GOD ONLY KNOWS

DaltreyNietzsche may have infamously declared ‘God is dead’ in 1882, but the decades since his incendiary declaration seem to have proven that you can’t keep a good (or bad) God down. Like David Bowie, it would appear He can take many forms; and the kind of worship that was once reserved for stone icons of Christ or the Virgin Mary was gradually transferred to mere mortals as God resurfaced in numerous new guises to suit whatever God the prevailing climate craved. In the second half of the 20th century, God found his most unlikely outlet in the pop cultural figurehead, whose message was transmitted to the young masses via the global communication tools denied the Messiahs of previous epochs. Come the 1960s, young working-class (or lower middle-class) boys who were expected – and were expecting – to follow in their fathers’ footsteps suddenly found themselves in the eye of a fanatical storm that understandably both swelled their own sense of self-importance and left them spiritually empty once undreamed-of riches and material goods were acquired.

In the post-‘Sgt Pepper’ landscape of the late 60s, when Pop had been rebranded as Art, a definite sea-change amongst its leading (and most intelligent) practitioners took place. Yes, the pursuit of female flesh and recreational substance abuse remained high on the list of song subjects, but the revolutionary fervour that gripped the western world from around 1968 onwards reflected a growing awareness by youth of their own potential and powers. Youth turned to their messengers for guidance, and the messengers – who were no more clued-up than their disciples – nevertheless did their best to deliver answers. Rather than advocating an external revolution, however, most turned inwards and sought to make sense of a journey for which there was no roadmap; for some, this was manifested as an embrace of Eastern philosophy. After The Beatles had set the trend by kneeling at the feet of the Maharishi, The Who’s Pete Townshend found his own guru in the shape of Indian mystic Meher Baba; some of what he absorbed then fed into what remains his most popular artistic achievement, the Rock Opera, ‘Tommy’.

Having not seen it for several years, I recently caught Ken Russell’s visual white-knuckle ride that is his 1975 movie of ‘Tommy’ and was instantly aware of how the near-religious following the rock stars of the era attracted was being cleverly addressed on screen. Of course, this was no isolated wakeup call; ‘Privilege’, the 1967 film starring Paul Jones, drew parallels between traditional worship and the new religion of Pop, and faith was reborn as a legitimate vehicle for a hit record with the likes of George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’, giving it a hippie makeover that rendered it far cooler than Cliff Richard at his most evangelical. For black artists raised in the Gospel chapel, this was nothing new, though – in the case of, say, Marvin Gaye – it often had to be squared with thoughts of a more carnal nature, making for a fascinating listening experience. By the early 70s, it had spilled over onto Broadway, with the cosmetic counter-culture of ‘Hair’ superseded by ‘Godspell’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, both of which took this premise to the ultimate extreme by portraying Christ himself as the original rock star.

With the so-called ‘Jesus Freaks’ of the period now tainted by the blotted copybook of the Manson Family, the dark side of this new religion not only presented the cults of the Alternative Society in a negative light, but it gave the musical manifestations of what was happening a far sharper edge. Ziggy Stardust was Bowie’s ideal of the ultimate Rock God, comprising all the elements of those who had risen and fallen in the previous decade and cranking them up to eleven; but the fact that the narrator of his 1972 album’s title track admits ‘When the kids had killed the man, I had to break-up the band’ suggests it can only ever end in tears, something that had already been chronicled in ‘Tommy’. When Ken Russell took Townshend’s musical odyssey and placed it on the big screen six years after the release of the LP, the characteristically pessimistic mid-70s setting seemed more relevant to the tragedy of the story than the idealistic 60s, a time when Pete Townshend’s spirit had yet to be blunted by the bottle. There’s a telling sequence in the film where the sick and afflicted are shepherded into a church, praying to an icon of Marilyn Monroe that recreates her famous ‘up-skirt’ pose from ‘The Seven Year Itch’, as though Ken Russell recognised the way in which the mass media had made idols of mortals that, like Christ, were capable of transcending mortality – something mirrored in Tommy’s post-fall ‘resurrection’ at the climax.

Around the time of the movie’s release, the phrase ‘Rock God’ had become common currency to refer to the superstars of the era, though whether Jimmy Page posing with his twin-necked guitar or Robert Plant preening beside him, the conscious attempts of Pete Townshend to somehow deliver a philosophical message to the faithful had been largely abandoned in favour of pure – albeit enjoyably flamboyant – entertainment. Rock had now become a straightforward career choice rather than an accidental spiritual journey. The devotional worship remained, but the search for an answer appeared to have been effectively discarded. When the deliberately primeval Punk Rock gatecrashed the party a year or two later, the more pressing issues confronted by a generation too young to have experienced the seismic shifts of the 60s were favoured over the luxury of pondering ‘Why are we here?’, something that perhaps could only really be asked by a musician once he can sit back and observe the fruits of his labours.

After Punk, the entertainment factor of the most globally successful rock stars became one of their key selling points. Social concerns would periodically surface in the lyrics of less frivolous acts, echoing a recurrent tradition stretching back to Bob Dylan’s ‘Protest’ period; but there were no real further attempts to elevate pop music to Art by seeing it as something on a higher plane than simple self-expression or showbiz. Yes, there was Michael Jackson’s notorious attempt to present himself as the Messiah at the Brit Awards in 1996, though Jarvis Cocker’s impromptu intervention was the perfect antidote to such dubious pretentiousness. And pretentiousness seems to be the usual insult aimed at the period in pop when the likes of ‘Tommy’ were greeted with reverence by broadsheet reviewers. Maybe it simply belonged to a moment impossible to recreate, for that level of intense idolatry had never happened in pop culture before – at least not in quite the same way; okay, so there’d been Valentino and Sinatra and Elvis, but not the self-contained writer, musician and performer bringing their own personal vision to the masses and being put in a position it must have been difficult not to be consumed by.

The Gods of today appear to have been grouped together from a wide range of professions under the umbrella term, ‘celebrity’. They can be actor, athlete, online influencer, model, musician, royalty or reality TV star. The level of attention and scrutiny afforded these usually uninspiring figures can often be quite baffling to those of us who can’t see why any of them – unlike Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison or David Bowie – are remotely interesting. But they supply an evident need for someone to worship in the absence of any form of conventional religion that ticks the same emotional boxes. The God that Nietzsche penned the obituary of may have vanished from the day-to-day lives of most, but He is still with us, and still commanding the adoration of millions. He just wears different trousers these days.

© The Editor

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A LOST ART

Family TVOn the whole, I can think of far preferable sedatives than daytime television; heroin or methadone spring to mind. Daytime TV for me evokes grim images of care home residents slowly succumbing to rigor mortis as they gather dust in sub-tropical temperatures before the small screen, powerless to resist the unremittingly bland diet of soporific sludge that gushes out of every daytime TV pore, leaving the viewer feeling as though they’re being smothered in a sickly-scented cardigan whilst their feet set in a bucket of treacle. Even if one disregards the dreary content, one thing these excuses for entertainment seem to share is the same theme tune – or at least that’s what it sounds like; whilst the themes themselves are as forgettable as the programmes, they all appear to employ those awful ‘synth horns’ that were once the province of Phil Collins hits from the 80s, and each tirelessly upbeat burst of their infantile jollity is akin to being trapped in a lift with a Butlin’s redcoat.

Whilst the paucity of original and gifted minds working today in a once-abundant field of talent such as pop music is regularly discussed, if one widens the net to encompass areas that used to be touched by trends in pop, the dearth of maestros is even more evident – none more so than in another once-abundant field, that of ‘library music’. A deep reservoir of earworms specifically penned for use in commercials or as TV and radio themes, at one time library music – along with specially commissioned themes cut from a similar sonic cloth – provided British viewers and listeners with melodies that simply refuse to go away; many infiltrated our ears as children and they’re still there. Some of the most prolific composers responsible for these persistent portals to happier times are anonymous to all but the most devoted aural archaeologists, even if their body of work stands up as far stronger than anyone ever anticipated when their output was regarded as little more than dispensable Muzak. And, needless to say, it blows the synth horn bots out of the water.

When most vintage rock and soul genres had been plundered and sampled to death by DJs, producers and Hip Hop acts in the 90s, a sudden wave of interest in the untapped riches of archive library music, such as that housed on the books of KPM, led to the so-called ‘Lounge-core’ craze. CD reissues of long-deleted LPs that had spent years in the charity shop bargain bins were suddenly appearing on hip Indie labels, with everything from test card music to novelty noodlings on early synthesizers selling like cult hotcakes. Though the fad passed – as fads do – this ‘ironic’ appreciation of an imaginary soundtrack to an Austin Powers dinner party didn’t erase the nostalgic wave still capable of sweeping over the listener whenever one of the classic library pieces launches a fresh assault on the ears. A warm analogue glow flows through every note and what strikes the listener today is just how well the composers responsible for these tracks managed to take rock elements characteristic of the 60s’ cutting edge and marry them to traditional ‘easy listening’ vibes, producing a uniquely cool hybrid of old and new.

Key musical elements of the Golden Age of library music and theme tunes (the late 60s/early 70s) seem to be fuzzy guitars, the Hammond organ, strings, and lots of horns. Some of the best themes of this era were from the ITC stable of adventure series, as well as the Gerry Anderson shows; whilst John Barry was responsible for some of the former, Barry Gray composed the majority of the latter. A little more well known due to his knack of writing 60s pop hits for Petula Clark and his wife Jackie Trent, Tony Hatch not only worked with the young David Bowie, but his Midas touch gave us memorable themes for ‘Man Alive’, ‘The Champions’, and ‘Sportsnight’ – as well as…er…‘Crossroads’; he also produced a series of future ‘Lounge-core’ classics with his own orchestra. He later became a TV celebrity playing a proto-Simon Cowell alongside the equally sharp-tongued Mickie Most on the panel of the 70s ITV talent show, ‘New Faces’, but it is his musical talents that warrant an inclusion in this particular hall of fame.

Keith Mansfield was a composer who worked extensively in the library world, but also provided the theme tunes for ‘Grandstand’, ‘The Big Match’, and the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage; Johnny Pearson was the leader of both his own Sounds Orchestral band and the Top of the Pops Orchestra (for 15 years), though he composed both library music and numerous memorable TV themes at the same time, including the likes of ‘Captain Pugwash’, ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, and even ‘News at Ten’; Cliff Adams may be remembered with a groan by more than one generation of teenagers waiting for the Sunday Top 40 when leading his silky-smooth singers on ‘Sing Something Simple’, yet his contribution to television came via the commercial break, for which he wrote the jingles we still associate with Murray Mints, Fry’s Turkish Delight, and ‘For mash, get Smash’ amongst numerous others.

Another name worthy of mention is Alan Hawkshaw, who was a brief member of The Shadows before branching out into library music. Several of his library tunes ended up as TV themes, including the smoky organ grooves of ‘Dave Allen at Large’ and – in a weird occurrence that highlighted the non-exclusive nature of library tracks – the tune most of us remember as the original ‘Grange Hill’ theme, yet one which was simultaneously used on an ITV schools series called ‘Alive and Kicking’ as well as ‘Give Us A Clue’; also, though Cliff Adams wrote it, it was Hawkshaw and his band who performed the Bond-esque theme that accompanied the well-remembered ads ending with the tagline, ‘And all because the lady loves Milk Tray’.

Many of the tunes associated with this productive era that found their way onto television or radio as themes with a surprising longevity were put together by musicians with a solid track record in the business, often emanating from a jazz world that didn’t pay half as well as the royalties on a theme tune guaranteed to be aired at least once a week. Take the likes of British jazz legend Johnny Dankworth, for example; he was responsible for the toe-tapping Shepherd’s Bush Bebop of the original ‘Tomorrow’s World’ theme and for ‘Beefeaters’, the tune Tony Blackburn opened with every morning on the first Radio 1 breakfast show between 1967-73. Back then, most radio shows had theme tunes, including the shows of each star DJ to jump ship from the pirates to Radio 1 when it debuted. Library music was regularly called upon to provide them, and many of these tunes have stuck in the memory, even if we can’t always pinpoint their source. They’re all tunes we know, though we may not know where we know them from.

The familiarity of library music from this period is due to the way in which it was widely disseminated across television and radio, just as likely to be found as the start-up theme for an ITV franchise-holder, introducing a schools programme, featuring on a test card or opening a regional Sunday soccer show as it would be on a networked institution such as ‘Mastermind’, which has always begun with an aptly-titled piece named ‘Approaching Menace’ by library composer Neil Richardson. The fact these tunes have remained part of our pop cultural wallpaper and have crept into our collective memory bank with stealth is testament to the depth of unsung talent that once worked in an unsung arena. Easy to dismiss, but not so easy to forget, the melodies these men made are just one more example of how even the most seemingly throwaway elements of what we used to have far outshine the majority of what we have now.

© The Editor

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FOUR OF US

BeatlesMomentary escapism from a world that seems to relish serving up a fresh dish of despair and despondency to its population every passing year seems an essential panacea right now. It can be manifested in many different ways, specifically tailored to suit the unique tastes of each individual, and its position on the scale of trivia is immaterial. Whatever simple pleasure makes you happy is worth indulging in at times like these. During Lockdown Mk I and beyond, I found walking a friend’s dog once a week was the best breath of fresh air and the most unpretentious reward for a week entombed indoors on offer; and even with the present-tense pandemic receding (albeit not its long-term legacy), the latest crisis has necessitated the need for time-out, whether that be a few hours away from social media – or penning a post. Dog-sitting the same pooch that provided light relief when outdoor excursions were being rationed has become an occasional outlet of late, but the home I dog-sit in also contains another window into a world a million miles from 2022 – well, 53 years, to be precise.

When Peter Jackson’s ‘Get Back’ project was premiered on the Disney + digital channel at the back end of last year, it was accompanied by a deluge of YouTube reviews from people who had hurriedly subscribed to a streaming service usually patronised by parents to little ‘uns obsessed with ‘Frozen’ and the like. Suddenly, it had become attractive to an entirely different demographic, one fired by the media previews of the cleaned-up, Hi-Definition incarnation of footage that had been slogging around the bootleg circuit in appalling picture quality for decades. Not prepared to temporarily add another channel to the dozens I never watch, I was waiting for an eventual DVD release to finally view a series spread into three tantalising movie-length episodes; but dog-sitting in a house containing Disney + has given me an opportunity to catch up with something most Beatles fans rushed to watch together a few months back. And it was worth the wait as, for once, the hype is justified.

For the few still wallowing in ignorance, ‘Get Back’ was the original title of what eventually became the Beatles’ uneven swansong, ‘Let it Be’. At the beginning of 1969, less than two months after releasing the White Album, the band sought to capitalise on the recent energising experience of recording the ‘Hey Jude’ promo, with its novel audience participation; eager to keep the creative juices flowing, Paul McCartney felt this might be a way for the band to return to live performance. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg had just filmed ‘The Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus’, showing there were new means of playing live for acts that had been scarred by screaming girls on the touring treadmill. Conceived as a TV documentary of the band rehearsing new numbers that would climax with a live show before an invited audience, the ambitious ‘Get Back’ didn’t work out as planned and was swiftly reduced to a posthumous album and movie, released a year after its making and at a moment when the former Fab Four were not exactly on speaking terms. It wasn’t the most impressive of obituaries, and the cynical way the film was edited by Lindsay-Hogg established a narrative that had remained intact for half-a-century.

True, there was an infamous ‘argument’ between Paul McCartney and George Harrison captured on camera; true, George walked out on the band for a few days thereafter; true, the chilly environs of Twickenham film studios early in the morning were not especially conducive to harmonious vibes; true, McCartney came across as an overbearing martinet; true, the constant presence of Yoko Ono at John Lennon’s side appeared to be an impediment to recreating the spirit of the band that the project was intended to deliver. All of this was portrayed with funereal finality in the original movie and the fact none of the ex-Beatles in the years following its release had a good word to say about it helped perpetuate the narrative seemingly forevermore. Its sole saving grace was the legendary ‘rooftop concert’ on a cold, wet January morning atop the Apple HQ on Savile Row; but opportunities to see it after the movie’s 1970 release were limited to clips in documentaries or bootleg copies of an early 80s home video version of the film, with the piss-poor visuals and sound quality adding to the negative perception of the enterprise.

Plans to restore and re-release ‘Let it Be’ in recent decades have been repeatedly stymied by one ex-Beatle (or ex-Beatle widow) or another, leaving the film as a bit of an absent friend in the Beatles’ story. The unexpected invitation for director-turned-documentary-maker Peter Jackson to wade through hundreds of hours of unused footage from the ‘Let it Be’ sessions was probably inspired by the astonishing job he did on presenting the First World War as a full-colour conflict in ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’. For Beatles fan Jackson, all his Christmases came at once as he took on the challenge of retelling a tale that had never been fully told and making it the kind of visual and musical experience that the 1970 film failed so badly to achieve. The global pandemic delayed the scheduled 50th anniversary release, albeit giving Jackson and his team more breathing space to develop new ways of improving the audio and expanding the running time. The first results of their efforts were trailed online last year and the thumbs-up was universal – it looked and sounded amazing. Gone were the grainy, murky washed-out shades of the tenth-generation VHS versions and in came colour of the Blu-ray variety, HD-sharp with a clarity that put the viewer in the room with the Fab Four – a laughing, convivial Fab Four contradicting the hand-me-down myth of the ‘Let it Be’ project.

The series shows that the shared sense of humour which had been such a vital component of what made those four individuals gel as a unit hadn’t been dealt a mortal blow by Yoko’s presence after all. Far from being savagely sardonic and disinterested, Lennon appears as lively and witty as ever; moreover, McCartney comes across as less of a control freak and more of an artist at the peak of his powers, oozing magic melodies from every pore. There were concerns Jackson’s facelift might present a sanitised rewrite of the story, but moments of tension remain in the final cut, especially the day after George’s exit; when it looks as if Lennon won’t be showing-up either, the horrible realisation dawns on McCartney that everything might be about to collapse. The camera zooms in on his tearful countenance as he almost whispers ‘And then there were two’. It’s a remarkably moving moment.

As well as the tracks that ended up on ‘Let it Be’, the January 1969 sessions also feature numerous songs that constituted a large chunk of ‘Abbey Road’, not to mention a sizeable amount of material that would only see the light of day on the post-split solo albums of 1970 and ’71. When one hears The Beatles work through Lennon’s ‘Gimme Some Truth’ or Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’, it’s immediately evident these great songs would’ve been even greater had the four recorded them together. Far from being the creative cul-de-sac of legend, the ‘Get Back’ sessions find the band in the thick of a stunning purple patch; it also underlines the theory that all their finest material – even what became solo stuff – was written when they were still together. One of the joys of the fly-on-the-wall element of ‘Get Back’ is witnessing the genesis of songs happen before one’s eyes. The title track itself appears out of nowhere as a chugging McCartney riff, morphs into a satirical comment on Enoch Powell’s recent ‘rivers of blood’ speech, and gradually takes shape before our eyes and ears as the song we’re all familiar with. It’s a real privilege to share the journey.

‘Get Back’ is as essential an addition to the Beatles legacy as anything released during the band’s lifetime, and far superior to Apple’s endless repackaging and needless remixing of material already available. What’s incredible to realise when watching is not one of the band is yet 30 as we see them in the dazzling twilight of their time together as cultural ambassadors in whose hands our culture was safe; and when Ringo gazes awe-struck at Paul picking gems out of thin air at the keyboard, his touching comment to his band-mate, ‘I could watch you play the piano all day’, sums up a special chemistry of which we all continue to be grateful beneficiaries. And it’s certainly worth reconnecting with the best mankind can offer at a moment when all we seem to be surrounded by is the worst.

© The Editor

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REWRITE AT TIFFANY’S

Audrey HepburnTaking a break from all online activity for several days can be a bit of a gamble. Hell, how was I to know the head of the Met would be belatedly pushed before she jumped in my absence, thus leaving this here blog bereft of a swift post-mortem on a useless individual who will henceforth be sailing off into the sunset on a handsome retirement package as well as the inevitable seat in the Lords as Baroness Dick of Head within a year? Mind you, it could’ve been worse; it could’ve been Boris, and I would therefore have been denied an instant obituary to line up alongside those of David Cameron and Theresa May. Whilst the PM is doing his best to keep a low profile following his schoolboy-apologising-to-the-headmaster grilling in the Commons last week, Fleet Street’s ongoing fascination with the woman who currently has ownership of his balls shows no sign of abating, though ‘Carrie Antoinette’ (I can’t claim credit for that one, alas) has a limited shelf-life that simply serves to keep the saga running whilst the Tories decide whether or not any suitable replacements are prepared to trigger a leadership contest.

As is the case during this hysterical, newsworthy-for-24-hours era – whereby one favoured headline has to be pored over relentlessly in sensationalistic, speculative fashion for a day before being hurriedly superseded by the next (lest the viewers’ collective attention span expires) – the mortal remains of Cressida Dick have already been gutted by the MSM to the point whereby any further dissection of them could feel like exhuming Sgt Dixon’s cadaver. At the same time, the tense situation along the Ukrainian border, which was discussed here when it began to boil over a couple of weeks back, is a subject that any rushed analysis of could date within hours; probably best to come back to it when what everyone is expecting to happen actually happens. With this in mind, I’ll momentarily linger on a growing pop cultural trend I noticed has moved on into dubious new areas.

In the face of joyless Puritans permanently on the lookout for something to remove from the history books, some artists have been issuing preemptive strikes. Over the last few months, ‘Brown Sugar’ has been dropped from the Stones’ set-list after half-a-century and Elvis Costello has exercised self-censorship re ‘Oliver’s Army’ before the serial cancellers beat him to it. It’s a sad state of affairs that artists feel they themselves have to act as Ministry of Truth employees for fear that the artless will do it for them without asking, as each apologetic compromise to the unforgiving consensus earns them no stay of execution. After all, there is no concept of redemption in the new religion; once damned, one is damned for eternity. Much better to adopt the stance of Woody Allen’s character in the superb 1976 movie set during the McCarthy era, ‘The Front’; called to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Allen declares he doesn’t recognise the authority of the Committee to interrogate him and abruptly exits by telling them to go f*** themselves.

Oh, for a brave soul to do likewise today. Joe Rogan has blotted his copybook somewhat by issuing what amounts to a half-arsed apology, something that will eventually be seen as an unnecessary olive branch held out to those whose only response will be to set fire to it. As has been rightly pointed out over the past week, sexual misconduct allegations will be the next weapon unleashed from the Woke arsenal if accusations of retrospective racism have proven unsuccessful. It’s a familiar contemporary pattern that is as predictable as night following day now; a minor employee will allege Mr Rogan touched her inappropriately ten years ago before too long and the demonisation will be complete. Therefore, the artist doesn’t need to humiliate himself when confronted by the 21st century’s McCarthy militia, for the militia will proceed regardless – and it has been hard at it for a long time.

Whether the removal of gollywogs from Enid Blyton books, the disappearance of Paul McCartney’s cigarette from the front cover of ‘Abbey Road’ or, of course, the ‘Top of the Pops’ revision that tells us Gary Glitter or Jimmy Savile had no part to play in pop culture beyond allegedly abusing underage girls on an industrial scale, ironing out the rough edges of the past is nothing new. A reference to ‘Negro spirituals’ being sung whilst the prisoners of HM Prison Slade dig a trench in ‘Porridge’ was excised when the haphazard dispersal of soil resulted in Fletcher informing Godber that he had no desire to visually resemble said slave labour. A wisecrack typical of Ronnie Barker’s character was removed without once taking into account the audience’s awareness that the programme was produced in the mid-1970s and therefore contains attitudes common to the era, especially from a character born in the 1930s like Norman Stanley Fletcher. To edit old dialogue so that it chimes with contemporary sensibilities is as ridiculous a move as the box-ticking BBC efforts to re-imagine the Britain of the past as some 21st century Islington dinner party vision of a multicultural nation.

Hollywood has set the pace in this revisionism and, not content with producing unwatchable Critical Race Theory lectures masquerading as entertainment (lectures that the cinema-going public mysteriously don’t queue-up to sit through) it has now re-imagined some of its past Identity Politics-free output that people are still drawn to. Disney’s animated masterpiece ‘Fantasia’ has already suffered from this approach, and over the weekend I caught a TV screening of what was once one of my favourite movies, ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’. Around half-an-hour in, I began to realise that one notable aspect of the iconic Audrey Hepburn classic was strangely absent. Having watched the film on numerous occasions, I knew it more or less scene-by-scene and I was naturally expecting the appearance of Mickey Rooney’s toe-curling ‘Jap’ neighbour complaining about the noise from Holly Golightly’s apartment – yet he never appeared.

After a while, it dawned on me an entire character played by a box-office star in his own right had strangely vanished from the story. Now, before I go any further, I have to admit ‘Mr Yunioshi’ has always made me wince and I regarded this particular character as the sole weak link in an otherwise perfect film; a competent actor and household name for decades prior to ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, Mickey Rooney was nevertheless responsible for a portrayal of an oriental idiot in the movie that would put Benny Hill to shame, played purely for laughs complete with comedy goofy teeth – even though it’s not remotely amusing. It’s an unfunny, cringe-inducing performance and would be even if ‘yellow-face’ accusations hadn’t permeated the narrative. I confess I often used to skim through his scenes whenever watching it on a VHS tape back in the day, but did I want Hollywood’s PC police intervening and removing him on my outraged behalf? In a word, no; but it’s happened; the version of the film I saw this time round had no Mr Yunioshi in it. Admittedly, it was a superior watch without him, but that’s not the point.

As with those cheering the toppling of statues of unloved figures from the sidelines, once a trend has been set in motion and has been legitimatised as a means of removing a character from the picture, what happens when those with an unquenchable appetite for destruction then turn their attention to someone the cheerleader for anarchy holds dear – as they will do? Granted, few who love the film will mourn the absence of Mickey Rooney from ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, yet this is a dangerous precedent. Are all derogatory references to the colour of the black sheriff in ‘Blazing Saddles’ to be edited out, robbing the movie of a key element of its storyline in the process? Give it time. The list is relatively endless of old movies primed for this treatment, and having seen it done once I don’t doubt I’ll see it done again. A cultural line has been crossed, and nothing is sacred when you give a green light that lets loose the non-creative on the creative, however unfashionable their creative endeavours may now be.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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FIFTEEN MINUTES MORE

WarholIt was often said of Oscar Wilde that his greatest work of art was himself; he certainly knew how to project a prefabricated image of The Artist to sell to the public and this was a lesson not lost on many who followed him in the succeeding century. Salvador Dali latched onto this with his elaborate moustache and theatrically eccentric persona, and Andy Warhol picked up the gauntlet when he progressed from the superficial environs of the American advertising industry and turned himself into a brand as convincing as a can of Campbell’s soup or a bottle of Coca-Cola. Warhol wasn’t operating in isolation on the Pop Art scene of the 50s and early 60s, though he managed to overtake the pioneering presence of Roy Lichtenstein by upgrading the tactics of Wilde and Dali for the mass-media age; with his trademark toupee, shades and hooped tops, Warhol was transformed into a living logo of himself, as instantly recognisable a product as any of his celebrated silk-screens, and in the process eventually becoming more well-known than his actual work.

As one of the first artists propelled to household name status by discerning that something which had always been regarded as disposable had a relevance that transcended its crassly commercial purpose, Warhol mass-marketed ‘Pop’ by utilising the tricks he’d learnt when working in advertising. He recognised that the billboard, the comic book, television and Hollywood were America’s most culturally potent contributions to 20th century Low Art and imported them into the High Art environment of the gallery. Early on, he even managed the impressive feat of combining his adoration of celebrity with social commentary; his prints of the electric chair or the violent attempts to prevent desegregation in the Deep South were relevant and important observations on the state of the nation on a par with anything from Bob Dylan’s ‘protest’ songbook of the period.

When invited to fill an empty space at New York’s prestigious World’s Fair of 1964, Warhol mischievously decided to decorate it with mug-shots from the FBI’s ‘most wanted’ list, a gesture that went down so badly with the authorities that he was asked to paint over the mural within days of its appearance. Again, however, this seemingly shit-stirring decision to apply advertising techniques to the flipside of the American Dream was in itself an astute comment that a nation forged in bloody insurrection and forever revelling in the romanticised mythology of both the Wild West and 1920s gangsters had already sold its villains like Brillo Pads; those outraged by his ‘most wanted’ mural were probably eagerly consuming ‘Wagon Train’ on TV and feasting on sensationalistic reports of Mafia massacres in their daily papers – yet couldn’t join the dots; all Warhol was doing was reflecting a cracked mirror back at them.

Warhol pursued his association with the cutting edge by sponsoring avant-garde rock band The Velvet Underground in their formative days and adding his brand name to the amusingly decadent Paul Morrissey movies featuring some of the drugged-up drag queens hanging about the Factory, though not long after David Bowie’s initial encounter with him had inspired the line ‘Andy Warhol, silver screen/can’t tell them apart at all’, Warhol no longer had anything left to prove and settled back into the lifestyle of the wealthy celebrity for the rest of his life.

He’d already withdrawn from the public eye to a degree following the assassination attempt by unhinged radical feminist and Factory hanger-on Valerie Solanas in 1968, though even when he had submitted to the interview circuit he’d played the part of the enigmatic artist by famously answering questions with a characteristic ‘err…yeah’ or ‘err…no’, so his mystique was always intact. By the 1980s, he had become known as someone who would attend the opening of an envelope, so ubiquitous was he on the guest list of every notable social event in New York; and there was often the feeling he had been reduced to a fashion accessory when every wannabe model or pop star sought him out for a photo-op in the hope some of his lingering stardust would rub off on them. Andy Warhol died following gallbladder surgery in 1987, with many claiming his fragile frame had never entirely recovered from the bullets Valerie Solanas had pumped into it almost 20 years before.

Reminded of Warhol’s achievements and his ever-alluring public persona via a new documentary series airing on BBC2 this week, I thought the timing interesting, coming as it has just days after the verdict in the trial of four ‘BLM’ protestors who’d participated in the notorious removal of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol last summer. This quartet of middle-class…erm…radicals with such ‘street’ names as Sage Willoughby and Milo Ponsford are all, naturally, as white as a slice of Sunblest and received an easy ride because they – and it would seem, the justice system – regard themselves as being on ‘the right side of history’. The verdict would appear to imply that as long as one has the correct opinions it’s perfectly fine to indulge in vandalism; not a massive surprise, really; the contrast between police treatment of anti-lockdown protestors and Extinction Rebellion has already highlighted the politicisation of what constitutes a crime, so the verdict was essentially a foregone conclusion.

The brave Woke warriors also received the sponsorship of fellow ‘radical’, the artist Banksy. The eternally anonymous muralist, long the darling of Guardianistas, contributed to the cause by designing a T-shirt that would help pay for their defence. Once more, the inherent conservatism of so-called subversives in the grotesquely wealthy art world evokes images of Rik the People’s Poet from ‘The Young Ones’; yeah, f*** you, ye fascist Tory! It’s hard to imagine any of the current crop of unimaginative careerist charlatans daring to think outside their Identity Politics box and provoke the kind of outrage their YBA predecessors did back in the 90s; they’re so in tune with privileged, establishment thinking that they’re about as dangerous as yer average episode of ‘Call the Midwife’. Andy Warhol may well have progressed into comfortable middle-age once he’d accumulated enough wealth for the son of poverty-stricken East European immigrants to not have to worry about paying the rent ever again; but at least for perhaps the first decade of his career in the public eye he had his finger on a cultural pulse that is now very much deceased.

SIDNEY POITIER (1927-2022)

PoitierMany years ago, I remember seeing an interview with Denzel Washington whereby he spoke frustratingly of being compared in reviews to a young Sidney Poitier; the actor firstly aired his frustration at Poitier’s name being evoked, as though that was the only yardstick reviewers had to measure his own performance by – as though there’d never been any other notable black thespians in Hollywood. Then Washington’s expression suddenly changed, beamed a smile and said something along the lines of ‘On the other hand…yeah, I’ll take that.’ No wonder. For a long time during America’s most turbulent struggle with the racial question, Sidney Poitier was the prominent coloured face on the silver screen; even if some of the most successful movies Poitier appeared in dealt with racial issues, these were all thought-provoking, intelligent examinations of a subject US cinema preferred to avoid.

1958’s ‘The Defiant Ones’ (where he and Tony Curtis play escaped convicts chained to one another), 1967’s ‘To Sir with Love’ (where he plays a Caribbean teacher at a rough East End school), and that same year’s ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ (where his marriage to a white woman tests the strength of her parents’ liberal views) were all critically and commercially successful. Perhaps the role for which Poitier will always be associated was that of black police detective Virgil Tibbs (‘In the Heat of the Night’, also 1967), sent into the Deep South to investigate a murder alongside a racist, redneck cop played by Rod Steiger. Benefitting from the increased broadening of Hollywood’s brushstrokes in the late 60s, ‘In the Heat of the Night’ is one of the first mainstream movies to look this uncomfortable aspect of American life squarely in the eye without shying away, and it remains one of the most brutally honest and less preachy examples of doing so as a consequence. The death of Poitier at the ripe old age of 94 genuinely ends an era, one in which he was a true trailblazer.

© The Editor

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LUST FOR LIFE

LustgartenAnyone who frequented public libraries as a child will recall the hushed reverence within those walls often evoked the chilly ambience of a church, particularly the old-school Victorian model. Despite being a notoriously noisy breed, children were nevertheless accustomed to being seen and not heard during my own childhood, not as indulged as now, and raised on the kind of disciplinarian diet that rendered the silent environs of the public library less of a challenge than I suspect it would be for today’s kids. The location’s enforced quiet also attracted senior citizens; OAPs always managed to select a seat close to the magnetic pull of a radiator that made the library a more comfortable environment than their own homes, and many probably passed out in those heated enclaves, never to wake again. One notable ‘pensioner’ of 71 shuffled off this mortal coil in just such a fashion at Marylebone Library back in 1978 whilst reading the Spectator, a death that lacked the drama he’d made a career from embellishing with his customarily loquacious eloquence. And nobody today has a name that rolls off the tongue with quite the same dramatic spark as Edgar Lustgarten.

The name sounds undeniably Dickensian, though it was genuine – no theatrical affectation. If ever a name fitted the character gifted with it, Edgar Lustgarten was the right man for the right name. Following in his father’s footsteps as a barrister, Lustgarten absorbed all he encountered in his initial profession and soon embarked upon his second career as an author, expert and broadcaster on the criminal mind, working in counter-propaganda during WWII and then producing and presenting programmes for the BBC. By the early 1950s, he was regarded as a sufficiently authoritative voice to front the long-running series of cinematic shorts titled ‘Scotland Yard’. Each instalment would receive an introduction from Lustgarten in a library setting, and his role as host established the cliché later revived by Roald Dahl when he acted as fireside storyteller for the first series of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. The difference between ‘Scotland Yard’ and Dahl’s celebrated television anthology, however, was the fact that the former series was drawn from true-life cases gathering dust in the Met archive.

‘Scotland Yard’ being produced as a support series for the big screen meant it was shot on 35mm and it has the look and feel of a major motion picture. Lustgarten’s flamboyant, melodramatic delivery before each case unfolds certainly adds to the atmosphere, with every episode of a series that ran from 1953-61 reeling the viewer in from the alluring intro. The fact that none of the crime stories featured were fictional concoctions but rooted in truth means few of the episodes contain formulaic storylines and one never knows exactly what to expect; I’ve no idea what the process was when it came to the writers choosing which tales from Scotland Yard’s extensive files to dramatise, but every crime imaginable seems to be in there even if murder understandably recurs more than any other. But with Lustgarten at the helm, there’s relatively little chance an instalment will deal with the late return of library books.

With so much television from the 1950s surviving as poor quality telecine recordings of 405-line transmissions, the pristine cinematic look of ‘Scotland Yard’ undoubtedly makes it easy on the eye, and the period charm of the series has a style reminiscent of ‘The Blue Lamp’. Although the crimes depicted occasionally venture into the Home Counties, most are concentrated in the capital, which offers the viewer one more tantalising glimpse of London before the game-changing redevelopment of the 1960s altered the physiognomy of the city forever. Everything about ‘Scotland Yard’ is ultimately reassuring. All CID detectives wear hats and macs, whereas all uniformed officers have a distinct ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ vibe to them; avuncular seems to be the appropriate description of the police as portrayed in ‘Scotland Yard’, and there’s a notable absence of the mistrust in their honourable intentions that would be second nature today. It’s probably one of the last-gasp dramatisations of the boys in blue free from a cynical perspective, still viewed as the ultimate bastions of honest law enforcement before ‘Z Cars’ came along and reminded us the police were flawed human beings too.

For any aficionado of vintage TV, ‘Scotland Yard’ can also boast numerous sightings of eventual household names in early appearances. Roger Delgado, later to earn his spurs as the original incarnation of the Master in ‘Doctor Who’, routinely features whenever the story calls for an olive-skinned foreigner. Frenchman, Italian, Middle-Eastern or Mediterranean – Delgado’s your man. I even spotted formative ‘Coronation Street’ stalwarts Minnie Caldwell (Margot Bryant) and Albert Tatlock (Jack Howarth) in small parts, along with Arthur Lowe, Wilfrid Brambell, and Howard ‘Captain Baines’ Lang from ‘The Onedin Line’. Comic actors John Le Mesurier and Harry H Corbett have a rare opportunity to get their teeth into dramatic roles in the series, though the actor who figures most in the lead detective role tends to be Australian-born Russell Napier as Superintendent Duggan.

It goes without saying that ‘Scotland Yard’ serves as a neat diversionary alternative to current preoccupations, a reminder – even if a sanitised one – of how this country’s premier police force was once perceived as a force for incorruptible good that resided firmly on the side of the angels. As with most previously-revered institutions, the Met has somewhat damaged its brand in recent times, though we expect nothing less from our institutions now. By throwing their lot in with activists promoting an agenda that alienates them from the masses, these institutions have lost all respect and left those they were intended to serve with a sense of self-sufficiency in the absence of hope from the State. When the public – as I have personally heard twice in the past week – have to wait upwards of six or seven hours for an ambulance or when I myself am found sitting as the solitary patient in a deserted GPs surgery (something I wish I’d had a camera on hand to photograph – #NHSCrisis), one knows the game is up. Edgar Lustgarten is no doubt turning in his grave as we speak – and probably delivering a memorable introduction to a heinous crime at the same time.

MIKE NESMITH (1942-2021)

MonkeesHe was the one with the woollen cap – singled out as an easily identifiable character along with the other three Monkees by the manufacturers who’d observed the cartoon incarnations of the Fab Four via ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help!’ and seen the potential in extending a franchise that The Beatles themselves had already moved on from. It was perhaps inevitable the American entertainment industry would seek to capitalise on Beatlemania by turning the phenomenon into a TV show, but the fact they put together their very own Prefab Four by assembling competent musicians and allying them to some of the best professional songwriters in the business sowed the seeds of the brand’s destruction.

Mike Nesmith was a Texan in possession of a Lennon-esque nonchalance that gave him a distinct persona within the Monkees’ unit and marked him out as a Bolshie critic of their clean-cut slickness. He was apparently the dissenting voice that rejected ‘Sugar Sugar’ when it was offered to the band and a prime mover behind the post-TV show career suicide movie that was the cult classic, ‘Head’. It was thanks to Mike Nesmith’s attitude that The Monkees remain one of the most admirable and likeable of all manufactured pop acts, and his death at the age of 78 leaves Mickey Dolenz as the remaining member of the original quartet – yet another sober reminder of mortality in an industry in which immortality still lingers as currency.

© The Editor

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REAPIN’ & SOWIN’

Haters‘It’s not censorship when a private company decides to remove you from their platform. You don’t have an inalienable right to a Twitter account.’ So spoke the social media account of one Gary McGuiggin from a position of smug detachment in June 2020. A year or so later, in response to the 24-hour deletion of the YouTube account of ‘progressive’ left-leaning online news outlet Novara Media, the same account declared, ‘Whether or not you agree with what we publish, it shouldn’t be the whim of giant tech companies to delete us overnight with no explanation.’ Fancy that. It’s apparently okay if Talk Radio’s YT channel vanishes in the blink of an eye for daring to question the Covid consensus or if a former US President is permanently censored, what with cancel culture being a figment of the right-wing imagination and all that; but Voltaire’s oft-quoted line re freedom of speech is evoked yet again now that those for whom empathy only comes into play when their own platform is abruptly removed have felt the full force of that which they have long been in denial of. Yes, the incredible revelation that big tech is a tad too big for its boots has finally hit the left and we all have to erupt in collective outrage at the news. Pity we didn’t do so when supposedly ‘right’-leaning outlets were receiving the same treatment for months.

Not unlike the way in which Rad Fem tactics have now been turned on Rad Fems themselves via the Trans lobby, the sudden utilisation of cancel culture against those who foolishly imagined they were immune from its toxic touch has been a lamentable but sadly necessary act, if only to make the previously-unaffected aware that nobody is ring-fenced once a series of illiberal victories have been achieved. Amazing as it may seem, the news that giving an inch means a mile or more might be taken by those for whom compromise and capitulation is never enough has opened the blind eyes of the chattering-classes now that the realisation has dawned that tossing them a few token right-wing scraps won’t satisfy the ravenous appetites of the serial censors. Once they’ve acquired a taste for it, they won’t settle for crumbs.

Of course, anyone with any knowledge of the past will know this has all happened before. The McCarthy witch-hunts of 1950s America had begun with rooting out reds under the bed and eventually descended upon the unimpeachable reputation of FDR, trashing the legacy of a revered President as those falling under the spotlight of the fanatics they’d supported belatedly came to realise that nothing was ever enough for them. It shouldn’t take the overnight disappearance of a prominent pro-Corbyn, ultra-Woke mouthpiece before those who had been content to observe the muting of opposing voices decide this kind of thing is bad news; but it would appear it has to happen to them before they realise it’s not a good idea to silence freedom of speech in a democratic society. Fine if the speech being censured is speech that doesn’t chime with your own ideology, but apply the same principles to yours and it’s suddenly out of order. Well, tough titty, mate. It’s not advisable either way. But perhaps yesterday’s events re Novara Media can serve as a contemporary cultural equivalent of the decisive moment in 1975’s ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ when Davros pleads with his creations to have pity just before they exterminate him.

The fact that an established comedian such as Dave Chappelle over in the States has roused the ire of frothing-at-the-mouth Trans activists simply for daring to tell a few jokes should have been a warning sign in itself; footage of protests outside Netflix HQ in which the mental mob included a screeching harpy repeatedly screaming ‘Repent, muthaf***er!’ at an opposing voice should have been enough to convince anybody with half-a-brain that these people are pseudo-religious zealots that can never be appeased. The reaction to Chappelle’s recent Netflix special has been predictably disproportionate, for as far as I know the comedian himself didn’t spare anyone from his latest routine – just as predecessors such as Dave Allen, Billy Connolly, George Carling or Lenny Bruce never did; that’s comedy for you. That the only ‘persecuted minority’ to take umbrage at Chappelle’s act should have been the Trans lobby is interesting, considering this particular lobby has the whole of the corporate Western world on its side, not to mention every non-corporate institution (see LGBTXYZ Cars in the British Police Force, let alone ‘rainbow’ zebra crossings); that’s some persecution. Chappelle himself, a prominent black celebrity in the States, has even been accused of ‘white privilege’ by these purveyors of the insane dogma that characterises the most fanatical fanatics, and surely that tells you all you need to know about where we are – a world in which even august medical institutions like the Lancet can’t bring themselves to use the word ‘women’ in their literature just in case they might offend the self-appointed spokespeople of a few chicks with dicks.

As has been pointed out in recent posts, past groups pooling resources to stem the tide of ‘liberal’ progress tended to emanate from the middle-aged and the conservative right, whether religious Republicans across the Atlantic or suburban Tories over here. They were traditionally seen as upholders of authoritarian opposition, eagerly sponsoring the relentless pursuance of The Rolling Stones for their recreational drug use in the 1960s or cancelling every date on the first nationwide Sex Pistols tour ten years later. Their antipathy towards the changing of the guard was generally rooted in the increasing insecurity of their own fixed worldview, seeing power slipping away from their grip as everything they’d complacently held dear since the triumph over fascist forces in the 1940s was gradually deconstructed by war babies keen to build their own society from the uninspiring ashes they’d inherited. Back then, powerful opposition groups controlled the press, the mass media and every organisation with any clout in the country – just like their inheritors do in 2021, something that brings the victim mentality so beloved of the 21st century Puritans into question.

Today’s equivalents are less easier to define in quite the same way as one could define those of the 60s and 70s; what were once seen as positive and radical organisations such as Stonewall have now become far more reactionary than their predecessors. Most have evolved into an illogical establishment prioritising and elevating favourite minorities over a far wider demographic, inadvertently re-establishing all the barriers that had been torn down in the lengthy fight for gay rights, just as so-called ‘anti-racist’ groups in the US appear determined to revive racial segregation. Challenge any of them and you will feel the full force of those who are making a living from division and want to retain the current status quo as strongly as the elderly ladies and gentlemen did when they sought to crush the ungrateful yobs of half-a-century ago. Funnily enough, their predecessors also coloured their hair, albeit preferring a blue rinse to the pink shades favoured today; but I digress.

That the baton of authoritarian censorship should have been passed from right to left over the past decade hasn’t sat easy with those of us who would once have regarded themselves as left-leaning in the belief that one side was more conducive to freedom of expression than the other. But as the Labour Party carries on screaming for the reintroduction of the most severe pandemic restrictions and its leader thinks it wrong to state the biological fact that women have cervixes and men posing as women don’t, it’s no wonder the Party is being deserted by the masses and now only speaks for a narrow, metropolitan minority that won’t tolerate the questioning of its dubious wisdom. That one of its most vocal online mouthpieces should now have fallen to the same censorious (and previously-tolerated) practices of big tech that has already wielded its power over mouthpieces from ‘the other side’ has maybe – finally – awoken the left to the dangers of selective free speech. We can but hope.

© The Editor

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EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED

Satanic MajestiesI came up with a new variation on the ‘drinking game’ concept the other day after hearing an overused entry in the Woke dictionary once again uttered on Radio 4. I call this fresh twist on the format ‘the slavery game’. One doesn’t need to have the station on all day to play this game; indeed, I heard the word ‘slavery’ within a mere fifteen minutes of listening this morning. It so got me in the mood that I almost switched the radio off and stuck ‘Brown Sugar’ on the turntable. As a song, ‘Brown Sugar’ is now half-a-century old, but the fact it takes the topically triggering subject of slavery and plays with it in a salacious manner characteristic of the turn-of-the-70s Stones means it’s fallen under the spotlight of 2021’s moral watchdogs. The moral watchdogs of 1971 were no more amused by its themes either, so it’s not as if the song hasn’t been criticised before. 50 years back, however, they were the middle-aged conservative right and found the young Stones an affront to all they held dear; their contemporary equivalents are firmly on the left, and young where the Stones are old, but their determination to take offence – especially at any art that predates their new world order – is so far-reaching that even the artists themselves cower under their power.

Along with ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, ‘Brown Sugar’ is one of the guaranteed certs in a Stones set-list – or always has been. No more. The decision has been taken to drop the number from Stones shows, and even if the reasons given evade accusations of self-censoring capitulation to the critical consensus, I can’t help but feel the Stones of ’71 would’ve responded to calls for ‘Brown Sugar’ to be banned with a couple of sticky fingers aimed in the direction of Mary Whitehouse. The Stones have far less to lose now than they did 50 years ago, when a cross-Channel flight from the taxman to stave off bankruptcy meant they were in a considerably more vulnerable position; but today’s financially secure incarnations have decided to give an inch in the hope no mile will be taken. Dream on. Expect ‘Stray Cat Blues’ and ‘Under My Thumb’ to be next on the hit-list. Oh, well; anyone who wants ‘Brown Sugar’ can still access it, and I’d rather hear the original 1971 record than see the remnants of the band play it live in 2021, anyway.

Purely by coincidence, I’ve recently been augmenting my ongoing reliance on Classical as an in-house soundtrack by revisiting the Stones back catalogue, specifically the period which is for me their ‘golden era’, covering the five years from 1966 to 1971. Some of their most celebrated singles and albums emanate from this remarkable run, including what remains an unfairly maligned and misunderstood LP – more than any other in the band’s lengthy canon; it also happens to be the one I can’t seem to stop playing. It’s become something of a tradition on here to follow a heavyweight story with a post looking back at a vintage TV series that happens to be my box-set of the moment; but I don’t often apply the same tactics to my listening habits. Why not, though? Today, I’m talking about a 1967 LP by The Rolling Stones called ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’.

Firstly, I love the title; ‘Satanic Majesties’ soon became a clichéd description of the band to summarise that bleak era at the end of the 60s when an apocalyptic aura seemed to surround them, but the title of this album is of course a play upon the ‘Her Britannic Majesty’s’ segment of the old British passport. A sense of humour was actually quite a strong element of the band at this time, something that the subsequent descent into darkness shortly thereafter tends to obscure. Anyway, this was a record that had a very difficult gestation, for 1967 was not an easy year for the band. It opened with a mixed reception to the album ‘Between the Buttons’, swiftly followed by the infamous Redlands drug bust and the very serious prospect of long-term prison sentences for Jagger and Richards; the ramifications of this raid were to dog the band for the rest of the year, but they clearly found solace by retreating to the recording studio and…well…getting stoned. It was the Psychedelic high summer, after all. Mick and Keith were in attendance at Abbey Road when The Beatles recorded ‘A Day in the Life’ and Jagger was also present during the live TV broadcast of ‘All You Need is Love’ as well as dragging Marianne along to a Maharishi summit; Lennon and McCartney returned the compliment by singing backup vocals on the Stones’ superb ‘We Love You’ single, which was released ahead of (though sadly not included on) ‘Satanic Majesties’. The rivalry between the two bands was largely press-generated, for there was a genuine sense of kinship, an ‘Us and Them’ attitude that the pursuit by Scotland Yard solidified.

The undeniable influence of the Fab Four on the Stones during this period isn’t really reflected in ‘We Love You’, which is an exhilarating if scary journey into the dark heart of acid-infused paranoia via Brian Jones’ mastery of the mellotron; the band even filmed a brilliantly sardonic promo video in which Mick and Marianne were portrayed as Oscar Wilde and Bosie. By the time the Stones’ second album of 1967 was finally ready for release at the end of the year the Beatle influence was mostly evident in the front cover of the LP. Whilst The Beatles had been portrayed as Carnabetian bandsmen on the ‘Sgt Pepper’ sleeve, the Stones came across as slightly seedy pied pipers surrounded by all the gaudy trimmings of the dressing-up box. The original front cover idea of a nude Jagger being crucified was deemed a step too far even for them, so they settled for their own novel 3D take on the brand – and even hid the individual Beatles’ faces amidst the lysergic foliage. The criticisms levelled at the album tend to begin with the sleeve, yet the actual contents bear little resemblance to John, Paul, George & Ringo’s cultural landmark.

Accusations of bandwagon-jumping and being too late to the Psychedelic party to make an impact don’t take into account the pressures on the band throughout its drawn-out recording. The album probably would have appeared far earlier had these pressures not got in the way, but in retrospect it’s a miracle they managed to produce anything at all. Endless court appearances, the overhanging threat of prison, the internal trauma of Keith Richards stealing Brian Jones’ girlfriend (Anita Pallenberg), and Jones’ own slide into addiction can’t have helped, yet the end product sounds nothing like ‘Sgt Pepper’ and indeed nothing like any of 1967’s other British Psychedelic milestones by the likes of Pink Floyd or the Jimi Hendrix Experience. ‘Satanic Majesties’ exists in a uniquely exotic and mesmerising sonic bubble that places it in a field all of its own, one that the Stones themselves never ploughed again and few others have emulated. Personally, I think it represents the high watermark of the period in which the band were eager to spread their wings and were brave enough to venture into uncharted territory.

Bar a couple of extended jams that reflect both the spirit of the age and the consumption of the substances that went with it, the album is far stronger than popular opinion would have anyone believe. The space rock excursion of ‘2000 Light Years from Home’ and the adorable melodic riches of ‘She’s A Rainbow’ make it worth investing in, but the likes of ‘Citadel’, ‘2000 Man’ and ‘Lantern’ are wonderfully underrated songs that really work in the context of the blissfully rewarding earworm of a trip that playing the album from start to finish adds up to. There’s even evidence of that aforementioned humour in a hidden track known as ‘Cosmic Christmas’ – a nightmarish slowed-down instrumental of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ – as well as in the music hall-meets-cabaret club finale of ‘On With the Show’. The band themselves routinely dismiss the LP and write it off as a self-indulgent exercise, yet I don’t know many people who don’t love it. It may well be the runt of the litter, but it stands up as the last glittering, risk-taking example of the Stones being prepared to throw caution to the wind and spurn the whole crippling notion of pop music as a rigid, restrictive series of genres and categories in which everyone stays in their lane. Over half-a-century on, I think the record-buying public didn’t know how well off they were.

© The Editor

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ADIEU L’AMOUR

Pierrot le FouAside from perhaps ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, Hollywood never quite manages to capture the eccentric essence of romance, too often settling for the easy fix of the chocolate box. Even a literary romance as beautifully bonkers as ‘Wuthering Heights’ was bowdlerised for its first well-known big-screen version (the 1939 one with Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff), and as a cinematic genre, romance gradually settled into a comfy, soft-focus groove that utterly detached the subject from reality and fabricated a fairy tale it rarely veers from to this day. Not that there’s anything wrong with fairy tales, and I accept for many that cinema-going is all about escapism, pure and simple. I know my grandmother in particular was a huge fan of Doris Day movies, and that’s perfectly understandable; she lived in dull, monochrome 1950s Huddersfield, so I can imagine that going to see a spectacular Technicolor musical like ‘Calamity Jane’ must have felt like visiting another planet for the evening.

Perhaps fairy tales and fantasy tend to be the default backdrop for cinematic portrayals of romance because even in real life falling in love can be something of an out-of-body experience; how else does one illustrate the insane sensation without slipping into dependable cliché? Well, it can be done, but it takes a bit of imagination. I guess the main problem with the Hollywood approach is that its narrow fantasy is routinely lacking the element of surprise, being as predictable as ‘Snow White’ or ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Moreover, such films are almost overwhelmingly aimed at an exclusively female audience, as though the spirit of romance only ever beats in the heart of a woman; I doubt any straight man ever had a craving to watch ‘Dirty Dancing’ or ‘An Officer and A Gentleman’, for example. No, if one of the most intensely electric emotional adventures either sex can be exposed to in life is ever done genuine justice in the world of cinema, it tends not to emanate from Tinsel Town.

I was thinking of this unlikely topic on account of hearing that the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo had passed away. He was never a household name in the English-speaking world, though he was a legend across the Channel; the fact that he declined to relocate to California as a means of capitalising upon a handful of brushes with iconic cinematic cool in the early 60s is perhaps to his credit. The trio of films he made with Nouvelle Vague auteur Jean-Luc Godard – 1960’s ‘Breathless’, ‘A Woman is a Woman’ (1961), and 1965’s ‘Pierrot le Fou’ – are all very different, yet each is a classic of the French New Wave. Despite the fact Belmondo became a mainstream movie star in France, the cult success of his collaborations with Godard in international circles were the films for which he remains best remembered outside of France. And both ‘A Woman is a Woman’ and ‘Pierrot le Fou’ are sublimely romantic movies that manage to avoid the corny tropes that constitute the lazy laurels of Hollywood. The former subverts them with mischievous glee, whilst the latter rewrites the rulebook.

On the surface, ‘Pierrot le Fou’ certainly doesn’t adhere to a conventional romantic narrative, featuring several casual murders and a couple of vicious gangsters who think nothing of water-boarding their enemies. However, in the finest tradition of Romeo and Juliet, the couple at the centre of the story – played by Belmondo and the effortlessly sexy Anna Karina respectively – both die at the end, with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s demise being memorably bizarre as he paints his face blue and wraps a dozen sticks of dynamite round his head; after lighting the fuse he has a belated change of heart, but can’t extinguish it on account of not being able to see it due to the dynamite obscuring his vision. Within seconds he’s blown to smithereens; it’s a dramatically stupid death worthy of Wile E. Coyote. So, yes, it’s not a pitch I could imagine being given the green light by a Hollywood studio executive, to be honest; but it is nevertheless a strikingly romantic movie.

Belmondo’s character is a restless married man dragged along to a dreary Parisian party by his bourgeois wife, whereupon he meets guests who speak in clichés that imply their words are being scripted by advertising agencies; I suppose it was a satirical comment by Godard on crass materialism or something, but the director had yet to squander his talents on Left Bank left-wing polemics, and it actually serves as a humorous way of setting Belmondo apart from his peers. Instead, his wavelength is tuned into that of the pretty babysitter (played by Karina), whom he offers to give a lift home to; he does so and then never returns to his own home. The two go on the run in the style of an existential Bonnie and Clyde, making their way down to the South of France and spending a period living a bohemian beachcomber lifestyle before the past crimes of Karina’s character catch up with them, prompting a fresh getaway.

Throughout the journey that follows their initial flight from Paris, Karina’s Marianne nicknames Belmondo’s character ‘Pierrot’, repeatedly provoking his virtual catchphrase, ‘My name is Ferdinand’. But it’s a novel example of the quirky affection the two quickly develop for each other, one that swiftly blossoms into passionate love. ‘Pierrot’ evidently has his suspicions about the unpredictable Marianne, but he’s seduced by this free spirit and she in turn gives every impression she’s as smitten with him. The stunning visual set pieces which became a hallmark of Jean-Luc Godard movies are never better than in ‘Pierrot le Fou’ and they work as a means of expressing the devil-may-care nature of the love affair between the two leads. The Nouvelle Vague as a whole was a breathtaking breath of fresh air, anyway, and Godard was its most innovative and original artist; ‘Pierrot le Fou’ has the same exhilarating rush of a Pop Art comic strip panel by Roy Lichtenstein or the opening chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, and as a romantic movie it brilliantly evokes the joyous madness inherent in love during its first stages in a way that few films do.

On paper, the story itself could have been filmed in a relatively conventional, linear fashion and would probably have made sense to an audience raised on less imaginative fare; but, as with Frank Carson, it was the way Godard told ‘em back then that enables it to convey a mood and a feeling with unique accuracy familiar to anyone who’s been there. Long before I got there, the film made a massive impact on me when I first saw it around 30 years ago and proved that romance wasn’t reserved for the soppy and the sappy; cinema could actually show love as crazy as it really can be, and whilst the film may be as much an example of artifice as a Doris Day musical, ‘Pierrot le Fou’ nonetheless offers a fresh take on the fantasy that is irresistible. Also, the fantasy is balanced by the eventual revelation that Marianne has been cruelly using Pierrot to aid her actual, criminal boyfriend in getting back at his rivals; this gate-crashing of crushing reality exposes the short shelf-life of such ‘too-good-to-be-true’ passion, a telling move more realistic than simply having the pair riding off into the romantic sunset.

The Nouvelle Vague was initially celebrated for its injection of realism into film, dispensing with the archaic, time-consuming methods Hollywood took to light its pictures in order to make the old actresses look beautiful. Francois Truffaut was renowned for taking his camera onto the street and hiring non-actors to create a groundbreaking aesthetic that proved hugely influential in the early 60s, especially on British ‘kitchen sink’ cinema. Jean-Luc Godard was responsible for bringing a touch of the surreal to the mix, and ‘Pierrot le Fou’ is perhaps the crowning achievement of his early career. It gives two adventurous actors permission to spread their wings and it gives the viewer permission to dream an alternative dream. As I said, there’s nothing wrong with fairy tales.

© The Editor

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A LIGHT-BULB MOMENT

CallanI was surprised to realise the other day that the box-set currently curtailing my viewing for the evening is one I haven’t actually written about before; I thought I’d covered every archive series on the Telegram, especially those that have been viewed more than once. However, it occurred to me that I’d never penned a post about that most superlative – and, it has to be said, cynical – spy series, ‘Callan’. It’s one I revisit every couple of years, I guess, for ‘Callan’ has a habit of routinely drawing me back. I’ve sometimes wondered why such programmes can do that when I pretty much remember where each episode’s storyline is going within five minutes of sitting down to watch; with the element of surprise absent, I’ve realised it’s the characters – and ‘Callan’ has an abundance of real characters that you can’t help yearning to spend more time in the company of. It really is one of those shows that seem to grow richer whenever I return to it. I won’t use fine wine as an obvious analogy, but…oops, too late. Its vintage spans just the five years (1967-72), and even with frustrating gaps in the monochrome era preventing the viewer from seeing the series in its entirety, there is still plenty to be getting on with in 34 surviving episodes.

Just as ‘The Sweeney’ was spun off from ‘Regan’ the TV movie, ‘Callan’ first saw the light of day as an entry in ABC TV’s ‘Armchair Theatre’. The instant potential for a series is evident in that de facto pilot (which happily survives) as we are introduced to a spy and an espionage landscape as far removed from the glamour of 007 as only John Le Carré had ever previously explored. Played with brooding brilliance by Edward Woodward, David Callan works for ‘The Section’, a shady branch of the secret service that appears to specialise in all the dirtiest jobs the State doesn’t like to think about. This is the Cold War’s grubby, sordid frontline – a place where everything from blackmail to assassination can be utilised to eliminate the enemy – and Callan is its most reluctantly effective hit-man. Callan knows he’s the best, but it’s not something he’s remotely proud of; if anything, the job has left him riddled with self-loathing; every time he takes a life, he marks the act with weary resignation rather than satisfaction, for Callan knows the moment he pulls the trigger he’s morally inferior to the man who failed to pull the trigger on him.

Perhaps befitting a series of its era, class consciousness is a recurrent factor when it comes to the title character; Callan’s background is clearly working-class, whilst his ultimate superior (who goes by the title ‘Hunter’) is old-school public school. This helps exacerbate tension as Callan’s vociferous tirades against the unemotional suits issuing death sentences from behind a desk suggests he almost sees them as WWI generals sending Tommy over the top. It doesn’t help that Callan’s most regularly seen fellow agent is another product of privilege – the arrogant, upper-class Toby Meres (an unforgettable performance by Anthony Valentine). Meres evidently enjoys his job as much as Callan loathes it and the two rub each other up the wrong way in the best possible way for the viewer. Whereas so many aspects of The Section make Callan despair of human nature, Meres isn’t exactly plagued by a conscience; he’s not even troubled by the methods employed by the department’s resident psychological sadist, the sinister Dr Snell, whose basement torture chamber is the destination of all captured enemy agents if they manage to be taken alive.

Rarely has the work of the intelligence services been portrayed with such bleak brutality as in ‘Callan’. The Section isn’t presented as remotely heroic, though Callan himself emerges as a heroic figure if only because the viewer empathises with his simmering disdain for, and seething revulsion at, the world he finds himself in – the sole character in The Section to react this way. His only respite comes via his unlikely hobby of model soldiers and the war-games he engages in with them; he also finds strange solace in the smelly company of the habitual criminal known only as Lonely (Russell Hunter), whose own specialist talents often prove useful for The Section, even if Callan’s superiors strongly disapprove. Although on the surface Callan appears to have as much affection for Lonely as Basil Fawlty has for Manuel, there’s an undeniable bond between the two men that is actually quite touching. Perhaps Callan sees in Lonely’s criminality an honesty missing from the far worse criminal acts carried out with perfect legality by The Section and by himself. Lonely is an unpretentious petty crook, pure and simple, not a cold-blooded killer masquerading as a gentleman. Callan certainly has no comparable relationship with any work colleague, most of whom are as untroubled by the job as Toby Meres.

In the first colour series of ‘Callan’ (1970), Meres is absent and his place is taken by the younger and even more arrogant James Cross, played by a sublimely swaggering Patrick Mower. Callan returns to the fold following a spell of convalescence after being brainwashed into shooting dead the third man to sit in Hunter’s chair, and Cross is visibly miffed at his return; throughout their time together, Cross is attempting to establish himself as The Section’s top man and is incurably jealous of Callan’s status. However, Cross is unexpectedly killed off midway through the fourth series, an event which Patrick Mower once recalled led to ‘Cross Lives!’ being scrawled on the bonnet of his car the day after the episode originally aired in 1972. This incident takes place during a brief period in which Callan himself is promoted to Hunter, though sitting behind a desk is not Callan’s natural place and he soon finds himself back out in the field of Cold War conflict.

‘Callan’ ends on a high, if somewhat ambiguous, note with a superb trilogy of episodes featuring the pursuit of a KGB agent code-named Richmond (played with urbane ruthlessness by T.P. McKenna); each man recognises himself in the other and Callan goes against orders by adhering to Richmond’s desperate plea to kill him rather than take him alive. The climax of the series implies Callan will no longer be employed by The Section as a consequence of his actions, though Callan himself knows all-too well that nobody employed by The Section is ever really allowed to leave it. A rare episode in which Hunter’s beautiful secretary Liz takes centre stage by going AWOL underlines the dangers of one individual carrying around so much top secret information in their head; Hunter’s immediate response when Liz fails to show up for work is to put The Section on red alert, so terrified is he of her falling into enemy hands and being emptied of every sensitive detail.

The chillingly clinical approach to the sanctity of life prevalent throughout The Section is a necessity of the job, but by placing a human being like Callan in that world we the audience can identify with his humanity and be as appalled by the lack of it around him as Callan himself is. It’s a clever way of giving the viewer a stake in the series, though we are able to enjoy Meres’ posh-boy thuggery and Lonely’s seedy body odour in a way that Callan can’t, revelling in the wonderful characterisations, peerless performances, memorable dialogue and exceptional storytelling. Coming back to ‘Callan’ again has made me feel that television’s 50-year progression from studio-based series shot on videotape to filmed series shot on location has somehow resulted in the revival of the more melodramatic tropes that ‘Callan’ provided such a sobering antidote to, making ‘Callan’ itself oddly feel even more realistic half-a-century on than many an equivalent series today. More screen time is given over to the development of the characters into well-rounded, believable people than to the shoot-outs, and the viewer is the beneficiary. Add that swinging light-bulb and haunting, reverb-drenched theme tune and you’re left with one of the true jewels in British TV’s crown.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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