Saturday, February 15, 2020

Review: Melody Makers: The Bible of Rock n’ Roll

Text © Robert Barry Francos / Indie Horror Films, 2020
Images from the Internet

Melody Makers: The Bible of Rock n’ Roll (aka Melody Makers: You Should’ve Been There)
Directed by Leslie Ann Coles
2053152 Ontario / Eggplant Picture and Sound; Film PaniK /
LA Coles Fine Art Films / Cleopatra Entertainment / MVD Entertainment
78 minutes, 2016 / 2019

During the mid-1960s through ‘80s, if you wanted to learn about music in the States, you had to turn to mainstream magazines like Rolling Stone, which tended to be more corporate (just look at how badly they’ve mishandled the selections for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum over the years). Sure, there was Rock Scene for the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Blondie, and the like – and I’m grateful for that – but it was only in smaller mags like Crawdaddy to cover the newest and upcoming groups. Also, those were monthly. To get info from weeklies like The Village Voice, it was just a small section of the entire issue.

It was different across in England where there were a number of weekly papers focused mainly on music, such as Sounds, New Music Express (NME) or Melody Maker (MM). Many of us picked it up as often as we could to find out the latest and greatest of the obscure and mainstream scenes.

Melody Maker is older than rock and roll, and that’s for certain, first publishing in 1926 and lasting until 2000, when it merged into NME, essentially killing it. But, as usual, I’m jumping ahead of myself.

Essentially, until the mid-1960s, MM was a musician’s trade magazine, listing gig for various types of music (including – gasp – jazz), a place for musicians to find each other to form groups, and musical instrument for sale. This all changed with the inclusion of a cover story about some upstart band called… oh, what was it now?... The Beatles (Paul McCartney, specifically). After that, they introduced a lot of groups or solo artists that are part of the culture now, such as the Rolling Stones, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and the like.

One aspect that made MM important was their respect for the musician, and especially the message that they were presenting in their music, to almost a political level. Luckily, in this well-put together documentary, we are introduced to the people who worked there in the “golden age” of the paper, namely the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s, when it began its natural decline. But more on that later.

Barrie Wentzell with his final pics of JImi Hendirx
Rather than presenting just talking heads discussing the glory days, we see the staff interviewed now, though mostly we see photographs of various bands in the 1960s and 1970s during their rise to fame and their heydays. Bowie (who is often called “BOW-ie” here, rather than “Bow-IE”), Jimi, and mostly British bands are shown in glorious black and white stills (and the occasional film footage), mostly taken by Barrie Wentzell, who really is the center piece of this film. Why? Simple: he moved to Toronto, and this is actually a Canadian film, so it had to have a certain amount of Canadian content.

Much of the staff is interviewed throughout, such as writer Christopher Welch (who worked there 1964-’79), and editors Christopher Charlesword (1970-’77), Richard Williams (1970-’80), Alan Lewis (1969-’73), and Alan Jones (1974-97). Also contributing are a bunch of musicians from the period, including Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Eric Burdon (Animals), Judy Dyble (Fairport Convention, etc.), Dave Cousins (The Strawbs), Chris Squire (Yes), Rick Buckler (The Jam) and a couple of members of Nazareth. There’s also a bunch of industry types including band managers and record execs, among others.

As you may have noticed, there are not many women represented here, barely even Janis or Diana Ross (Supremes era), other than Sonja Kristina of Curved Air, and photographer / founder of Rockarchive Gallery, Jill Furmanovsky, which seems odd to me considering this is by a woman director. Note that I am not pointing fingers since at the time, this was what it was like: testosterone heavy music and writing (though NME infamously had the great Caroline Coon); that being said, in my own ‘zine which ran from 1977 through ’88, I had more female writers than male.

The point is that all of these accounts are firsthand. I’ve always been annoyed at documentaries that interview writers who have written books and discuss second-hand events. These people lived the moments, and have the stories to back it up. I’m also grateful that the people are often identified by subtitles, rather than just a couple of times. That makes for easier viewing and comprehending, especially when it’s been so many years and people don’t look like they did back when.

But not just stories about musicians, we hear how the internal creation of the paper worked, such as when in meetings it was discussed, “Who’s going to be the main interview of the week?” This was important because whomever was on the cover could help make the band and/or sell a lot of records. They use Genesis as the example, here. It was also amusing to hear that they would occasionally make up sensational stories to sell copies (oh, those Brits!), such as how Springsteen would supposedly open for the Strawbs, or the Beatles were planning to reform (I remember those rumors right until Lennon’s assassination).

The film is loosely broken up into segments, including one I really enjoyed about interactions with musicians and their bands. For example, one of the writers talks about how he was in the recording studio with the Rolling Stones when they all found out about the death of Brian Jones, and what was their reactions. Others include tales of Jimi, Syd Barrett and Bowie.

Now I have said this before about particular local music scenes, how they would start small, blow up to become huge, and that would end up being the death knell of that very scene, drowned in its own success. That was kind of what happened to the MM. As the bands became mega-stars, and the rest of the British press started honing in on them/hounding them, the groups would close ranks and start to bar the very journalists and photographers that helped make their careers in the first place. Around that time, punk started to rise (about 1 hour into the film), and the musical taste of the MM audience began to change, leading to staff leaving (much in a mirrored way they first came in as rock’n’roll was on the rise and the old staff left in the mid-1960s in a huff).

The DVD extras are the trailer for this film, and some other music-related Cleopatra Entertainment coming attractions.

The director (and sometimes actor), Leslie Ann Coles, does a magnificent job in her first full-length feature, keeping the pace fast without quick edits, and lets us see the bands through the eyes of the people who wrote about them, and also those who snapped some pictures that have become iconic. There are also many here that have never been printed before. I’m not a fan of many of the bloated bands that are covered here (e.g., Tull, Nazareth, Zeppelin), but still found it compelling and fascinating to watch. That says a lot.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Review: Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground

Text © Robert Barry Francos / Indie Horror Films, 2020
Images from the Internet

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground
Directed by Chuck Smith
Juno Films / MVD Entertainment
78 minutes, 2018 / 2019

It is interesting that they used the expression “the Exploding NY Underground” for part of the title of this documentary. I know it falls under the banner of “transgressive.” In cinema, transgression would be the equivalent of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” compared to Frost’s “On a Snowy Evening.” It was stark, sometimes opaque, and didn’t follow narrative rules of the mainstream. Usually names like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern tend to pop up, but it was the women who were the most experimental and interesting, such as Beth B, and especially one of the pioneers, Barbara Rubin.

The title is also quite a nice play on words, considering Rubin’s associations with the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, who often showcased happenings he called The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It has been told that it was, in fact, Rubin who introduced the band to the pop artist. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Rubin was a troubled child of the ‘50s who was an early experimenter in drug culture, winding up in the psych ward for a while. When she got out in her late teens, it was pretty obvious that she was not going to be (or possibly capable of) living a “normal” life for that time. Through some connections, she found herself as an apprentice to underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas. It was through him she saw what is now considered a transgressive grandfather of cinema, Jack Smith’s 1963 Flaming Creatures (Mekas was the cinematographer), which could almost be seen as a sexualized interpretation of Stan Brakhage’s works (e.g., Cat’s Cradle in 1959 or possibly Dog Star Man, started in 1962). With that impact, she began her own film, Christmas on Earth (1963), now considered a classic in the non-narrative genre but seen as pornographic at its time (the film focuses on explicit pan-sexual acts projected over closeups of naked vaginas).

This certainly was a door opening to the avant-garde Beat culture for her, where she befriended the likes of poet Allen Ginsberg. In return, she helped introduce him to others. While still considered a filmmaker, she possessed a new role as a matchmaker, or go-between on the scene, introducing Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground to Andy Warhol, whose Factory scene she became not only a part of, but worked for by filming some of his infamous 5-minute “audition” reels. She also appeared in a few of Warhol’s (i.e., Paul Morrissey) films like Chelsea Girls (1966).

She was a mover and a shaker and who knows how the scene would have been less interesting or infamous without her involvement. The problem with this role though, is that some people who are at the beginning of a “scene” find themselves left behind as the movement gains momentum, turning into synergy. This was the case for Barbara, who obviously (though the film doesn’t really deeply focus on this) had some issues to work on, including the mind altering chemicals.

This part of Rubin’s life is pretty well known, and it’s fascinating to see it in more detail and hear her friends of the time talk about what it was like to not only know her and the scene, but her place in it. What I found particularly fascinating is what happened after the honeymoon phase of the Factory, when she discovered her “Jewish” identity through the Kabbalah, the mysterious mysticism end of Judaism that so fascinated/enthralls the likes of Elie Wiesel and – of all people – singer Madonna Louise Ciccone.

After a stint at an Upstate New York commune (I’m assuming in the Catskills) she helped found with a bunch of poets including Ginsberg, after a heartbreak, she had a strong conversion to Orthodox/Hassidic Judaism. As others do when trying to change a direction of a life that feels without purpose and filled with drugs, this is hardly a surprise in the same way people in trouble and filled with angst often come to rely on the Jesus myth.

What I find interesting is that through her entire adult life, Rubin took gender politics roads that previously were expressly open only to men, such as that particular style of filmmaking and the Kabbalah, and essentially blew the hinges off of those doors, and yet here she was subjecting herself to a life of religious servitude to religious men (as is true of all Judeo-Christian-Muslim orthodoxy).

There are only two extras on the DVD, one being the film’s trailer, and the other is a 6-minute documentary centered on Jonas Mekas called “Keep Singing: A Tribute.” Interviewed for this documentary, he passed away at age 97 in 2019.

Of course, decent music is disbursed throughout, including some cuts by Dylan and the Velvet Underground (“Heroin” is played in part twice) of course, and also notably by Melanie Safka and Lee Ranaldo, among others.

Two quick comments about what I wish would have been incorporated. First is more information about her second film, Emunah (1972; the title is translated from Hebrew as “Faith”). There are some clips from it, but unless I missed it, it is not really discussed. Also, I was kind of hoping they would have included the complete Christmas on Earth in the extras section, rather than just clips throughout (which I also appreciate).

The documentary is full of images, especially films, taken by Rubin, or have her in them. There are also tons of stills showing a life full of action and meaning, especially before it essentially passed her by on its own thing. Also, there are recordings and letters by her interspersed throughout, giving a better picture of who Rubin was, both to herself and to others, until her passing in 1980.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Julie Jigsaw? JA JA JA [1984]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1984
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Live photo by Jim Downs; other images from the Internet

This interview was originally published in FFanzeen 12, dated 1984, by Julia Masi.

Julie “Jigsaw” Ashcraft was very sweet when I met her at the same time and place as Julia, during the taping of the Cable Access show “Videowave.” I have never been a fan of hip-hop, but I do find her video and song to be… charming in an absurdist kind of way. A link to Julie’s blog is HERE, though the last time I check it had not been updated since 2013. – RBF, 2019
Julie Jigsaw on "Videowave" (photo by Jim Downs)
Julia Jigsaw is the personification of a kaleidoscope. Her words tumble together with the acceleration and enthusiasm of a game show contestant trying to slip in every last syllable before the buzzer sounds, or more likely before her infectious laughter brings her latest idea to a screeching halt. Decked out in a florescent Day-Glo graffiti dress that she painted especially for an appearance on Cable-TV’s “Videowave,” she flutters around backstage, fidgeting with a collection of plastic dinosaurs that have come to symbolize her band, Ja Ja Ja, and inspired the first cut of their four song EP, “I Am An Animal,” on Cachalot Records.

She appears in their video dressed up as a pale blue money, singing amidst breakdancing dinosaurs and leprechauns. Visually, this song is as adorable as a window display at FAO Schwarz. But through the soft focus you can hear the nard-edge of horror, masked like a penitent. If the analogy is to be recognized, then Julie, as a singer, and Ja Ja Ja as “a real band with real drums and a real bass,” are in danger of extinction in an era when so much of our popular music is created with computers and machines.

“The song is a social statement. It’s important ‘cause in Germany (where the band is based), it’s a lot. And they control each other. They have a way of controlling their behavior that’s very robotic.” She remembers a feeling of alienation as she walked down the streets of Dusseldorf. “The people there act like robots when they’re walking down the street. And they get angry ‘cause I’m not. So I used to say, ‘I am an animal.’ I like to jump and play with dinosaurs and things.”

The small plastic dinosaurs that Julie pins to the shoulders of her shirt and ties, along with plastic food wrap in her hair, were consciously ignored in Germany. In New York, her plastic pets elicit stares or ignite a conversation. “If you show someone your dinosaurs they either act real bored or they get real excited. You can really tell what kind of a person they are just by the way they react to your dinosaurs.

“We don’t want to be too analytical,” she confesses, but she’s always willing to talk at length about the parallels between the extinction of her favorite prehistoric animals and the possible demise of human musicians. She sees dinosaurs as a powerful animal that, in modern times, can only be compared to a machine. And she sees music as a powerful force which is also being replaced by machines. Therefore, one of the goals of Ja Ja Ja is not to be primitive, but to bring a very human touch of emotion to the music.

“The music we do is influenced by the New York street culture. Our new bass player (Billy Grant) is from the Bronx. Our original bass player was really from the New York streets. He slept in Central Park and took showers at the Hare Krishna Center.” Julie was raised in Texas, but now lives on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Which leaves drummer Frank Sanden as the only member of the band who is actually a German resident.

The band was formed in Dusseldorf, Germany, while Julie was visiting some friends who had a band. Her friends also had a small demo studio and, to amuse themselves, they would make tapes. After a while, Julie began to enjoy singing and recording. “I didn’t have the idea for sure, that I’d make a band,” she recalls. “I had an idea, but these people were jazz-oriented.”

Even though she’s a jazz fan, she also approaches other styles of music, and she wanted her band to reflect a variety of tastes. Her friends introduced her to Frank and a bass player. “It happened by destiny. We started to play gigs and we liked it. We just did it because we liked doing it, and we kept at it. “They’ve built a following in Germany, and recently they’ve begun to book dates in Manhattan. New York audiences are a tough sell, but so far the band hasn’t had any problems. “In New York, everything is tied together, (dance) breaking music, graffiti, rap. A lot of people who do it, do it all. I do, too. I don’t know how to break, yet.”

Julie is particularly interested in graffiti, as the song, “Graffiti Artists International,” off her EP suggests. Given a spray can and a blank wall or clean sweatshirt, she’s been known to exhibit a colorful talent that as stimulating as her songs. “I’ve like graffiti for a long time. I remember I read this book on graffiti by Norman Mailer [The Faith of Graffiti, 1974 – RBF, 2019] when I was 17. I did my first piece of graffiti in Texas in 1979. And I did graffiti in Dusseldorf, too. I did it all on the trains and things. I did it with markers. But now, I’m starting to take cans out. I want to go back and do a train.”

While in Manhattan, Julie’s art work is mostly restricted to clothing, like the jackets she sprayed for the Alan Boys, who hang out on Alan Street, and the sweatshirts she decorates for friends. But her time in New York is a hiatus in which she is gathering strength for when she goes back to Europe. On the band’s next trip abroad, she plans to flood the airwaves with songs from their EP, and give the German subways a vibrant new look.
* * *
Please note that the editors of FFanzeen do not condone the use of graffiti on public transportation or monuments unless under certain conditions, such as commission permission by the City, or with the use of washable paint. Graffiti style is an art form, but it is not when its use is abused. – RBF [1984].

Sunday, January 5, 2020

15 Quick Questions with THE RAMONES [1976]

Text by Bernie Kugel and Robert Barry Francos / Foxtrot, 1976
Intro by Robert Barry Francos, 2020
Images from the Internet

This interview was originally published in Foxtrot, November 1976, credited to Bernie Kugel and “Robert Baa-ree Francos.” : Foxtrot was the student newspaper for Buffalo State College (aka Buff State), and they were open to the new music that was coming out of New York. The Ramones would play there not long after, sharing a bill with the Dictators that is now infamous among those of a certain age and music appreciation. I do not own the right to the article, even though I’m co-credited with it, but I also am not making any compensation by reprinting it either, i.e., the FFanzeen blog has no advertising.

On the night before the Ramones were due to leave for England on their first tour of the UK, in the summer of 1976, they played a gig a Max’s Kansas City. After the set, Bernie Kugel brought me along to the dressing rooms upstairs and we held an interview with the band.

First, we talked to the group as a whole in the dressing room, and then, with Joey by himself, we stood at the top of the stairs and had a really nice and long conversation. We’d seen the band quite a few times since early spring 1975. There are only minor grammatical tweaks made on the original article.

Bernie Kugel: Do you foresee the Ramones being around in five years from now?
Joey Ramone: I think so.

Bernie: I understand that in the beginning you guys didn’t all play the same instruments you play now.
Joey: Yeah, well, Dee Dee used to be the lead singer and play rhythm guitar. and we used to have a bass player, but he was like totally up the wall and had to be committed.

Bernie: This is the famous Richie Ramone?
Joey: Yeah. I used to play drums, but I couldn’t keep up after a while. Dee Dee was originally a bass player and plays really good guitar, too. John was playing guitar… (Tommy was managing them - BK). It worked out really good. It was kind of weird in those days, too, yeah…

Bernie: What was it like in the first few performances of CBGB’s and Performance Studios?
Joey: It was a small crowd then. But like there was one night we played at Performance and the place was jammed, you know? It was like fantastic cause everybody was so into it. It was like mass hysteria.

Robert Barry Francos: How did you feel the first time you saw somebody wearing a Ramones shirt?
Joey: I was really excited, you know? I really get off on that, you know? I get off on little things probably and many people do, you know? I just find things like when we played the Bottom Line, and it was really loud, all the tables in the front people were going nuts, banging away on the tables and shit, all wearin’ Ramones T-shirts and yellin’ out for songs… it was really impressive.

Robert: Do you get distracted when people start shouting in the audience? Like last time we were here and you played, (David) Johansen was screaming out from the audience things like “Heal me, I’m a cripple!”
Joey: Naah, naah, here’s to it, y’know? There’s always a few in the bunch.

Bernie: Did you have aspirations as a kid to become a singing star?
Joey: I don’t remember when I was a kid… but I always did, yeah. I always thought I’d make it this way.

Bernie: Could you tell us some of the things you were doing before the Ramones?
Joey: Yeah, I tried starting a business and writing, starting rock papers and shit like that, and I thought I could be good at all that, but what I really wanted was to perform.

Bernie: Do you think any single member of the band would ever get too big headed and want to have a solo career?
Joey: Naah, it wouuldn’t happen. We wouldn’t let it happen. We’re all aware of why people break up and people get strong headed, and they think they’re too good, and get on big ego trips. We’re seen it. It wouldn’t happen. It just fucks everything up. Just fucks up our careers and everything, because people think they’re so good, and then then they’re just shit. Even if they are good, they’re not that good.

Bernie: Are you satisfied with the way your career is going?
Tommy Ramone: Yeah. So far so good.

Bernie: You think the early days were similar to what you’re doing now?
Tommy: Some songs, but they sounded different. They were in another dimension; now we’ve crossed into this dimension so that everybody could listen to it.

Bernie: How would you describe the Ramones in the early days?
Dee Dee Ramone: Very positive… a bunch of nuts getting together. Then all of a sudden, we got obsessed with the whole thing, got new numbers in the group… then we just played; played all the time.

Bernie: Did ay of you ever go to college or anything like that?
Tommy: A lot of us were thrown out of college… John went for two days, I think. He went down to Tampa University, right? And we all had a going away party for him, and he went down there. And I was walking down the street a week later and all of a sudden, I see him hanging out on the corner, and I say, “What the hell are you doing here? I thought you’re down in Tampa?” “Naah, I couldn’t dig that shit,” he says. They told him he had to do two hours of homework for every hour of school and he said, “Fuck it. I can’t take this shit, this is bullshit.”

Bernie: Is it fun playing these days?
Dee Dee: Yeah, but people wanna hear the first album, and we’d rather play the new songs.

Bernie: Why don’t you other guys sing more?
Tommy: Sing? Joey is the singer! He’d beat us up if we sang!

Most of these remarks came from the conversations at Max’s Kansas City, in June of 1976.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Clean Cut DIRTY LOOKS [1981]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen fanzine, 1981
Introduction text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

This interview was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #7, dated 1981, by Julia Masi. The band ended up with two LPs, Dirty Looks (1980) and Turn It Up (1981). Note that this band should not be confused with the San Francisco-based heavy metal band with the same name that came afterwards. – Robert Barry Francos, 2019.
Marco Sin, Patrick Barnes, Peter Parker
It wasn’t long ago, two years to be precise, that Dirty Looks was living in relative obscurity in the sometimes forgotten borough of Staten Island, New York. Patrick Barnes wrote songs and played the guitar by himself, while he managed a health food store. The daily boredom that he experienced has served as a source of inspiration for his songs. A naturally optimistic person, Patrick tries to take the negative aspects of life and sing about them in a humorous light. With a repertoire of compositions like, “Take a Life” and “Drop That Tan,” he set out to form a band.

Patrick enlisted the aid of Peter Parker, a drummer posing as a longshoreman. Most people ask Peter how a longshoreman got into rock’n’roll, but Peter asks back, “How did rock’n’roll get into a longshoreman? The music was always in me.” He displays his affection for other bands on the lapels of a white leather motorcycle jacket that sports an impressive collection of buttons and enameled badges. Peter joined his first band, Black Horizon, when he was nine years old, playing covers of pop tunes – and he hasn’t put his drumsticks down since.

Marco Sin [aka Marcus Weissmann, d. 1995 – RBF, 2019], the brown-eyed bassman, completes the trio. Always determined to find a place in the spotlight, Marco looked upon his temporary day jobs “operating computers for rich corporations” as “something to keep the hands busy and the mind free for daydreaming.” But the daydreams became reality almost overnight as Dirty Looks started playing clubs in the New York area. Within a few months they had legions of fans and a contract with Stiff/Epic Records. They flew to England to record their first album, Dirty Looks. It received rave reviews on both sided of the Atlantic when it was released last Spring.

In the Fall, they jumped on the Stiff coach and embarked on their first major tour of the United States and Europe. At the Ritz, during December of 1980, on the last night of the “Son of Stiff” tour, they sat around the dressing room and talked about what it was like to get their first taste of international stardom.

“Paris might’ve been our best gig,” Patrick speculated, “and a great audience at the same time. Spain and Portugal were a lot of fun, but they were huge places. We played at sports arenas; kind of, like, indoor soccer places. And there was so much echo, whether we were playing tight or not, or we were out of tune, we wouldn’t know and neither would anybody else. We had a good time, but Paris was more like a place like (the Ritz).” He looked around, “Very similar to La Palace. They didn’t know anything about us ‘cause the record hadn’t been released there. And that’s a real good feeling when you totally win over the crowd. They don’t have any preconceived notions. At least they don’t have any positive ones. They haven’t been, kind of, told what to like, and they have to just decide on their own.

“It’s always exciting for us in New York, ‘cause it’s our home town. But in most of the big cities, sometimes you really have to win them over ‘cause they’re so jaded. They get to see everything.

“The worst reaction is nothing; that kind of boredom where people say, ‘Hmmmm,’ and they’re just thinking about us and not there to have a good time. To me, the idea is just let go and go crazy.

“We had bad press in England. They hate American rock’n’roll bands; they think we’re slick and shallow. Things turned around after we toured. One paper that was the most vicious against us actually had pretty much of a turn-around review. But when you’re right there, in England, it’s kind of weird. They really don’t get the right impression.

“They knew about us in Spain and Portugal. We’re on the radio a lot in Portugal. More people knew about us there than any place since we left New York.”

The crowds in Europe were larger than the band was used to at home. On the average, they were playing to three or four thousand kids per show. “They’re really enthusiastic. They’re not quite so,” he leans back in his chair and fakes a yawn, ‘Oh, another Stiff tour.’ They go crazy. It’s great. They’re,” he sits up straight, his body shaking slightly and his hands waving in the air, “’Another Stiff tour! Alright!’ A lot of times it’s like that in the States, in the smaller towns. And in Ireland and Scotland, they were enthusiastic. Whenever you play small smaller towns, you get that real feeling of excitement.

“In Milan, it was funny,” Peter noted, “Whether they like you or not they’ll toss things at you. They toss these 100 lire coins. They’re about the size of a half dollar. I must’ve gotten hit by about twenty of them,” he mimed dodging the coins, “in the back of my head. I got hit by a Coke can on the back of my wrist. Thank God it was an empty Coke can. They had this huge sack of pamphlets, about this size,” he demonstrated with his hands about six inches apart. “And they just tossed them all at Marco. They just went like bumpf, all over him. By the time we left the stage it was covered with paper.” He continued to describe how the band was bombarded with a fleet of paper airplanes. “Their paper airplanes aren’t ordinary paper airplanes where you just fold ‘em up and that’s it. They really get into building them. They rip the little corners for the wind and everything else like that. And when they threw them,” he shakes his head and smiles in admiration, “boy, those suckers flew!”

“They stone bands there,” Patrick added. They throw little rocks. We were the last band on in Italy because we were the most known. And if they like you, they throw even more things. By the time we got on it was really ridiculous. The stage was this high,” he lifted his hand about a foot-and-a-half above the table, “with paper. It was filmed for Italian television and we were cursing out the audience. We thought, ‘This isn’t gonna be able to be used,’ but the Italian television people loved it. They’re really nice.

“Also, about 1,500 people pay for tickets, then certain people liberate the hall. They open the doors and let in another 1,000 people so it’s like, 3,500 people when 2,000 of them just broke in.”

The band really seems to love being on the road. “It’s lots of fun just being paid to go out and see the world. It’s a great job,” Marco boasts. And they only cited two real problems about the tour: getting their laundry done and finding good food. Patrick adheres to a vegetarian diet that posed a few problems in Germany and at roadside diners.

“A lot of people think rock’n’roll is just a lot of fun,” but according to Peter, “It’s like a regular job. We have to get up early, and we get to bed late.” And travelling by coach didn’t make it any easier. “You fall asleep standing, holding onto the railing. You train your body to sleep in any uncomfortable position you could ever possibly think of.”

“But I don’t mind,” Patrick interrupted. “It’s really fun. Other jobs where I had to get up really early, it was like – " he lowers his eyes, leans his head back and thumps down in the chair, letting out a deep sigh. “I don’t really mind getting up early when it’s just to get the bus to drive to Paris. I can handle it. I can sleep on the bus,” he snaps his fingers, “like that. You learn to when you have to.”

“What I liked,” remembered Marco, “was the fact that wherever we went, whatever new country it was, you know people were coming to see a show, coming to listen to some rock’n’roll and to have a good time, and that language or whatever didn’t matter. Nothing else mattered except the fact that it was a rock’n’roll show. It was good. I can’t wait to go to Australia, Japan and South America. I’ve never been there.”

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Review: Anti-Nowhere League – We Are the League: How Deep Do You Want It? (Special Edition DVD and Soundtrack CD)

Text © Robert Barry Francos / Indie Horror Films, 2019
Images from the Internet

Anti-Nowhere League: We Are the League – How Deep Do You Want It?
Directed by George Hencken
Cleopatra Entertainment / MVD Entertainment
103 minutes, 2019

Wikipedia lists the band as “hardcore,” but in my opinion, The Anti-Nowhere League (ANL, as they are commonly referred) were a cross between the hard-hitting pub band The Stranglers and the solid outrageousness of the Sex Pistols. But there’s no getting around the power of one of their anthems, “So What,” that is so filled with profanities and outlandish sex acts that it was not played in the States at all. They never really made it on this side of the Pond, and that is not surprising for that reason. People here were already nervous about bands like the Pistols, and the wilder the non-American group, the less chance they had of being played or booked.

Around 1983, I worked on a taping of New York-based cable access show “Videowave,” and one of their guests was the Anti-Nowhere League. Now, it’s been multiple decades and my memory may be shaky, but I remember it being sort of like when the fictional punk band The Scum of the Earth appeared on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” where they were somewhat polite until the camera came on, and then they went extreme. No, ANL didn’t destroy the set, but they were more aggressive until the cameras turned off.

After seeing this film, I understand the dichotomy a bit more: they come from the mostly lovely Royal Tunbridge Wells, a suburban metropolis about 30 miles southeast of London (Jeff Beck and Sid Vicious are also from there). Like most towns, it has its dark side, and that’s where the four core founding members of ANL began and mostly wound up. They include Nick “Animal” Culmer (vox), Chris “Magoo” Exall (guitar), Clive “Winston” Blake (bass), and PJ (drums).

The juxtaposition of seeing the idyllic town centre and these rough and burly guys is a head scratcher, in a good way. The band started, essentially, on bravado and chutzpah, and that worked for them. At first a biker “gang,” they decided to try out as musicians after seeing the Damned. Animal’s description of this is quite amusing, going from “greaser” to “teddy” overnight (though would anyone argue that their look was still the former?).

Through persistence and a communication with Damned drummer Rat Scabies, they finagled an opening spot on a Damned tour as their first gigs. Quite brazen, but it worked. They couldn’t play very well yet, but it got them noticed. Scabies is also interviewed often on this documentary, and he has come out as sort of a punk guru master. When I saw the Damned a number of times in the 1970s at CBGBs, he was definitely a wild card, which is saying something since they were sharing a bill with the Dead Boys. But I digress…

ANL managed to hook up with a manager, John Curd of WXYZ Records, who released their single with the flipside of “So What.” After much controversy and censure by the government (not to mention the seizure of thousands of copies), they released their album, We Are the League, which is arguably one of the strongest grunge punk albums of the time, and certainly a precursor to hardcore (as were the Damned and the Dead Boys).

This is partially expressed in the behavior of the bassist, Winston, who would do things (described in disgusting detail here) that was certainly a foundation for the stage show that would become the oeuvre of GG Allin. Outrageous actions were hardly his alone though, as they debauched and “went off the rails” as Animal describes it.

One thing the documentary brings forward that was completely new to me is that they were the stars of an unreleased tour documentary called So What!, directed by The Police drummer (again with the drummers), Stewart Copeland for his first release as a filmmaker. Supporting ANL on the tour were Chron Gen and Chelsea. Copeland describes the experience, but despite his accomplishments, he comes across as preening and condescending here. This film is so obscure, it’s not even mentioned in the IMDB, though you can see some limited clips on YouTube.

Just as the Damned had successfully morphed into Goth (i.e., when they lost me), the ANL tried to change with the times (they refer to it themselves as “selling out”) with much less success. And at the two-thirds point of this film, as they morph into a more mainstream sound and personnel changes start to fly starting with the removal of PJ in the mid-to-late 1980s, the documentary starts to fall apart as well. As brilliant as the first two-thirds is, the last act becomes a bit tedious in their wallowing.

The Kent accents are thick as fleas and captions would have been a help for those of us non-Brits, so there are parts I had to play over to make sure what I heard was correct, but overall it’s not too bad (I find volume control helps), but overall the film was worth the watch. I personally wish ANL were less obscure here in the States, as they were a fun band. Also, I wish I could have seen them play live (they did limited tours of the States).

As for the extras there are a number of extended interviews, lasting from 1 to 11 minutes. During the PJ interview, I wanted to hear more about the trouble he had with prejudice going through customs and small townships, as an Iranian; this was discussed in part during the film, but by other bandmates. To me, this was a failing by the filmmaker, even if it ended up in the extras. For the rest, I understand why they were excised from the main release, but I’m also glad to have seen them. Also included is a slideshow of posters, live shots, etc., and the film’s trailer, along with a bunch of the Cleopatra Entertainment label film coming attractions.

Of course, the big extra is the 19-track CD of previously unreleased live performance material from 1982, which will show why they were so important at the time.

This is definitely a cock-heavy film, with almost no female presence, so amusingly at the end credits, there is a declaration that “This film refused the Bechdel test.” This made me laugh.

CD track list includes:
We Are the League
Can’t Stand Rock N’ Roll
For You
Streets of London
World War III
Wreck a Nowhere
Nowhere Man
I’m No Hero
I Hate…People
So What
Let’s Break the Law