Stop Making Sense (1984, dir. Jonathan Demme)

Home – is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there
I come home she lifted up her wings
I Guess that this must be the place
I can’t tell one from the other
Did I find you, or you find me?
There was a time Before we were born
If someone asks, this is where I’ll be . . . where I’ll be

There have been some great concert films over time; The Last Waltz that  followed the last ever show from The Band, Gimme Shelter that documented the tragic events of The Rolling Stones free concert at Altamont and the empowering Wattstax that covered the 1972 Stax concert in Watts (that features some excellent performances and also THAT Jesse Jackson speech). More often than not, these films would be time capsules for an important event in musical or history as a whole (with music being a tie in) that add some form of context to the film.

Despite lacking in historical significance or even a documenting a monumental gig (like LCD Soundsystem’s “Shut Up and Play the Hits” did for their last ever show), Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense” is without a doubt, the greatest Rock concert film ever made, even if (and lord knows why) you’re not a fan of Talking Heads.

The format and concept of the film is a thing of beauty. The show begins with lead singer David Byrne taking to a stark stage with a guitar and a cassette tape playing a click drum. As the show progresses and as each song passes, the show starts to come together; the rest of the band and backing band take the stage individually and the set is put together over time. It’s stunning to see these developments take place in front of your eyes as we’re accustom to an entire band taking to a stage together. Instead, we’re getting a progression and further layers of sound added over time.

Stop Making Sense is presented very much as a film. The footage is incredibly crisp and the choice of shots more focused on creating an enjoyable watch than you would expect. Take David Byrne’s freak-out near the end of “Psycho Killer” as it looks like stock footage from a film as opposed to something occurring in the middle of a live performance. Credit for that has to go to Demme and his quality of direction, something missing from the majority of concert films released.

What’s equally as interesting is the lack of crowd noise. Unlike many live recordings or concert films, there is very little audible crowd noise. Interestingly, it was David Byrne’s decision to mute the crowd noise as much as possible to allow the viewer/listener to make their own judgements on the performance and not to be swayed by the applause of a live crowd. Tied in with this is the severe lack of crowd shots of any kind with the cameras facing the band face on. Still, in place of relentless crowd shots, you get amazing close ups on the backing band at points, my favourite being the emphasis on the backing vocalists during “Slippery People” as they appear to be having the most amount of fun possible.

As innovative and visually stunning as the film is, what essentially matters is the music. Whilst not my favourite Talking Heads live performance (their other live compilation “The Name of this Band is Talking Heads” which is an absolute must have if you dig the band), the choice of mostly hit singles and a joyous appearance from Talking Heads side-project Tom Tom Club make it a really easy watch or listen. Even the songs you are less familiar with are still great, mainly due to the tremendous backing band, visuals and Byrne wearing a humongous suit at some point.

You also get a healthy dose of jamming and deviation from the original version of the songs performed. One of my absolute pet peeves of live music is hearing the song exactly as it was performed on record as it feels like it was a waste of money hearing a song you enjoyed performed just as you heard it. The band’s best remembered song “Once in a Lifetime” is far more enjoyable in this film with the backing vocals and wavy synths throughout. Another example is the outtake from the original film of “Big Business” and “I Zimbra” which are way more free-flowing live and way more experimental than the original recordings.

It’s thirty years old this summer and honestly, nothing has come quite close to it. Stop Making Sense is still the greatest Rock concert movie ever made and it will be some time before another film comes close.

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The concept of a close up shot music video isn’t anything new.

One of the more famous examples of a close up take video is Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” which could arguably be one of the more famous videos of all time. In that video, the shot everyone remembers is when O’Connor sings a line that alludes her troubled relationship with her mother (trivia note: it was a slight change from Prince’s original version) and a single tear rolls down from her eye to her cheek. Whatever your opinions on O’Connor are, it’s still a powerful image born out of simplicity and emotion. It’s an often parodied and replicated shot.

Whilst Miley Cyrus’ video for “Wrecking Ball” replicated the O’Connor video (interspersed with Cyrus looking like a spectacular goof naked on a fucking wrecking ball), the intensity and humanising aspects of the video were pretty much lost. Probably a better example of how to use the close up shot effectively in this day and age can be found in the video for Janelle Monae’s “Cold War”.

For the uninitiated, Janelle Monae is a unique musician who seems to have inherited the dancing ability and stage presence of James Brown. She’s a rarity in modern music; a female musician who wholly rejects sexualisation and who has a clear desire to be respected as a musician above all else. She stepped into prominence with “The ArchAndroid” which was a concept album about an android who falls in love with a human in a futuristic world. It’s an album that knows no boundaries when it comes to genre; one minute it’s soul, the next it’s classical then it’s full blown 60s psychedelia. Her live performances are also genuinely worth going out of your way to see, too.

“Cold War” was one of the highlights from that veritable feast of an album as it featured pure musical jubilation and some incredibly thought-provoking lyrics. The drum pattern has a real “B.O.B” feel to it which makes it and meshes well with Monae’s powerful performance.

Shot in one take, the video is an intimate experience. We follow Monae on an up-close and emotional performance. We see her singing in jubilation, grimacing, laughing before eventually becoming overcome with emotion. The moment when she begins to break down and cry is startling to behold due to the sense of realism it holds. It’s seemingly out of nowhere and is one of those rare instances where you see a musician show raw human emotion in a video. Whilst O’Connor had two tears roll down her face, she continued to sing; Monae stops and momentarily struggles to regain her compose.

“I remember crying during ‘Cold War’ [on the] first take. I didn’t know how that happened but it just did. I was very moved by that. It was really a special moment; then everybody else started to cry.”

 

The emotion on show and the one take video make Cold War. for my money at least, one of the superior close up shot videos. It may not have the ‘iconic’ image from O’Connor’s or the so-called sex appeal from Cyrus’ but it certainly strikes more of a nerve with you. It’s also a great and memorable introduction to one of the more brilliant and ingenious performers of this generation.

One the flip side, there’s the joyous and equally as eye-catching video for the other tremendous single from The ArchAndroid for “Tightrope”. I genuinely hope this fashion sense and dancing style makes a rapid return. I challenge you to not smile at least once when watching it.

A part of me would like to remember listening to Daft Punk’s debut album “Homework” when it first came out in 1997, but deep down I know that that did not happen for many years to come. Looking back on the album and time in which it came out, it can in some ways be considered one of the more influential Electronic albums of all time and the album that really sparked interest in the developing French House scene of the late 90s/early 2000s. However, all of that would’ve eluded me at that point in time as I was probably more interested in the Backstreet Boys and other such dross to pay attention.

What did grab me however was the entrancing video for probably the most famous song from the album “Around the World” that was directed by excellent music video and film (when he wants to be good) directer Michel Gondry. Featuring several groups of characters moving in cyclical motions and nothing more, the video was oddly engrossing to a 7/8 year old version of myself. If my gin-soaked memory serves me well, I believe the first time I saw it was on the long defunct Saturday kid’s TV programme “Live & Kicking” when I was in the twilight of my life. What appealed to me was the absolutely simplicity on the face of what the video is; people moving ‘around the world’ dressed in various costumes.

What I failed to notice at 7 years old was what each group of people represented a different aspect of the song itself. One group will represent the bassline, another the drum pattern, another will only move when the high pitched synth is heard and another will only move when the vocals are playing. It makes the hypnotic nature of the video itself even more engrossing and ingenious and really speaks to the ability of Gondry as a music video director.

From a more technical standpoint, the intrinsic choreography required to make the video a success is stunning to comprehend. The intricacies entailed to make it succeed were something that Gondry strove for, as he had found that choreography was a mistreated factor and utilised as filler in music videos at the time it was released. He and his crew succeeded in making an incredibly influential video that simply used organised dance in a unique fashion.

Daft Punk would have many more great videos that would feature Anthropomorphic Canines, Manga space cartoons and of course, robots. They’ve also now become the renaissance men of 70s Funk music, jamming with Pharrell and Nile Rodgers in glittery outfits . Whilst the music is still great and the videos enjoyable, I’m still mesmerised by this wonder.

I woke up this morning and found out that legendary Soul singer Bobby Womack had died aged 70. I knew Womack had several health issues over recent years (colon cancer, alzheimer’s and diabetes) but the news still came as a bit of a shock. The main reason for that was the sudden resurgence that his career had over the past 4 years or so.

Like most people, I knew of Bobby Womack from his excellent song “Across 110th Street”. Combining some brilliant string arrangements, sublime soul guitar riffs and oddly hard hitting lyrics about the troubles that could be found in ghetto life, it’s a song worthy of the praise it receives. Above all of that was Womack’s voice, especially the crooning “woo” that he does at the start of the song. The song was actually a part of Womack’s score for a Blaxploitation film the song takes it name from and has also become a popular choice for other films looking to capture the spirit of Blaxploitation.

Along with 110th Street, he’s also known for probably having one of the best covers of Mama’s and Papa’s classic “California Dreamin”. Coincidently, I think the first time I came across it was when I watched the utterly bleak “Fish Tank” a few years ago. He performed an incredibly sparse version on Jools Holland a few years ago that’s worthy of your attention.

His return to music over the past 4 years was remarkable. He had grown older and his voice was a little gruffer, but he hadn’t lost his soul spirit and ferocity. He provided vocals on the Gorillaz songs “Stylo” and “Cloud of Unknowing” from their guest heavy album “Plastic Beach”. His live performances with the band on the tour were some of the highlights as he put so much passion behind his parts. The fact he was such an established and well regarded musician singing his heart out put some of the other guests to shame.

He signed with XL Records and released “The Bravest Man in the Universe” in 2012, his first album of new material in 18 years. The album features Womack’s gruff and world weary voice combined with more contemporary instrumentals and production, much akin to the Gil Scott-Heron album “I’m New Here”. Unlike many of his contemporaries of his time, Bobby Womack strove to remain relevant and didn’t become a pastiche of Soul music, doing the occasional greatest hits tour. He moved with the times and had interesting new music to offer to the masses.

 

Bobby Womack 

1944 – 2014

There is something to be said about having a great music video for a song. Especially evident when MTV was more prominent and today where YouTube is an everyday task for some, a creative or engrossing music video creates a buzz around a song or musician and it can become something that everybody talks about for a period of time. An example of this is the video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” that was a television event (like a lot of Jackson’s big budget videos) and essentially is more iconic than the song itself. Even in the modern day, Miley Cyrus’ video for “Wrecking Ball” was more (in)famous than the song which for the life of me I cannot recollect. 

This series will look at some of the more intriguing and interest music videos that have been released over the years. It’ll be a mix of really well known ones and others that are less mainstream and a little more left field. 

Metallica – One

From one of the band’s best and more experimental albums “…And Justice For All“, One is a particularly bleak song that’s lyrics are directly inspired by Dalton Trumbo anti-war novel “Johnny Got His Gun“. It’s one of my personal favourite Metallica songs due to the absolutely ferocity of Lars’ drumming and the fact that, lyrically, it’s probably one of the stronger songs they’ve written.

To accompany the song, the music video uses a slew of scenes from the film version of Trumbo’s novel and effectively tells the story of the novel within 7 minutes. The film scenes add an even more disturbing and unsettling feeling to an already downbeat song, especially with Johnny’s monologue playing throughout. The ending with Johnny finally coming to terms with his fate and weakly repeating the line “S.O.S. Help. Me” is difficult to forget.

Metallica had a few other really good videos, in particular the nightmarish video for “Enter Sandman” which may be a little more of an iconic and broader televised Metallica music video. In my opinion, their best video was their first and most haunting.

 

There is a belief within pop music that once you get a hit record that you will have a window of opportunity to capitalise on your popularity successfully. To make a significant mark on the charts, you need to make that second attempt within an allocated slot and unfortunately, a large demographic of groups either miss it or come back with meek songs. The Klaxons returned 3 years after their debut with an album of songs people weren’t enamoured with. Pendulum waited 3 years to provide a limp follow-up to “Hold Your Colour” that nobody seemed to enjoy. It also took My Bloody Valentine around 22 years to release their next album after the classic and unheralded “Loveless” which was out in 1991.

Following the initial fanfare of their original album and that remix of their hit single ‘In For the Kill’ by Skream, it has taken La Roux 5 years to reappear with new music and unlike many others, it seems to have been worth the wait. “Let Me Down Gently” has sophisticated sound and the production on their songs has really improved. It’s a little more downtempo than say “Bulletproof” but maintains that weird 80s synthpop gloss with a more slick and modernised feel. Instead of speeding up their fall from grace as it has for so many groups, the break away from the limelight seems to have only aided La Roux into finding a new, interesting sound.

I never thought I would say this, but I am bloody excited for the new La Roux album at some point this year.

 

 

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, dir. Mel Stuart)

Not a speck of light is showing so the danger must be growing… Are the fires of Hell a-glowing? Is the grisly Reaper mowing? Yes! The danger must be growing cause the rowers keep on rowing and they’re certainly not showing any sign that they are slowing!

I racked my brain all day today attempting to work out what a quintessential Easter film would be. Christmas has several (It’s a Wonderful Life, SEVERAL variations of A Christmas Carol, Trading Places, White Christmas etc) but there’s not a whole load of films that you would somewhat associate with the Easter holidays. On a purely non-religious point of view and more from a decadent standpoint, maybe the perfect film for this weekend would be the original 1971 version of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. It’s a film absolutely ingrained in my mind and one that I could probably watch every week if it was on.

Apart from being clearly shot in a post-war Germany and featuring several counts of murder (Wonka is not held accountable for several child deaths at any point in the film) , the film is a dreamlike adventure inviting audiences into a world where water is chocolate and gummy bears grow on trees. As the film progresses it becomes increasingly more insane but never loses it’s sense of fun. It also has a huge degree of charm with the massively likable Charlie as our protagonist, a kid so poor that a chocolate bar is a perfectly acceptable birthday present.

 

 

It’s easy to therefore say that the film is almost perfect for the family audience it’s aiming for.  Well, that is almost correct. This famous scene on Wonka’s boat is the anomaly within this fun romp. It’s utterly out of place and yet, that kind of works for some weird reason. Suddenly, the film takes a weird psychedelic detour with strange/disturbing imagery as Wonka yells directly into the camera. It’s mad. Completely and utterly mad. It’s menacing and wouldn’t be out of place in a late 60s/early 70s film with a strong emphasis on LSD or other such psychedelics.

 

BONUS: Because it’s Easter, the season of chocolate (specifically for non-Christians anyway), my favourite song in the film. To this day, the factory really does retain it’s magic.