The Ultimate Warrior (1975)

There was none of your internet when I was a wean, none of your streaming, your satellite or cable TV, or indeed your video tape cassettes.  The telly was three channels, eventually four; great late-night movie programming, for sure, but that was your lot.  Much of my enthusiasm for films, particularly sci-fi and the likes, was stoked by reading about them.  I’d pore over the features in my dad’s back issues of Photoplay (the Empire of the ’70s) while all but memorising the likes of Denis Gifford’s Monsters of the Movies and especially Alan Frank’s Sci-Fi Now.

Sci-Fi Now was published on the back of the upsurge in popularity of “fantastic” genre films in the wake of the then recent successes of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  A slim volume – basically an extended essay on science fiction movies and their history – it served as my introduction to The Final Programme, Fantastic Planet, The Cars That Ate Paris, Death Race 2000, A Clockwork Orange … the list goes on.  There were loads of pictures too, most of them on the enticing side of weird.  I was fascinated by these movies, most of which I wouldn’t see for years.  Which brings me to The Ultimate Warrior – Frank is enthusiastic about Robert Clouse’s post-apocalyptic thriller (“an excellent and atmospheric movie”) while noting that the film’s violence was “pervasive and not for the squeamish”.

So, recently I sat down to watch The Ultimate Warrior for the first time.  Over the thirty-plus years since I first read it I’ve seen many if not all of the films from Frank’s book which had sparked my interest, most of them years ago and some of them now firm favourites.  It seemed unlikely that The Ultimate Warrior could live up to that kind of expectation.  As it turns out, while I won’t say it sits beside the very best in the genre, it’s a good film.

New York city of the near future (well, 2012) has been overrun with gangs and general lawlessness in the years following a worldwide ecological disaster which has rendered all food crops non-viable.  One city block is controlled by Baron (Max Von Sydow) who heads a peaceful community numbering among its members his pregnant daughter (Joanna Miles) and her husband, a botanist who has developed fertile plant seeds.  Also in the ranks is a young Stephen McHattie.  The rest of the neighbourhood is controlled by William Smith, whose villainous character is saddled with the name Carrot.  Yul Brynner stars as Carson, a sort of wandering mercenary who throws in his lot with Von Sydow’s group as their head of security.  He is tasked by Baron to take his daughter and son-in-law – and more importantly the crop seeds – to an island safe haven.  Cue plenty of fighting and a lengthy game of cat and mouse through the disused subway system as Carrot gives chase.

Firmly in the “deserted city streets” school of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, the film looks good and is competently directed by Enter the Dragon helmer Clouse.  Yul Brynner is good if oddly cast in a very physical role.  The jazzy score struggles to settle – slightly mismatched to the visuals in places, in others, such as a street chase scene, lending greatly to the atmosphere.  The film’s inconsistencies come close to derailing it – protagonists Brynner and Von Sydow – with their respective Russian and Swedish accents – are supposedly from the USA, the biological pandemic which has brought civilisation to its knees seems also to have somehow rendered guns and motorised transport unusable and the strange introduction to Brynner’s character – he stands motionless in the street for days until someone hires him – goes unexplained.  It seems to be setting up some kind of mystical martial arts hero as per the film’s title but once he’s on board with the Baron’s people, Carson is a perfectly normal guy – just one who’s particularly useful with a knife.  Surprisingly, the film isn’t nearly as violent as Alan Frank’s observations in Sci-Fi Now might have us believe.  While there is some grisly imagery, much of the actual cut and thrust, as it were, occurs off-camera.

There is a hint of optimism in there but with its bookending montages of stationary-shot landscapes and its largely grim view of human nature, The Ultimate Warrior is a downbeat, slightly melancholy film.  That atmosphere lends it weight beyond its limitations.

Tapes for my VCR: The Ultimate Warrior

Original UK Warner’s big box pre-cert release. Online purchase for £11.00

Alan Frank's Sci-Fi Now

Alan Frank’s Sci-Fi Now. Not sure if this is my original copy – it rings a very vague bell that I had to pick up a replacement in the dim and distant past.

ZZ Top: Fandango! (1975)

Following 1973’s Tres Hombres and released in 1975, Fandango! was ZZ Top’s fourth album. Again produced by Bill Hamm, here the 34 minute running time is divided between a live side and a studio side.   The studio cuts are a match for Tres Hombres in quality but the live element stops it quite equalling its predecessor’s status as a classic.

The three live tracks that make up the first side are good, rough and raw.  Kicking off with Texas Blues perennial Thunderbird (curiously credited to ZZ Top though it’s a Nightcaps cover) and Jailhouse Rock, it’s a covers-heavy set with the only originals a retread of Rio Grande Mud‘s Backdoor Love Affair and a new song Back Door Love Affair No. 2, both here in a medley with Willie Dixon’s Mellow Down Easy and John Lee Hooker’s Long Distance Boogie.  These are enjoyable enough, hard rocking numbers but it’s all fairly heavy-handed, particularly in Backdoor Medley, and the overall effect is one of “you had to be there”.

The six track studio side, however, is a thing of wonder – it’s no mystery that half of the cuts here made it to 1977’s The Best Of ZZ Top. The side kicks off with the brilliantly titled Nasty Dogs and Funky Kings which is a perfect piece of ’70s rock.  Then there’s Blue Jean Blues.  One of the great electric blues ballads, its melancholy air serving as a backdrop for one of the finest blues leads you’ll hear.

Balinese offers up a slice of straightforward Southern rock before the loose-limbed Mexican Blackbird, with its killer slide and affectionately unromantic lyric  (“If you’re down in Acuna and you ain’t up to being alone/Don’t spend all your money on just any honey that’s grown/Go find the Mexican Blackbird and send all your troubles back home”).

Heard It On The X is a propulsive paean to the Mexican radio stations of the ’60s, all of which were known by call signs beginning with an X.  Tush is one of those songs that always seems to have been there (it was probably the Girlschool version I knew first). A stone cold classic.

The part live/part studio format isn’t one that’s easy to get right. ZZ Top tried it again in 1999 with the underrated XXX.  Cream did it in the ’60s with Wheels of Fire, though that was a double with one disc studio and one live; in the ’90s, both Sabbath and the Stones garnished live albums with a couple of studio cuts (Reunion and Flashpoint respectively) but the only other “half-and-half” release which really got it right, that I can think of, is Loudon Wainwright III’s Unrequited (released, like Fandango!, in 1975.  Maybe it was a thing).   The two types of performance and recording often don’t really gel and that’s the issue with Fandango!  The studio side is so damn good you can’t help but want more.

ritualobjectsofsightandsound.wordpress.com - ZZ Top: Fandango!

Original Warners paper labels issue, about £4 online.

Love You Till Tuesday (1969)

It’s been a cruel few weeks for music fans.  David Bowie’s death was, for me, robbed of some of its impact coming so soon on the heels of Lemmy’s.  Although I was a fan of Bowie’s work, it was more from a position of admiration than any real kind of emotional connection or visceral appeal (unlike Motörhead).  Nonetheless, he made at least two of my favourite albums (Scary Monsters and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, if you must know) as well as co-producing one of my absolute all timers, Lou Reed’s Transformer.  And the iconography is undeniable – he was David fucking Bowie.

I wasn’t sure what I could write about him or which release to look at but I’d recently picked up a copy of this late ’60’s curio.  It’s something of an oddity which is fitting, more so when considering the sheer variety which characterised his career.

Love You Till Tuesday was conceived as a promotional film by Bowie’s management in 1969 after his first label dropped him.  It seems likely that it was meant for some kind of cinema distribution, probably as a supporting short (that used to be a thing).  In the end it never surfaced, at least not until this 1984 video release.

Nine songs feature in the 28 minute running time, some drawn from Bowie’s Deram debut album plus new recordings Ching-A-Ling, When I’m Five, The Mask and Space Oddity.  Directed by Malcolm J. Thomson (his only directing credit).  The music is typical childhood-and-love obsessed English psychedelic pop of the day, with a more polished Syd Barrett flavour.

Visually, this is mostly Bowie plus an occasional minimal cast miming in a parade of ’60s’ fashions, often against a stark white background.  That’s “mime” in the sense of “lip synch” but also, at one point, in the full-on Marcel Marceau way of things which makes for an … uhm … fascinating (?) watch on the spoken word piece The Mask.

When I’m Five sees Bowie acting in the slightly cringeworthy manner of an infant to a cloying lyric while Let Me Sleep Beside You is a great pop rock number with a straight forward performance clip complete with prop guitar.  Ching-a-Ling features Bowie in backing vocal/rhythm guitar mode and is a pleasant enough piece of psych/folk-pop kitsch, a showcase for Hermione and Hutch (Bowie’s then girlfriend and music partner respectively, presumably under the same management).

The original version of Space Oddity jars a little due to familiarity with the classic version.  The music production is rougher and rootsier, there’s a flute solo, and the visuals are almost cynically “groovy” with sexy spacebirds and that.  Still it’s interesting and is the highlight here, worth checking out by dint of originality if nothing else.

Although of interest largely as a curiosity, Love You Till Tuesday does point towards Bowie’s future groundbreaking tendencies.  I’m not aware of another project quite like this one from the period, and the “video album” – which is essentially what this is – was still more than a decade away.

Tapes For My VCR - David Bowie Love You Till Tuesday

Original 1984 Spectrum sell-through release, about £4 online.

Motörhead: No Sleep ’til Hammersmith (1981)

I’ve deliberately avoided writing an obituary-style piece on Lemmy.  There are many of those out there, better and more insightful than anything I might have contributed.  Suffice to say I am a huge fan of Motörhead.  As a musician, they’ve long been a massive influence (I’ll Be Your Sister was a regular part of my solo blues set for a fair few years and the Dog Moon Howl track Punching Walls was intended as a cheeky wee Motörhead nod).  I was looking forward immensely to seeing them in Glasgow this month.  Sadly it wasn’t to be.  Lemmy’s death took the wind out of my sails somewhat, half expected and yet utterly inconceivable – the unstoppable force that stopped.

I’ve been trawling through the albums and various live videos and the likes and in the end the best way I could think of to remember Lemmy was to listen to No Sleep ’til Hammersmith with a Jack Daniel’s or two.  So I did …

Jesus, what a band Motörhead were.  Proof?  Not only did they have Ace of Spades in their arsenal but they could open with it – a great version at that – and not have the gig go downhill from there.  The many highlights here include: Stay Clean, with its awesome bass solo, those great slightly-psych leads from Eddie Clark on Iron Horse and then there’s No Class with its riff lifted from ZZ Top’s Tush, improving on perfection.  Overkill, the template for the entire thrash scene and still the best.  Furious.  Phil Taylor’s drumming.  Oof.  On We Are the Road Crew, Lemmy’s lyrical skills and knack for looking at things from an unexpected perspective bring us a “rock’n’roll excess” song but from a roadie’s vantage point (“Another bloody customs post/Another fucking foreign coast/Another set of scars to boast/We are the road crew”).  Capricorn is a heavy slab of moody psych-rock.  A real favourite of mine, betraying Lemmy’s Hawkwind roots (and, as per his introduction, his idea of a “slow one”!).  His war/militaria obsession comes to the fore in Bomber, as classic as it gets with this version giving the original studio cut a run for its money. Motörhead, the song, finishes things on a high.

No Sleep ’til Hammersmith is one of a clutch of live albums from the ’70s and early ’80s which were arguably their respective artists’ definitive statements.  Certainly, it stands with Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous and UFO’s Strangers in the Night among the greatest of live rock recordings.  It might be perfect.

I always knew – the only way
Is never live – beyond today
They proved me right – they proved me wrong
But they could never last this long
My life – my heart 
Black night – dark star
Capricorn

Tapes For My Walkman - No Sleep 'til Hammersmith

The original Bronze tape refused to play so a Castle reissue made do.

Vamp (1986)

College fraternity pledges Keith (Chris Makepeace) and AJ (Robert Rusler) go on a road trip to book a stripper for their frat house.  Together with “friend for a week” Duncan (Gedde Watanabe out of Gung Ho) they have a run in with Billy Drago in a white fright wig before happening on a dodgy looking strip club with cockroaches for bar snacks, a creepy manager, a psycho bouncer and a cute waitress/stripper (Dedee Pfieffer).  Oh, and loads of vampires, led by Grace Jones’ Katrina.

Richard Wenk’s Vamp is a minor horror-comedy cult classic which I’d somehow managed to miss over the years.  It’s good cheesy fun – funny in places, creepy in others, its neon lit nighttime street settings combining with the synth heavy soundtrack for a gothic, even goth, atmosphere.  There’s a great, bird-flipping death scene in there and one of the best creepy child-vampires you’re likely to see. The cast is good with Dedee Pfieffer particularly engaging while Grace Jones’ vampire turn is a memorable one, her Katrina pitched somewhere between Nosferatau and Metropolis.

What’s most remarkable about the film though is its very clear influence on later movies.  Drago’s street gang is an obvious template for Keifer Sutherland’s vampire gang in The Lost Boys and as a monster-movie riff on the teen college comedies of the day, it’s no great stretch to say Buffy the Vampire Slayer owes Vamp a debt.  As to a strip club run by vampires?  From Dusk Till Dawn, surely – right down to meeting the queen vamp during a dance sequence (we first encounter Katrina using her powers to mesmerise the audience during a mental ’80s performance art piece).  More surprisingly perhaps, I think it’s fair to say that Watanabe’s Duncan is surely a loose template for both Zach Galifianakis’ and Ken Jeong’s characters from the Hangover movies.

Vamp finds itself at the better end of the horror comedy scene of the ’80s and ’90s.  It does however leave certain questions unanswered – why would a group of vampires keep open oil drums and naked flames next to their coffins?  And, just how difficult was it to hire a stripper in 1986?

Vamp

Original UK big box ex-rental, £10 online.

Stone Cold (1991)

In the most ’80s movie ever to come out of the ’90s, massively mulleted undercover cop Joe Huff infiltrates a biker gang while wearing as few shirts as possible. He has a huge leather goth coat, which is odd, he favours some frankly disturbing thong underwear, which is strange, and has a pet lizard called Fido, which is unusual.  Every ’80s/’90s action movie cliche puts in an appearance here, including a bare knuckle pit fight, covert meetings in pole dancing clubs, the hanging-on-to-the-bonnet-of-a-moving-car bit, everybody shooting everyone else and blowing shit up.  Shit really does blow up a lot in Stone Cold – in fact it must surely be one of the last great “vehicles bursting into flames for no apparent reason” flicks – a lost art today.

This was one of several “star-making” action movies released by the major studios in the early ’90s, presumably off the back of the similar launch of Steven Seagal’s film career after he was plucked from the relative obscurity of the fringes of Hollywood by Warner Brothers in 1988 . Seagal’s Nico [Above the Law], co-written by the star and virtually an expanded showreel right down to a semi-autobiographical intro, went on to be a minor hit in the US and led to a run of box office successes.  For a while after that, these tailor-made star turns must have seemed like no-brainers though they never panned out quite so successfully.  The likes of martial artist Jeff Speakman and jobbing actor/writer Thomas Ian Griffith had their own “Next Big Thing” projects (they’re on the Tapes for My VCR shelf – watch this space!) but first up was American Football player Brian ‘The Boz’ Bosworth. 

The Boz.  Glaswegian readers can stop sniggering in their own time.  No hurry.

Here, as Huff – undercover as John Stone – the fledgling star is pitted against a quality cast of bad’ns.  William Forsythe does that character he does (i.e., Richie in the same year’s Out for Justice) and a surprisingly ripped Lance Henriksen puts in a great scenery-chewing turn as biker gang leader Chains, at one point recalling his father’s dying words as “Don’t, son!  That gun’s loaded!”  Although not in retrospect destined to be the next great action star (it would be five years before he made another film), Bosworth himself is not too bad in a straight ahead action role, while, hot off the back of a couple of B-gems, Action Jackson and Dark Angel, director Craig R. Baxley puts his background in stuntwork to good use.

Stone Cold is full of would-be iconography, most notably a long steadicam shot after the film’s ‘copters-and-machine-guns climax, following Bosworth walking away from the obligatory mayhem, bloody and of course shirtless, as the credits roll.  Oh, sorry, spoiler alert: he doesn’t die.  Earlier scenes borrow liberally from the biggest action stars of the day, the opening set piece in a supermarket lifting simultaneously from Stallone’s Cobra and Seagal’s Hard To Kill, the pit fight lifting from Van Damme’s AWOL and Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian.  Even the box art is a Terminator knock off.  The plot lacks logic and, as mentioned, is cliche-ridden.  However there is a knowing quality here which, while hardly postmodern deconstruction, is enough to keep you onboard through a breathless pantomime of brawling, motorbike chases and lots of explosions.

Tapes For My VCR Stone Cold 1

UK big box ex-rental in good order from Amazon for about £8. This is the “generic cop thriller” side of the reversable box art (boo!).

Tapes For My VCR Stone Cold 1

Other side of the reversable box art: it’s a Terminator movie (yay!).

ZZ Top: Tres Hombres (1973)

By 1973, ZZ Top already had two albums under their belts,  ZZ Top’s First Album and Rio Grande Mud, both more-than-decent slabs of blues and hard rock with the promise of something more.  Third album Tres Hombres easily delivered on that promise and proved to be the band’s first major breakthrough.  With the band hitting a career-best as songwriters and performers, the end result is for many their finest moment, both a near-perfect rock album and a definitive contemporary Texas blues album.

Classic cuts abound:  Waitin’ For the Bus and Jesus Just Left Chicago sit so well together here that they’ve stayed that way on compilations and in live sets ever since.  Both are Texas blues anthems, with Jesus… in particular a standout featuring a stunning guitar turn from Billy Gibbons. In contrast, Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers is, as you might imagine, as “straight ahead rock” as it gets.  La Grange, celebrating a famous Texas brothel, starts out as a ringer for The Rolling Stones’ version of Slim Harpo’s Shake Your Hips before owning that arrangement’s John Lee Hooker heritage and taking it down a rocked-up road all its own.

That Stones influence is apparent too on Move It On Down the Line, a sort of lightweight second cousin to Street Fighting Man. Master of Sparks and Precious and Grace are great funky hard rock tracks while Sheik is a step or two further towards hard-edged funk, quoting the riff from Curtis Mayfield’s Freddy’s Dead and likely influencing Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the process (that Chili Peppers connection is most apparent in the ending, for which the intro to Aeroplane from One Hot Minute is a near soundalike).

There’s a religious element to the lyrics here and there but the themes are not shoved down your throat.  Have You Heard is a gospel number which preaches its damnation-or-salvation message softly: ‘Which way are you comin’ from?  Goin’ up or gettin’ down?”  Countryfied blues Hot, Blue and Righteous employs a similarly light touch while Jesus Just Left Chicago flat-out delights with its mix of Delta and Biblical imagery (“… muddy water turned to wine”).

Everyone here is at the top of their game – Dusty Hill’s gritty bass, Frank Beard’s tough and deceptively intricate drumming, Bill Ham’s pitch-perfect production, the mix of Gibbons’ and Hill’s contrasting vocals – but really this is Gibbons’ masterpiece as a guitarist.  Mixing fat Les Paul and wiry Strat tones, he even pioneers two-handed tapping, both with pick (or rather peso) and fingers, clearly planting the seeds for the likes of Edward Van Halen and Joe Satriani.  His slide playing is masterful too, while the bluesier leads are a clear influence on Stevie Ray Vaughan.

ZZ Top have continued to produce genre-stretching recordings of sheer class over a further four decades (okay, there was a bit of a fallow period in the ’80s when Gibbon’s commendable tendencies towards sonic experimentation led them down a synth-and-drum machine cul-de-sac, and now a new album from them is like chicken’s teeth, but still).  However, they never sounded better than on Tres Hombres.  One of the Great Albums.

ZZ Top Tres Hombres

Original Warner’s tape, paper labels and all that, decent playback, about four quid online.