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.
James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in The Blacks
Polish poster for The Comedians
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 TheComedians 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.
Peter Glenville (c., standing) with the cast of The Comedians
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.
Peter Glenville directing Ustinov and Taylor
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.
Ursula Andress and Ian Fleming on location for Dr. No
Fleming and Connery on location for From Russia with Love
Connery, Shirley Eaton, Fleming on set of Goldfinger
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):
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.
John Barry epitomized Swinging London just as much as the spy whose musical identity he forged on the big screen. Barry is seen here with his then wife, actress and singer Jane Birkin
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.
Bond girl Akiko Wakabasyashi behind the wheel of her one-off Toyota 2000 GT convertible in 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.
Robert Moog pictured with his invention
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.
Japanese poster for 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 byPatrick MacNee, who later featured as Roger Moore’s accomplice in A View to a Kill.
Diana Rigg and Patrick MacNee
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).
Henry Mancini receiving the Grammy from Peggy Lee for his album of music from Peter Gunn
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):
We’ve all seen them – those fun pictures of fellow knights of the British stage, Sir Ian McKellen (aka Gandalf and X-Men maverick Magneto) and Sir Patrick Stewart (aka Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise and X-Men leader Professor Xavier) hamming it up before the Super Bowl —
— and living it up, in and around the Big Apple.
It’s the unlikeliest bromance of the moment. It has grown out of this power duo’s Broadway performances of a hard-core theatrical double-hitter: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land.
The shows have garnered rave reviews. No surprise here. Several of my most memorable theatre-going experiences have been courtesy of these two theatrical lions. In the RSC’s staging of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, directed by Trevor Nunn at the Barbican in the 1980s, Patrick Stewart was an unforgettable King. The scene where he realizes, on his deathbed, that the son he thought was a wastrel is actually going to be a great monarch (Henry V), and the two are finally reconciled, was indelibly moving.
Ian McKellen terrified in a studio-sized, in-the-round production of Macbeth (with Judi Dench) that has achieved a well-deserved legendary status (it was also directed by Trevor Nunn).
Some years later, in a Peter Hall production of Coriolanus at the National Theater, McKellen brought that difficult study in hubris to alarming light. I doubt I will ever see that tricky play done better.
Like Patrick Stewart, I had the good fortune to work and hang out with Ian, in Boston and New York, though at the end of an earlier era, the 80s. And it was just as much fun. We may not have gone to Coney Island…..
…… but we did have the surreal experience of sitting in a wharf-side restaurant near Wall Street as the stock market crashed. As we sipped coffee and wrote our script, even the air was jittery.
I had persuaded Ian to work with me to adapt his one-man show, Acting Shakespeare (which he was touring around the States), into a 2-hour special for National Public Radio, to be produced under the auspices of my radio station, WBUR in Boston. The program would tell the story of Shakespeare’s life and examine the lasting appeal of the plays, through autobiographical nuggets, commentary and performances by Ian, and a range of interviews, historic recordings and music. It would then extend into a discussion of Shakespearean performance in America. It was somewhat unusual for a radio station in America at this time, even one in the NPR network, to undertake an enterprise of this nature. Radio drama of any kind, let alone something as ostensibly highbrow as Shakespeare, was hard to find on the dial. But our station manager, Jane Christo, thought unconventionally, and was a big fan of Ian’s work. It did not hurt that we were able to attract substantial corporate underwriting for the project too.
The program began, as had Ian’s one-man show, in really the only way it could, with the opening of Henry V, in which the audience members are exhorted by the Chorus to enter the world of the play through the full exercise of their imagination. Is there any finer call to arms for the theatregoer?
During the course of the program we interviewed a range of people who studied and performed the plays in America.
Joseph Papp in front of posters for some of his many legendary productions
Joseph Papp, the iconoclastic director and impresario who had done so much to promote quality non-profit theatre in New York, entertained with his impression of Al Pacino doing Richard III, and his often irreverent but unique insights gleaned from a lifetime of producing the plays.
Hamlet at the Delacorte Public Theatre (1964)
F. Murray Abraham illuminated the actor’s point of view. He talked about why he loves performing the plays, and how young audience members were in thrall to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which he was starring as Bottom.
F. Murray Abraham as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, with Melissa Miller as Jessica
Professor Marjorie Garber of Harvard University, a leading gender studies and Shakespeare scholar, brought to life many historical, academic and philosophical issues connected to the plays and their author (not least the fascinating question of whether Shakespeare was really an actor from Stratford-upon-Avon, or someone else altogether).
Edward de Vere, one of the leading candidates for being “the real Shakespeare”. The film Anonymous dramatized his story.
We also recorded a class of school kids who studied with the pioneering New England theatre company, Shakespeare and Company.
A senior figure with that troupe, Kristin Linklater, had coached Ian in speech and diction early in his career at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and she discussed the ways in which American performances of Shakespeare were often preferable to those by British actors.
Kristin Linklater leading a class
The program also looked at the ways in which Shakespeare has permeated the popular culture, from West Side Story to the pop songs of Sting. Interviewing Sting resulted in one of my more memorable encounters with a celebrity.
The former lead singer with The Police was doing a photo shoot in New York, and suggested I come to the studio and talk to him during a break. I remember walking into the lobby of an unassuming building in midtown, only to be confronted by 15-foot-high walls covered, floor to ceiling, with cover shots from Vogue and other iconic fashion magazines. I suddenly realized this was no ordinary photo shoot.
I was led to Sting’s dressing-room. On the way I glimpsed the rock star, naked save for his Calvin Klein briefs, posing for an effervescent, wiry photographer who spoke in a flurry of Italian-English. I did not know it at the time, but this was one of the legends of the fashion scene, Francesco Scavullo. When I later told my girlfriend (who was part Italian and a big follower of the fashion-world) where I’d been, she admonished me, half in American, half in Italian, for a) not knowing how fortunate I had been to be admitted into the presence of this legend (Scavullo, not Sting), and b) not taking her with me. When I then further revealed that throughout the interview Sting remained clad only in his form-fitting Calvin Kleins, I received a sharp jab of rebuke on my arm. Clearly I had seriously messed up for not allowing her the opportunity to see the rock star au naturel. It took a while for me to emerge from the doghouse. (And, ladies, the answer to your question concerning Mr. Gordon Sumner’s attributes is, “Yes, he is.”)
Francesco Scavullo with his iconic photo of Sting
One of the most memorable evenings of my sojourn in New York now takes on the hue, in retrospect, of an historical moment in theatre lore. Ian and I were laboring intently on the script, preparing to enter the studios of WNYC to lay down his tracks before he resumed his tour. We were under the gun, but nevertheless one day he declared that we were going to take a break that evening and go to the theatre.
“You wouldn’t mind doing that, would you dear boy? I’ve been told it’s a play we absolutely must go to,” he said as he peered over his half-moon spectacles. “Absolutely” is one of his signature words. His eyes betrayed that twinkle of mischief which the world has come to love in his portrayal of Gandalf. There is a part of Ian’s psyche that remains thoroughly that of an errant school-boy, “creeping unwillingly to school”. It is one of the reasons he is a great actor: he likes to play. On this occasion he was clearly in the possession of privileged knowledge he was not about to share, but he was relishing what my reaction would be when I discovered what it was.
Rehearsing Richard III (with Mark Strong)
Thus we found ourselves heading off to Sardi’s for dinner, New York’s most famous watering hole for the Broadway set. Of course, everyone wanted to come over to our table and pay their respects. Ian held court to the manner born, garrulous and friendly, but always ready with a biting quip. The possessor of a mind every bit as lean and quick as his performances, Mr. McKellen does not suffer fools, or the lazy opinion, gladly. He’s call you on your BS. You’ve seen him do this on the chat shows, where he has become a popular guest with hosts and audiences alike.
We walked into the theatre and made our way to our seats at the front and center of the stalls. A murmur of excitement flowed through the audience – at this time McKellen was already a huge star in the theatrical firmament, even if he had yet to achieve the broader celebrity status that came with The Lord of the Rings and X-Men. He turned and shook people’s hands, and greeted old friends. Finally we settled into our seats and the play began.
An actor came out, thin with long black hair falling about his coiled shoulders.
From the second he took the stage I was riveted. His energy and intensity were extraordinary, and it was the kind of showboating role that makes a star. Now I could better imagine the galvanizing effect of Brando’s legendary performance in A Streetcar called Desire. I knew why Ian had insisted we come, and I felt like I was watching theatre history being made. After the show we went backstage and Ian introduced himself. I just stood by and watched, in awe. What a moment!
Walking home Ian commented: “You don’t see that every day – a star is born”, or words to that effect. True enough.
The actor’s name was John Malkovich, and the play was Burn This by Lanford Wilson. Also in the cast was the young Joan Allen, giving an equally powerful performance for which she won a Tony award. Amazingly, Malkovich only received a Drama Desk nomination. He was, as they say, robbed. But his stellar career was officially launched.
John Malkovich and Joan Allen in Burn This
A few days later Ian and I entered what were then the newly refurbished studios of WNYC to record his scenes and linking text. As with the writing process, Ian was completely collaborative and openly solicited my advice on his acting and presentation. It was a somewhat daunting experience for a comparative neophyte to be asked to guide one of the greatest actors of his generation, but Ian was intent on scaling back the pitch and scale of his performances so that they worked for radio. His conversational manner as host occasionally veered towards being more “BBC-like” than one normally heard on American radio, not surprisingly, but that hardly seemed inappropriate in a program about Shakespeare hosted by an Englishman.
Rehearsing Macbeth with director Trevor Nunn and Judi Dench
We wanted his commentary to feel comfortable and unintimidating, like a fireside chat, with hot tea and scones to hand. When it came to the play extracts he completely understood how one could go small and intense, rather than big and theatrical, honing in on the psychological thrust of the speeches. Radio is wonderful for this kind of “interior” approach to drama, and it also allows an actor to mold and color the language in a way that the demands of projection in a large theatrical space often preclude. Only occasionally did we shift into a proscenium, or to be more accurate, thrust-stage mode, when a scene like the opening of Henry V would be aurally placed within a theatre setting through the use of sound effects and artificially added reverberation. I particularly enjoyed doing Prospero’s Farewell from The Tempest (opening Part 2 of the program). Ian brought out all the lyricism and melancholy in the speech, and I backed it with the Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim’s music, drawn from his ballet of the play. It lent just enough of an otherworldly, eerie quality to those extraordinary words in which the playwright expressed his intention to retire from the stage.
“I’ll drown my book….” McKellen as Prospero at the opening of the London Paralympics
In another standout sequence, Ian plays a pivotal scene from Hamlet, involving the arrival of the traveling players at Elsinore, Hamlet’s family castle, taking all the roles. The listener is able to go right inside Hamlet’s head as he launches into the soliloquy “Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I”.
To get this kind of “interior” quality of sound one has to speak as close to the microphone as possible. In this way one removes all the room resonance, so the voice is completely isolated. The problem is that in the process of doing this, every little mouth noise, lip smack, pop and breath is picked up by the microphone, and can distort the recording. We were working in the days before digital editing and mixing, so the only editing we could do to remove unwanted pops and distortions involved actually cutting the tape itself. Tricky stuff, and especially so when there is such a wide dynamic range as there is here. When Hamlet explodes with frustration in the middle of the speech, McKellen had to back off the microphone and the engineer rode levels so he would not distort. Listen to the completed scene (contained in the following clip). I think you will agree that it is a masterly piece of microphone technique allied to brilliant acting.
Ian McKellen as Hamlet (1971)
Once the sessions in New York were completed, Ian disappeared for the rest of his tour. (While he was on the West Coast he interviewed the Craig Noel, who had run the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego for decades).
Craig Noel in 1980
I was left with a mountain of recorded material to whittle down to two 1-hour shows. I disappeared into the editing room with my indefatigable engineer, David Greene, and his trusty razor-blade.
The author (l.) and engineer David Greene (r.)
One of the interesting things that happens when one works on an audio project like this is one comes to learn in intimate detail every tic and inflection of someone’s voice, their particular habits: the way breaths are taken, the way certain combinations of consonants and vowels can sound out oddly, and how even well-trained voices can reveal the layers of their background. McKellen grew up in the north of England and had a strong regional accent as a young man, but in order to pursue a career in theatre at that time (the late 50s and early 60s) it was mandatory that he not have anything other than a proper Queen’s English kind of voice. He rigorously trained away the accent of his boyhood, but as David and I labored over the tapes, those characteristic northern sounds would occasionally reveal themselves within the words. Fascinating. There were also certain, shall we say, bad habits or tics that even the most well-trained voice will fall into, and I will admit to certain moments of levity when we came across these McKellen aural signatures. Put it down to the punchiness that every editing bay plays host to.
Taking Coriolanus on tour in Greece, with director Peter Hall
What many people do not realize is how much of what they hear on the radio is not people speaking off the cuff. In fact, the reporters, interviewees, and commentators on fully produced programs are mostly edited before the shows hit the air to remove unwanted mistakes, pauses etc. (except when it is a live news show, like All Things Considered, though here it is mostly only the hosts who are live; the rest are mostly live on tape). In the days before digital, this kind of editing was done with a razor blade, cutting the master tape. To be a really good editor is a considerable art, with little room for error – you can only reassemble minute pieces of cut tape so many times. My editor on this show, David Greene, was one of the best editors I have ever worked with. Every session was a master class in how to cut tape. It wasn’t just a question of editing interviews for content: David would clean up odd little mouth noises and tighten the rhythmic flow of speech. Here you have to be so careful, because if you overdo it to get rid of redundant “ers” and “ums”, you can disrupt the speaker’s natural flow and rhythm of speech, and the end result can sound choppy.
Finally, with all the elements in place, we mixed the show. Now you might think this would be a hi-tech affair, with multi-track tape and a state-of-the-art mixing console. Far from it. At the time WBUR had yet to gain the luxurious facilities it currently enjoys. We only had several ¼ inch decks, and Betamax video decks for digital playback. The mix was all coordinated manually, with David and myself literally leaping from one source to another as different sound elements were cued in. It may have been crude, but it worked.
As Richard II (1968)
With a certain level of anxiety I sent Ian the finished program for approval. He had a few salient notes, but declared his satisfaction, and the program aired on April 19th, 1988, in time for Shakespeare’s birthday on the 23rd, on over a hundred stations across the land. The response was so overwhelmingly positive that NPR ran it again the following year on even more stations.
King Lear, with Sylvester McCoy (aka Doctor Who 1987-1989) as the Fool
An interesting coda to this whole experience came a few months later. Ian made worldwide headlines by publicly coming out. He was one of the first celebrities in the acting world to openly declare his homosexuality, and it was an act of considerable bravery at that time. It turned out that he had been seriously mulling over whether to do so or not throughout his American tour, when we had been working on the program. In San Francisco he had been staying with the writer Armistead Maupin (whose Tales of the City was a landmark work in chronicling the impact of the AIDS crisis on the gay community), and this was when he finally reached his decision. At the time, his coming out was partly driven by a desire to protest a new law discriminating against homosexuality being promoted by Margaret Thatcher’s government. McKellen has remained active in support of LGBT rights, recently adding his signature to those of 27 Nobel Laureates who wrote an open letter to Vladimir Putin to protest Russia’s policies of active discrimination against, and criminalization of, this community.
We had chosen to end the program with a speech from Henry VIII, a play that scholars believe, while attributed to Shakespeare in the First Folio, was actually written in collaboration with his contemporary, John Fletcher. Sir Thomas More confronts a mob of rioters who are protesting against the flood of immigrants entering London. In retrospect I can see how More’s condemnation of discrimination and intolerance would have resonated with Ian as he pondered his decision to come out.
Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.
It was the perfect humanist note on which to end this personal look at the greatest of all literary humanists, granted by one of our foremost practitioners of the actor’s art. Working on this show was one of the singular delights of my radio career.
You can listen to the complete broadcast of Speaking for Everyman: Ian McKellen Celebrates Shakespeare’s Birthday here:
In Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1974)
Here is a video of Ian analyzing Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and Tomorrow” speech.
AND, on a lighter note, for Stewart/McKellen fans this is essential viewing:
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 asKraftwerk.
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).
The Tower of Babel in Metropolis (1927)
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.
Peter Saville’s cover for Blue Monday single
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.
In the Kling-Klang studio
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 hitPlanet Rock, whichquotes 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.
Kraftwerk in 1981
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.
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!).
Old Hollywood Babylon —
— and New Hollywood Babylon
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….
What’s in the box, Barton?
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.
Just another day at the office
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.
BAB-Y-LON(noun): a city devoted to materialism and sensual pleasure (Origin: ancient city of Babylonia). (Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
LA LA LAND(noun): The term either refers to Hollywood, Los Angeles or a state of mind synonymous with Hollywood that is out of touch with reality, focusing on dreams, fantasies or frivolous endeavors. (Source: Urban Dictionary)
“One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life: that word is love.” — Sophocles
An excellent documentary about the making of one of the greatest rock albums of the 80s, and a highly influential one too. Peter Gabriel broke new ground in terms of integrating world music and the latest sampling and synthesizer technology into the soundscapes of one of his most adventurous albums. This documentary originally aired on British TV’s South Bank Show, and offers a unique opportunity to see this highly-regarded musician exploring new terrain. It is the best documentary I’ve ever seen about how a rock album is created.
And follow this link for a superb archive of photos taken by Larry Fast, who contributed synthesizers to this and several other Gabriel albums, during the sessions and the resulting tours.