Category Archives: music

Window to the soul: singers I would recommend you try

Not movie related but something a little bit different, taking one aspect of film we all take from granted, music, and looking at the greatest instrument of all, the human voice.

These are the singers who have touched my heart, made me smile, made me laugh, made me cry, made me horny, made me dance with the sheer joy of being alive, made my jaw drop with their sheer awesomeness.

Some have been with me my whole life, some I found late, some far too late, but they are all in their own way incredible and part of the fabric of my musical DNA.

I know I have forgotten some. But in the spirit of diversity I have tried to cover most decades since film began. I’d like to include more ladies. I’m sad about the short lives of many of those listed here.

Discuss, ignore, celebrate. Entirely up to you.

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B

C

D

E

F

G

H

J

K

L

M

N

O

P

Q

  • Philip Quast (1957- ). Definitive Javert. Play School Presenter in Oz. Amazing Eyes. Track of choice: Some Enchanted Evening youtu.be/4AgWWBcJ19c

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S

T

V

W

Y

 


Amadeus (National Theatre, Olivier)

This production of Peter Shaffer’s play came to a close last night, but returns to the National in 2018, so don’t despair if you missed out this time.

The Oscar-winning film, made in 1984, might be the version most people know of this play, but that was considerably opened out with some plot points changed.  F Murray Abraham gained a Best Actor win for his performance as Salieri, the Court Composer who wished to remain as immortal as his professional foe, the childish yet supremely gifted Mozart.  Mozart himself was played by Tom Hulce, who gave the role a considered amount of pathos alongside the hyper crudeness of the man.

I mention all this because I rate the film as one of my all-time favourites.  I have seen the play performed before, at the Theatre Royal York, fourteen years ago, with Malcolm Rennie as Salieri and Daniel Hart as Mozart, in a production directed by Tim Luscombe.  Looking back now, it seems the press didn’t think much of it, and it was presented very much as an intimate monologue by a man well aware of his own mediocrity.

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The National’s revival, directed by Michael Longhurst, is a large-scale production which uses the Olivier’s drum revolve as an orchestra pit, presents dance versions of Mozart’s greatest pieces, and suffers from an absolutely ghastly performance from Adam Gillen as the precocious composer who crashes about, pouting, posturing, gurning, and lisping, throughout.  Some may argue this is the part ‘as written’ but it has no colour, no gradients, no balance, and as such is a fatal flaw in the play for me.  You may wish to laugh at Mozart or even cringe at his foul-mouthed excesses, but when the play turns tragic and the final scenes require pathos, I didn’t get any sense of it.

 

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Lucian Msamati plays Salieri, and, some curious accent choices aside (if you’re playing Italian you either play it throughout, or don’t bother), he is very good indeed, whether ingratiating himself with the audience, or raging at the God who has left him with the ambition to achieve fame, but has bestowed only an average talent, destined to be forgotten.

His ravings as an old man, wheelchair-bound, and stating that he killed the great composer Mozart, is not believed, and so in obscurity his name will remain.  I didn’t care for the modern-dress staging of the early scenes, where the orchestra (Southbank Sinfonia, who are wonderful) take selfies on their phones, and Salieri takes a pause to guzzle Krispy Kremes.

But the music – and the set staging for these pieces – can forgive a great deal and elevate a middling and long-winded production into something rather more.  You may agree with Tom Edden’s Joseph II, who complains that there are ‘too many words’, but I guarantee you will be moved by the Kyrie from the Requiem.


The Human League (Royal Festival Hall)

I’ve been a fan of The Human League since the early 80s: not their Don’t You Want Me phase as I was only nine years old then, but not that long after when The Lebanon was in the charts in Spring 1984.  Quite soon after like many other teenagers I sang along to the whole of ‘Dare’ on cassette in my bedroom many, many times; I had posters of the band on my wall; and loved their big selling singles Louise and Human.

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I lost them around the time the 90s hit, but eventually came back and now, finally, have seen them live, so it’s been a long wait.

As with anything else which teeters on the ‘nostalgia’ tag (although I know they hate that and they haven’t really, technically, been away) you never know what you are going to get, but the moment the set appeared with the pulsing beat of the opening song, Being Boiled (a showcase for Phil Oakey alone, as it dates from the days of The Human League #1, when they were a kind of Yorkshire Kraftwerk electro outfit) and the video projections kicked into life, I knew we were in for something special.

Watch a bit of ‘Seconds’

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The songs from ‘Dare’ were liberally sprinkled through this set: The Sound of the Crowd, Seconds, Open Your Heart, Love Action, The Things That Dreams Are Made Of.  There were those big singles I loved, too, plus Mirror Man (which I had forgotten, not having heard in years) and, of course, Don’t You Want Me, with the neat conceit of having one of the backing band playing an instrumental introduction of it which just got the crowd more fired up.

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Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley are the decorative side of the band, and an integral part of their trademark sound, and they were showcased well on their own with One Man In My Heart as well as (particularly Susan) providing energy to keep the audience going throughout.  Their costume changes were slightly exceeded by the parade of Phil’s designer wardrobe, but it all adds to the spectacle.

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Can I just pause to say how fantastic Phil Oakey’s voice still is?  It’s been said in some quarters that he isn’t one of the best popular vocalists, but I have to disagree: he has such a recognisable vocal style that fits the band’s songs perfectly; and I was so pleased that we got to close with Together In Electric Dreams, a song which I have always loved, even if the film it was written for is now hopelessly outdated.

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Now slightly north of 60 years old this singer has unbounded energy and enthusiasm, and he is a total showman.  It is always a pleasure to see an act coming across so professionally, and The Human League are one of the most professional and accomplished acts I have seen.  Compare last night’s work with something way back like The Path of Least Resistance from nearly forty years ago and the look may be different (a sleeker hairline these days, but that’s no bad thing) but the voice hasn’t changed much.

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I haven’t danced so much in years, and loved every minute.  How could I have waited so long?  My husband (not really a fan) enjoyed himself too, and yes, first thing we did on the way home was order a CD copy of ‘Dare’ to replace that tired out 80s cassette!

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I wanted to give a nod to London band Ekkoes who were the support act, right at the start of their career.  Their cover of the late Laura Branigan’s Self Control was excellent and I liked their own song Last Breath as well.  I hope they go places and it was a bonus to see them, even if I would have rather liked (for 80s nostalgia again) to see Blancmange, who are doing some of the other dates on the tour as support.

You can investigate Ekkoes a bit more at http://ekkoes.com/.

Here’s the twenty song setlist from The Human League: Being Boiled, The Sound of the Crowd, Sky, Heart Like a Wheel, Filling Up With Heaven, Open Your Heart, Soundtrack to a Generation, Seconds, The Lebanon, One Man In My Heart, Human, Louise, Stay With Me Tonight, Love Action, Tell Me When, Keep Feeling (Fascination), Mirror Man, Don’t You Want Me, The Things That Dreams Are Made Of, Together in Electric Dreams.

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Photographs taken by Louise Penn and Colin Penn.  Video clip by Louise Penn.

 

 


Some words about Leonard Cohen

So Laughing Leonard has left the table, stepped down from the bar, tipped his hat for the last time, and gone on his final journey.

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Lots will be said about Leonard Cohen today.  How a poet and a visionary became a powerful singer-songwriter, a mirror for the times, a prism for words of passion, politics, religion and, yes, that thing we all struggle with and call life.

His story is well known. At 33 he was signed to Columbia despite their reservations and over the next half a century he has introduced fourteen studio albums of his songs and spoken words of wisdom to the world; the last, ‘You Want It Darker’, just a few weeks ago.

Although I’m not a long-term fan right from the beginning, I can pinpoint exactly when I was first aware of Cohen, and it was with his appearance on ‘Later … with Jools Holland’ on 14 May 1993.  

His album ‘The Future’ had not long been released, and although some observers claim this was blighted by doom and depression, it contained some uplifting songs such as ‘Closing Time’ together with the cynicism of ‘Democracy’.

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Cohen was a dabbler, a self-confessed ‘lazy bastard living in a suit’ (‘Going Home’), shy of commitment, he never married but has left two children, Adam and Lorca, his son having acted as producer and sometime co-writer on the last album.  Women have always been his muses: Marianne Ihlen, Suzanne Elrod, Suzanne Verdal, Rebecca De Morney, Anjali Thomas, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin.

His lyrics, always precise and deftly honed, have been sensual and sometimes strongly sexual (‘remember when I moved in you / and the Holy Dove was moving too’: ‘Hallelujah’; ‘there’s blood on every bracelet / you can see it, you can taste it / and it’s Please baby please baby please’: ‘Light as the Breeze’), and always linger, with meaning in the memory.

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Some samples of his work:

The Maestro says it’s Mozart / but it sounds like bubble gum (‘Waiting for the Miracle’)

You who build these altars now / To sacrifice these children / You must not do it anymore (‘The Story of Isaac’)

I struggled with some demons / They were middle class and tame / I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim (‘You Want It Darker’)

Everybody knows you’ve been discreet / But there were so many people you just had to meet / Without your clothes (‘Everybody Knows’)

I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get? / Hank Williams hasn’t answered yet
But I hear him coughing all night long (‘Tower of Song’)

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And draw us near / And bind us tight / All your children here / In their rags of light (‘If It Be Your Will’)

Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes / I thought it was there for good so I never tried (‘Famous Blue Raincoat’)

Touch me with your naked hand / Touch me with your glove (‘Dance Me To The End of Love’)

Please walk by me again / With a drink in your hand / And your legs all white / From the winter (‘Dear Heather’)

And sometimes when the night is slow / The wretched and the meek / We gather up our hearts and go (‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’)

We will not see his like again.  Go in peace on your final journey, Mr Cohen.

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Deep Purple studio albums revisited – part one

I’ll open this look back across the studio output of Deep Purple with a disclaimer: I have not followed the band with any interest for the past twenty years, so I will not be discussing the most recent four albums by the band.

The live and compilation albums, too, are out of scope of this post.

Instead I will look at the relative merits and demerits of the fifteen studio albums between ‘Shades of Deep Purple’ in 1968 to ‘Purpendicular’ in 1996.

Mark One

  • Vocals – Rod Evans
  • Guitar – Ritchie Blackmore
  • Bass – Nick Simper
  • Keyboards – Jon Lord
  • Drums – Ian Paice

This line-up produced three studio albums in 1968 and 1969.  Their sound was closer to the pop and psychedelic sound of the time than anything approaching heavy metal/hard rock.  This being said, Evans was an excellent singer whose work on covers of The Beatles’ ‘Help’ and ‘We Can Work It Out’, Neil Diamond’s ‘Kentucky Woman’, Joe South’s ‘Hush’, and Ike and Tina Turner’s ‘River Deep, Mountain High’ has worn well over the years.  Original material which stands out from this period includes ‘Shield’, ‘Lalena’, ‘Blind’, ‘April’, ‘Why Didn’t Rosemary’ and ‘Mandrake Root’.

The albums

‘Shades of Deep Purple’, released July 1968 (US), September 1968 (UK)

  • And The Address (instrumental)
  • Hush
  • One More Rainy Day
  • Happiness/I’m So Glad
  • Mandrake Root
  • Help
  • Love Help Me
  • Hey Joe

High point: ‘Hush’.  This was the band’s first single and filmed footage from the time shows how full of energy they already were.

Low point: The album doesn’t hang together as a whole and often feels like a random grab-bag of material.  ‘I’m So Glad’ suffers from poor lyrics and repetitive melodies.

Marks out of five: two and a half.

‘The Book of Taliesyn’, released October 1968 (US), June 1969 (UK)

  • Listen, Learn, Read On
  • Wring That Neck (instrumental)
  • Kentucky Woman
  • Exposition/We Can Work It Out
  • Shield
  • Anthem
  • River Deep, Mountain High

High point: An accomplished album with a more assured feel, but ‘Kentucky Woman’ and ‘Shield’ are my favourite cuts.

Low point: I never quite warmed to ‘Listen, Learn, Read On’ with its constant refrain referencing the album’s title.

Marks out of five: four.

‘Deep Purple’, released June 1969 (US), November 1969 (UK)

  • Chasing Shadows
  • Blind
  • Lalena
  • Fault Line/The Painter
  • Why Didn’t Rosemary
  • Bird Has Flown
  • April

High point: ‘April’ is lengthy, and beautiful, and wonderful.  But ‘Lalena’ is a sweet ballad.

Low point: I could live without ‘Fault Line’.

Marks out of five: three and a half.

Mark Two

  • Vocals – Ian Gillan
  • Guitar – Ritchie Blackmore
  • Bass – Roger Glover
  • Keyboards – Jon Lord
  • Drums – Ian Paice

This line-up was the most commercially successful, releasing four studio albums between 1970 and 1973.  This period showcased their change of style to hard rock with the addition of their new vocalist, screamer Ian Gillan.  His chemistry with guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was a high point of this line-up’s work, especially live (which is another story, another blog post).

The albums

‘Deep Purple in Rock’, released June 1970

  • Speed King
  • Bloodsucker
  • Child in Time
  • Flight of the Rat
  • Into the Fire
  • Living Wreck
  • Hard Lovin’ Man

High point: ‘Child in Time’ is an epic, glorious piece of music.  And it isn’t the heaviest track on the album.

Low point: This album has not aged well at all.  Gillan’s histrionics now seem false and fake, although I have a soft spot for ‘Speed King’ and ‘Living Wreck’.

Marks out of five: two.

‘Fireball’, released July 1971 (US), September 1971 (UK)

  • Fireball
  • No No No
  • Demon’s Eye
  • Anyone’s Daughter
  • The Mule
  • Fools
  • No One Came

High point: Gillan’s vocal work on this album is superb, especially on ‘Demon’s Eye’.

Low point: ‘No One Came’ sounds rushed these days.

Marks out of five: three.

‘Machine Head’, released March 1972

  • Highway Star
  • Maybe I’m a Leo
  • Pictures of Home
  • Never Before
  • Smoke on the Water
  • Lazy
  • Space Truckin’

High point: The first great Deep Purple album.  Wall to wall excellence.

Low point: There isn’t one.  Honestly, this is the peak.

Marks out of five: five.

‘Who Do We Think We Are’, released January 1973 (US), February 1973 (UK)

  • Woman from Tokyo
  • Mary Long
  • Super Trouper
  • Smooth Dancer
  • Rat Bat Blue
  • Place in Line
  • Our Lady

High point: This was the beginning of the end for the line-up as both Gillan and Glover would be gone from the band by the end of 1973, but the cracks just don’t show.  ‘Mary Long’ is subversive, ‘Rat Bat Blue’ sparkles, and ‘Smooth Dancer’ is delightfully playful.

Low point: ‘Our Lady’ goes on a bit, but that’s a small quibble.

Marks out of five: four and a half.

Mark Three

  • Vocals – David Coverdale
  • Guitar – Ritchie Blackmore
  • Bass – Glenn Hughes
  • Keyboards – Jon Lord
  • Drums – Ian Paice

With new blood in the shape of Redcar-born David Coverdale and Cannock-born Glenn Hughes, the band’s direction took a blues and soul feel, which reached its apex with their appearance at 1974’s ‘California Jam’.

The albums

‘Burn’, released February 1974

  • Burn
  • Might Just Take Your Life
  • Lay Down, Stay Down
  • Sail Away
  • You Fool No One
  • What’s Goin’ On Here
  • Mistreated
  • ‘A’ 200 (instrumental)

High point: ‘Lay Down, Stay Down’ and ‘Sail Away’ are the best cuts on this.

Low point: This is just a disappointing and flat album overall, despite having ‘Mistreated’ on it.  That track would just blossom live when Coverdale hit his blues stride.

Marks out of five: two and a half.

‘Stormbringer’, released November 1974

  • Stormbringer
  • Love Don’t Mean a Thing
  • Holy Man
  • Hold On
  • Lady Double Dealer
  • You Can’t Do It Right
  • High Ball Shooter
  • The Gypsy
  • Soldier of Fortune

High point: Blackmore’s guitar work throughout this, especially on ‘Hold On’.  And ‘Soldier of Fortune’, probably Coverdale’s best studio vocal performance.

Low point: ‘You Can’t Do It Right’.

Marks out of five: four.

Mark Four

  • Vocals – David Coverdale
  • Guitar – Tommy Bolin
  • Bass – Glenn Hughes
  • Keyboards – Jon Lord
  • Drums – Ian Paice

Drugs and another turn of fortune into funk makes this far from a typical Deep Purple album, and this line-up’s life was truncated by the death of Bolin in 1976.

The album

‘Come Taste The Band’, released October 1975

  • Comin’ Home
  • Lady Luck
  • Gettin’ Tighter
  • Dealer
  • I Need Love
  • Drifter
  • Love Child
  • This Time Around/Owed to G
  • You Keep On Moving

High point: ‘You Keep On Moving’ and ‘Lady Luck’.

Low point: A dull album without much life or thought.

Marks out of five: one and a half.

 

 

 

 


Rolling Stones: Exhibitionism (Saatchi Gallery)

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The whole of the Sloane Square Saatchi Gallery has been given over to this major exhibition of one of the UK’s most enduring bands, The Rolling Stones.  Even the area outside the gallery on the King’s Road is home to a group of ceramic tongue logos for the six month duration of this hot ticket.

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Stones’ fans will know the basics about how the band was formed (although here the focus is on Mick and Keith’s childhood friendship, rather than Brian Jones and his advert for band members), and how they grew from Edith Grove flatmates to billionaire corporate businessmen over a period of fifty years.

Even casual observers will know the iconic logo, the album covers, and the songs which, for their first twenty years at least, were part of the regular musical tapestry we all grew up with.  It’s no surprise that the final showpiece in this exhibition is a performance of ‘Satisfaction’ from Hyde Park in 2013, rendered into ‘Real 3-D’.  We pass from a mock-up of the backstage area through to a darkened room where, with the help of strobe lights, we feel kind of part of the show itself, with a strutting Jagger, a wrinkled Keef, and a crowd bordering on hysteria.

By this time we’ve watched a video wall retrospective of concerts, news items, interviews, press footage, and more; seen guitars and stage costumes up close; experienced recreations of that first filthy flat with its death-trap cooker, mouldy wallpaper, and half-eaten tinned goods; played producer with a mix-desk mock-up; seen a set of artworks which became iconic album covers, and models of sets such as the Lotus Flower and the Bridges of Babylon (a laconic quote on the wall states this cost a cool £1million); and squinted at documents such as Keith Richards’ surprisingly articulate diary, that first contract signed by Brian Jones as group founder, and handwritten lyrics by Jagger.

The sense one gets is of a slick, corporate machine with no personal insight whatever.  This is a money-making enterprise which long ago moved away from ‘six boys playing the blues’.  The exhibition has more of Mick and Keef than anyone else, although Brian is there if you look for him (there are clothes of his, and he is in photos, and notably looking spaced out and bored in the clips from Godard’s ‘Sympathy for the Devil’).  Bill and Charlie are there, but they were the quiet ones, and it shows, although interestingly early fan club guff on the band claims Wyman was born in 1941, when it fact it was 1936.

Collaborators get their own small gallery, too, although the story around Ian Stewart’s demotion from full band member to road manager and session pianist is not fully explored (he was inducted with the rest of them to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame).  Was he really deemed too square, or too old (he was younger than Bill)?  I would have liked to have seen more about how Brian Jones’ vision of the band gave way to Mick Jagger’s, and the story around how the rebellious young men got to the point that the souvenir book which accompanies ‘Exhibitionism’ has an insert which is a letter from the corporate sponsor, DHL.

There’s also little on the women who were alongside the Stones.  Marianne Faithfull and Mick’s wedding to Bianca is on the video wall, and Anita Pallenberg is namechecked in the costume section alongside two of L’Wren Scott’s creations, but the women you might go away remembering the most are the groupie who cavorts naked in the clips shown from the film ‘Cocksucker Blues’, and the lady whose full frontal inspired an album sleeve.

Video and film get relatively short shrift: promos get a confused compilation and the concert films and documentaries get a hagiography from uber-fan Martin Scorsese, who caught them himself in his own ‘Shine A Light’ (2008).  The Stones are two things, when it comes down to it, a slicky protected image (no photos allowed throughout the exhibition) and a vibrant live presence, although this has both faded and tipped into caricature over the years.

 


a-ha (o2 Arena, North Greenwich)

Just over thirty years ago a trio of Norwegians hit the charts with a synth-pop tune with a quirky and clever video which was shown a lot on MTV: the song was ‘Take On Me’ and they were a-ha, Morten, Mags and Pal.

Fast-forward to 2016 and they are back together again following their retirement in 2010 as a band, and in their video projections and tightly professional set they are still highly entertaining.  Hits and familiar songs (‘Crying in the Rain’, ‘The Sun Always Shines on TV’, ‘The Living Daylights’, ‘Cry Wolf’, ‘Hunting High and Low’) are mixed with the new (‘Cast in Steel’) and some solo efforts (‘Velvet’, ‘Lifelines’).

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Morten’s voice is still reaching the high notes, and if he is still aloof and leaving the interaction with the crowd to Magne, then that’s OK.  The set is short – less than 100 minutes – but is crowd-pleasing, and even veers into the ‘getting the arena to sing’ and ‘getting the arena to wave their phones’ territory.

An enjoyable evening.

 


Soundtrack of my life in 100 songs (part 1)

There are so many examples of great music out there, and over the years I have developed a core of favourite musicians and songs (not necessarily recorded within my lifetime) which I would like to share in this blog post.

This post will have a look at the first group of ten, in no particular order, and with no link between them.

Les Paul and Mary Ford, “How High The Moon”.  Recorded in 1951 by the husband and wife duo who did a lot to popularise new technicological ways of recording including double tracking.  Many modern guitarists cite Paul as a major influence.  This song showcases those tricks, and is a good example of their style.

Roger Whittaker, “A Special Kind of Man”. In 1974 this was the B side of Whittaker’s major hit, “The Last Farewell”, which was covered by Elvis Presley.  Whittaker’s brand of folksy gentleness, and occasional whistling, made him very popular in the easy listening section.

Dave Berry, “This Strange Effect”. Written by Ray Davies, but never officially recorded by The Kinks, this haunting ballad from 1965 is my favourite of his songs, although I would also recommend “The Crying Game” and “Mama”. The video here is a lot of fun as it shows fan hysteria in the 60s. Berry is still performing today, and even predated Michael Jackson in his slinky use of one-glove wearing.

Goldie, “Goin’ Back”. A song best known for the Dusty Springfield version released shortly afterwards in 1966. Goldie’s version fell foul of lyric changes not pleasing the songwriters Goffin and King, but it is rather sweet, I think. I heard this for the first time when the compilation CD ‘Goin’ Back’ was released.

Rainbow, “Gates of Babylon”. One of the best rock bands, this was from their early days (1978) before becoming more commercial. Big epics were the order of the day, and this is one of their best, with the trio of Ritchie Blackmore (1945- ) on guitar, Ronnie James Dio (1942-2010) on vocals, and Cozy Powell (1947-1998) on drums. This isn’t the version that appeared on their ‘Long Live Rock and Roll’ album, but a live version that was made into a promo video.

The Who, “Won’t Get Fooled Again”. Originally recorded in 1971, this live performance was filmed in 1978 and released as part of the film “The Kids Are Alright”, by which time drummer Keith Moon had died and the band’s future seemed questionable. They continued with Kenney Jones, but it was never quite the same. This video shows how great they were, but also take a look at their performances at Woodstock and the Isle at Wight a few years earlier.

Tom Jones, “Green, Green Grass of Home”. In 1967 Jones had already been recording for a few years, and his signature style had already developed. This is definitely one of his best songs, and this video certainly shows a country vibe. Still going strong, I’d say in some areas his voice has even improved!

Joe Cocker, “You Can Leave Your Hat On”. I could have picked his iconic Woodstock performance of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends”, but this version of Randy Newman’s song is just fab. The video is from 9 1/2 Weeks, of course, and the year is 1986. Cocker sadly passed away in 2014, but his fabulous soul voice lives on. Video slightly NSFW.

Eric Clapton, “Wonderful Tonight”. Patti Boyd had a number of love songs written for her (the other major one was George Harrison’s “Something”, written for the Beatles). This song dates from 1977 and it is one of my favourite slow songs. There is a longer 8 minute version around but I prefer this version which is usually on radio playlists.

Bee Gees, “I Started A Joke”. This group of siblings is often remembered for Barry’s falsetto singing, but good though that is, I always liked Robin’s rather strange phrasing and delicate voice, which is showcased well here in a song from 1968 (but performed here in 1997). Robin died in 2012, his twin Maurice having passed away in 2003, but the music of the Bee Gees, notably their songs for the soundtrack of ‘Saturday Night Fever’, endure.


Review of 2015

This is the point where, now 2016 has started with the traditional fireworks and hangovers, we have a look back to the good (and bad) of 2015.

Theatre

In January I saw two productions, the frankly disappointing ‘Potted Sherlock’, and the excellent ‘Taken at Midnight’, in which Penelope Wilton excelled as a woman whose son was in the hands of the Nazis.

February brought a new Tom Stoppard at the National, ‘The Hard Problem’, which tried to mix academia with personal relationships, but didn’t really do either justice.

In March I enjoyed the revival of ‘Harvey’, starring James Dreyfuss, which stopped off at Richmond before a run in the West End, and I travelled to Hampstead for my first visit to the theatre there to see Zoe Wanamaker in the revival of ‘Stevie’ (a piece I know well from the Glenda Jackson film).

April brought three top-class musicals associated with Stephen Sondheim: first, the show on which he wrote lyrics, ‘Gypsy’, at the Savoy, which some of you will have seen and enjoyed when it was on television over the Christmas break, and second, the transfer of ‘Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ at the ENO, with Bryn Terfel, Emma Thompson, and the welcome return to these shores of Philip Quast.  Finally, the concert version of ‘Follies’, at the Royal Albert Hall, which was ridiculously overpriced but certainly star-studded.

In May, a silly but perfectly-pitched tribute to the Bonzo Dog frontman, Vivian Stanshall, who died twenty years ago, was on for one night only at the Bloomsbury.  ‘Radio Stanshall’ teamed old hands with a fun reboot of the Sir Henry at Rawlinson End tales.   Meanwhile, over at the Globe Theatre Jonathan Pryce impressed as Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, and on transfer from Stratford-upon-Avon, Antony Sher and Harriet Walter reteamed for the first time since the late 90s Macbeth for ‘Death of a Salesman’, which was a definite highlight of the year.

June at the Barbican heralded the Beckett International Festival, of which I chose to see the starry ‘Waiting for Godot’ with Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh, and Philip Quast (again!).  I love the play, and this production seemed to polarise audiences, but I found it very good indeed.

In July, there was comedy at the National in ‘The Beaux’ Strategem’, and a major misfire at the Young Vic with a head-scratching version of ‘The Trial’, in which a conveyer belt set and Rory Kinnear were excellent but the translation was not.  Closer to home, Julian Clary headlined the Ealing Comedy Festival, while in town, David Suchet donned a dress for a hilarious take on Lady Bracknell in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

August brought us one of the year’s total turkeys, at the Charing Cross Theatre, where the dreadful ‘Dusty’ had cast changes, delayed press nights and worse.  Back at the National, ‘Three Days in the Country’ was a new and truncated version of the Turgenev play, which had a bit of overacting from John Simm but a finely judged comic bit from Mark Gatiss.

In September, the delightful Rattigan play ‘Flare Path’ stopped by at Richmond, while ‘Mr Foote’s Other Leg’ did well at Hampstead before a West End transfer – I especially liked Dervla Kirwan’s delicate actress-whore.    And the month ended with the new version of the Bristol production of ‘Jane Eyre’, a high-energy adaptation which was a total joy to watch.

October saw a trip to the Bridewell Theatre for an excellent version of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ by the amateur Geoids Musical Theatre, an ensemble I would happily watch again.

In November the final piece of the RSCs King and Country puzzle fell into play with the showing of ‘Henry V’, which I liked a lot, and which, coming so soon after the Paris attacks, felt oddly relevant and very moving.

Meanwhile, December brought the undoubted un-highlight of the year, with the National’s jaw-droppingly terrible ‘wonder.land’.   I would recommend a trip to the National’s Shed instead to see the fun ‘I Want My Hat Back’, and New Year’s Eve brought the year to a sentimental close with ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’.

Concerts and live cinema relays

The Southbank Centre hosted a special ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ in February which I really enjoyed: with the Light Programme being represented with everything from Max Miller and Roy Hudd to Flanders & Swann and Gilbert & Sullivan.  The concert a week later in the same series, looking at post-1959 music, was fun, but not quite in the same league.

On Valentine’s Day the Berlin Philharmonic with their conductor Sir Simon Rattle was in residence at the Royal Festival Hall, with a programme showcasing their splendid rendition of Mahler No 2.   And on the big screen there was a live relay from the Royal Opera House of ‘The Flying Dutchman’, with Bryn Terfel, which was another of the year’s highlights: he really had made this role his own.

In April Daniel Barenboim was at the Royal Festival Hall with the Staatkapelle Berlin, playing Elgar, and it was an honour to be there, especially to see him awarded the Elgar Medal which he dedicated to his late wife, Jacqueline du Pre.   This month also saw a live musical accompaniment to a little-seen Lillian Gish film, ‘Annie Laurie’, at the Barbican.

In October, the London Literature Festival gave us both Terry Gilliam (with a video retrospective of some of his films), and Tom Jones (who sang, and by heck, is he still good).  The end of the month had a return visit to the Royal Festival Hall from Randy Newman, who with just a piano, was rather marvellous.

December was the month of NT Live screenings, with the Broadway production of ‘Of Mice and Men’ and the Barbican ‘Hamlet’ (which I didn’t add here for some reason, but which can be seen in my review over on Letterboxd).  We ended the year in concert mode with the professional gloss of Andre Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra at Wembley Arena.

Film

Letterboxd (where I post as loureviews) tells me I watched 451 films – including shorts and miniseries, in 2015.  Eight of those merited a full, five-star score, and all were rewatches: Mary Poppins, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Lifeboat, I Know Where I’m Going, Guys and Dolls, Witchfinder General, Rebecca, and The Snowman.

There were, however, some four and a half star films I had seen for the first time, so these are my picks of the year: Night Will Fall (2014), Laughter in the Dark (1969), Her (2013), Maxine Peake in Hamlet (2015), Mr Axelford’s Angel (1974), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Contempt/Le Mepris (1963), Shylock’s Ghost (2015), Night and Day (2015), and Tony Benn: Will and Testament (2014).

The turkeys of the year, the true stinkers, number ten: Carry on England (1976), Happy Hooligan (1903), Ride Along (2014), Sherlock Holmes (2011 – and it isn’t the Asylum one), The Other Woman (2014), Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), The Nut Job (2014), Annie (2014), Bed and Breakfast (1938), and The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978).

Tributes

I marked a trio of anniversaries this year.  Twenty years since the death of Vivian Stanshall, thirty-five years since the death of AC/DC frontman Bon Scott, and twenty-six years since the death of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.  You can find links to all these in the ‘Index to tribute profiles’ at the top of the page.

Exhibitions

In January, the London Transport Museum was the venue for ‘Goodbye, Piccadilly’, which I loved.  Later in the year, the Hayward Gallery hosted the thoughtful ‘History is Now’, which was odd but engaging.

 


Andre Rieu (Wembley Arena)

Just before Christmas we went along to see the most wealthy and successful classical musician currently working, Andre Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra.  Rieu does not come cheap – our tickets came to £91 each once you factored in booking fee – but he does put on a spectacle.

His USP is his digital backdrops, his sopranos dressed as Disney princesses, and his own slightly cheesy Master of Ceremonies schtick.  The musical programme is made of crowd-pleasers: not simply the Strauss waltzes he is known for (the Blue Danube, for which we were handed tiny keyring lights to wave), but also such well-known pieces as the Hallelujah Chorus, the Pearl Fishers duet (for tenor trio and choir here, a bit odd), that aria from Madame Butterfly, 76 Trombones, the theme song from Exodus, and some Christmas pieces – The Holy City, O Holy Night, White Christmas …

There was a guest bell ringer, who had a speed playing contest with the xylophonist.  There was a trilling soprano who sang Christine’s Think of Me from The Phantom of the Opera.  There was a lot of mock drinking.  There was fake snow dumped on to the floor-sitting audience.  There were balloons.  There was Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again, ending proceedings.

Rieu has energy, and, in a trio for Amazing Grace with his violin, and flute and bagpipes, he proves he can actually play a decent solo.  He also has friendly patter with which he engages his adoring audience.  Those waltzes get people up dancing, whether they are ageing couples, mums and daughters, or grannies and tots.

He puts on a good show, but like all good things, especially sugary or cheesy ones, he is best enjoyed in moderation.  This was a tightly programmed and shrewdly scripted piece of entertainment of which Rieu is the mullet-haired ringmaster.  And the audience went away humming the tunes with smiles on their faces.


All Our Yesterdays – Blackmore’s Night (CD review)

The tenth studio album in eighteen years from the folk-rock team of Ritchie Blackmore and Candice Night (and friends) follows the now familiar formula of crowdpleasing singalongs, powerful rock-influenced instrumentals, wistful ballads, and cover versions (in this case, of Mike Oldfield’s ‘Moonlight Shadow’ and Sonny and Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’).

It is a strategy which has served the team well in Germany and Austria in particular, where they now have their biggest following, while, ironically for a couple based in Long Island (although Blackmore is British-born) they seem to have eluded success in the United States.

For me, I have been following the now married couple since their first album in 1997, ‘Shadow of the Moon’, which represented the twenty-six year old Night’s first leading vocals in a project, after providing back up on the album and subsequent tour of Blackmore’s reformed Rainbow two years earlier.  Blackmore at that time was fifty-two, trying a new musical path away from the hard rock he had been involved in since the early 1960s (although throughout his work with Deep Purple and Rainbow there had always been hints at a softer and perhaps more romantic side than he could indulge).

Now Night is forty-four, Blackmore is seventy, and they have two young children under six, so ‘All Our Yesterdays’ would seem to be coming from a very different place to ‘Shadow’.  The opening track, the title one, though, is fairly standard for the team, Night’s vocals taking the lead into a plantive ballad which opens into ‘hey hey’ type chorus.  This is followed by a couple of instrumentals, of which I liked ‘Darker Shade of Black’ and its – maybe overproduced – soaring melodies the most.

‘Long Long Time’ has some nice musical touches, while ‘Moonlight Shadow’ is a rockier version of what was a classy ballad with Oldfield’s style of guitar playing back on its release in the early eighties.  I am not sure about the changing of the fade-out coda though.  As for ‘I Got You Babe’, Night sings this well with the accompaniment to bells and the now ubiquitous drum machine, but the fact this was written as duet makes it fail at the last, despite attempts to muddle through.

In other tracks, 2003’s ‘Where Are We Going From Here’ is given a new, revised version (something the team have a habit of doing), and it has a pleasingly rocky feel, while the standout album track for me is ‘Will o’the Wisp’ with its pounding chorus and musical vibes.  ‘The Other Side’ seems throwaway, with pipes, drums and double-tracked vocals in Mary Ford-style.  ‘Queen’s Lament’ is a typical Blackmore guitar instrumental, musically beautiful and technically accomplished, but all too short.

It seems clear with the progression of this team’s work that Candice Night is taking more and more centre stage, and she has certainly vastly improved as a singer in both vocals and confidence since she started out.  However, the last couple of albums have started to weaken a bit against their predecessors and the formula, for what it is worth, may now need a shake-up so as not to make work feel stale.

Track listing:

All Our Yesterdays
Allan Yn N Fan
Darker Shade of Black
Long Long Time
Moonlight Shadow
I Got You Babe
The Other Side
Queen’s Lament
Where Are We Going From Here
Will o’the Wisp
Earth Wind and Sky
Coming Home


Remembering England’s great eccentric, Vivian Stanshall

On 5th March 2015 it will be twenty years since the wonderfully weird singer, musician, wit, poet, artist, mystic, songwriter and all-round ‘definitely not normal’ Vivian Stanshall (1943-1995) left our world for somewhere far more colourful, wild and magnificent.

vivian1969

He may well be best known yet for his time as the frontman of the Bonzo Dog (Doo Dah) Band, a ragbag of art students who started by apeing the sounds of jazz and silly big band tunes by way of Spike Jones and Flanders and Swann.  They recorded ‘My Brother Makes The Noises For The Talkies’, ‘Button Up Your Overcoat’, and made a memorable, and early, television appearance performing ‘Bill Bailey’ on Blue Peter, before taking up residency on one of the shows which pre-dated Monty Python, ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’.

Neil Innes provided the melodic music and the happy Beatly-type face of the Bonzos, but Vivian provided a sense of danger and fascination, which came to the fore during the band’s first album, ‘Gorilla’, in 1967, which featured such cuts as ‘Jollity Farm’. ‘Look Out There’s A Monster Coming’, ‘Mickey’s Son and Daughter’ and the delightfully subversive ‘I’m Bored’.  Vivian’s posh vowels and droll delivery livened up the songs and made them different to the mop-top popular music or the dreary psychedelic epics of the time.

vivianbiggrunt

It was with their 1968 album,  ‘The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse’, however, that the odd side of the Bonzos really took hold: ‘Can Blue Men Sing The Whites’, ‘My Pink Half of the Drainpipe’ and ‘Postcard’ all seemed to be railing against what the rest of the world accepted as dreary, everyday, and normal.  During this year their single ‘Canyons of Your Mind’ was played out on the German show ‘Beat Club’ – it was in repeats of that show that I first spotted Vivian Stanshall, thought he was a fascinating and unique creature, and became hooked for life.

Following the break-up of the Bonzos, what can only be described as the ‘Sir Henry Rawlinson’ phenomenon took flight – first with a run of radio extracts on the John Peel show, an album (strictly speaking two albums, but the second was released, unfinished, after being taken without consent from Stanshall), then a feature film in 1980 (with associated book, published by Eel Pie and full of wonders and snapshots from the film),   Sir Henry might well be his greatest achievement – and yet, and yet …

Watching ‘Vivian Stanshall’s Week’ from 1975, one might take time to adjust to the absurdity and surrealism of what passes as one man’s everyday life (as well as being quite shocked at his appearance at this time), but it is a slice of television quite unlike anything else that was around at the time.  During the 1970s he was also involved in the seminal ‘Tubular Bells’ project from Mike Oldfield, introducing the instruments, and in writing for Steve Winwood’s solo albums (notably the songs ‘Vacant Chair’ and ‘Arc of a Diver’).  These songs alone showcase a perceptive and sensitive lyricist rather at odds with the public image of a difficult and crude eccentric given to scatalogical humour and slightly offensive offbeat observations.

1974’s album ‘Man Opening Umbrellas Ahead’ achieved almost-legendary status during its long period of unavailability between release date and 2010.  I remember obtaining a bootleg in the 1990s and being shocked and enthralled by the music I was hearing – dangerous, yes, but also sensual, troubling, wildly funny, and in places, rather beautiful.  It is a modern classic in many ways (particularly the epic ‘Strange Tongues’ and the troublingly weird ‘Yelp, Bellow, Rasp, Et Cetera’).  His follow up solo album (of songs) from 1981, was ‘Teddy Boys Don’t Knit’, a far more personal affair with tracks dedicated to his wife and young daughter, and reflections on his childhood and life as a ‘rock musician’.

Stanshall’s life continued to be troubled by addictions and mental breakdowns throughout the remainder of his life, but now and again there were peaks of brilliance – artwork, voice work on adverts (the 1980s Tennants Pilsner ones were superb, as were the two Creme Egg ones based on older Bonzo songs ‘Mr Slater’s Parrot’ and ‘The Intro and the Outro’), and a more recent discovery for me, the return of ‘Tubular Bells’, from 1993.  His last major television appearance was in ‘Crank’ (made for ‘The Late Show’) in 1991, while on radio he spoke about his parents, in 1994, for a special programme, and discussed losing his virginity at a surprisingly early age in the Pulp promotional film ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’

viviansirhenry

It seemed that despite his frailty Vivian Stanshall would always endure, and so it was a great shock, and a great sadness, when he passed away in a house fire on that fateful night in 1995.  Since then his star has continued to shine bright and his influence on performers such as Stephen Fry and Adrian Edmondson has endured.  We might celebrate the Young Ones, Little Britain, or the League of Gentlemen, but I submit that someone else got there first – the man in the sharp suit and the lounge voice who appears in the cabaret spot in the Beatles’ ‘Magical Mystery Tour’, the man who contributed a couple of rock pastiche songs to the soundtrack of ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and parodied the King himself on ‘The Last Temptation of Elvis’, the man who crooned about being a ‘Big Shot’ and frightened passers-by dressed as a giant rabbit.

We will not see his like again, and we miss him like crazy.  However, his widow Ki Longfellow-Stanshall is currently planning to bring a showcase of Vivian’s work back to the fore through an exhibition of his work which will hopefully engage and excite a new generation.  I have a feeling the old boy might have been very pleased about all the attention.

vivianlate


Remembering AC/DC’s first frontman

acdc-bon-scott

I have to give Radio 1’s ‘Friday Rock Show’ the credit, in the person of Tommy Vance, who, during the late 1980s, introduced a whole range of rock artists to the airwaves ranging from death metal outfits, 60s folk rock, to early tracks from big names like Quo, Purple, Sabbath and Zeppelin.

It must have been 1985 (shortly after a whole show had been devoted to a live gig by Motley Crue) that Vance played a track which made the twelve-year old me sit up and take notice.  The track was ‘Ride On’, and the band was AC/DC – a band which I had previously only associated with ‘Hells Bells’ and ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’, with a singer whose voice sounded as if he was scraping fingernails against a blackboard, a good rock voice, sure, but not this one that I was listening to on the FRS.

I was of course listening to the band’s previous singer, Ronald Belford Scott (known as ‘Bon’) who had passed away in 1980.  The 35th anniversary of his death has just been and gone, on the 19th February, and although their most enduring singer, Brian Johnson, has now been in the band longer than Bon Scott was alive, he is still one of my favourite frontmen, an attractive and vibrant personality with a huge sense of fun (Vance would play other songs from the era which played on this, from ‘She’s Got Balls’ and ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ to ‘I’m a Rocker’ and ‘Up To My Neck’), but it was ‘Ride On’ which made me place him in that rare group of superb vocalists who stand head and shoulders above everyone else.

I love ‘Ride On’.  It not only has fantastic vocals but also great lyrics and perhaps Angus Young’s best guitar work – until I heard this track I hadn’t really rated him as a musician but here, he was the real deal.  It’s hard to find the song in the usual places – all the YouTube videos which feature it have been muted through copyright claims – but if you look on Dailymotion, you’ll find it.  I don’t want to deprive people of the pleasure so I’m not linking it here.

I will however link a little bit of fun, which was how Bon started off, in the 1960s, in ‘The Valentines’.  He isn’t the lead singer here, and he does look just a little embarrassed, but this is fun.

When Bon Scott died he was at the peak of his success and, so it seems from a Top of the Pops appearance less than two weeks’ before (‘Touch Too Much’), of his fitness too.  There have been all sorts of rumours around the events of that fateful night when he drank a little more than he should and died in a freezing car in the middle of the night that February – but whatever the truth, it still feels a terrible waste of an admittedly difficult but talented individual to pass away at the age of just thirty-three, but perhaps it was inevitable given his alcohol and drug addictions, and at least he did not become a member of the 27-club along with others of his contemporaries.

Anyway, if it hadn’t been for Tommy Vance’s inclusion of these songs in his broadcasts I probably wouldn’t have known about the first few years of AC/DC’s existence, and what might have been.  He’s gone now, too, and although Radio 1 still rocks it isn’t quite the same.  On 6th March it will be ten years since we lost Vance, so I raise a glass to both him and Scott, and say we miss both of you, very much.


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Emily Baycroft

Currently a final year English student at the University of Cambridge. Producing Intern for Fuel Theatre July-October 2016. Aspiring Arts Administrator/Theatre Producer, blogging about my projects (mostly).

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Loud Alien Noize

Revealing the True Origins of Silence

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Blog titling at its best

Emily Baycroft

Currently a final year English student at the University of Cambridge. Producing Intern for Fuel Theatre July-October 2016. Aspiring Arts Administrator/Theatre Producer, blogging about my projects (mostly).

MTAS

West End Reviews | West End Challenges | Exclusive West End News

A Red Lip And A Nude Shoe

Dior Dreams On A Kmart Budget

is there room for me to sew?

Quilting, Reading and the Movies

Jaime Rebanal's Film Thoughts

Cinema - moving around life one film at a time.

The Case for Jeanette and Nelson

"Whaddya gonna do? I love her. I think she loves me." -Nelson Eddy on the Jack Parr Show, 1960

STARDUST AND SHADOWS

Opinions on Classic Hollywood , B Movies, Grindhouse, SF film , Classic Horror, Film Noir, Books, and related subjects by Canadian film guy TERRY SHERWOOD. (This site is not affiliated with author Charles Foster and his book Stardust and Shadows.)

The Wonderful World of Cinema

This blog is all about cinema, movies and stars of every decades. It's wonderful!

Movie classics

Thoughts on older movies, especially those from the 1930s to 1950s.

Hiss and Tell

Featuring Gryff, the angry diabetic cat, and the humans who serve him

TESSA BARRIE'S LOST BLOGS

Random Blogger from Jersey, Channel Islands, UK. Not Noo Jersey, USA. Expect the unexpected. Life's too short to be niche.

[insert title here]

just one of many things i'm still trying to figure out

buchanblog

A trip down Memorex lane

The Phantom Frame

Information about the creative works of Gareth Preston

West End Blog

Bringing you independent, honest, experienced reviews of current theatre shows. We believe theatre is something truly magical and can be enjoyed by everyone.

Archive Television Musings

"To waste one second of one's life is a betrayal of one's self! I wonder what's on television?"

The Actor's Advocate

In defence of acting

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