Great Albums: Moondance (1970)

I already knew of Van Morrison, long before he released a solo album. In 1964, I bought a single by the band Them, from Northern Ireland. Van Morrison was the lead singer of that group. The song was their version of the old Blues classic, ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, and the B-side was ‘Gloria’. In 1967, Van Morrison embarked on a solo career, though his first album was hardly noticed. The second, ‘Astral Weeks’, received critical acclaim in 1968, but poor sales at the time. I heard the album and enjoyed some of it, but didn’t buy it then. I was only 16, and immersed in Soul Music as well as an early appreciation of Jazz.

Two years later, ‘Moondance’ was released. This grabbed me immediately, with its fusion of musical genres. It had everything in one package, with a Jazz mood on some songs, as well as a nod to Irish culture, and Rhythm and Blues. There was a horn section too, and more orchestration. Just the title track gave instant indication of the quality to come. As soon as it had finished, I put the needle back, to hear it again.

The next track was just as good, though very different in feel. ‘Crazy Love’ began with plaintive vocals from Van, and gentle guitar. Then the backing vocals drifted in, and I drifted away…

Track four was so good, I played it around half a dozen times on the bounce. It remains my top track on this album, and one of my favourite songs ever from Morrison. A classic distinctive vocal that could never be confused with any other singer; the singalong chorus beautifully harmonised with the backing singers, and some wonderful lyrical construction. If you are not in the mood to dance, this is just the perfect song for listening enjoyment.

The last track on side one had echoes of the Folk-themed ‘Astral Weeks’. But the couple of years devoted to writing new songs really shone through. Gentle guitar, slow build-up, and poetic lyrics delivered ‘Into The Mystic’. The perfect end to the first side.

After spending a great deal of time on the first side, I was reluctant to turn over to side two. But there was no disappointment to come, just more great songs. Five tracks again on that side, including the meaningful ‘Brand New Day’. A song where we can all feel the emotion seeping out of the vinyl.

A relatively short album of just ten tracks, but one that had a great effect on me at the age of 18. I have never tired of listening to it to this day, even though I later bought ‘Astral Weeks’, along with almost every album Van has released since. After an illustrious career that has seen him win countless awards, and even a knighthood for services to music, he continues to perform today, aged 72.

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TV Series Review: The Civil War (1990)

In late 1990, the BBC aired an American documentary series made by brothers Ken and Rick Burns. The subject was The American Civil War (1861-1865), something I had always been interested in. Unlike some dramatised documentary films, Burns took a completely different approach to the production of this ten-hour epic series. There was no reconstruction, no film clips, and no sign of any reenactors. Instead, he used a huge archive of contemporary photographs, diaries written at the time of the war, and the occasional interview with an expert on the subject.

This approach was stunning to watch. As a fine narrator talks over photos that are lingered upon, zoomed into, or simply stare out of the screen at the viewer. The voices of the characters of the time, politicians like Lincoln, or generals Lee, Sherman, and others, are voiced by some of the finest actors of the day. These include Morgan Freeman, Derek Jacobi, Julie Harris, Jason Robards, and Jeremy Irons. When experts are called upon to expand on an incident, or comment on the feelings in the country, only the most informed and experienced are used. Shelby Foote, Ed Bearss, and Barbara Fields, among others. There are also music and songs, perfectly in keeping with the mood of the programme.

The series takes no sides, and makes few judgments, simply presenting the facts as seen by people at the time, on both sides. It examines every aspect of the war, from the numerous significant battles, to the bitter border wars, as well as the impact on the many civilians caught up in the war in both parts of the country. Listening to excerpts from the diaries being read, whilst watching the photographs come and go on the screen was completely hypnotic, and something groundbreaking in television back then.

I was completely hooked on this series, and as soon as I could, I bought the nine-part box set on VHS, then watched it all over again. Later, I was given the DVD box set as a gift, something I still treasure to this day. If you are interested in history, great documentary film-making, or even the history of television, then this is something you must try to see. Don’t be put off by thinking you have no interest in that war, as this series will send you back into the period like nothing else you have ever seen.

Retro Review: Taras Bulba (1962)

I had never read the novel, but only 10 years old, I went to the cinema with my parents to watch the epic film based on the book. I was obviously very young. I wanted action, and got it. I wanted stars, and got them. I wanted a big screen cinema-experience epic, and got that too.

Yul Brynner, Tony Curtis, Christine Kaufmann, (She later married Curtis) Sam Wanamaker. They all lined up for this huge film from director J. Lee Thompson. When it hit the London cinemas, I was more than ready for this historical epic looking at the conflict between the Don Cossacks and their Polish masters, during the 16th century. I couldn’t have cared less if it was historically accurate. It had sieges, hundreds of extras, combat, and cavalry. Even before I got to the cinema, I was already over-excited at the prospect. For me at the time the plot was secondary to the action, and there was plenty of that.

In the late 1500s, the Turks were threatening Europe; and as far as this book and film was concerned, the empire of mighty Poland, one of the biggest players on the European stage at the time. Poland had the benefit of an alliance with the Russian Cossacks; a fierce and warlike group of men who owed allegiance to their clan leaders, as well as to Poland. But the Cossacks were also devout Christians, and feared the expansion of the Muslim Turks. So, they were happy to fight as mercenaries for the Polish empire, and answered the call to defeat the Turkish invasion.

Once they had helped the Poles defeat the Turkish army, they were betrayed. Fired upon by their Polish allies, who feared the power of the Cossacks, the tribes were scattered back to their traditional nomadic lifestyle. Living under Polish rule, Taras Bulba (Yul Brynner) decides to send his two sons to be educated by the Poles in Kiev. They are cruelly treated there, but one of them, Andriy, (Tony Curtis) falls in love with the local Polish Princess. (Kaufmann)

Meanwhile, the Poles call the Cossack army to assemble at Dubno. But Taras suspects them, and besieges the city instead. Inside, Andriy is besotted by his love for the Princess, and agrees to betray his father, by leading the Polish Army in an assault out of the city, against his fellow Cossacks.

With great set-piece battles, authentic locations, and serious performances from the cast, (though Curtis looks like a 1960s pop star) this is an old-school epic of the highest order. Brynner is just right as Taras, Sam Wanamaker is great in a supporting role, and the battles are well staged, with lots of extras. This was 1960s big-screen cinema at its best. Though it will now be showing its age, it is still stirring stuff, and worth your time for a slice of little-known history.

Here’s a great old-fashioned trailer.

Retro Review: Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)

I have long believed in the possibility of life in other places in our vast universe. And at one time, I was an avid reader of books written by people who claimed to have been abducted and returned. So when I heard about a new science fiction film with this theme, a big-budget production conceived and directed by Stephen Spielberg, I was ready to watch it as soon as it hit the cinemas. The cast included such flavour of the month names as Richard Dreyfuss and Terri Garr, as well as an acting appearance by the famous French film-maker, Francois Truffaut.

The scene is set very nicely. French scientist Lacombe (Truffaut) makes some startling discoveries. A missing squadron of WW2 planes, parked neatly in a desert location in America. A lost and intact cargo ship in the middle of the Gobi Desert, and witnesses describing how they saw a near miss between civil airliners and a UFO. We know this is going to be good, straight off.

The action cuts to Roy, (Dreyfuss) and his wife Ronnie. (Garr) Roy works as a lineman for the electric company, and as he is investigating a power cut one night, a UFO flies over his truck, with the light from the craft leaving slight burns on one side of his face. Roy becomes obsessed with UFO sightings, and begins to build a huge model in his house, using dirt from the garden. As he builds, it takes the shape of a flat-topped mountain.
In another home we see Jillian (Melinda Dillon) and her young son. His toys activate themselves after a burst of light outside the house, and Jillian also begins to have visions of a flat-topped mountain.

With all the UFO activity being reported, Lacombe arrives in the US to investigate. Research identifies a mountain in Wyoming, the Devil’s Tower, as the flat-topped mountain seen in the visions, and the government seals off the area, issuing false reports of a toxic gas spill. Roy has become consumed by his obsession with the UFO sightings and building his replica of the mountain. This ruins his marriage, and Ronnie leaves, taking the children. Despite the government reports, both Jillian and Roy decide to make their separate ways to the site, unable to resist the overwhelming urge to see the UFO they believe to be there. Meanwhile, Lacombe has set up a means to communicate with the aliens, using musical notes as language.

Hundreds of people are converging on the site, and most are caught by the Army, and denied access. Eventually, Jillian and Roy meet each other, and contrive to sneak into the location. Hiding from the authorities, they watch Lacombe begin to communicate with his musical device.

What happens next is true cinema. Something that has to be seen on a big screen, in the dark, to be best-appreciated. Perhaps the best-realised spaceship ever seen on screen appears, appearing to dwarf the mountain by its immense size. I was 25 years old, and actually said “Wow” in a cinema, that’s how impressive it was. After increased musical communication that begins to sound like an electronic concerto, the ship lands, and opens a huge hatch. Out from the ship come men dressed as WW2 pilots, looking dazed and confused. Schoolgirls in uniform appear too, (referencing ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’) and more and more people emerge dazed into the light.
A team of volunteers has been assembled, ready to enter the spaceship with the friendly aliens to embark on a voyage of discovery. After being found at the site and interviewed by Lacombe and his team, Roy decides to go along too.

I liked this film so much, that the following week, when I had a friend visiting from France, I took her to see it. I watched it twice in one week, something I hadn’t done since ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. The special effects are second to none, even now, and the acting from all concerned is just right. For my money, this is still Spielberg’s best film.

Retro Review: The Exorcist (1973)

Forty-five years later, it is perhaps hard to realise just what an effect this film had on cinema-goers in 1973. Quite honestly, there had never really been anything like it. Newspapers carried articles about the film, people were taken ill in cinemas as they watched it, and some ran terrified from their seats. I was 21 years old, and convinced nothing would scare me, so off I went to see it.

William Blatty adapted his own book for the screen, and solid director William Friedkin was in charge. The cast appeared to be first rate too, with Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, and Lee J. Cobb, as well as a young actress I had never heard of, Linda Blair. It seemed to me that all concerned were taking this story of the demonic possession of a young girl very seriously indeed.

We don’t have to wait long for the action to start. Young Regan (Blair) is living with her mother (Burstyn) in Georgetown, USA. One evening, she plays with a Ouija board, and contacts a spirit, who she calls Captain Howdy. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world in Iraq, Catholic Priest and exorcist, Father Merrin, (Von Sydow) has discovered a demonic amulet. Back in America, Regan starts to behave very strangely; swearing, cursing, and urinating on the floor. Her bed shakes violently when she is in it, and strange sounds and voices come from her mouth. Her mother tries to find out what is wrong, and enlists the help of doctors, priests, and psychiatrists, including a Father Karras.

One night, Regan is being looked after by a family friend, Burke. When her mother returns, she finds Burke dead, apparently after falling from a window. The police become involved, with a detective (Cobb) investigating the death. The psychiatrists suggest that an exorcism is tried, and father Karras enlists the help of an expert, who just happens to be Father Merrin. With Regan now having to be confined to her bedroom, the two priests begin their work.

What happens next has become the stuff of legend, as well as parody. Regan speaks with the voice of a demon, projectile vomits green bile, and masturbates with a crucifix. She is able to levitate, and to make objects fly around the room. Her head can turn 360 degrees, and her physical appearance begins to resemble a rotting corpse. The priests discover that the demon is Pazuzu, the same one shown on the amulet discovered by Father Merrin in Iraq. After long struggles with the demon inside Regan, the only solution seems to be to allow Pazuzu to leave her body, and possess someone else. So Father Karras makes this happen, taking the demon from the girl before leaping to his death from the window.

But the viewer is cleverly left wondering if that is the end of the matter.

Make no mistake, this is an incredibly powerful film, seen in the context of its time. I felt a real sense of dread every time anyone mounted the stairs to walk up to Regan’s room, thinking to myself “What now?” each time they entered. For their time, the special effects were startling, and often repulsive too. It was a hard watch, in every way imaginable. The cast took it all very seriously indeed, and young Linda Blair was incredible as the girl possessed by a demon. She was 14 years old at the time she played the 12 year old Regan, and looked younger.

I left the cinema feeling drained by the experience. My girlfriend at the time had been with me in the cinema, but had hardly watched anything apart from the introductory scenes. She was so scared, she had spent the bulk of the film hiding her face under the huge lapels of the jacket I was wearing. (It was 1973!) As we walked to the car, she asked me “Was it as bad as it sounded?” I answered “Worse”.

Great Albums: Otis Blue (1965)

Otis Redding was killed in a plane crash, in 1967. When he died, I was only 15 years old, but I had been a fan of the Soul singer for three years already. He had only recorded six albums up to that point, and I owned them all. My favourite was ‘Otis Blue’, an album I played constantly, though I was only 13 when it came out.

One short track is now often associated with Aretha Franklin. But it was written by Otis, and featured on this album.

Many of the tracks on this record were cover versions of songs written by others. Otis added his own distinctive voice, without changing the feel of any of them. Here he is with Sam Cooke’s ‘Change Gonna Come’. I love this song so much.

There was a nod to British rockers The Rolling Stones too, with a belting version of ‘Satisfaction’.

Recording on the Stax label, Otis toured with many of the other groups and artists associated with Stax. Carla Thomas, Booker T, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, and others. He was also influenced by the Motown sound of course, and one track written by Smokey Robinson gave us this well known ballad.

But one track co-written with Jerry Butler set the bar high for Soul singers, and was the essence of the ‘Blue’ mood that gave this album its title. I really have no idea how many times I have played this over the years.

Otis had already released his version of ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ in 1966, which for a while was seen as his signature song. After his death, ‘Dock Of The Bay’ gave him his first US number one, and became the song that most now associate with him. When I came home from school that day in 1967, and heard the news, I cried genuine tears. I felt we had lost one of the greatest Soul singers, a man who would have undoubtedly gone on to bigger and better things.

Great Albums: Rumours

By 1977, Fleetwood Mac had undergone a complete transformation. Ten years earlier, they had formed as a Blues band, driven by the obsessive Peter Green. Their combination of raw blues and unusual instrumental tracks guaranteed them an early following, and when Christine Perfect joined in 1970, they had a female vocal too. But personality issues within the band led to the departure of Peter Green, and in 1974, Americans Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined the group, as lead guitar and lead vocal, respectively.

This resulted in a complete change of direction. The Blues roots were discarded for a more commercial pop sound, with Nicks’ vocals as the centrepiece of most songs. An album release in 1975 saw them appeal to a totally new market, and a much wider audience, and this was followed in 1977 by ‘Rumours’.

This new album was an immediate success, all over the world. Not only did it take the number one spot in the UK, it also topped the US charts, as well as in Australia and Canada. They may have changed their style, but they had undoubtedly hit upon a winning formula.

The album just didn’t stop selling. Over thirty weeks in the US charts, platinum and gold discs in many countries, it became a recording phenomenon. In the age of vinyl, it seemed as if everyone you ever met had a copy, including me.

It had something that appealed to almost everyone at the time. If you didn’t like one track, you were sure to like the next one. Selling over forty million copies, and becoming one of the biggest-selling records ever, it earned its place in history.

Perhaps the crowing glory of ‘Rumours’, and still played widely today, this track showcased Stevie Nicks’ vocals perfectly, and sums up the appeal of this unique album.

It has since been released on CD of course, later remastered and reissued, in 2013. Still selling in considerable numbers to this day, forty-one years after I bought it.