Monday, 15 July 2019


I had a few hours to spare yesterday and took on the task of liquidating my duplicate DVDs. Well, nothing that drastic sounding, I took the discs from their cases and put them in micron sleeves, while the covers and inserts were flat-packed and filed away for safe-keeping. I should have done this job ages ago considering I had to re-pack well over a hundred discs - the recycle bin is heaving now with alpha cases, and there's still more to go. Upgrading DVDs has always been a necessary evil of collecting. When a DVD of Last House on the Left first appeared in France in 2000, I snapped it up rather than patiently waiting for a US edition, which duly followed 2 years later, making the French DVD instantly obsolete. And that MGM DVD was in turn replaced by the 2008 Metrodome edition, which was then replaced by Arrow’s 2018 BR. Fortunately, these barnacles are mostly restricted to DVD, with just two Blu-Rays in the collection awarded upgrades - the original Universal BR of The Thing which was supplanted by the Arrow edition, and Arrow's 2010 City of the Living Dead which Arrow revisited with a fresh scan for their 2018 BR.

But this got me thinking that perhaps it might be best to forgo 4K, and not get into that headspace where I feel compelled, even required to upgrade my BRs of say 2001 and Alien to 4K editions. I’m watching fewer and fewer contemporary films these days anyhow, and while the likes of Suspiria will look glorious on a 4K disc, the Synapse Blu-Ray simply looks fabulous enough. A few things were granted a stay of execution however - the 1999 3-disc Criterion edition of Brazil, and the 2004 4-disc Anchor Bay edition of Dawn of the Dead - both of which have been bested by their BR equivalents, but I remember well the excitement when I first picked up these two editions, each loaded with a bounty of supplements, and both beautifully packaged, Brazil, in a lovely transparent slipcase, while Dawn of the Dead came housed in a huge fold out digipak. My Swedish DVD copy of The Sacrifice also escaped the culling, the essential companion film Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky is regrettably absent from the Artificial Eye BR, so the 2004 Swedish Film Institute DVD will remain in service…

Friday, 3 May 2019

Back to the Future (Sound of London)

I’m pursuing a Future Sound of London obsession at the moment, and not an insignificant one either. I lost track of Brian Dougans and Garry Cobain’s activities in the mid-90’s after the Dead Cities album and their 4-year long hibernation. Truthfully, I went through a long period of disliking the group, I had consigned the albums to the scrapheap of history, the Dead Cities LP was one of the few albums I didn’t replace on CD after my turntable died, and the Lifeforms album was left to collect dust on the shelf. In fact I had revisited Lifeforms a few times in the intervening years and I never ventured far into the album (a double no less), it always sounded so impossibly stuck in 1994. And then a casual listen to the album a few weeks ago turned out to be a revelation, the sprawling electronic rainforest suddenly sounded extraordinary (it would make an excellent soundtrack companion to J.G. Ballard’s The Crystal World), and ever since I’ve been plunging into FSOL’s weighty catalogue, mining the excellent Environments and Archives series. Right now, I’m in the grip of the brilliant Dead Cities, the newly acquired CD is wearing a hole in my player with compulsive listening. Worth noting that the last time I pored over the album’s production credits, the name Max Richter meant nothing to me, until years later and the release of Richter's monumental Sleep. Future sounds indeed…

Away from the albums and collections, I've also been digging the first of three sessions FSOL recorded for Pete Tong's Essential Mix series on BBC Radio 1. This first session, broadcast in December 1993 is particularly pleasing for me as scattered throughout the near-2-hour mix, are dialogue samples from Apocalypse Now (my favourite film!) and at one point, a heavily treated sample of Throbbing Gristle's Hometime is heard sandwiched between Mountain Goat (the best track on the Tales Of Ephidrina album), and the Lifeforms track Cerebral...

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Gravity all nonsense now...

I saw an item on TV last night, about alien invasion movies, and among the films featured was Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Douglas Trumbull recalled that the look of the mothership was based on the idea of a spacecraft as floating cityscape, complete with skyscrapers and other urban architecture, and that notion put in mind the various illustrations used for the quartet of James Blish novels better known in their omnibus form as Cities In Flight. The individual books, published between 1955 and 1962, posited a future where whole cities blast off for the stars to wander interstellar space like economic migrants in search of more prosperous living conditions. When the American science fiction journal Analog serialized the third novel of the quartet, A Life for the Stars in the September/October 1962 issues, artist George Solonevich depicted a city, still moored to the earthen rock it was built on drifting through space, and it's this concept which seems to have inspired subsequent designs. Solonevich's idea was not without precedent - the 1955 US first edition of Earthman, Come Home also depicts a city as celestial vessel, but Solonevich's painting is far more striking. I wonder was Solonevich influenced by Magritte's 1959 painting The Castle of the Pyrenees which depicts a citadel sitting on top of a enormous floating rock, and I wonder too had Steven Spielberg been influenced by Solonevich's painting, which a 16 year old Spielberg might have discovered on the newsstand in the summer of 1962.

In 1970 US publisher Avon sensibly anthologized the four novels in one single volume as Cities In Flight, and for the cover of their paperback, cleverly incorporated the intergalactic itinerant cities into the book’s title. In 1974 UK publisher Arrow Books issued their own edition of Cities in Flight, as well as the four books in stand-alone editions. For the cover designs, Arrow commissioned the great sci-fi futurist Chris Foss who indulges his love for impossibly enormous constructions and practical industrial design. In fact the covers for They Shall Have Stars and Earthman, Come Home bear a striking resemblance to the look of the huge refinery that the Nostromo starfreighter is towing back to Earth in Alien. a film Chris Foss contributed design ideas to.

Speaking of Chris Foss and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I was leafing thru the excellent 2011 compendium Hardware: The Definitive SF Works of Chris Foss, and I was reminded of Foss' artwork for the 1977 Panther paperback edition of J.G. Ballards's novel The Drought, and its similarity to that famous shot in the Spielberg film of the SS Cotopaxi cargo ship marooned in the Gobi Desert. Rick McGrath, collector extraordinaire of Ballard first editions was dismissive of Foss' artwork for Panther's late 70's editions of High-Rise, Low-Flying Aircraft and Crash and while I agree that Foss' designs are an ill-fit for the complexities of Ballard's work, I do think his artwork for The Drought is a good match. It's worth noting that Gobi desert sequence was not part of the original Close Encounters cut, but was film in 1979 for what became known as the Special Edition, and I did wonder if Spielberg chanced upon The Drought paperback, but a quick check of Michael Klastorin's superb 2017 book Close Encounters of the Third Kind The Ultimate Visual History reveals that Spielberg included the ship-in-the-desert sequence in the second draft of the screenplay dated September 1975.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Throbbing Gristle - Scala Cinema, London 29th February 1980

Red hot funksters Throbbing Gristle at the Scala Cinema, from left to right, Chris Carter (just visible at the edge of the frame), Cosey Fanni Tutti, Genesis P-Orridge, and sitting behind him, Sleazy... 

The Scala Cinema was the subject of Monday's post, and this afternoon, I've been revisiting Industrial Records' leap day all-nighter at the Scala's old home at 25 Tottenham Street on February 29th 1980. Accompanying TG on the night were Monte Cazazza, and Sweden's Leather Nun, and between sets there were screenings of the films of Kenneth Anger, Antony Balch/William Burroughs and Austrian experimental film maker Kurt Kren. Looking at the official event program it looks like Towers Open Fire was a last minute substitution, perhaps for After Cease To Exist which was conspicuously absent on the night.

February had been a busy month for the group. On the 16th, a small cadre of friends and associates were invited to Industrial Records studio to hear the group perform a new set which adapted and mutated sounds and rhythms heard on the 20 Jazz Funk Greats album. Just over a week later, TG took the freshly minted Heathen Earth session on the road (so to speak) with the first public unveiling at The Fan Club in Leeds. The same set was essentially replicated just five days later at the Scala, but where the Fan Club show can sound tentative and unfocused, the Scala performance in comparison is far more cohesive and refined. Heathen Earth's spoken-word experiment which sounded so inert at the Leeds show was wisely dropped for Scala, and there's a greater emphasis on mood and atmosphere. Another highlight of the show are Chris' rhythm tracks, in particular the robot beat that propels an extraordinary, hypnotic and dubby rendition of Don't Do What You're Told, Do What You Think.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the night was when TG's negative ion generation malfunctioned during their set, unleashing a huge flash of lightning to stunned fans in the front-row, and scrubbing 4mins of the recording with a blizzard of impenetrable static. As was their preference, TG performed first on the night, and in between films and bathroom breaks, Monte Cazazza delivered an abrasive set of violent, squally electronics, while The Leather Nun laid down some primitive garage punk for bleary eyed punters.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Austrian Film Museum Programmes

Monday's Scala post jogged a memory of some cinema programmes I picked up on a visit to the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna in 2012. On my first visit to the museum I picked up just one or two as souvenirs but the following day I went back, and under the watchful eye of the security guard grabbed as many as my pockets would allow. Measuring a petite 10 x 16cm, the programmes are German-only put there are plentiful stills throughout each issue, and each one features a fine selection of interesting American and International Cinema, plus rarely seen Avant-garde and Experimental work. Whilst preparing this post I made the happy discovery that the Film Museum carries an extensive archive of the programmes on their website so if any of the issues in the pictures pique your interest, a copy can be read online on the with some of the text translated into English. If you should find yourself in Vienna, a visit to the museum is highly recommended. And bring some deep pockets.

Monday, 4 March 2019

First look at FAB Press' Scala book

I should have posted this back in November last when FAB Press' long awaited chronicle of the legendary Scala Cinema landed on my desk with a heavy thud. I've only skimmed thru the book so far - the sheer size and weight (over 10 lbs) requires an ergonomic space to enjoy it in, but I can tell from just a few casual passes, that this book is something very special indeed. Author Jane Giles charts a colorful 15 year history of the cinema beginning in 1978 when Palace Pictures co-founder Stephen Woolley launched the Scala film club with an aggressive repertory programme that shoved a finger in the face of an increasingly draconian Thatcher government. The Scala closed its doors in 1993 due to spiraling rent and a scarcity of funds for a long overdue redevelopment, but not before it turned generations of film fans onto the delights of flagship Scala films like Eraserhead, Pink Flamingos and Thundercrack!, plus a steady monthly diet of American Exploitation, European Horror, transgressive Art Cinema and mind-boggling Experimental Film. The genius of the Scala in bringing these seemingly disparate strands of Cinema under one roof is reflected in the Scala's extraordinary monthly programmes, all 178 of them, which are lavishly reproduced in the book.

I've taken a few pictures of the book to give you a flavor of this epic production. I was lucky enough to order an early copy of the book which came in a hard slipcover adorned with beautiful Graham Humphreys artwork. In the final pic in the series, I've strategically placed my Eraserhead DVD and Thundercrack! Blu-Ray alongside the book just to give an idea of the scale. Step over to FAB Press for more info....

Friday, 1 March 2019

Music For All Mankind

I've been compulsively listening to Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks these past few days, and this morning I've put together for our listening pleasure, the suite of music that comprises the ambient portion of the For All Mankind soundtrack, - the 7 Apollo tracks heard in Al Reinert's film, plus the 9 additional tracks which appear on the Music For Films III compilation.

For All Mankind has had a complicated history which I’m not sure I’ve fully untangled. An early draft of the film, then called Apollo, first appeared in 1983 and differed significantly from the version seen today. This early version was presented without the astronaut voice-overs and apparently utilized the entire Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks album with the sequence of music in the film mirroring the album. After a few initial screenings, the film was withdrawn until it re-appeared in 1989 re-cut, re-titled, and re-scored, with some of the original Apollo album tracks (Matta, Understars II, Deep Blue Day, and Weightless) replaced by some previously unheard solo and collaborative tracks by Enos Brian and Roger, and Daniel Lanois, plus a Terry Riley-esque track by John Paul Jones (4-Minute Warning), and a track by the mysterious Misha Malin (For Her Atoms) which I suspect might be an Eno pseudonym. I must stress that is not the definitive For All Mankind soundtrack - I've chosen not to include the songs by Frank Sinatra, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens (although Santo & Johnny Farina's otherworldly Sleep Walk almost made the cut).

The following track listing is based on the order the tracks appear in the film. The imdb's soundtrack listing scrambles the order (and omits track 14, White Mustang). Grab a copy of Music For All Mankind here
  1. For Her Atoms (taken from More Music For Films III)
  2. Theme for Opera (from More Music For Films III)
  3. Always Returning (from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks)
  4. Silver Morning (from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks)
  5. Drift (from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks)
  6. Fleeting Smile (from More Music For Films III)
  7. 4 Minute Warning (from More Music For Films III)
  8. The Secret Place (from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks)
  9. Quixote (from More Music For Films III)
  10. Understars (from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks)
  11. Stars (from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks)
  12. An Ending (Ascent) (from Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks)
  13. Sirens (from More Music For Films III)
  14. White Mustang (from More Music For Films III)
  15. Tension Block (from More Music For Films III)
  16. Asian River (from More Music For Films III)

Monday, 25 February 2019


I’ve been thinking about the humble cassette these past few days, almost pulling the trigger on Machinefabriek's cassette-only Sahara Mixtape album over the weekend, before halting the Paypal payment at the final screen. It's strange to see cassettes making a comeback, the underground/experimental music community in particular has re-embraced this old format in search of a warmer analogue sound (or perhaps anti-digital), but I remain unconvinced that they are nothing other than a cool retro novelty. I have an old Philips 3-in-1 unit to play tapes on, but I find it a cumbersome format - the sheer work involved in finding a favorite track, the endless fast-forwarding and rewinding, a nuisance compared with the needle-dropping precision of an LP or the laser-guided index of a CD. I had a pretty decent tape collection back in the early 90’s, mostly death metal cassettes that were picked up for swaps, or bought when an LP or CD edition wasn’t available, such as Soft White Underbelly, the sole studio album by Sweet Tooth, a fantastic, raucous power trio Justin Broadrick played in around the time of Streetcleaner. Earache issued the album in 1990 on vinyl and cassette (no CD) on their short-lived, one-release imprint Staindrop Records, and given Digby Pearson’s antipathy for re-issuing old Earache albums, I regret now that my tape is long gone.

Good things come in small packages as the proverb goes and I can't ignore the fact that an awful lot of very good music is getting released on cassette only, and some of it looks rather lovely too, with designers taking a very imaginative approach to the limited space of the inlay card. Back in 2016, I actually did buy some music on cassette. Steve Thrower's dark ambient project UnicaZürn, released a cassette-only album entitled Omegapavilion, on the Tapeworm label and while I was a fan of UnicaZürn's 2009 album, the brilliant Temporal Bends, I think it was Danielle Dax's gorgeous artwork that finally pushed me into buying the album, the first cassette I had bought in over 25 years. When this little package first popped through my letterbox I spent days fondling the case like it was some strange fetishistic object, which of course it was - the tape now sits on the CD shelf and gets little play these days for fear that my Philips will mangle the tape ribbon. I just wish the two fantastic sides of Zeit-style cosmic weirdness were instead on a shiny compact disc, or made available as a download. I might still buy the Machinefabriek tape, but I know the digital file offered would most likely end up as the primary listening format and the cassette displayed as a sort of trophy add-on.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

All that evidence of violence...

Years ago, before I was married, I often went to visit my mother in the country. She was still alive in those days. Her house, a little cottage, was surrounded by a garden a little garden, dreadfully neglected and overgrown. No one had tended it for many years and I don't think anyone had ever been in it. Even then, my mother was very ill. She almost never left the house. Still, amidst the ruin of the garden there was something that was, in its way, beautiful. Yes, now I know what it was. When the weather was fine, she often sat at the window looking out at the garden. She even had a special chair by the window. Once, though, I decided that I would tidy things up... in the garden, that is. I wanted to mow the grass, burn the weeds, prune the trees. On the whole, I wanted to redo the garden in my own taste with my own hands. Yes, simply to please my mother. And for two solid weeks I went at it with shears and a scythe. I dug and cut and sawed and weeded. I kept my nose to the ground, literally. And I took great pains to get it ready as soon as possible. My mother's condition grew worse, and she kept to her bed. But I wanted her to be able to sit by the window and see her new garden. In short, when I was finished and everything was ready, I took a bath put on fresh underwear, a new jacket, even a tie. Then I sat down in the chair to see what I'd made, through her eyes, as it were. I... I sat there... and looked out through the window. I had prepared myself to enjoy the sight. Anyway, I looked out the window and saw... What did I see? Where had all the beauty gone? The naturalness of it? It was so disgusting. All that evidence of violence...
Erland Josephson, The Sacrifice

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

David Bowie: Finding Fame

I just want to say that you've given me more pleasure than I've had in a good few months of working, and I don't do gigs any more because I got so pissed off with working and dying a death every time I worked and it's really nice to have somebody appreciate me for a change
David Bowie, Glastonbury, 1971

Francis Whately’s latest Bowie documentary really ought to have been called The First Five Years, following the template of the director’s previous epoch-defining films, Five Years (2013) and The Last Five Years (2017). This third installment begins in 1966 and charts the years Bowie spent drifting thru a series of throwback rock n' roll groups and mod combos in search of an audience, before settling on a peculiar style of English music hall that seemed to please no one - songs like Rubber Band, Uncle Arthur and Please Mr. Gravedigger were a tad too quaint and whimsical for the average rock fan, but too weird and avant-garde for the Anthony Newley crowd. As with the previous films, Whately wisely lets the interviewees do the talking and there are some terrific anecdotes along the way from friends and collaborators such as regulars Tony Visconti, Carlos Alomar, George Underwood, Woody Woodmansey, and Rick Wakeman, plus valuable contributions from members of The Lower Third, and The Riot Squad. Bowie himself is represented by some judicious audio extracts and his comments are often touching and surprisingly honest about his formative years.

Casual viewers who assumed Bowie came fully formed with Space Oddity, might balk at the oddities heard throughout the documentary, and perhaps to spare the blushes of seasoned fans, the song selection reflects his best work at the time - The London BoysThere Is A Happy Land, When I Live My DreamCome and Buy My Toys, Let Me Sleep Beside You. No overview of this era could get away without mention of The Laughing Gnome and it's left to Carlos Alomar to rehabilitate this irrepressible little pest of a song, cheerfully exploring the similarities between The Laughing Gnome and The Velvet Underground's I'm Waiting for the Man. And while he's not terribly convincing, it is great fun to hear the Station to Station guitarist scatting along to what is most likely the quintessential bête noire of Bowie songs.

Some of the most interesting and compelling testimony comes from two women who were particularly close to Bowie at both ends of the 60's. Kristina Amadeus (Bowie's cousin, no less) recalls family life at the Jones home at 4 Plaistow Grove and the contrary relationship Bowie had with his parents, his mother in particular, who's frequently described by those who knew her at the time as being cold and withdrawn. Interestingly Kristina plays down the mythology that has grown up around Terry Burns, Bowie's troubled half-brother who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a condition that served Bowie well when he re-cast Terry as a sort dark spectral presence in his life, and claimed that insanity was a hereditary family curse. Another coup for the documentary is the rare participation of Bowie's first great love Hermione Farthingale, who speaks about their year long romance with great tenderness, and reads out a letter Bowie sent her whilst touring with Lindsay Kemp's mime production Pierrot In Turquoise ("Remember that I love you, and be gooder than good, forever, David"). The couple went their separate ways when Hermione joined the cast of the MGM musical Song of Norway, sensing that Bowie's career was following a different trajectory to her own. Bowie was left broken hearted ("I didn't get over that for such a long time, it really broke me up"), but it led to Bowie writing one of his finest and most autobiographical songs, Letter to Hermione, and considering the crucial involvement of Angel Barnett in the next phase of Bowie's life, perhaps it was just as well. Some of the material showcased throughout the documentary was astonishing.

The Bowie Estate was unusually generous in supplying long lost recordings, demos and rough sketches - some of which I had only previously encountered on lo-fi boots, and the understandable absence of performance footage is made up for with a wealth of rare photographs. In one amusing aside, echoing Decca's famous rejection of The Beatles, Lower Third drummer Phil Lancaster reads the withering summation of the group's ill fated 1965 audition for the BBC penned by a clearly unimpressed talent scout. It's an incredible document. "There is no entertainment in anything they do. It's just a group and very ordinary, too, backing a singer devoid of personality". Thankfully Bowie held his nerve.

The documentary's feature length was generous but still there were a few omissions, notably the involvement of manager Ken Pitt and his attempts to revive Bowie's foundering career, which included landing Bowie some film work. Whately could hardly be criticized for skipping over Bowie's inconsequential 3-second walk on (or rather slide off) appearance in the 1969 film The Virgin Soldiers, but I thought it rather disappointing that no mention was made of Bowie's haunting turn in Michael Armstrong's interesting 1967 short The Image. Bowie later dismissed the film as "awful" but it remains Bowie's most dramatic film appearance up to The Man Who Fell To Earth.

The documentary also seemed to lurch clumsily in the final section between the recording of The Man Who Sold the World and the success of the Ziggy Stardust-era, with Hunky Dory disposed of with a quick flash of the album cover as if Whately wasn't quite sure what to do with it. And for all the scorn heaped on The Laughing Gnome, it's a pity no one made the connection between Bowie's use of the high-pitched voice for that song and the cartoon voices heard on Hunky Dory's closing song The Bewlay Brothers, arguably, Bowie's greatest song. Also, there was no mention of Peter Noone’s cover version of Oh! You Pretty Things, which didn't make its author a household name but must have offered some consolation when it climbed to a respectful 12th position in the UK charts in May 1971. I'm nip-picking of course. These minor objections do not alter the fact that Finding Fame is one of the more comprehensive Bowie documentaries to emerge since his passing and needless to say it is absolutely essential viewing. If you missed the initial BBC2 screening, the film is currently available to view on the BBC iplayer.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Maurizio Bianchi’s Mectpyo Box

I'm currently trawling thru Maurizio Bianchi’s Mectpyo Box, an excellent 10-disc collection gathering up the maestro’s early 80’s albums and rare compilation appearances. One gets a sense that Bianchi and contemporaries Pierpaolo Zoppo and Kevin Tomkins were frustrated with Throbbing Gristle's desire to move away from the harsh electronics and shock tactics of their early studio recordings, and there’s a certain naive storming-the-citadel feeling to this early wave of Industrial Music, as if the young turks were showing the older veterans how the music was meant to sound.

The Mectpyo Box spans some four years of feverish activity before Bianchi ceased making music to became a Jehovah’s Witness, as unlikely as that seems. Or perhaps not, given album titles like Das Testament, The Plain Truth, and Armaghedon. In fact, it might have been Bianchi's interest in spiritual matters that stood his music apart from misanthropic power electronic outfits like Mauthausen Orchestra and Sutcliffe Jügend. In the wake of the 1981 albums Symphony for a Genocide and Menses, which both featured churning noise and lashings of free form psychedelic electronics, Bianchi's music began to reflect a more melancholic mood characterized by his use of space and atmosphere. The two side-long pieces on Mectpyo Bakterium sound like they might have strayed from an experimental science fiction film, the second track in particular, puts in mind Gino Marinuzzi Jr.'s score for Planet of the Vampires. The 1982 album Neuro Habitat introduced a more ambitious effects-laden sound and that same year Bianchi produced one of his key works, Regal, which was distinguished by a more restrained, even soothing Kosmiche flavor. Das Testament another work from 1982, is by contrast, a stark and minimalist affair which reduced the sound to loops of low end apocalyptic rumblings and percussive effects. The 1983 album The Plain Truth returns to the disturbing, spectral ambiance of Regal, while 1984's Armaghedon, consists of two lengthy and unnerving soundscapes originally composed for a film, and perhaps it's appropriate that the first track is reminiscent of Wayne Bell and Tobe Hooper's musique concrète score for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

Packaging wise, the hefty outer box is austerely designed, sporting Bianchi's logo on the front cover, with each of the albums housed in attractive card sleeve replicas of their original issues complete with liner notes and reviews from the underground press. Rounding out the box are 35 inserts containing artwork, photo collages and various writings by Bianchi on the experimental music of the era, including one impenetrable essay on TG !

Maurizio Bianchi Mectpyo Box

Maurizio Bianchi Mectpyo Box

Maurizio Bianchi Mectpyo Box

Maurizio Bianchi Mectpyo Box

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Don McCullin and a Wall in Derry

A supplement to my previous post about photographing the Troubles... Yesterday I caught the hour long BBC4 documentary Don McCullin: Looking for England, in which the great photojournalist, now in his 80’s, takes a journey around the country in search of contemporary English life in all its richness and diversity. It’s a rather lovely and gentle film, full of compassion and kindness, but its timing did jog a memory of a series of photographs McCullin took during a tour of Northern Ireland in 1971 just as the Troubles were intensifying. The images were collected for a 12-page Sunday Times photographic supplement entitled War on the Home Front (19 December 1971), and I was specifically thinking of McCullin’s striking photograph depicting a gang of Derry youths scrambling over a wall to escape a cloud of tear gas fired by British soldiers. It may not be one of the more emblematic photographs that emerged from the conflict but it’s surely one of the most widely seen – in 1980 Killing Joke adapted the image for the cover of their debut album, which served as my first introduction to the work of Don McCullin.

Don McCullin

Killing Joke

I was curious to hear more about the image and McCullin’s experiences in Derry so I turned to his excellent 1992 autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour...
I can vouch for the effectiveness of the CS gas used by the British army against riotous demonstrators in Northern Ireland. The first time I received a serious dose, in the Bogside area of Derry later in 1971, I went blind. The demonstration had become ugly, with rubber bullets and great shards of glass from shattered milk bottles flying around. Then, suddenly, a tremendous burning sensation seized my nose and throat, and forced me to close my eyes. I can remember groping my way back from the fray and leaning my face to a wall. I was thinking that if I could zone in on an area of total darkness and flick my eyes open, the trouble would go away. It didn’t work. As I stood there in total darkness—eyes, nose, throat, ears, mouth, all burning - I felt a great lump in my back. It was a rubber bullet. Behind me a voice said, ‘The bastards. The inhuman bastards.’
I had to pass the British soldiers posted at the street corner. I held up my cameras prominently as the badge of my profession, and saw the looks of scorn and heard the swearing under their breath. As far as they were concerned I was consorting with the enemy which they had just tear-gassed.

Further reading: Whilst preparing this entry, I stumbled across this post by New York blogger Alex who writes about the Killing joke album cover: Back Again to the Bogside: Revenge of the Killing Joke Wall

Monday, 4 February 2019

Shooting the Darkness

We took pictures, not sides... Paul Faith, photojournalist

Shooting the Darkness, a superb new 52min television documentary that screened last week in Ireland examines the work of the photojournalists who captured the brutality of the Troubles through the lens of their cameras. Unlike celebrated combat photographers like Robert Cappa and Eddie Adams who followed conflict around the world, the men profiled in this documentary found war raging on their doorsteps. Before the Troubles several of the photographers were engaged with routine assignments - snapping dignitaries visiting Belfast or in the case of Stanley Matchett, photographing The Dubliners for the album cover of their 1967 album More Of The Hard Stuff. But after the events of Bloody Sunday, their work took on a greater significance as the bore witness to the beatings, bombings, assassinations and wholesale murder that emerged from the conflict. Many of their images flashed around the world, indeed, the devastated streets of Belfast were re-created by Italian documentary film makers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi for their 1975 fantasy film Mondo Candido, a very early example of the Troubles dramatized on film. 

One thing that emerges from Shooting the Darkness is the courage of the photographers, who often put themselves in harm’s way to get a shot of the event they were covering, from large-scale angry disturbances to clandestine invitations by paramilitaries to photograph their dead (which were often fraught with nerves by both parties). The documentary is brimming over with harrowing images of the Troubles, and many of the photographs did not become headline news, but as photographer Hugh Russell opines, even the shots of anonymous, insignificant victims executed in lonely places can pack as much tragedy into their single frames as some of the more high-profile events. From the documentary I’ve selected a few of the more striking images and the stories behind them...

Bloody Sunday 1972

▲ Stanley Matchett's iconic photograph of the body of Jack Druddy being carried down Churchill Road, Derry City after he was shot dead on Bloody Sunday, 30 January 1972, when members of the British Parachute Regiment opened fire on Civil Rights marchers using live ammunition. The image of Catholic priest Edward Daly leading the group to safety whilst waving a bloody handkerchief has become one of the most enduring images of the Troubles. Reflecting on the image, Matchett found a striking parallel between Druddy's body and the depiction of Christ in Caravaggio's painting, The Entombment of Christ. Such was the power of the image, it was later recreated for a mural in 1997 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the atrocity.


IRA bomb, Shankill Road, 1971

▲ Alan Lewis' photograph of an ambulance driver carrying the body of a baby found in the devastation of the Balmoral Furniture Company on the Shankill Road, blown up by the IRA in December 1971. This was in fact the second baby removed from the wreckage that day, Alan Lewis was unable to capture the shot of the first body taken from the blast due to his horror of the event, but 20mins later when the second baby emerged, he composed himself sufficiently to record the moment. Prominent Unionist politician David Ervine later told Alan Lewis that his photograph had been a powerful recruitment tool for loyalists paramilitaries, much to the photographer's distress, who had hoped the image would steer people away from the path of violence.


IRA punishment beating, Falls Road, Belfast, 1971

▲ Trevor Dickson's photograph of a young man tarred and feathered in the Fall's Road area of Belfast in 1971. This was a humiliating and degrading punishment routinely handed out by the IRA throughout the 70's to people accused of minor crimes and transgressions. This is an example of a photograph stage managed by the IRA. Trevor Dickson was tipped off by an intermediary that the punishment was due to take place and was invited to the scene to capture the result with his camera. The photographer recalled that as he was taking his shots, an outraged priest came upon the scene and tried to stop him, but was moved on by the IRA so Dickson could work unhindered.


Killing of John Downes by RUC, Belfast, 1984

▲ Alan Lewis' photograph of the killing of John Downes in Andersonstown, at a nationalist rally in west Belfast in August 1984. Like, Eddie Adams' iconic Saigon Execution photograph, Lewis' captures that frozen moment in time when RUC officer Nigel Hegerty fired a plastic bullet at point blank range at Downes - crucially the puff of smoke from the discharged weapon is clearly visible as Downes recoils from the fatal impact. Eye-witness accounts on the day claim that an unprovoked RUC fired plastic bullets on the assembled crowd, as IRA fundraiser Martin Galvin, who was banned from entering the North, was due to make an address outside Sinn Fein offices. In the melee that followed, Downes ran into to the path of the RUC man who fired a round into his chest, the proximity of the gun would proved fatal.


Funeral of IRA man Brendan Burns, 1988

▲ Paul Faith's photograph of the late Sinn Féin vice President Martin McGuinness pictured with masked IRA men at the funeral of Brendan Burns in February 1988, another example of the publicity-savvy Republican moment. At this point in the Troubles, the British Government had decreed that Republican funerals be strictly family affairs, and placed a ban on any armed shows of force, a hallmark of IRA funerals. On this occasion, a heavy military presence was tracking the funeral cortège, and when masked and camouflaged honor guards appeared carrying the coffin, draped with an Irish flag, riot police swooped in to make arrests.Their efforts were impeded by the crowd who pushed against them and in the confusion, the IRA men were spirited away, but not before Paul Faith was able to capture a moment of defiance, a considerable publicity coup for the Republican movement.


Killing of British soldiers Derek Wood and David Howes, 1988

▲ One of Martin Nangle's shots of plain-clothed British army corporals Derek Wood (pictured above, clutching a handgun) and David Howes moments before they were pulled from their car by an angry mob after mistakenly driving down the path of a Republican funeral in March 1988. One of the more distressing images seen in the documentary, the men who were initially believed to be loyalists were savagely beaten, stabbed, stripped and later executed. This photograph is an example of how a tense situation like a politically-charged funeral could quickly descend into barbarity. When the mob descended upon the car, photographers and news cameramen were ordered by Sinn Fein stewards to give up their incriminating footage, but instead Nangle surreptitiously swapped his footage with a roll of unused film, which in turn was surrendered. It's the kind of quick-thinking coup any photojournalist would admire, but Nangle admits in the documentary that he can take no pleasure in the safe-guarding of these terrible images.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

The Filth & the Fury

I’ve been catching up with a number of Sky Arts things I had taped before Christmas, and last night I caught the 2018 documentary Anarchy on Thames, which I wrongly assumed was a film about the Sex Pistols’ boat trip down the Thames to promote the God Save the Queen single. So I was a little disappointed to discover that the film was actually about the infamous 1976 Bill Grundy interview, 90 seconds worth of television that has been scrutinized to death over the years. Happily though this brisk 30min retrospective was surprisingly enjoyable, and it was good to hear from a few personnel who were in the Thames control room on that faithful day, cheerfully confirming that Grundy was most definitely not drunk, despite him brazenly saying so on air, but rather was a little juiced up and ready to knock his young interviewees down to size. Good to see Alan Jones interviewed as well, recalling his days hanging around the SEX shop, and there's the irrepressible Don Letts, who's momentarily stunned by Bromley boy Simon Barker wearing a swastika armband - and if that seems astonishing now, it’s worth recalling that the BBC’s cringe-worthy Black and White Minstrel Show was one of the most popular shows of the day. Nice too to see Glen Matlock, looking fabulous for a man of 61, recounting a tale he’s probably told a million times by now and having a chuckle at Steve Jones’ priceless (and seemingly unnoticed) comment about the hefty EMI advance “We fuckin’ spend it didn’t we”.

Following the Grundy documentary was the 30min The Sex Pistols Vs Bill Grundy, the final episode of Sky Arts' enjoyable comedy series Urban Myths which dramatizes famous tall tales and half-truths from popular culture. The centerpiece of the episode was the re-staging of the Today Show and while I could nitpick that director Simon Delaney didn't re-create shot-for-shot the original interview, or that the swastika on Simon Barker's armband is cautiously turned out of view, it's the book-ending sequences - the build-up to the interview and the fallout, that were the most enjoyable parts of the episode. An ominous title card warns "3:00pm - 3 hours to transmission", as Steve Pemberton's Grundy begins that faithful day with a few pints down the local, before sweeping into Thames Television studio and shrugging off, in his customary unflappable style, the challenge of the last minute scheduling of the hitherto unknown punk rock group the Sex Pistols. Following the shambles of the interview, the band are camped out in the green room addressing complaints from an angry unsuspecting public, in their own customary style (“wrap it in a pineapple and shove it up your shitter”), while a brooding Grundy comes to the realization that he has unwittingly been caught on the wrong side of history.

Writer Simon Nye sketches the personnel involved in the broadest of strokes - Pemberton's Grundy is the quintessential old fashioned and lecherous TV presenter (I wonder did his family take offence ?), while Kieran Hodgson plays Malcolm McLaren with a snotty Rimbaudesque swagger. Charlie Wernham and Matt Whitchurch are both fine as the vicious hoodlum Steve Jones, and the sensitive soon to be ex-Pistol Glen Matlock, while William Kettle's Paul Cook seems more like an afterthought. Frankie Fox is a real find though, his Johnny Rotten is played with laser-guided precision, and perfectly captures the frontman's dead-eyed, sneering cynicism. Rounding out The Sex Pistols Vs Bill Grundy is a very funny vox-pop sequence of actors playing disgruntled Today Show viewers airing their grievances, including the famous lorry driver who put his foot through his TV in a rage, which most likely is the biggest myth of the Grundy fiasco.

Monday, 28 January 2019

A Sorcerer by any other name...

Preview picture spread for Sorcerer, from the August 1977 issue of UK film journal Films and Filming... I spotted this earlier whilst leafing thru an issue of Films and Filming and I was surprised to see William Friedkin's film presented to British and Irish audiences under its original title, rather than the international Wages of Fear title. Films and Filming often ran previews well in advance of release dates, and I wonder was it the intention of the UK distributor, at this early stage, to release the film under the Sorcerer title, and reap the benefit of the tenuous link to the The Exorcist ?

Sorcerer, Films and Filming magazine

I couldn't nail down an exact theatrical release date for the film on this side of the Atlantic, but it seems the film was in UK theatres by February 1978 - enough time perhaps for the UK distributor to rethink its strategy in the face of the dismal Stateside performance of the film. The director himself writing in his 2013 memoir, offered a combination of theories for the film's failure, among them, the ill-advised choice of title which seemed no more profound than the director borrowing it from Miles Davis' 1967 album which he had been listening to at the time. Friedkin himself wanted to call the film Ballbreaker, which might have looked good stenciled on one of the trucks, but studio boss Lew Wasserman flatly refused. Interestingly,  Films and Filming's review of the Wages of Fear eventually appeared in the May 1978 issue and its inclusion almost feels like an afterthought, considering the lag behind the film's roll out across UK and Irish cinemas earlier in the year. The magazine's chief critic Gordon Gow praised the film's moody atmosphere but felt the film was "careful but dull". To further dispel interest in the film, Gow signed off his review with a touch of regret that the Wages of Fear was a clumsy abridgment of the longer Sorcerer and warned this version of the film had been disowned by its director.

Sorcerer, Wages of Fear, British Quad poster

And then there was the matter of Star Wars. The unveiling of George Lucas's film preceded Friedkin's by a week but it proved a disastrous bit of scheduling - while the queues were snaking around the corners for Star Wars (with some patrons making their second and third visit), Sorcerer was playing to empty theatres. It was enough a signal a sea change in the tastes of film goers who evidently had grown tired of pessimistic character-driven dramas, embracing instead Star War's swashbuckling juvenile fantasia. And yet, four decades on, Sorcerer has been rediscovered by a younger generation who cherish the films made in that halcyon era of American Cinema when art briefly trumped commerce, the film now considered one of the finest films of the decade, and the high-water mark where the wave finally broke and rolled back.