Sunday, 29 March 2020

FEELS LIKE I’M DREAMING, BUT I’M NOT SLEEPING [228]



I had no idea about this music video existed until I came across a screenshot online of a dog, thought it looked like something from a cartoon series, and clicked on it. What did I get? The sound of one of the most sampled guitar riffs of both the 1980s and 1990s, and wild imagery that spans everything from your childhood drawings to Piet Mondrian. I’m glad I clicked.


“Genius of Love” is the title track from the 1981 album by Tom Tom Club, a band formed by married couple Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, as a side project from the band Talking Heads – Frantz, playing drums, and David Byrne recruited Weymouth in 1974 to play bass guitar, and they married in 1977. The lyrics, sung by Weymouth, are a testament to the power of the boyfriend - “Time isn’t present in that dimension” and “he’s got a greater depth of feeling” - while listing the musicians and singers who take her to that same level, like Bootsy Collins, Smokey Robinson and James Brown. (Click here [https://www.dancingwiththegatekeepers.com/2018/11/words-are-working-hard-for-you.html] for when I discussed “Wordy Rappinghood”, another song from the same album.)



Tom Tom Club is not a simple husband-and-wife duo like the White Stripes purported to be, but also an umbrella term for the groups Wentworth and Frantz formed to make their albums. As a result, the very distinctive keyboard sounds on “Genius of Love” are from Tyrone Downie, of Bob Marley and the Wailers, while the guitar comes from Adrian Belew, who worked with Frank Zappa and David Bowie before leading the band King Crimson.


The video feels amazingly lo-fi. I thought I had come across an episode of “Roobarb,” about the rivalry of the eponymous dog and Custard the cat, animated by Bob Godfrey using felt-tip pens on paper. The style used by the series, where lines constantly move even when characters and objects stand still, is technically known as “boiling.” The “Genius of Love” video is made the same way, but the boiling also comes from the dizzying array of images thrown at you, from figures that turn into shapes, and the patterns that appear to have made their way into 1980s postmodernist designs by the Memphis group and others.


The video builds on the work of New York pop artist James Rizzi, who created the cover to Tom Tom Club’s first two albums, and whose style appears to be a maximalist, overwhelming even more colourful version of Keith Haring’s work. It can only be considered child-like in the bold and frantic use of flat, primary and secondary colours, and because few of his faces, if any, do nothing but smile. The animation by Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, also directors of the “New Frontier” video for Donald Fagen that we talked about here [https://www.dancingwiththegatekeepers.com/2019/01/weve-got-to-have-some-music-on-new.html], later the creators of “Max Headroom” and directors of the “Super Mario Bros.” film – yes, that one - preserved the energy of Rizzi’s art, while throwing as many images into the melting pot as possible. Jankel and Morton also channelled Rizzi for a later Tom Tom Club video, “Pleasure of Love,” which rendered the line art in neon.


After “Genius of Love,” both single and album, was released in 1981, it was sampled in a rap song, “Genius Rap” by Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde, before the year had ended. The following year, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five used it for “It’s Nasty.” Public Enemy, Busta Rhymes, 50 Cent, and Ice Cube have all used it, and it formed the basis of songs as diverse as Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” and Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack.” “Genius of Love” is just about the most sampled track of the 1980s – when you hear it for the first time, you will feel as if you heard it your entire life, because you have.


Sunday, 22 March 2020

TOMMY CAN YOU HEAR ME [227]



“This is a mess. No way. I refuse to do this! You're the one who keeps fucking around with it so get off your ass and fix it! You understand?”


I rarely make a conscious decision to watch a horror film, but when I do, I am more likely to choose one from before the mid-1980s, before the cliché, excess and self-referencing set in. You can say the same about any genre, but horror films have more long-running series of films that eventually turn in on themselves. 


I thought the intention of the “Friday the 13th” series of films, alongside “Halloween” and “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” was to kill the killer so definitively, it provided the perfect starting point for next time – how do you bring them back? I know better now: “Friday the 13th” was originally planned to end as a trilogy, but a fourth was then ordered, deliberately titled “The Final Chapter”. However, because part 4 did so well at the box office, another new trilogy was planned, with part 5, “A New Beginning,” released within a year.


Tommy Jarvis, the child who killed Jason Vorhees at the end of part 4, is now older, released into a halfway house from a mental institution, still having flashbacks to Jason – you know he will become him, so the plot becomes a case of guessing who isn’t Jason, once the killings start. John Shepherd, taking over from Corey Feldman as the older Tommy, worked in a mental hospital in preparation for his role, before being told that “Repetition” was a fake title for a “Friday the 13th” film - his performance hides his disappointment very well.


This film feels like it was made to a very strict plan. Killings happen at a steady rate of about one every seven to eight minutes of screen time, as mandated by Paramount Pictures, with a shock or scare if there is no kill, and a liberal sprinkling of sex, gore and gratuitous shots of women’s breasts. For this reason, you have little reason to care when a character dies, as you are only given enough of them to begin caring, before it doesn’t matter anymore. (If anyone can tell me the reason for the redneck mother and son in this film... that's fine, but please still keep it to yourself - it was probably so they could also be killed off.)




This film has a more psychological plot than previous “Friday the 13th” films have, the guessing game around the killer’s identity requiring more of the audience, but switching attention to an ambulance driver, and later revealing his son was staying at the halfway house, was rather jarring. By the end, Tommy has had so many hallucinations you are practically waiting for the final reveal. 


In the end, it all counted for nothing, as Jason Vorhees was simply brought back for part 6, “Jason Lives,” replaying the classic “Friday the 13th” formula, except with more jokes. The actors signed up for a sequel to “A New Beginning,” their characters having survived, had their contracts terminated, with a third actor playing Tommy Jarvis. John Shepherd next appeared in “Thunder Run,” a Cannon Group film that was essentially “Smokey and the Bandit,” but with plutonium instead of Coors.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

SPARKS WILL FLY WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS [226]



Looking through a second-hand shop, I bought a copy of Grace Jones’s 1985 album “Slave to the Rhythm” – the title track is a brilliant, lushly orchestrated song, and Jean-Paul Goude’s cut-and-paste cover, comically elongating Jones’s hair and mouth, is iconic. I was already aware that the album reworks the same song in different ways, but looking up further details later revealed something that left me feeling dissatisfied – the CD copy I bought was an abridged version, nine minutes shorter than the original release.


I thought it would be easy, these days, to find the album on Spotify, or iTunes, or Amazon, to stream or download, but it was nowhere (at least, in the UK) – the title track is on Spotify, but as part of a 1980s best-of compilation, and not listed alongside Grace Jones’s other albums. Therefore, if I wanted to hear the album as originally intended, I would have to buy the vinyl LP, or track down the original US release on CD, from 1987. I saw one copy listed on Amazon as “dispatched from USA,” but did not state version it was – fortunately, it was the right one.


“Slave to the Rhythm” was a concept album produced by Trevor Horn, assisted by Stephen Lipson, and the song was written by them alongside Bruce Woolley and Simon Barlow... yet it couldn’t be more about its singer if it tried, and is credited as such: “Breath, Blood and Voice: Grace Jones.” Knowing this project was originally announced as Horn’s next collaboration with the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, before being recorded by Jones while taking a break from her new film career, doesn’t sound right – I thought Jones had written it.


The two versions of the album I have are as follows: the 1987 CD release by Island Records, (catalogue number 422-842 612-2), and the UK reissue as part of the “Island Masters” series, from 1989-90 (IMCD 65). Both albums have eight tracks, with the nine-minute reduction coming from cutting sections out of almost all the songs. This is done by mostly excising the spoken-word content of the album: fitting the album’s subtitle, “A Biography,” Grace Jones is interviewed by music journalists Paul Morley, formerly of the “NME,” and Capital Radio’s Paul Cooke. Morley asks the more searching questions, and Cooke says to Jones, “I’m sure a lot of people expect you to be very intimidating, but I think you’re great fun” – an enduring image from British television is Grace Jones slapping the TV interviewer Russell Harty for turning his back on her to talk to someone else.



The songs themselves were produced at the rate of once a week, cutting up Jones’s performance into different ways. The lyrics are brief and pointed - “Work all day / As men who know / Wheels must turn / To keep the flow” – almost designed to be cut and pasted in any order. The track closest to the single release known as “Slave to the Rhythm” is actually titled “Ladies and Gentlemen: Grace Jones” on the album, and has the most complete performance of the lyrics. A rockier version, “Jones the Rhythm,” also released as a single, cuts the first verse, but features a spoken introduction by the actor Ian McShane, taken from Jean-Paul Goude’s biography “Jungle Fever” – McShane also reads from this on the track “The Frog and the Princess,” talking about using Jones as “the ideal vehicle for my work” – Jones does not feature on this track herself. In contrast, “Operattack” is only Jones’s voice, sampled and contorted through all the “work to the rhythm / dance to the rhythm” sections, punctuated by a wail of “SLAVE!”   


The tracks were produced at the rate of one a week, and the cost of studio time, and use of an orchestra, was pushed to $385,000 – that may be the equivalent of $926,000 in 2020, but many rappers’ videos have larger budgets. I do not know if the album came as a result of deciding to release all versions as one collection, instead of having to choose one for a single, or if the interviews and spoken sections were used to create a theme. What I do know is that Grace Jones, both as a performer and a personality, could carry a more conceptually challenging work like this, and make it a commercial success too, without having the pressure of breaking the mould with every album, which was expected of David Bowie.


In short, the “Island Masters” removes most of the spoken sections, some of them being printed as liner notes, alongside the album credits – Paul Morley and Paul Cooke are no longer credited for their contribution, as they are no longer heard, and Ian McShane’s sections are cut back. One track, “The Crossing (Ooh The Action...),” is turned into an instrumental by the cuts. Perhaps this is to make the reissue more successful commercially, by making it sound more like a regular album. There does exist an album titled, “Highlights from Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of War of the Worlds,” which makes the original sound like it was similar in scale to Wagner’s Ring cycle, but hacking away much of Richard Burton’s narration makes the “Highlights” version weaker. Every word on “Slave to the Rhythm” is about Grace Jones, even if it not her saying them.


If it is not clear enough that I consider the original version of “Slave to the Rhythm” to be the full, proper, correct version, it is the most avoidable aspect of the “Island Masters” reissue – the spelling errors. The final track is given the title “Ladies and Gentleman: Grace Jones”, and Stephen Lipson is credited as Steven Lipson, while the Synclavier, an early sampling synthesiser used throughout the album, is confused with fish eggs: “The synclaviar was used extensively during the compilation of this biography: acknowledgement to New England Digital.” The Synclavier would later be overrun by computers like the Commodore Amiga 1000 and the Atari ST, but that’s beside the point.


Sunday, 8 March 2020

WE CAN’T REWIND, WE’VE GONE TOO FAR [225]


Having owned a Nintendo Game Boy for around a year now, my favourite game has been one I bought a few months ago. “Alleyway,” a clone of the arcade game “Breakout,” was part of the console’s launch line-up in 1989, and was designed by the console’s creator, Gunpei Yakoi. Having since played “Super Breakout” for the Game Boy Advance, I can appreciate the variations made on the original game, rearranging the blocks, adding bonus levels, and increasing the angles at which you can hit the ball.


When I have mentioned this to someone, either in passing at work or elsewhere, the terms “retro” or “old school” will be included amongst the reminiscing about when they owned a Game Boy, or from when they were a child. Having never been interested at the time, nothing about my playing “Alleyway” now has any level of nostalgia or irony to it. For my small collection of game cartridges, including “Tetris,” “Space Invaders” and “Game & Watch Gallery” – my small collection favours straightforward games that take little time – I am playing them in the best possible manner, on the proper hardware, with the proper controls. I am merely being sensible, as far as I know.




Can something be considered “retro” if I am still using it now? The word “retro,” describing something imitative of the recent past, led me to think it was related to going backwards, as in the word “retrograde,” instead of simply looking back, as in “retrospective” – in fact, I was right the first time, if you count things that imitate obsolete objects, like Nintendo’s NES Classic Mini. For something to be “retro,” it should appear to have been replaced, or overcome, by new ways of working, or thinking, but it is not affected by the longing for something lost that characterises nostalgia, because there has to be some level of irony for returning back to the object. No exaggeration of the obsolete object’s importance should have to be made, but there must some knowing reason for bringing it up.


If I was deliberately using a Game Boy to make some statement about how much better playing one is over using your phone, the Game Boy would be rendered as retro. I guess it could still be a retro item by my having chosen it over all the options available to me, having never owned a game console before, but having made my choice, I didn’t think anything more of it – I just put my money down.


The same reasoning appears to be behind the Evercade, a new portable games console launching in May 2020. It is similar in form to the Game Boy Advance, and uses cartridges that hold multiple games, but they add more modern innovations like an LED screen, and HDMI connection to your TV. However, they know their target audience: the cartridges will feature collections of games from Atari, Namco and Interplay, and their promotional Twitter handle is @evercaderetro, but it is hard to be cynical with another way to play “old school” arcade games.


Sunday, 1 March 2020

IF YOUR MEMORY SERVES YOU WELL [224]



As previously discussed, I like to prefer my own copies of songs and albums instead of streaming them. To that end, my Sony Walkman – I also insist on having my own dedicated music player, instead of just using my phone – is required to hold my CD collection, which was founded in 1996 with Alanis Morrissette’s album “Jagged Little Pill.” Right now, my Walkman holds six THOUSAND, six hundred and ninety-nine individual tracks, with some CDs left to transfer. 


There are duplicates in that total number: I have two copies of Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” two of Devo’s “Working in a Coal Mine,” and three of “Love Potion No. 9” by The Clovers. This is due to a small indulgence I make every so often: buying those cheap CD compilations you find in supermarkets, with titles like “100 Hits: The Best 80s Groove Album,” or “Now 100 Hits – Forgotten 90s.” These collections are usually made up of four or five discs, come in a cardboard sleeve, list no more than track names, artists, song writer credits and copyright information, and will be sold for no more than seven pounds, usually averaging at £5.


This is not simply a case of bulking out my CD collection. For one thing, outside from specialist shows and online streaming, “classic hits” or “gold” radio stations are moving away from older songs – the famous New York station WCBS-FM no longer plays songs from earlier than 1970, and has started playing tracks from the 2000s. There is also a nice feeling to find that a song you considered downloading, like “Good Stuff” by the B52s, turns out to be a song you owned after all.


I mostly prefer buying CDs over downloads due to cost. I may only spend 99p, or 79p, on a single track when a CD is very difficult to get or, in the case of Graham Gouldman’s soundtrack to the film “Animalympics,” it was only ever available on vinyl. However, so long as I can find about six or seven tracks on a compilation that I would consider downloading, I will buy the CD – I will eventually listen to the other seventy to ninety songs anyway, or discover a new favourite among the ones I didn’t realise I already had.


To illustrate, my most recent purchase of this kind was “The Hits Album: The 60s Album,” a four-disc, eighty-song collection from Sony and Universal. Seven songs will put me ahead of iTunes, although the CD quality, greater than MP3 and AAC, has already done that:


“Space Oddity (Deram Version)” – David Bowie: made for a promotional film Bowie made while at his first record label, but not seen or heard until 1984, this feels like a demo of the version everyone knows, recorded four months later, that sounds far more layered, and more confident. It is a moment in time, one that would have dismissed Bowie as a novelty act if it was heard at the time.


“This Wheel’s On Fire” – Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & The Trinity: also known as the theme tune of “Absolutely Fabulous,” for which Driscoll sang with Jennifer Saunders’ husband, Adrian Edmondson.


“Tainted Love” – Gloria Jones: Soft Cell and Marilyn Manson still have nothing on the original, faster version.


“You Don’t Own Me” – Lesley Gore: a song whose message of emancipation survived its being used in ads by Armani and House of Fraser.


“The Name Game” – Shirley Ellis: Leigh, Leigh, bo-lee, bo-na-na, fanna fo fee, fee fi mo-me. Leigh!


“The More I See You” – Chris Montez: searching the lyrics brought up the Michael Bublé version first. Not everything needs the big band treatment.


“Cinderella Rockefella” – Esther & Abi Ofarum: why not?