Friday, 25 February 2011

Just desserts: Blancmange's return

Having recently posted on Claudia Brücken's Combined, Amazon's mindreaders have sent me an email suggesting I might like to buy the compilation (this has happened with a few records, books and films I've mentioned here). Usefully, the message also alerts me to the first new product from Blancmange for 26 (!) years: Blanc Burn, out 7 March. Middlesex duo Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe are best known for 1982 hit Living on the Ceiling, a joyous mélange of nonsense lyrics and tabla beats, the latter courtesy of maestro Pandit Dinesh.

Over three albums, anarchical numbers like God's Kitchen, All Things Are Nice and Blind Vision tended to be tempered by such tracks as Time Became the Tide and Waves, a target for bossa babes Nouvelle Vague. On 1984's Mange Tout, a beautiful cover of Abba's The Day Before You Came lies alongside bittersweet See the Train, the a cappella tale of a man seeing off his lover on a train that promptly crashes ('People scream and see the fire... Now I know you won't be back').

Neil Arthur produced catchy album Suitcase in 1994, which leaps from bouncy surrealism to slightly wearying ambience and, I think, scored film and TV work, while Luscombe soundtracked a ballet for Canadian company La La La Human Steps with Dinesh and others - including Asha Bhosle - as the West India Company in 1989. Now they're back back back!

British dance innovators The Grid returned to the scene in 2008 with Dopplegänger, having quit after 1995's awful Music for Dancing. While the tunes aren't what they were, Richard Norris and David Ball still conjure a hefty sound that surprises me every time an album track pops up on my iPod. Blanc Burn's final title, Starfucker, has me slightly worried but I wonder what a hiatus of more than a quarter of a century has produced.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Jeff Daniels, underrated Hollywood star

I'm not entirely sure how you would characterise actor Jeff Daniels' early film career: he was the putz in Something Wild (1986), director Jonathan Demme's shoo-in for Griffin Dunne in After Hours, Martin Scorsese's yuppy horror flick from the previous year. Daniels played to type again in Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990), alongside Winona Ryder, but was good enough to be picked up by Woody Allen for Radio Days (1987).

McCarthy-based thriller The House on Carroll Street (1989), with Kelly McGillis, gave way to a taste for the whimsical, in Arachnophobia (1990). His best-known work came in 1994: as Keanu Reeves's police colleague in Speed and as Jim Carrey's sidekick in Dumb & Dumber. He was the likeable everyman, once more, in Pleasantville (1998), and the live-action version of 101 Dalmatians (1996), but a sense of more thoughtful depth came with Michael Cunningham adaptation The Hours (2002), as a gay friend of the leads.

Perhaps Daniels' best work comes with a beard: he bore formidable face-wear once more as the ineffectual father in Noah Baumbach's autobiographical The Squid and the Whale (2005). (There's a great quote of his on IMDb about shooting the film's sex scenes with Anna Paquin, who played his daughter in goose-laden family drama Fly Away Home nine years before: 'We tried not to think about... you know, geese.') He averages at least a couple of features a year, including Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) - his latest, Howl, opens tomorrow. Let's hope he's sporting the beard.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Three essential '80s albums

Three albums fans of 1980s synth pop should own:

1. Penthouse and Pavement, Heaven 17 (1981)
Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh split with fellow Human Leaguer Philip Oakey following albums Reproduction (1979) and Travelogue (1980) and formed Heaven 17 - named after a band in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange - with friend Glenn Gregory. The trio's first album was pitched as a corporate takeover (see cover), the music a high-tempo, soul-funk synth mix, headed up by opener (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang ('Reagan's president elect... we don't need no fascist groove thing'); other highlights include Geisha Boys and Temple Girls, Let's All Make a Bomb and The Height of the Fighting. Heaven 17's biggest hit, Temptation, came from follow-up album The Luxury Gap (1983), though things declined after How Men Are (1984).
Bonus curio: check out Being Boiled (the Human League, 1978)

2. Upstairs at Eric's, Yazoo (1982)
Pop Mozart Vince Clark had already concocted some of Depeche Mode's finest moments, including Just Can't Get Enough, when he teamed up with Alison Moyet for Yazoo, forging singles Don't Go, Situation and Only You. The album's quieter, bluesy numbers - Midnight, In My Room, Tuesday, Winter Kills - are haunting declarations of defiance. The duo's unique collaboration ended after a second album, You and Me Both (1983), with Clarke going onto, first, The Assembly and then Erasure, and Moyet ploughing a solo furrow, unfortunately largely ditching the memorable contrast between her gutsy vocals and synth sounds, much as The Blue Nile did for their third album, Peace at Last (1996).
Bonus curio: I Before E Except After C (In Your Room boxset, 2008)

3. Cupid & Psyche 85, Scritti Politti (1985)
Emerging from the punk scene, Green Gartside was the possessor of Britain's best male white soul voice after The Associates' Billy Mackenzie, who I'll no doubt write about at some point. Over a series of albums, Gartside imbued his lyrics with an unprecedented level of sophistication, notably of a philosophical bent, from Jacques Derrida (on debut album Songs to Remember, 1982: 'I'm in love with Jacques Derrida/ Read a page and know what I need to/ Take apart my baby's heart'), through The Word Girl (Cupid & Psyche 85: 'I got a reason girl, was Immanuel Kant's') to Philosophy Now (Provision, 1988: 'I don't want apothecary girl'). Gartside's high-pitched vocals mixed with a reggae beat and those big drums sounds favoured in the 1980s; by 1999 he was collaborating with hip-hop stars for Anomie & Bonhomie and then he went all folky for homebrewed White Bread Black Beer (2006). Greatest hits compilation Absolute is due out Monday.
Bonus curio: She's a Woman, with Shabba Ranks (produced by Heaven 17's side project BEF, 1991)

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Sugar's sour taste

Before dawn on Thursday, five sleeping people were shot dead by police in Bahrain. In the previous days, two people protesting against the kingdom's government had been killed by police. Following their deaths groups of people organised to come out to the Pearl roundabout (pictured) in Manama, Bahrain's capital. The area had been designated their equivalent of Tahrir Square in Cairo; many people in Bahrain have been inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

That lunchtime, Britain's Lord Sugar Tweeted that he 'got stick from ppl when I said hope Egypt crisis does not repeat in other countries. My reason was wrong people do it for wrong reasons.' On a morning when five sleeping people had been shot dead by police in Bahrain this seemed inappropriate but I first asked Lord Sugar for clarification as to whom he meant by the 'wrong people'. I was surprised to receive a response, especially when it was cloaked in suspicion and abuse; I tried to explain my motives but he refused to reengage and has continued to do so.

There are questions here about Twitter, which is supposed to encourage democratic debate, fine when people agree with you but all too easy to ignore otherwise. I think it's pretty disgusting for a lord to abuse someone entirely unprovoked on a forum where he has such a huge following. (His problem seemed to be that I was a member of the press but, if that was the case, his self-confessed ignorance was already expressed for all to see.)

There's the suspicion he was out of his depth: he moved the Twitter debate onto Spurs' midweek slaughter of AC Milan, although he got his facts wrong, as he more readily admitted. Bahrain is a hugely complicated issue: there are generations of resentment against the minority Sunni rulers coupled with the corruption that is endemic in the Arab world, alongside many other issues I'm sure I wouldn't even pretend to understand, but this is nothing to the Western view of which Lord Sugar is emblematic.

An overwhelming Shia population may be unrepresented but this is unimportant when people elsewhere, who know even less than I pretend to but wield incredible power, are more worried about British sales to the kingdom we established (including sales of armaments that may have been used in killing innocent civilians this week), the position of America's Fifth Fleet and, of course, the Iranian bogeyman.

It's devastating to think that a high-profile member of the opposition should have so little consideration, knowledge and inclination to investigate these arguments that he happily admits: 'Not quite sure what is all about.' It's a shame he can't engage in a discussion that may help him learn something, unless he inappropriately sees this as entertainment (he dismissed one dissenter as 'cretin scum', the vilest street abuse; he blocks most, in a Twitter rewrite of his 'You're fired' catchphrase).

We're left with the common cavil: the West encourages democracy around the world but as soon as it becomes clear what the results may be, it's a different matter. Lord (in all his forms) help us if Sugar ever receives any form of overseas brief.

Friday, 18 February 2011

An open letter to Lord Sugar

Dear Lord Sugar

On 17 Feb you posted the following Tweet: 'I got stick from ppl when I said hope Egypt crisis does not repeat in other countries. My reason was wrong people do it for wrong reasons.' I replied by asking you, extremely politely, to clarify your statement. In response, you appeared to jump to conclusions and, in front of your 342,666 followers, abused me.

I tried to explain that I was genuinely interested in your thoughts but you refused to reply (all of this is on my timeline). Twitter is a public forum, not entirely intended to promote The Apprentice, Amscreen or your rivalry with @piersmorgan. Having been a lifelong supporter of the institution of the House of Lords for its reasoned perspective and a recent Labour supporter, I no longer count myself either as, on my single encounter with a Labour representative of the Lords, I was met with your unreasoned abuse. Any reply would be welcome on the forum where you refused to engage with me @jonas_milk

Diva delight

On Monday evening, the Ritzy in Brixton screens Jean-Jacques Beineix's debut feature Diva (1981). It's based on the first of a series of freewheeling books by Swiss author Daniel Odier, written under the pseudonym Delacorta, about a smooth criminal called Serge Gorodish who hooks up with an underage nymphette, Alba. Together, they help out a young, opera-obsessed postman who becomes entangled in a plot to secure a rare recording of a soprano, Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez in the film. Her delivery of an aria from opera La Wally is one of the film's highlights.

Rather like the upcoming, reverential adaptation of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, Beineix's approach to this cartoonish paedo thriller is more in keeping with the Zenlike calm of lead Gorodish, played by Richard Bohringer, surely the man with the coolest voice in French cinema. Feted and excoriated in equal measure as a progenitor of the so-called 'cinéma du look', Beineix achieved his best work two years later with Gérard Depardieu and Nastassja Kinski in Moon in the Gutter, adapted from a work by David Goodis.

Beineix went on to direct Betty Blue in 1986, starring Béatrice Dalle and based on a novel by Philippe Djian, but appeared to lose the plot with, first, Roselyne et les lions (1989), starring a pneumatic Isabelle Pasco, and IP5 (1992), during the filming of which star Yves Montand died. The rigours of the shoot were blamed by some; whatever the truth, later scenes in which the corpse of his character is driven around the French countryside make for uncomfortable viewing.

UPDATE Diva also screens as a Future Cinema event at the ENO on 28 February.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Tubeway Army: the best of Gary Numan

Fans of British electropioneer Gary Numan routinely point to Numan's 1980 Telekon album, which features tracks We Are Glass, I Die: You Die and Remind Me to Smile, as their favourite - Trent Reznor is said to have listened to it every day during the recording of Pretty Hate Machine. Another popular choice is The Pleasure Principle (1979) - it produced Cars, his biggest hit, and M.E., the backing to Basement Jaxx's Where's Your Head At?

Then there are the proceeding albums, from jazz-inflected Dance (1981) to 1984's bleak Berserker, when he dyed his hair blue and covered his face in white make-up. However, my favourite work of Numan's must be the three albums he made as Tubeway Army.

In the late 1970s, Gary Numan, né Webb, was determined to crack the music scene: with his uncle Jess on drums and bass player Paul Gardiner, the trio recorded an album of overtly punk material that secured them a record deal with the Beggars Banquet label. Singles That's Too Bad and Bombers give some idea of Numan's nascent songwriting skill, while other numbers were later released as The Plan, in 1984. (Crime of Passion is an odd inclusion, with its repeated close: 'If you were the only girl in the world and I was the only boy.')

Several tracks, including My Shadow in Vain, Something's in the House and Steel and You were reworked for the trio's eponymous first album proper in 1978. The story goes that Numan found a Minimoog in the studio where they were recording and decided to fiddle around with it, chancing upon the synth sound that would carry him through an incredibly prolific period musically. (For context, David Bowie had just released his Berlin albums, Low and Heroes, while Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine came out in the same year.)

Tubeway Army formed a showcase for Numan's sci-fi obsession: Listen to the Sirens takes its opening line from the title of Philip K Dick's Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, while William S Burroughs' influence is tangible throughout. Jo the Waiter features junkies and overt lyrics ('Jo the waiter held me close, behind the door marked gentlemen') while Every Day I Die is a paean to masturbation ('I unstick pages and read').

Numan developed the sci-fi theme for Replicas (1979), on which he honed his synth sound and, erm, distinctive vocals. At school, we used to pore over the record sleeve, with its black strip in the eye on the back cover (pictured). The album was inspired by ideas Numan had for a novel he intended to write, captured in song titles The Machman, Praying to the Aliens and I Nearly Married a Human.

It gave rise to some of his best-known tracks: Me! I Disconnect from You, Down in the Park (referenced on the cover, pictured top) and Are 'Friends' Electric?, which formed the basis for Sugababes' mash-up Freak Like Me. (A couple of stand-out numbers only appeared later: We Have a Technical and Do You Need the Service? Great fun, it's a song I link with another oddity, Stormtrooper in Drag, remarkably covered by St Etienne.)

Numan went on further to explore alienation in his lyrics, notably for Cars, something he attributes in part to suffering from a mild form of Asperger's. As the 1980s progressed and into the '90s, poor songwriting was coupled with a lack of commercial success for the artist. Once mocked, he seems to have been diverted from his own vision to making music to please his new, largely industrial, fanbase, on such albums as Exile (1997) and Pure (2000).

Related: in praise of Thomas Dolby's The Golden Age of Wireless.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

ZTT's five most important acts

1. The Art of Noise
There's something of a reappraisal afoot of ZTT's most central act, from pretentious provacateurs to truly innovative pop act. The label's backbone of producer Trevor Horn and propagandist Paul Morley was joined by arranger Anne Dudley, engineer Gary Langan and producer JJ Jeczalik to create an unorthodox sampled sound, reminiscent of Horn's quote reused as a Pet Shop Boys lyric, 'Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat'. Single Close (To the Edit), from 1984, is the archetype of their blend of English pastoral and violent cut up ('To be in England in the summertime with my love' set to the sound of a car starting).

2. Propaganda
Morley described this Düsseldorf quartet's second single, Duel as 'Abba in heaven', its flipside, Jewel, 'Abba in hell'. Propaganda were pretty much the perfect pop group, bequeathing us one album before going up in flames. A Secret Wish (1985) was Fritz Lang via Colin Wilson and featured additional talents David Sylvian and Glenn Gregory, marshalled by Stephen Lipson, presumably within earshot of Horn. Band member Michael Mertens continued under the name with vocalist Betsi Miller and Simple Minds' former rhythm section for a second album, while lead singer Claudia Brücken formed Act, also on ZTT.

3. Hoodlum Priest
ZTT head honcho Horn was said to have spat out his tea the first time he heard Derek Thompson's incendiary mix of industrial music and rap, served in a rich layer of sci-fi film samples. The sleeve to album The Heart of Darkness (1990) references photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, while track titles namecheck Rock Drill and Tyrell. It's dark, troublingly sexy and very subversive.

4. 808 State
Britain's most important dance act? The Manchester band's debut on ZTT, 808:90, is a classic; on the back of it, and single The Only Rhyme that Bites, the band launched a successful club tour. Follow-up Ex:El (1991) cemented their reputation, featuring guest appearances from Bernard Sumner and Björk, who was still in The Sugarcubes. Collaboration has followed collaboration, with appearances from James Dean Bradfield and Louise Rhodes.

5. Frankie Goes To Hollywood
By rights, FGTH should be the top of this list, but then I'd have to include Seal, Trevor Horn's protegé who's gone from one-time club superstar to MOR stalwart. Frankie provided many of ZTT's biggest moments, from the furore over Relax, through Two Tribes to Welcome to the Pleasuredome (all on the 1984 album of that name). Amid arguments over preferential treatment at the label and groupmembers' artistic involvement, the Liverpudlian band were packed off to conjure a second album. I have a soft spot for the pop bombast Warriors of the Wasteland, and connoisseurs enjoy Rage Hard (The Young Person's Guide to the 12" Mix), included on new compilation, The Art of the 12".

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Claudia Brücken back on ZTT

On an old Propaganda record sleeve, Zang Tuum Tumb label conspirator Paul Morley quoted Nietszche: 'Refashioning the fashioned is work of endless vitality.' As the principal populariser of the 12" remix, it could have stood as ZTT's in-house motto in the mid 1980s; since then it has seemingly served as justification for a stream of rereleases, reliving the record company's heyday.

ZTT have been raiding the vaults again, notably for a compilation of Propaganda frontwoman Claudia Brücken, Combined. It's a resonant title: apart from her work with Düsseldorf's second finest, she's best in collaboration - with Thomas Leer (as Act), Paul Humphreys (Onetwo), Martin Gore, Stephen Hague and John Uriel (I'll pass over the numbers with Andy Bell and Magnus Fiennes). Cheeky beggars that they are, for her duet with Glenn Gregory on When Your Heart Runs of Time (from the soundtrack to Nic Roeg's Insignificance), you'll have to buy ZTT's other new release, The Art of the 12".

Some other German women pop stars singing in English: Nico (Velvet Underground), Inga (Humpe & Humpe) and Billie Ray Martin (Electribe 101). Also note Datafreq's 2006 track, Claudia Brücken's Lips.

Monday, 7 February 2011

C drive

I wonder if someone could explain why the paperback edition of a book routinely comes out one year after the hardback. I realise publishing works by its own arcane schedule but surely in a time of digital delivery, books could follow films, for instance, which increasingly appear on DVD/ Bluray closer to their public opening (oftentimes a cinema release is little more than a shop window for the DVD, there to garner approving reviews and buyer recognition). Book-wise, take Tom McCarthy's excellent C, which came out last autumn and was Booker shortlisted; having built up a head of steam of critical acclaim, paperback buyers now have to wait until August for their copy (after most people have gone on holiday, too?).

C is a rich construction, starting with hints of John Updike, passing through the spas of mittel Europa to Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria. At its centre is Serge Carrefax, who moves briefly to Bloomsbury as a student: 'He stops off... for his breakfast, in a Turkish café on Lamb's Conduit Street: a syrupy, layered baklava... Sucking walnut pieces from the gaps between his teeth, he strolls through Russell Square Gardens, trying to work out the logic governing the fountains' spurting sequences... then skirts the stone lion-guarded rear wall of the British Museum and, finally (and always anticlockwise), follows the fence-rails round the closed garden in Bedford Square until their long ellipse deposits him a few yards from the Architectural Association's front door.'

As with the characters in Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, Soho is a fascination, particularly 'the web of streets that lurk within the triangle formed by Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road and the north edge of Leicester Square. He first stumbled across the area when he went to Mrs Fox's Café in Little Newport Street...'

The novel views history through a modern prism even clairvoyant: speaking of Egypt, one character notes: 'These are "interesting times," as the old Chinese curse would have it. There's… stuff happening in Egypt that I'd like to keep abreast of.' A book of codes and signals, Serge finds himself at the centre of a communication hub, increasingly confused by information and counter-information. In the war he became hooked on drugs to sharpen his eyesight as a spotter, now his hearing becomes blurred amid the hubbub of messages.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Actresses in the cities

I understand that the recent run in London of The Portuguese Nun (2009) was so successful the ICA is considering rebooking director Eugène Green's paean to Lisbon. The film unavoidably brings to mind Catalan José Luis Guerín's wondrous In the City of Sylvia (2007), set in Strasbourg. The latter movie is near dialogue-free, as opposed to its later counterpart's precisely delivered script, but both revel in their settings, and their beautiful stars: Leonor Baldaque (pictured) and Pilar López de Ayala, respectively.

It's reflexive filmmaking, especially marked by the apparently stiff performances Green evinces in his actors. Guerín's conception of cinema is evoked through what passes for action: his central character returns to the city where he met the beautiful Sylvie six years before; he sits in the café of the conservatoire, where she used to study; the lens follows his gaze as he sketches women in the café. Thinking he's spotted his prey he follows her on a chase around the city: Guérin doesn't simply play with our expectations, this is filmmaking as stalking, the camera a protagonist provoking what we're seeing.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Darren Aronofsky's parents terribles

The only sustained negative response to Darren Aronofsky's storming Black Swan has come from ballet practitioners, taken to screenings by journalists who thought this would be a ripping wheeze. It's a trick that could be applied to most movies: get a mountain climber to review 127 Hours, council-estate drug-dealers on Trainspotting or Princes Charles, William and Harry to hold forth on The King's Speech, as if all that matters in filmmaking is its veracity.

Dancers have been particularly vexed by Natalie Portman's shining performance as the lead, Nina, in Black Swan, though they give the impression of protesting too much. One group you wouldn't want to analyse Aronofsky's oeuvre too closely is parents, and certainly not mothers, who are routinely portrayed as mad-eyed bags of unrestrained neuroses.

Barbara Hershey, as Nina's mother in Black Swan, never rose beyond the corps de ballet, we're told, instead channeling her ambition through her daughter. She's domineering, emotionally manipulative and bent on infantilising her sweet-voiced child. In Requiem for a Dream (2000), Ellen Burstyn is the unhappy mother addicted to daytime TV who becomes hooked on a weight-loss drug that first inspires horrifying hallucinations and ultimately reduces her to human jelly.

The one redemptive figure is Marisa Tomei's stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold (pictured) in The Wrestler (2008) but here, again, parenthood doesn't get an easy ride. In the eponymous central role, Mickey Rourke - skin as taut as Hershey's in Aronofsky's latest - is a failed father to daughter Stephanie, who he repeatedly lets down and also still sees as a child. Clearly on the side of Philip Larkin parents-wise, Aronofsky would be a revelation at the helm if the world is forced to endure yet another Meet the Fockers spin-off: They Fock You Up.