It’s a signature time for robots. In real life we’ve got Curiosity taking a years-long constitutional on the red planet, Rosetta dropping in on Comet67P, drones over the White House and Iraq, and a Korean Man Machine doing some nifty stuff at DARPA.
In the movies, in this year alone we’ve already been seduced and terrorized by the babe-bots of the brilliant Ex Machina —
— and now the granddaddy of all metal men, the Governator himself, is about to blast across the eons (again) in Terminator: Genisys.
It’s easy for a human to feel a little overwhelmed and, frankly, a little redundant, with all this talk of self-driving cars, AI, and the imminently self-aware iPhone (okay I made that last one up but, hey, we all know Apple is working on it).
So, in this age of Terminators and drones, whizz-bang exterminators and pseudo-human love machines, might I suggest it’s time to remember a gentler breed of “Your Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With.” A robot who doesn’t have all the answers, even though, as he constantly reminds us, he does have “a brain the size of a planet”.
I speak, of course, of Marvin.
Marvin the Paranoid Android.
Marvin, a prototype of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation, equipped with the ground-breaking GPP factor, as in “Genuine People Personality”.
Marvin, who upon entering the room, is inclined to talk not of the weather or the traffic, or what passes for news on Alpha Centauri, but rather will announce with breathtaking candor:
“I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed”.
Yup, that’s a Genuine People Personality all right. And yes, I know what you mean Marvin. It’s just so nice to hear someone else say out loud what many of us are thinking. Much of the time.
Marvin was the creation of Douglas Adams, a former script editor and writer on Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Doctor Who.
Marvin is everyone’s favourite side-kick in Adams’s magnum opus, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
This was originally a radio show for the BBC, but it was so popular it evolved into a series of books, a TV show, and, finally, a movie. But it is in its original radio incarnation that Hitchhiker’s shines most brightly. For most fans, Marvin as personified by the lugubrious, jaded tones of Stephen Moore, is the bright star bringing just the right amount of cynical illumination to the Galaxy.
That is the genius of Marvin and the assorted droids and computers in the Hitchhiker’s universe: his too-human side. In trying to make machines more empathetic and relatable by giving them Genuine People Personalities, their creators (us) have made them uber-human to the point of ridiculousness. Thus we have elevators having existential crises: terrified of heights and cowering in basements. Or Eddie, the shipboard computer, who either declares life to be fantastic, all the time — or who mothers you like that over-protective aunt who smelled of slightly rotten elderberries.
It’s a delicious take on the old fear that the technology we create will somehow inherit way too much emotion for its, or our, own good. (Hi there HAL).
Marvin, reduced for most of the time to menial labour (like parking cars), prefaces much of his complaining with “Brain the size of a planet…..”
Ah, I know how you feel, Marvin. No-one really understands the full extent of my unique skills either.
Like, for example, I know I could have been a pop star. I just needed that one big break…..
Yup, Marvin’s been there, done that.
Is there nothing in this world a paranoid android cannot achieve, if only he dreams big enough?
And long enough?
I will never forget the first time I entered the unique film world of John Boorman. I was around 17 or 18. A matinee screening of Zardoz at the National Film Theatre on London’s South Bank. I wandered out of a misty Autumn day into the mist-shrouded strangeness of the opening of that film and was spellbound. A giant stone head floats across a rocky wasteland —
— and Sean Connery emerges reborn out of the ashes of his tour of 007 duty as a bare-chested, mustachioed enforcer in a post-apocalyptic society populated by actors I knew from British sitcoms.
Strange does not even begin to describe this film and yet….. Yet…..
This was film making that did not play it safe. It tackled big themes and mythological subtext was pushed to the foreground. It was artful, adventurous, and frequently fell on its face. The performances pushed the envelope. In short, it was everything that mainstream British film-making of the time mostly wasn’t: risk-taking, emotionally naked, larger-than-life, intellectually challenging, and willing to put it all on the line.
I was hooked. I sought out Boorman’s previous work in late-night screenings at the Penultimate Picture Palace on the outskirts of Oxford, my film school at university. There was Deliverance; the masterpiece Point Blank (the ONLY truly great color film noir that is also the quintessential, ground-zero genre exploration of existential angst); the extraordinary Hell in the Pacific, in which Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune play two combat soldiers from World War II still fighting the war on a remote Pacific atoll long after VJ Day.
In 1981, Excalibur was released. This was Boorman’s vast, sprawling telling of the Arthurian legends, and I was spellbound. It was (and still is) the only time that a film has utterly committed to telling myth as if it was real history, with magic and the supernatural acting as strongly on the protagonists as their own turbulent emotions. Yes, the film is occasionally wayward, and elicits giggles in some of its more on-the-nose moments, largely because of memories of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which had been released some years earlier. But then again there are images, scenes, juxtapositions which are as breathtaking as any in cinema.
And then there’s Merlin: Nicol Williamson’s entirely off-the-wall, off-kilter, playful, eccentric characterization that was savaged (and I mean savaged) by the critics of the time, but which I believed then, and certainly believe even more now, is one of the most iconoclastic and brave performances ever put on celluloid.
And a young, entirely sexy Helen Mirren as his evil nemesis.
Plus one of the most priapic, Jungian/Freudian (take your pick) sex scenes in movie history (you know the one….)
The best book written about Stanley Kubrick is by the leading critic of the French journal Positif, Michael Ciment. Which other director did he choose to write about in similarly expansive fashion? John Boorman. There’s a good reason for this. Like Kubrick, Boorman has consistently challenged our expectations of what a mainstream genre film can and should be. Both books have sat prominently on my bookshelf since they were published, and I dip into them often.
These thoughts were much in my mind last night as I strolled into the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to see the Los Angeles premiere of John Boorman’s self-declared final film, Queen and Country, presented by the American Cinematheque.
It’s a sequel to his masterly autobiographical film about growing up during the London blitz, Hope and Glory. In attendance was Boorman himself, a spritely octogenarian, his eyes sparkling with all the wit and impishness that drives the originality and risk-taking at the heart of his work.
The film itself was as fresh and surprising as any of its predecessors. It focuses on the young hero’s experiences as a conscript doing his British national army service during the Korean war. In characteristic Boorman fashion, the film serves partly as an anthropological investigation of a social group adrift from its moorings – in this case an army that is not actually fighting a war. The absurdities of the hierarchies and rituals of the institution are thrown into relief as Britain and its inhabitants reach for meaning in a post-War world.
Within this world we follow our hero through the travails of first love, the complexities of adult relationships, and discovering his passion for movies.
The film ends with the hero and his girl locked in a playful embrace, sinking beneath the waters of the Thames, as his abandoned camera film the scene. It’s a lovely, perfectly apposite image on which Boorman ends his film maker’s journey, recalling the many rivers that run throughout his work, conduits of destruction and rebirth – tactile, universal, mythological.
After the screening, the director took the stage to a standing ovation. He offered insights and advice that any film maker would do well to heed, including the recommendation to seriously consider an alternative career: he reflected that he had spent more time on films that never got made than on ones that did.
And he told some great stories about working with two of the cinema’s greatest acting legends: Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune.
Boorman’s relationship with Mifune could best be described by the title of the film they were shooting: Hell in the Pacific. Boorman recounted how, at one particularly fraught juncture, he let fly with his criticisms, then insisted that the interpreter through whom they communicated repeat his words verbatim to the star. Mifune listened, then proceeded to punch and knock out the interpreter. Without missing a beat he turned to the director, smiled and nodded. At one point in the shoot, Boorman fell ill and production halted. Worried producers offered Mifune the opportunity to replace Boorman, which they thought the actor would jump at. Mifune instead insisted they stick with Boorman. It was, he said, a matter of honor.
Not a familiar concept to your average Hollywood suit, commented Boorman. The audience at the Aero ate this up.
Boorman recounted how he and Lee Marvin became close friends, and he told several wonderful stories about their friendship.
After Marvin and Boorman had completely reworked the original script for Pont Blank and it came time to start filming, Marvin literally threw the script out of the window. At a meeting with the studio brass Marvin said that he was ceding all his story and casting control to the novice director. Boorman never forgot this support. He noted that the film, about a man who is shot and left for dead, then goes in search of his killers, became a means for Marvin to confront his own demons from combat duty during the war.
On a lighter note, Boorman recalled a memorable evening out with Marvin who, by closing time, was very drunk indeed. Boorman struggled to prevent Marvin from taking the wheel of his car to drive home, finally wresting the keys from him. Marvin proceeded to jump onto the roof of the car and refused to come down. Boorman decided to drive him home anyway.
There they were, weaving their way up the Pacific Coast Highway to Marvin’s home in Malibu, Boorman at the wheel, the star clinging to the roof. Suddenly a siren sounded, and the cops pulled him over. Up walks the patrolman.
“Sir, you do realize that Lee Marvin is on the roof of your car…..?”
How many directors can tell a story like that?
Long before he provided the ominous tones for Darth Vader and created the most iconic-sounding villain in screen history, James Earl Jones made his mark in a number of major productions of stage and screen. It was his role in Jean Genet’s groundbreaking play The Blacks, first staged in New York in 1961, and running for a record-breaking 1408 performances, that led to one of his most memorable early film experiences.
Peter Glenville, a leading British director of the time who had closely collaborated with Graham Greene and Tennessee Williams, was looking for a number of black actors to take roles in his forthcoming film of Greene’s The Comedians, set amidst the turmoil of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s Haiti. Going to The Blacks, which was one of the top off-Broadway hits of the decade, Glenville was presented with an embarrassment of acting riches. Jones was not the only one to be cast in the film as a result of his performance in the play: joining him were Cicely Tyson, Zakes Mokae, and Roscoe Lee Brown. Also in the film was a young Gloria Foster, who later made a mark as the Oracle in the first two Matrix pictures.
For Jones, working on The Comedians was memorable both on, and off, screen. For rarely can a young actor have found himself spending time with such a luminous A-list cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, not to mention the legendary star of silent pictures, Lillian Gish.
A few years ago I produced an oral history of the life and work of Peter Glenville, and James Earl Jones kindly agreed to share his reminiscences with Susan Loewenberg, Producing Director of L.A. TheatreWorks, who commissioned the history on behalf of the Peter Glenville Foundation.
The segment about The Comedians was my favorite, enlivened by Jones’s commentary, his extraordinary presence, and that voice. (In a technical sidebar, that voice was so resonant with bass frequencies that the engineer had quite some trouble recording it without distortion).
Now you can enjoy his story too……
Narrator: Martin Jarvis. Voice of Peter Glenville: Simon Templeman.
In 2008, TV’s best series on the arts, The South Bank Show, trained its telescopic sight on James Bond, to coincide with Daniel Craig’s second outing as 007 in Quantum of Solace. The result was one of the best documentaries on the film series of Ian Fleming’s iconic creation, and includes a rare interview with Sean Connery, plus some marvelous behind-the-scenes footage.
Note: Where indicated, audio only tracks are transfers from original vinyl in my collection, yielding the best sound quality. Otherwise, audio tracks are from 2009 CD reissue of selections from Roland Shaw’s spy soundtrack albums (where masters are unknown).
James Bond Theme (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):
Anyone who collects records has the story of a Eureka moment. A moment when they happened upon a new record of unfamiliar music that, for whatever reason, was a revelation, and subsequently became a firm favorite, a cornerstone of their collection. I’ve had a number of these, but one of the first happened when I was around 12. Leafing through the record bins I happened upon a collection titled The Phase 4 World of Thrillers. The cover was the first thing to catch my attention. It featured all the accoutrements of the gentleman spy and world adventurer, guaranteed to pique the interest of a kid who was already devouring James Bond’s adventures on the page and screen at every possible opportunity.
But the title intrigued too. What was this “Phase 4” thing all about? Quite a few “Phase 4” records littered the bins, both in the Classical and Easy Listening sections. Scanning the track listing of The Phase 4 World of Thrillers revealed an eclectic range of music drawn from movies and TV shows. It was on the Decca label, and the price was right – 99 pence – (ie. almost one pound sterling) – so I plonked down my lawn-mowing pocket-money and hurried home to listen. This is what I heard:
The Man with the Golden Arm (Stanley Black and the London Festival Orchestra) (LP transfer):
Immediately I knew this was a different kind of record. The sound was Technicolor rich and vivid, with the stereo image panned sharply to the left and right channels, in the manner of the early Beatles stereo records. The arrangements were likewise larger-than-life and eclectic in the manner of Easy Listening records of that vintage. The tracks featured an array of Decca’s top so-called “light music” performers and session players, along with some one-offs, like the French children’s choir version of Michel Legrand’s Oscar-winning theme from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), “Les Moulins de Mon Coeur” (“The Windmills of your Mind”).
The Windmills of Your Mind (LP transfer):
Divvying up the main duties were two label stalwarts: Stanley Black and Roland Shaw, supplemented by Frank Chacksfield and his Orchestra and what I can best describe as the “stereo novelty act” of Ronnie Aldrich and his Two Pianos.
Charade (Ronnie Aldrich and his Two Pianos) (LP transfer)
All the music was compelling, from Leonard Bernstein’s jazz-inflected On the Waterfront to Miklos Rozsa’s lurid Hollywood fantasmagoria, Spellbound, but the tracks that most caught my schoolboy imagination were those by Roland Shaw, of themes from spy movies.
The music flew out of the grooves, sexy and sassy, with gigantic drums and bass guitar, tight brass licks, and kinetic strings. The track that really blew my ears back was I Spy.
I Spy (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):
Just listen to the way those opening mega drums propel us forward. (The drumming on Phase 4 records was always fantastic – was it the same player, and if so, who was he?). The brass kicks it up a notch, and then that propulsive, MASSIVE bass guitar anchors the groove while the strings punch out the theme like they are on a combination of speed and caviar. A blistering sax solo unfurls against rhythm guitar, then it’s back to those strings and fat horns punching out that 60s spy glam. On a good stereo, the vinyl practically catches fire, filling the room with three-dimensional sound.
I did not know it then, but Phase 4 Stereo was something more than a marketing gimmick. Decca had long enjoyed the highest reputation amongst audiophiles for the quality of its classical recordings, achieved by the famous “Decca tree” of microphones. This was a simple arrangement of three microphones suspended above the conductor’s head, whose aim was to “hear” the orchestra like a listener would, in natural proportions, from this optimal position. (A few supplemental microphones were carefully placed at strategic points within the orchestra to add detail to the primary sound image). It was a minimalist approach to recording which echoed that of the similarly esteemed American audiophile labels, Mercury and RCA Living Stereo.
In many ways the apogee of this approach to recording had been the historic issue of Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle of operas under Georg Solti, produced by the legendary John Culshaw between 1958 and 1965, complete with sound effects and singers wandering around the space of an imaginary stage, just like in a radio drama.
With the advent of multitrack recording in the 60s, more microphones crept into recording sessions, and the increasing tendency was for the producer and engineer to fine-tune the balance of the orchestra long after the session, rather than have the conductor do so as the recording took place. The result, over succeeding decades, was a sound which, while more refined, with each instrument carefully placed and balanced against every other instrument, lost some of its energy and sense of “aliveness”.
What was different about the “Phase 4” recordings was that, even though they were multi-miked and artificially balanced, deliberately incorporating the idea of “stereo cool” into their marketing, they retained that sense of “aliveness”. There was a palpable excitement in the grooves, as you can hear in this arrangement of the Mission Impossible Theme of Lalo Schifrin by Roland Shaw.
Mission Impossible (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):
The instrumental colors were rich and vibrant, at times almost over-ripe. The recordings retained many of the qualities that had made earlier Decca records audiophile favorites, while adding the extra spice of the Easy Listening palette of unusual instrumental combinations. The arrangements reveled in artificial stereo effects, exotic orchestrations and sound effects, and the result was records which were spectacular showcases for the musicians, the music – and the listener’s stereo system.
Record collectors are obsessive types, and can talk for hours about the relative merits of different pressings of the same record from different eras and countries. Early Decca records were mastered using an all-tube chain of electronics which added an organic warmth to the sound, a physical palpability to the instruments and voices. When the company switched to solid-state electronics in the mid to late 60s, the gain in precision was offset by a loss of the natural quality which tubed electronics brought to the recording chain. Compare identical records in different pressings made before and after the switch and you can clearly hear that difference.
Collectors will tell you that the American versions of Phase 4 records, released on the London Records imprint, are brighter sounding than the Decca originals. Interestingly, unlike many of London’s classical releases, Phase 4 records were all mastered in England. I hear the brightness on some titles, but not others. Clearly some records destined for the American market were simply EQ’d differently. I guess the assumption was that Americans needed everything a little brighter and brasher than the Brits to maintain their interest. I’d love to know whether that assumption was based on any kind of quantifiable research.
In a later article I will talk about some of the other Phase 4 records which occupy pride of place in my collection, including seminal recordings of his film music by Bernard Herrmann which, along with the RCA Classic Film Score Series, played an important role in establishing the legitimacy of film music recordings as standalone LPs. But for now, this article focuses on Phase 4 recordings of music for the various secret agents who spread across movie and TV screens in the wake of the massive popularity of James Bond.
Here is a typical example of how the Phase 4 label spiced up the originals, with Roland Shaw doing the honors for Burt Bacharach’s theme for the “alternative” Bond romp, Casino Royale. Note the addition of screaming teenage girls to Burt Bacharach’s catchy original.
Phase 4’s compilations of spy themes were entirely the province of arranger/orchestrator Roland Shaw. He was one of Decca’s principal house arrangers, working for Vera Lynn, Mantovani, Ted Heath, and the label’s principal conductor of film music, Stanley Black. He also worked on several films himself as composer, including The Great Waltz, Summer Holiday, and Song of Norway. He had a passion for motor cars, of which he owned several exotic examples over the years. These ranged from a Rolls-Royce to a Bentley and a beautiful classic red Ferrari. He competed in club meetings at Silverstone, Goodwood and Brands Hatch, where he often acted as a race marshal. In fact, it was while parking his Rolls near his home in Barnes (purchased with a royalty check from Tutti Camerata) that he got his break with Decca Records. He was approached by an admirer of the vehicle, who turned out to be Frank Lee, head of A&R at the label.
Shaw’s first spy genre album, Themes from the James Bond Thrillers, was released in 1964 to coincide with Goldfinger. It was a massive hit, spawning a series of further records of “Spy” themes.
Monty Norman had composed the music for the first film in the Bond series, Dr. No, and Shaw’s arrangements filled out the minimally orchestrated originals to great effect. In this track, Underneath the Mango Tree, the addition of rippling flute and harp, plus swirling strings, creates a sense of travelogue exotica.
Underneath the Mango Tree (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):
However, it was John Barry’s iconic arrangement of the James Bond Theme, and his scores for Goldfinger and beyond, which defined the “Spy Sound” of the Swinging Sixties soundtrack. Barry seamlessly blended his jazz and bop background with lush romantic strings and heavy Wagnerian brass chords (interspersed with fabulous, soaring breaks that wailed over the propulsive drums and bass) to create a sound that defined the cool of Bond every bit as much as the beautiful girls, designer clothes, exotic locations and futuristic gadgets.
You can hear all these elements at work in this music from the pre-credits sequence in Thunderball, which culminated in Bond making his escape with a jet-pack.
Chateau Fight (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):
Record labels were jumping over themselves to create knock-off compilations of Bond and other spy music, using various Easy Listening arrangers and scratch bands. The results were frequently lacklustre, but every so often these cover versions struck gold. Such was the case with Roland Shaw’s series of albums for Decca Phase 4.
In his arrangement of music from Diamonds of Forever you can hear how Shaw, while remaining true to the essence of John Barry’s original, has embellished the orchestration to highlight the Hi-Fi aspect of the recording and give it more zest.
He has added soaring and swooning contrapuntal string lines to the original, no doubt a legacy of his arranging for Mantovani’s orchestra. Then fat, funky bass lines combine with propulsive guitar licks (even throwing in a bit of wah-wah for good measure), latin drums and stabbing brass to give the whole thing an extra tinge of pop and of the exotic. (Many Phase 4 albums highlighted unusual percussion and other sounds from world music to lend a sense of travelogue to their albums).
Staying with Bond, here is Shaw’s arrangement of one of Barry’s most lyrical inventions for the Bond series, You Only Live Twice.
Interestingly, one of the theme songs that Shaw leaves more or less unchanged, is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Maybe this was because the track was already one of Barry’s most exciting inventions — and why mess with perfection? It was the first title sequence in a Bond film not to feature a vocal. Instead, to accompany visuals that recapped the previous Connery adventures in preparation for George Lazenby’s assumption of the role, Barry built a driving chase fanfare over a Moog synthesizer playing in unison with a bass guitar.
The Moog was a completely new kind of instrument, purely electronic with no acoustic elements, and sounds radically different even on Barry’s own various recordings of this theme.
In the wake of Bondmania, film and television companies fast-tracked numerous secret agent projects, all demanding their own John Barry-tinged music. One of the most successful of Bond imitators was the series starring James Coburn as an urbane American agent, which kicked off with Our Man Flint.
Jerry Goldsmith, one of the most distinctive film composers to emerge at that time (his credits include Planet of the Apes, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Alien) provided a theme which channeled the Barry sound in its guitar licks and brass stabs. But he also added his own elements (percussion and jazzy improvisations) to convey a sense of the send-up that the film encapsulated.
Our Man Flint (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):
Back in the U.K., a quirky TV series that combined Bondian elements with fantasy and sci-fi became a cult classic and ran for many years.
The Avengers launched the careers of several subsequent Bond girls — Honor Blackman in Goldfinger and Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The hero, John Steed, always immaculately dressed in the finest Savile Row suits, with accompanying umbrella and bowler hat, was played by Patrick MacNee, who later featured as Roger Moore’s accomplice in A View to a Kill.
The Avengers had a killer theme written by Laurie Johnson.
The Avengers (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):
One of the most successful TV riffs on Bond was The Saint, which also proved to be a training ground for a future 007, Roger Moore. Based on Leslie Charteris’s series of novels about a Robin Hood-like character, the show’s catchy theme song was the work of Edwin Astley, a prolific TV composer who became a regular contributor to ITC Entertainment which produced the show. He also scored the themes for Patrick McGoohan’s iconic Danger Man, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and, in a different vein entirely, Kenneth Clarke’s epic documentary series, Civilisation. The theme for The Saint opened with a characterful motif for flutes, echoed woman’s voice, vibraphone and muted trumpets which would play as a halo appeared above Roger Moore’s head. It perfectly mirrors the cheeky quality of the character and show.
This kind of unusual instrumentation was typical of the genre, and is why so much of this music is such a good fit for the exotic orchestral palette of Easy Listening records. (Shaw’s arrangement dispenses with the woman’s vocal but goes to town in the blaring brass section; there’s that terrific drumming again too.)
The Saint (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):
A precursor to Bond was the American TV show Peter Gunn, the creation of maverick film-maker Blake Edwards, one of the most underrated talents among post-War American writer/directors, who found enormous commercial success with the Pink Panther movies.
The iconic theme song, by his long-time collaborator Henry Mancini, undoubtedly influenced later composers working in the genre (including Barry).
Peter Gunn has been much covered, most notably by cult 80s group The Art of Noise, with Duane Eddy taking on the guitar “twanging” duties. In his version, Roland Shaw doubles that guitar line with an early synthesizer, adds some percussion pops for Hi-Fi glitter, and plays up the drums and jazzy improvised elements.
Not all spy movies of the 60s were upbeat. John Le Carre’s The Spy who Came in from the Cold offered Richard Burton one of his most celebrated roles in a gritty cat-and-mouse game set in a divided Berlin. The muted, evocative score was by Sol Kaplan.
The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):
Another highly successful series that, tonally, fell somewhere between Fleming and Le Carre, was launched with The Ipcress File, starring Michael Caine as the world-weary British agent Harry Palmer. The series shared much of Bond’s DNA, not surprisingly because the producer was Harry Saltzman (half of Eon Productions), bringing with him Bond’s editor, Peter Hunt, and production designer, Ken Adam. The music was also by John Barry, who used his taste for exotic instrumentation (in this case the cimbalom) to evoke eastern menace on the streets of London.
The Ipcress File (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):
John Barry also contributed a memorable score to The Quiller Memorandum (1966). George Segal and Alec Guinness starred in this straight ahead cold war thriller, with a script by Harold Pinter.
Wednesday’s Child from The Quiller Memorandum (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):
In finest Easy Listening fashion, even Shaw was not afraid to go with a somewhat cheesy vocal arrangement when called for. Here is his take on one of Burt Bacharach’s numbers from Casino Royale. (In the film it was only used as an instrumental; this is the version with Hal David’s lyrics).
Note, as always, the fabulous drumming and that tight rhythm guitar. I wonder how many bachelor pads have echoed to this track at the cocktail hour…..
“Let the Love Come Through” from Casino Royale (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):
Twisting with James (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):
“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”
“That’s your problem! You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.” (Sleepless in Seattle)
“The desire to get married is a basic and primal instinct in women. It’s followed by another basic and primal instinct: the desire to be single again.”
“And then the dreams break into a million tiny pieces. The dream dies. Which leaves you with a choice: you can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream.” (Heartburn)
“When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”
“I’ll have what she’s having.” (When Harry Met Sally)
One of the most momentous discoveries of my musical life happened almost by accident. I was a teenager at boarding-school, just hanging out one afternoon, when one of my friends sauntered by.
“Read about a pretty cool album in this week’s New Musical Express. You should check it out.”
He ambled away down the corridor, and after a few minutes returned with a copy of the music broadsheet. On the cover were four men dressed in red shirts and black ties, hair plastered down, heavily made up, their faces locked in expressionless sideways gazes, arranged in a highly stylized shot that reeked of both Teutonic totalitarianism and mechanistic macho.
“I think this might be right up your alley”. No, he wasn’t making a crack at my expense. My friend knew that I was heavily into avant-garde classical music, and especially the German avatar of progressive and electronic music, Karlheinz Stockhausen.
He opened the paper to the feature review. It was of an album called The Man Machine, and those four men on the cover were its creators – collectively known as Kraftwerk.
From the moment I started reading about this band I realized this was music I had to investigate. I inhaled the article. I was only just starting to listen to pop and rock seriously; up until then I had been strictly into classical and jazz, assembling a semi-improvisatory ensemble when I was 12. But recently I had discovered Pink Floyd and David Bowie and was getting really fired up by these new musical worlds. By the time I finished the article I knew I had to have the record, and headed down to the local record store as soon as I could. That record is still with me, one of my prized possessions, albeit with one chewed corner courtesy of a family pup who bypassed Bach and Basie in favor of Krautrock, discriminating fellow that he was. On a good system this record sounds like you are inside the man machine. Those analog synths and drums are fat. None of the reissues or even the American pressing comes close to the sound of that original English pressing.
I will never forget the first time I played the album. It was on headphones and I didn’t just listen. I was absorbed into the music, and into a sound world unlike any other. The electronic canvas was so rich it felt organic, and the short, motivic melodies were immediately catchy. The occasional human voices, often fed through a range of processing devices, were flat and mechanistic, yet also oddly imbued with real feeling. There was a sense of melancholic machine chanting. The B-side led off with a number that is the closest the group has ever come to a conventional single, The Model. The song plays on how we objectify feminine beauty, turning models into remote, almost technological creatures: infinitely desirable, and infinitely unapproachable. It is an incisive piece of musical observation, made all the more poignant for the yearning that lurks just beneath the surface. That yearning is transmogrified into something both familiar and otherworldly in the next song, Neon Lights, a tour de force of electronic expressionism. I think it is their greatest track, a road song of the modern urban experience, driving through canyons of steel with the neon lights of the city dancing and dazzling the senses. Cascades of shimmering synthesizers ripple over a relentless march beat and a simple, haunting melody, again tinged with melancholy.
Shimmering neon lights
And at the fall of night
The city’s made of light.
Many a time I have found myself on a freeway, sometimes with a light or heavy rain to deepen the electric shadows, with that music playing on the stereo or in my memory. I am sucked into a netherworld of strange, Metropolis beauty. (Metropolis, not surprisingly, is the title of another track on the album: an apt hommage to Fritz Lang’s silent epic which defined the modern cityscape on film, in our heads, and finally in reality).
I still hear details in that record that I’ve not heard before, it is that well-crafted. At the time of the album’s release I was not alone in the opinion that this group was creating something unique, not just in pop music, but in music, period. I immediately bought their earlier albums, Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express.
I quickly discovered that Kraftwerk were sui generis, and today they are hailed as the most influential group ever, even more so than The Beatles. And it’s not just the music which continues to ripple through practically every genre, even non-electronic music. (Listen to Philip Glass or Steve Reich and Kraftwerk is right there at the heart of their work. No surprise then that their appearance at Disney Hall is part of a citywide celebration of musical minimalism). Kraftwerk’s stripped-down sense of design, for example, was a huge influence on Peter Saville, who designed covers for Joy Division and New Order, and spawned a million imitators.
At the time these record covers were the complete opposite of Roger Dean’s visual fantasias for Yes, as was the music. Everything was stripped down to the essentials. Repetitious and hypnotic rhythms were so carefully layered that they avoided any of the dead-hand quality of their numerous imitators. Melodies were short and mesmeric, and full of romantic yearning. Kraftwerk’s tunes are some of the most memorable in pop. That romantic quality evokes the human in the machine, and it is in that domain that Kraftwerk’s music breathes and finds its staying power. The only other techno act that I think approaches that quality is Massive Attack, but it does so with more conventional vocals laid on top of the electronic palette.
The thing about Kraftwerk is that it’s a band whose work still sounds incredibly modern at the same time as feeling timeless. No matter that you can hear the evolutions in electronic instrument technology from album to album. (Techno Pop, formerly Electric Café, is suffused with the new digital technology of Yamaha’s DX-7 synth, and was the least well-received of their albums, though in its new remastering it is redeemed). Timeless, indeed, as the masterworks of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner that came out of Germany’s classical tradition. But it was in reaction to that tradition that Kraftwerk crafted its distinctive sound and ethos.
After the war, German musicians wanted to do, and be, anything so long as it was far away from the German classical tradition which had been heavily tainted by its co-option by Hitler into his promotion of the Aryan ideal. Young musicians needed to turn their back on centuries of German high culture, but they also shied away from the popular forms of their conquerors. Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider started Kraftwerk in 1970 within the loose umbrella of the Krautrock movement, and their early albums used conventional instruments and free-form improvisation seasoned with the spice of electronic manipulation. But their compositions were essentially conventional in method and execution.
That all changed with Autobahn, whose single A-side concept piece was an electronic realization of the aural and aesthetic experience of crossing Germany via the new freeway system that had no speed limit.
It was a revelation, both for what electronics could now do, and for its reinvention of what a pop record could be. And it was as potent in its ideas — of sound as movement, and vice versa; of engagement with technology as romantic — as it was in its execution. Its successors were no less influential. In particular, Trans-Europe Express, which did for rail travel what Autobahn had done for motorways. Together with The Man Machine and Computer World, these albums created a sense of what it felt like to exist as a human being in the late 20th century: one’s humanity slowly leeching away from the organic experience of life, through the mediation of technology, into something both immediate and distancing, something “other”.
On Trans Europe Express people remember the epic title track and its extension, Metal on Metal, but they forget about the haunting Hall of Mirrors, a meditation on identity and celebrity with glistening synthesizer figures rippling against a pointed refrain (“Even the greatest stars discover themselves in the looking-glass”), and the elegiac Franz Schubert, a techno call-out to Germany’s most lyrical and poetic composer, who in the here and now is buried beneath the literal and aesthetic railroad tracks of the new Germany.
It is often claimed that hip-hop begins with Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 club hit Planet Rock, which quotes from Trans-Europe Express and Computer World. I remember hearing this on the dance floor of London’s legendary Camden Palace, and being blown away both by the fact that I knew where the melody and rhythm had come from, and that they now existed in this cool new context.
But back to The Man Machine, which I think is Kraftwerk’s most fully realized and perfect record. This was the album in which the individual members of the band finally disappeared into their conceptual creation. They became their own robots, literally using mechanical alter-egos in videos and live performance.
This week I revisited this album in vivo, so to speak, as part of the band’s 4-day trip through their complete oeuvre in live performance in the iconic performing space of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
Two modern icons working in tandem, so to speak.
Only Ralf Hutter of the original band still remains, one of four “operators” onstage (Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen), all standing behind minimalist work stations (one of whom “mixes” the 3-D visual component of the show in real time).
Quite apart from the excitement of finally seeing one of my favorite bands in action, I couldn’t wait to see how music that is so essentially “canned” would work as a live show. Stripped of the crowd-pleasing elements of the typical live rock or pop show, like barnstorming guitar or drum solos, I wondered how well the Kraftwerk aesthetic of complete control and pre-determination would play for an audience.
It took about a minute for my doubts to evaporate. First of all the sound, the best I’ve ever heard at a live rock show, was both muscular and delicate, subtle and forceful, going as deep as any bass I’ve ever heard. And it travelled through the space – around, about, and in and out. No doubt those famous Disney acoustics had a hand in rendering the Kraftwerk sound so vividly and precisely.
Whatever elements were pre-programmed, nothing about the musical performance felt canned, and the personality of each member of the band clearly emerged in the ways in which familiar musical lines were varied, embellished, speeded up and slowed down. In a nice touch at the end, each player had a chance to improvise at his work station, and I was left wishing they had done a little bit more performing on the musical fly.
But it was the visuals that added a whole new dimension to the Kraftwerk experience. On a large screen behind the four band members (who wore black suits with grids on them), a mixture of ultra-high tech and almost retro video, fully exploiting the ability of 3-D imagery to pluck at your eyes, created a fully integrated “happening”.
In fact, the whole evening felt closer to a piece of performance art than to a concert, which is no doubt one of the reasons why these events have been mostly presented in museums and architecturally significant spaces rather than stadiums. Viewing and hearing the Kraftwerk oeuvre as a whole one was struck not just by its originality and uniqueness, but by its prophetic nature.
Everything about how technology has come to shape our lives was there in this extraordinary music, created years before this phenomenon fully came to pass. Nowhere was this more evident than in a sequence from Computer World.
Here, patterns of fluorescent numbers flashed by and undulated towards us in sensual waves, while the music alternatively spiked and caressed, threatened and lulled. It all perfectly caught the dichotomy of our love-hate affair with personal technology.
The most chilling note was sounded with the performance of Radioactivity from the lesser-known album of the same name.
Against a deeply funky groove, the names of nuclear incidents like Chernobyl and Harrisburg flashed on the screen, and then —
Germany has committed itself to going nuclear-free within a couple of decades. In a nice twist of fate, the country that originated modern mechanized warfare with the objective of cultural subjugation and annihilation has become more sensitive to the lessons of technological misdeeds than its conquerors. Maybe the rest of us, those who are inclined to forget the lessons of history, and are unwilling to accept the prophecies of climate science, are indeed destined to dance with Death into oblivion. If so, it will be in beautiful buildings like Disney Hall, and all to the techno stylings of a generation of musicians who confronted the dehumanizing legacy of their forefathers by seeking the man in the machine, and vice-versa. It is an irony at which Mr. Hutter would no doubt smile.
And in the world of Kraftwerk cover bands —
Living and working in Hollywood one is inclined, somewhat more than the general population, to suffer from a variety of movie states of mind. After all, wanting to escape reality is what brought us to California in the first place, and the Hollywood in our heads is substantially preferable to the reality. (Have you ever been to Hollywood and Highland, where they’ve turned the gates of Babylon from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance into a mall? And that’s the upscale bit of Hollywood!).
Hollywood is also intrinsically hyperbolic and, since making movies is actually a pretty arduous process, I’ve heard grown men who have Oscars in their cloakrooms liken it to war. Ridiculous? Maybe not so much. A little mental meandering can be a healthy counterbalance to too much Hollywood reality. (Or unreality).
In fact, going from that blissfully innocent initial movie idea (“How about a shark terrorizing a resort? We can build a mechanical Great White, no problem, and film it in the real ocean so we don’t have to fake it. Easy!”), to actually opening a film is kind of like finding oneself in the third act of The Shining. During the required three plus years it takes to get a film made one mostly feels like that film’s seven year-old endeavoring to elude the unwanted homicidal attentions of an axe-wielding paternal figure (a Freudian mash-up of the studio, investors, critics, paying public).
The only way to offset the seemingly inevitable drop of the blade is to take one’s life into one’s own hands and, like little Danny, run out into the petrifying night, and lure the enemy into a frozen maze from which neither of you may return in one piece.
Of course I exaggerate. No one would work in movies if it was really like that. (Yes they would! They want to meet movie stars!) It’s really no worse than being a lawyer or member of Congress. (Where are the axe murderers when you really need them?).
So, getting back to my point about Hollywood’s denizens entering into Hollywood states of mind, let’s consider some possible favorite choices.
The writer – for example – is susceptible to Sunset Boulevard. He’s found himself floating face down in a swimming-pool so many times he’s forgotten how he ever got there (or how to stop it happening again).
Of course, writers live mostly in their heads anyway, and in Hollywood that can be a nice place — all that sun, sand and, well….
Yes, any writer who’s gone through what is politely called Development Hell will feel a particular empathy with Barton Fink. The prospect of seeing John Goodman’s gun-toting psycho charging down a spontaneously combusting corridor screaming “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” will almost seem like a relief compared to another round of studio notes.
The producer – a much-maligned creature in movie lore – might veer between two possible models of how to go about getting the show on the road. There’s The Bad and the Beautiful, in which a group of filmmakers reflect on how they were aided in their careers, and then terrorized, by the Machiavellian producer played by Kirk Douglas, who will charm, swarm, cajole and bully to get his way.
And then there’s The Producers, wherein the titular characters set out to make a deliberate flop out of an all-singing, all-dancing Nazi musical, and end up with a smash hit.
But which of these two films represents how one should go about being a producer? Which one is the cautionary tale, and which one the blueprint for success?
The eternal dilemma of how exactly to go about producing hit movies is played out, second-guessed and dissected in the trades after every opening weekend. However, for every producer who yearns to cut through all the crap, Get Shorty will hold a special place in his or her heart for its gangster-turned-producer hero played by John Travolta because, deep down, every producer wishes he could make the odd recalcitrant collaborator/executive/critic/second-guesser an offer he cannot refuse.
The studio executive on the wrong end of Travolta’s pistol will always have Robert Altman’s The Player to console him. Tim Robbins’s sleazy protagonist does, after all, get away with murdering a difficult writer – and ends up marrying his victim’s girlfriend. (Add this film to the writer’s list of grievances).
The director who’s knocked around a bit channels Richard Mulligan’s beleaguered auteur in Blake Edwards’ sublime satire of Hollywood, S.O.B. (short for “Standard Operational Bulls**t”).
Driven to the brink of insanity by a mega-flop, Mulligan decides to wrestle victory from the jaws of box office defeat, and Robert Vaughan’s cross-dressing studio boss —
— by reshooting for an R-rating. How does he do this? Well, he persuades his star (and ex) Julie Andrews that her wholesome family-friendly image needs retooling (literally). To accomplish this he revamps his central MGM-style musical number as a porno.
Its climax (ahem) is Mary Poppins going all spring break on us (“You like my boobies?” a squiffy Julie declaims in a state of deshabillé).
That Mulligan gets shot to death for his pains —
— and is buried at sea in a viking helmet by William Holden and his buddies (after a spot of fishing) —
— is merely a tribute to his auteur credentials.
Actors adore All about Eve, Joe Mankiewicz’s paean to theatre folk, and dissection of the naked ambition (and unsheafed knife) lurking in the sweet smile of one’s understudy.
Cinéaste actors go nuts for Les Enfants du Paradis, Marcel Carné’s Dickensian canvas of a theater troupe’s lives and loves.
Why are we so fascinated by actors and movie stars? Because life is a performance, and we’re all acting a part — as Shakespeare so pithily pointed out. Movie stars just do it bigger and better than we do. David O. Russell’s latest, American Hustle, hardwires into our pop cultural obsession with everything actorly. It finds the intersection between performance and the con in the pursuit of the American dream, and milks the results for all their worth. And as per usual Russell pushes his cast out onto an emotional high wire — the resulting thespian high jinks and precarious balancing acts are glorious to behold.
But for me the film that maybe most perfectly embodies the surrealistic double-think a screen actor must hold in his head is Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. This is the one where a daydreaming projectionist —
— wanders into the movie he is screening.
Surviving a series of jump cuts that launch him from one perilous, and hilarious, scene to another —
— he ends up solving the mystery and getting the girl, because he entered the movie. Now that’s what I call commitment to a role. What an endorsement of film’s curative powers. (For a later spin on this idea, see Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo.)
But if you had to select just one film to embody all the obsessions of Hollywood in one convenient package, I suspect that would be —
But, I hear you say, that movie has nothing to do with the movies. Au contraire, I counter. It is, in effect, the ultimate metaphor for making pictures. Consider.
Jimmy Stewart falls in love with a fabrication, an illusion of a person, who in this case happens to be Kim Novak.
“Screen siren obsession” is, in my opinion, a completely certifiable medical condition; a symptom familiar to moviegoers everywhere since the dawn of moving pictures. (Erotic fixation upon fantasy figures lies at the heart of film’s mesmeric dance of seduction). Then, when Novak “dies”, Stewart sees another woman who reminds him of the earlier one, and proceeds to refashion her into a replica of his earlier love.
What he does not know is that both women are actually one and the same.
That he’s the victim of an intricate con-job to cover up a murder is largely co-incidental, and barely relevant to what the film is really about. That crafty Hitch – he made a movie about making movies, and the danger of trying to build real-world romances upon the flickering shadows of fantasy and obsession, projected or otherwise, with death as the trickster “I do”.
“So what!”I can hear many a movie guy say. So what if the gal’s a fake, the guy’s a basket-case, and no-one gets to say “I do”. We’re making movies! How great is that! I know people who would kill to do what we do.
Yup, in Hollywood, Vertigo is the one you come home to.