Archive for June, 2000

Thursday, June 29th, 2000

Pet Sounds

When Brian Wilson made Pet Sounds in 1966 it was in response to what he saw as the gauntlet thrown down by the Beatles with Rubber Soul. Avid Beach Boys fans, however, were perplexed by the album. Wilson, the wisdom goes, was too far ahead of the game – as his own song sighed, “I just wasn’t made for these times”. The critics agreed, retrospectively elevating Pet Sounds to its proper and permanent place in the rock pantheon.

Yet far from being a flawless landmark en route to the rock’n’roll future, Pet Sounds is a deeply reactionary record, a baroque lament for a pre-Beatles age of gormless innocence made by a chubby, mentally unstable, Daddy-dominated dysfunctional nerd. Pet Sounds is a record that reverberates with terror at the untamed world of adulthood that Sixties rock was on the point of ushering in, as symbolised in the horror of “Caroline No”. Small wonder that after this album, Wilson took to his bed, a non-participant in the gloriously wild remainder of the decade. Strange things happened to The Beach Boys and they did strange things but they were not wild – they were as cowed and tame in spirit as the farm animals featured on the somewhat trite cover to Pet Sounds. This is not a record that dreams rock’n’roll dreams of exciting new worlds but craves perpetually for a regressive, thumb-sucking bliss. “I Wasn’t Made For These Times” is Wilson wishing he’d been born in an earlier, not a later generation. “You Still Believe In Me” contains the longest whine in pop history – “I wanna cryyyyyyyyyyayyyyyyyyayayayyyyyyy . . .”. It’s the enfeebled tantrum of a man who knows the T-Bird of inane surf music has been towed away. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” yearns for a halcyon, endless, sexless, bobbysox state of romance – “I wish this kiss would last forever” and is couched in the ramalalama, doo-wop tones of an obsolete Fifties era. “Let’s Go Away For A While” is still more banal. Critics have read fathoms of infinite, aching longing into this instrumental but what again, it’s a song about retreat – about the impulsive urge to take a holiday when life gets too much, as it frequently did for the pitiful Wilson. The Reaper is fair-minded – “God Only Knows” is the album’s one great song, in spite of its banal, coconut-shell rhythms. Yet even here, the silent partner to whom it’s addressed must pause for thought at what kind of clingy, invertebrate character she’s saddled herself with. Wilson’s studio perfectionism has attracted a welter of anal/academic interest. But the vocal harmonies, the arrangements, the control freakery are the down to his desire to create a toy, harmonised world of his own to live in, a distraction from the chaos of the actual world. No wonder he hated playing live and eventually refused to do so – the spontaneity, the exciting and unexpected were all anathema to his timid soul. Hence his solace in orchestration. Critics are so rapt about Wilson’s painstaking efforts here that they lost sight of the end result. “I’m Waiting For The Day” sounds like a school band, recorders and all, invited onto Blue Peter to perform a selection of sea shanty arrangements, while the instrumental title track is pure Test Card music. Pet Sounds chimes thus throughout, with resonances of an attic full of nostalgic, childish things. It’s much-vaunted “melancholia” is merely a craving for a retarded state of halcyon bliss. It is in short, a weak album made by a weak man that appeals to the all of our weakest yearnings, to hide under a warm duvet and wish the world would go away. Wake up, folks. Pet Sounds is pathetic.

Sunday, June 18th, 2000

Raging Bull

When the question, ‘What was Martin Scorsese’s greatest ever movie?’ arises, film buffs tend to sidestep the most plausible candidates (King Of Comedy, Goodfellas, Mean Streets) and plump reflexively for two of his worst – Taxi Driver (already slaughtered in this column) and Raging Bull.

This 1980 biopic of Forties middleweight Jake LaMotta is swaddled in hushed reverence, evoked by the spurious religiosity of the opening scene in which Robert De Niro’s LaMotta limbers up in the ring, hooded like some warrior-monk. It is regularly cited as the greatest ever boxing movie, though of course, it is more than a “mere” boxing movie. Well, for starters, as a boxing movie, Raging Bull is no less risible than the Rocky series. The ring action oscillates ludicrously, with one combatant unleashing nine unanswered punches before taking nine in return, with neither fighter apparently capable of the basic defensive strategy of putting up your dukes.

Historically, the film distorts the balance between Sugar Ray Robinson and LaMotta, making them out to be like Ali-Frazier, closely matched rivals. In fact, Robinson handily beat LaMotta five times out of their six encounters, ignoring instructions to “carry” LaMotta in their last bout. LaMotta brags, “You never knocked me down” in the movie – sure, Jake, but he knocked you in every other direction.

War has often been described as moments of appalling violence punctuating long periods of boredom and thus could Raging Bull be described. The fixed-position, relentlessly grey interior shots are mistaken by some for arthouse intensity when they’re actually exercises in mounting tedium. The courtship scenes between LaMotta and Vickie (Cathy Moriarty) are so deliberately dull you feel like going into the garden and watching wood warp instead.

Furthermore, the film suffers from a curious syndrome whereby characters can hear each other perfectly when they mumble dialogue inaudible to the viewer, but become hard of hearing whenever they raise their voices.”You fuck my wife?” “What?” “You fuck my wife? “What?” The film could have been brought in an hour shorter if everyone didn’t have to keep saying everything three times like a couple of deaf men on a train. As for the main players, Joe Pesci’s runty brother might command some sympathy if he didn’t turn out to be as inexplicably fucked in the head as his brother. The Mafiosi LaMotta defies are about as menacing as a bunch of concerned Rotarians taking an avuncular interest in a wayward protege. Cathy Moriarty plays La Motta’s wife Vickie with such bovine, peroxide sloth that, while deploring domestic violence, one hopes in vain that one by-product of her slappings might be that she comes to life a bit. De Niro, meanwhile, face with the complex psychological challenge of playing a man frequently described in the film as having a “head of rock” does his usual schtick of letting his jaw slacken, his head cock and staring blankly.

Finally, where is the arc to De Niro’s LaMotta? Does he go or take us anywhere except on a predictable journey into macho futility? The film gives no indication of any such evolution. The concluding scene in which he rehearses some clearly dire routine, involving the ”Coulda been a contender’ speech from On The Waterfront before pummelling the air implies that he’s a self-pitying washout living in the past. As if to compensate for this bathos, this petering out of a pointlessly dreary and unedifyingly violent movie, Scorsese winds off with a biblical quote of obscure relevance (“I was blind, now I can see”). His notions of Catholicity and redemption often lead Scorsese curiously astray into moral neutrality, here particularly. Finally, the strains of Pietro Mascagni’s cheap and trite operatic score attempt to bellow some solemnity into the proceedings.

The trick works. Critics, concussed into thinking they have undergone a profound cinematic experience, ascribe to Raging Bull a grandiosity it simply doesn’t possess. They discuss it as a metaphor for the “corruption of the American dream” (how?), even talk about its dramatisation of the Freudian precept that the child’s erroneous equation of sex with violence leads to later trauma. Bollocks. It’s about a thick, wife beating pug who won the title, then lost it and gained weight. Still, how often, when De Niro’s Academy Award-winning performance is cited, do they bring up in awestruck tones how he bulked up 40 pounds for the final scenes? An Oscar for getting fat! They should give me one.

Thursday, June 15th, 2000

Songs In The Key Of Life

Such is the veneration that Stevie Wonder is held in – blind, virtuous, black, sometime pop genius, he’s got it all – that he’s been able to bask in a glow of glassy-eyed sentimental admiration without most people over-inclined to acknowledge that it’s many, many years since he last made a decent record.

Even his admirers would concede this. Some would wince upon reminder of bile-curdling pop calamities like ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’. Others might cite 1979’s risible concept album The Secret Life Of The Plants as the point when Stevie became unaware of the whereabouts of his marbles. The unacknowledged truth is, however, that the rot set in with the album most people automatically regard as his masterpiece – 1976’s Songs In The Key Of Life.

Owing to the engineered hype surrounding the date of its release and the fact that Wonder was then the highest paid artist in the world, the arrival of Songs In The Key Of Life was greeted with the sort of awe you’d associate with First Contact with alien spacecraft. It still features highly in All Time Greatest Lists.

Yet this was no glimpse into the future but into the bottom of the Wonder barrel. Musically, Songs . . . sees him fresh out of the synthesizer-based musical ideas that he had conceived in tandem with Bob Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil in the early Seventies. All those buzzy arps and moogs were old hat. The real revolution bubbling in 1976/77, the one that would truly reshape the next era in pop, was in electronic rhythms. And, as the weedy trad-drum backdrops of songs like ‘Sir Duke’ and ‘I Wish’ indicate, Stevie was either clueless or indifferent in this department. These tracks are bottom-lite, undanceable-to. Meanwhile, jazz-funk workouts like ‘Contusion’ are musical white elephants, rendered obsolete by disco.

It’s the songs here, however, that really cause the album to sag like a souffle. Mundane ballads like ‘Summer Soft’ and ‘As’ take an agonising age to fade out, with Wonder shifting up endlessly through the keys as the listener looks on despairingly like waiters stacking chairs waiting for the last diners to quit yapping, down their cold coffees and sod off. Songs like ‘Love’s In Need Of Love Today’ and ‘Have A Talk With God’ are laboured Sunday School homilies with a little ‘funny’ secular twist that’s supposed to hook us. ‘Well, he’s the only free psychiatrist that’s known throughout he world’ chirrups Wonder with the misplaced, ‘Hey, kids, we’re all in God’s gang!”” pep of an enthusiastic young curate. Stevie – He’s God. He never says anything. He never does anything. He’s crap. You might as well pour out your problems to an empty chair.

‘Isn’t She Lovely’ transcribes to vinyl every last icky-cooing dollop of sentimental gloop to which once-sentient adults are reduced when they have babies and, true to the album’s form, lasts longer than purgatory. Several minutes into this, with no light at the end of the tunnel of choruses, King Herod seems like one of the Bible’s more engaging and reasonable characters. ‘I Wish’ contains the most ridiculously misty-eyed and excruciatingly doggerel-ridden reminiscence on childhood. ‘Then our only worry/Was for Christmas what would be our toy/Even though we sometimes would not get a thing/We were happy with the joy the day would bring.’ recalls Stevie improbably, and, after a further, insanely upbeat lyrical account of an infancy of random parental thrashings and petty delinquency, concludes, ‘I wish those days would come back once more.’ Stevie – here’s a slap on the back of the head for no reason. That’s what those days were like. Get a fucking grip.

The lyrical nadir here, however, so awful it freezes the piss in your bowels is ‘Black Man’, in which Stevie celebrates the achievements of all Americans, black, red, yellow, green, etc. Its tortuous over-extended didacticism is bad enough (Yes. Yes. We get the point. Thank you. Yes. Thank you.) but when it’s appended with a lengthy call-and-response section between various schoolteachers and their junior charges (‘Who was the leader of united farm workers and helped farm workers maintain dignity and respect?’ ‘Caesar Chavez – a black man.’) you want to curl up under a duvet and shrivel away.

Like What’s Going On, Songs . . . is excessively venerated for reasons that are subconsciously patronising. The very fact that it was a double album meant it must be great but a double album by a Black Man – well, that’s unheard of. Your people must be so proud, Stevie. A terrific effort.

Songs In The Key Of Life pointed to the future but not the future that great black music, nor pop in general would take. It signalled Stevie’s own irrelevant future as a purveyor of soft-boiled MOR and teethrottingly mawkish ballads. The locks were changed just months later with Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express and Donna Summer’s “”I Feel Love””.”