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

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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

 

 

 

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