Masters and Hauers

The joy of the movie art tagline. Sometimes just lame and/or perfunctory, other times an art form to itself. Here are some of the gems I have on hand.

The Master:

1 – He hears the silence. He sees the darkness.

2 – The king of martial arts faces a bionic killing machine!

3 – The most feared person of all is a person without fear!

4 – One’s tough – one’s smart

Later Chuck releases often didn’t bother with a tagline. “Chuck Norris” was tagline enough.

Jeff vs. Jeff:

1 (a) – Just try him. (b) No gun. No knife. No equal.

2 – He’s the perfect weapon

Imagine the confusion amongst young cinephiles the world over. They’re not even the same Jeff.

Mind, if I had a time machine, I’d use it to go back and make the tagline for The Perfect Weapon “He’s the Karate Cop”. And, you know, kill Hitler.

Hot Hauer Action:

As if if Rutger with a sword wasn’t enough to secure the rental.

So stupid it’s clever:

Now, that’s just lazy:

Death Wish 6 – “The vigilante is back for vengeance again with a vengeance ..!” Ah, what might have been.

You thought that was lazy:

While the tagline hasn’t completely died, “from the director/writer/caterer of Taken” doesn’t quite cut it.

Keeping the flame burning:

1 – Seven colleagues. One weekend away. It’s time to get slaughtered.

2 – They’re close mates, but not that close.

3 – Part mystery. Part thriller. Parts missing.

These are all on that new fangled DVD format which is all the rage. Not bad.

Top 3

3.

The Stath! Points deducted, mind, for being intentionally funny.

2.

This is genius. The tag is near as big as the title, and downright weird. What is he, radioactive?

1.

Simple, economic and to the point – a thing of beauty.

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Artichoke – Full On (2002)

It was November 2002, I was in London visiting a good mucker and to see ZZ Top at the Hammersmith Odeon (or Hammersmith Butterkist Alhambra or whatever the fuck it’s called now). It was a great gig and the next night we headed to The 12 Bar Club on that street that’s full of overpriced guitar shops (Denmark Street?) for a local punk night. We clocked it as one of those gigs where the bands were probably too young to be in the venue when we saw a couple of these hard rocking mofos, guitars in hand, being dropped off by their mum.

The 12 Bar was a cool wee place. Normal bar to one side and bizarre little venue space to the other, complete with a balcony which, if you stood under it, was so low it obscured your view of the bands from the waist up. We nipped back and forth to the bar as the youngsters played for their pals and then, mid-bill, were knocked out by an unexpectedly grown up crew (in their 20s, mind) who sounded like a mix of The Slits and Fugazi. They played a cracking set and then came through to the bar where we got talking. Bought their EP, got them to sign it, rest of the night’s a pleasant blur.

At one point we got to talking about Fugazi. I mentioned that I’d had a ticket to see them the previous week but couldn’t go (sometimes the world was just a bit too much and even a Fugazi gig couldn’t pull me into it); they had a spare ticket to the London gig, did I want to go? Of course I was on the bus home the next day so missed out on that one as well but that’s the way of these things.

Over the next while I followed Artichoke on what I suspect was probably MySpace. They changed their name to something I’ve forgotten, put some tunes up online and then faded away. Or maybe it was me who faded away.  A shame either way, I’d have liked to have seen them again.

Sadly, if I kept copies of that online material I’ve no idea what I’ve done with it. That leaves me with the EP, Full On. Five songs, 16 minutes of post-punk excellence on a nicely presented CDR. The band is billed here as: Suzy Cargill on drums/vocals, Joe Scannell on bass/vocals, Nadya Ostroff on vocals/guitar and Christian Kramer on guitar/vocals.

Opener Down and Out barrels along on a beefy bass riff and angular chord work, showing that strong Fugazi influence. My recollection from the gig is that the lead male vocalist was guitarist Christian so that would be him singing this one. Although Fugazi remains the most obvious influence throughout including on the next track, Now We Know, Nadya’s lead vocal offsets that with a clear nod to the other primary influence here, The Slits, sounding at times uncannily like Ari Up. Johnny and The One carry on in kind with finisher Like You, a co-lead vocal, having a touch more of the straight ahead early 2000s alt-rocker.

I’d imagine this would be a tricky one to track down but grab a copy if you get the chance. I’ve no idea what the various band members are up to now, though I think I spotted Nadya playing guitar in a later lineup of The Slits, fittingly enough.

Anyway, yeah. Artichoke. Good stuff.

Full On

King Kong (1976)

Slippery Big Oil man Charles Grodin out of Filofax leads an expedition to an unexplored pacific island in the company of stowaway hippie palaeontologist Jeff Bridges out of Nadine and castaway starlet Jessica Lange out of Rob Roy. Once on the island, it turns out there’s not much to offer in the way of oil, so they take home a giant apelike creature instead. While being put on public display in New York, said giant ape expresses its general displeasure by breaking loose and going completely mental.

The first remake, then, of Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 original which has long been considered a classic and rightly so, with its legendary stop-motion animated effects and creature designs still holding up well today. It does have its problems though, particularly the pacing. The first half of the film is downright boring, with nothing much to hold the attention until Kong finally puts in an appearance. The 1976 iteration has no such problems – beautifully shot by Richard H. Kline, the first half of the film looks great and is always entertaining. It sounds great too, thanks to John Barry’s score. Its real problem is that, although the pacing holds up, once Kong finally appears the special effects are a huge let down and they continue to jar somewhat for the remaining running time.

I think I saw this Kong Kong at the cinema when I was wee and then again on the telly in my teens. I was prompted to revisit it for the first time since then, on DVD, after rediscovering Bruce Bahrenburg’s excellent behind the scenes book The Creation of Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong. As a snapshot of the clash of Old Hollywood and the emergent major independent producers of the ’70s it’s a great read.

A lavish Dino De Laurentiis production, this was one of the most expensive movies ever at that point and much was made at the time about the 50 foot-tall mechanical Kong that would be used in the production. It even gets its own onscreen credit. However, impressive as it is, the mechanical Kong actually only puts in a few seconds of screen time, played for the rest of the film by an obvious man-in-a-suit, and a giant mechanical hand. The De Laurentiis production was up against a rival remake in preproduction at Universal, and so the film was shot on an unrealistically tight schedule. Problems with the mechanical Kong couldn’t be ironed out in time and so the man-in-suit solution, in the shape of future makeup effects guru Rick Baker, was arrived at. The end result is an odd clash between a very handsomely shot, lavish production and something that at times just looks cheap and silly. However even the “suit” sequences do have their moments with an attack on a city train being particularly impressive, as is the surprisingly bloody climax set on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.

Scripted by master of high camp Lorenzo Semple Jr. (the ’60s Batman TV series, 1980’s Flash Gordon) and directed with a sure hand by John Guillermin, there’s a great cast of ’70s character actors and supporting regulars at work here (Jack O’Halloran, Renee Auberjonois, Ed Lauter), as well as the three main stars on the rise. Grodin lends depth to his corrupt, ambitious company man and it’s hard, from a post-Big Lebowski vantage point, not to view Bridge’s charismatic turn as a peak at The Dude’s younger years.

In one of old school Hollywood’s last attempts at classic star building, this is former model Jessica Lange’s first film appearance. The camera, of course, loves her but it would be disingenuous to say that she has “Oscar winner” written all over her at this stage. She acquits herself well, though, largely replacing Fay Wray’s incessant screaming from the 1933 film with satirically inclined feminism-lite dialogue of its day (“… you male chauvinist ape!”).

Though perhaps not the all-conquering blockbuster De Laurentiis had been hoping for, it did well enough to merit a belated sequel, the now largely forgotten King Kong Lives (1986). The original has been remade twice since, in 2005 and 2017. The 2005 effort is a complete misfire, overlong, overblown and over reliant on CGI, with a poorly designed Kong to boot. The 2017 take, Kong: Skull Island is actually a lot of fun, completely reinventing the Kong story while getting the CGI and creature designs right.

The 1976 film sits somewhere between its two descendants if, like them, falling shy of the original. Hampered by its schedule and the FX technology of the day, it is still hugely entertaining and often gorgeous to look at.

mde

Tim Curry: Read My Lips (1978)

Quite the mental album this one and one of the most played records on my shelf ever since I was sixteen or so. The first of three albums Tim Curry recorded for A&M, Read My Lips is still something of an obscurity, having never been re-released in any form until just last year.

Produced by Bob Ezrin, it shares the sonic DNA of two of his earlier and best production jobs, Lou Reed’s Berlin (1973) and Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare (1975), not least due to his signature use of atmospheric sound effects. Ezrin also plays keyboards here as he did on those earlier releases with the rest of the principal players on Read My Lips made up of Berlin/Nightmare guitarist Dick Wagner, Michael Kamen on keyboards and Bob Babbet on bass alongside some top session players of the day as well as some interesting guests.

Curry wasn’t writing songs yet so the focus here is on his vocal interpretations and the fantastic Ezrin/Kamen arrangements. The set is a mix of cannily chosen covers with a couple of exceptional originals from Ezrin/Kamen and jobbing singer songwriter Tony Kosinec, here playing acoustic guitar.

Recorded in part in Ezrin’s native Canada, there’s a clear Canadian influence throughout, starting with the choice of a cover of Rough Trade’s Birds of a Feather as the opener. Literate hard rock with added horns, it’s good stuff. A pointer towards the relatively straight forward classic rock treats ahead? Well, no, not so much.

Now, remember, way up there in the first paragraph, when I said this album was ‘mental’? Just the second track in and it really earns those stripes. Wake Nicodemus is a 19th Century ballad about an African slave, written by Henry Clay Work. An abolitionist involved with the underground railroad, Work was also American, which makes the crazy-mad-bonkers arrangement here (by Ezrin and Stu Day) all the more of a mystery. With the help of The Regimental Pipers and Drums of the 48th Highlanders of Canada, what we have here is an epic piece of heavy rock conceptual storytelling in full Tartan face. Completely Scottished up. Wagner’s guitar affects a bagpipesque drone while Curry adopts a burr of heroic proportions. In fairness, his attempt at a Scots accent isn’t entirely cringe-inducing and though the track could have been an embarrassment it manages to pull all of its absurdities together and rock out royally.

A touch of whimsy follows as the Lennon/McCartney tune I Will is given a mellow reggae makeover. Still with the unfortunate accent choices, here the vocals are in a kinda-sorta Jamaican style but it stops mercifully shy of being offensive. The whole thing stays interesting by adopting a slightly Cajun flavour complete with Nils Lofgren on accordion, before left-turning into Brontosaurus, a slowed down, weirded up version of The Move’s late ’60s psychpop hit. Layered slabs of guitar, speeded up voices and industrial drum sounds all come to bear on this one, resulting in a psychedelic stoner rock fun time.

The left turns keep on coming – Kosinec’s Alan could be straight from a broadway musical, with Curry’s actorly delivery bringing its quirky lyric to life. The arrangement is all woodwind and piano with a fantastic turn from Wagner on lead guitar and the overall result is genuinely affecting.

Opening side two, Joni Mitchell’s All I Want is cheerfully re-imagined as a straight forward rocker which is cool and all but it provides no kind of preparation for the emotional sucker punch of the next tune. Written by Ezrin & Kamen, Sloe Gin is something special.

On this fragile, melancholy modern blues, Wagner’s guitar is masterful, Kamen’s Fender Rhodes part is perfectly judged and Curry’s edge-of-breaking interpretation, whether arrived at through experience or performance, is devastating. With its repeated refrain of “I’m so fucking lonely and I ain’t even high/I’m so fucking lonely and I feel like I’m gonna die”, the song taps into what seems like a very real vein of deep depression. It’s desolate and beautiful; you have to remind yourself to breathe while listening.

Sloe Gin fades into a soundscape of street noise, traffic and sirens before bursting into the bait-and-switch arrangement of Irving Berlin’s Harlem on My Mind, moving from heavy blues rock to 1930s pastiche without blinking an eye. The ’30s section features welcome guest turns on trumpet and violin respectively from jazz legends Max Kaminsky and Joe Venuti (in one of his last studio performances), the ideal match for Curry’s Noel Coward-meets-Al Bowlly vocal turn.

The album ends on a high with Anyone Who Had a Heart, an early ’60s Bacharach & David tune which was a hit in the USA for Dionne Warwick and for Cilla Black in the UK. Here, Curry absolutely owns it, his impassioned torch song delivery perfectly complimented by a full orchestral arrangement which reaches John Barry levels of Bondian pomp. Lovely stuff.

Curry followed Read My Lips with two more albums, Fearless (1979) and Simplicity (1981), both of which featured songwriting contributions from the man himself (an earlier, originally unreleased album had a digital-only release in 2010 as … From the Vaults). They all have their strengths but for me, this is the best of them. It really does hold its own against its “older brothers”, Berlin and Welcome to My Nightmare.

For a while there it seemed that its legacy would be limited to the fact that a painfully shallow, neutered cover version of Sloe Gin has become well enough known in recent years to ensure that pub rock bands the world over now murder it by rote on a weekly basis. That would have been a real shame. Happily, last year all three of Curry’s A&M albums appeared on CD for the first time.

I’ll be checking out the reissue of Read My Lips soon enough, given the snap, crackle and pop my LP has developed after thirty-odd years of service – you should too, unless of course you can find yourself a decent vinyl copy.

Read My Lips

I know, I know …

… there’s been something of a lack of updates here of late – and I know I’m echoing an earlier post on the subject – but life’s been getting in the way. A few pieces are ready (ish) for posting soon though. 

2017 is not a year I personally want to dwell on, so there’ll be no “end of year” list this time round.  First up should be a look at Tim Curry’s Read My Lips album (one of my “go to” albums since forever) as well as a few quick movie reviews of stuff I watched over the past year. 

Check back soon – in the meantime, happy new year and all that. 

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

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