26 March 2009

They might be giants?

A selection of mock album covers following the well-established album covers meme


Flaming Schoolgirls - The Pure Scientific MindLegendary New Jersey power trio The Flaming Schoolgirls stage their big comeback with this, their ninth studio album.  Relying on the traditional powerful licks of ace axesmith Jerry “Bludgeon” Gutierrez, bandmates Moe McDonald and Carp Carpenter are assured of a successful boost to their pension plans from this confident set of retro-rockers.


Oxyria - We Still Need Comedians 

Belgian techno duo Oxyria have taken the Western European club scene by storm with their heady mix of crunching beats melded with samples of vintage Lenny Bruce gigs.  Expect big things from these on the (comedy) festival circuit.


Vigorish - This Flash Is Everything

A slightly twee, self-produced, Lilith Fair-targeted girl group from Madison, Wisconsin, Vigorish spin a folky web of love-lorn ballads and odes to the perils of being a young woman growing up in contemporary America without ready access to a parental credit card.


Asterix In Switzerland - Procrastinate now, don't put it off 

Hailing from Sunderland, this art-school slacker quartet are undoubtedly bound for greatness, or at the very least, a 2am slot at the Hoxton Bar & Grill.  Asterix In Switzerland have performed as support act to Morrissey’s support act on his 2008 summer tour, and their manager believes they can crack the big time in 2009 as long as they can track down their drummer and bassist, who are believed to be earning pocket money as jobbing plasterers in the vicinity of Scunthorpe.


The Impossible Dream - Defeat Injustice by Evil Means

A minor agit-pop masterpiece from controversial musical activists The Impossible Dream, expect to hear tracks from this new album performed in a student union near you any day now.  Whether they live up to the revolutionary ideals their lyrics ascribe to is open to debate, but one thing is certain: their taste in organic, ethnic cuisine is beyond reproach. 



An unexpected return to form from former soft-rocker David Lee Roth, this new album sees him in reflective form, covering both Both Sides Now and several hand-penned tracks by his new muse, Vonda Shepard.  In the seven-minute extravaganza ‘The Roth of Can’, he exhorts listeners to harness life’s frustrations into useful energy by following his example and devoting their lives to following seminal Krautrock doyens, Can.


Typhoon Tess - Where the werewolf is copy 

Former model and driving instructor Melanie DuBois-Threapleton, performing as Typhoon Tess, has made a name for herself as a singer-songwriter of limited musical talents but commendable honesty about the fact.  Her signature song, ‘Out Of Tune, Honey (Yeah, Again)’, featured on this album as a duet with special guest Britney Spears, is always a crowd-pleaser.


Francisco Aguirre - A good man and a good citizen

Hardcore Catalonian grime artist Francisco Aguirre has traded the damp streets of his second home, London, for the sunnier boulevards of Los Angeles in an attempt to break the US market.  The album title alludes to his recent course of public awareness lectures, given as part of the sentence he received from a judge in Camden for defacing what he thought was Simon Cowell’s Bentley convertible, but which turned out to belong to renowned football hardman and actor Vinnie Jones. 


Awake In America - More Interesting Than Sex

Perennial student band Awake In America are still hitting the college bars across the US despite now having an average age of 37.  When asked how long the Ottumwa, Iowa, band will keep touring, lead singer and band founder Scot Halpin says, ‘man, just as long as it takes to pay off the mortgages on our holiday homes in Fort Lauderdale’.


The Watergate 7

String quartet The Watergate 7 seek to bring the joys of contemporary classical music and trenchant political analysis to the masses.  In this, their fourth album, TW7 tell the story of everyday heroes in the ongoing struggle against dead-end jobs, oppressive bosses and Max Clifford.



Superradiance desperately want to be Soundgarden, but unfortunately all they manage to sound like is Graeme Garden (particularly his vocals on ‘Funky Gibbon’). 

23 March 2009

Each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds

In November 2007 I visited the World War One Western Front with friends, to pay our respects at the sites that were so important to New Zealand's military history.  As most tourists do, we attended the solemn Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ieper (Ypres), and we enjoyed the hospitality at Le Quesnoy, where every Armistice Day the town celebrates its liberation by New Zealand forces in 1918.  We were also able to visit the farming country a short distance northeast of Ieper to see the massive war cemetery at Tyne Cot near Zonnebeke, where many of the remains from the vicious bloodletting at Passchendaele are buried. 

The visit to Tyne Cot was particularly significant for me, as I was able to find the name of my grandfather's uncle, who was killed on the first day of the battle.  Eric Claude Tucker died on 12 October 1917 at the age of 27, and in his memory my great grandparents would later name both my grandfather Claude and his younger brother Eric.  Both men, who are still kicking, are in some small way a living testament to the Tucker family's loss, over 90 years after the event.   

I knew little of Eric Claude Tucker's life when I visited Tyne Cot - in fact, just enough to find his name engraved in Panel 7 of the New Zealand Apse.  This sweeping crescent of stone in a Belgian field is marked with hundreds of names from the farthest corner of the world. 


I was grateful at the time for being able to discover even that much, but in the time since I have been able to locate more details of Eric's life from his military records, some of which are now available online and free of charge.   

The Auckland War Memorial Museum's Cenotaph Database contained a summary of his military record with plenty of useful leads to investigate, and details of the troopship that took him to war.  Archives New Zealand's website provided marvellous scans of a four-page Casualty Form that detailed a chronology of his military service.  The National Library's Papers Past site supplied scans of local newspapers of the day, which helped to reflect the world Eric left behind and the reportage read by the New Zealand public at the time.  And NZHistory.net.nz published a superb letter written by a New Zealander who survived Passchendaele.  These resources enabled me to form a clearer picture of the relatively short life of my grandfather's uncle, and they contained a few surprises too.   


Eric was born on 24 September 1890 in the small Hawkes Bay farming community of Clive, which is located between coastal Napier and inland Hastings.  The Tucker family was well-known here, having left New Plymouth, their original port of arrival in New Zealand in 1841, and resettled in the Hawkes Bay.  The town was occasionally referred to as 'Tucker-town', due to the prevalence of the family name.  There's sleepy Tucker Lane off the main road leading to three dozen properties, and Clive's unassuming war memorial near the bridge displays many examples of the Tucker name amongst the fallen. 

Eric was the son of Sarah Ann and Joseph Tucker of West Clive.  Sarah Tucker (nee Cheer) was 23 when she gave birth to Eric, her second child of what would eventually total a brood of seven.  (The first child, Oswald Langham Tucker (b.1888 d. 1987), was my great-grandfather.  I remember meeting him when I was a small boy). 

Eric grew up to become a butcher, perhaps working in a local shop or in a nearby freezing works.  His military record helps to fill in some blanks: he was of middling height at five feet five-and-a-half inches, and weighed nine stone ten (62 kilos).  He had a fair complexion, grey eyes and light brown hair. 

It appears that he volunteered for Army service, because his date of enlistment was 7 March 1916, and the Military Service Act 1916 did not require enlistment until 16 September 1916.  Issued the serial number 14886, Rifleman Tucker was initially declared unfit for service due to a traditional Tucker affliction: bad teeth.  Given the dental techniques of the time, it is likely that the Army's approach to poor dental health was full extraction and fitting for dentures.  This would have been Eric's first taste of discomfort in his Army career: the extractions would have been particularly painful.

Assigned to the Trentham Military District, Eric spent three months learning the trade of soldiering, probably at Trentham Camp in Upper Hutt.  He may well have spent time in Wellington on leave tickets, and might have been given a few days back in the Hawkes Bay before he embarked for Europe.  Six weeks after enlisting he was reported Absent Without Leave (AWOL), which began what would become a long series of encounters with the military justice system.

On 26 June 1916 Eric embarked on the Union Steamship Company's RMS Tahiti, as a part of 5th Reinforcements, 4th Battalion, H Company.  The troop transport (HMNZT 57) carried the men out of Wellington harbour, and the ship's newsletter, The Tahiti "Truth", later reported the scene:

Handkerchiefs were waving, relatives, sweethearts and friends calling their last good-byes, and as the troopships slowly drew away from the crowded wharf the excitement reached its highest pitch and -- we were gone.  Since that evening the vessels have steamed far over the oceans, but the memory of the farewell will never be effaced.


The "Truth" also reported that 'the sea was inclined to be boisterous and the days before we reached our first port of call were somewhat stormy', which is unsurprising given the wintertime journey. 

The Tahiti called at Cape Town en route to England, and after a passage of three months arrived in Devonport, Plymouth on 22 August 1916.  In the weeks before arrival Eric had gotten into more trouble, with the ship complement's Army commanding officer Captain Hubbard twice requiring him to forfeit pay for misdemeanours (eight shillings on 3 August and 10 shillings on 17 August).  

The day after arrival in England, Eric was housed in Sling Camp on the Salisbury Plain, which became home for thousands of New Zealanders in Britain during World War One.  Troops waiting to be repatriated to New Zealand after the Armistice later carved a large kiwi shape into the chalk above Bulford, which remains to this day as a reminder of the New Zealanders' presence.  View the second clip in this NZ Film Archives collection for an idea of what life at Sling was like – or at least how it was portrayed to the public back home in New Zealand.  

Eric was at Sling for a month, and during this time another AWOL listing was recorded against his name (12 September), for which he was docked a week's pay.  Then it was time to cross the Channel to France.  On 26 September he crossed to Etaples, the principal depot and transit camp for the British Expeditionary Force in World War One.  A few weeks before his arrival, Etaples had been the scene of a major mutiny of troops fed up with the scourge of inflexible military discipline and harsh punishments.  (An Australian serving in the NZEF, Private Jack Braithwaite, was later shot by firing squad for mutiny).

Fortunately for Eric, his time at Etaples was limited as he joined his battalion in the field on 11 October.  He was soon in more trouble with the authorities though, and the punishments for his actions were significantly more severe on the Western Front.  In the first half of 1917 he was listed AWOL three times (24 February, 3 April and 27 May) and was also listed as late or absent from parade on 8 and 10 May.  It is unclear whether this indicated that Eric was a habitual troublemaker or merely one incapable of obeying orders, but in either case the results were serious.  He was given 28 days of Field Punishment No.2 on 26 February and 14 more days on 9 April.  This was a serious development - Field Punishment No.2 involved hard labour in chains.  (Field Punishment No.1 was the same with the addition of being chained to a heavy object).  In addition, for his parade-ground infractions he was fined a total of 14 days pay.      

The month after being absent from parade, Eric was wounded in action.  On 7 June 1917 the British Second Army detonated 19 enormous mines under the Messines Ridge (in an explosion that was reputedly heard in London and Dublin), killing 10,000 German troops in the front line and destroying the village of Messines.  The assault on Messines, more than a year in the planning, succeeded in all its objectives.  The New Zealand Rifle Brigade, operating as part of the New Zealand Infantry Division, seized what remained of Messines village, and in doing so Lance Corporal Samuel Frickleton earned one of the Brigade's two Victoria Crosses in the following manner:

...although slightly wounded, [Frickleton] dashed forward at the head of his section, pushed into our barrage and personally destroyed with bombs an enemy machine-gun and crew which was causing heavy casualties. He then attacked a second gun killing all the crew of 12. By the destruction of these two guns he undoubtedly saved his own and other units from very severe casualties. During the consolidation of this position he received a second severe wound.


Eric was not so lucky.  At some stage on the day of the battle, probably after the successful attack as the German artillery bombarded the newly captured territory, he received contusions and was reported to be suffering from shell-shock.  He was evacuated the next day and admitted to the nearest field hospital to the firing line (the Australian No.2 Casualty Clearing Station), some five-and-a-half miles away in northern France.  His wounds must have been reasonably severe but not life-threatening, because two days after the battle he was transferred again to No.8 General Hospital in Rouen, and the day after that (10 June) to the No.2 Convalescent Depot in the same city.  Here he remained for 10 days, before moving to the nearby village of Buchy and the No.11 Convalescent Depot on 20 June.  By the end of June the Brigade's casualty figures were daunting: Officers, seven killed, 35 wounded and two missing; enlisted men, 157 killed, 912 wounded and 163 missing. 

Eric's return to fitness was a long process, because he remained away from the front lines until August.  On 14 July he moved to an Army depot at Etaples (the base name is unclear in his written record), where he remained until 29 August, when he rejoined the Division.  His Brigade was acting as the Division's reserve, and his battalion (2nd Battalion) was billetted in the town of Borre, on the outskirts of Hazebrouck in Belgium.  The Brigade's official history wrote that:

By this time the men, whose cheerfulness had never entirely deserted them, were beginning to regain their wonted appearance of physical fitness, and were looking forward to a comparatively enjoyable period of training. Their hopes, however, were doomed to disappointment, for a long month's digging under fire, and mostly by night, was about to commence.


Three battalions of the Brigade, including Eric's, were set to work burying signalling cables in the vicinity of Zillebeke, southeast of Ypres.  The 2nd Battalion remained there until 16 September, when it moved back over to the French side of the border to the town of Stein-Je, where it remained for five days until returning to its digging on the front line five days later.  

For some reason at this point Eric, whose military career had not been distinguished by any means, was then shipped back to England for a period of leave, departing on 27 September.  Perhaps the leave was granted to an entire unit rather than just him.  A fortnight's respite from the front lines, particularly in an English-speaking country, must have been a great relief, particularly after having been wounded in action.


After his leave Eric rejoined his unit - 2nd Battalion, D Company, 3rd Platoon - on 8 October.  Everyone must have been gearing up for a big offensive, so his time would have been fully occupied in preparation.  Perhaps he found some time to write a letter to his mother in Clive.  There had been no further black marks on his disciplinary record since 27 May, so his injury may have affected his behaviour, or perhaps the pressure of front-line operations had upped the stakes for bad behaviour to such a degree that it was vital to keep out of trouble.  

Just before Eric's return to the Division it had provided cover for an Australian division's assault on the Broodseinde Ridge.  The New Zealand Division aimed for the Gravenstafel Spur, and advanced 1000 metres to take the position after a successful artillery barrage disrupted the German defences.  There were more than 320 New Zealand casualties, including the former All Blacks captain Sergeant Dave Gallagher, whose resting place is now visited by touring All Blacks teams when they play in Europe.  However, the success of the operation and damage it inflicted on the German Army convinced the Allied high command that another attack was needed to follow up the momentum gained at Broodseinde.  This was to prove a fatal mistake. 

At 5.25am on 12 October 1917 a huge artillery barrage opened up on the German lines at Bellevue Spur, a tributary of the Passchendaele Ridge.  The barrage was less effective than that at Broodseinde, and in some places was misdirected so it fell into the allied lines instead of the Germans', which caused considerable casualties.  The German defences, including barbed wire and numerous concrete pillboxes, were not destroyed by the barrage, and as a misty drizzle turned into heavy rain the New Zealanders and the seven other divisions involved in the assault, which later became known as the Battle of Passchendaele, were pinned down by machinegun crossfire and uncut barbed wire.  Throughout the morning and into the afternoon there were hundreds and hundreds of casualties and no progress could be made towards their objectives. 

On the same day, the Grey River Argus newspaper in Greymouth was reporting the humdrum existence of a small New Zealand town.  Charles Uddstrom's of Mackay Street was staging a closing down sale 'owing to war conditions'.  An advertisement for Watson's Whisky depicted two bearded Scotsmen - Donal explaining to his friend that he had lost his 'luggage' because 't'cork cam' oot, and - my! - 't was Watson's No.10 Whisky!'.  And at the town cinema, Peerless Pictures, the evening's entertainment was to be a film of Romeo and Juliet featuring the famous actress Theda Bara (‘The Vamp’) as Juliet: the film was advertised as being 'in eight reels, length 8000 feet'.  According to IMDB.com, this 1916 American production apparently told the tale 'with the camera focused whenever possible on Juliet, draped in especially skimpy nightgowns'.

The events at Passchendaele were as far removed from the peaceful life of New Zealand as can be imagined.  A week after the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele, the New Zealand soldier Private Leonard Hart wrote to his parents to reassure them that he was alive.  As his letter was being posted by a comrade heading to England, he was able to be more frank than most in his letter, without the fear of the military censor wielding his scissors:

Through some blunder our artillery barrage opened up about two hundred yards short of the specified range and thus opened right in the midst of us. It was a truly awful time - our own men getting cut to pieces in dozens by our own guns. Immediate disorganisation followed. I heard an officer shout an order to the men to retire a short distance and wait for our barrage to lift. Some, who heard the order, did so. Others, not knowing what to do under the circumstances, stayed where they were, while others advanced towards the German positions, only to be mown down by his deadly rifle and machine gun fire.

At length our barrage lifted and we all once more formed up and made a rush for the ridge. What was our dismay upon reaching almost to the top of the ridge to find a long line of practically undamaged German concrete machine gun emplacements with barbed wire entanglements in front of them fully fifty yards deep. The wire had been cut in a few places by our artillery but only sufficient to allow a few men through it at a time. Even then what was left of us made an attempt to get through the wire and a few actually penetrated as far as his emplacements only to be shot down as fast as they appeared. Dozens got hung up in the wire and shot down before their surviving comrades’ eyes. It was now broad daylight and what was left of us realised that the day was lost. We accordingly lay down in shell holes or any cover we could get and waited. Any man who showed his head was immediately shot. They were marvellous shots those Huns. We had lost nearly eighty per cent of our strength and gained about 300 yards of ground in the attempt. This 300 yards was useless to us for the Germans still held and dominated the ridge. We hung on all that day and night. There was no one to give us orders, all our officers of the Battalion having been killed or wounded with the exception of three, and these were all Second Lieutenants who could not give a definite order about the position without authority. All my Company officers were killed outright one of them the son of the Reverend Ryburn of Invercargill, was shot dead beside me.


The 2nd Battalion under Major W.G. Bishop was in the vanguard of the assault, and Eric's company was led by Temporary Captain Daniel Cornelius Bowler (serial 14025), who was also a Hawkes Bay man.  Bowler lived in Davis Street, Hastings, when he enrolled, and his former profession was as a school teacher.  Bowler had travelled to Europe on the Tahiti on the same trip as Eric, and had been awarded the Military Cross (MC) during the course of the war.  At some stage during the assault, Bowler was killed.  His wife would have received an official telegram or letter to her home address, which was now 15 Buller Street, Wellington, a house that was later demolished to make way for a motorway bypass.   

Mrs Tucker of Clive also received such a communication, because at some point on 12 October her son Eric was killed in action, only four days after returning from leave.  His body, like those of so many other soldiers who died in that assault, was not recovered.  There is now no-one alive who knows any personal details of his life before he joined the Army.  Both Eric Tucker and his captain have no marked grave.  Their names are recorded on the same slab of stone in the Tyne Cot cemetery, a meagre testament to lives cut so short.


There were more than 2700 New Zealand casualties, of which 45 officers and 800 men were either dead or lying mortally wounded between the lines. In terms of lives lost in a single day, this remains the blackest day in New Zealand’s post-1840 existence.

- NZHistory.net


The British war poet Wilfred Owen, who later died a week before the war ended in 1918, wrote these words in 1917:

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
    Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
    Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
  Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
  Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
  And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


Eric Claude Tucker (pic)

Eric Claude Tucker

Born in Clive, 24 September 1890

Died at Passchendaele, 12 October 1917

Aged 27


[Photo: Auckland Weekly News, 1917]

16 March 2009

A wizard, a true star


Marc Bolan, born Mark Feld in 1947, was for a time in the 1970s one of the major figures in the British pop scene.  His group T.Rex began as a whimsical hippie troupe, issuing an LP in 1968 with the famously long-winded title My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows.  But as the rock scene grew louder T.Rex became cheerleaders for glam rock, with corkscrew-haired Bolan cast as the glitter pop king and style-setter while Slade brought a rougher, knockabout laddish sensibility to the table and David Bowie cornered the market on wildly inventive androgynous art rock. 

From Ride A White Swan in October 1970 to The Groover in June 1973 T.Rex dominated the British singles charts, with ten top five releases in a row, including four chart toppers: Hot Love, Get It On, Telegram Sam and Metal Guru (my favourite).  After that heyday Bolan’s popularity subsided and his music became somewhat formulaic, never regaining his early 70s peak. 

On 16 September 1977, the day that Maria Callas died, Bolan was being driven home by his girlfriend Gloria Jones (who in 1964 recorded Tainted Love, the song later covered with considerable success by Soft Cell).  At a notorious accident black spot on Queens Ride in Barnes, southwest London, the car left the road and crashed into a sycamore tree, killing Bolan instantly and seriously injuring Jones.  Bolan died just short of his 30th birthday.

I paid a visit to the site this weekend.  In later years the tree has become a shrine for Bolan fans, and two small monuments have been erected at the site.  Queens Ride is a narrow, dangerous piece of road and you can see how easy it would have been for a momentary driving error to turn into a catastrophe. 

Here he is in happier days, performing a typical Bolan number: the deliriously catchy and utterly meaningless Jeepster from the Electric Warrior album, captured live in the 1972 Ringo Starr-directed concert film Born To Boogie.

09 March 2009

My own private Hauraki

One of the oft-commented-upon pleasures of listening to an iPod is the sheer randomness of the experience, and the appealing contrasts and similarities this sometimes generates.  I’ve had my iPod since 2005, and have particularly enjoyed using it since I ditched the crummy Apple earbuds that were supplied with the unit (which leak plenty of noise and never seemed capable of staying in my ears) and replaced them with a more credible pair of Sony in-ear headphones.  The unit itself has only been dropped once or twice, and thanks to its rubber case it’s never been damaged.  But one problem is that with several years of feverish ripping of my CD collection the iPod’s 30GB hard disk is just about full, with around 7000 tracks jostling for space on the ever-filling drive.

The plus side of having a full iPod is that you can spend many, many commuting hours listening to your music collection without hearing the same song twice, unless you want to.  Sometimes it plays tracks you’ve not heard before too, songs you downloaded and didn’t get around to listening to at the time.  I enjoy that aspect of discovery, knowing that if I don’t listen to it right away I’ll still hear it one day down the line on random play, even if it happens to be years later.  But when the randomiser throws up songs in a similar vein it’s nice to imagine that the hard disk random play feature actually ‘knows’ your preferences and caters to them.

Recently on the long morning journey to Essex the iPod’s random function threw up a pair of like-minded tracks in sequence and it put me in mind of a bygone radio listening experience in New Zealand.  I was never a massive radio fan in my youth – in fact I didn’t acquire a proper radio until I was 16.  (If you call a stereo made by Hitachi a ‘proper stereo’ – I think they were better known for power tools at the time).  Even then I didn’t listen to the radio much, partly because of the incessant adverts, but mainly because the music on offer didn’t match my tastes.  Specifically, I was mad keen on the Beatles and Bowie.  I spent my ‘A’ Bursary on a complete boxed set of The Beatles’ albums in 1991 and never looked back.  As a student this predilection for decades-old music was probably quite a social liability, and I certainly found little I liked on the oh-so-hip bFM student station. 

To hear the music of the 60s beat explosion on New Zealand radio in the late 80s and early 90s one generally had to rely on the soporific Classic Hits station or the testosterone-fuelled black t-shirt wearing Radio Hauraki.  This was a less than ideal listening conundrum.  Classic Hits was cuddly, inoffensive and deeply unhip; Hauraki had moronic bogan tendencies and a slightly obsessive fixation on Led Zeppelin.  (Not for nothing is Hauraki’s catch-phrase still the amusingly un-ironic ‘Classic Rock That Rocks’). 

Still, Hauraki was the only option if I wanted to hear something loud-ish and rocky.  If I timed it right I could avoid the daft DJs and jump straight into the station’s favourite song, The Who’s eight and a half minute rock extravaganza Won’t Get Fooled Again from 1971’s Who’s Next.  While I loved the impact and virtuosity of Won’t Get Fooled Again, it wasn’t my favourite Who song, or even my favourite song on the album.  This honour was bestowed on the opening track of Side A: the punchy and innovative Baba O’Riley, which was the first track that popped up in my iPod’s inadvertent homage to Radio Hauraki. 

I’ve always been a sucker for crisp synth sounds, and Baba O’Riley deploys the space-age sounds of early 70s keyboard technology to create a feverishly metronomic propulsive urge throughout the track.  Indeed Pete Townshend’s Lowrey organ work, transferred to backing tapes for live performances, placed The Who in an odd position by shifting the band’s timekeeping role from drummer Keith Moon to a backing tape, because The Who didn’t use a keyboardist on stage: they had to play in time with the tape or the whole performance turned to custard. 

Witness this top performance from Chicago in December 1975: Roger Daltrey issues his thrilling stentorian roar and engages in his signature mic-twirling feats; John Entwistle bends his nimble fingers to the intricate bass parts, and Pete Townshend careens about the stage as the track reaches its crescendo.  But the usually manic Keith Moon is relatively subdued and restrained, wearing heavy headphones to keep pace with the backing tape.  Also notable is the whirling Gypsy bridge section, performed by violinist Dave Arbus in the album version, but here as in nearly all live versions performed by a harmonica-wielding Daltrey to lively effect.

As an aside, this track also brings back fond memories of the wonderful scene in TV series Freaks And Geeks, in which Lindsay gets offside with future boyfriend Nick by referring to the track as ‘Teenage Wasteland’.  It’s a reasonable mistake to make though, because the title of the track is not mentioned in the lyrics.  As Wikipedia points out, ‘the song's title pays homage to Townshend's guru Meher Baba and influential minimalist composer Terry Riley’.

The second instalment in iPod Hauraki land was the effortless artistry of a legendary live rock performance by Lou Reed and a remarkable band in New York in December 1973.  Appearing on Reed’s Rock ‘N Roll Animal LP, the former Velvet Underground track Sweet Jane is paired with a ludicrously talented introduction to build another lengthy workout, topping seven minutes and 48 seconds.  (See my paean to long songs for others of its ilk). 

Aside from the tremendous band performance with its fiery yet note-perfect guitar solos, the main reason I love this track is that a casual listener could be flicking through radio stations and come upon this track without knowing its provenance, and could quite easily get at least three minutes into the performance - the length of many complete pop songs - while simultaneously being blown away by the quality of the performance and being completely unaware of the name of the song or who was performing it.  Here’s the album version of the live recording, featuring stills from concert performances.   


Rock ‘n roll, man!  Rock ‘n roll is here to stay.  Particularly on my iPod, it seems.

03 March 2009

The words she knows, the tune she hums


[Pics: Dreamworks]

Cameron Crowe’s rock flick Almost Famous (2000) brought together a talented cast, a top-notch collection of period tunes and a story that in lesser hands could’ve been pure cheese.  The movie tells its story well, not only because it benefitted from excellent casting and performances, but also because it was an intimately personal tale, with Crowe spinning his own semi-autobiographical memoir, rich with convincingly executed rock concert footage and realistic tales of life on the road with a band culled from Crowe’s own teenage journey with the Allman Brothers to write an article for Rolling Stone in 1973. 

It's a chance for Crowe to re-live his heyday and bring a relatively accurate picture of 1973 rock culture to the screen.  Still, the notion of 'band aids' - girls somehow distinct from 'groupies' in that groupies are only in it for the sex, but 'band aids' are in it for the music - is probably wishful thinking and a narrative device to soften and sentimentalise the often exploitative relationships that occurred between rockstars and the sometimes alarmingly young groupies who followed them.  And it must be said that it's more a picture of white America than America as a whole.  There are few black faces and little black music on display here.  But despite those caveats, Almost Famous still resonates, with Crowe deploying unashamed nostalgia to best dramatic effect. 

The film's main asset, aside from its tremendous soundtrack, which will be addressed below, is its immensely likeable cast.  Like it or not, this film stars Kate Hudson.  I say 'like it or not' because the film isn't meant to be her character's story – it's meant to be the story of Crowe-as-William-Miller.  But given the opportunity to capitalise on a 20-year-old actress with just the right youthful bloom to capture the exuberant role of Penny Lane, the free-spirited 'band aid', Crowe leapt at the chance.  The movie posters and DVD covers feature Hudson prominently, particularly the cheesecake poses in her knickers that misleadingly suggested the movie was going to be a 1973 version of the Victoria's Secret catalogue. 

Hudson had auditioned for the role of Anita, William's stewardess sister, but knew she wanted the bigger role, and in the end she justified Crowe's decision to cast her as Penny.  She later told Scene Magazine interviewer Pam Baker:

I'd just finished shooting a movie in Ireland. To start out, I just wanted to be in a Cameron Crowe film. I'm a huge fan of his, always have been. So, when I first heard he was doing the movie, I didn't know what it was. I just said, I'll do anything. So walked into their audition and I got the part. And when it went to Ireland to do this other movie, they found out that the Penny Lane character had opened up. At the time, I was getting a few other parts coming in, that were bigger roles, so my agent used that as a way to let Cameron know that I wanted to audition for Penny Lane, that I wanted that role. I was calling Cameron, telling him (whispers) Don't listen to my agent, I'm going to do your movie no matter what. Even if you didn't want me for Anita, I would do anything. I'm going to wait for you. Because he had all this stuff going on with this movie, they didn't know when it was going to start shooting. It was sort of up in the air, and I just stuck in there. And I think when I went in to audition for Penny, that day Cameron told me It was really because we talked and I realized you can bring out a part of Penny that was essential for the character. So I was honest with him and stuck in there.

Viewers with longer memories saw strong glimpses of the quixotic charm Hudson’s mother Goldie Hawn brought to her own early roles.  And everyone who has seen Almost Famous remembers Hudson’s crowning moment in the last reel when William tells her that Russell has acquiesced to her 'sale' to Humble Pie in the band managers' poker game.  It's only a moment, but Hudson's reaction shot makes the scene and caps the film perfectly: it’s the emotional range from deeply wounded to resignedly philosophical to smiling acceptance through blinked-back tears, and the delivery of a great punch-line to show that Penny can rise above the perfidy of rockstars. 

It came as no surprise that Hudson was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role.  But my one niggle is near the beginning of the film, where Penny and William bond by each revealing that they're lying about their age.  Patrick Fugit (William) is convincing as a fifteen-year-old (he was sixteen during most of the filming) but Hudson just can't pass for sixteen going on seventeen.  It's a small thing, but it sounds a note of disbelief for the purposes of a joke that wasn't integral to the plot.


The prize for the best moustache in Almost Famous assuredly goes to Billy Crudup as Russell, the talented guitarist in Stillwater, the band William follows and interviews.  (Co-star Jason Lee, who later went on to excel in the TV comedy My Name Is Earl, sports a moustache and beard combo that's too primped by half).  Crudup was excellent in the lead role in Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son, another journey across '70s America.  He's believable and likeable as Russell too - perhaps too likeable, given Russell's willingness to dally with Penny on the road while his girlfriend is at home in New York.  This piggish behaviour was par for the course for rock musicians at the time, and probably still is today, but in the end Crowe settles for a sweet payoff that allows Russell to make amends.  Another Crudup scene to savour is Russell's acid trip at a house party in Topeka, with the famous roof-top pronouncement, 'I am a golden god!', shortly followed by '...I'm on drugs!' and a massive plunge into a swimming pool.  (Crudup will also shortly be seen in the keenly-anticipated Watchmen as Dr Manhattan).      

Frances McDormand was also Oscar nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for her performance as William's mother, and it's a testament to her ability that the audience remains sympathetic to her character, Elaine Miller, rather than resenting her attempts to stand in the way of William's teenage dream of consorting with rock stars.  McDormand is instantly believable as the formidable Elaine, and it is to her credit that Crowe even gets away with using the same joke twice, when a hotel clerk and Russell both tell William that speaking to his mother on the telephone 'freaked them out'. 

The catalyst for William's childhood propulsion into rock fandom is his older sister Anita, who absconds to become a stewardess in the opening scene.  Zooey Deschanel is as luminous as ever in the role – she really does have the most astonishingly beautiful eyes in cinema – and is on top form in the reunion scene with her mother at the end of the film.  In it, Deschanel is the epitome of wary trepidation until she succumbs to relieved yet still guarded affection.  Again, there's a killer punchline - Elaine: 'I forgive you', Anita: 'I didn't apologise...'


Phillip Seymour Hoffman appears in a few scenes as William Miller's muse, the legendary rock critic Lester Bangs.  He brings the wry cynicism of Bangs' take on the future of rock home to the idealistic teenager, pointing out that while rock might seem eternal, in reality 1973 was the last year in which traditional rock music dominated the American musical scene, before the splintering that occurred throughout the 70s divided the nation into a multitude of listening clans, and before the distractions of prog rock and disco diluted the creative influence of rock until the re-emergence of the punk spirit later that decade.  Part of the problem, Bangs explains, was the commercialisation of the hitherto anarchic and liberated rock environment, when the record business reasserted its control over artists and marketing became the primary goal rather than a by-product.  Bangs also helps William to come to terms with his own innate lack of coolness.  When calling Bangs for advice William expresses his relief that the critic was at home to receive his call, to which Bangs replies: ‘Of course I’m home - I’m uncool!’

Patrick Fugit plays the young reporter William Miller well, as a fundamentally decent young fellow.  (It's hard to imagine Crowe allowing many character flaws to creep in, given that William is based on himself).  He has the required inoffensive everyman cuddliness, but is he just a tad too cute?  And in the scenes in which he is required to express anger he lacks the genuine red-faced irritation and volume to ratchet up the tension.  Certainly, Fugit is clearly superior to the excessively cute child engaged to play William as an eleven-year-old.  

Lastly, it's nice to see young Anna Paquin of The Piano Oscar-winning fame playing Polexia, one of the 'band aids', although it's sometimes hard to hear her lines over the hubbub of the crowd scenes in which she often speaks.  Additional Polexia lines appear in the deleted scenes and extended cut of the movie, and some of these are similarly inaudible.  Perhaps her busy career meant she wasn't available to do retakes or redubbing?   

As I mentioned above, the soundtrack for Almost Famous just about guarantees an enjoyable experience, marshalling a rare selection of choice cuts from the period and deploying them to good effect.  Crowe plays each song like a trump card, knowing that it will lend its quality and authority to the narrative.  The best example is of course the reconciliation scene on the tour bus after the misadventures in Topeka, in which the euphoric bliss of Tiny Dancer by Elton John reunites the warring band and hangers-on as one by one they join in singing until the whole bus is resounding to the chorus.    

At the beginning there's the peerless use of Simon and Garfunkel's America as Anita is packing to leave home and find her own life, followed by Sparks, an effortlessly inventive instrumental by The Who, as the young William delves into his sister's record collection, armed with the knowledge that music will change his life. 

There's plenty of other quality songs here, like the seminal Led Zeppelin tracks that feature (the remaining band members are usually reluctant to permit licensing for films), the menacing strut of David Bowie's cover of Lou Reed's I'm Waiting For The Man featuring Mick Ronson in incendiary form, and the blues stomper One Way Out by the Allman Brothers.  

Almost Famous, then, is a film that marries a strong script, quality performances, a coherent artistic vision and great, great music.  By rights it should have stood as one of the best films of its year, but it was not nominated for Best Picture in 2001, despite arguably being the equal of the five films that were nominated that year (Gladiator, Chocolat, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Wo Hu Cang Long; Gladiator won). 

Despite this, Almost Famous actually lost money, costing US$60 million to make yet only recouping $47 million worldwide at the box office.  For a director of the enormously popular (but too saccharine for my taste) Jerry Maguire, which cost $50 million but grossed $273 million, this must have been a major setback.  Almost Famous has probably made its money back since its release, but I presume the expense of what was at least in part an exquisitely-dressed vanity project will dissuade other directors from trying the same gambit.  Which, in the end, is a pity, because in Almost Famous Cameron Crowe made one of the best movies about rock music that's ever been seen.