Sunday, 27 September 2020

RISE, GO OUTSIDE BITCH [262]


My choice for the song that defines the year 2020 was decided very early on, by the end of March. Furthermore, it was was actually released on 20th December 2019, but reviews raved about it into the new year. “Sick & Panic” is the first release by the electronic music artist Ramona Xavier to use the pseudonym Macintosh Plus since the seminal 2011 album “Floral Shoppe,” a cornerstone of the vaporwave genre. Xavier usually releases under the name Vektroid, so the use of Macintosh Plus this time caused immense anticipation.

For the uninitiated, “Floral Shoppe” is a cut-up of mostly Eighties tracks already drenched in keyboard and saxophone, that are sped up, slowed down, looped and distorted, giving the impression that you have unearthed a cassette tape with no known history, and the tape itself is worn and ragged. The standout track is “リサフランク420 / 現代のコンピュー" (“Lisa Frank 420 / Modern Computing”) – Japanese text is a big feature in vaporwave song titles and album design – which spins out the first ninety seconds of the Diana Ross album track “It’s Your Move” into a seven minute meditation on the idea that time is running out, with the line “I'm giving up on trying to sell you things that you ain't buying” rendered iconic. Vaporwave is a genre defined by hauntology, a longing for a future that never came, and wherever that future went, “Floral Shoppe” is what it left.

In comparison, “Sick & Panic,” released as the precursor to a new Macintosh Plus album later in 2020, is like playing the cassette found stuck inside an old Sony Walkman that was itself found in the back room of an abandoned branch of Currys, after they moved out of the town centre. It gets stuck, it stutters, it has snatches of lyrics, and some melody comes up that may sound familiar, but it is then distorted and enveloped back into itself. Classical vaporwave has to smash through modern EDM noise first. It could be dismissed as noise – twelve and a half minutes of noise, in the same way that The Beatles’ “Revolution No. 9” is eight and a half minutes of noise.

You may start to pick out patterns, because that is how the mind works, but that is only so you can find a hook, an anchor, something to hold. The choppy lyrics, like “Face, face, don't, face” and “Goes, goes get you,” will suddenly make a whole sentence: “I don’t need my body anymore” and “go outside bitch.” The song’s cover art, which sends flying the Apollonian bust from the original “Floral Shoppe” cover, reads, “Rise From Your Grave.” When the drum machine and MIDI sampled keyboard kick in at the half-way mark, it is almost comforting, but the cosy nostalgia that vaporwave hopes to evoke is quickly snatched away again, but this is not the time for that.

Why “Sick & Panic” sounds the way it does may not truly make perfect sense until the rest of the album is released, but it sounds like something unknown is about to burst, and you are being implored to fight its effects. The two-word description of the track on Xavier’s Bandcamp page (https://vektroid.bandcamp.com) is “NO WAR” – from your perspective, you have either not seen the war coming, or you have to start picking which battle to fight. This is vaporwave designed to agitate.

It would have been easy enough to choose “Sick & Panic” as my song of 2020 based solely on the title, but when 2020 is finally talked about in the past tense, it will be as a difficult year to have lived through, the world itself having changed, and with the future having finally arrived. Making sense of the noise is like brushing your teeth these days.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

WHO CARES WHAT PICTURE YOU SEE [261]


On the evening of 16th March 2020, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announced the start of the lockdown that would attempt to suppress the outbreak of Covid-19, of which one measure was the closure of cinemas across the country, to prevent people coming into close contact within a closed space.

Two days later, my bank sent me six free cinema tickets, to use at my local multiplex. The current account I have with my bank allows me to choose an extra perk from a list each year, like a magazine subscription, or money off in restaurants, but every March, when the bank asks me what I want next, I always choose the cinema tickets.

On 19th September 2020, I see a film in a cinema for what was the first time since 23rd February – that film was “Greed,” the comedy satirising the clothes shop magnates that squeeze sweatshops for profit, starring Steve Coogan as a Sir Philip Green analogue that builds a plywood Colosseum using migrant labour to celebrate their birthday. It was a good film, if earnest at putting its point across, but I only remembered I saw it after realising that watching “Cats” (a film I still like) in a cinema was such an overpowering experience, it obliterated the following two months of film-watching memory – either that, or 2020 has been as long a year as everyone else has said.

Cinemas in the UK were allowed to reopen from 4th July, but my local cinema reopened on 7th August, having been postponed from 10th July. My local chain is Vue, a British chain partly owned by a Canadian pension fund. However, the gap between its reopening and my finally walking through the door was entirely mine, as I deliberated what to see next – the future of local government employees in Ontario depended on my decision.

The canary in the cinema coalmine, used to gauge how quickly people would return, was Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” but I did not want to watch another large film, with a large story, with large ideas, and a large cast – I am not usually one for blockbuster tentpole films anyway. I had considered watching the rerelease of an older film, namely “The Empire Strikes Back,” but I didn’t care enough about Star Wars to watch what has been turned into the middle film in a middle trilogy. I certainly wouldn’t wait until November to watch “No Time to Die,” but when it comes to series that define how Britain is portrayed in film, I am more likely to choose a Carry On film over James Bond.

So, childhood nostalgia it is – I’m seeing “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” itself postponed from 21st August, 14th August, and 28th August, finally arriving on screens on 16th September. The film itself was great, but you will get more out of it if you have seen the other two films. Oddly, it felt like it was made by fans of the first two films, even when you know it was the original team.

As long as it took for me to choose a film to watch, the bigger problem was at the cinema itself. The capacity of the screen showing “Bill & Ted” was 422 seats, the biggest in the fourteen-screen multiplex. The number of people in the audience was FIVE. It may have been 10:10 on a Saturday morning, but before the lockdown, showing ANY film would get a bigger audience than five.

Losing access to cinemas for a period of time has run the risk of upending the idea of films altogether in a way I wouldn’t have thought. We are now so used to home video releases of films coming only a matter of weeks after their cinema release, that it becomes ever easier to skip the cinema release altogether: the Tom Hanks film “Greyhound,” made for $50 million, was released online in July 2020 after the lockdown made its cinema release impossible. What was meant to have been a Columbia Pictures Release became a success for Apple TV+ instead. “Trolls World Tour” made a $30 on-demand cost for one film justifiable, later copied by Disney with the live-action “Mulan,” making the audience being a Disney+ subscriber a pre-requisite before paying any more. If it is made any easier for film companies to do this instead, there will be no more need for cinemas.

I prefer to think of cinema as the medium rather than the film – films are made to be watched in a cinema. Watching a film in any other circumstance takes away from the singular focus on the screen. All TV screens, and especially all mobile phone screens, are too small for cinema, too inadequate to deal with intimate detail and expansive views. Both the sound and vision of cinema do not have to complete with that is happening outside where the film is playing, but once it leaves, that is all that ever happens – films can be shown on television, and films can be posted to YouTube, but films are not television, and films are not YouTube.

I have five free tickets left – my cinema will have these well before next March.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

BUCKAROO BANZAI IS NOT JUST A MOVIE [260]


Very rarely do American blockbuster films try to defy explanation, but films with titles like “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension!” appear to be designed to do just that. It defies pigeon-holing, but because it defied the efforts of some to explain it, the film was only promoted to fans of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” at the time of its release.

The film is based in a world where the celebrity of a polymath is unquestioned, for Buckaroo Banzai is a neurosurgeon, scientist and rock star, leading the band Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers, its members also sidekick scientists that work for his institute. Banzai has mastered inter-dimensional travel, something that drove a previous scientist to insanity, but cracking entry to the 8th dimension reveals it has been used as a prison by an alien race, the Red Lectroids, which remains in conflict with another race, the Black Lectroids from the same planet, and wants to set off a nuclear explosion to annihilate them once and for all. The earth is, quite literally, at stake.

(Having seen “Buckaroo Banzai” some years ago, seeing how the Red Lectroids “successfully” hid themselves humanoids on Earth by all calling themselves John – “John Parker,” “John Emdall,” “John Small Berries” – led me to fill a database I was testing at work with fictional people named Jeff – “Jeff Muggs,” “Jeff Miggs,” “Jeff Over,” “Jeff Under,” and so on. A major problem was identified in the database when the majority of the Jeffs had disappeared overnight.)


The plot of this film is exactly what you expect from a 1980s blockbuster, still bathing in the radioactivity of the first “Star Wars” trilogy, but “Buckaroo Banzai” has a postmodern knowingness to it that is a little difficult to follow on a first viewing,  apart from the consciously artificial special effects. The world the film creates is fully realised and detailed, but not explained, because it doesn’t feel the need for it. All you have to do is accept the lead character is a man whose time is fragmented across many different abilities, sometimes within the same scene, and even the opening narration that explains this is someone who is destined to live his life “in all directions” is not enough to prepare you for that – no wonder he has his own comic book series, and that everyone knows who he is. That this is the case, not just for Banzai but for his “band,” which only becomes apparent as you go along. Everything you need to help you understand the film is there, on the surface, with character also explained though costume, but the surface is a tough one to crack.

The rich character histories and personalities come from an understandable process: Earl Mac Rauch first conceived the title character in 1974, but never finished many of the “Banzai” scripts – the final script, written over an eighteen-month period, folded in many of the remnants. Knowing this makes little scenes about why a watermelon is held in a vice in one room (“I’ll tell you later”), or Banzai coming across the long-lost twin of his ex-wife – hints at a larger story outside of the film, presaging the Marvel Universe, but without having the films to fill in the backstory. Likewise, trying to write something cohesive about this film is proving difficult to me, as there is so much to cover, except to say that only the villains act over the top, especially Christopher Lloyd and a “3rd Rock from the Sun”-level John Lithgow, and Jeff Goldblum is practically playing himself too. That is enough for most, but the film, to bridge the narrative gaps in the background, requires something of its audience not often found in American mainstream cinema: work.


Sunday, 6 September 2020

WHO DO YOU LOVE? IS IT ME BABE? IS IT HIM NOW? [259]



With my tastes in music saturated with synthesisers, Eric Clapton rarely makes my playlist, but I always make an exception for “Behind the Mask,” released in 1987. It is a rare Clapton song where the main drive is the synth chords and powerful drums, his own guitar playing used for extra flourish here, but the production is tight, and the call-and-response chorus, with the backing singers seemingly the ones in charge, is immensely effective.

I had never questioned where “Behind the Mask” came from, letting it stand by itself, but having stumbled across its origin, I am not only far more informed, I have a new favourite version of it too.

Two weeks ago, the YouTube algorithm suggested I listen to “Rydeen,” by the Japanese electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra, itself sounding like a splinter group of the Electric Light Orchestra. I was already listening to music from a different Japanese group, the jazz fusion band Casiopea –in particular the tracks “Space Road,” “Midnight Rendezvous” and “Swallow,” all from their 1979 debut album, practically inspiring computer game music for the following decade – but “Rydeen” came up after its use in a different video I had watched. Yellow Magic Orchestra were influenced by Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, but their use of synthesisers, sequencers and drum machines as a mainstream pop group at this still-early stage predated the development of synth pop and techno music in the 1980s.

Their eponymous first album, from 1978, sold well in the United States, but their second, 1979’s “Solid State Survivor,” on which “Rydeen” is found, sold two million copies worldwide. In Japan, “YMO” were as popular as when Beatlemania hit the US in the 1960s, even though they initially started as a joke band satirising Western ideas of “exotic,” “Oriental” Japanese music – a sarcastic cover of Martin Denny’s “Firecracker” ironically became a major hit in its own right, reaching number 60 in the US Billboard singles chart, and number 17 in the UK chart, before sampled by everyone from Afrika Bambaataa and 808 State to De La Soul and Jennifer Lopez (for the song “I’m Real”).


Naturally, I ordered a copy of “Solid State Survivor,” and have been obsessed with “Technopolis” and “Absolute Ego Dance,” but noticed it also had a track titled “Behind the Mask.” It could be a different song – Fleetwood Mac released a song and album named “Behind the Mask” in 1990 – but when I heard it begin, it sounded like a simpler, electronic version, with only one side of the chorus sung, using a vocoder. Like the version of The Beatles’ “Day Tripper” on the album, until I realised the dates didn’t match up.

The basic structure and melody of “Behind the Mask” was written in 1978 by YMO member Ryuichi Sakamoto for a TV commercial, advertising Seiko watches. (I was unable to find the original ad for myself, as searching “1978 Japan Seiko watch commercial” only brings up a separate ad starring Kate Bush, the watches intercut with her dancing and singing of “Them Heavy People”.) This was developed into a full song after YMO was formed, with the British lyricist Chris Mosdell adding verses inspired by Japanese Noh masks, and by the W.B. Yeats poem “The Mask”. Mosdell has talked about the lyrics representing a society that is very impersonal and controlled, with the immobile mask presenting a cold, unemotional state, but Japanese Noh theatre itself relies on codified gesture and expression, the traditional masks presenting different moods depending on how they are tilted.

(I must mention at this point that the Ryuichi Sakamoto I mentioned above is the same one that, as an actor, appeared alongside David Bowie and Tom Conti in the film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence,” in addition to writing its score – he also wrote the music for “The Revenant” and “The Last Emperor,” for which he won an Academy Award.)

The YMO version of “Behind the Mask” was released as a single in the UK in 1980, and was included on the US and European version of “×∞Multiplies,” released there as the second YMO album instead of “Solid State Survivor.” Record producer Quincy Jones heard it, and shared it with the singer whose next album he was producing. In an alternate world, “Behind the Mask” would have been a song on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the biggest-selling album of all time, and one of the most culturally-significant albums ever made, but a failure to agree over royalties, prompted by the extra lyrics and melody written by Jackson meant it was not included.


The Jackson lyrics turn what was a meditation on emotion – “Is it me, is it you / Behind this mask, I ask / Is it me, is it you / Who wears another face” – into a storyline about someone spurned by a duplicitous lover, hiding behind a mask, with lines like, “sit behind the mask where you control your world,” and “camouflage the truth, indulge your fantasy.” The second verse of Mosdell’s lyrics are adapted into a chorus that makes clear how the meaning has been changed:

Mosdell version: “There is nothing in your eyes / That marks where you cried / All is blank, all is blind / Dead inside, the inner mind”

Jackson version: “There is nothing in your eyes, that's the way you cry, girl / All is grand, all is bright, you're just studying my mind”

It is clear that the disagreement over the Jackson version was purely contractual: Ryuichi Sakamoto released his own version in 1987, with Jackson’s lyrics sung by Bernard Fowler, in an arrangement ironically rockier sounding than Eric Clapton’s version. Jackson had recorded his lyrics, remaining unreleased until 2010’s posthumous album “Michael,” where a new arrangement of the music, mixing in YMO’s original version, was overlaid with the original 1982 track.

The nearest we have to what the original Jackson version could have sounded like is found on the 1984 album “Pulse” by Greg Phillinganes, a musician that has performed with Stevie Wonder, Laura Brannigan, Bruno Mars, George Benson, Kenny Loggins, and Michael Jackson and The Jacksons, working with them on every album from 1978 onwards, the highlight of which was creating every keyboard part on the song “Thriller,” from the opening chords, the base lines, and the pipe organ accompanying Vincent Price. Phillinganes affects a couple of Jackson’s signature sounds, but his playing skills is reflected in what is still an entirely electronic score, singing against a vocoder in the chorus.


Greg Phillinganes also plays keyboards on Eric Clapton’s version of “Behind the Mask,” having introduced the song to him, although you can hear more “real” sounds – the vocoder has been replaced with backing singers, one of which is the song’s producer Phil Collins, whose tight drumming is essentially replicating a programmed machine. As mentioned, this version remains led by synthesisers, whereas the Ryuichi Sakamoto / Bernard Fowler version relegates them to playing background chords behind a fuzzy guitar lead. Sakamoto would make a further version with Yellow Magic Orchestra, again using Jackson’s lyrics, this time sung by a UK electro-pop group, and released on a 1993 EP titled “YMO Versus The Human League”. This time around, it sounds like a standard UK dance song from 1993, and even though YMO were involved, there is nothing in the recording to distinguish it from a Human League song of the time, especially when you compare it to their later hit “Tell Me When”.

Of the seven versions of “Behind the Mask” I have now heard, picking a favourite involves splitting it two ways: the original Yellow Magic Orchestra version from “Solid State Survivor,” is the best of all, and Greg Phillinganes’ version is the best that uses Michael Jackson’s additional lyrics, because it is closer musically to the YMO original. Even better, Yellow Magic Orchestra has emerged as a favourite band with me, although their version of Archie Bell & The Drells’ “Tighten Up,” retitled “Tighten Up (Japanese Gentlemen Stand Up Please!)” is a bit of an acquired taste.