Tuesday, 25 August 2015

'Windbag the Sailor' (1936) - The enduring comic genius of Will Hay, Moore Marriott and Graham Moffat.

If you'll forgive the pun, comedy is a funny thing.   It can be very personal, as much as matters of taste - what one person finds amusing, another may not.   It can work along cultural or national lines  - how often does the awkward phrase 'British sense of humour' rear its head as an explanation of Anglo-American misunderstanding? 

Screen comedians are no different.  I've written elsewhere about my love of Will Hay and I'm not ashamed to say that I count his films as among the funniest I've ever seen.  This is entirely subjective, of course, and I can't separate my appreciation of these films from my childhood memories of rainy school holidays and occasional sick days when BBC2's daytime schedule was full of Will Hay, James Robertson Justice, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, The Three Stooges and Buster Crabbe serials.  
Will Hay

For these reasons I will concede that Hay's films are something of an acquired taste and might appear a little dated to the modern viewer but his influence on British comedy is undeniable I think.

After honing his act during a lengthy career in musical hall, Will Hay appeared in eighteen feature films between 1934 and 1943 for Gainsborough and Ealing studios, where he was mostly directed by Marcel Varnel. This extraordinary output saw him rival the biggest British cinema's biggest stars at that time, George Formby and Gracie Fields. Although they varied somewhat most of Hay's roles can be seen as variations on what the film critic Leslie Halliwell called 'the seedy incompetent' - a pompous fool who bluffs his way into a position of authority and is forced to live on his wits, or lack of... Alan Simpson, half of the Galton and Simpson partnership that wrote for Tony Hancock, describes him as "a con man on the verge of being found out, a ducker, a diver - always dodgy, always shifty'"and sees a direct influence on Arthur Lowe, Frankie Howerd and Hancock himself. You could add Basil Fawlty to that list too.

Hay's musical hall act revolved around a seedy schoolmaster and it was this persona he brought to the big screen in his first films, either at St Michael's or Narkover boarding school  - as in 'Boys Will Be Boys' (1935) and 'Good Morning Boys' (1937).

But Hay's best films were undoubtedly with Moore Marriott and Graham Moffat and together they formed one of British comedy's greatest screen teams. In their anarchic humour and brilliant interplay they were an English Marx brothers. 

1936's 'Windbag the Sailor' was their first film together and it set the tone for what was to come. Hay plays Benjamin Cutlet, a braggart who is paying for his drinks at a dockside inn by spinning yarns of his fictitious sea adventures.  Marriott (Harbottle) and Moffat (Albert) play employees at the inn and his unwitting accomplices as his bluff is called and he's forced to captain an unseaworthy ship and a mutinous crew who soon become wise to Hay's incompetence.

First Mate: Eight bells have gone sir.
Hay (shocked): Well, if it goes on like this we shan't have any left! 

The trio are shipwrecked with only a bakelite radio on an island populated by cannibals. The radio, or 'voice in box', proves awe-inspiring to the cannibals and saves the day as Hay assumes the role of Big Chief Radio Luxembourg and Marriott Big Chief Weather Forecast. You get the general idea, I'm sure.

Hay was a gifted physical comedian with a huge range of facial expressions and an absolute master of the double-take (Graham Rinaldi claims there are over 200 in his films - crying out for a Youtube compilation video, I'd say). Yet it is the interplay between the three actors that raises their films to the sublime.  Marriot was a remarkable actor in his own right, earning himself the accolade 'British Cinema's master of disguise'. He specialised in appearing as characters much older than his actual age, mischievously winning Southend On Sea's oldest inhabitant competition in 1931, at the ripe old age of 46. 

Moore Marriott in 'Windbag the Sailor' 
Moffat tended to play the smart-alec, wise  to and often critical of Hay's schemes. It probably helped the on-screen dynamic that Hay and Moffatt apparently weren't the best of friends off screen.

Graham Moffatt

So, a comic trio comprising of a boastful shyster, a cynical, smart-alec youngster and a silly old duffer. Sound familiar?

Whether John Sullivan deliberately paid homage to Hay's team is not clear but the influence is there for all to see. I don't pretend that these comic archetypes originated with Hay; the 'old fool' character can be seen as far back as Homer's 'Iliad' and the character Nestor who serves no other purpose in the Trojan war than to offer advice and reminiscences to the younger Greek leaders, usually of the 'in my day...' variety.

While 'Windbag..' was the first time this trio appeared together it wasn't their most celebrated movie - that accolade would probably be granted to 'Oh Mr Porter!' (1937)  or arguably 'Ask A Policeman' (1939). The former was listed by film critics Barry Norman and Derek Malcolm in the top 100 films of the twentieth century. I tend to think of these movies as a pair as they are very similar.  In both our trio are in positions of pointless authority - railway porters at a station that has no passing trains in the former, policemen in a town without crime in the latter. 

In both their easy life is complicated by seemingly supernatural agencies - a ghost train in the former, a 'eadless 'orseman in the latter.  It won't be too much of a spoiler to say that both films have a Scooby Doo-like resolution.

If pushed I would probably pick 'Ask A Policeman' as my favourite, if only for the brilliant scene where Marriott simultaneously plays Harbottle and Harbottle's father (with an even longer beard and an even more high-pitched voice very reminiscent of Terry Jones' character in 'Life of Brian' ).

The team made three more films together, 'Old Bones of the River' (1938), 'Convict 99' (1939) and 'Where's That Fire' (1940). Hay continued to make films after the dissolution of the partnership, with Claude Hulbert and a young Charles Hawtrey as his new stooges but it is the seedy schoolmaster and, in particular, the films with Marriot and Moffat retain a special place in my memory and the annals of British comedy.  

Will Hay died on April 18th 1949, aged 60 - perhaps fittingly, the retirement age of a schoolmaster.

References/further reading - Graham Rinaldi's comprehensive biography 'Will Hay', Tomahawk Press, 2009.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Alternative Oscars - 'The Third Man' (1949)

Seeing one of your favourite movies of all-time re-released on the big screen is among the rarest of pleasures and so it proved when I was lucky enough to see a 4k restoration of Carol Reed and Graham Greene's 'The Third Man' recently. 


My giving writer and director equal credit is deliberate: this was very much a collaboration, and the brilliance of the film is as much due to the wonderful characters and eminently quotable dialogue as the haunting visuals. Greene was asked to write a film for Carol Reed but, as he explained in the preface to the book, found it "impossible to write a film play without first writing a story." Having said that there are many differences between the two and Greene concedes the film is better than the story, partly because it is "the finished state of the story ."
Graham Green (left) and Carol Reed
I would go as far as to say 'The Third Man' may be the greatest British movie ever made. Fans of 'Brief Encounter' might have a strong case for an argument, as would proponents of Powell & Pressburger's finest moments or perhaps the best output of Ealing Studios. But not much else compares.

This bold claim got me thinking about the criteria that determines the "nationality" of a film. The location of the production company is probably the boring answer. John Kobal's 'Top 100 movies' remains an essential reference book for me, but I remember being confused that the highest ranked British film therein (# 18) was Kubrick's '2001 A Space Odyssey.' An MGM film, directed by a Jewish American starring two American actors ?! Despite its English director and writer, 'The Third Man' features two Hollywood stars (Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten), an Italian lead actress (Alida Valli) and is a film loosely about post-war Vienna's division into British, American, Russian and French zones. In many ways then, an international film. 

Of course, there's much more to 'The Third Man' than that mere summary of its historical setting. It's that rare instance where every aspect of the film is in perfect synchronicity - the casting, the performances, the writing, the visuals and, of course, Anton Karas' remarkable musical score. 

Without giving too much away, the story essentially concerns a novelist, Holly Martens, arriving in Vienna to meet an old friend, Harry Lime, only to find that Lime died a few days earlier in a traffic accident. Martens suspects foul play and begins his own investigations, aided by Lime's girlfriend, Anna Schmidt, much to the consternation of the British Army Police (memorable turns from Trevor Howard and Bernard Lee). 

Visually it is a stunning movie, recalling German Expressionism and Welles' own 'Citizen Kane' in the camera's unusual angles. Vienna itself is perfectly utilised - its dark cobbled streets, its sewers and a run-down amusement park. Filmed in black and white, and shot at night but with strong lighting, it is full of contrasts. Moreover, the visual contrast of light and dark mirrors the moral ambivalence of the character at the heart of the film, Harry Lime.

It may well be Welles' best acting performance. Brief, but full of moments of brilliance; Lime is a shadowy figure, smirking and winking at the camera before disappearing - a metaphor for Welles' own career as a film-maker perhaps?


It is a film that contains some of my favorite moments in movie history.  Such as, Lime's self-justifying speech, famously improvised by Welles: "It's not so bad. You know what the fellow said, in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, murder and bloodshed but produced Michelangelo, Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years they had democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long, Holly." And of course,  the ferris wheel scene...


Greene and Reed disagreed over the ending of the movie. The writer was of the view that "an entertainment of this kind was too light an affair to carry the weight of an unhappy ending", before conceding that Reed was "triumphantly right" in his downbeat finale.  The final scene, Anna's almost interminable approach towards Martens, is glorious and brave beyond measure.  It is intended to recall the opening of the movie but I was reminded also of Lean's 'Lawrence of Arabia', specifically the introduction of  the recently deceased Omar Sharif's Sherif Ali - another film that justifiably could lay claim to be Britain's best, and another movie star taken too soon. 



Friday, 15 August 2014

City Lights (1932)

'City Lights' was, and remains, a wonderful anachronism. 

By 1931 talkies were the established norm. 'Grand Hotel' picked up the actual Best Picture award for that year and was surely one of the most talky of talkies - focusing on the day-to-day lives of the different guests in a huge hotel, it was the first of the multiple narrative films that have become so popular.

By contrast, in narrative terms, 'City Lights' is a very simple film.

Chaplin once more plays the tramp character. He spends most of the film courting a flower-seller (Virginia Cherrill), who happens to be blind. Consequently she judges him only on his actions rather than his appearance. He takes on any job (street sweeper, prize fighter) to earn money to pay for an operation that will restore the girl's sight.

Most of the comic strands of the film come through The Tramp's unlikely relationship with a wealthy drunkard, played by Harry Myers. 


This millionaire is The Tramp's best friend during their night-time revelries but disowns him in the sober, cold light of day. This cycle continues over the course of the film, much to The Tramp's bewilderment. It reaches a crisis point when the millionaire lends The Tramp the money to pay for the girl's operation, only to accuse him of stealing it when they next meet.

Consequently the Tramp is imprisoned. The girl, now cured, searches for her saviour in vain. 

A year later, blind (ahem) chance once more throws them together.

Will she recognise him? Will love prevail when she sees his true appearance? 

C'mon, this is a Chaplin movie...

Chaplin was a notorious perfectionist.  'City Lights' was shot over 500 days -  an extraordinary amount of time (and expense) during the depression.  Yet it was a rioutous success. The clash between rich and poor was a favourite theme of Chaplin's, and here, he was playing to the gallery. And of course, it's also a film about the transcendental, all-conquering power of  love.

Is 'City Lights' Chaplin's best film? 'The Kid' tugs at the heart strings more,  'Modern Times' (the film he made after this) may be technically more brilliant but 'City Lights' combines the sentimental and comedic strands of his ouevre brilliantly. 

Chaplin didn't make a true 'talkie' until  'The Great Dictator'  in 1940. 'City Lights' was an act of glorious defiance. Like King Canute he stood stubbornly, refusing to accept the oncoming tide.  

Saturday, 9 August 2014

'Le Jour Se Leve' (1940) - The greatest Film Noir you've (probably) never seen

'Le Jour Se Leve', or 'Daybreak', was the fourth film in the film-making partnership of director Marcel Carne and screen-writer/poet Jacques Prevert; a partnership that came to commercial fruition with 'Les Enfants Du Paradis' in 1945, a sort of French 'Gone With The Wind', often heralded as the greatest ever French movie.


Well, as great as Les Enfants... is, I prefer 'Le Jour Se Leve'.   

'Le Jour Se Leve' may well be the definitive film in the 'poetic realism' movement, a sort of forerunner to film noir, and something I've written about elsewhere on this blog.

This loose movement tended to feature a working-class protagonist, often on the margins of society, doomed to failure. Naturally it reflected the wider real-life context of contemporary France; the dissolution of the Popular Front, and, of course, the looming war. In fact, 'Le Jour Se Leve' itself was deemed so pessimistic that the Vichy government banned it, on the grounds that it was demoralising and had contributed the nation's defeat.

More than any of the brilliant directors associated with the poetic realist movement (Carne, Jean Renoir), for me, its pivotal figure is the actor, Jean Gabin. 

Gabin starred in  'La Bete Humaine', 'Pepe Le Moko', 'La Grande Illusion', 'Le Quai Des Brumes' - all key films in this movement. 

Gabin's great skill as an actor is to somehow simultaneously exude toughness and vulnerability. He's Bogart with a heart. 

In a cinematic sense 'Le Jour Se Leve' works much better than Carne's earlier 'Quai Des Brumes'. It feels very much like a modern film, principally because of its use of dissolves and flashback.                

It begins with a murder, or more accurately, a manslaughter. A fight between Francois (Gabin) and his love rival, Valentin, gets out of hand when the latter arrives at Francois' bedsit with a gun.

Francois accidentally kills Valentin and quickly realises his own fate. He barricades himself in, awaiting the police. As onlookers gather Francois contemplates the events that led to this and the film proceeds in flashback.

We witness the grinding monotony of Francois' existence. He ruminates, "The jobs I've had, all different yet all the same. It's like waiting in the rain for a tram. Eventually it arrives but... there's no room. The same with the next one. And the next one. They all go by and you stand there, waiting in the rain like a fool." 

Until a chance encounter with Francoise (Jacqueline Laurent) provides a brief moment of happiness, and an opportunity for a different life. Possibly.  

Unforunately, for Francois he is already involved with Clara (played by the wonderful Arletty), who has reluctantly settled for the shady Valentin. Clara sees Francois as a kindred spirit and a way out of her meaningless relationship. "I'm sick of men talking about love. They talk about love and forget to make love," she complains. 

Valentin isn't too concerned at the prosepct of losing Clara as he also has designs on Francoise. It swiftly becomes a menage a quatre. In a sense there is another layer of tragedy to Francoise/Francoise's doomed romance; namely that everyone else, but Francois, can see that he and the world-weary Clara are far better suited. 

Yet in forsaking Clara and committing to Francoise, he seals his own fate, and the chain of events is set in action.

Back in the present, day breaks and Francoise snaps out of his daydream. The police decide it's time to act but, at the last moment, Francoise arrives to try and talk her lover into coming down quietly.                             

I won't completely spoil the ending for you, though you can probably work it out for yourself.   

'Le Jour Se Leve' was remade in Hollywood in 1947 with Henry Fonda in the Gabin role.  I haven't seen it, but, suffice to say, it has a very different ending.

Alternative Oscars (1936) - Top Hat

As a self-confessed admirer of Hollywood's Golden Age, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I don't generally like musicals. 'Singing In The Rain' is the obvious exception to this, but even that I admire less for its songs than the picture it paints of early Hollywood itself.

However, even I can't deny Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had something special. 

'Top Hat' was the fourth of ten feature films Fred and Ginger made together and is probably the best illustration of their particular blend of screwball comedy and musical.

The characteristically daft plot need not detain us too much (and is perhaps the reason I don't generally get on with musicals?) Astaire's character, Jerry Travers, is in London to meet theatre impressario Horace Hardwick, with a view to working together. Fred's impromptu tap routine in Hardwicke's appartment disturbs Dale Tremont (Rogers) in the apartment downstairs. 

Jerry is immediately smitten and begins a relentless pursuit of the frosty Dale across Europe, one that would certainly merit a restraining order if happening today. It's not quite as awkward as it sounds, as Dale likes him really - she's just playing hard to get. There is the added complication that, thanks to the mistaken identity above, she spends most of the film thinking Jerry is actually Hardwick, who happens to be already married.

So far, so Fred and Ginger. Of course, it's the chemistry between the two actors that elevates the film to another level. 

It was often said that he gave her class and she gave him sex (or sexiness). Certainly this sexuality makes Ginger seem a very modern screen siren, compared to many of her guileless contemporaries. Astaire has always struck me as the most unlikely romatic lead. There is something odd-looking, almost cadaverous about him. But with those dancing feet, no one was looking at his face. 

The film isn't without it's humour. Much of it centres around Horace Hardwick, whether his Jeeves & Wooster-like dynamic with butler Bates, or his relationship with his long-suffering wife, Madge, who, at the mention of divorce, memorably quips, "he'll probably want me to pay myself alimony."

Bates and Hardwick
There are moments of unintentional comedy too, such as Astaire's imitation of a Cockney cabbie that would put even Dick Van Dyke to shame.

But essentially a musical is only as good as its music and Top Hat has songs by the great Irving Berlin.  And then there's the dancing... 

And while we're mentioning the dancing we should once more acknowledge Ginger Rogers, who, as Bob Thaves remarked, did (almost) everything Fred did. But backwards. And in high heels.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Know Country For Old Men (Part 3)


"I started this damn country band cos punk rock was too hard too play."  

(Whiskeytown, Faithless Street).

The previous parts of this series have offered a roughly chronological, but highly subjective, guide to country music. This final part brings the overview up to date, after a fashion, concentrating on the alternative country scene of the 90s-00s. Again I would recommend reading the previous posts and 'No Stetson Required' first. The same caveats apply as before - this is just one route down the lost highway... 

10) Uncle Tupelo  - Anodyne (1993)

Although they are often credited as the founding fathers of the 'alt country' scene it's easier to see Uncle Tupelo as part of a lineage or circle passing through Hank and Gram - unfortunately this particular circle couldn't remain unbroken... Like a lot of the best bands Tupelo had a creative tension at their heart, between co-vocalists and songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy. I'm oversimplifying but you could say that Farrar was more of country purist whereas the rockier elements tended to come from Tweedy. Anondyne was their final album and is probably their most consistent (certainly their most accessible and least schizophrenic).  

                                                      Uncle Tupelo's final gig. St Louis, 1994.

Farrar took bass player Mike Heirdorn with him and went on to form Son Volt, while Tweedy formed Wilco with the remainder of the band and has gone on to great success.  It's a shame, in a way, that Farrar has become something of a forgotten man - Son Volt's debut 'Trace' (1996) is brilliant, as good as Tupelo, but sadly he's never recorded an album as strong since.

11) Jayhawks  - Tomorrow The Green Grass  (1994)

Modern-day country-rock at its finest, with co-vocalists Mark Olson and Gary Louris coming on like a latter day Everly Brothers (including the fraternal feuding). Also features Texas' Sharleen Spiteri, whose band's geographically misleading name presumably confused the boys (for there can be no other reason for her presence on this record).

12) Wilco  -   Being There  (1996)

Their second album is a virtual compendium of all that is good and great in American music. A 'Blonde on Blonde' for the slacker generation. 

13) The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers - The Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers (1997)

Former Jayhawk Mark Olson goes it alone with a little help from his missus, Victoria Williams. While the 'hawks veered off into a more power-poppy territory, Marky boy opts for a downhome, DIY approach on a beautifully simple album which sounds like it was recorded on his porch in the Joshua Tree with only tumbleweeds and crickets for an audience.

14) Richard Buckner - Devotion and Doubt (1997)

His is probably the most obscure name on this list, but I'd probably take 'Devotion and Doubt' as my Desert Island Disc over any album in this guide (I'd probably also forfeit the Bible and Shakespeare's complete works if I could I lay my hands on Buckner's 'The Hill' and 'Dents & Shells' before the ship sinks).

'Devotion and Doubt' is an album of longing, of late nights and dawns.

Buckner's voice is like no other. There is a nod to the tradition, a hint perhaps of Townes Van Zant, and maybe George Jones on the higher notes and vibrato. But, to me, he is unique. His voice is effortless and singing seems as natural as breathing to him. 

I'm not alone in this hero-worship but Buckner remains very much a cult hero, which begs the question, 'Why - if he's so good?'  To which I don't have a good answer. Is the voice a little too country for mainstream tastes? His lyrics might best be described as enigmatic or elliptical, to the impatient they're perhaps impenetrable, stream-of-consciousness even. 

There have been moments of near-commercial success. By the time of 'Devotion & Doubt' (his second album) he was signed to a major label and was backed (on this album, at least) by Calexico, who themselves were on the verge of  a breakthrough. The follow-up album, 'Since' was more polished, and featured more notable guest musicians such as Tortoise's John McEntire and Dave Schramm from Yo La Tengo. But commercial success still eluded him. I guess it didn't help by making the next album, 'The Hill', one 35 minute song, setting Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River poems to music. Still, I bloody love that album.

I had to wait over 15 years before I got the chance to see Buckner live, last December at the wonderful St Pancras Old Church in London.  It was spellbinding. 

One of the many highlights was an unaccompanied version of 'Fater', from 'Devotion & Doubt'. You could have heard the metaphorical pin drop. 

15) Lambchop - What Another Spills  (1998)

Nashville country-soul collective of varying members, but always fronted by the falsetto-favouring Kurt Wagner. Difficult to categorize but almost certainly the best band ever to be named after a children's glove puppet. 

16) Bonnie Prince Billy  - I See A Darkness (1999)

Whether recording in his current guise or under the various nom-de plumes of Palace (Palace Brothers, Palace Music), Will Oldham has recorded some of alt-country's strangest, most beguiling music. Here he presents us with such joyful tunes as 'Black' , 'Death To Everyone', 'Another Day Full of Dread' in an Appalachian howl (think Neil Young at his most wracked) that was dismissed by one critic as 'bad singing on purpose'.

17) Ryan Adams & The Cardinals - Cold Roses (2005)

Not to be confused with the acne-scarred Canadian, the ex-Whiskeytown frontman made something of name for himself as a sort of a prolific, post-modern Gram Parsons and the poster-boy of the alt-country scene. Interestingly Whiskeytown's second album 'Stranger's Almanac' contained a song called 'Everything I Do', although, criminally, it didn't spend 16 weeks at number one...

Most fans will point to his solo debut 'Heartbreaker' or the more polished follow-up 'Gold' as favourites but for me 'Cold Roses' gets the nod. As one of three studio albums he released in 2005, 'Cold Roses' sometimes is unfairly overlooked.  The fact that this is co-credited to The Cardinals is significant, this is a band effort and a warmer more coherent album than anything else in his catalogue. 

18) Micah P Hinson  & The Red Empire Orchestra (2008)

While some might argue whether Hinson's idioysncratic music is strictly 'country', he certainly has the credentials, having endured jail, addiction and bankruptcy before he'd barely turned 20. Perhaps, understandably there's an undercurrent of self-loathing and despair to his music.

By the time of this album Micah had met and married his wife Ashley, who appears on his album covers and at most of his shows.   One might be forgiven for detecting a sense of redemption in the music from this point...

Tragically Micah suffered a serious car accident in 2011 that nearly ended his recording career. As he puts it, "when the emergency crews got to us, they were looking at us as if we were dead people."

His live shows have always been somewhere between shambolic and spellbinding and I'm pleased to report his spirit and sense of humour remain undimmed. Even when playing in my local record store.

19) Josh T. Pearson - Last of The Country Gentlemen (2011)

Josh T.Pearson first came up on my radar as a member of Lift To Experience in 2001. But swiftly disappeared off it. In truth, I found them a little noisy for my tastes and was rather put off by bass player Josh 'Bear' Browning's unforunate resemblance to Mungo Jerry's Ray Dorset. 

My loss as they sound pretty good to my ears now. Anyway, a decade after their only release, guitarist/vocalist Josh T. Pearson releases a solo album. It's not for the faint of heart. 7 tracks, four of which are over 10 minutes long, all of which are are played at a funereal pace by just Josh and his guitar.  The reviews on a certain internet retailer's website are mixed, to say the least. The word 'dirge' is mentioned a few times. Many people complain of really wanting to like the album but being unable to find 'a way in.'

Well, for me, 'the way in' was seeing him live. Both times I've seen him perform it's been in crowded, tiny venues and he was captivating. There's no stagecraft. There's a stillness and intensity to his performance. It's almost intimidating. You are compelled to listen and then, slowly, the song's reveal their beauty.

Plus he has the most amazing beard.

20) My Darling Clementine  - The Reconciliation  (2013 )

There's nothing 'alt' about My Darling Clementine. Michael Weston King and Lou Dagleish are a husband and wife team who hark back to the golden age of country music. The age when men were hard-drinking and wore polyester suits and women complained about their men. In song. In big blonde wigs. 

But look, and, more importantly, listen below the surface and you'll see this is no mere pastiche. 

Despite setting themselves up as a modern-day George Jones & Tammy Wynette I sometimes wonder whether the image detracts a little from their superb songcraft. I can honestly say both MDC albums (their debut 'How Do You Plead?' was released in 2011) are better than any of the George & Tammy albums I've heard. And I write that as someone who owns a lot of George Jones LPs.

And so we come to the end of this meander down the lost highway and it seems somehow appropriate to come back to (almost) the very beginning. 

May be the circle be unboken. And may your hat always be of the ten gallon variety. 

Friday, 31 January 2014

Know Country For Old Men (Part 2)

Mavericks and Missing Links

Part 1 of this very personal guide down the lost highway of country music focused on The Old Guard. Here I present 'Mavericks and Missing Links' - artists who provide the missing link between the old guard and the alt-country scene that emerged in the 1990s.  For context I would suggest reading 'No Stetson Required' first and, of course, the same caveats mentioned in part 1 apply here. 

6) Gram Parsons - 'GP/Grievous Angel' (1973/4)

Cecil Ingram Connor III  first came to wide attention when he joined The Byrds in 1968 and the resultant album,  'Sweetheart of The Rodeo', strongly bears his mark. Sadly America wasn't ready for it's favourite psychedelic-folkies to 'go country'. Ironically, Parsons' brand of country-rock laid the groundwork for America's biggest ever band, The Eagles - who he famously dismissed as 'a plastic dry fuck'... Parsons left The Byrds after just five months, taking Chris Hillman with him, forming The Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons described their work as Cosmic American Music, which to you and me is spaced-out hippies harmonising like (fallen) angels over a choir of pedal steel guitars. Hot Burrito #1 may well be alt country's finest ever 3 minutes. 

As fleetingly brilliant as his two albums with the Burritos were, the two solo albums that followed, 'GP' and 'Grievous Angel', remain his most consistent albums. Backed by the divine Emmylou Harris, they mine a purer vein of country music and are the cornerstone of his reputation. It would be no exaggeration to say that Parsons may well be the single most important figure, in terms of influence, on the whole alt country scene. If you're still wondering why, I can empathise. His is an extraordinary, but slim, legacy. Of course, dying a rock star death at 26 helps. But let's not forget the boyish, almost feminine good looks, the outrageous Nudie Cohen suits, and above all, the cracked, haunted quality of his voice.

7) Elvis Costello - Almost Blue (1981)
Now, I'm a huge Costello fan. I loved the early stuff with the Attractions and even stuck with him during the weird, beardy years (Mighty Like A Rose and I even liked the album with the Brodsky Quartet) but I must confess I didn't 'get' this album at the time (or indeed until about 20 years after its release). Coming between the brilliant 'Trust' and 'Imperial Bedroom' this album of country covers was, at best, a left field move, at worst career suicide.  The George Jones cover, 'A Good Year For The Roses'  was a surprise top ten hit (his last), and the album charted well on the back of this, but commercially speaking I don't think his career ever recovered from this bold move. 

Costello clearly anticipated this reaction, attaching a warning sticker to the first pressings of the album.   

To put this in context we should remember that the biggest 'country' artists at the time were Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. The pop charts of 1981 were dominated by Adam & The Ants, The Specials, Soft Cell, The Human League; The New Romantic movement reached its zenith.

The cynic in me almost wonders whether 'Almost Blue' was a deliberate act of self-sabotage. This was so far from 'Angry Young Man' of New Wave it enabled him to pretty much record whatever the hell he wanted on the back of it. Having said that, his version of 'How Much I Lied' may well be better than the Gram Parsons' original.

8) Steve Earle - Guitar Town   (1986)

In the mid 80s Steve Earle found himself at the forefront of the short-lived 'new country' or 'new traditionalist' movement. Artists such as Earle, Dwight Yoakam, George Strait and Randy Travis eschewed the pop trappings of contemporary country and interpreted the song stylings of honky tonk and bluegrass in a modern way. In truth Earle was too much of an individual to spearhead any movement. Like Parsons before him he straddled country and rock, and embraced the rock n roll lifestyle... With five marriages, three arrests, one long year 'inside' and a major drug habit behind him, it's fair to say that this one country rebel who walked it like he talked it. Despite his battles with personal demons and addiction, Earle claims to have only ever cancelled one show - a show which I had the misfortune to attend in Leicester in 1991 (enduring what I thought was the worst support act I'd ever seen, at that time - sorry, Will T. Massey). 

Earle's debut, 'Guitar Town' set the tone for the following three decades: raw, heartfelt words set to wistful ballads and bludgeoning hard rock, and all points inbetween. 

At times he taps into the spirit of a disaffected working-class in the manner of Springsteen.  

And I think he must have been the first person to ryhme 'asphalt' with 'my fault'.

9) Emmylou Harris- Wrecking Ball (1995)

Despite penning the beautiful 'Bolder to Birmingham' on her debut album,  Emmylou is better known as an interpreter of other people's songs. A peerless one at that. 'Wrecking Ball' is largely a covers album but the choice of material is first rate: showcasing the best of the burgeoning new/alt country movement (Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch) and paying homage to the generation of singer-songwriters that influenced them (Dylan, Neil Young). Only the Daniel Lanois production dates it slightly. 

After Gram Parsons' death, Emmylou became something of a keeper of the flame, performing his songs and in 1999 overseeing a tribute album, 'The Return of The Grievous Angel', which saw some of the cream of the alt country crop pay their respects.