What can you say about a film that provides a deft, blackly satirical commentary on modern media? That includes serious firepower both in front of and behind the camera? That offers the most deeply prescient monologue ever captured on film?
Faye Dunaway is the statuesque, resolutely braless (it was the '70s, one supposes) Diana Christensen, a lower-level programming exec at failing TV network UBS. She wants something new, something with theatricality..."angry" shows, anti-establishment stuff. She sees in Howard Beale an opportunity.
Paddy Chayefsky was a seasoned writer who'd worked in TV and Broadway, and whose later works included the stark Altered States. His screenplay offers a healthy dose of the absurd to the proceedings, as at the meeting with Laureen Hobbs (around whom Christensen is building a hopeful ratings hit called The Mao Tse Tung Hour). The topic is ratings and distribution, and a battery of lawyers are present. Hobbs (Marlene Warfield, channeling Angela Davis) seethes at the prospect of her money being tampered with. Her fellow revolutionary (and co-star) finally fires his pistol in rage, closing the argument. "Man, give her the fuckin' overhead clause," he demands.
In another finality, Max leaves Diana. He makes no bones, either, he's the last thing tethering her to flawed humanity, the only bulwark against the "shrieking nothingness" that otherwise constitutes her life. "You're madness, and everything you touch dies with you," he says. "But not me." He's another man from another time, with only memories of bracing newsroom deadlines, Ed Murrow, and a medium not yet given full rein in the minds of its viewers.
Lumet was already a formidable presence when he directed the film. His imprint shaped 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Fail-Safe and Serpico. The year previous, he'd helmed Dog Day Afternoon, another triumph. He picked up a Golden Globe for Best Director, Chayefsky received Best Screenplay, while Finch and Dunaway scored Best Actor and Actress. The latter three repeated their feat with matching Oscars (Finch, sadly, posthumously), while Straight was awarded the aforementioned Best Supporting Actress Oscar: the film's nominations totalled ten.
As if to underscore the movie's enduring passion and message, it was named one of the Top 10 Movie Scripts by the Writers' Guild of America in 2006. It was a fitting capstone for a film that remains as gripping as it ever was, with a message more resonant now than ever.
Brothers in Arms
The group weren't unknowns: they'd already appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test to mixed reception. The appearance wrinkled a few brows, but spread awareness greatly and increased their growing fanbase further. They'd soon blow the lid off the premier UK program, the venerated Top of the Pops, on which they umlimbered a stomping workout called "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us." The single hit #2 UK, the LP #4. Sparks' reputation as left-field, larger-than-life innovators with boundless energy and sui generis sensibilities was established.
They were products of '60s L.A., and pursued art and film studies at UCLA while soaking in both the Sunset Strip scene and the progressive new crop of bands from England. Music seemed a natural outlet, and after a couple of attempts at forming a band (Moonbaker Abbey and Urban Renewal Project), they settled on the name Halfnelson.
Halfnelson produced a 12-song demo called A Woofer In Tweeter's Clothing which - its status as a demo aside - came in a deluxe package, the better to catch the reviewer's eye, perhaps. The band's lineup settled, by 1971, as Ron on keyboards, Russell as vocalist, Earle Mankey on guitar, Jim Mankey on bass and Harley Feinstein on drums, and this is the group that caught the ear of Todd Rundgren. Rundgren lobbied Albert Grossman for the act to record for Grossman's Bearsville label, with Rundgren producing.
The grandeur and world-weary cabaret vocals of Russell transform "Simple Ballet" and "Slowboat," two swaying, moody, quietly insistent songs that build into undeniable emotional crescendos. Earle Mankey contributes the vocal on "Biology 2," a mutated love ditty driven forward by a synth riff that beats Devo to the punch by half a decade. The group's unique orthodoxy informs "Roger" and "Saccharine and the War," which simply cannot be explained: "Big Bands" percolates along nicely until jumping in for the finish with a rocking conclusion complete with a spoken overlay.
Warner Bros. picked up the record for re-release (as by Sparks), but not before one more recording for Bearsville. This time the group chose their demo's name for the LP, and so began the recording of A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing, with engineer Thaddeus Lowe as producer.
It begins with another girl, as "Girl From Germany" puts Lowe's meaty mix on display. There's still a lithe counterpoint that's pure Mael, however. The barnstorming gallop (with calliope interludes folded in) serves notice that again, the listener needs to buck up and prepare for something different. Brisk strings enliven the charming chamber pop of "Here Comes Bob," and it's followed by a strange, martial, alien dream called "Moon Over Kentucky," wherein Russell offers cryptically that "...I'm just finishing my first encounter...what a letdown..."
One indication was the album's penultimate track, "The Louvre." It's sung in effortless French by Russell, and is so smart, agile and Continental that it's a damned monster. It demanded a move, demanded something. Island Records provided that opportunity, but only if it involved the brothers alone. Bringing over a full band would've been a big step. There had been a handful of UK tour dates thus far, so Ron & Russ were able to recruit Martin Gordon (bass), Adrian Fisher (guitar) and Norman "Dinky" Diamond on drums. Muff Winwood (who'd begun doing A&R for Island after the Spencer Davis Group folded) would produce.
The glittered throngs ruled the streets of London in 1973, when Ron began writing the songs for a new album. What he delivered (even though the group continued to defy categories and any sort of labeling) was a gift from the Glam gods. Opener "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" was a shot across the bow and declaration of newfound focus. Speaking of the track, Ron opined "...it's written in A and by God it'll be sung in A." He wrote what he wrote. Russell adapted and dug deep to vocally meet his brother's standards. The next song, "Amateur Hour" was the LP's second single, and its addictive hook took it to #7, a nice companion for the "This Town" #2 posting. The comic narcissism of "Falling in Love With Myself Again" is a big nudge-and-wink for Marlene Dietrich in 3/4 time. Ron again: "Quite honestly, I never liked myself. I'm not my type." The song needs huge guitar, huge drums, and they're here.
The boys' wry humor is everywhere on display here, as on "Thank God it's Not Christmas" (as that's the one day a person can't escape to be alone), and "Hasta Manana, Monsieur," a thematically simple ode to a guy trying to chat up a girl. It soars, though - an anthem on an album of anthems - with lashings more guitar. The track chosen for the US single was "Talent is an Asset," a perky and infectious number wherein those in the orbit of the young Albert Einstein hope he'll remember them when he's famous. Cheeky and enigmatic, "Here in Heaven" and "Complaints" set us up for the swaying pomp and ambiguity of "Equator." A fellow looks around, muttering "...equator, equator, you said you'd meet me here..." so where is his girl? A tootling sax provides a melodic little squib over the falsetto tradeoffs of the title, then we fade. Thankfully, the most recent reissue of the record appends it with the b-sides of the two UK singles, so we're given "Barbecutie" with its pulsing, knotty rhythm, and the blistering guitar underlying "Lost and Found," a punchy number meant to be heard from a single. Thank God for their inclusion.
Fan and writer Madekine Bocaro notes that Karl Stoecker was called in to shoot the LP's sleeve. This was a bit of a coup, as Stoecker was in the midst of shooting acts such as Mott the Hoople: he was also shooting the legendary early Roxy Music sleeves at this time. Two models from Japan's Red Buddha Theatre got dolled up in geisha gear and posed amid an air of amused disdain. Set against a stark, apple-green backdrop, the shot proved an enduring image for an enduring album.
Indeed, if we pull the LP back into the mortal coil of slots, categories and genres, a thought occurs to me. If I posit the band's debut as the greatest US pop debut ever, can't I lay claim to Kimono as being the greatest power-pop release ever? Sure I can, and why not?
So where else can you find a band that's cited by so many as being directly instrumental in their creative birth, including Morrissey and Kurt Cobain?
The brothers anticipated everything. Influenced everything. Transcended everything.
They are Sparks.
That's only the beginning. There are deeply informative pieces on Herbie Hancock, Brian Wilson's new Gershwin-related project, and an interview wherein Sheryl Crow discusses her top 10 Soul influences. There are excerpts from a new Bob Marley book which feature rare photos of the singer from 1975 - 76, shot by Kim Gottlieb-Walker as she moved among the singer and his world. That's one of the great things about Mojo - every issue features a fantastic collection of images, either new or from Pop's back pages. Their pics, whether of musicians or events or the physical ephemera of Pop - records, flyers and so forth - each issue is chock-full of eye candy, and it complements the text wonderfully.
The other end of the issue features the comprehensive media review called, quite rightly, Mojo Filter. Here are musical releases new and reissue, books, DVDs and live shows, all presented with an eye toward the same critical quality as the features writing. In addition to dozens of records, the new history of Rough Trade is reviewed, as are a Leonard Cohen 1972 concert DVD, the censors-angering Iranian film Persian Cats, and a Neil Young/Bert Jansch appearance in Oakland.
I took Rolling Stone to task in the first posting for this blog, and it's a shame. Has almost every US rock mag abdicated its throne entirely? If that is the case, I've still got my glossy treasures from abroad.
To look at this infantilization we should go back to the '40s, to the years before R&B and hillbilly boogie fully combined to produce the first ranks of rock 'n' rollers.
As a counterpoint to the new "maturity" of the '70s (Joni Mitchell, Seals and Crofts, Gordon Lightfoot et al) there was Bubblegum. This phenomenon was less an organic development than a wonderfully marketed production machine that often used studio talent to prop up the marquee vocalist(s), and targeted even small children. They had money, they could buy singles as well as a teen. Even though glossy fan mags had been around since Elvis and Ricky Nelson's heyday, these mags were born anew to print up the likes of Donny Osmond, Tony DeFranco and David Cassidy.
The '80s delivered Joey Lawrence, who used a cuddly-doofus TV role to launch a beat-driven pop career, as well as a group of young hatchlings so perfectly groomed for stardom as to have lain in wait like a Soviet sleeper cell. I refer, of course, to the April 24th, 1989 premiere of The New Mickey Mouse Club.
Although Disney dropped such crap as The Cheetah Girls into our laps, they've also given us Miley Cyrus, whose alternately hysterical/sentimental Hannah Montana headed up a brand that would've made Sinatra blanch in envy, and Walt Disney label Hollywood has seen to it that her musical legacy is firmly in place. Her network colleague Selena Gomez graduated from Barney to The Wizards of Waverly Place and her own band-of-sorts, Selena Gomez & The Scene.
Television's launching pad aside, the rise of stuffed toy Justin Bieber (whose dicovery on YouTube led to multiplatinum success) is perfectly of a piece with the new game, but there are other youngsters amassing a pile by storming the gates. Avril Lavigne perfectly embodies the cynical latter-day ATM that styles itself "pop-punk," while the pleasingly robotic Taylor Swift has bleached "country" of every trace of substance and created a lucrative, purring replacement sound that neither threatens nor comforts.
Again, you can't lay this at the door of a huge, lumbering record label, as the traditional record label is a thing of the past. This is something larger - this is domination at every level of the game.
We're now in its moment, with handheld toys that can send and receive, "like" and Tweet any little pop-chick or boy band anywhere on Earth, any time. Today's target audience, when it's not squealing in tandem, is alone in its own psychic biosphere, texting twee pronouncements on the flashing spectacle on their tiny glowing screens. It's disposable wonder.
At least a 45 was something you could hold in your hands.