Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men."
Photo: Richard Foreman/Miramax

There are few things better than sitting down to watch a brand new movie in the comfy armchairs of the Duke of York's art cinema in Brighton, particularly when its made by the Coen brothers. The new film - 'No Country for Old Men' - is perplexing, mysterious and haunting. visceral, technically superior. Certainly up there with 'Miller's Crossing'.

From left, author Cormac McCarthy and Joel and Ethan Cohen.
Eric Ogden for Time.
Read the excellent interview with the three of them here.

Probably like you I go to the cinema less than I used to; now generally only for big sfx pictures which need to be watched on the largest screen available or art house classics as above. Apart from that, its home viewing which is what this post is about. Now is the time to buy VHS.

Nasturally everyone's getting rid of their VHS collections. Why bother to hang onto those clunky boxes and dodgy tapes when you can get slimline DVDs. Answer: they're cheap as chips. As somone who needs a constant supply of movies fodder and as a social experiment, for the last couple of months I have been haunting the charity shops and boot sales and picked up about 50 movies for an average price of £1.50 - a cult library of stuff such as 'Salvador', 'Deliverance', One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 'Hudsucker Proxy', 'Five Easy Pieces', 'American X' - classics all.

Three particularly excellent discoveries:

'Wild Side' by Donald Cammell (of 'Performance' fame) starring Christopher Walken, one of the great actors and certainly one of the strangest. Never less than intriguing to watch. All Cammell's film are fascinating. More of that anon.
'The Basketball Diaries' featuring a young Leonardo di Caprio, with an intriguing cameo by Jim Carroll, author of the book on which the film is based. Most of di Caprios early films are great: 'Glibert Grape' and 'A Boy's Life' in particular.
'Fritz the Cat', the cult animated film by Ralph Bakshi based on the Robert Crumb characters. Strange to relate, I found a rare VHS of this at the boot sale, took it home, to find its unplayable; the following week, found another copy that worked at the same boot sale. What are the odds of that, I wonder?
It was Bakshi who made a rotoscoped version of 'Lord of The Rings' back in the 1970s. For more on rotoscoping see previous post: PHILIP K. DICK: A SCANNER DARKLY

Most important, one great rediscovery, and this gem I urge you to watch. The second film by Jane Campion, 'An Angel at My Table' is a long and very moving saga about the life of Janet Frame, now regarded as New Zealand's greatest writer.

[Left: Janet Frame stands behind the three actresses who play her at different ages in the film. From left: Kerry Fox, Alexia Cox and Karen Ferguson. They are all brilliant.]

The film, based on Frame's autobiographical trilogy, follows the story of her poor childhood in the Depression, her fascination with literature, her shy student days and her long and painful incarceration in mental hospitals after being misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and subject to repeated ECT treatment. Miraculously she survives, travels to Europe and experiences the bohemian life and finally achieves fame as a writer.

Coincidentally or not, the week after rewatching this powerful and very emotional film, The Guardian ran a feature by Campion which relates how she was almost born to make the 'Angel' film.

Her life changed when, at the age of 13, she read 'Owls do Cry', Frame's first novel, and later drove past the mental home 'Sunnyside' i n which Frame had been incarcerated. Whilst studying film, her mother sent her 'To the Island', the first volume of Frame's autobiographical trilogy and Campion determined to make a tv series on Frame's life, finally getting to meet her on December 24th 1982. Frame suggested she wait until she had published the next two volumes of the trilogy and she promised not to sell the film rights to anyone else in the meantime. The tv series was made successfully and became this superb film; its is to Campion's eternal credit that the film's success revived Frame's reputation and helped her financially in the last years of her life. Campion records that in 2003, when Frame was diagnosed with acute leukaemia, she was reported to have said that her death was an adventure, and "I've always enjoyed adventures." She died on 27 January 2004.

[Campion of course went on to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1993 for 'The Piano', which also earnt her the Palme D'Or at Cannes, the first female director to be awarded that honour]

See: 'In Search of Janet Frame' (The Guardian 19.01.08) The essay forms the introduction to a new edition of the book of 'An Angel at my Table' just republished by Virago.

Excellent Wikipedia entry on Janet Frame

UPDATE: See 'Instant Nostalgia? Let's Go to the Videotape' in the
New York Times

“Be Kind Rewind,” Michel Gondry’s latest adventure in high-concept whimsy, appears to take place in a parallel universe without Netflix, TiVo or iTunes. When the entire VHS inventory of an old-school video store is demagnetized, the clerks respond to the disaster not by upgrading to DVD, but by enlisting the customers to remake the films with a VHS camcorder. Not far beneath the slapstick humor and communitarian spirit of Mr. Gondry’s movie (which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last week and is set to open Feb. 22) lies a strong nostalgia for a technology that revolutionized home viewing but now seems destined for the dustbin of history.'

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Radiohead’s Thom Yorke (left) and David Byrne.
Photo: James Day

Two of the best and most interesting articles on the subject of the modern music
business are two excellent pieces in Wired magazine.
(thanks to bigfug for the tip off)

'David Byrne and Thom Yorke on the Real Value of Music'

[bigfug advises the audio is better than the article]
Also links to:

Coincidentally, the following e-mail message arrived from the founder of
Pandora, one of the most innovative music sites on the internet.
Self-explanatory and indicative of the current state of play

hi, it's Tim,

This is an email I hoped I would never have to send.

As you probably know, in July of 2007 we had to block usage of Pandora outside the U.S. because of the lack of a viable license structure for Internet radio streaming in other countries. It was a terrible day. We did however hold out some hope that a solution might exist for the UK, so we left it unblocked as we worked diligently with the rights organizations to negotiate an economically workable license fee. After over a year of trying, this has proved impossible. Both the PPL (which represents the record labels) and the MCPS/PRS Alliance (which represents music publishers) have demanded per track performance minima rates which are far too high to allow ad supported radio to operate and so, hugely disappointing and depressing to us as it is, we have to block the last territory outside of the US.

Based upon the IP address from which you recently visited Pandora, it appears that you are listening from the UK.

It continues to astound me and the rest of the team here that the industry is not working more constructively to support the growth of services that introduce listeners to new music and that are totally supportive of paying fair royalties to the creators of music. I don't often say such things, but the course being charted by the labels and publishers and their representative organizations is nothing short of disastrous for artists whom they purport to represent - and by that I mean both well known and indie artists. The only consequence of failing to support companies like Pandora that are attempting to build a sustainable radio business for the future will be the continued explosion of piracy, the continued constriction of opportunities for working musicians, and a worsening drought of new music for fans. As a former working musician myself, I find it very troubling.

We have been told to sign these totally unworkable license rates or switch off, that is what we are doing. Streaming illegally is just not in our DNA, and we have to take the threats of legal action seriously. Lest you think this is solely an international problem, you should know that we are also fighting for our survival here in the US, in the face of a crushing increase in web radio royalty rates, which if left unchanged, would mean the end of Pandora.

We know what an epicenter of musical creativity and fan support the UK has always been, which makes the prospect of not being able to launch there and having to block our first listeners all the more upsetting for us.

We know there is a lot of support from listeners and artists in the UK for Pandora and remain hopeful that at some point we'll get beyond this. We're going to keep fighting for a fair and workable rate structure that will allow us to bring Pandora back to you. We'll be sure to let you know if Pandora becomes available in the UK. There may well come a day when we need to make a direct appeal for your support to move for governmental intervention as we have in the US. In the meantime, we have no choice but to turn off service to the UK.

Pandora will stop streaming to the UK as of January 15th, 2008.

Again, on behalf of all of us at Pandora, I'm very, very sorry.

-Tim Westergren (Pandora founder)


I am trying to get my head round what appears to be, on the face of it, some kind of Buddhist lesson.

It has been one of my principal working practices to follow my enthusiasms and investigations wherever they may lead. Sometimes you strike gold; other times, the outcome is downright failure. You never know for sure; either way you learn a lot on the journey.

For the past twelve months my leading obsession has been the musical history of Britain in the 40s and 50s which led me to try and map all the clubs and music venues in Soho - the junction box of British music during that period - from 1942 to 1964. It was a fascinating study. I drew up a large pencil-sketch map and read a bookshelf load of books - keeping both Amazon and Abebooks well fed with orders in the process.

Twelve months in, I happened to mention my project to Mr Jeff Dexter, best known to most as a leading dj during the 60s and 70s, at clubs like UFO and at most major festivals including the Isle of Wight. He tipped me off to these two titles, they arrived within a few days of each other, and I was somewhat taken aback to discover that - to all intents and purposes - the work had been done. A very strange feeling.

'London Live' by Tony Bacon may not be the definitive work on the subject but I can categorically tell you its the most comprehensive to date. Full of maps, posters, handouts, photos, it runs from the 50s to the punk period and includes an astonishing and totally comprehensive database of everyone who played at the Marquee Club, arranged both in date order and by artist. Its obviously a labour of love and it will be enjoyed by many. What was really galling was to discover it was published in 1999 - how the hell could I have missed it!

Pete Frame's book is brand new. He is well known to most as founder of Zigzag magazine and as the author of the Rock Family Trees, now available in one volune from Omnibus Press, which formed the basis of a tv series on the BBC sometime back. One of his hallmarks is an almost obsessive attention to detail.

Thus this mammoth memoir reeks with authenticity, with a feeling that what you are reading is a wholly accurate account of what went down - a feeling bolstered by the fact that the book is built around scores of interviews with key people of the time, many of whom I suspect have never been interviewed before or since. Its a brilliant work and immediately stands head and shoulders above all but a few works on the decade. I can say this with some certainty because I've read scores of them. Most provide genuine insights and useful information but none are anywhere near as comprehensive, level-headed and carefully constructed as this masterwork. We are all in his debt for the thousands and thousands of hours he has spent since 1989, doing interviews and thinking about this project.

It starts, correctly, with several chapters on the marvelous Ken Colyer - the Joe Strummer of his time - a difficult man who had a major impact on his musical times. News of his death was marked by two minutes silence in the House of Commons. Yet today his name has been forgotten except by afficionados.

Then comes Chris Barber - another man whose huge contribution to British music still remains underplayed, and a marvelous pen portrait of Lonnie Donegan. These three characters along with the likes of Cyril Davies and Alexis Korner lie at the roots of so much of British music.

Frame then takes us to Soho of the time, to clubs like the 2I's, The Roudhouse, the Gyre and Gimble, and the Nucleus and gives us a full blast of the characters, action and ambience. He charts the birth of skiffle and the growth of the folk clubs and coffee bars (inventions of the period), the impact of Elvis.

If you think all this stuff is dusty old material of no relevance to today, then you'll be much mistaken. We have up to now been fed a kind of 'official history' of British music which is not only woefully manipulated and partial, but also excludes the many and celebrates the few - most often the wrong ones. 'The Restless Generation' is a huge contribution towards setting this picture straight. Its a big work in every sense of the word, packed with meticulous detail and telling incidents, driven along by a strong narrative style. It comes complete with a detailed chronology and index thus increasing its usefulness as a research tool.

Interestingly, both books are published by independent publishers. In the first instance, the author is also the publisher. Tony Bacon co-founded Balafon in 1992, which he claims on the flyleaf is now 'the leading independent publisher of fine books about music, musicians and musical instruments.'

In the second case, Pete Frame explains in the introduction how he had begun on the process of self-publishing, rightly assuming that no commercial publisher was likely to fund such a detailed work on this subject, when ' who should come tripping back into my life but Johnny Rogan.'

'Since I first got to know him in the golden age of Zigzag, he had not only become the acclaimed author of more than 20 books but had also unlocked the secret codes of publishding. A man with a keen interest in political and social history as well as rock music, he was eager to read the manuscript and, even though he winced at some of my rampant self-indulgence and schoolboy enthusiasm, he offered a deal and a distribution network which I could not refuse.'


As a final PS, many of the comments above could be equally applied to another recently published huge tome - Peter Doggett's 'There's A Riot Going On' [Canongate] - which, in brief, puts the politics back into the history of '60s music - too long portrayed in an emasculated manner as one long LSD party with a big comedown.

The book's thesis: 'That between 1965 and 1972 political activists around the globe prepared to mount a revolution. While the Vietnam War raged, calls for black power grew louder, and liberation movements erupted. Demonstrators took to the streets, fought gun battles with police, planted bombs in public buildings and attempted to overthrow the world's most powerful governments. Rock and soul music fuelled the revolutionary movement with anthems and iconic imagery.'

Like Frame's work, this book has been in gestation for decades, and contains material from scores of original interviews. Veterans of the period may remember the highlights but will have forgotten a great deal of the detail, much of which has only emerged in the decades since.

For those not around at the time, this book will be an instructive education into a period, forty years distant, when it did seem possible for a brief time that youth movements could change the world and how this movement was dissipated and destroyed, repressed and swallowed by the forces of Control and Mammon helped by cynicism and celebrity stupidity .

Whilst not totally agreeing with Chuck V writing in The Skinny (Edinburgh and Glasgow's free entertainment, culture and listings magazine) I think his reaction is an interesting one:

Doggett details the drama of the aborted American revolution

'There’s A Riot Going On traces the rapid decline of 1960s counter-culture from naïve radicalism to uncommitted self-obsession. Psychedelic musicians are exposed as ignorant or hypocritical, movements slip from dynamic idealism to drug-addled cynicism while radical politicians are confused and exhausted.

In breathless prose, Doggett details the drama of the aborted American revolution, expressing disappointment while retaining a tremulous hope in music’s potential. Although Doggett obviously admires the musicians of the late 1960s, he clear-sightedly deconstructs the bizarre mixture of psychobabble and empty rhetoric that characterised the period. John Lennon comes across as a distracted junkie who switches between support for terrorists to flaccid pacifism; Dylan abdicates responsibility for any political stance while artists from Mick Jagger to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young climb on the revolutionary band-wagon without actually offering anything.

Without denying the power of the state - guns, spies and the courts were routinely used to undermine the counter-culture - Doggett reveals how easily capitalism could co-opt the wild energy of the times. Since much subsequent radicalism has taken its cue from the 1960s - adopted the Panthers, Rave took its utopianism from the first summer of love and even the SSP follows the inclusive spirit of 1968 - There’s A Riot Going On is a quietly depressing read. It shows how the energy of youth can be mistaken for commitment, and catalogues some of the stupidest statements made by public figures (on both sides of the conflict). Of course, these days nobody would mistake a concert performed by millionaires as a substitute for meaningful political protest, would they?'


Sometimes - not often - life throws up perfect conjunctions. This picture is the result of one such. Just over a year ago my mum died (see THE 200TH POST for poetic tribute) and over the course of those twelve months much time has been spent sorting out her effects - a difficult and emotional task as many of you will know.

Throughout her life, she was passionately fond of greetings cards - she ran a card department in a big branch of W.H.Smith's for many years - and amassed a large collection of her personal favourites. Until her sight got too bad, she became fascinated by the Victorian pastime of 'decoupage' [see definition below] and used many of the cards as material for a whole string of pictures and objects, most of which she gave away to friends.

[Left]: Here is one of the pictures, faded over time. A centrally- placed window featured in many of her works.

She was very concerned about what would happen to these cards - and the bags of tiny little bits she had cut out of them - and that worry stayed with me. I just didn't feel I could throw them away but knew noone who would want them. Then fate took a hand.

I was invited to an exhibition locally by Maria Rivans - a collage artist par excellence. See examples of her work here

As soon as I saw them I knew I had found the answer to my problem. I explained my story to Maria and, the long and the short of it is I gave Maria a large proportion of the cards and cut-out pieces and commissioned here to produce a collage picture, with a photo of Grace in the centre, in celebration of her art and life. I think you will agree she has done a beautiful job.

(or découpage): the art of decorating an object by gluing colored paper cut outs onto it in combination with special paint effects, gold leaf, etc. Commonly an object like a small box or an item of furniture is covered by cutouts from magazines or from purpose-manufactured papers. Each layer is sealed with varnishes (often multiple coats) until the "stuck on" appearance disappears and the result looks like painting or inlay work. The traditional technique used 30-40 layers of varnish which were then sanded to a polished finish. This was known in 18th century England as The Art of Japanning after its presumed origins. [Wikipedia]