Friday, February 15, 2019

Documentary Review: New Wave: Dare to be Different

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

New Wave: Dare to be Different (aka Dare to be Different)
Directed by Ellen Goldfarb
Jomyra Productions / Roger Senders Productions / MVD Entertainment
95 minutes, 2017 / 2018

One of the key lines on the box states, “The story of the most influential radio station in America: WLIR.” I’m not going to argue that the Long Island-based station became one of the most instrumental on the music scene back in 1982 when they switched to the New Music format, but as far as most goes, well, I just want to throw into the mix KROQ in LA (Rodney Bingenheimer’s show in particular) and WBCN in Boston (Oedipus was the key DJ then).

The big difference between WLIR and those stations is that while WBCN and KROQ played local independent music, WLIR was focused more on the import “British New Wave” and with exceptions, New York bands still had issues getting their indie records played. You’d hear Depeche Mode but not the Heartbreakers (original Johnny Thunders version, not that Petty person’s), for example. They may have “broke” bands like Blondie and Talking Heads, but odds were they would be putting out the artificial sounds of Wang Chung and the whiny tones of the Smiths and U2.

The synthesizer (synth) sound was becoming nearly ubiquitous back then, especially with the British bands, and it turned the sound into the very style I started listening to punk rock to avoid. For example, I was at Hurrah’s in New York, which leaned heavily on the Euro-synth style, but that night it was a group with Glen Matlock at the helm, and the 14 Street Band led by Sylvain Sylvain. Between bands, the DJ got the synth vinyl going, and I disgustedly turned to my pal Alan and said, “Disco didn’t die, it moved” (he created a great 3-panel comic strip based on that, but I digress…).

Needless to say, WLIR wasn’t on my radar much, but I also have to add that I respected what they were doing. The Program Director, Denis McNamara, took a gamble and changed the format from just one more Classic Rock station and created something different that attuned with the Tri-State area and fed it something it had not paid attention to, or heard before, and was needed in a homogenized radio world then run by record companies. They helped break that bind, and that alone is a massive achievement.

In that mindset, Director Ellen Goldfarb did an incredible job here taking what could have been a mawkish and self-serving documentary, and made it quite enjoyable and interesting. First of all, she has assembled nearly everyone who worked at WLIR during this period, and mixed them with historic footage. She also has interviews with so many band members from the time, including – and this is only a drop in the bucket – those from Duran Duran, Tears for Fears, Midge Ure, Billy Idol, Thomas Dolby, Howard Jones, a Cher-looking Joan Jett, Blondie (yes, Debbie and Chris), Talking Heads (Tina and Chris), and even Mickey Leigh of the Rattlers makes an appearance or two. To add to the recipe, she also includes a lot of music clips from all the bands’ videos (shades of M-TV), making now-vs-then images.

What makes this extra appealing is that everyone seems to be honest about their opinions, positive or negative about the industry at the time, such as those made by Mickey Marchello of the LI band, The Good Rats; also that the editing is brilliant in that it keeps a fast pace without being merely soundbites (i.e., one sentence from each artist). The artists/interviewees are seen multiple times, have complete thoughts, and are tagged with identifiers multiple times to make it easy to follow who is who. This makes it a much more comfortable watch.

Along with the musicians and staff, there are also some outliers who are important to the scene, such as the guy who ran the Long Island club, My Father’s Place (I was there often; you’d park under the highway and come back with your car covered in bird feces… but worth it) and some journalists. For example, King Atkins, who wrote New Wave: Image is Everything, comments that New Wave means different things to different people. He starts off giving the French New Wave as an example, but I think that’s a poor choice. For example, Garage Rock in the ‘60s was called punk, but it was not punk rock of the 1970s (and onwards). For my group of friends, New Wave started as a “safe” word for punk not to freak out the establishment (e.g., parents), but once Blondie came out with “Heart of Glass,” it mutated into a New Wave that co-joined indie rock (okay, on some level punk) with a synthesized disco beat. After that, it was not a safe word for us anymore.

The weak spot for me is the film’s length. This would have made a great hour, but it feels like it overreaches a bit, trying to take credit for introducing reggae and all the synth sounds on Western shores, and the rise of them. Sure, they deserve a lot of acknowledgement on social fronts, including sponsoring international charity festivals, but some of this feels like padding.

Of course, the ending came in 1991, as all things must, in this case in part to FCC regulations (conspiracy theories anyone?). Clips of their last days, and especially the ultimate one, are sad. The use of Sid Viscous’ “My Way” seem appropriate.

There are four extras averaging about five minutes. First up is the man himself, “Denis McNamara,” who took on the music world and succeeded for the most part in that he was near the helm of the synth revolution. It’s brief, and has interviews with his grown kids. Then there is “Message from the Director,” Ellen Goldfarb, who very briefly talks about her motivation behind the film. “Artist’s Stories” [sic] is essentially outtakes, but the stories are fun and Goldfarb continues with her great sense of pacing, which I want again to acknowledge. The last extra, and the one I actually wanted to hear the most is “DJ’s Stories” [sic], and it’s worth the wait. The DJs discuss meeting particular musicians, and how important the station was to them and to culture in general.

While with rare exceptions I still don’t like synth music per se, I do still respect what WLIR did to help change the stagnancy of what was being played over the airwaves at the time. And Goldfarb has taken all these stories and weaved them into an enchanting tale of a radio Camelot for many. RIP ‘LIR.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Review: Alan Vega • Martin Rev • Suicide: Five Films by Marc Hurtado

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

Alan Vega • Martin Rev • Suicide: Five Films by Marc Hurtado
Written and directed (etc.) by Marc Hurtado
La Huit / MVD Visual
113 minutes, various years / 2018

When the term Transgressive (capital “T”) is used for art, most are going to think of it in relation to cinema, with films created by the likes of Richard Kern, Scott and Beth B., and Lydia Lunch. When it comes to other forms, such as music, at best it tends to be considered transgressive (small “t”). This is not fair, especially for a period of the mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s, when there were combative bands like Red Transistor (led by Von LMO, who would chase patrons out of bars with a chainsaw) and especially Suicide. It makes sense to combine art forms of film and music, perhaps to make something new: TRANSGRESSIVE (all caps).

Suicide in concert
I had the… pleasure to see Suicide play once at CBGBs in the early 1980s. Knowing their reputation for confrontation with the audience, I sat near the bar, but that didn’t help. As singer/provocateur Alan Vega (d. 2016) roamed the club while keyboardist Martin Rev stuck to the stage sending out punkabilly pulse waves. I’d been a fan of the band since their first eponymous album in 1977 on Red Star Records. “Cheree” caught my attention first, but one listen to the 10-miniute plus “Frankie Teardrop” was what reeled me in.

Suicide should have been everything I hated back in 1977: it was pure electronica, and to this day I mostly find that to be, well, musical suicide. But there was an artistic intensity that Vega and Rev brought to the minimalism that was different than, say, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks’ factory-like clunky and metallic rhythms. They were not just musical terrorists, they also were seducing the audience at the same time, like a snake charmer coaxing a cobra, except if the reptile was the safer choice.

Morocco-born director Marc Hurtado filmed a bunch of mostly shorts with Suicide before Vega’s death, and these are collected onto this dual DVD set. Both discs contain the same films, but one is in the original French, and the other in English. I’ll let you guess which one I chose.

First up is the 16 minute-long The Infinite Mercy Film (2009). Here is a mixture of an artist’s muse and its outcome. The locus is on Vega’s use of light and lighting as a paradigm in his paintings, as the camera focuses in and out of various mixed-media, while Rev’s rhythms wind their way around the image in a reflexive way to match Vegas’s use of cords, twine and light bulbs. Interspersed is Vega himself, as he describes the origin of his use of light and what feeds his influences. The level of avant-garde artistry used to mix the music, the artist, the filmmaker and the synergy they create together should come as no surprise.

Alan Vega posing oddly
At 6 minutes, we are given Saturn Drive Duplex (2011), which is essentially a music video for a collaboration of Vega’s speak-sing voice and Hurtado’s music. Where the first film was focused on light, this one is on motion. We follow the clips as they zoom along traffic in Manhattan (often on the side of the East River), close-ups of boxers sparring, and Vega posing oddly in his studio. Hurtado also uses shadows and, yes, light, to highlight his focus both in high contrast and subtle ways.

Saturn Drive Duplex Redux (2014) is 4 minutes and artfully combines and condenses the three previous films, using light, travel, and art into a different Vega/Hurtado music video for a remix. We also get to see b-roll images of Vega on stage added to the recipe. Perhaps it’s the shorter length, but this feels like the most rewatchable of all I’ve seen so far, and this material is the kind you really need multiple viewings to let the whole Zen of it wash over the experience.

One could refer to Infinite Dreamers (2016) as the main feature, due to its 82 minutes’ length. Essentially, this is Martin Rev’s film: a stream of consciousness from the mostly silent member of the duo with a mixture of clips of Suicide playing in various venues, such as Frioul Islands, France, and of course lots of B-rolls. This makes total sense, as they are considered cult heroes in that part of the world, and Vega even had a solo hit in the area with “Jukebox Babe” in the day. It’s quite obvious that the sound is camera-oriented, rather than through the mixing board, so it is kind of rough, with lots of echo and reverb, even beyond the band’s normal tone. It’s also way less confrontational, with Vega looking very frail as it was close to his end; he stays on stage rather than rampaging through the crowd.

Martin Rev
But like I said, this is Rev’s turn to step into the spotlight. Despite his talking, I would never use the word “narrative” to describe the whole thing, but it is as close to a storyline as we have seen so far. It is, rather, various clips of Rev speaking – both on camera and off – and discussing the history of the group, and Suicide’s role in the artistic world; especially their philosophy as far as art is concerned. It’s deep and meaningful, and while these monologs doesn’t seem to follow a particular path, it still all falls together into a transgressive (small “t”) pattern that can be put together as a whole in the end in the mind for the viewer.

The fifth film is Saturn Drive (2016), at 5 minutes, which was released posthumously after Vega’s passing. Essentially, it’s a one-camera shot of Vega in the Hospital after a bad fall where he did serious harm to his hip. He looks drugged out of his mind on pain meds. He talks about being in “Saturn Drive” (heaven? hospital? stoned?), his religious affiliation, and seeing 9/11. I’m willing to assume this is the last footage of Vega before he went over the rainbow bridge, and it’s touching.

So, overall, Hurtado seems to model himself a bit on filmmaker Stan Brakhage, who used the media form as his easel to let the film itself tell the story (a true “Medium is the Message” kind of mindset that would have made Marshall McLuhan proud). For Hurtado, the visual scape is as important as to what he is trying to convey to the audience, that art is multi-layered, and should be addressed as so. While I have always preferred the narrative framework over the stream of consciousness kind of art in various modes, I enjoyed the films and getting to see some of Vega and Rev at work is always enlightening.

Bonus video:

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

BEING JAPANESE: The British Business of “New Music” [1984]

Text by Jim Downs / FFanzeen fanzine, 1984
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2019
Images from the Internet

This column was originally printed in FFanzeen, issue #12, dated 1984. It was written by musician, photographer and friend Jim Downs. In 2011, Jim also interviewed cult band Human Switchboard for us, for which I was fortunate to be present. And just to make a quick note, at the time, Jim was a fan of the Smiths, who didn’t get much radio play back then. I’m just sayin’. – RBF, 2018

I sit across from my cousin-in-law. Both of us have been talking and playing records for a good part of eight hours. Occasionally he’ll urge me on and I’ll roll the knobs on my guitar amp to “11” and he’ll don the headphones (which surely kept my aunt from calling my parents and the police about that @#*S%! noise) and he’ll squint and giggle while I drill  a hole through his eardrums and into his brain.

“Man, that was great!” he says. “You know, you should be in a band.”

I barely smile at him and am grateful for the compliment, but mumble something about getting it really together before that.

“Well, man, if you want to really be tight, you should listen to the British bands. The only really good bands come from Britain. Like Zed Zeppelin or Cream, or the Yardbirds. What does America have? Kansas! The J. Giles Band! The Eagles! No, man, the British know what to do with music!”
* * *
It seems that “New Music” programming has taken firm grasp of American’s entertainment consciousness. More and more people want to “rock” more. Jackson Browne and his sky blue electric guitar, Billy Joel and his nylon curtain (Levolor Blinds), Michael Jackson beating it, Kenny Loggins trying to be less cute. Why? Is it really because it’s time to get back to basics, or take a good “hard” look at music? No, I don’t think so. I think that it’s time for these guys to get back to making money. Because rock, or as it’s called, “New Music,” is helping to pull a desperate music business out of financial limbo.

As I am writing this, the cold weather seems to have taken a firm foothold on Manhattan. But only about a month or so ago I was watching the return of kids back to school. On NBC’s “Overnight,” a segment was shown about fashion for the student ’83-’84, and the word was “New Wave.”

Minis, straight-legs, colored-spiked hair, sneakers (not the old fashioned Nikes), shades, and lots of black, purple and pink. Just think: all those kids and they’re going to need this year’s New Wave note pads, pencils and lunch boxes. Thank God for the U.S. Patent Office!
* * *
“Well, uh, I mostly wear, well… you know. New Wave or punk clothes; it’s in, you know?”
* * *

“So,” you ask me, “What does this have to do with your cousin-in-law and the British?”
“Well,” I say, “Lots.”

Let’s think back over this past year, specifically the new bands that broke through chart-wise, or as the accountants look at it, bands that finally made money. Now name for me all the British New Music bands that had a breakthrough this Summer: Madness; Duran Duran; Culture Club; Kajagoogoo; Big Country; Eurhythmics; A Flock of Seagulls. Great, now name all the American bands that were able to come up with the goods: … Well? … Come on, I’m waiting! Give up?

 Well, it seems that radio has also given up on American bands, or more accurately, has never given them much of a chance in the first place. I can turn on the radio and listen to a so-called “progressive” station play rehashed rockabilly, Blues, Motown, punk or rock’n’roll by groups who got their inspiration from the U.S. artists, but what about the U.S. artists? Hell, it’s gotten so bad that they’re taking credit for originating forms of music that started here. Bernard Rhodes, manager of the Clash, was quoted by Rolling Stone magazine as saying, “When Malcolm (McLaren) and I invented punk in 1976…” What is this?!?! That’s like saying that “When George Martin invented rock’n’roll…” or “When Mick Jagger invented Country & Western…”

Seems to me there were bands such as the New York Dolls, the Ramones, the MC5 and the Stooges long before Malcolm McLaren decided to sell clothes to “trendies.”

But what difference does this make to radio? Absolutely none whatsoever. Have you ever heard the New York Dolls, the Ramones, MC5 or the Stooges on the “hip” radio stations? I sure haven’t. Granted these bands have been around for a while (or haven’t been around for a while) and most of the “New” stations play current music. Well, so what happened to the Dream Syndicate (taken off the air in L.A. after only 30 seconds of play), the Minutemen, the Blasters, X, Pylon, Black Flag, the dB’s, the Cyclones, the Individuals, etc.?

The logical mind reasons that if a record or song is good, people will want to hear it, so it will get airplay. Or that Program Directors and DJs have your interests in mind, so when hearing some good music, they’ll want you to hear it, so… that you will hear it and like it, then buy the record, see the concert, so… the group will create more music which the Program Directors and DJs will like, then play the music, etc.

However, it isn’t this way a great deal of the time. In fact, it goes more like this: the Program Director and DJ hear music which is easy to digest and not obtrusive. They figure you’ll put up with it and not turn the radio off, so they play the hell out of the bland record with the catchy hook (you know, where it goes “da-da Da-da”) until you can’t help but think about the music. It’s pleasant and doesn’t upset you about the real world, so… you go out and buy the album ‘cause it’s as pleasant as the single, but it’s longer, so the group makes money and churns out more mood music, the DJs and Program Directors keep their jobs ‘cause nobody (almost nobody) turned off the radio, and you’re stuck with a musical vocabulary, a stack of records, and radio station that all sounds exactly the same: bland.
* * *
“Bland? Are you crazy? Have you seen what these groups look like, let along sound like? I mean, just one look at that Boy George will clue you in that something new is happening to music…”
* * *
In an anniversary issue of Guitar Player magazine, Frank Zappa wrote a mini-parody of the music business from dust to diamonds and back again. In the article (which outraged many in the conservative guitar community that Guitar Player support) Frank talks of a boy who puts on his mother’s dress, figures out how to bash out some songs, and ta-da – instant fame. So, in 1983, we have this bloke who puts on his mother’s dress, cops lots (tons) of licks off of every Motown and Stax record that you’ve ever heard and some you haven’t, and ta-da – instant fame [“So ya wanna be a rock’n’roll star / Well listen now to what I say…” – RBF, 2019]. He’s now at the top of the MOR New Music pile, and all the mums in Britain love him and have placed him numero uno on all the music polls.
* * *
“But Christ, he looks like a girl!”
* * *
Sorry, but not in all my wildest dreams would he ever look like a girl. He looks like what he is: a guy dressed like a girl. It’s a joke and people love it and think it’s cute. He doesn’t sing about hate, poverty, war, anarchy or anything that’s unsettling. He sings about love, time, and great stuff like that. Plus, he’s got a good voice and smiles on stage a lot. What more could you want? It’s just alike Pat Boone or Paul Williams: mellow, happy and cute.

And this happens to be the spearhead of the British Invasion. The rest don’t quite measure up to the standards that Boy George sets. Great! New bands make it across the Atlantic weekly and all of them are trying to take the crown away from Culture Club, the crown for rampaging mediocrity.
* * *
“Well, as the Jackson Five once said, ‘One bad apple don’t…' So is there still hope for the British?”
* * *
Sure, not by any stretch of the imagination are all British bands bad. There are quite a few people turning out good-to-great music; it’s just that this Invasion consists of only what the radio will allow to fit in next to Billy Joel and Air Supply. Sure there’s hope for the British, but what I wish for is hope for the Americans.
* * *
Paul Revere races along the road trying to make the seconds last as long as they can. He feels the British close, very close behind him. “Just a little bit more,” he thinks. “Just a little bit more and we’ll have a nice surprise for them,” he chuckles to himself. “The Minutemen will enjoy this.”