Archive for March, 2004

Saturday, March 20th, 2004

When Did The Last Punk Leave The King’s Road?

Walking up said road through Chelsea after an interview with the inestimable Buck 65, this thought started ticker-taping slowly around my head.

I used to come down from University on regular trips down here in the early Eighties, when the Kings Road was dotted lengthily with mini-emporiums flogging post-punk/new romantic finery to NME-reading fashionistas like myself. It was a time when dressing as a form of pop-cultural assertion was a relatively marginal and tribal activity and one which I took extremely seriously. Here, you could buy cheap, replicated versions of the sort of baggy zoot trousers sported by the imaginary hipsters of Serge Clerc cartoons. To do so wasn’t frivolous or even even vain, to my mind but a necessary cultural gesture. These were trousers of honour. However, at some point during each expedition, I’d inevitably past by a cluster of crusty looking punks congregating sullenly around a bollard. They didn’t present any semblance of menace – they were no danger to anyone, least of all themselves. I suppose they were there voluntarily, trying to catch some of the afterglow of McClaren and Westwood. They were a reminder of Sex (though most definitely not the lower case variety). Yet it was as if they were in captivity, culturally appropriated and caged, as much a part of London’s postcard warp and landscape as the Beefeaters. They were like unpaid tourist attractions. They always looked existentially at a bit of a loss and as I passed them, my gait breaking into an involuntary and self-conscious mince as I did so, I wondered what they made of me in my ballooning trousers and red braces. Like Windsor Davies’ sergeant in It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, I could sense their lips forming the word “poof!” silently. Of course, I could have explained to them that chaps like me didn’t represent some sort of rejection or betrayal but were the direct dialectical descendants of punk (can’t think why I never did). These geezers had missed the point. Punk wasn’t an end in itself but the beginning, the Big Bang that had created rock’s postmodern state, as Dick Hebdige had outlined. But these poor sods weren’t able to progress one inch beyond the Anti Nowhere League.

Still, they lingered, well into the Eighties and beyond. They’re no longer there, now. There must have been a day – maybe in 1994 or 1995 when they trudged off for the very last time, unacknowledged, in a cloud of crusty dust, towards whatever subcultural elephant’s graveyard awaited them. Today, the Kings Road is an array of the usual assortment of haute couture brandnames you can find in reshuffled order along any of the boulevards, malls or avenues of New York, Milan, Paris. There is no one to stare balefully at you, no reminders of anything. We need the punks back down the Kings Road.

Friday, March 12th, 2004

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando is considered a massive influence, not just in movies. Gore Vidal even credited him with the spiritual invention of rock’n’roll. A star pupil of the Method Acting school, he supposedly brought a rugged, physical/emotional dimension of spontaneity to cinema, liberating male leads from the stylised constrictions of previous generations, investing an intensity into his roles that transcended the dictates of script and conventional direction. As Jack Nicholson said, “He gave us our freedom”.

Freedom indeed. Freedom to make a virtue of lazy, macho, overblown self-satisfaction, something Nicholson certainly learned from The Master. Freedom from such bothersome tasks as actually learning your part – Brando used cue cards from 1958 onwards, even for his minimal, grossly overpaid role in 1978’s Superman. Freedom to rest on your laurels for decades. Brando did indeed attain a freedom in Hollywood but it was an undeserved and squandered one.

Brando’s filmography is substantial and mostly forgettable. T’would be easy to mock his obese oil tycoon in 1980’s The Formula or his clayfooted efforts at light comedy in 1964’s Bedtime Story. Yet Brando is, in a sense at his worst in his most “unforgettable” moments which have become became the stuff of much-mocked cliche. (Brando’s “What’you got?” rebel persona was having the piss ripped out of it even in 1960, by Frank Gorshin in The Bells Are Ringing). His biker cool pose, for instance, in The Wild One, is so dated it would be considered too laughably camp in a provincial gay nightclub.

As for A Streetcar Named Desire, he’s beefy and physical enough, giving Vidal wet dreams in his wet, ripped t-shirt. Give him more than two sentences to string together, however, and it’s like listening to hardened criminals on their first day of drama therapy at Wormwood Scrubs. Having made his reputation as a proponent of masculine self-pity (cf On The Waterfront, whose famous speech Brando sounds like he’s reciting off the side of Rod Steiger’s hat), Brando began to specialise in self-indulgence, believing he could play any part, from his mumbling, broody Napoleon in Desiree to his mumbling, broody Sky Masterson in Guys’n’Dolls, in which his “singing” parts had to be cut and pasted together on tape from the bits where he wasn’t out of key. Brando spent the Sixties cultivating an ironic scorn and high-minded distance from Hollywood, while simultaneously taking every naff part going in a series of blisteringly minor movies, including Chaplin’s dismal The Countess From Hong Kong.

By the Seventies, Brando’s name was mud in Hollywood – an unreliable has-been. However, Francis Ford Coppola held out for him in The Godfather and rescued his career. How unjust, then, that what should be remembered as Al Pacino’s movie, the young war hero turned chilling Don, is instead forever recalled by hoarse parodies of Brando’s ridiculous Vito Corleone, whose “character” consists in stuffing his mouth full of Kleenex and playing a man in his late Fifties as if he’s in his late Eighties. All Brando brings to the film is the weight of his reputation, as opposed to substance to his part. When it came to Apocalypse Now, Brando brought weight in a literal sense, about 1000 extra pounds of it to the role of “gaunt” Colonel Kurtz. How did the fat fuck show his gratitude to Coppola, his saviour? By threatening to pull out of the production and keeping his exorbitant fee, by not even bothering to read Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness in “preparation” for his role. As it was, Coppola had to make do with framing Brando in the shadows, the way they used to Alison Moyet in press shots, to make him appear less obese, while his performance was another tour de force of Method, which for Brando means eating a piece of fruit while indifferently reciting your lines. The wanker. The wanker . . . Sure, Brando refused his Godfather Oscar as a protest at the plight of Native Americans but he should have refused it because he is a badly made-up blight on an otherwise great movie. He’s regarded as an “enigma” – but buying your own island and never going out makes you an uncommunicative couch potato, not an enigma. Visiting a discussion board on a Brando website recently was instructive. There were no postings, none, merely a plea for someone, anyone, to “get the ball rolling”. No dice. Brando coasted for years, carried about on a sedan chair of obsequiousness these last thirty. The lack of care he’s exhibited has now duly been repaid in kind.

Monday, March 8th, 2004

Rock Musicals

(This piece first appeared in The Guardian in March 2004)

It seems that Elvis Presley Enterprises, who own the rights to “Jailhouse Rock” have refused the makers of a musical based on Presley’s life permission to use the song in their show. This news has warmed my cockles, which were in danger of freezing and dropping off altogether. That the producers intend to press ahead with said musical anyway, entitled, er, Jailhouse Rock, speaks megatonnes about the ghastly shamelessness of West End profiteers bent on reducing rock’s legacy to that most loathsome form of mass entertainment, one which makes bear-baiting and dwarf-hurling seem cultivated by comparison – the musical.

The rise of rock musicals has been unremitting, from Abba’s Mamma Mia to Madness’s Our House, to the hellspawn of the reptilian Ben Elton – We Will Rock You and the Rod Stewart-inspired Tonight’s The Night. Cultural weathermen predict a couple more decades of this toxic drizzle, probably involving the same handful of productions, gleefully celebrating British pop’s non-multi-ethnic heritage. What’s baffling about musicals about music is their tautologousness – it’s like baking a pie pie. Worse, however, is that everything that might have been good about original rock/pop subject matter – its fleeting, perfectly glistening moments – is obliterated in these mercenary productions, these Trocaderofications of rock, in which the glorious past becomes the cheap and waxen perma-present.

What’s sad is how many artists, from Suggs to Rod Stewart, are prepared to collaborate in the ruin of their own often already dubious reputations. Have you ever been to a Ben Elton musical? I have. It wasn’t just bad, it was traumatising. I was carrying my jaw around between my knees for days afterwards. I know other critics who have reluctantly attended Elton musicals so that you don’t have including one who, tragically, had to see We Will Rock You twice. No one should have to do that. It’s like sending a shellshocked vet on a second tour of ‘Nam.

What’s so psychologically damaging about witnessing a musical like We Will Rock You is that it shakes your fundamental, anti-Hitlerian belief that people are basically equal. There are droves of fellow human beings paying to watch this rancid baloney – the “plot” is sewn together from old Queen songtitles, involving a Killer Queen from whom the populace are Under Pressure to Break Free, etc. This makes you contemplate whether mankind does indeed contain with its ranks a sub-species, ie those who attend Ben Elton musicals and buy balloons to advertise the fact afterwards. With their hackneyed and retarded notion of the “fabulous”, musicals are vile, chronic, soul-sucking organisms. That they have become the black hole into which rock is now disappearing, in this hideous new era of shifting demographics and cynicism is a matter for universal concern.

Arguably, a musical sinner like Rod Stewart deserves no better fate than Tonight’s The Night. All the same, no one, not even Peter Sutcliffe, deserves to have his life reduced to a musical. Elvis Presley Enterprises, thank for trying to stop the rot.