Retro Review: Vanishing Point (1971)

The same year as the lamentable ‘Straw Dogs’, I went to see this unusual American ‘road film’ at a cinema in East London. There had been a lot of ‘buzz’ about this film, and despite the low budget, and rather C-grade star, (Barry Newman) I had a feeling that it might be worth watching. It was only playing at one cinema by the time I got the chance to go, so I had to drive right across London from my usual South London haunts, to the Art Deco edifice that was the Odeon Cinema, Mile End. I dragged my then girlfriend along too, though I doubted it would interest her.

Barry Newman plays Kowalski, a Vietnam vet, former racing-car driver and police officer; a man drifting in life. He works in a job delivering cars to all parts of the United States, keeping himslef going over long distances by taking numerous ‘uppers’. Late one night, he arrives in Denver, and takes on the delivery of a car all the way to San Francisco, rashly betting that he will make the very long trip by the following afternoon, a day early. The car in question is a powerful Dodge Challenger 440, certainly fast enough for the job in hand. Leaving Denver and heading west, Kowalski embarks on an adventure that will bring him into contact with a disparate mix of individuals on the way.

He soon comes to the notice of the police, who attempt to apprehend him for driving at great speed. Managing to evade them, he becomes the subject of a widespread police manhunt, his progress followed closely by Super Soul, (Cleavon Little) the blind disc-jockey on Kowalski’s favourite radio station, K.O.W. Super Soul monitors the police radio, and begins to urge Kowalski to continue his escape, offering tips and advice live on air. His listeners get in on the act, and soon Kowalski is in danger of becoming a celebrity, with thousands following his progress around the south-western states of America.

Newman plays Kowalski as a man past caring. Disillusioned and bitter, his life seems to have come down to this rather pointless cat and mouse game with the authorities, who become more incensed, as they are unable to catch him. At one stage, he heads into the desert, where he is helped out by an old prospector, played by Dean Jagger. He also picks up some gay male hitch-hikers, runs into trouble from a man driving an e-type, and makes allies with some hippie bikers, who conspire to help him avoid the numerous police road blocks. Meanwhile, racist thugs attack Super Soul’s studio, furious that the man is helping Kowalski. I won’t ruin the ending with a spoiler, but suffice to say it is not what you might have expected.

At the age of 19, I thought it was great. The eclectic soundtrack suited the mood, and Newman was a competent hero of the people, outwitting the forces of law and order. The scenery was amazing, and the driving sections were so exciting, I got home in half the time it took me to get to the cinema, imagining I was at the wheel of that Dodge Challenger. (Many years later, I almost bought one.)
Only decades later did I even begin to think what the film was perhaps trying to say to the audience. Forgotten veterans, a changing country where they had little place. Violent racism still evident, and law enforcement agencies operating not unlike the Keystone Cops. Open homosexuality surfacing, and a misunderstood generation that felt they were living in a country they no longer understood, and which didn’t understand them.

Or maybe it was just a fun and exciting 98-minute car chase? You decide.

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Significant Songs (167)

True

Back to the New Romantic period, and British bands of the 1980s. After the recent post about Wet Wet Wet, I was reminded of that popular bunch of lads, Spandau Ballet. Formed in 1979, with brothers Gary and Martin Kemp, and front-man singer Tony Hadley, they merged electronic pop music with the fashions of the New Romantic movement, and attracted the attention of many young female fans.

On the surface, they were not really my thing at all, but there was one thing that made them appeal to me, and that was the fact that Tony Hadley had a great singing voice, and delivered powerful vocals. Like many before or since, they fell into the category of groups that I was happy to listen to, but didn’t want to watch. Reaching the height of their popularity in the mid 1980s, they received the Brit Award in 1984, and became one of the biggest selling bands of the decade.

The members went their separate ways in the 1990s, falling out after well publicised disputes over royalty payments. Despite a reunion in 2009, they no longer perform together. Although they rose to fame on fashion and pop, two of their biggest hits were power ballads, showing off Hadley’s vocals perfectly. And this is one of them.

Significant Songs (166)

Love Is A Battlefield

You wont see many Rock songs on this blog. I am guessing you might have worked that out by now. Over the years, I never really warmed to the genres of Rock, Heavy Rock, Metal, and most things that involve people shouting very loudly, over the sound of crashing guitars and hammering drums. I have to quickly add that there is nothing wrong with that music, as I know it has a huge worldwide audience. But generally, it’s just not my thing.

There have been few exceptions. Times when I just went with the beat, or enjoyed hearing the song lyrics for a change. Often this happened when a famous band of rockers decided to mellow for a while, as in the Guns and Roses version of ‘Live And Let Die’, or when the driving beat was irresistible, as it was with Golden Earring’s ‘Radar Love’.

Back in 1983, singer and actress Pat Benatar made this record. Perhaps not a true Rock song, at least for die-hard fans or purists. But it was about as Rock as I was going to get at the time.
Pat is the same age as me, and still performing today. This promo video is great!

Significant Songs (165)

Goodnight Girl

In 1987, I heard a catchy song on the radio. It was called ‘Wishing I was Lucky’, with great lead vocals, and an interesting construction. I made some enquiries at my local record shop, and discovered it was by a band with the unusual name of ‘Wet Wet Wet’, from their debut album, ‘Popped in, Souled out’. I bought the album, and really enjoyed the other tracks too. Four of them went on to become hit singles, and the band really took off.

They were from Scotland, and fronted by the impossibly good-looking Marti Pellow, whose combination of great voice and cool style was wowing many women at the time. Fame came rapidly here in Britain, and with that followed two more album releases, in 1988, and 1989. The big ballad I am featuring today is from the fourth album, ‘High On The Happy Side, which came out in 1992. Two years later, their cover of the 1967 Troggs hit, ‘Love Is All Around’ was featured in the film ‘Four Weddings And A Funeral’ leading to it becoming one of the biggest-selling records of the decade.

By the late 1990s, success and adoration had taken its toll; Pellow was addicted to drugs, and also an alcoholic. As a result, the band split in 1999, with Marti later releasing a solo record, in 2001. Despite attempts to reform the original group, they never again got back to the dizzy heights they once enjoyed, and Marti Pellow is once more a (not very successful) solo artist. This was their heyday though, and it looks and sounds it too. I have also added ‘Wishing I Was Lucky’, so you can see what grabbed my attention in the first place.

Thinking About Something on a Friday

My Dad, and Toilet Paper

Just after I got up today, I noticed that the toilet roll needed to be changed. As I was inserting a new one onto the holder, I thought of my Dad. That memory was sharp, and immediate, giving some indication of how the effects of something he used to do many years ago still resonate in my head, more than thirty years after his death.

My first experience of toilet paper wasn’t of toilet paper as we know it today. It was newspaper pages, cut into sheets measuring about 8 by 8 inches, threaded through a piece of string that was hanging from a nail driven into the wall. And the toilet wasn’t inside either, it was outside in the back yard, a small brick-built structure, with a wooden door made from planks. And Queen Victoria wasn’t still the Queen. I am talking about 1956-1960.

At school, we had outside toilets too. Across the large playground, were two solid structures marked clearly ‘BOYS’ and ‘GIRLS’, the words etched into the mortar. They had proper toilet paper in those, but once again it would be unfamiliar to almost anyone younger than me. It was called ‘IZAL’, and stored in small boxes, fixed to the inside of the toilet cubicles. It was transparent, something like tissue paper, and the box dispensed individual sheets, just one at a time. I can still see my young self getting ready, shuffling out a generous handful of the stuff from the box, like a casino dealer with a card shoe.

In 1960, we moved into a new maisonette. Two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, the toilet in a separate room from the one containing the bath and sink. The modern place was the height of luxury to us at the time. A large living room, well-equipped kitchen, and a bath with constant hot water when needed. No more Friday nights in a metal bath by the fire, in the soapy water already used before by my parents. And we had a toilet roll holder, with a real roll of toilet paper too. It still wasn’t much like any you see now. It was called ‘BRONCO’, which I think was the competitor to ‘IZAL’, but what did I know about brands? I was only eight years old. This was also transparent, but a little stronger. It was clear enough to be compared to tracing paper. In fact, I used it frequently to trace things for school projects, and it worked just as well, allowing for the perforation between each sheet.

You had to be careful with ‘BRONCO’ though. If you were too enthusiastic, it was prone to skid upwards, with results you can well imagine. But it remained a staple in our house for many years, until the arrival of the soft white toilet paper we all know and love.

So, what does this have to do with my Dad? (I hear you ask)

My Dad was a man of habit. He did things at a certain time, on the same day. His visits to the small toilet in our new maisonette were something of an event. He would announce them in advance, and prepare his necessaries to accompany him on the trip. These always included a daily (or evening ) newspaper, and his cigarettes and lighter. (There was a large ashtray in our toilet, on a tall stand, to avoid having to reach down low) He also liked to take a cup of tea to drink whilst relaxing, and at weekends, his breakfast sandwich of sausages or bacon too. This would be carried up on a plate, with the teacup resting on the edge. He would balance the plate on his thigh once his trousers were down, and he could read his paper and enjoy his breakfast, as he did what he needed to do. Afterwards, he would enjoy one or two cigarettes before emerging.

I have given you a few moments to picture that scene. I still have trouble with that myself.

He referred to this daily ritual as ‘retiring to the throne’, and when Mum and I heard those words, we knew that we had better get in quick, if either of us needed to pee.

My family was relatively well-off, in that working class area where we lived. Mum and Dad both had good jobs, I was an only child, and the cost of living was very reasonable at the time. Not rich, by any means, but certainly ‘comfortable. The price of toilet paper would not be a consideration, I’m sure. But if you could have heard my Dad, you might have thought that we were using pound notes for the purpose, instead of flimsy transparent paper. Not long after we moved into the new home, he began to remark about how much paper I used, when visiting the toilet. I wondered how he could tell, but he informed me that he was sure he could tell, by listening to roll move. He said that I was spinning it ‘like the wheels on a gambling fruit machine’, and as far as he was concerned, I was just ‘wasting it’.

I was not yet nine years old, but I still couldn’t comprehend how anyone could ‘waste’ toilet paper. You used what you had to use, surely? But the issue certainly got under his skin. As I sat in the toilet one day, he suddenly hammered his fist on the door, shouting “That’s enough now. Stop it, pull the chain, and get out here!” When I came out onto the landing, he gave me a lecture on the amount of toilet roll I had used, freely admitting to listening outside, calculating paper usage by the sound of the roll turning. I wanted to laugh out loud, to be honest. But he was my Dad. In 1961, you didn’t laugh at your Dad.

I began to avoid using the toilet when he was at home. The school holidays were a welcome break from his obsession, and most other times I tried to go in there before he returned from work. It wasn’t always possible of course, and on those occasions he continued to remark on the use of toilet paper, once declaring that ” I bet you use more than The Queen of England!” I had never realised she was the benchmark. This went on once we moved away to Kent, when I was fifteen. By then, we had long been using modern soft paper, known as ‘2-Ply’. In 1975, he left the family home, and went off with another woman.

I was pleased to see the back of him, and bought a six-pack of toilet rolls, in celebration.

Significant Songs (164)

The Look Of Love

Not the famous Bacharach song, far from it. I have already covered that one and this only shares its title. In 1980, a new band emerged on the scene. They were part of the trend know as the ‘New Romantics’, most famously represented by groups like Spandau Ballet, and Duran Duran. They were called ABC, and though thought to be in the same genre, they had a harder edge, and a sharper look than most of their contemporaries.

The lead singer, Martin Fry, had an obvious talent for singing, and a voice that had power and style. I liked them immediately, and bought their 1982 debut album ‘The Lexicon Of Love’. This went to number one on the UK charts, and produced four top-selling singles too. However, despite a few subsequent albums, they were destined never to enjoy such success again. Some members began to leave the band, and before long, Fry was all that was left.

He has since tried a couple of comeback tours, and even managed to sell out the Albert Hall, in 2017. But it is only die-hard fans who remember them now, and music has moved on. They are unlikely to ever hit the charts again, and their heyday is just a memory. But it’s a fond memory, at least for me.

Significant Songs (161)

Going To A Go-Go

In 1965, I was only 13 years old. I desperately wanted to go to clubs and listen to music in them, but I was too young. I didn’t have enough pocket money for the entrance fees, and I would have certainly been refused entry anyway. So I had to make do with jigging around in my bedroom, imagining I was in one of the cool clubs of the day. I would have to wait for another three years until I looked old enough to get in, and by that time, they were playing other stuff. But the drum intro of this great feel-good Motown song always got my heart racing, and my legs moving. It still does today, even though my club days are a lifetime behind me.

The group that I knew as The Miracles later became Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. Not long after that Smokey went solo, and had a string of huge hits. He is now 77 years old, and his song writing career has had a huge influence on music across many genres. You may have to be a ‘certain age’ to really appreciate this one, I confess. But you can’t deny the youthful spirit in this memorable song.