It was (almost) twenty years ago… sniff

Twenty years ago on this day – more or less – American composer Frank Zappa died. Okay, it was December 4 in the US, but it wasn't announced until two days later. I had just been elected to the 1994 Editorial team of Honi Soit, the student paper of the University of Sydney. To follow is the obituary that I wrote for the first issue (and have blogged elsewhere). It barely touches the surface; it doesn’t do Frank Zappa the composer justice; I was a far less experienced writer, taking myself far too seriously. I have tweaked it slightly for grammar. But first, here's a recent caricature by one of my favourite artists, Nick O'Sullivan.

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Frank Zappa
December 21 1940 to December 4 1993

During Orientation Week one year, on the lawn in front of the Main Quad where all of the University of Sydney's Clubs and Societies vie for new members from amongst the student body, I found myself at the ‘Alternative Music Club’ [1] marquee, where a girl with pink hair and a pierced tongue performed her inculcatory spiel about the kind of music that ‘Alternative Music Club’ members listened to. “You know,” she said, “artists who don’t receive much mainstream commercial radio airplay, like Morrissey, R.E.M., Sonic Youth…”

“What about Frank Zappa?” I asked her.

“Who?” she said.

I guess you can’t be much more alternative than that.

Very occasional radio play has meant that few people have heard Zappa’s music. For most, Frank Zappa was that weird American musician residing at the back of rock encyclopaedias; the guy frequently bearing an unkempt mane, and always, the funny facial hair. (Simpsons creator  Matt Groening insists that the facial hair is “way cool”, and that “as soon as Bart Simpson is able to shave he’ll have a little moustache and goatee just like Zappa’s.”) However, during a career that lasted almost thirty years, Zappa had officially released over sixty albums [2], and nearly ten times that number reached the market illegally as ‘bootlegs’. [3]

While the epithet ‘post modern’ has been used to label all sorts of artistic entities engendering slight obscurity and evading generic pigeon-holing, Frank Zappa was the musician to whom it best applied. His work was (and remains) a universe inhabited by recurring motifs frequently referring back, pre-empting forwards and implying sideways to other elements within that universe. The cross-referencing, Zappa insisted, was fully intentional from his career's inception. In 1974 he stated: “there is, and always has een a conscious control of thematic and structural elements flowing through each album, live performance, and interview; the basic blueprints were executed in 1962-1963. Preliminary experimentation took place in early and mid 1964. Construction… began in late 1964. Work is still in progress.”

Musically, Zappa’s work embraced and transcended virtually every genre and form known, usually for the purpose of parody. Listener expectations were constantly thwarted. His tightly-rehearsed ensemble of musicians (known for most of its first decade as ‘The Mothers of Invention’ or merely ‘The Mothers’) was able to execute the complex performances that Zappa conducted. “There are cues used on stage like twirling my fingers as if I’m piddling with a Rasta braid on the right side of my head - that means: ‘Play reggae’… If I wanted something played ‘heavy metal’, I put both hands on my crotch and do ‘Big Balls’… The band understands what the norms and ‘expected mannerisms’ are for these different musical styles, and will instantly ‘translate’ a song into that musical ‘dialect’.” As well as contemporary rock and jazz, Zappa wrote ad conducted orchestral music which similarly subverted and entertained.

Entertainment was Zappa’s main task. This end was achieved through use of subject matter that basically lambasted dominant culture and counter-culture, very often as a form of social anthropology: what people did, how they did it and who they did it to. He insisted that  “contemporary history is going to be retained on records more accurately than it is in books”. During the late 60s, hippies bore the brunt of Zappa’s saturnine wit. The 70s saw him pour scorn and derision upon decadent rock-star sexuality, sexuality sublimated into the ‘better, louder, faster’ guitar solo and the constant pursuit of compliant groupies. Censorship, religious fundamentalism and sexual impropriety — or rather, hypocrisy with regard to the particular sexual impropriety of televangelists and Republicans — received Zappa’s attention during the 80s. He pursued his cause to the extent of registering voters at his concerts during his 1988 Broadway the Hard Way tour. Illness precluded his own presidential bid during the 1992 United States elections.

Often criticised was Zappa's vigour and zeal when dealing with topics of a “glandular” nature. His opinion to the end was that ‘sex looks silly’. “Let’s face it,” he said, “even if it feels good, it looks silly”. Yet, as entertainment, he felt that all work could be reduced to this tenet: “Is it possible to laugh while fucking? I think yes.”

Frank Zappa developed prostate cancer, and although detected some time during the early 90s, it was kept secret. The only official public reference made was the insistence that ‘the press’ had diagnosed him as a sufferer. Zappa himself claimed to be quite well most of the time. He continued to work up to sixteen hours a day in his home studio, composing, recording and remixing his music, only taking time off every so often when he felt ‘really bad’. However, an aversion to flying, owing to severe discomfort, and the more frequent press-leaks of the true severity of his condition seemed to make it apparent that the end was night. His latest album, The Yellow Shark, consisting of orchestral pieces performed by the Ensemble Modern, had been out barely a month before news was released that Zappa had died. On December 6 1993 it was announced that he had already been interred, having passed away two days earlier. Zappa is survived by wife and company administrator Gail, and by children Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet Rodon and Diva. His stunning oeuvre has been left in good order. Most of his back catalogue has been re-released on CD and new work is ready for imminent, posthumous release.

Human foible may now emit a collective sigh of relief. Its greatest detractor, one of this century’s most original and significant composers and the most alternative of musicians, is no more.

 

  1. This particular club no longer exists.
  2. Album number 93 – I think – was recently released: a collection of early live recordings called  Road Tapes: Venue 1.
  3. Zappa bootlegs outnumbering legitimate releases ten-to-one is most likely a conservative estimate.

Who's That Little Old Man?

Nick O'Sullivan, a buddy I've known for about a million years, is a fine artist who creates awesome caricatures. I'll take every opportunity to bring his work to your attention, and today's the day for Paul McCartney.

But before we get to that, here's a classic clip from early on in the Beatles film A Hard Day's Night (1964):

 

 

People who recognise Paul's granddad, Wilfred Bramble - who also played 'Albert Steptoe' in the sitcom Steptoe & Son - will get the references to his 'cleanliness' (he was forever the 'dirty old man!' as far as his 'son' was concerned in Steptoe & Son).

However, the 'who's that little old man?' motif will have developed a new meaning for Paul McCartney fans and avid Grammy Awards watchers. For, as Paul McCartney and a supporting cast of superstars presented the big side-two-of-Abbey-Road finale of the 2012 Grammy Awards, it had an interesting, hitherto unseen effect: it was confusing ignorant Gen Y brats.

 

 

Because suddenly, around the world, the blogosphere was filled with people wondering out loud just "who TF" this old dude called Paul McCartney was:

 

Whoispaulmc1sdfgdf

Well, finally, today, on his 70th birthday, we can now answer both questions effectively:

Who the hell is Sir Paul McCartney? He is that little old man. And who is that little old man? He's Paul McCartney.

Happy birthday Sir Macca. Here's Nick O'Sullivan's brilliant caricature.

 

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No-asis? Better than Faux-asis…

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I awoke to news that Oasis are almost definitely maybe splitting up. Again. I haven’t bought an album of theirs in ages, but for a time they were my favourite band. Although, to hear they may be calling it a day… or not… doesn’t upset me at all – even though I was a mad fan back in the day.

I remember anticipating each release – sneaking out of the office for an extended lunch break to pick up a newly arrived copy of (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? (on the same day, if I’m to be honest, as Blur’s The Great Escape – which came with a t-shirt!)… buying a second copy of …Morning Glory? a year later because, for whatever reason, Sony’s latest supply were Japanese picture disc pressings… blowing entire pay packets on boxed sets of singles… securing copies of my favourite mags with additional glee when the sparring brothers Gallagher were appearing on the cover again. 

Part of the attraction of Oasis was that they were clearly kids who liked the Beatles and who wanted to grow up to be rock stars, and then did. Beatles references abound in their music, and Noel Gallagher has said, “If you’re not in it to be bigger than the Beatles, it’s just a hobby”. Maybe I did only like them because they were the world’s most successful tribute band… the point at which their hobby intersects with my hobby.

I stopped listening pretty much after Be Here Now (which shares its title with a solo period George Harrison song, by the way – itself inspired, most likely, by a book about spirituality). I don’t know if I’ve even listened all the way through that album. I did like the collection of B-sides, The Masterplan. I persevered with the singles for a while longer – ‘Lyla’ was my last one – picking up the odd album secondhand or in those ten-dollar shops that sprang up, helped cripple retail stores, and then disappeared again when migration to downloading well and truly killed all but the strongest retailers.

So, yesterday (or a few hours ago? It’s Saturday morning in Australia as I write this, so it’s still Friday night in the UK…) their website carried an announcement from Noel Gallagher:

“It’s with some sadness and great relief to tell you that I quit Oasis tonight. People will write and say what they like, but I simply could not go on working with Liam a day longer.

“Apologies to all the people who bought tickets for the shows in Paris, Konstanz and Milan.”

This contradicts his wife, former All Saints singer Natalie Appleton’s statement from the day before, insisting “Oasis will die before they split up”. That was no doubt damage control following rumours of a split, after the band cancelled their headline gig at V Festival Chelmsford the previous week due to Liam’s ‘illness’. “The rumours are absolute rubbish,” Appleton insisted. “Even in his sick bed, Liam was vowing to get back on stage.”

Liam had himself gone into damage control a couple of days earlier on the official Oasis website:

The voice may of disappeared but I'm still here.1st things first V I’m gutted your gutted, I’m sorry what can I say f*ck all at the moment.

“Secondly, respect to those bands who covered Oasis last night, even though I might of given some of you shit in the past...

“Finally reports in smartarses column about Oasis last british gig ever. The kids talking out his arse, I mean rkids, bware of darkness. LG”

There can be no Oasis without that two-headed beast, the brothers united. Surely any attempt to carry on will result in Faux-asis. Although – with Noel’s departure comes a vacancy for a vocalist and guitarist. While Zak ‘son of Ringo’ Starkey recently vacated a drum seat, perhaps ‘not-quite-Beatles’ cred may be regained by recruiting Dhani ‘son of George’ Harrison in Noel’s place. Considering all the comings and goings of band members over the years, this is the opportunity to take the hobby tribute band one step closer…

Yet, whatever happens, I realise I’m not really going to miss Oasis. What I mourn most, now, is the passing of my cashed-up 20s, when I not only wanted to own every release and see every gig by every band I loved, but could actually afford the financial outlay to do so.

(The fantastic caricature is the work of Nick O’Sullivan – who, incidentally, is also responsible for the ‘Stand & Deliver!’ logo.)


ADDENDUM


Nick and Sophie O’Sullivan

Boatshed02

A couple of Saturdays ago I was honoured with the role of best man for the wedding of one of my oldest and dearest friends, Nick O’Sullivan, to his gorgeous fairy tale bride Sophie Seneviratna. There is a lovely story that goes with the meeting, courtship and wedding, and it really is a fairy tale. But it is not my story to re-tell.

One of my earliest memories of my friendship with Nick goes back to 1985, when we were in Year 8. I used to try and sit next to him in any classes we had in common, because it was always going to be a laugh. I was called upon to read out loud from the text book, and he decided to make me crack up by advising, just loud enough for me to hear


Your dick’s hanging out! Your dick’s hanging out. Everyone can see it, they’re laughing at you because your dick’s hanging out!

As good a way to begin a best man’s speech as this story may be, I decided I’d first take some of Nick’s advice – quite literally – and start with the last couple of paragraphs:

Ideally, I don’t want you to give the speech you think you should - but rather the speech you, and only you, can. It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be the product of immense sweat and toil. It doesn’t have to be indulgently self serving or annoyingly arse-kissing. You don’t have to impress, out-do, outshine, or out-whine anyone. Whatever you do, just do it your way, go with your instincts and speak from the heart. That’s ultimately all we could ask for.

But if it’s not funny, we will cut your balls off.


The guests agreed that, as they laughed at that last line, technically, i got to keep ’em.

As far as other salient points of the speech, I must admit, I recycled gags from the weeks leading up to the wedding. As Nick and Sophie are already expecting their first child, and as pregnancy along with planning a wedding has been a tiring undertaking, I happened to point out to Nick one night that, at least they had already consummated the marriage; that was one thing less they had to worry about on the day.

When it was Nick’s turn to get up and thank everyone, I waited until the precise instant before he was to begin. And then I assured him:


Your dick’s hanging out! Your dick’s hanging out. Everyone can see it, they’re laughing at you because your dick’s hanging out!

The best response was from Mark, who is married to Sophie’s cousin, and who was supposed to be responsible for her on the evening she met Nick. When he spoke, his two little kids were rolling about around his ankles. After I’d finished he came up to me and said, “They understand what ‘your dick’s hanging out!’ means, but I think you’re going to have to explain to my children what ‘consummate the marriage’ means.”

The high point was Nick’s re-telling of the fairy tale. But it isn’t my job to re-tell it here – you’ll have to wait for the biopic.

Click on either photo to see more.

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A Bit of a Chat with Philip Glass

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Philip Glass (c. 1997) by Nick O’Sullivan.

A little while ago I was haunting one of my favourite secondhand music shops, Enthusiasms, when I found a Philip Glass seven-inch single. I was a bit amazed by it – it boasted the same cover as the album GlassWorks and featured the piece ‘Facades’ – from that album – on it’s A-side. The flipside featured ‘A Gentleman’s Honour’, a piece from the album The Photographer, which is essentially an opera about Eadweard Muybridge, the guy whose pioneering work in photography provided conclusive proof that there was in fact a point in a horse’s gallop when all four feet were not touching the ground. This had never been documented previously, apparently.

The Philip Glass single was a strange artifact. In Australia, Glass was always bundled with the serious composers: on the CBS Masterworks label, and later, when Sony bought the music arm of CBS, on the Sony Classics label. The single was a British pressing, on the Epic label – the imprint more famous for soul and rock releases. Clearly, the British were marketing him a little differently – as was evident in the sleeve notes on the back cover, courtesy of English music journo John Gill. I will not reproduce them in full, but a few quotes are worthy. The opening paragraph begins:


When someone can claim to have influenced David Bowie, Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, The Human League, Giorgio Moroder, Tangerine Dream, Soft Machine and to have started a domino effect that rolled through European rock and North American soul, funk disco and rap, your suspicions are quite understandably raised. Especially when that person comes from the classical avant garde. But in reality that’s what has happened and his name is Philip Glass.

Pretty good stuff, huh? I’m gonna cut to the last paragraph:

His music is as gloriously uplifting as any of the classical masters, but is anchored to the sort of ferocious rhythm that could cause carnage on the dancefloor. That, I think you’ll agree, is unique.

Owning both a copy of GlassWorks and The Photographer , I had no idea why I had to own this single. The reason was revealed to me some months down the track when I was sent a press-release regarding Philip Glass’s most recent visit to Australia.

Over the last decade or so I have seen Glass perform a couple of times. The first time was a solo piano recital for the Sydney Festival, around 1996 or 1997. More recently, I had seen the Philip Glass Ensemble provide the music to the film Koyaanisqatsi , while the film played on a huge screen behind the musicians. It was spectacular.

This time around, Glass and his ensemble were providing live accompaniment to the entire ‘Qatsi’ trilogy: Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and the most recent Naqoyqatsi. The films really are special: no dialogue or spoken narrative, just images, along with Glass’s distinctive music. But this performance season was particularly special, featuring a couple of world firsts: the first time Naqoyqatsi was being accompanied live by the Philip Glass Ensemble, and the first time the entire trilogy was featuring in a season.

It’s worth mentioning just briefly some of the aspects of the music of Philip Glass. Early in his composing career, he encountered some of the music of both India and Africa, and his style utilises the melodic and rhythmic repetition of those styles. The repetition can sometimes lull the listener into a state of alpha-wave stimulating hypnagogia, not unlike the effect of a Necks performance. The difference, of course, is that while people have no qualms about reclining in the aisles and on the floor at a Necks gig – indeed, the band appreciate it, and won’t even mind punters nodding off – Philip Glass is a serious composer; he performs at the Opera House, which is an imposing venue. Nodding off will probably not be tolerated as readily by the other patrons. But this may just be my perception.

I was granted an interview with Philip Glass, and I was quite nervous about meeting him. I expected a justifiable amount of arrogance and a degree of hard-earned self-importance. Instead, I was pleased to discover, Philip Glass the brilliant composer and musical genius is also a good bloke. Endearing and effusive, interesting and interested, our twenty-five minute chat seemed to go in no time at all. It ended with discussion of a piece of music he wrote about alien abduction – A Thousand Aeroplanes on the Roof.

He pointed out that Europeans don’t see UFOs as readily as Americans do, because they have cloudy skies year-round. However, Australia, like the US, enjoys big, open blue skies, and as a result, we are more likely to see the weird lights in the sky here in Australia than people in Europe. So, Philip explained, “if there were going to be UFO abductions, they would happen here. Is that reassuring to you?” What could I say? “As long as, when it happens, it’s still scored by one of your pieces of music…” I then whipped out the single, the existence of which amazed him: he was unaware that he had ever released a seven-inch single in any territory. But he didn’t mind autographing it!

An excerpt of the interview went to air on the morning of Friday 7 January. The longer edit (download the MP3 here!) of the interview was broadcast in the usual ABC NewsRadio Music News slot on the afternoon of Saturday 8 January. I would have liked to provide more music to break up the talking, but I think the information is interesting enough for it to work as is.

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Soundbite: ‘Koyaanisqatsi’, from the Philip Glass soundtrack album Koyaanisqatsi.


Koyaanisqatsi, koyaanisqatsi…

Demetrius Romeo: Philip, in addition to piano, at university you studied philosophy and mathematics. Would it be fair to say that philosophy and mathematics have also played a part in your music?

PHILIP GLASS: I’m glad you put it that way. It would be fair to say that. It would not be fair to say that I knew very much about mathematics and philosophy. That would not be fair to people who actually do know about mathematics and philosophy. Basically, I was at the University of Chicago and there were certain professors whom I liked and as a young guy, I went to their classes, and they happened to be in philosophy and mathematics. But I was much better at music and, eventually, that is what I did. But what it did do is, it gave me an appreciation of what men of science were like. And in fact, I’ve written an opera about Einstein, I’ve written an opera about Galileo, I’ve done a film score to a film about Stephen Hawking… I would do an opera about Newton – it would be Newton the alchemist. Hey! That’s the title of an opera: Newtown the Alchemist!

You know, this is the hundredth anniversary year of the publication of the Special Theory of Relativity – that was done in 1905 – and I was asked by some scientific journal to write something about Einstein and I wrote about Einstein the dreamer; Einstein the artist. About how he would have what he called ‘thought experiments’: he would imagine himself traveling on a beam of light through the universe and try to imagine what he would see if he would be doing that. From that insight came the Special Theory of Relativity. He then had to spend years developing the mathematics to explain what his vision was. So I said, what I like about Einstein was Einstein the dreamer. Einstein was like an artist. And I think that’s true of mathematicians as well. So I’m looking at the world of science from the artistic point of view, and I find it resonates very well with the world I live in.

Demetrius Romeo: Would it be fair to say also, then, that Philip Glass as the artist – did you have a vision that you then had to find a way to…

PHILIP GLASS: Well, that’s true. When I was quite a young man living in Paris in the 1960s, I was about twenty-five or twenty-six, and I met Ravi Shankar and I began working with him as his music assistant. I was notating his music for a group of French musicians who were hired to record a film score he was writing. And I began to imagine a music that was based on some of the ideas I found in Ravi’s music and it took me ten years working out my ideas, of how I could adapt some of the concepts of rhythmic structure of classical Indian music to my own ‘experimental music’ –we can call it that. In fact, the result eventually was Einstein on the Beach.

Soundbite: ‘from Spaceship’, from Einstein on the Beach, as featured on the promotional CD Philip Glass Introduced by Philip Glass.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, with the ‘Qatsi’ triology of films – Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and now Naqoyqatsi, you seem to have brought science, philosophy and music in a very together in a clear and distinct way. Tell me, what were you and film maker Godfrey Reggio setting out to do when you first embarked on that initial film, Koyaanisqatsi, twenty-five years ago?

PHILIP GLASS: I would say, with the trilogy, working with Godfrey and working directly on the subject of technology, we’re bringing the whole question of science and ‘what is science in the service of?’ – is it in the service of humanity, is it in the service of industry, is it in the service of science? – and in all these ideas, Godfrey brings the question of technology and ‘progress’, if we can use that word… in a way, the ‘Qatsi’ trilogy is about that.

We’re living in a time when our world has been redefined and reinterpreted through science, there’s no question about it. My father grew up before there were passenger aeroplanes. I grew up at a time before there were rockets going to the moon. Our children are growing up in times where we don’t know where it’s going to go to, but the way the world has been transformed through science is something which both inspires us and astonishes us, and it concerns us.

Godfrey’s work, and the ‘Qatsi’ trilogy in particular is about the transformation of society and particularly the contemporary agency, which is technology.

Demetrius Romeo: How did your collaboration with Godfrey come about?

PHILIP GLASS: Godfrey came to New York in, maybe, ’78, and he called me up and he said to me, “I’m a filmmaker, I’m doing a film and I would like you to do the score,” and I said to him, “thank you for the call, but I don’t write film scores; I don’t think that there’s anything I can do to help you”. It’s a big joke now – I’ve done twenty or thirty film scores since then. And Godfrey said, “Well, I would like you to look at the work,” and I said, “Well, if I have time”. I wasn’t particularly interested. A mutual friend called me and said, “Look, this guy’s from Santa Fe and he’s gonna stay here at my house until you look at his film, so would you please look at his film so that he can go home?”

He showed me the first thirty or forty minutes of the film and I was very impressed with it. After a little conversation, I said, “I haven’t done this before, but you find the money to make the recordings and we’ll do it”. And that’s actually what happened. We began doing it piece-by-piece. It took us three years to finish it because there was no money. He would finish a reel – a reel of film is about twelve minutes long – and take it out and show it and raise money and through this effort of his we were able to put together the finances and finish the film for not very much money at the time.

Francis Ford Coppola saw it. It was only Francis and myself and Godfrey in this one screening room. I was in the front. I expected him to walk out. I was waiting for the sound of footsteps receding down the hall and then the door shutting – it never happened. At the end of the film he shook hands with us and said, “thank you”, and Godfrey and I had no idea what had happened, but he called Godfrey the next day and said, “What can I do for you? I’d like to help.” And Godfrey said, “Can you attach your name to the film?” and he said, “Yes, I will.” And now, if you look at that film, it’ll say, “Presented by Francis Ford Coppola”. Well, that’s actually all he did. But it was enough. It was enough to get the people at the New York Film Festival to look at the film. They put it into Radio City Music Hall, which is a five thousand-seat theatre. Five thousand people who had no idea who Godfrey was and not much idea who I was at that time went to see the film and that was the beginning of a kind of ‘grass-roots’ audience. They called it a ‘cult’ audience, but at this point, it’s beyond that. We began to play the music live in 1983, a few years later. I’ve played it live probably two hundred times.

Soundbite: ‘Religion’ from the Philip Glass soundtrack album Naqoyqatsi.

Demetrius Romeo: One of the things that Koyaanisqatsi did was, it did open the door on a new genre of film.

PHILIP GLASS: That’s right.

Demetrius Romeo: And now Naqoyqatsi is quite different to the first two because it uses a lot of animation.

PHILIP GLASS: Not animation, computer-generated images.

Demetrius Romeo: Aaaah.

PHILIP GLASS: I would say that eighty percent of it is, if not photographed, some of it may be photographed, but a lot of it is created on an Avant computer. There is photography there, but a lot of that photography has been altered a lot. So the visual content is quite different, yet the theme remains the same in the sense that it’s the completion of Godfrey’s ideas. And here’s the other thing that’s important to note: over twenty-five years, his ideas have changed. The world has changed. The world is a very different place now than it was twenty-five years ago. At the beginning, people thought Godfrey was very anti-technology; he never was anti-technology, he was concerned about the impact of technology on traditional ways of living. That idea has become even more incisive. His view of technology now is that it’s a culture that has become separated from human beings to the degree where we no longer can predict what the results of a technological development will be. A good example is the Internet. The Internet was developed by the US Army as an alternative telephone system. It’s now changed virtually every facet of life on this planet. So what Godfrey sees in that is that technology is a culture which has a kind of an independence which develops in its own way, whether we need it or not.

Demetrius Romeo: How does that reflect on your music for the third film? I notice that it’s more acoustic, but there still are a lot of themes that you began in the first film that are…

PHILIP GLASS: Well, that’s true, but when we began working on the third film, when I saw how the Avant machine worked, basically, I became aware that it would be a much different kind of image than we had on the first two films and I was concerned that it would be very distant from the audience. So I decided that, rather than going with a high-tech ensemble, which I did with Koyaanisqatsi, I should go with something very acoustic. Beyond that, I decided furthermore to use an instrument that would be like a human voice, and I picked the cello.

Soundbite: ‘Old World’ from the Philip Glass soundtrack album Naqoyqatsi.

PHILIP GLASS: What I wanted to do was to maintain a kind of passageway between the human heart and these images. I wanted some connection to be there. I was afraid that the film, if it were as cool in the music as it was in the image, for example, if I did a totally electronic score, it would become un-viewable; that we would simply walk away from it. And so, in a way, the music becomes not an interpretive of the film, but a counter-balance to the film. It functions somewhat differently.

Demetrius Romeo: Now, when you’re performing live with the film screening, you have a different relationship with the audience that you wouldn’t necessarily have if they were watching the film with a pre-recorded score. What difference does that bring to the music?

PHILIP GLASS: The most critical difference and an essential difference, and one that we should notice, is when we’re playing, we’re playing in real time. We are like performers in the same way that people who are in sports are performers, or in the way that we are performers right now: this is being recorded and will be broadcast later. Film is pre-recorded. You can play a film a hundred times and it will be the same. You might lose a few frames, but it can’t be reinterpreted. So the fact and act of interpretation is not present in the performance of a film. With the performance of the music, the act of interpretation is there. In other words, the exact outcome of the music is never completely known. This is a fact of music that we know.

When you play live music in front of a film, the film borrows from the music that capacity to experience it as live. Our receptivity, our ability to empathise with the film is tremendously enhanced by that. I believe that when we are in the presence of interpreted music, we are watching the creative process as it happens. It is a very special moment. It’s something that, while scientists are looking deep into space, looking for the moment of creation – how can we do that in our ordinary lives? I think we do it when we look at sports, when we look at music, when we look at dance. It’s a moment when we can participate in that moment of creation. It’s a powerful, powerful moment. So powerful, in fact, that I think we never need worry about technology replacing human beings. As long as there is someone who will stand up and play violin, or sit down and play piano there will be people who will come and watch that person do it.

Demetrius Romeo: Because you’re re-creating, in the moment, every time you perform it live with a new audience, do you ever discover new aspects to what you’ve written?

PHILIP GLASS: Oh! In fact, when I’m playing myself, I’ll be playing a piece that I’ve played maybe dozens and dozens of times, and the tempo has changed, I’m pedaling it differently and I’ll think, “Oh, it can go this way, too.” All the decisions I thought I had made are gone: the volume, the tempo, the phrasing… I’m now interpreting the piece. It doesn’t happen every time. It takes a tremendous amount of concentration and absorption of my activity, being in that moment, to do that. But it’s a very exciting thing to happen. It’s exciting because somehow the pieces come alive again. That, which happens to me by myself, can also happen with an ensemble.

With the film, we’re connected to the film. We can’t really change the tempo. But there are many other things that can be changed. The exact timing – Michael Riesman is the conductor – will be a little bit different every night, and it has partly to do with his response to the film. There should be beginnings and ending that have to begin and end in the same places, but there are large sections of the music where the music and the image float together; where they’re not really dancing very closely, but dancing a little further apart. And when they’re dancing a little further apart, the music and the image become free of each other, and yet they’re connected. It’s quite beautiful to be involved in that.

Soundbite: ‘Definition’, from the Philip Glass soundtrack album Naqoyqatsi


… Naqoyqatsi, naqoyqatsi…


Absolute Commitment: Lano & Woodley Revel in the Build-Up

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Lano & Woodley must be on tour somewhere. The interview I did with them for their show Bruiser is getting heaps of googled hits at the moment. So I thought I should locate this article and post it. It’s long and indulgent, and first appeared in 1997 in issue four of my ill-fated and short-lived comedy zine, Stand & Deliver! (hmm, that title has a nice kind of ring to it, doesn’t it!). I’m not surprised by my seriousness in approaching the comedy, only that I sustained it throughout out the article. Furthermore, despite Colin making it plain and obvious by saying so, I never realised back then how much Lano & Woodley borrow and follow on from Laurel & Hardy: naive, innocent, child-like two-man slapstick. This is even more evident in a show like Bruiser, that sees the pair taking turns at playing each other’s girlfriend, as well as each other. The other great characteristic they share with Laurel & Hardy – apart from the fact that there are times when you feel they could afford to originate more material instead of forever drawing from their earlier work – is that they are hilarious.

Before I quit banging on, I must add that the caricature is the work of Nick O’Sullivan.


“That’s the first time anybody has referred to our work as ‘a body of work’,” announces Colin. He is extremely chuffed, but also slightly stunned – more at the concept of actually having an oeuvre than at the prospect of having it analysed. The Adventures of Lano & Woodley is about to begin on ABC as the Monday night comedy, a new series written and starring Colin ‘Lano’ Lane and Frank ‘Woodley’ Wood. I feel that the series builds upon themes and issues initiated by their book Housemeeting (1996). It demonstrates characteristics that are apparent throughout their work. “That’s good,” Frank says, beaming his approval.

Many commentators see Lano & Woodley as the classic slapstick duo – straight man and funny man, necessarily in that order. While their work obviously contains slapstick, the pair are more like two kids. Lano is the relatively straightforward one, an older, more practical, bullying leader to Woodley’s forgetful, dependent daydreamer. But both Lano and Woodley are the funny man, and they’re with me on this one:

“If you’re gonna latch onto someone, the clown and the straight man is the simplest way to look at it,” observes Frank. “We’ve never thought of it that way. We’ve always thought of it less like Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, and more like Laurel & Hardy, where there’s a status relationship, definitely, but they’re both funny. They’re both telling jokes.” The popular perception of Lano & Woodley arises because Col is the “‘straight’-looking” one but, according to Frank, that’s part of the duo’s ‘thing’.

As straight as Colin may appear to be, there are moments when a deranged alter ego bleeds through. When he laughs, for example, his amusement topples over into mania, his bottom jaw threatening to drop off its hinge at any moment prior to his explosion, as if he is part of an animated Terry Gilliam segue another sketch. I think it looks beautiful.

“Not to me it doesn’t, not when I look back,” Colin says. “I just find it frightening. Disturbing.”

Childlike characters have existed in the duo’s work as far back as when they were still a trio, with Scott Casley, known as The Found Objects. A favourite skit involved kids daring each other to jump into a body of water from an impressive height.

“I’ll go if you go,” was Lano’s promise.

“You’d better go, Colin,” Frank would warn. “If you don’t go…”

On the count of three, Frank would hurl himself into the ‘river’ below, only to find that Lano had piked. “Colin, you didn’t go!”

Memories and past experiences continue to be utilised in the duo’s new work. See in Housemeeting, for example, the urban myths that comprise Frank’s hard-luck stories regarding his sister. They include the burst pimple that disgorges baby spiders and the roll of film developed long after the robbery revealing the need for a new toothbrush – the sort of stories that, when heard as a kid, conjure vivid images that pretty much stay with you. Cleverly, Frank dismisses his sister’s apparently fabricated stories by ascribing her need to lie to the trauma she suffered as a teenager when a psychopath “jumped on the top of her car and banged a severed head on her roof”. “Those urban myths are definitely things that are kicking around in your head,” Frank agrees. The ‘psychopath’ urban myth also turns up in an episode of The Adventures of Lano & Woodley entitled ‘Tonight You Die’.

In the same episode, Lano and Woodley rent a scary video. While they are watching it, someone phones their house and announces, “Tonight, you die!”

“The prank call actually happened to a friend of mine,” Frank explains. “He got out the video Friday 13th and watched it. Just when the film finished, the phone rang. He picked it up and someone said, ‘tonight, you die!’ They never found out who it was.”

There are other items in Housemeeting that you will recognise, experiences that you never thought anyone else would share. One section has Frank and Colin locked in the bathroom. Frank, staring at the floor, notices shapes and figures in the lino:


He saw a flying goose and an old woman’s face. He saw a bison and a screwdriver. There was a blob that, with a bit of imagination, looked like the drummer from Culture Club.

I tell the pair that there is an old man in snow goggles on my bathroom floor.

“Yeah,” Lano agrees, “you’re just having showers for years and years and years, and you keep on looking at the same bit of floor saying, ‘That, that is a goose. That is a goose!’”

Woodley concurs: “The more you look at it, the more it looks like a goose.” He thinks for a moment. “No-one’s ever pointed that bit out from the book, have they Col?”

“No,” Colin admits. “In fact, I don’t even know what he’s talking about.”


My immediate misgiving, approaching The Adventures of Lano & Woodley, is the premise of the show: two out-of-work bachelors sharing a flat, engaging in the typical plotlines. Squabbling and desperate owing to a dearth of nookie, the holiday that goes awry, trouble with the neighbours, even the ‘Halloween night’ story, all correspond to episodes of Bottom. Is it merely coincidental that Lano and Woodley managed to acquire Bob Spiers – director of Bottom – to direct the first two episodes?

As it turns out, the production company Working Title declared an expression of interest in Lano & Woodley after they took out the ‘Perrier Award’ at the 1994 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Past successes like Four Weddings And A Funeral enabled Working Title to hire the best talent available. Woodley admits that he had no idea who Bob Spiers was at first, but his and Colin’s jaws “just hit the floor” when past credits like of Fawlty Towers, A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Absolutely Fabulous were listed on the man’s CV.

My misgivings are ill founded; since Lano and Woodley are who they are, familiar themes have been given suitably surreal twists. Like in the first episode, in which Col’s imaginary girlfriend ‘Jenny Window’ dumps him for Frank. (Is the similarity of Jenny’s surname to that of George Glass, Jan Brady’s imaginary boyfriend from an episode of The Brady Bunch, another early memory that has informed Lano and Woodley’s work?)

Lano and Woodley aren’t exactly strangers to television, frequently appearing on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. There have been other serious offers prior to Working Title’s approach for this new sitcom. “We could have made TV in Australia years ago,” Colin says, “but they would have wanted to make it at Australian levels of funding and quantity of shows. Like, twenty-six episodes with a budget of twenty bucks an episode. Whereas, if we were going to make a series, we wanted to make it properly.”

Possibly there was something to prove, since earlier television appearances have been relatively low-key. “We were on Big Gig maybe ten times,” says Frank, “but only about twelve people ever saw us.” Usually there was a State of Origin footy match, or Bangkok Hilton on another channel at the same time. So now Lano and Woodley have a series. And they’ve made it properly.

Actor/writer/talker Warren Coleman served as ‘director’s observer’ on The Adventures of Lano & Woodley and insists that Colin Lane and Frank Woodley, as executive producers, were “consulted on all major decisions, and things pretty much happened the way they wanted them to.” This is evident right down to the theme song, which they themselves wrote. Their friend Mal Webb, from the band the Oxo Cubans, arranged the song.

“Rather than finding someone who’d done a lot of TV and film stuff who was sitting at their synth in a little home studio, churning it out,” Frank explains, the decision was made to find someone “who is actually a brilliant multi-instrumentalist.”

A further delightful twist to the music, and a testament to Webb’s talent, is the closing theme: each episode ends with a different version of the opening theme song. Apart from the reggae version that ends the first show, each re-arrangement is of a musical genre somehow significant to the episode. Episode 2, for example, closes with a hard rock version of the song, tying in with the leather-bound punks that feature in the story.


There is a striking physicality to Lano and Woodley’s work, apparent in Woodley’s ‘wobbly’ tantrums and Lano’s grotesque laugh and self-assured swagger. The common slapstick fare of pratfalls and summersaults, resulting in ‘hurties’, are present and accounted for. It is almost surprising how entertaining all of this is, although Colin is again taken aback when I voice these sentiments.

“Have you had that experience in the past, finding slapstick not funny?” he asks.

The answer is yes. Nowadays slapstick is a dated comedic subgenre that seems to related more to the old, bald man getting his forehead slapped repeatedly amidst scantily clad women on The Benny Hill Show. Or B-grade black and white (or badly colourised) 1930s films that used to be broadcast on Saturday afternoons (always interspersed with that advertisement for Bex which sounded as though it was being spoken by Don Adams!) until about the mid-80s. Seeing such ‘comedy’ now always forces you to wonder how you could ever have found it funny in the first place. And yet, if Frank’s little hat conjures up vaguely remembered images of an old series entitled Mack and Myer for Hire, they are remembered fondly. The premise of Mack and Myer – two bachelors sharing an apartment, failing at every job they attempt – is again familiar, for that is the premise of Lano & Woodley. Each episodes opens with a sacking from another job.

Lano and Woodley have no idea who or what Mack and Myer are, but Colin comes out in defence of slapstick. He blames any of its failings on poor practitioners.

“There’s unfunny slapstick, there’s funny slapstick, there’s ill-conceived slapstick,” he says. “Because our whole show is based on the interaction of these two characters, it should really mean that whatever they do, if it’s in character and if it supports the whole concept of their relationship, it should be funny. So it shouldn’t really matter what we do or what sort of slapstick we use. If I hit Frank over the head or if he hits me after I’ve been niggling him for ten minutes, it’s going to be funny.”

Woodley has his own theory:

“I’ve got a suspicion that one of the differences between good slapstick and bad slapstick is the bit that come before it. If you watch Maxwell Smart or Clouseau, they put absolute commitment into the bit that comes before it. They don’t rush into the ‘getting hit on the head with the blunt instrument’ stage. They really revel in the build up.”

He illustrates his theory with an example from Peter Sellers:

“There’s a bit where Inspector Clouseau’s been put back on the beat – it was in Pink Panther XII or something – and he’s strolling down the street with his baton. He sees this spunky girl coming the other way and he very smoothly looks at her, gestures a little hello, and knocks himself in the eye with the baton. That’s the joke that a bad slapstick comedian might have done badly, but there’s something about how smooth he was, how much time he took before he hit himself in the eye. Good slapstick has something to do with the characters and not rushing it.”

Land and Woodley agree that it is ultimately the context in which the particular shtick appears that ells you whether it is funny or not. Is it rushed? Is the build-up plausible enough to lull you into a suitable willful suspension of disbelief? Because sometimes, even if you see the punch line coming, if it is still delivered correctly, if the lead and the feed lines create enough tension and expectation, the release that the punch line offers can still be a corker. In fact, it shouldn’t really matter if you can see the gag coming. It never used to, anyway: the genre takes its name from a device used in performances of bawdy French farce some centuries ago: to indicate to the audience the appearance of hilarity, a stagehand made a loud sound by striking a stick. It was the ‘slap stick’, providing the aural cues much as the sound-effects team matches the ‘boing’ (and the ‘crunch’ and the ‘slap’) sounds to Australia’s Funniest Home Video clips.

The pair cannot explain adequately how they hit upon slapstick as their mode of performance.

“It’s really hard for us to actually give you a concise answer about how it evolved,” says Lano. “It was just really lucky. I was at drama teacher’s college and Frank was selling sandwiches in the city to offices, and a friend recommended that I go along to this theatre called St Martin’s in Melbourne.”

It was at St Martin’s that Colin Lane met Scott Casley, and in no time, Colin, Frank and Scott were playing Theatresports and developing their own brand of comedy.

“We never ever sat down and had a conceptual discussion about what sort of comedy we would do. We just used to write down the stuff that would make each other laugh.”

Hailing from the same basic socio-economic demographic, each had a sense of history and humour similar enough to enable them to gel together easily.

“There was never any conscious planning of ‘you be the low status guy, I’ll be the high status guy and Scott will be the father figure’,” Colin explains. He confides that, even though it’s embarrassing to admit, (“maybe more of less for you, I don’t know,” he adds, looking at Woodley), the characters these men play are exaggerations based on their real characters. “I’m kind of a little bit egotistical and I fall over that every so often. Frank is a bit naïve about how the world operates, but in an endearing way. There was no conscious decision, but it evolved.”

Frank adds his firm belief that everyone has “a natural way of showing off or performing,” and these characters are obviously theirs. If someone wants to try to be funny there’s a “particular way that comes naturally” to the individual.


Humour definitely comes naturally to Lano and Woodley. One of my favourite performances took place on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. The routine involved squirting ‘juice’ from a hollowed ‘orange’. It was unfortunate that someone forgot to fill the orange before the show. But the improvising that took place trying to cope with the empty orange was so much fun that it looked almost as though that was how they had rehearsed it. Even now, I’m not sure whether I saw a mistake being coped with so well that it looked rehearsed, or a gag rehearsed so well that it looked like a genuine stuff-up.

Colin, however, will have no undue praise. “It was all just truthful panic,” he explains. There was no great wit or skill there as far as I could see. It was just honesty.”

Frank wants to try to explain to me that their ability to cope arises from their experience. But when he explains that they’ve “actually been working together for ten years”, Lano interjects:

“Help me! Help me!”

A courteous pause for laughter, and then Frank continues: “you’ve got that level of trust. A friend of mine once said, ‘when you guys do your act, it’s pretty good, but when you fuck up your act, it’s fantastic.”

Lano thinks that this is the basis for their success. People “are on the edge of their seats because we’re so on the edge of failing.”

According to Woodley, they’re “not really quite good” at what they do, and Lano agrees:

“We’re not quite good enough but we just manage to carry it off.”

I’d like to think this is false modesty, but once again, I can’t tell whether this is how they really rehearsed it and it’s all an act, or if they mean it. A motto in some comedy circles is Ars est celare artem: “The art is to conceal the art.” Lano and Woodley seem to do so with expertise.

Woodley confesses that about two thirds of their live show is rehearsed, and then most of what’s left may look like impro, but is mostly “stuff we’ve done before. We draw on ten years of material and it feels like impro to the audience.” There is also a smidgen of genuine, bona fide improvisation. But “when you’re swapping between new material, old material and improvised material all the time, the audience doesn’t know when you’re actually improvising, or when you’re doing material that you’ve rehearsed.”

Colin’s best example of quick thinking – real improvisation saving a routine gone horribly wrong – is of an Adelaide Festival Show from a couple of years back. “I lost my voice completely in the first song and I was shitting myself because it was the opening night. Frank stood behind me and sang while I moved my mouth and people thought it was brilliant. They thought it was ‘genius’.” Colin won’t agree, but several thousand Lano and Woodley fans can’t be wrong: it was genius.

Still, Frank has another example that balances the accident ‘genius’: a sketch so brilliant that when performed correctly looks as though it’s gone wrong. It involves Frank atop a wardrobe with Colin trying to get him down by shaking it (a routine revived for the television series).

“Col pushes me and I say, ‘I wasn’t actually expecting that, that’s not how we did it in the rehearsal’. We do that every time, and I make it look like I wasn’t expecting it.”

Naturally, it looks as though Frank is coming out of character and halting the routine to berate Colin. But Frank telling Colin that that wasn’t how they rehearsed it, is exactly how they rehearsed it.

“The audience is never really sure,” Frank says. “Someone said to a friend of mine, ‘they stuffed up on Hey Hey the other day; Colin nearly knocked Frank off the wardrobe. My friend replied, ‘no, they do that every time.’ ‘No,’ the person insisted, ‘not in that way; this was real…’.”

When Woodley sums up with “We’re fluctuating between genuine and rehearsed fuck-ups…”, Lano becomes a little paranoid.

“You didn’t do it on purpose, did you?” he asks of the empty orange incident.

“No, not at all…” replies Woodley. “I couldn’t believe it when I squeezed it and nothing came out.”

Tom Jones was also guesting on Hey Hey that night, and Frank confides that “a very surreal moment was when I was walking backstage and Tom Jones was coming the other way, and I said to him, ‘If you ever do an act with an orange, make sure you fill it up, Tom’.” And that certainly wasn’t how he’d rehearsed it!


Warren Coleman’s Observations on The Adventures of Lano & Woodley

I was the director’s observer on The Adventures of Lano & Woodley, which meant I got to watch the director work. You don’t have any responsibility, and nobody’s really after you for anything, but you get to learn how to do stuff. I’ve been angling for some time to try and get some kind of ‘directing observation’ deal with the ABC because they’re hard to come by. The first thing that came up happened to be Lano & Woodley and it happened to be when Bob Spiers was coming out. So it was kind of ideal for me, because I finally got to see the great man at work, so to speak.

Bob Spiers is an interesting man. Very matter-of-fact and unpretentious. He rarely talked to Lano and Woodley about why he thought a joke was or wasn’t working; he always knew where the gag was coming from and was a very hands-on guy. He was very improvisational. He did little things, like put a camera up shooting through the kitchen window, as he often did in Absolutely Fabulous. He built floors on the set. Normally in studios, they build sets directly on the floor, and it feels like a set rather than a real place. But because he did it that way, it meant that they really had a sense of being in a real place. It meant that you could see a full-length show of the actor, because the floor can be included. For some gags, it’s really important.

Colin and Frank were very much involved in the putting together of the show; they were the executive producers. They were involved in it in every respect, right down to the editing of it. They were consulted on all major decisions, and things pretty much happened the way they wanted them to.


Got it covered!


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My buddy Nick O’Sullivan perpetrated this excellent caricature for the cover of FilmInk, which I snapped as a lead sheet on display outside of a newsagent’s in Newtown.

Nick has certainly nailed the Michael Moore caricature as well as that of George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden. However, turning George Dubya and Osama into a composite by making them kiss is excellent. It reminds me of something a friend of mine once said over too many glasses of wine (and as there were too many glasses of wine, I will never remember the series of tangential leaps that could make a reminiscence such as the one that is to follow fit into a conversational context). She said that when she was a little girl, she used to insist on making her cat and dog ‘kiss’ by forcibly bringing their muzzles together. Her pets didn’t particularly like this, but she’d make ’em do it anyway. When she told me about it, she even followed through with a ‘didn’t you used to do that with your pets?’

No. Never.

But I like the fact that Moore seems to be forcing the same indignity upon a fairly deserving pair of performing monkeys.

I was reminded of this caricature over the weekend when I awoke to the news report that some terrorist blogger had named Australian soil as an imminent venue for his or her next religious hoedown.

Could this be an agent provocateur giving our Minister for Foreign Affairs and (Free) Trade, the Right Hon. Alexander Downer, an opportunity to actually publicly intercept a terrorist warning and act upon it openly, so that he can actually look as though he is doing his job before an election?

Or has Paul McCartney foolishly booked himself into another Australian tour that he’s going to want to pull out of because of lack of ticket sales, and then realised that, unless Ringo seriously gets back onto the sauce, there will be no memorial to a former colleague that he will have to use valuable Australian tour schedule time to rehearse in?

Neither, most likely.

I think it’s a reaction to Nick’s great artwork.

I’m just not sure if it’s Bush taking offence, Bin Laden taking offence, or Moore taking the opportunity to create some material for his next flick, given that he’s such a heavy-handed ‘documenter’ of events.


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First Impressions…

My friend Nos was on the phone doing his David Bowie impression. Having heard Mr Bowie speak for the duration of a press conference, come away with a recording of it, listened to it several times and then re-edited chunks of it for broadcast, I can say that Nos’s impression is pretty spot-on. In fact I did say it. Nos explained that he’d essentially ‘cracked’ the impression by imitating the way Phil Cornwell does David Bowie on Stella Street. It’s interesting, he noted, how it’s often easier to do an impression of someone when you’ve heard someone else’s impression of that person.

Opera director and occasional brain surgeon Dr Jonathan Miller, pointed out some time after helping launch the 60s satire boom with Beyond the Fringe that no one in Britain ever really did an Indian accent, but rather did their impression of Peter Sellers doing an Indian accent. This was probably mostly true, at least until the dawn of Goodness Gracious Me.

In a similar way, Nos says, he sometimes finds it helpful to see how someone else has caricatured a person, in order to work out how he’ll go about drawing a caricature. It would seem that the process is about working out what particular features communicate the essential nature of the face you’re trying to draw or the voice you’re trying to imitate. Sometimes it’s easier once you’ve seen what features someone else has latched onto – then doing it your way.

I often find myself doing the same thing as a writer, especially when I have to review a film or an album that I don’t particularly care about, and I haven’t yet worked out what exactly I think about it, or why. It helps to read what someone else has thought – what bits of the film or the music stood out for them. Usually I disagree with them, either on what they’ve latched onto, or what they’ve concluded from it, which is a good thing. When you agree, it’s much easier to paraphrase, rather than to construct your own set of arguments and conclusions.

Sadly, rather than constructing their own set of arguments and conclusions, or even paraphrasing, some people find it easier still just to change the byline at the top of the article, their only original input being their own name. What is most annoying, however, is that this level of plagiarism is nowadays an accepted mode of journalism. Particularly in a country like Australia, that has, per capita, more print media than any other nation, readers don’t appear so keen on reading anything original or in-depth; it just has to cover the bases. Journalists, therefore, don’t have to be particularly original or in-depth – they just need to submit something by deadline that covers the bases. Which is why you can browse through the arts pages of even the respected news dailies, and find that an underpaid staff writer has re-jigged the same press releases with only slightly more flair than the barely paid scribes at the free entertainment weeklies.

It’s probably worth noting that both Phil Cornwell and Nos ‘do’ Bowie by half singing everything in a heavily vibrato’d cockney tenor. That’s not how Bowie speaks, of course, but it’s quite often the way he sings. So if Bowie rings you and starts ‘singing’ his side of the conversation, rather than merely speaking it in a cockney accent, it’s probably Phil Cornwell or Nos on the phone and not the Dame himself.




It Was Twenty Years Ago Next Year


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British music mag Mojo has started re-issuing classic books about rock, and I picked up their edition of The Longest Cocktail Party by Richard di Lello. Before going on to be a screenwriter of such shows as Midnight Caller and the film Colours, Richard di Lello was the assistant to Derek Taylor, the Press Officer of Apple Records. When Apple went bust, di Lello decided to write The Longest Cocktail Party as the first ‘insider’s story’ of the end of the Beatles.

I’d actually read the book before, having picked up a cheap paperback copy for a buck in Woolies when I was a kid. I was in Year 8 when I read it. Reading it again, I realised that so many of the shorthand clichés and descriptions in rock journalese that I have been using throughout my life are things I’d pilfered from this book, in particular the off-the-cuff glib witticisms of Derek Taylor. When John Lennon started turning weird, for example, the press was utterly mystified by the behaviour of the formerly loveable moptop. Now he was gallivanting around with an eccentric Asian artist and appearing naked on album covers. Taylor staved off initial press enquiries into Lennon’s behaviour thus: “He was what he was then, he is what he is now, and he will be what he will be when the time comes for him to be whatever it is he’s going to be.”

I remember this quote in particular because I pinched it for an Year 8 English assignment in 1985. We had to devise and market a band, and in this instance, the phrase was uttered by Ricky Clothesmaker ('Ricky' being a diminutive of 'Derek' while a 'clothesmaker' was also known as a 'tailor', of course), who served as publicist to the band Psychedelic Spew.

Created in collaboration with classmates Nick O'Sullivan and Ben Reynolds, Psychedelic Spew were significant for riding the crest of that wave of late 60s ‘Summer of Love’ nostalgia from way out into the ocean. If you recall, that wave didn’t really hit until 1987 (when the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was re-released with the ‘It was twenty years ago today’ campaign, and when the Good Weekend, then an A4 glossy, was adorned with a proofsheet of Sgt Pepper cover photo outtakes.) In 1985 the Doors were starting to get big again; the previous year, they’d sold more records than they had during the entire time they were together. And remember, the Doors were the dags of psychedelia, getting into it when, even for West Coast bands in America, the Summer of Love had well and truly turned, thanks to Charlie Manson and his Family, into an horrific winter of discontent. Indeed, even Oliver Stone’s Platoon’, the first of the big ’80s ’Nam cash-ins featuring ‘music from the period’ soundtracks by the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix, was still a couple of years away. So without even trying, Nick, Ben and I tapped into a major marketing bonanza before it had really hit.

 

 

 

Further details of Psychedelic Spew are sketchy, but I remember bandmembers included Fenderbaker Vox and Sapidus Brown. Fenderbaker Vox seemed to derive his moniker from two sources: his first name is a corrupted amalgamation of Fender and Rickenbacker, two popular makes of electric guitar (probably a mistaken attempt to name Fender's ‘stratocaster’), while his surname was inspired by Bono Vox of U2 (a stage name that roughly translates from the Latin as ‘Good Voice’). That ‘Vox’ was also a popular brand of guitar amplifier favoured by the Beatles (the Marshall stacks, that would have made the band audible above the din of screaming fans, must not have been perfected prior to the end of the Beatles’ live tours in 1966) was probably why his first name was an attempt to name a guitar. As for Sapidus Brown, he was the band’s mysterious fourth member. A shady character, his features were always occluded in band photos and performances, thanks to wide-brim hats and judicious use of lighting. The only other factoid I remember about Psychedelic Spew is that their song ‘Living in Scandinavia with David’ was wrongfully banned for the apparent ‘LSD’ reference in its title; it was clearly just a song about life on the road, having toured Scandinavia with David Bowie in the mid-'70s.

Apart from these memories, sparked by a couple of clever turns of phrase in the book, was the sudden recollection that I still had a copy of one of Psychedelic Spew’s singles, in a picture cover: ‘Across the Spewniverse’, with ‘Spewberry Fields Forever’ on the flip side. It was initially issued with a brown paper bag since, as the story goes, the quality of the music tended to lead to regurgitation. I can’t find the original paper bag. But here are some scans of the artwork.