Sunday, December 30, 2018

Documentary Review: Otway, the Movie: Rock & Roll’s Greatest Failure

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2018
Images from the Internet

Otway, the Movie: Rock & Roll’s Greatest Failure
Directed by Steve Barker
[No company listed]
97 minutes, 2013

When discussing cult legends, certain names continually come up, like Alex Chilton, Nick Drake, Willie Alexander, and for those in the know, British musician John Otway is up on that list. His fans are fanatical and essentially paid for this documentary, for which I am grateful to be able to finally catch up on viewing.

Y’see, I interviewed the dude in New York for my ‘zine FFanzeen back in 1980 (HERE), and more recently (relatively) reviewed his second autobiography (HERE). He’s a charming dude whose skills include amazing live performances, lyrics that can be either completely deep and emotional or simply silly and whack-a-doodle, and he’s an expert in manipulation. I mean that, of course, in a totally respectful and admiring way. But more on that later.

While most of what is covered in this documentary is also in the book I reviewed, there is a difference. First, let me state that the autobio is a great read, and recommend it either way, as Otway ha a sharp turn of a phrase. But the opening minutes of the documentary show why this film is so special when he see him performing his signature hit, “Beware of the Flowers ‘Cause I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You (Yeah),” in front of a huge hometown crowd in Aylesbury, outside London, in 1978. There ae a lot of performances here, and if I may be so bold, perhaps a compilation of live shows over the years for a next project?

Having seen him play in New York, I know he’s an exciting performer. And at the time I interviewed him (the day before he played) I learned that yeah, he can be a bit of a (in his own words) prat. He had rock star idealism and especially an ego that both served him well and also helped torpedo what might have been a solid career. He worked against his own self-interests by focusing only on his self-interests in the past, isolating his partner at the time, the appropriately titled guitarist Wild Willie Barrett.

Let me digress here a moment… In the late 1990s, I saw a “Teen Idol” show. The opening was Bobby Sherman, who had a moment of stardom only to have it fade quickly. He was gracious and really happy to be there. The middle act was Davy Jones (d. 2012), someone who had a similar path, but was obviously bitter to the point where the person next to me started to cry.

My point is, Otway falls somewhere in the middle. When I interviewed him way back when, I had (and have) no issues with him at all. If the fame had stuck, who knows where his ego would have taken him; I imagine not to good places, considering what he did with his first Polydor paycheck, as shown in this film. However, with his being a “rock and roll failure,” his perspective is different than when we met, and he seems (to this viewer) to appreciate what he has, rather than expecting it.

The arrogance part has transformed into something else: exuberance, which I would more accurately call chutzpah. By accepting and embracing his fate as a “rock and roll failure” (much as Leonard Nimoy did with Spock), this opened up a whole new world of self-promotion that led him to rent out some of the biggest and prestigious halls in England to perform in as marketing himself (and yet real gigs), and sell them out. Once the Internet opened in the early 1990, Otway was one of the first musicians to not only embrace the technology, but used/uses it to his own advantage in, again, self-marketing. Brilliant albeit scary stuff to his (again) management, who knew that if it didn’t work, the finances would be disastrous. But they did it and most of the time succeeded.

Watching the film, you can see the sparkle in Otway’s eyes as even he is amazed at what he has gotten away with over the years. And it seems like as scary as it was/is, he is enjoying it wholeheartedly. My question, and of course there is no way to know this, is if his success had been ongoing rather than a very bumpy road, would he still be so appreciative?

Otway uses his teaching of a music business class at the Grange School in Aylesbury as the framework for the film, going back and forth between his lecture that is frank yet fun and informative, and additional interviews with himself and others, some of which are archival, though most are for the documentary. Nearly all these are with first-hand people, such as musicians who played with him like Wild Willie and Steve Harley, his management team that has worked hard to help Otway meet most of his outrageous dreams, media personalities like Bob Harris of the “Old Grey Whistle Stop,” and various producers, including the great John Peel and Neil Innes. Mixing my metaphors, that’s just scratching the iceberg.

By far, though, it’s Otway’s fans – and this focuses more on those in England of course – that have saved his ass on numerous occasions (and I mean that in the best of ways), helping him finance his dreams, fill the halls, and give him a 50 birthday present of a second Top 10 hit 25 years after his first in 1978. He even let the fans choose which song to put into the stores (they chose disco-ish “Bunsen Burner”; I would have picked “Too Much Air, Not Enough Oxygen”)

Documentaries can be a bit dry, but this one is episodic to the point of being epic, and there is absolutely not a minute that is wasted, even when it’s just people talking. The projects, the ambition, the successes and the failures are all part of a complex musical life of someone who is a bit manic, bold, and exceedingly talented.

Now, let’s make this the big documentary, proper!



Bonus Videos:




Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Trying Hard to CLASH: Rude Boy Review [1980]

Text by Lisle McKenty / FFanzeen fanzine, 1980
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos © FFanzeen blog, 2018
Images from the Internet

This review was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #6, dated Year-End 1980. It was written by Lisle McKenty. The article below was based on seeing the Clash’s 1980 film Rude Boy.

In the very early 1980s, Lisle worked in the same office as me, and we didn’t really know each other well, as she was the assistant to my boss, who kept her apart from the staff. One day, at about three in the afternoon, I was having my daily fix of wake-up tea, and Lisle walked by. Under her breath, she murmured, “Boy was in a hallway drinking a glass of tea.” My ears immediately perked up. I stated, “From the other end of the hallway a rhythm was generating.” She whipped around, shocked that anyone knew the secret of Patti Smith, and we became close friends for a few years after that. Our boss was not happy about it.

As for the Clash themselves, my friend Nancy Neon and I had tickets in 1981 to see them play in Times Square at Bonds Casino, which is around the same time period as meeting Lisle. Nancy found out that the Rockats were recording their Live at the Ritz album the same night. We both easily agreed to scalp the tickets (at no profit as we were in a rush) in Front of Bonds, and then we rushed down to the Ritz to see an amazing rockabilly set. – RBF, 2018

Rude Boy comes under the heading, “A Michael White Presentation.” Michael White’s London productions list includes Oh! Calcutta!, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Rocky Horror Show, A Chorus Line, and Annie…  His previous films include Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Jabberwocky. Wild stuff. He’s big time.

David Mingay and Jack Hazan directed and produced Rudy Boy. You have to wonder about Jack Hazen. For an ex-cameraman, his shot sequencing is that of a film illiterate. Of course, I don’t know a lot about English films; I’m not what you would call a buff. David Mingay supposedly is. He studied English literature at Cambridge, then spent a year doing Film and Drama at Bristol. He also directed and edited a thirteen-part TV series, “Cinema: The Amazing Years (1897-1916)” before starting Rude Boy.

Rude Boy is distributed by Atlantic Releasing Corporation. Shall I bring up a fairly famous lyric-shall-we-call-it that says something about Atlantic?

As all the ads promised, the Clash is “in” Rude Boy. But how can you get guaranteed personality when you’re lost in the supermarket? Rude Boy is not about the Clash. It’s about Ray Gange [who also co-wrote the film – RBF, 2018], who roadies (don’t get confused) for the Clash when he’s not working in the Soho sex shop that passes for local color. There is also an obscure subplot, but I’ll get to that later. Well, Ray’s in California now, by the way of the money Hazan and Mingay paid him, and Freddy Laker. He has a Green Card, a job as a construction worker, and an American wife. I hope he’s happy. At least, I hope he doesn’t try any more flicks. Somebody please, I hope he doesn’t start a band. Time to go back to anonymity [he mostly DJs now, with a rare acting gig – RBF, 2018]. His best point might be said to be that he is from Brixton. And he did seem to like the Clash, even if his most memorable utterance was when he said to Joe Strummer, “Left-wing is gonna fuck everybody up.”

Ray’s best scenes, and the best in the movie, are the scenes of the Clash playing. No surprise if you’ve ever seen the Clash (and so what if it was over the screen at The Ritz). They’re electrifying. This dumb artsy flick doesn’t even begin to make sense visually or literally. Then you read in the paper that twenty minutes of the original film were cut (must have been the part that explained the subplot – I half-wondered what was up with those pick-pocketing scenes and the subsequent arrest of that Black guy).

Then again, maybe Hazan and Mingay thought that playing the first eight bars of “Revolution Rock” twenty times in less than two hours would drive an audience into an inspired punk madness.  Hazan and Mingay see punk as a “phenomena of the working class consciousness” and a “fusion of New York white punk and England’s polarized reggae, disco, and rock.” They don’t feel it.

The Clash has been there. They formed in 1976, when Joe Strummer (previously of the 101ers) joined up with Mick Jones and Paul Simonon, under the management of Bernard Rhodes, a partner of Malcolm McLauren, who “discovered” the Sex Pistols.  They toured as a support group to the Pistols on their Anarchy Tour of England, before pulling out in a dispute over the use of Swastika armbands. Topper Headon joined the band as drummer in 1978. The Clash on Parole Tour (featured in Rude Boy) shortly followed.

After their second LP, Give ‘Em Enough Rope was released, they split with Rhodes and announced self-government, with Caroline Coon as a representative (she’s the pretty blonde who travels with Mick and Paul on their pigeon-shooting charges in Rude Boy [she also wrote the excellent book 1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion – RBF, 2018]). They toured the US twice in 1979, completing London Calling, and began a new formal management with Blackhill Enterprises.

Without a doubt, the funniest line in Rude Boy is when Strummer tells Gange that the Brigade Rossi (the Red Brigade) is an Italian restaurant. Rude Boy did try to give an impression that the Clash are revolutionaries. In the film, their performance at the Rock Against Racism concert almost causes a riot (helped by Gange) and audience control is near disaster at Glasgow when Strummer sings “White Man Looking for Fun.” Then there were Gange’s political conversations with the band, but I’ve already given an example of those.

It seems like a million people have asked me if I think the Clash sold out with London Calling. To tell the truth, I’ve wondered a bit myself when I saw the Clash up there on a wall, in-between Linda Ronstadt and KISS, in a suburban record rip-off store. It was nice back in the old days, having them to ourselves. But everything depends on what you mean by selling out.

Selling out usually means trading musical and lyrical quality and morality for commercial success. London Calling is better produced than The Clash or Give ‘Em Enough Rope, let alone the singles (it took me weeks to understand any lyrics on ”White Riot”). “Revolution Rock” is not “Clash City Rockers.” The Clash have contained, purified and polished their riot on London Calling.

“Lost in the Supermarket” is at once more subtle, more pointed, and funnier than “I’m So Bored With the USA” (not that I don’t love “Bored…”). “Spanish Bombs” won’t get airplay in Spain or in any other of what I call non-countries. If “Guns of Brixton” doesn’t incite you, then nothing will. The Clash have retained and strengthened their sense of “unreal politick” and their sense of humor. They haven’t turned us off with any cloying songs, like “Alison” [a song of Elvis Costello I like – RBF, 2018], or distorted reggae to the extent of the Police. In London Calling, they haven’t traded a thing. Just check out “Working for the Clampdown”: “Kick over the wall / Cause governments to fall / How can you refuse it?... / To these days of evil presidents / Working for the clampdown.”

Paul and Caroline
So if they aren’t a sellout crew (and they’re not), why did the Clash participate in Rude Boy? By the time of Clash on Parole, they were packing houses all over England, and their first LP had appeared a year earlier in 1977. Well, until recently, the Clash was denied airplay on both the BBC and Capitol Radio networks (maybe it was just Mick’s affiliation with the Shepherds Bush anarchists?).

As far as I know, they have been continually in debt to their record company, CBS (Epic’s just a trademark). I don’t know if Mingay and Hazan first approached Ray Gange, or the Clash, to make the film, but I’ve got a horrible feeling it was Gange.

In any case, these people wanted to make a “serious film” about punk rock and the working-class consciousness. A band’s a band and a gig’s a gig; the Clash needed the PR, the money, and they wanted the platform. And as far as a sell-out goes, didn’t I use the term “commercial success”?

Rude Boy was made two years ago. Obviously, Mick and Paul and Joe and Topper were a lot less sophisticated than they are now. In my mind, hell, they were damned na├»ve. Maybe I can blame it on Caroline Coon (or was it Rhodes?). Rude Boy is a terrible flick, excluding the music scenes (“I Fought the Law” was especially great), made by terrible people, in my book.

To bring in the inevitable Beatles comparison (are you ready?), it’s like when Brian Epstein stuck them in suits, albeit without collars. I don’t feel bad panning Rude Boy, and I’m a Clash fanatic. If you like the Clash, then you’re like me – you’ll go see it anyway. If not, maybe you should listen to “Jimmy Jazz” or “The Right Profile” for a while.

To conclude: I often wear a tee-shirt proclaiming “The Clash: The only band that matters.” I’ve seen lots of others around on various other bodies. According to the rumor, the Clash now wants to make their own film. A terrific idea [didn’t happen – RBF, 2018]. Hopefully, next time they’ll make a worthy one – humor, politics, emotion, a riot – one that matters.