The Who: Live at Leeds (1970)

It’s Halloween and the obligatory horror movie viewing is on its way but there’s time first to revisit some classic sounds. Live albums are for some an acquired taste – for me they’re often as not the high water mark of an artist’s output and this is the fucking king of them all, The Who’s Live at Leeds.

Over the last decade or two this album has been revamped and re-released several times. The thing about live albums, particularly from ‘back in the day’ is that limitations of space on vinyl – even double albums – would often lead to large parts of a set list being left off of the finished result. Now by my reckoning, this was no bad thing for the live album as a format.

Particularly in the world of rock music, the live gig is more than “just” the music. In fact, even at a great gig the music may well be slightly compromised by a physically demanding performance, not to mention the missing visual and visceral impact of a spectacular light show. Lasers. Fireworks. That sort of thing.

Don’t believe me? Then try listening all the way through pretty much any live version of the guitar solo from Led Zeppelin’s Dazed and Confused without recourse to Jimmy Page’s theatrics or the fancy laser show. Seriously. Mind, that’s not so much a recommendation as a dare.

So, trimming out these numbers from a live recording can lead to a more cohesive listening experience – a better album. Adding tracks from original concert recordings back in to a live album reissue has become common practice over the years and, while good for completists, it’s not always the best thing for the album itself.

Among the most notable Live at Leeds reissues is a great mid 1990s expanded version presenting the complete kinda-sorta first set played on the night. That’s the version I’m most familiar with … and it is awesome. Then there’s the twice-as-long-again version from the early 2000s which features the entire kinda-sorta second set which is a performance of Tommy in its entirety. I’d avoided listening to that one for a very long time indeed (too much, I felt, of a good thing) but finally checked it out recently … and it is awesome. Since then it’s had the full box set treatment with a whole other concert from the same tour added. I haven’t heard that one … I expect it’s awesome.

Here’s the thing, though. Live at Leeds has long been held as one of the very best live albums, often cited as the greatest of them all. That reputation didn’t come from any digitally remastered two hour spectacular; it came from the original single album, a mere six tracks long.

I have the original tape release here, still sounding great. The CD reissue opens with a phenomenal version of Heaven and Hell which isn’t on the original at all. Yes, I miss it, but this kicks off with Mose Allison’s Young Man Blues, a real gut punch of a slab of heavy electric blues at its most brutal. It sets up the album perfectly and all these years later begs the question, why isn’t Pete Townshend’s rep as one of the great ’60s/’70s guitar heroes more in line with the giants of that scene – Clapton, Beck – yes, even Hendrix? Here, Townshend’s playing is phenomenal (lead and rhythm both). Savage and attacking like virtually no other player of the day – it really doesn’t get better than this. An epic take on My Generation brings the first side to a close (the tape’s running order being different to that of the LP) while Side Two opens with The Who completely owning another couple of covers – an explosive version of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues and a gloriously sleazy Shakin’ All Over (originally by Johnny Kidd & the Pirates). Back to the Townshend originals for definitive takes on Substitute and Magic Bus, each member of the band at the very top of their game.

Here in its original form Live at Leeds is a wonder. At well under 40 minutes it is barely more than half the length of the running time of that terrific ’90s reissue but the sheer impact here is undeniable. “The Greatest Live Album Ever”? Not the kind of terminology I like to apply to music but in this instance, I’m not going to argue.

Live at Leeds

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The Octagon (1980)

Ex-karate champion and secret good Ninja, Scott James (Chuck Norris), becomes embroiled once again in the world of ninjutsu when his wayward step brother, bad Ninja Seikura (Tadashi Yamashita) starts a training camp for what would appear to be weekend Ninjas … car park security Ninjas, perhaps. Dragging Scott reluctantly into proceedings are karate mucker A.J. (Art Hindle), anti terrorist McCarn (Lee Van Cleef) and a couple of potential romantic interests who – spoilers! – are not long for this film. Much karate-based action follows, with plenty Ninjas up trees and that, culminating in a raid on the Ninjas’ octagon-shaped headquarters.  Brilliantly, when we are privy to Scott’s expository thoughts, they’re in the form of a weird whispery voice-over.  Some quality randomness there.

This is a comparatively early outing for Chuck, one of the movies that cemented his reputation as an actual honest-to-goodness film star.  He’s personable enough here and his fight scenes are excellent.  It’s easy to forget, between laughing at the memes and groaning at the man’s personal politics just how impressive his onscreen fighting style was – practical and brutally effective with just enough flash to keep the “ooft!” factor in play – making him for that reason at least an influential figure in martial arts movies and action films in general.

Watch out for a young Ernie Hudson as a karate competitor-in-training and Richard Norton, who would go on to appear in countless Hong Kong vehicles with the likes of Cynthia Rothrock and Jackie Chan before his own brush with DTV stardom in the ’90s. Interestingly, here he plays two roles. As a heavy for a mercenary recruitment operation, he takes an unglamorous kicking from Chuck and is otherwise seen throughout as Seikura’s enforcer, face obscured by a fancy Ninja mask. In this guise, his fight with Norris near the film’s end is fun to watch.

While The Octagon is hardly a classic, it cracks along at a fair old pace.  One of a handful of films directed by Eric Karson (who returned to Ninja movies eight years later with Black Eagle, helping propel a young Jean Claude Van Damme to spin-kicking stardom), this one kicked off the brief early ’80s Ninja craze and was blatantly ripped off the following year for the awful Franco Nero vehicle Enter the Ninja.

I started viewing this via an original pre-cert VHS but my machine started acting up so I switched to an old forgotten DVD. I’m sure the DVD is sourced from the same print, only later, after it had developed some problems. I believe there is now a more recent and generally better DVD version available (the older one is also cut, which I don’t think is true of the VHS).  In this instance though, VHS definitely beat DVD hands down (the format if not the hardware).  Also, check those covers out.  The VHS is epic, the DVD is a load of pish.

The Octagon

 

 

 

Excuses, excuses (and coming attractions).

Apologies for the lack of updates here of late. This has been down to a variety of circumstances, including big changes in my own musical endeavours (oh, all right: career, if you must). Check out the sister blog, Channel Nowhere, for more on that.

Also, I’ve been trying to make shelves for at least 200 audio tapes out of old cardboard boxes and a dim childhood memory of how to do papier mache.

Anyway, I’ve a pile of scribbled notes on recently viewed VHS and DVD gems (including Callan, The Quatermass Conclusion and Haywire) plus some audio goodness, most recently the two ’90s blues collections by The Groundhogs (Hogs in Wolf’s Clothing and The Muddy Waters Songbook). I’ll hopefully have a run of posts up over the next couple of weeks.

Original Motion Picture Score – Ned Kelly (1970)

This is an unfairly overlooked album, representing a pivotal period in the Outlaw country scene. The original Outlaw movement is generally attributed to Waylon Jennings, who did the actual rebelling-against-the-Nashville-mainstream-from-within-the-system that led to the scene’s ascendance, though both Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson were more than doing their bit from outside Nashville (and Johnny Cash had been all along). Other established acts soon followed their lead, including Bobby Bare, whose finest moment must surely be Lullabys, Legends and Lies, his 1973 double album of songs by Shel Silverstein.

Silverstein, it seems to me, is the great unsung hero of the Outlaw scene. He wrote for, and with, various outlaw-related artists including Jennings, Kristofferson and Cash and apart from supplying Bare’s best material, he did the same for Jennings’ cohort Tompall Glaser who also released a full album of Silverstein songs with Put Another Log on the Fire appearing on the the seminal Wanted: The Outlaws album.

In later years Silverstein supplied the songs for the Old Dogs album, a sorta-kinda Outlaw supergroup featuring Jennings and Bare with Merle Tillis and Jerry Reed. But back in 1970, pretty much Outlaw Year Zero (also released that year were Waylon’s transitional Singer of Sad Songs and Kris’ debut, Kristofferson), he wrote the song score to the movie Ned Kelly, starring Mick Jagger as the infamous Australian criminal. And you thought I was going to say “outlaw”.

The album credits Waylon Jennings as the main performer – in fact while he sings the lion’s share of the tracks, Kris Kristofferson takes three, stealing the show on Son of a Scoundrel while fledgling Nashville journeyman Tom Ghent handles the movie’s end title song Hey Ned. Jagger’s underwhelming onscreen performance of The Wayfaring Stranger also features, sounding out of place not least because it’s sourced from the mono location recording and processed for stereo here.

Silverstein’s songs are terrific, with the production (by Ron Haffkine) and arrangements absolutely in step with Jennings’ burgeoning movement. The lyrics reflect the film’s narrative but the songs work independently of the source material, together serving as a concept album.  Shadow of the Gallows and Lonegan’s Widow are wonderful tracks, which would and should belong on any “Best Of Waylon Jennings” compilation. Waylon’s singing on Pleasures Of A Sunday Afternoon is gorgeous, a reminder of just how technically good he was. Son of a Scoundrel is an unsubtle, raucous take on Australian ancestry with Kris on fine form, as he is on The Kellys Keep Coming, an atmospheric spoken word piece with a barroom crowd chorus.

The LP cover is quite the piece of misdirection, utilising the movie poster to the effect that you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a Mick Jagger album (a cynically packaged CD reissue in the mid ’90s repeated the conceit without even the excuse of using the original poster). I don’t think the album is currently available but it is absolutely worth tracking down (prices for the vinyl seem to start at around £20, which is roughly what my copy, in excellent condition, set me back a couple of years ago).  It’s a hell of a record, ripe for rediscovery.

Ned Kelly

The Marine (2006)

Super Marine John Triton (John Cena off of the wrestling) is discharged after heroically but illegally rescuing His Men from some swarthy foreigners who prove no match for his enormous arms. After a stint as a security guard goes amusingly pear-shaped due to fighting, his missus is kidnapped by that Terminator who could turn himself into vinyl flooring (Robert Patrick) and that naked guy out of Spartacus (Manu Bennett) after a bunch of explosions and some fighting. After that, it’s all fighting and explosions.

The Marine

This one is almost derailed at the off by the cheesy title card which is a beyond camp live shot of Cena in full US Marine dress uniform (one of the great unintentionally funny military getups) standing to attention in front of the Stars’n’Stripes before snapping off a salute. Oh dear. The opening rescue mission sequence, right out of the mid-’80s Chuck Norris playbook, doesn’t entirely help matters, being most reminiscent of the Charlie Sheen/ Michael Biehn “classic” Navy SEALS. Clearly, this could go either way.

Happily, once Triton is returned to civvy street and everybody stops saluting, the film hits its stride, turning out to be a total ’80s/’90s action movie throwback, solidly directed by first-time helmer John Bonito. There are ’90s-style “big-bang” heists, great effects and stunt work. Those effects are mostly practical – shit blows up for real – and a succession of satisfying fight scenes deliver a mix of old school duking it out, martial arts and of course, pro wrestling moves.

Even if the script does go from “dumb-but-entertaining” to just plain “dumb” here and there, the pace never lets up so by the time you’ve spat your beer out shouting, “no, hang on a minute”, there’s another explosion and all’s well.  The bad guys are played mostly for laughs, complete with some sub Carry On-style music cues. As the big bad, Robert Patrick is on particularly fine scenery-chewing form.

As befits an early WWE Studios production, the soundtrack features the Smackdown-friendly likes of White Zombie while end credit tune If It All Ended Tomorrow is credited to John Cena and Trademarc – serving now as a reminder of Cena’s old wrestling gimmick (as a rapper – he was on Top of the Pops!). Cena is fine in the action hero role here, handling most of his own stunts and comfortable with the straight-man dialogue.

The Marine was successful enough to spawn several DTV sequels, none of which featured Cena, who went on to make the similarly received, Renny Harlin-directed 12 Rounds.  Since then, his wrestling schedule appears to have largely taken precedence.  Recently though, he’s been picking up critical praise for his comic turns in Trainwreck and Sisters, and this year’s dramatic role in The Wall. Surprisingly director Bonito only seems to have completed one other project, 2011’s Carjacked.

A film I never saw new, and was only vaguely aware of, I picked this up as part of an irresistible “4 DVDs for 99p” charity-shop deal and had no real hopes for it. Turned out to be just-under-25p very well spent. If you find yourself hankering after the likes of Raw Deal or Cobra of an evening, The Marine could well be the very thing.

The Marine cover

 

The Dark Power (1985)

A group of college students decide to move into a house together, little realising that this is the burial site of some Native American sorcerers (yes, sorcerers). It’s all tits and carnage until an ageing, whip-wielding Texas Ranger comes to the students’ aid.

The Dark Power is a regional horror movie, a sub-genre of US zero budget indies best known for The Evil Dead. This one is in truth pretty shoddy but worthy of interest due to a star turn for Lash LaRue, B-movie cowboy legend from the era of Roy Rogers and William Boyd. It’s also known for its box art, a cheesy classic of its kind. The movie was directed by Phil Smoot (a name to be reckoned with) whose only other director’s credit is for the same year’s Alien Outlaw, also featuring LaRue.

LaRue is a fascinating character – his onscreen persona in B-movies of the ’40s and ’50s was a man-in-black, brandishing a bullwhip. He appeared in over thirty of these low budget spectaculars with titles such as Mark of the Lash and King of the Bullwhip and even had his own long-running comic book series. In later years, after a long break from movies spent as a lay preacher in repentance for his unwitting appearance in a soft core porn film, he continued to take the odd B-movie role. His legitimate expertise with the bullwhip also led to him performing in circuses and carnivals during leaner times. Curiously, in 1986, he featured on the back cover of Heroes, the only album ever recorded by Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash as a duo (LaRue, also known as a musician, doesn’t appear on the actual recording although his signature does adorn a brief poem on the sleeve). He also appeared in a couple of the late ’80s “Highwaymen” TV movies (Stagecoach and A Pair of Aces). As mentioned, LaRue’s classic movie image was that of the original “man in black” so perhaps this was an influence on Cash. Most interestingly, he was apparently the inspiration for Indiana Jones’ use of the bullwhip in Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels and served as Harrison Ford’s trainer.

Dark Power Heroes https://ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com

All of which serves to make his appearance four years after Raiders in this weird little horror movie seem quite unremarkable. He’s in his late sixties here, grizzled, game and the only pro in the room.  He’s on the scene as a zombie fightin’ whip crackin’ Texas Ranger, leading to the occasional great quote (“Feel my whip, you son of a bitch!”) and a properly mental scene where he faces down one of the ancient evil sorcerers (yes, sorcerers) with, “Alright, you demonic bastard! Let’s take this outside!”  – and they do! An unlikely whip duel ensues.

The sorcerers (yes, sorcerers) are something special. Presumably there was no costume budget, so it looks like the actors (yes, actors) have been let loose on the dress-up box from an impoverished secondary school theatre arts department. They end up looking like a cross between Klytus from Flash Gordon, Mr. Punch, Wurzel Gummidge and nobody’s idea of a samurai. One, credited as “Tomahawk” (Jerry Montgomery) is, surprisingly for a thousands-of-years-dead Native American, a martial arts whiz. This leads to a fair amount of unintentional comedy with Tomahawk breaking into elaborate displays of axe-twirling karate moves before getting his kill on. Also, in a literally staggering display of racial stereotyping, these fellows enjoy a drink. Apparently, after centuries in the grave, your average Native American wizard (no, sorcerer) likes nothing more than getting a bit rapey after partying with the old fire water. All the more surprising as they start out as the most polite movie monsters ever, accessing the house by actually knocking at the front door.

The Evil Dead ‘presence in the woods’ POV camera shot is copied wholesale, the film is poorly paced, there’s an incredibly tame looking pack of wild dogs and some exceptionally inept production. During the initial bout of standard horror movie mayhem, which takes place at a party with loud music and all, one of the student tenants is being distracted from her studies. “All this partying’s enough to wake the dead!” she shouts – a quality comical line, clearly, because, you know, they actually have woken the dead. Brilliant. Unfortunately the filmmakers forgot to add any party sounds in the edit, meaning that she delivers it to an entirely silent house. On the plus side, there is a decapitation-by-bullwhip scene.

Dark Power dogs Dark Power Heroes https://ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com

A terrifying pack of wild dogs.

If nothing else, The Dark Power is of interest as a historical curio, a just about watchable example of regional horror providing a glimpse into the wayward career of a golden age B-movie star with a few accidental laughs thrown in. And that schlocky box art does look good on the shelf.

Dark Power ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com

UK big box ex-rental VHS tape picked up online for about £7 all-in.

Amanda Palmer And The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil (2013)

Over on my “industry” blog Channel Nowhere, I used occasionally to post a “Top 10 albums of the year” type thing. 2013 was a decent year for music with releases from the old guard leading the field – ZZ Top, The Cult, Van Halen, Neil Young and so on. The top spot, however, went to Amanda Palmer’s Theatre is Evil, of which I had the deluxe download version, having been a cheapskate-level Kickstarter backer.

In the years since, Palmer’s output has been hard to keep up with. Via the Patreon crowd-funding platform, she regularly issues individual songs, EPs and so forth. There have been Bowie and Prince tributes and more besides, including an album of duets (recorded with her dad), a book – and a baby. There’s even been a solo vocal/piano version of Theatre is Evil in its entirety, Piano is Evil. Coming up is a new studio album recorded in collaboration with Edward Ka-Spel of The Legendary Pink Dots. I haven’t heard half of that lot, but I’ll catch up in time.

In the meantime, I’ve been revisiting Theatre is Evil, having recently picked up a copy on CD – it’s a handsome object, a slip-cased three-panel digi-pack with a lavish lyrics-and-art booklet.  What follows here is an updated version of the original review I posted as part of that “Top 10” piece from 2013, which began: Much heralded due to a remarkable Kickstarter campaign, it would be too easy, amongst all the stats and admittedly startling figures, to lose sight of the fact that this is a superb album

Out-with being only slightly familiar with the music of her punk cabaret duo, Dresden Dolls, I first became aware of Amanda (Fucking) Palmer a few years ago, when doing some industry research regarding sales and distribution models (sorry to break it to you folks, but it ain’t all glamour, this business we call show).  It was about the time that Palmer had ditched her previous label, Roadrunner, and released what was for me the song of 2010 (Do You Swear To Tell The Truth The Whole Truth And Nothing But The Truth So Help Your Black Ass).  This led me to check out her sole Roadrunner release, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? which turned out to be an apparently effortless fusion of rock, cabaret, prog, electronica and more; great songs, all backed with a bunch of cool videos.  I was sold.  Then there was an excellent 2011 EP, Nighty Night, as part of art-rock supergroup project 8in8 which was, you guessed it, one of my favourite releases of that year (although I gave her ukelele-led Radiohead covers album a miss, what with not being a fan of either Radiohead or the ukulele).

Palmer’s second ‘full-on’ solo album, Theatre Is Evil – actually her first with impressive new band The Grand Theft Orchestra – builds on everything that came before it.  There are kitchen-sink arrangements, the sound is huge, and the influences are much as described before – cabaret, prog, art rock, electronica, with hints of straight-up rock, pop and punk.  There are echoes of Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, Pink Floyd and David Bowie which are largely subtle, part of the musical palette. Other references are made more knowingly with a pair of back-to-back tracks – Massachusetts Avenue and Melody Dean – giving nods to the same Prince song (I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man) while still managing to sound entirely distinct from each other (Melody Dean also quotes My Sharona both musically and lyrically), and on Bottomfeeder, guitarist Chad Raines stylistically quotes Count Ian Blair’s work from The Rocky Horror Picture Show to great effect.

Most importantly though, underneath all the ambitious instrumentation and clever intertextuality lies a set of great songs, brilliantly performed.  Palmer delivers like Patti Smith meets Debby Harry by way of the theatricality of Tim Curry or Freddie Mercury, with the latter’s penchant for a piano flourish. As a lyricist she combines the raw poeticism of Smith or Lou Reed with the verbal dextrousness of Ani DiFranco and the unsettling frankness of Loudon Wainwright III, crafting pieces that are at once funny and moving.  This is best illustrated by The Bed Song, the only solo piano/vocal performance on the album, telling the story of the core of a relationship unravelling from the beginning to the very end, as melancholy as it sounds but still taking time out to name-check Van Halen and Slayer. Scoring huge “album of the year” points right there, obviously. Meanwhile Do It With a Rock Star comes on like a hard-edged party anthem spin on Wainwright’s plaintive Motel Blues.

So there you have it.  In a year in which I took great joy in the on-form output of the hoary rock gods of my youth, Amanda Palmer knocked me out by outdoing them all. I said in that original Channel Nowhere piece, “Theatre Is Evil is a stunning album – maybe the first Great Album of the decade”. I stand by that – four years on it’s just as commanding. 

Theatre is Evil - ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com

Check out Amanda Palmer’s website: www.amandapalmer.net