Category Archives: Popular Music

Queen – One Of A Kind of Magic

On June 3rd, 1986, “A Kind Of Magic”, the twelfth studio album from Queen was released. The European Magic Tour supporting the album began four days later at the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden.

Magic Tour Inflatable
A cartoon figure from the “A Kind of Magic” cover inflates on The Magic Tour

It was the first Queen album I’d purchased as a Queen fan, the others being purchased after Live Aid and after this album (by early ’87, I had all Queen’s albums on vinyl and still do.)

Highlander Poster

With Queen contributing many songs from this album to epic fantasy film Highlander, there was a sort of return to thematic elements of Queen’s early albums minus the quirky, Tolkienesque lyrics about ogres, titans and fairy fellers. This was Queen doing a concept album 80s-style with syths and Highlander’s immortality theme playing into the tragic reality about to engulf Freddie and the band.

Highlander star Christopher Lambert explains how Queen’s involvement grew:

 “Highlander coming out was a very exciting time for me. What was also very interesting is that Queen were meant to do only one track – it was the opening credits, ‘Princes Of The Universe’, that was the deal. So they sat down for a private screening for them in a movie theatre and Freddie Mercury when he came out, he said all excited: “I’m doing the whole fucking album! This movie is too fucking great!”. They went and wrote the songs in four weeks and went into the studio and it was one of the biggest selling albums of their career. So you know it’s strange, it’s like nobody ever thought that Highlander was gonna be, thirty years later, still a cult movie, music included. About Freddie… there are many good singers, but to be really great it’s not enough just to sing correctly. You have to do it with the heart and he is the best at it.”

Although it was hard to imagine during Queen’s post-Live Aid second wind, “A Kind of Magic” would be the end of an era for them in many ways. It would be the final album before Freddie’s HIV diagnosis in April 1987 (“Innuendo” would be recorded under time constraints and Freddie’s increasing availability issues due to illness). The Magic Tour would be Freddie’s last with the band.

Queen with Mack
Queen with producer Reinhold Mack

It was also the last time they worked with German producer Reinhold Mack. Mack first worked with Queen on “The Game” album in 1979 at Musicland Studios in Munich. He had produced some of Queen’s biggest hits including “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “Another One Bites The Dust”, “Under Pressure”, “Radio Ga Ga”, “I Want To Break Free” and “One Vision.” Brian May said that Mack had been “quite a find” for the band. He was responsible for a different, stripped-back Queen sound, the antithesis of the elaborate, complex sound of previous Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker. With Baker, Queen played every track in the studio until the take was perfect. Mack said they didn’t have to do that and that he could drop in snippets of different takes. This surprised the band and saved them a lot of time. Mack even persuaded Brian to drop his Red Special and play a Fender Stratocaster belonging to Roger on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

Mack Today
The great Mr Mack today

“A Kind of Magic” would also be the last time Queen would do several songs for a movie (here’s hoping the James Bond producers giver Queen + Adam Lambert a shot at the next theme tune).

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Larking about shooting the “One Vision” video

“A Kind of Magic” is a very listenable album. I can listen to it all the way through unlike some of the late seventies albums which were a smattering of big hits and filler. As with Queen’s concerts on The Magic Tour, the album kicks off with the extended version of “One Vision” which teases out the intro superbly until Freddie’s ethereal vocal cry echoes across the synths just before Brian’s euphoric riff kicks in. “A Kind of Magic” the single follows.

One Year of Love

A John Deacon song “One Year of Love is next and it’s the kind of classy, smoky ballad that Sade did so well at the time (saxophone courtesy of the guy who played on “Careless Whisper.”) “Pain Is So Close To Pleasure” is a rare sojourn into Motown stylings for Freddie Mercury (“Cool Cat” on “Hot Space” and B-side “Soul Brother” would probably be the closest tracks to this).

friends will be friends

“Friends Will Be Friends” ends side one. Even though it’s a self-conscious attempt to repeat “We Are The Champions” and didn’t make the UK top ten, I still like it as a song.

WWTLF Shoot
Who wants to live forever? photo shoot

Brian’s “Who Wants To Live Forever” starts side two and, from here on in, it’s all songs from the Highlander soundtrack. Seal and Ronan Keating said this song made them cry the first time they heard it and it is a very beautiful song with lush orchestral accompaniment. It worked well live on The Magic Tour too, although it was still “a new song” as Freddie said and hadn’t found its place among their other hits with the audience yet.

Oh well

Brian Blessed’s Vulcan says “who wants to live forever?” in the battle scene near the end of “Flash Gordon,” Queen’s last big fantasy soundtrack outing. It’s possible Brian unconsciously remembered that line from the previous film but it’s a perfect iteration of Highlander’s themes.

Brian May Flying V
Brian May playing a flying V guitar – a Washburn RR-V

Brian’s rip-snorting “Gimme The Prize” erupts with a cascading Brian May solo, it reaches a crescendo and a sound clip from the film Highlander kicks in (a news reporter comments on one of the many decapitated bodies in the film: “A head, which at this time, has no name.” Clancy Brown’s Kurgen responds with “I KNOW HIS NAME!”). “Here I am!” Freddie declares, “I’m the master of your destiny” (one reviewer at the time compared him to Alice Cooper on this).

Roger’s unsurprisingly drum-heavy “Don’t Lose Your Head” pounds in. It began life as the B-side to the single “A Kind of Magic” under the working title “A Dozen Red Roses For My Darling.” Some thought this was filler (black singer Joan Armatrading pops up to say “Don’t Lose Your Head” over and over for no apparent reason, maybe an attempt by the band to counter negative publicity over their Sun City shows in Apartheid-era South Africa around that time.) It does get a little repetitive but I don’t hate it.

Queen with Christoper Lambert
Queen with Christopher Lambert at the video shoot for “Princes of the Universe”

Then we come to the final track on the album – “Princes of the Universe.” It’s Freddie’s only solo writing credit on the album (almost hard to believe considering he wrote most of Queen’s early albums single-handedly). The title is outrageously camp but the song builds up an incredible head of steam. With Princes, “One Vision” and “Gimme The Prize”, “A Kind of Magic” is probably the closest version to a heavy metal version of Queen we ever got. The single of “Princes of the Universe” was released in America and the video featured Highlander star Christopher Lambert crossing swords and sawn-off microphone stand with Freddie.

Lambert Versus Freddie
The Highander Vs The Messenger of The Gods

It would be three years before the next Queen album was released, the longest gap there had ever been between albums up to that point. There followed a frenzied period of activity to get new Queen material out before Freddie’s inevitable demise. So “A Kind of Magic” is a demarcation point between what went before and the beginning of the end of Queen Mach 1 (two more would follow with Paul Rodgers and now with Adam Lambert.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

 

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Stage Fright or Tripping Up in Fantastic Light

“You can go onto that stage every night, and it’s always the equivalent of going onto the topmost diving board, and you don’t know if there’s any water in the pool” – Glenda Jackson

Glenda Jackson
Glenda Jackson then and now

Stage fright occurs when a knowledge of the work being performed is replaced with a self-conscious awareness of the staring crowd and their expectations. Once it supersedes a performer’s confidence, it is difficult if not impossible for them to perform live again. Then the crippling flight response we’re all aware of comes into play.

Many celebrities suffer from it. After forgetting the lyrics to a song during a 1967 performance in Central Park, Barbara Streisand didn’t perform to a paying crowd for 27 years.

Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac said this:

Stevie Nicks Stage Fright

Abba’s Agnetha Faltskog also had a tough time with the dreaded performance anxiety.

Agnetha Falkstog

Even Adele, the biggest star in the world, has had her problems with it.

“I’m scared of audiences,” Adele revealed to Rolling Stone magazine. “One show in Amsterdam I was so nervous, I escaped out the fire exit. I’ve thrown up a couple of times. Once in Brussels, I projectile vomited on someone. I just gotta bear it. But I don’t like touring. I have anxiety attacks a lot.”

So what causes stage fright?

 Causes of Stage Fright

The infographic above begins with “inadequate preparation”, so it’s blaming the performer from the off. That’s unfair, even the most meticulously-prepared performer can forget lines and seize up in the glare of the spotlight. The mind goes blank and recall disappears through no fault of their own.

What the list really misses out on is the prime cause, I believe: a lapse in concentration. That’s all it takes, it may just be for a split-second. That’s when the displacement of focus takes place from the internal memorised words to the external presence and demands of the audience. Essentially, the performer has become a mountaineer who is suddenly aware of how high up they are and, crucially, how far they are capable of falling at that moment.

So, while the fear begins in a rational fear of failure and embarrassing yourself in public, the fear itself can become the irrational focus which can lead to panic attacks, sleepless nights and the problem becomes a clinical condition.

Perhaps we should leave the final word to William Shakespeare, himself an actor:

william-shakespeare-dramatist-lifes-but-a-walking-shadow-a-poor-player-that-struts© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

Bohemian Rhapsody – The Parody

I’ve come up with some parody lyrics for Queen’s classic song (and soon to be movie of the same name) “Bohemian Rhapsody.” See what you think.

Bohemian Bap-seedy by Stewart Stafford

Is this just food hype?
Is this a granary?
Come on this snack ride,
No escape from the culinary

Open your eyes,
Look at what’s baked with me,
I should avoid carbs, this is what’s wrong with me,
My weight is easy come, easy go,
Blood sugar high, blood sugar low,
Non-food sales at Waitrose, don’t really matter to me, to me.

Mama, bought a sliced pan,
Got the knife just like she said,
Put the butter on the bread.
Mama, you had one cream bun,
But now I’ve gone and scoffed it all away.

Mama, ooh,
Didn’t mean to be so sly,
I’ll get you another one by this time tomorrow,
And if not, and if not, well I guess it doesn’t matter.

Too late, my hunger has come,
Was going to order food online,
Stomach’s rumbling all the time.
Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got some dough,
Gotta leave you all behind and bake some bread.

Mama, ooh (anywhere your wind blows),
I don’t want diabetes,
I sometimes wish I had a gastric band and all.

I see a little cornetto/choc-au-pain,
Swiss rolls, Swiss rolls, will you get me Focaccia?
Vienna rolls with piping,
Very, very frightening me.
(Petit Gateau) Petit Gateau,
(Petit Gateau) Petit Gateau,
Petit Gateau and Fig rolls
Bon Appe-t-i-i-t.

I’m just a foodie, nobody loves me.
He’s just a foodie from a foodie family,
Spare him his life from this pomposity.

Tell me yes, tell me no, who made the dough?

The miller! No, he did not make the dough. (Make the dough!)
The miller! He crushed the wheat like so. (Crushed it so!)
Vanilla! We love that flavoured dough. (Flavoured dough!)
Love that flavoured dough. (Flavoured dough!)
Never eat that dough (Never, never, never, never eat that dough!)
Paninis?
No, no, no, no, no, no, no
Oh, Ciabatta, Ciabatta (Ciabatta’s running low.)
The baker man has some goodies set aside for me, for free, for free.

So you think you can bribe me with slices of Rye?
So you think I’ll forsake bread and eat up some pie?
Oh, baby, this is never a maybe,
Just go and get out, just go and get right outta here.

(Ooooh, ooh yeah, ooh yeah)

The oven needs some batter,
That’s all I can see,
The oven needs some batter,
The oven needs some batter for me.

Anywhere your wind goes.

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

The Fallacy of Cultural Appropriation

The featured image above shows a quote from Picasso being “appropriated” or stolen by Banksy in an ironic demonstration of the efficacy of the quote.


NettaIsrael won the Eurovision Song Contest last weekend and there were howls of derision. The spectre of “cultural appropriation” raised its ugly head again. Israeli singer Netta Barzilai had the temerity to wear a Japanese kimono on stage during her performance of the song “Toy” and that was enough. The internet went into meltdown about it referring to it as “yellowface.” (Some would instead baulk at the idea of culture being used in association with the Eurovision but let’s park that one there for now.)

Why is wearing the national dress of another country automatically seen as negative? It is possible that the person involved is honouring the culture and traditions of that country and is not mocking or “stealing” them.

We even see cultural appropriation in the casting of movies today. It is now being demanded that only ethnically-accurate actors are cast in roles.

Sean Connery Untouchables

Scotsman Sean Connery won his only Oscar for playing an Irish cop in “The Untouchables” and he was terrific in it. As an Irishman, I’m not offended by his performance in the slightest (even though we all know that non-Irish people attemping Irish accents can be a crime against humanity sometimes.) Connery culturally appropriated again when he played a Russian submarine commander (with a Scottish accent) in “The Hunt for Red October.” Just as well he can’t “appropriate” any longer as he’s been in retirment since 2004.

Hemingway

Screenwriting guru Robert McKee said something similar about Quentin Tarantino. At the time of the release of Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” it was pointed out that he had virtually heisted the plot of Hong Kong film “City on Fire” (sometimes even shot-for-shot scenes) in his crime film. Perhaps that’s true about great artists doing that but copyright infringement, the intentional stealing of other people’s ideas for your own glorification and remuneration, is shabby behaviour. I believe in an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work and especially when it comes to writers who put so much into their work for usually very little return (don’t even get me started on those leeches who offer copyrighted works for free and take food out of the mouths of writers’ kids.)

Cultural Appropriation

“Cultural appropriation” or cultural stealing is something different. There is no copyright on culture. Those ideas have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years and the people who originated them are long gone. There are many examples of artists taking elements of other cultures and fusing them together to form something radically new. That is how culture refreshes and revitalizes itself as it brings new interest in old ideas.

Shakespeare

Shakespeare borrowed from all over the place. Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet? They’re set in Italy. Hamlet? That’s Danish. Macbeth? That’s Scottish. If Shakespeare had not culturally appropriated and only written about England, we’d have missed out on some of the greatest works in the English language. It goes even further than that…

Bassano

The BBC described David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust as “one of the most iconic creations in pop history.” Bowie based the look of Ziggy on the make-up of the Japanese Kabuki theatre.

bowie kabuki

If Bowie was launching that character in the 21st century, he would be bombarded by negative social media posts about cultural appropriation. As many do, he would probably give in to the pressure and drop the character and we would miss out on all that amazing imagery and music.

George Lucas borrowed liberally when he wrote and directed “Star Wars” (1977). His Jedi knights were echoes of England’s Knights of the Round Table from Arthurian legend.

Darth-Vader

Darth Vader’s helmet was meant to resemble that of a Japanese Samurai warrior (indeed, “Star Wars” apes Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” by telling the story from the viewpoint of droids C3PO and R2D2, the lowest characters in the story).

Peasants

“May The Force Be With You” is very similar to “The Lord Be With You” from Christianity which began in the Holy Land. Again, would we want to miss out on a cultural phenomenon and all that has followed from it because of cultural appropriation?

Marlon Brando once described Hollywood as “a cultural boneyard.” I fear that the whole world has become a cultural boneyard of our own making now. Conformity is king. Try anything different and you’ll attacked for it by faceless, anonymous keyboard warriors out there in the dark on social media. I noticed this recently while out walking. Every gang of young girls that I passed were clones of each other. They all had the same hairdos, same clothes. They’re afraid to take chances because of peer pressure not to. That is happening in every aspect of our lives. As I’ve said before, you don’t get great art by playing it safe.

So who are these people who cry cultural appropriation at the drop of a hat? They’re a generation of “right-fighters.” FamilyResource.com defines it thus: A right-fighter is someone who gets overly emotional or angry when people do not agree with them and their opinions or beliefs. A right-fighter is someone who insists on having the last word in an argument or refuses to back down no matter what.”

TV guru Dr Phil McGraw elaborates further that a right -fighter is “one of those people who spend far too much energy convincing the rest of the world that they’re right. They’re right as parents, they’re right at work, they’re right in their relationships, they’re right about politics — and they are all too ready to fight about just how right they are. These insecure people are too fragile to ask themselves how things are working for them, because they might not like the answer one bit. It might mean making a change or admitting they’ve been (dare I say it?) wrong.” Do we really want an army of right-fighters dictating what is culturally acceptable and what isn’t for the rest of us? I think not.

It’s the “echo chamber” idea, that if you only hear opinions that concur with yours, you never have your opinions challenged or hear new ideas and so don’t grow and change.

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I saw a white girl get slapped with the “cultural appropriation” label in a tweet recently for having dreadlocks. This is the height of absurdity and it’s only getting worse.

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Would you really want to miss out on the works of Shakespeare, Star Wars, Ziggy Stardust, Harry Potter and countless other great works only to gain the pyrrhic victory of being self-righteous? I know I wouldn’t. In the final analysis, the hysteria over cultural appropriation is a politically-correct strait-jacket that is stunting our growth in ways we can’t even measure fully.

I’ll leave you on a laugh. This humourous tweet sums up the fallacy of cultural appropriation perfectly.

Cultural Appropriation Scottish Toilet Bowl Gag

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

Record Store Day & The Resurgence of Vinyl

Today, April 21st 2018, is Record Store Day. The astonishing resurgence of vinyl will be celebrated worldwide in record shops with special releases from major artists.

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The bounce in sales of vinyl is astonishing. According to Statista.com, “in 2007, there were roughly 210 thousand new vinyl albums sold in the UK. Last year, 4.1 million were picked up by eager buyers – an increase of 1,852 percent.” These figures are reflected in most countries.

Infographic

So what is it about vinyl that is making young people such huge fans of an old format? I talked to Vinny of Golden Discs in Dun Laoghaire about it: “It’s the fact that it’s for, especially the younger generation, a complete new thing. It’s not new to [older people] but for [young buyers], this is a novelty and, I’d say, that’s the driving force behind most of the sales.”

Unboxing Chick

Before the 1990s, vinyl was the main way most people enjoyed their music. It was almost a form of ritual to begin opening the physical copy of an album. There was the trek to the music store to physically purchase the album, the anticipatory journey home wondering how the record would sound and how the artwork would look. Once home, there was the race to the record player for what would now be termed “unboxing” and the sensual ritual would begin: the crinkly tearing of the plastic covering, the wonderful smell inside, the sliding out of the record for a first peek and the careful positioning of the platter on the musical altar of the record player. Then the needle dropped.

goldendisc-1“The vinyl is a different thing, because it’s an experience,” Vinny said, “at least that’s how it was for me when I was growing up. I still have my collection. It was the artwork, laying down on the couch while you’re listening to it, opening the gatefold, following the lyrics. It’s a different experience.”

Gatefold Sleeve

Audiophiles believe that long-playing vinyl records are the only true way to experience music now and they’re prepared to pay double or triple what they would pay for a CD or download to enjoy it. “The sound is fuller,” Vinny agreed, “it’s more organic because it’s not compressed as CDs are.”

So is the vinyl revival going to last or is it a passing trend?

 

“I would like to believe it’s here to stay,” Vinny said in conclusion, “but it’s hard to control how those things go, especially the market. The market fluctuates heavily but at the very least it seems to be cyclical.”

Only time will tell if sales will continue to rise but the fact is that vinyl is with us for the foreseeable future.

Spin Clean

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

Logo © Golden Discs Ltd

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

Stewart Stafford’s Quotes

The Snow Must Go On!

Last night for a laugh, I decided to write some parody lyrics for Queen’s classic song “The Show Must Go On.” This is what I came up with:

THE SNOW MUST GO ON

Frozen spaces, what is this snow all for?

Wintry places, I guess we want a thaw

On and on

Does anybody know what all this snow is for?

Another snowball, another swollen eye

Behind the snowdrift, beneath a polar sky

I’m snow-blind, does anybody know where all the snowploughs are?

The snow must go on

The snow must go on, yeah

Outside my lips are chapping

And there’s old Christmas wrapping

But Santa Claus hasn’t stayed on

 

Whatever happens, I’ll wear thermal underpants

I’ll keep them guessing, lead them a merry dance

On and on, does anybody know about hypothermia?

I guess I’m yearning, to be warmer now

I’ll soon be turning, the heat up full somehow

Outside the ice is breaking, but inside in the dark there’s no big freeze

The snow must go on, yeah, yeah

The snow must go on

Ooh, my snowman’s head is melting

His features took a pelting

But his smile still stays on

Stewart Stafford photo Big Snowman

My hands are numb, but I don’t think they have frostbite

Sled injuries of yesterday will go but never die

I could cry, my friends

The snow must go on (go on, go on, go on) yeah yeah

The snow must go on

I’ll face it with a gin

The Spring can never win

On with the snow

Stewart Stafford photo small snowman

Ooh, atop the hill, my snowman’s killed

I have to find the will to carry on

On with the snow

On with the snow

The snow must go on, go on, go on…

{Song dissolves into “Oh I do like to be beside the icefield.”}

 

Original “The Show Must Go On” lyrics © Queen Music Ltd

“The Snow Must Go On” parody lyrics and photos © Stewart Stafford, 2018.

Meme courtesy of Melina Rose

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

George Michael: Still Listening Without Prejudice

gmichael_freedom09

In September 1990, George Michael released “Listen Without Prejudice Volume 1”, the follow-up to the global monster that was his debut solo album “Faith.” My brother, a devoted George Michael fan for many years by that stage, bought the vinyl LP with its black-and-white cover shot of a crowd of immigrants. Brave move number one, where was that famous face?

I had bought the album “Faith” as a Christmas present for my brother several years previously and I decided to check out the new one. The needle dropped down on the record, the crackling began and I sat back to hear what I assumed was going to be Faith 2.

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The first track was his single release of the previous month, the anthemic “Praying for Time.” It was a good if unexpected song, but he didn’t appear in the video for it which hurt its sales. It has this sixty-ish horn section on it that indicates that this first single and first track on the album are going in a very different direction to “Faith.”

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In a new documentary both Elton John and Liam Gallagher agree (yes, George Michael’s music reaches and unites such disparate musical figures as those) that “Praying for Time” sounds like John Lennon’s “Imagine.” George admitted listening to Beatles albums at the time like “Revolver” and “Abbey Road.” Lyrically, the song echoes Phil Collins’ “Another Day in Paradise” and its socially-conscious struggle with rich white guilt. George was a very generous man during his lifetime, donating sometimes astronomical fees to charities in private which is true altruism. He clearly felt guilty about the immense wealth he attained and tried to do something to redress the balance. “And the wounded skies above” George sings in a beautiful poetic flourish that Sting would counterpoint in “Fields of Gold” with the line “we’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky.”

On to track two and straight into the superbly catchy “Freedom ’90.” Freedom was a constant theme in George Michael’s work and he’d already had a number one hit titled “Freedom” with Wham! in 1984. Freedom ’90 reevaluates what fame means to a more mature pop icon. It’s a seven-minute epic slab of funk that lays the ethos of the album bare for all to see:”Today the way I play the game is not the same, no way/Think I’m gonna get myself happy.” Once again, George would not the play media game by appearing in the video for this song. It instead featured the new wave of “supermodels” (the Kardashians of their day) – Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, etc. Directed by David Fincher (Se7en, Zodiac, Fight Club, Alien 3), it is difficult to hear this song now without seeing that iconic 1990 video in your head.

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The Man from Faith

In the video for Freedom ’90, George continues the violent deconstruction of his “Faith” image by blowing up his guitar, jukebox and setting fire to the BSA leather jacket he wore in the “Faith” video. It was reminiscent of the way David Bowie created the persona of Ziggy Stardust, it reached a crescendo of popularity and hysteria with fans and then Bowie bravely abandoned the image and created another one. Great artists do that though. They don’t want to become stale by pumping out the same stuff. They force audiences to grow and change with them by trying new things. The Beatles were the masters of that, of course.

“They Won’t Go When I Go”, a live recording of a Stevie Wonder song, is the third song on the album. If you want to hear a singer totally in control of his gift, then this is it. I had never heard the original tune, so I was literally listening without prejudice and I was blown away by it. It has the feel of an old spiritual song from the southern United States with that hymnal weariness seeping out of every groove in the vinyl. George’s voice goes crazily deep into bass territory and then right up to the top of his range and it is startling to hear it. It’s got a kind of Old Testament warning on the dangers of moral decay in the lyrics: “Unclean minds mislead the pure.” George covered many Stevie Wonder songs in his career and always made them his own. Stevie was like his spiritual and musical godfather. George had that quality that Elvis possessed of being a supreme interpreter of other people’s songs. Like The King, I thought every cover version he ever did was superior to the original and that’s a rare gift.

There’s some inevitable filler on the album like “Something to Save” and “Soul Free” but even they’re not bad. “Mother’s Pride” is an anti-war song that has its moments. George heard  Don McLean’s achingly elegiac anti-war song “The Grave” as a child and it stuck with him (he recorded it in 2003 as war in Iraq loomed.) “Mother’s Pride” has the line “his country’s eyes” and it made me wonder if he’d based it on the poster for “Born on the Fourth of July”, also from 1990.

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“Heal the Pain” is a gorgeous folky ballad that George claimed was influenced by Paul McCartney. Paul doesn’t feature on the 1990 version of the song but he did record a duet version of it with George in 2005: Listen here

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George Michael with Paul McCartney
Live 8 London - On-Stage
George and Paul perform at at the “Live 8” concert in 2005

George had received criticism from black artists like Gladys Knight and Public Enemy for winning prizes at black awards shows at the expense of black artists. It wasn’t his fault that these organisations deemed him worthy of inclusion and victory but George seemed to make a conscious effort with “Listen Without Prejudice” to veer towards the white influences of his youth. He even quotes The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on “Waiting For That Day”, which resulted in a co-writing credit for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

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“Faith” displayed a wide variety of influences with urban RnB (“I Want Your Sex), Elvis-style 50’s rockabilly with a twist of country (the title track “Faith”) and even some Sinatra-style swing on “Kissing A Fool.” The production was super-slick and it became a monster George had created that he happily put to the sword on the follow-up. “Listen Without Prejudice” has a variety of influences too but the production isn’t geared towards the top 40 and multi-million album sales. George had gone up and up in that hot air balloon before and it terrified him. “Prejudice” is more mature and complex than “Faith.” It is more experimental and biographical. George has self-conscious things to say about fame and what it does to someone. He’s showing us the wizard behind the curtain that some of us might prefer to ignore and just hear the hits.

I didn’t like “Listen Without Prejudice” on first hearing it. A month later, after repeated listening, I thought and still think that it’s George Michael’s best album. It wasn’t the obvious sequel to “Faith” that I and a lot of other people were expecting. It challenged its audience to listen without prejudging what they assumed they were going to get. Now, in 2017, almost a year after George’s untimely and still shocking death, “Listen Without Prejudice” has a second coming in a deluxe remastered box set on October 20th. I will be getting it and reliving those shivery moments that George laid down so expertly for us. “”I believe I can leave songs that will mean something to other generations,” George said prophetically in the 80s . Indeed he did. The man was a true original and, yes, to use that overused word – a genius. We lost too many of those in 2016 – George, Bowie, Prince, etc.

I was lucky enough to see George Michael perform live in concert in Dublin twice on one of his last tours. He had one of the purest voices I’ve ever heard in my life. Like his idol Freddie Mercury, the songs George wrote were extremely high-pitched and difficult to sing live but he was note-perfect in the four hours in which I saw him. “I never heard him sing a bad note,” his pal Elton John said recently. I concur.

I worry for the future of music but it is a relief to know that no one can ever take away my memories of the great sounds of the past. “Listen Without Prejudice” happens to be one of them. Catch up with it now if you missed it the first time, kids. It’s a reminder of a time when albums were king, music meant something and creativity counted. Knock yourselves out.

“He was without doubt one of the greatest songwriters this country ever produced and certainly one of the best vocalists ever” – Elton John

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Film Review: Trainspotting 2

“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone…”

– John Cougar Mellencamp, Jack & Diane

“Thou shalt not be middle-aged” could almost be the theme of every review written about the sequel to Trainspotting. The critics moaned that Renton & Co. have gone “mainstream” with “Dad rock anthems” on the soundtrack.

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Like when The Young Ones started singing with Cliff Richard for charity (forgetting that their sitcom started life on the BBC, the very heart of establishment Britain). All the stars of Trainspotting have taken the Hollywood shilling decades ago (Ewan McGregor has done three Star Wars films, Robert Carlyle was a Bond villain, Ewan Bremner will be in the new Wonder Woman movie). There’s nothing wrong with that, most actors are out of work and fair play to any of them that can make a living at it, but these critics are making moot points.

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It’s like a Sex Pistols reunion; same band, same music, same (older) faces but the heart doesn’t pump as angrily as it used to. It can’t really. Johnny Rotten has done butter commercials but we all conform and sell out as we get older as we have more to lose and life’s too damn short. The cold isolation of youth rebellion loses its allure as we crave acceptance and, yes, easy cash (sorry to drop that nugget of reality on ya). Today’s rebel is tomorrow’s leader, that’s the way it always has gone and always will go in the future.

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“I’m 46 and I’m fucked,” Ewan McGregor says at one point in T2. A brave statement, as middle-aged men are meant to be invisible and consigned to life’s scrap heap to await the slow death of retirement. It’s wrong, especially when older men have so much life experience to bring to the table. But nope, ageism is rife in our society, just ask all those talented older guys who can’t get hired because of a number beyond their control. Not only are men of 46 meant to be ignored, movies aren’t meant to be made for them either. You can feel the hostility of the younger critics reviewing the movie towards these older characters and men of that age in general. They almost feel that it would have been better not to have made the movie at all. Films can only be about teens with superpowers for spotty teens with no power at all. That’s your demographic now.

Trainspotting 2 has flaws, sure; director Danny Boyle unwisely uses too many flashbacks of the first movie that begs for comparisons, almost as if he’s desperate to make people like the second one as much. There are snatches of Iggy Pop from the first movie and remixes of other songs from that classic soundtrack, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. There’s even a new riff on McGregor’s classic “choose life” voice-over from the first film. Okay, it doesn’t have the same scathing, anarchic, raging tone and has a mid-life crisis feel about it but it is surreal hearing that same voice addressing things happening now (even if the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have been with us for most of the last decade, so it’s not that new.) The George Best references seem out-of-place (Archie Gemmill’s orgasmic goal seems to have lost its allure) along with that “where did it all go wrong?” story Best told on Parkinson donkey’s years ago (see my ageism creeping in reader? Stop it!) It also lacks that razor-sharp, documentary-style deconstruction of detox and the surreal sequences that peppered the original. However, the characters have grown up and gotten over their addictions, even seemingly Spud (we do get a scene of Renton and Sick Boy suddenly shooting up for no apparent reason, again that should’ve been cut but Boyle loses his nerve a little there, giving the audience what they want).

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The most unbelievable thing is the cameo by Kelly McDonald. She played the underage nymphomaniac who went drinking on a school night and slept with Renton minutes after meeting him. We’re supposed to believe that she’s now a convenient, plot point lawyer instead of the mum-of-three on welfare that she almost certainly would’ve been. Still, fans of the original will skip over that and enjoy her appearance.

This isn’t Trainspotting: The Male Menopause Years, though. On the plus side, it’s very, very funny (the audience I saw it with laughed throughout); Renton’s improvised song in a Loyalist club about no Catholics being left after the Battle of the Boyne is probably the best scene in the movie (that, along with the George Best scenes, make it seem more like a Northern Irish film at times).

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As for the characters having lost their balls, Robert Carlyle’s escaped convict Begbie is, if anything, a beast even more fierce now. With a head like a flaming football, Begbie tears through the film like a Celtic Joe Pesci, annihilating anyone and everything that gets in his way (he’s even made out to be like Jack Nicholson in The Shining when he smashes through to where Renton is hiding, sticks his head through the hole and roars at him.) There was a picture of De Niro in Taxi Driver in the first one and the style of Boyle’s flick was pure Marty  Scorsese with narration, freeze-frames and classic rock on the soundtrack. In T2, we get a parody of Raging Bull called Raging Spud.

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Ewan Bremner’s ne’er-do-well Spud is the vulnerable heart of the film and, while Bremner sometimes overdoes Spud’s child-like glare, his character perhaps shows the most progress going from a lonely, suicidal addict at the start to a blossoming man of letters.

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Jonny Lee Miller’s bleach blond Sick Boy returns and, as he’s a bigger star now than he was in 1996, he’s given a lot more to do. He seems to leech off a bit of Begbie’s violent, bullying energy in shouty, showy scenes, maybe they rewrote some of Begbie’s schtick to satisfy his agent.

Queen’s Radio Ga Ga makes a sudden, loud appearance during a trippy scene and this is probably what annoyed those young critics the most. Freddie and the boys are rock royalty and not the edgy, druggy types like Iggy and Lou Reed, but who cares? It’s a great rousing scene. It’s fun. What’s wrong with that?

The script also takes piquant pops at the EU; Renton is greeted on his return to Edinburgh after 20 years away by a Slovenian girl handing out leaflets, Sick Boy is running a blackmail scam with a Bulgarian hooker and the boys get involved in trying to hook up with a £100k EU grant scam. Brexit is the unmentioned ghost at the feast.

Sequels are delicate balancing acts; you have the give the audience something similar to the first one but in a new way. Rehash everything from the first film and the audience will get bored, but go in a totally new direction and it won’t feel like a real, true follow-up. Trainspotting 2 does move the characters on and tries to do something different with them. It updates them while giving us echoes of their past selves and, in that, screenwriter John Hodge does a solid job. It was always going to be a near-impossible task catching lightning in a bottle twice. Danny Boyle acquits himself admirably. He’s too talented a filmmaker to just phone it in.

There’s talk of a Trainspotting 3, and, as I thoroughly enjoyed Trainspotting 2, I’d love to see it happen. The pressure will be off in the threequel and they can wrap things up by making the Trainspotting franchise into a trilogy. I can almost hear those young, angry critics groaning; but that’s life, kids. Choose life.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Trainspotting 2 & The Return of 90s Culture

The 1990s really didn’t kick into gear until 1996. Stock, Aitken & Waterman had dominated the pop charts in the late 80s; by the early 90s they were gone. So was Freddie Mercury and the great Queen hit machine as we knew it. Into this power vacuum flooded a lot of anonymous house music, “rubbishy old dance” records as Cliff Richard dubbed them. The emergence of Take That and East 17 promised a return to steadier pop hits, but I still remember how bad the pop charts got in 1993 and 1994. Things improved in 1995 and then 1996 hit and, suddenly, everything seemed to be happening again.

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One of the gang. Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting

There was the retro Britpop war between Oasis and Blur with Pulp and Suede thrown in for good measure. The Spice Girls burst out of nowhere and George Michael returned with his excellent Older album and two number one hits. Take That were splitting up but Robbie Williams did get his first solo single out (a cover of George Michael’s Freedom ’90) and, despite this inauspicious start, he would confound his critics, pick up the fallen pop star banner and churn out some incredible hits later in the decade. Even Queen released the last singles recorded with Freddie Mercury in ‘96.

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Into this mix landed Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting. Based on Irvine Welsh’s scabrous novel of the same name, it was the movie of the year that everyone was talking about and was voted the best British movie of the last 60 years in a 2012 HMV poll. The title, taken from that old, nerdy British pastime of standing beside train tracks for hours collecting the numbers of trains as they pass, risked putting off potential viewers but it was subversively deceptive. This film crackled with energy from the first second it appeared on screen. It was anything but boring.

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It had that iconic orange poster campaign and that song “Born Slippy” by Underworld that instantly time-stamped it and still does. It captured a mood, a moment and the zeitgeist in a way that films like Fight Club and The Matrix would do later in the 90s. You remember exactly where you were when you saw it. It had the amoral Kubrickian tone of A Clockwork Orange, the freeze-frames and druggy juggernaut pace of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (another classic from 1990) and perhaps the best narration of any film since Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.

Although it was written and mostly completed before the whole Britpop thing, Trainspotting played right into it as if it were planned. Britain momentarily got its balls back (some would argue they are doing so again with Brexit; an appropriate time for the Trainspotting sequel to appear). It was a case of the Brits saying “anything thing you can do, I can do better” to Hollywood and the US pop charts. Empire magazine looked down on the film in a very British way for this “shameful” aspiration by writing that the film had “its nose pressed up against the glass of Hollywood, desperate for a piece of the action.” (That would come later in the 90s when Ewan McGregor was cast as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace and when Danny Boyle directed Leonardo di Caprio in The Beach, a casting decision that split up the McGregor/Boyle dream team until 2017 with the release of Trainspotting’s sequel T2, a cheeky nod to Terminator 2, another 90s classic).

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Like The Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night, another Brit youth culture movie that perfectly captured the time it was made, Trainspotting explodes into action with a breathless street chase on foot (to the pounding drums of “Lust for Life” by Iggy Pop. The inclusion of this and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” later, both produced by David Bowie, and the film’s subject matter of drugs, appears to use Bowie’s Berlin period as the film’s spiritual talisman for the themes of death, rebirth and hope Bowie went through both creatively and in his life then. Danny Boyle directed the closing ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012 and featured a clip of Bowie singing “Heroes”, again from his Berlin period. It’s something Boyle revisits again and again in his work.) All the while, Ewan McGregor’s character Renton mouths the film’s nihilistic, punky mission statement in the voice-over as our outlaw protagonists flee from store detectives as they drop most of their stolen items on the ground…

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Thereafter, Renton, despite the use of humour and surrealism, begins the long, depressing slide into heroin addiction. The film pulls no punches. Anyone aspiring to this rebellious lifestyle is left in no doubt about the hellish dangers that await them. There are horrifying cold turkey hallucinations about Sick Boy’s dead baby (whether the model of the baby is meant to look deliberately fake or not is unclear) and the desperately sad way he is dumped in the street alone by his dealer to await the taxi to the hospital when he overdoses. All his so-called “friends” in the gang retreat back into their murky world to save themselves. (There is no honour among thieves here but crime does pay inevitably, two clichés nicely undercut there.) It makes Renton’s determination to save himself at the end understandable and sets up his character arc for the sequel.

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It was reported that Tom Cruise leapt to his feet during a private screening of Trainspotting shouting “this film rocks!” Praise from Caesar which kept the box office fever going, no doubt. Cruise would kick off his Mission: Impossible franchise that summer and the fourth sequel will be with us soon. It seems to be the 1990s all over again suddenly. (It just shows the problem with movies today: they’re all remakes, reboots, sequels, adaptations of old TV shows and/or comic book movies. Studios are playing it safe which is boring. Would Trainspotting get the green light to go into production today? Probably not. It’s the reason the 1970s is the best movie decade and always will be. New stories and new talent were given their head and the results were astonishing; The Godfather I & II, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Dog Day Afternoon and on and on. Those mature, morally-complex classics with their anti-heroes and downbeat endings would be too dark and confusing for foreign markets and gamer kids now. It’s all reheated, dumbed-down, hyperactively-edited drivel. Film companies aren’t prepared to take risks on new ideas unless they come pre-packaged with a built-in audience from a TV show or comic book. Ridley Scott bucked the trend by adapting the self-published novel The Martian into the movie with Matt Damon. This is what Hollywood should be doing to recapture the Golden Age again. Find those great writers and stories that are hidden out there and back them up with financing.

I was in the middle of my two-year acting course in 1996 and Trainspotting confirmed how exciting the art form I had chosen as a possible career was becoming. I would act with two of Trainspotting’s stars; Robert Carlyle (aka Begbie) in Angela’s Ashes and Jonny Lee Miller (aks Sick Boy) in The Escapist, both of which were shot in Dublin. I was doing a scene in Angela’s Ashes where Robert Carlyle is going to England looking for work. Unbeknownst to me, they had put Robert Carlyle and Emily Watson behind me in the train queue. I was having an animated discussion with someone and looked around to see those two familiar faces staring at me and I was struck dumb (as I usually am when I meet stars.) Jonny Lee Miller kept to himself all day on the set of The Escapist in Mountjoy Prison as he stayed in character. I played a prison officer, my one and only acting credit to date (more to come on that in 2017 with speaking parts in the ITV courtroom drama Innocent and TV3 show Assassins.) It was my little brush with Trainspotting and now the sequel is with us.

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Will it capture the mood of the time again? Doubtful, but a lot of middle-aged young pups from the 90s will be showing up at the cinema to try and recapture their youth and the cherry high of the first film.

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If it doesn’t have a cape and superpowers, today’s kids ain’t interested. They’re hungrily waiting for the next string of sausages from the Marvel machine, not some edgy junkie movie from Edinburgh. It’s their loss.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Press Self-Destruct: Newspaper Dinosaurs in the Digital Age

If I ever have grandchildren, I’m sure I’ll tell them about the time a newspaper did an article about me. “What’s a newspaper, granddad?” they’ll ask with genuine wonder.

Traditional or “legacy” media (a term which already appears to have consigned television, radio and newspapers to history’s dustbin) forms are struggling to survive in the 21st century. Newspapers, in particular, are seeing sales drop at an alarming rate which, in turn, reduces advertising revenue and only older, die-hard brand loyalists are happy to pay to access content on newspaper websites. It tries to roll with the times to stay afloat by hiring bloggers and sourcing stories from hackers and activists (or “hacktivists”, if you will).

The problem is that the newspaper business model of is dying and the purveyors of the new business model are not only deciding what crumbs to feed the press, they’re naming their price too.

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There is now a timescale for the demise of newspapers in most countries. It is comparable to how self-publishing challenged the dominance of printed books. Reports of the end of hardback and paperback books have been prematurely announced many times in the last decade. Then sales of ebooks dropped and the electronic takeover didn’t happen. It turns out that people like the feel and smell of a real book. Technology has an annoying habit of losing power or breaking down. Recharging is not always possible but printed books never need that just a light source to read from.

ebookvsbookThe internet had a similar affect on music too. The mp3 file appeared to have trumped vinyl records which were in a similar decline. Now vinyl sections of record stores are growing as are sales. There’s life in the old analogue dog yet.

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Could print media stage a similar comeback? It’s probably wishful thinking as news or rather the information itself is freely available from endless sources. If newspapers charge for content, people can get it somewhere else for free. Citizen journalists don’t have the resources of a major newspaper or that Pulitzer cachet, but they do have that most precious modern commodity in abundance – time. Printed newspapers report yesterday’s news, by which stage a newer story has broken online. Yes, the papers can update their websites but the loyalty is to the information and whoever breaks it first now and not the brand. Even if a newspaper gets a scoop, it can be repackaged by news aggregrator sites and the reader may not even know who originally broke it. In the frenzy to get likes and shares and the kudos of being first with news, the basic courtesy of a hat tip to the originator of a story also appears to be endangered.

So it appears the newspaper is terminal decline. It was a remarkable phenomenon while it lasted but, sadly, it seems to be going or have already gone the way of the Dodo.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.