pop beauty.
YouTube Link

13. The La's - "Timeless Melody"
I had to have one Scouse nu-Skiffle band on this, didn't I?
The La's single, perfect album was one of the founding stones of Britpop and a hundred times better than the Stone Roses' debut, which was released around the same time. Lee Mavers, odd little perfectionist lost scouse genius that he is, knew how to write a fantastic pop song in his day, and like fellow lost scouse genius Michael Head (of Shack and the Pale Fountains and the Strands) he could not avoid the influence of the Beatles, hard though he may have tried. This one has a great dynamic sound and an optimism in its uplifting theme together with an anthemic, positive chorus which is extremely Lennon-esque. Better still, it lives up to its title.
YouTube Link

14. XTC - "Dear God"
This opens with a guitar figure very reminiscent (or identical) to the one used in "Rocky Raccoon" and "Blackbird", then goes on to add a full band and a 60s-style string arrangement. Andy Partridge, once he had developed into a mature songwriter, always seemed to write with the Beatles hovering over his shoulder, and the ambitious nature of the song-cycles on albums like "Oranges and Lemons" and "Skylarking" show a very definite Lennon-McCartney fixation. But he has his own voice, oddly spiky and intelligent, in combination with a great pop nous. "Dear God" has a funny lyric to match its nagging melody, and was XTc's big breakthrough in America.
YouTube Link

15. The dBs - "Amplifier"
One of the problems with labelling artists as "Beatlesque" is that late in their career, the Beatles really had no signature sound. The key quality of their albums was the diversity of tone and genre - The White Album has country songs, chamber pop, folk, heavy rock, ballads, orchestral does an artist who wishes to pay tribute to such adventurous spirit do it without resorting to his own eclecticism? Artists from the Boo Radleys on "Giant Steps" through Elvis Costello on "Imperial Bedroom" to Prince with "Around the World In A Day" all seemed inspired to make sprawling, diverse collections of very different songs. Other artists take one little slice of the Beatles sound and expand upon it. Power-pop, as a genre, comes from an appreciation of the work of a few central 60s bands, amongst them The Beatles, the Byrds and the Who. Some bands sound more Beatlesque than others, and some songs from normally un-Beatlesque bands sound very Lennon-McCartney. The dBs had a New Wave edge that sometimes dulled the euphoric 60s feel of the songwriting, but they routinely covered "Tomorrow Never Knows" in their live shows, and they specialised in lovely harmonies on their always hooky choruses. "Amplifier" sounds like a blueprint for the entire career of These Mighty Giants, and its fantastic.
YouTube Link

16. Todd Rundgren - "Hello Its Me"
Something about Paul McCartney seems to inspire a certain kind of singer-songwriter. Rundgren, like Emmit Rhodes, did his time in a British Invasion-worshipping US Garage Band (The Nazz) before going solo and releasing a string of albums on which he plays every instrument, sings, writes and produces every note. His talent is more individual and unique than Rhodes', however, and after a couple of McCartney-esque records he began to stretch out and delve into other areas, including Soul and Prog. But he never bettered those earlier records. This is one of his most famous songs, a McCartney-esque piano ballad with a beautifully building structure and a lovely horn arrangement.
YouTube Link

17. The Wonders - "That Thing You Do"
This has got the lot - a big backbeat, the melodic, mobile bassline, big singalong harmonies on the choruses, a "WAAAaaaaH!!" that is really an "OOOOOoooooohhhh!" in disguise, the chiming guitars, the optimistic lyric...but then it was sritten deliberatley as a Beatles pastiche. Or if not the Beatles, then as a US Garage band inspired by the British Invasion, which means it sounds like the Beatles anyway. Written by Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne and Ivy for Tom Hanks' "That Thing you Do" (1996), this song is a believable 60s smash hit. Believable because it follows a certain Beatles formula to the letter, and because it has that fun 60s vibe records never have any more...unless they're making ironic tributes to the 60s.
YouTube Link

18. The Hollies - "Bus Stop"
Of all their British Invasion peers, The Hollies were probably the band most similar to the Beatles. They began as schoolboys, more or less, in a Northern English City (Manchester rather than Liverpool), they built their early shows around covers of American R&B and Rock & Roll staples, and when they started to make their own records, their style leant heavily on three part harmonies (they always sound as if they're all smiling) and cheery melodies. They even developed into folk and psychedelic directions as the 60s wore on. They were, at least commercially, massively successful, even after their best songwriter, Graham Nash, left and they began to drift into MOR territory in the 70s. They were obviously hugely influenced by the Beatles - everybody was in the British Music industry in the 60s - but the question of how much becomes irrelevant when they could write songs quite as good as this one, probably the best thing they ever did. It came out just as the Beatles were leaving pop music behind and inventing rock, and it has a tougher, more adult tone than their earlier material, while maintaining their feel for a great pop song. Its chief pleasure for me, however, is that guitar intro.
YouTube Link

19. World Party - "Is It Like Today?"
Karl Wallinger expressed his love of the Beatles in two ways. 1) He wrote songs that sounded like the Beatles could have written them, and recorded them using methods similar to those used by the Beatles. 2) He made big albums full of lots of different songs in different styles, with psychedelic, busy cover art. "Is Is Like Today?" is a history of Western philosophy and a great pop song with lots going on under the surface, and the album its taken from ("Bang") together with its predecessor ("Goodbye Jumbo") are two of the better Beatlesque collections of the last few decades.
YouTube Link

20. Blur - "This Is a Low"
Funny that while Oasis were endlessly going on about the Beatles, Blur were the ones who had something in common with them. They made the ridiculously ambitious eclectic albums, they incorporated different styles and voices into their sound, they seemed to always try something different. Noel Gallagher could never have written "This Is a Low", but Damon Albarn probably could have written "Wonderwall". "This Is a Low" may be their only song to properly flirt with psychedelia, but it does it so well, with such weary majesty and such a casual feel for the epic, that it makes a perfect album closer, and Beatlesque in the subtlest, most effective way, Beatlesque in its bruised magnificence, and in its vaunting sense of adventure. You feel the Beatles might have ended an album with a song like this. And Graham Coxon plays a blinder.
YouTube Link


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Screengrab : "We deal in lead, friend."

First off, its the way the theme kicks in, with those six pounding, insistent notes, then that euphoric, romantic theme. Its one of the only pre-Morricone Western themes I can stomach, really. So many of them are insufferably dated with their big brassy arrangements, drum tattoos and lack of any nuance, but Elmer Bernstein was no slumming soundtrack hack, and his main theme is a beautiful rolling beast, complete with the quiet interlude halfway (his action theme is also great, and Michael Kamen ripped it off completely for his Lethal Weapon work). It suits the film perfectly.

Then, of course, theres the cast. Of the titular seven, only Horst Bucholz and Brad Dexter failed to go on to greater stardom, and they're both fantastic in their different ways. Dexter's sweaty greed and Bucholz's eager machismo are vivid expressions of character in a film stuffed with oversized characters and actors scrabbling to make impressions alongside one another. Chief amongst them are Yul Brynner as Chris and Steve McQueen as Vin. Brynner relies on that stillness and his exotic, quiet charisma and beauty, while McQueen takes many of the film's best lines and more or less steals every scene hes in, an apparent source of tension between the two men on set. McQueen already seemed aware that the camera loved him, and understood how best to deal with this love. Even in such a caual role, he is magnetic. Its like a lesson in pure star quality. Then there is Charles Bronson, brooding and erupting to great effect, and James Coburn with perhaps the coolest role of them all as the expert with gun and knife, Britt (a villager asks Chris "If hes the best with gun and knife, who does he compete with?" to which the reply is "Himself."). Eli Wallach gives his Dollars trilogy persona an early try, hooting, cackling and generally having a fine time as Calvera, the villainous bandit. And Robert Vaughn brilliantly personifies shifty-eyed fear and paranoia as Lee, the gunfighter who has lost his nerve.

Its based on "Seven Samurai" (1954), of course. In making that film, Kurosawa had intended to pay tribute to the Western genre which he so loved, and most specifically, the films of John Ford. In doing so, he created a story that feels as if it taps into ancient myth (there is a precedent from Greek drama in Aeschylus' "Seven Against Thebes", part of the Oedipus series). Seven Warriors recruited to fight off barbarous outlaws now seems an almost elemental set-up and indeed was used in "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980) and "A Bugs Life" (1998), both times with decent results. What "The Magnificent Seven" borrows most obviously and profitably from Kurosawa's film is its first act, in which the leader of the Seven recruits the others. Each recruitment scene deftly and economically establishes the character and history of the new warrior. The near-wordless introduction of Coburn as Britt is particularly devastating - his knife vs pistol duel unforgettable. This was Sturges' great strength as a director - he was an effortless storyteller. He used the Widescreen frame well, shot some memorable action scenes, and drew good perfromances from his male ensembles, but mainly, his films cruise along under their own momentum. This one had a great screenplay, written mostly by an uncredited Walter Newman (the credited William Roberts was brought in to do script revisions in Mexico which Newman refused to travel for). Newman wrote a handful of classic films, each notable for an undercurrent of cynicism and a facility with a brilliant one-liner : "Ace In the Hole" (1951), "The Man With the Golden Arm" (1955) and "Cat Ballou" (1965). "The Magnificent Seven" is full of great lines and exchanges, for example :

Chico(after Britt has shot a distant and fleeing Mexican off his horse): Ah, that was the greatest shot I've ever seen.
Britt: The worst! I was aiming at the horse.

Britt: Nobody throws me my gun and says run... Nobody.

Chris : I thought you were looking for the Johnson brothers, Lee.
Lee: [smirking] I found them. Now, how much does the job pay?

Chico: Hey. How can you talk like this? Your gun has got you everything you have. Isn't that true? Hmm? Well, isn't that true?
Vin: Yeah, sure. Everything. After awhile you can call bartenders and faro dealers by their first name - maybe two hundred of 'em! Rented rooms you live in - five hundred! Meals you eat in hash houses - a thousand! Home - none! Wife - none! Kids... none! Prospects - zero. Suppose I left anything out?
Chris Adams: Yeah. Places you're tied down to - none. People with a hold on you - none. Men you step aside for - none.
Lee: Insults swallowed - none. Enemies - none.
Chris Adams: No enemies?
Lee: Alive.

Those last two exchanges both feature Vaughn's Lee, the character who most troubled me as a little kid. His struggle with his own cowardice is fascinating and dealt with in just a few short scenes, but Vaughn invests it with real intensity. Its the way his eyes flit nervously around him, the way his dapper dress and leather gloves seem to reveal some essential secret truth about his gunfighter archetype - he dresses in such a way not so other people will fear him, but so he can believe in himself. the scene where a nightmare drives him scuttling and whimpering into a corner is hammy but works despite this, and is topped off by his speech to the Mexicans about his loss of nerve and declining skill, the final line of which is : "Yes. The final supreme idiocy. Coming here to hide. The deserter hiding out in the middle of a battlefield."

Perhaps my favourite scene in a film full of great scenes is Vaughn's death scene. He creeps around the edges of the massive climactic gun battle, before finding himself hiding beside a window. He catches a glimpse of the men inside, steels himself - we see him holster his pistol, as all good gunfighters should - then kicks the door in, shoots three Bandits in a second and frees the prisoners. As they join the melee, battering Bandits with shovels and hoes, he looks on approvingly, gun still in hand. Then a shot rings out, the gunman unseen, and Vaughn is knocked around by the force of the bullet, his pistol spinning away. He falls onto the nearby house, his face dragging slowly down the wall , nose wrinkling upward, eyes creased in pain, as he sinks to his death, ending up almost on all fours, bent over himself without any of the dignity or style he determinedly - outwardly, at least - maintained in life. Its one little moment which encapsulates what makes the film so entertaining and such a great piece of storytelling - Lee's story gets a fitting ending, both cynical and heroic, full of a sort of black irony. Each of the seven gets a series of vignettes through the film, and the ones who don't survive the final shootout all go out fighting, but each death is shadowed with that same irony. Its that dryness, I think, together with the film's narrative exuberance, that makes it still feel fresh and exciting today.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

"Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state"

Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei. All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.
- The Naked and the Dead (First lines)

NORMAN MAILER, 1923 - 2007


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

"Rock and roll springtime, take one"

After Grant McLennan died, a compilation was released of the best of his solo output alongside the best of his fellow Go-Between Robert Forster's solo stuff. Since on their actual albums as the Go-Betweens, they alternated tracks and it was always obvious who was responsible for which song, that fine record was as close a Go-Be fan was ever going to get to a new album.
This will never ever happen with the Beatles. The Go-Betweens are a semi-obscure Australian band with a cult following who were ripe for just such a release. The Beatles are an industry and too many different corporations own concerns in that industry to ever let anything so altruistic happen. But if is a proposed ideal tracklisting for a Personal Best of the Solo Beatles.

1. Band On the Run (McCartney)
McCartney's solo work sounded more Beatlesque than that of his former badmates right from the start. But with the "Band on the Run" album he seemed to deliberately ape that sound to a certain extent, as if trying to suggest his own earlier work. More importantly, he seemed to have something of the adventurous spirit of the Beatles back. This track sounds like it was stitched together from three sketches or demos, each utterly distinct from the others. And yet they work together, somehow, the same way the mini-opera on the 2nd side of "Abbey Road" works so well. Not only that, but here the moments where the 3 different sections melt into one another are probably the most exciting parts of the song, particularly the way the chugging, rocky guitars of the 2nd movement are blown away by the anthemic horns of the third, then a wall of acoustic strumming seems to just slide cleanly into place. It makes for an epic, euphoric piece of McCartney pop, with about 5 more hooks than most songs could find room for, and is the ideal album opener.

2. Working Class Hero (Lennon)
And instantly, the sweetness of McCartney is balanced by some of Lennon's acidity. The best of Lennon's solo stuff is noticeably stripped down and simplified, and this is a great example of that, with just his fantastically expressive voice and an acoustic guitar. He achieved more commercial success with "Imagine" but thats a horrible song, its trite message utterly at odds with Lennon's sarcastic, sharp-tongued personality. The cynicism and determination to be truthful of this song seems a far more honest representation of the artist. Plus its simple guitar figure is remorseless in its repetition, constantly turning over itself, and the lyrics are unforgiving and angry and self-lacerating and perfect. Even at their most experimental, such a song could never have fit onto any Beatles album.

3. Ram On (McCartney)
"Ram" is my favourite of any of the Beatles solo albums, a perfect encapsulation of McCartney's talents. Every song - every single song - is ridiculously catchy and beautifully produced, bursting with ideas and odd little touches. Its about as far from "Plastic Ono Band" as its possible to get. Not just musically, either - lyrically its charicteristically lighter than any of Lennon's songs were, with a surfeit of nonsense songs about love. This song opens with a miniature flourish - a piano trickles in, then out, replaced by a ukelele and a single backbeat over which McCartney sings his silly lyrics- and just keeps adding them as it goes on. McCartney scats and beatboxes as a horde of backing vocalists coo a backing track, an electric piano features and he whistles the melody over the last few seconds. Its sublime. Nobody else could have done it and made it work so well.

4. My Sweet Lord (Harrison)
Harrison was sued - and lost - for plagarising the Chiffons "He's So Fine" with this song. Well, it works, the joyous melody combined with Phil Spector's arrangement to make this a rapturous pop song that - while obviously about Religion, with its Hindu prayers and chants in the lyrics -is never distractingly religious. The acoustic guitar backing and Eric Clapton's reedy, perfect lead are a lovely counterpoint to Harrison's cool vocal style. It has its own momentum and once its moving, when the drums kick in near the 2 minute mark, you don't want it to stop.

5. Instant Karma (Lennon)
Another song influenced by the Beatles flirtation with Eastern religion, this relies on Lennon's gift for an anthemic, rabble-rousing chorus, something he never lost. "We all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun" is inclusive and celebratory (if just a little too close to the empty anthem-by-numbers approach of Noel Gallagher, say) and Lennon screams it in his uniquely raw, impassioned style, but its the rhythm track that makes this song work so well. A big, full drum sound dominates every aspect of the production, huge cymbal and high hat washes filling every space, while a skeletal piano keeps pace with the bass and the slightly plodding vocal melody. Theres no guitar at all, that I can hear, which just makes it all sound that much more distinctive.

6. Photograph (Starr)
Token Ringo song, placed here because the Beatles always put the token Ringo song around this point. Altough, strangely enough, "Photograph" is better than a few of the Ringo-sung Beatles songs ("Octopus' Garden" and "Don't Pass Me By" to name a couple) and justifies its inclusion here on its own merits. Its a weird mix of pub rock and easy listening, held together by Ringo's low, casual vocal.

7. Live & Let Die (McCartney)
"When you were young and your heart was an open book..." When I was a little kid, and I loved all Bond movies, I loved some Bond themes way more than others. This was easily my favourite. I used to think that a Bond song lives or dies on the instrumental "dangerous" bit, the passage, often string-based, when the music becomes sharp and exciting and suggests the personality of the character and the film itself. "Live & Let Die", from the moment its massive refrain kicks in a bombastic horn-based section (arranged by George Martin), is almost all danger. The reggae middle eight is a nod to the films Carribbean setting and explodes at the end, the slow moments are lovely, the backing vocals ("you know you did, you know you did, you know you did") work brilliantly, and the melody is unforgettable. It just rocks. I love a couple of Bond themes more, but this still might be the best song any of the Beatles wrote after the band actually split.

8. Cold Turkey (Lennon)
This rocks too, albeit in a totally different way. That shrill, tense Lennon riff only lets up for the choruses, and the only other instruments are a bubbling bass and the drums. Until the guitar solo when a scalding Eric Clapton lead comes out of the other channel. Lennon lets the music signal his pain for the first half - his voice sounds tired, beaten, hurt, but the guitars are furious and agonised. Then, as the verses and chorus cease, he begins to scream, primally, horribly, almost in harmony with the wailing guitars. Its a harrowing listen.

9. I'd Have You Anytime (Harrison)
Co-written with Bob Dylan, musically this sounds entirely Harrison. Sultry and sexy, it glides along on the lightest acoustic guitar, with a delicate Harrison vocal seeming to plead with a lover. Its a low-key opener for Harrison's masterpiece, "All Things Must Pass", but its loveliness is reminiscent of "Sometimes" from "Abbey Road", which is high praise.

10. Jet (McCartney)
The kind of song only McCartney could really have written, with its verses that sound like choruses, its mix of a rocking backing track with doo-wop baking vocals, about four different irresistable hooks and lyrics I can't really make any sense of. Unlike much of the post-Beatles stuff produced by all four of them, you can imagine this fitting in nicely on a Beatles album.

11. Nobody Told Me (Lennon)
It opens with half a count-in, which is always a good sign. And Lennon sounds more interested and awake than he does on much of his solo stuff, where he often seems bored, going through the motions. Its heavy rhythmically, like most of the best of his later work, with a deep piano sound providing much of the ramshackle melody. The lyric is based on an old Lennon staple: case/reverse ("Everybodys running but no-one makes a move") as in "All You Need Is Love", with a wry, rueful vibe to the chorus, particularly his shrugged ad-lib : "Most peculiar, Momma".

12. Number 9 Dream (Lennon)
Followed by Lennon at his dreamiest and hippiest, evoking the Beatles, something he seemed determined to avoid throughout the 70s. He uses his softest register for the vocal, cooing it over the strings gliding in the background, the band playing quietly, backwards guitar rippling under the mantra of the chorus. After "Imagine". he seemed to let his cynicism take over in that decade, but this song is the idealistic, positive Lennon, turning to Eastern spiritualism, more in hope than expectation, you feel. And the melody is lovely, given just the right weight by the arrangement.

13. Let Em In (McCartney)
This starts with what sounds almost like a doorbell, then builds simply from the simplest foundation - piano, bass and drums are joined by harmonised vocals, a military drum, some brass, as the main theme gets a first run-through. McCartney varies the arrangement, dropping instruments for certain passages, reintroducing them at the expense of others later. Its as if he knows his melody is so good he can afford to play around with it. That means he gives little attention to the lyric, basically a list of people who might be at the door. But its such a great pop song that doesn't matter.

14. When We Was Fab (Harrison)
The latest song on this tracklist, this 1987 effort is also easily the most Beatlesque. Thats partly because it was (brilliantly) produced by Jeff Lynne, much of whose ELO career was spent trying to pay tribute to or outdo the Beatles (fear not, at least one of his songs will feature on my companion compilation of "Beatles Songs Not By the Beatles"). This has so many inimitably Beatles elements - the big Ringo drum sound, the string quartet's slashing over the verses, the solitary piano line on the chorus, the backing vocals, the dreamily psychedelic middle eight, the sitar-led coda - that it sounds almost like a Rutles parody. Thats before you consider the nostalgic lyric, with its 60s references, and the fantastic video, which is down below somewhere.

15. Isolation (Lennon)
Lennon at his most emotional, this is a devastating song. Just a piano, bass and drums carry the whole thing forward, through the slowly rising tension of the verses until the halting, angry denunciation of the chorus. It sounds bigger and more epic than it is because its so intense, so perfectly weighted.

16. Love Is Strange (McCartney)
Macca goes reggae, sorta. But its a strange version of reggae, corrupted by easy listening, utterly breezy and one of his poppiest songs. I haven't mentioned yet what a ridiculously great bass player he is, but thats never more evident than on this song. He makes the bass the lead instrument, really, but not in an R&B song, where its centrality is accepted anyway, but here, in a trifling, sweet little pop song. The lyric? Its about love, of course. In a greeting card kind of way.

17. I'm Losing You (Lennon)
I was really torn between this and the rehearsal version of "Bring On the Lucie", which was on the big Lennon box set from about a decade ago and featured perfectly over the closing credits to "Children of Men". This version of "I'm Losing You" is the one where hes backed by Cheap Trick, not the more spartan arrangement that was included on "Double Fantasy". This one rocks with a great raw guitar sound, and it features one of his most hurt, lost lyrics.

18. Junk (McCartney)
Both this and the next song were originally debuted as demos for the Beatles, and it sounds like one of the pretty little McCartney sketches that ended up scattered throughout the White Album. That fragile, faltering melody is beautiful, and he knew this, which is why its reprised in instrumental form on the "McCartney" album.

19. Jealous Guy (Lennon)
Probably the most obvious choice (alongside "Live & Let Die" and "My Sweet Lord") on this entire list. A more obvious record - and one with a far better chance of ever being released - would include "Imagine", "Mull of Kintyre", "Another Day", "Pipes of Peace", "Got My Mind Set On You", "Ebony & Ivory", "Say Say Say" etc. But I have problems with all of those songs. This is just a great song, with a mature, sober lyric and a great melody. Its got a whistled bit too, which is always great in a ballad...

20. - Maybe I'm Amazed (McCartney)
I love the way it starts, with the minor piano chords drifting in, and the way it effortlessly, organically surges from amazing passage to amazing passage, fluid and growing, his passion - so often suspect with the eager-to-please McCartney - obvious in every second. This is what a love song should sound like, frantic and excited and proud and awestruck by feeling. He sings it so well, too, screaming and yelling some of it in that great Little Richard voice he perfected in the Beatles' early years. Awesome, beautiful, and used over the closing credits of a Simpsons episode, always a sure sign of quality.

21. Momma Miss America (McCartney)
A McCartney instrumental, this is perhaps the grooviest thing any of them ever did, founded on a fluid bass sound and big drums and phased guitars. Then it breaks down halfway and becomes a monstrous - but always tuneful - guitar rave up. If you played it for somebody who didn't know it, they wouldn't have a clue who was responsible. Because it doesn't really sound remotely like anything else. You can hear him hooting deep down in the mix at one point, and it just sounds like hes excited, enjoying it.

22. Isn't It a Pity (Harrison)
This Harrison epic sounds more like Lennon or McCartney than George himself. Its probably one of the many songs he didn't want to demo for the others, tired of fighting for space on their albums, and instead held back for his first solo album. It builds and builds gloriously, the strings massing behind the band, the playing perfect. It sounds like the way an album should end.

Some YouTube goodies:

Maybe I'm Amazed

When We Was Fab

Nobody Told Me

Peter Serafinowicz does Ringo does Goldfinger