MUSiC: Goat’s Head Soup, The Rolling Stones, 1973

Surprisingly good… and perhaps the end of an era?

This is probably sacrilegious to hardcore Stones fans, but I think this is actually the album Exile On Main Street was hoping it might or could be. Ok, it’s definitely not an exact equivalent, as it’s much shorter and far more focussed. But it’s better for both those reasons. It’s also more consistent and better written overall.

The cover is interesting, looking very much as if intended to transform Jagger’s shaggy mop-topped noggin into a tufted lady-grotto, via a lacey sheet and soft lighting.

Unlike many Stones albums, that kick off with a hit, here you have to wait until track five (or the last track of side one, as it was in LP form), when Angie hits the motherlode. And that’s it, a far as ‘standout hits’ goes for this disc!

Fivetunately, as my dad liked to say occasionally, pretty much all the tracks that lead up to Angie are better than many of the fillers and potboilers that make up substantial amounts of a lot of other Stones records, the sort of meandering fare that has traditionally been suggestive of the idea ‘they were never really an albums band’.

Coming directly after Exile, The Stones were indeed still working/recording as itinerant tax-exiles. Adding further to the continuity, Mick Taylor and Nicky Hopkins are still contributing their distinctive flavours to the satanic stew.

Keef n’ Charlie rockin’ it live, ‘73.

Side one – or the first five tracks – is definitely stronger and more focussed, with side two sounding more ‘in the vein’, so to speak, of Exile, with looser more jam-like feelings dominating proceedings.

Side two get does get stronger and more focussed as it goes on, right up until the ending, where – despite the tight-ish Chuck Berry style music, the ‘rock star excess’ lyrics fall rather flat, all these years later – with the infamous Starfucker (released as a single – and banned by the BBC – with Ahmet Ertegun insisting it be renamed Star Star!).

This tracks reminds me of why I’ve generally avoided the Stones over the years; it’s such pop trash! The music and lyrics are, in all frankness, pretty piss poor. It’s The Stones playing their signature ‘bad boy card‘, and it’s lame.

This aspect of the band has meant that, for years, I’ve dismissed them as musically uninteresting poseurs. And, despite this string of Stones posts celebrating Charlie Watts and the band’s best bits, that still holds, alas.

But, thanks to the moderate amounts of focus and polish (helped by the presence of strings and jazzy horns), and the funkier more soulful material (mostly side one), this less revered disc eclipses the much more lionised Exile. For me at any rate.

A poster for the Australian leg of The Stones ‘73 tour.

FiLM REViEW: On TheFiddle, 1961

Sean Connery’s rather oddball big screen debut…

Alfred Lynch is really the star of this gently enjoyable comedy, with a pre Dr No Sean Connery appearing in what is, retrospectively, an unusual and slightly odd comedic sidekick role. Lynch plays Pope, a cheeky cockney chancer, always on the make, and as good a film definition of the concept of the ‘artful dodger’ as any you might hope to find.

While plying his spiv style trade outside an RAF recruitment office, Pope is razzed by the rozzers; his charm offensive with the female ‘beak’ backfires, and he winds up being ‘voluntarily’ enlisted much against his will, where he befriends ‘Pedlar’ Pascoe, Connery’s character.

Lynch, left, is the main character.

An odd pairing – Pope, practically press-ganged, is always ducking and diving, desperate to avoid work, keen to line his pockets, and positively allergic to the idea of frontline service; Pascoe, who volunteered, is a simple, accommodating chap, slow to catch on but quick to help out (oh, and keen to fight the Germans) – we follow them as Pope masterminds one dodge or fiddle after another.

Both leads were relatively new and unknown faces at the time, but they acquit themselves well, and are ably supported by a panoply of classic acting talent of the era, including such stalwarts as Stanley Holloway and Cecil Parker. 

Army ‘surplus’ spivs at work.

And there are other faces we know better from later work, such as John le Mesurier, and even ‘Babs’ Windsor, who, along with another dolly-bird have – titter – a couple of small parts (eh?). And, perhaps with an eye to the US market, there’s even a role for American actor and comedian Alan King.

Having already given away a little of the plot, I’ll refrain from any further synopsis. Suffice it to say that we follow the duo in their nefarious misadventures through various intriguing scenarios, all of which afford ample scope for ‘Popey’ to exercise his amoral skills, Connery’s ‘Pedlar’ tagging along affably, a kind of workhorse simpleton whose heft helps Pope out on occasion.

There’s a scene or two to create a Yank tie-in.

The plot is a ‘treatment’ by novelist and Napoleonic history buff R. F. Delderfield, and his literary skills mean this lightweight comedy punches above its weight. The basic premise is itself an unusually amoral take on the British WWII wartime drama genre, and Delderfield sets up scenarios, with dialogue and plot that are sufficiently real to be involving. There’s even the odd poignant moment.

An odd little under the radar type gem this. Perhaps not an out and out classic. Nevertheless, I loved it. My head gives it three or so, whilst my heart gives it four stars. So I’ll give it three and a half for now.

A rather misleading American poster.

The poster above is for the American version, renamed Operation SNAFU, which rather misleadingly gives Connery star billing, and suggests a post-Dr No cash-in.

FiLM REViEW: Big Trouble in Little China

Wow! Utterly bonkers!!

Apparently this was a financial flop when it came out, and a major reason Carpenter turned his back on Hollywood, to go back to a more ‘indie’ style approach. Despite this it’s gone on to acquire minor cult status.

It is very mixed bag, by turns both terrific fun and utterly stupid. Some of the effects are terrific, others risible. The characters are B-movie pulp fare, and the scenario even more wildly erratic, mixing Kung-Fu with ‘Chinese myth’ and boneheaded USofA pecs, guns n rock’n’roll.

Mad wicker headgear!

It’s all over the map! Up and down quality wise like an amphetamine yo-yo. Kurt Russell is fun as meat-headed meatball physique’d truck-drivin’ tough guy Jack Burton, drivin’ his big-rig, the Pork Chop Express.

An airport pick up with a Chinese pal, after a porcine delivery, and some all night gambling, goes very weird, when Wang’s fiancé is abducted by a Chinese gang. Jack and Wang give chase, and wind up embroiled in a gang fight that takes a bizarre supernatural turn.

Magical stuff…
Weird monsters….

And before we know it, Jack falls for Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), who also ends up kidnapped, both ladies having been Shanghaied, it transpires, by the mad, bad n’ evil Lo Pan, an accursed sorcerer. Turns out he needs a green-eyed gal, and Miao and Gracie both happen to fit the bill.

After all this chaotic preamble, the main meat of the film becomes the crazy rescue mission, which involves a descent into a subterranean Chinese underworld, with lots of close call scrapes, martial arts madness, a smattering of monsters, sorcery type shenanigans, and a lot of dumb fun/laughs.

This guy takes stress to new levels.

I can’t honestly say it’s a great film. In many ways it’s pretty bad. But it does end up managing to be silly enough and funny enough that, on balance, I enjoyed it.

Sorcerers battle by astral projection… nuts! Quite visually effective.

BOOK REViEW: Against The Grain, James C Scott

A deep history of the earliest states

As the title of this interesting book rather cleverly suggests, this book runs counter to some established narratives. The title can also be read, on a slightly deeper level, as a lament in relation to how grain has helped domesticate or even enslave humanity, under the state model.

I won’t go into the detail some reviewers do elsewhere in synopsising the books contents. Suffice it to say Scott challenges the ‘ascent of civilisation’ tale – which he calls a ‘Just So story’ – that has states as the inevitable and more or less immediate next step of sedentism. The winners – the court elites of the states – have written our histories, says Scott, and have consistently denigrated the ‘barbarians’, etc.

The book ends very abruptly, with the brief and ‘melancholy’ admission that ‘the barbarians willingly dug their own grave’. I’m still digesting the masses of stuff the book conveys or argues. So I still don’t quite know what I make of it.

James C Scott (source Yale books website)

On the plus side, Scott is synthesising much broad and disparate information, and attempting to draw conclusions, in areas not strictly his own. I like this polymath style breadth of scope and ambition. On the negative side, his language is occasionally wilfully florid or obscure (and there’s no glossary, so a dictionary is useful), and he can and does repeat himself quite a lot.

Most of all, however, he’s playing Devil’s advocate, by suggesting we’ve been sold a pack of lies; state history has been spinning us a tale of its own inevitability and innate supremacy. I don’t know if this – the ‘facts’ as he sees them, or even exactly what motivates his stance – is good or bad?

But I certainly found the book educational, and very thought-provoking. So I would recommend it. I’ve even gone so far as buying another of his books, also about states and statecraft (Seeing Like A State).

PS – If you want a review that does give you a synopsis of this book’s contents, this is a good one!

FiLM REViEW: Charade, 1963

‘The best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made.’

We watched this on Prime a couple of nights back. Weird film! The soundtrack is Henry Mancini, and is great. The opening titles, by Maurice Binder are strikingly good too.

But the opening scene in a ski-resort, where Reggie Lampert (Tawdry Hipbone), rich socialite thinking of a divorce, meets The Man of 1000 Names (Gary Crant) is, like much of the rest of the film, a cloying soufflé of fighting flavours.

When Lampert gets home, she discovers it gutted, her husband dead at the Paris morgue. A bizarre scenario is played out at his funeral, in which we meet the main antagonists. She’s plunged into a web of deceit and suspicion, revolving around a stolen wartime fortune, which she’s suspected of having, whether she knows it or not.

Interesting titles.

But this is all so much hot air, the real centrepiece of the film is the much vaunted repartee, ‘twixt the himbo and bimbo leads. Whilst admittedly often quite amusing, it’s also too much like the script of a fat middle-aged man’s wet dream: he gruffly and wittily uninterested in purring and very available sex kitten. Say wha’!?

This doesn’t have quite the same deft assurance as Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, in which Grant trades similar (but significantly subtler) blows with Eva Marie Saint. But then Charade is more confused as to exactly what kind of movie it really is. It teeters at about 60/40 or maybe 55/45 in favour of romantic comedy over thriller.

I do love Walter Mathau.

Director/producer Stanley Donen, longest surviving of Hollywood’s ‘golden age’ gang, passed in 2019, aged 94. His most famous film is probably Singin’ In The Rain, closely followed by On The Town. A former choreographer, best known for musicals, it’s as if he can’t choose which genre he’s going with here.

The alternations between light comedy and borderline scary thriller, as Hepburn and Grant spar, fall inevitably in love, and search for the deadly missing swag, are frequent and more than a little discombobulating. In the end the charisma of the main leads, and the charms of Paris, where it’s mostly shot, just about carry the weight of this mish-mash of a movie.

The film’s trailer trades on the blending of styles idea.

So, to the small supporting ensemble: Walter Mathau I pretty much always love, not sure why. James Coburn likewise. Ned Glass is great too. George Kennedy I find more variable; great sometimes, not so good at others. He is probably the weakest of the key supporting roles, for me. But these guys populate what is a small core of central characters in this rather whacky movie, in which $250,000 of lost US Govt. OSS loot is the plot driving ‘McGuffin’ propelling the action along.

Some interesting shots…
… clearly tip a hat to Hitchcock.

The ending of the film ratchets up the consistent theme of confusion, to which the title Charade alludes, quite nicely. And we head for a denouement at once both surprising and yet strangely predictable.

Not quite reaching truly Hitchcockian heights, it’s like a confused pastiche or homage to him. A period piece and an oddity, but very definitely worth watching.

More striking titles.

BOOK REViEW: Wicked Beyond Belief, Michael Bilton

Updated edition…

If you want a shorter piece, then try my Amazon review.

I’m not 100% certain if my memory is playing me false. But I believe this is only my second ‘true crime’/serial killer book. The first was about Charles Manson. And I read that about 30 or more years ago!

But true crime, and serial killers in particular, continue to exert a morbid fascination, on both popular culture at large, and – somewhat to my own surprise – me. We recently watched the BBC TV series The Serpent, about Charles Sobhraj, which was, we thought (my wife and I), both very well done, and darkly compelling.

Anyway, on a recent trip to Ely I bought this book, from The Works (£4!). I’d already seen the TV series of the same name (also by the same author). So I had a pretty good idea what it might be like.

Unlike many true-crime serial killer books, with their lurid focus on the perpetrator and the crimes, Michael Bilton chooses instead to focus primarily on the police and their titular hunt. Rather infamously this was a long and horribly inefficient investigation, and that’s the primary focus of this fat tome.

The Ripper at work. [1]

I got this book on Wednesday and had finished it by the following Saturday (yesterday). Luckily for me I’m a teacher on my summer hols, so I’ve had the time. But it’s also testimony to how compelling this is.

I won’t recap the contents here, per se, just read the book, if you’re really interested. But I will ruminate over a few observations: most books of this sort will give a biog’ of the killer, and usually they’ll also make an attempt at some sort of psychological profile. Bilton very deliberately eschews this, dismissing Sutcliffe angrily and contemptuously many times throughout the book.

In place of such analyses we get the equivalent treatment of the coppers instead, and the policing system they belonged to, including connected folk like specialists (forensics, etc), sundry journalists , politicians, and the like, and also the victims.

This is a fat old book, partly because it’s been updated since original publication (2001?), but mostly due to the space given over to often quite lengthy profiles of many a ‘PC Plod’, and also, to a degree, repetition. A stricter editor could’ve usefully trimmed some of this fat off. I have to confess I found the detailed profiles of the cops the least compelling aspect of an otherwise fascinating book.

Peter Sutcliffe is known to have killed 13, with seven victims surviving. But he is suspected to have perhaps have killed as many as thirty or so (not all of these others are mentioned here), an unknown number of others being attacked but escaping.

His primary method of attack was to surprise his unwary victims, violent hammer blows to the head rendering them non-resistant, after which he’d butcher them via frenzied stabbing to the trunk/vitals.

The Irene Richardson crime scene.

His killing grounds were spread over several northern towns, including Bradford, Manchester, and especially Leeds. He favoured prostitutes, as they were easier to get into out of the way spots; but not always, sometimes just striking almost randomly, at opportune moments.

Most of his crime scenes were in horribly sordid waste ground type spots. Ironically the sites of most of the murders were actually selected by his victims, particularly when they were prostitutes.

The main sequence of known or primary crimes themselves – the ones he confessed to – are all here, and in gruesome enough detail. Viewed, again, not from the perpetrator’s or victim’s perspectives, but the investigating police and forensics specialists, etc. These horrifically brutal ‘nodes’ of action are very obviously a fundamental fascination.

The secondary and yet far bigger theme of this account is the investigation. How it struggled under an avalanche of information, failed to correlate related clues, was mislead (by the ‘Wearside Jack’ hoaxer, amongst other things), and revealed systemic failings in the policing of the day.

As I said at the top of this review. This is not an area I’ve read a great deal in. Partly that’s ‘cause when I’ve scanned such works in years gone by, a great deal has struck me as lurid sensationalist trash, stuff I don’t want to waste my time on.

This is, pardon the tasteless pun, a cut or three above the field as a whole. Decently written by and large. Clearly a labour of passion, with a great deal of investigative investment. But it’s still both rather pulpy and a little messily repetitive compared to most of what I read in other more academic or intellectual spheres.

A billboard showing how desperate (and misled) the Police were. [2]

Policing and British law both come over quite poorly, ultimately. As do professional specialists of all sorts, except, perhaps, for the forensic scientists. All too often everyone from cops to psychologists to politicians seem to either be ‘played’ by Sutcliffe, or simply congenitally unable to back down from mistaken assumptions.

Books like this love to seek out and expose a thrilling revelation, a ‘bombshell’. And there is one in particular contained herein, relating to Sutcliffe’s m.o./kill kit, which has a very significant bearing on his post arrest insanity plea. Bilton has a very definite position on this, and makes a very convincing case in this book that Sutcliffe successfully outwitted the law/specialists, in playing the ‘psycho’ card.

The edition I read came out in 2012 (I think), at which time both Sutcliffe and the hoaxer were behind bars. Both are now dead. Sutcliffe killed by a combination of conditions, Covid-19 (for which he refused treatment) administering the coup de grace, in 2020. John Humble, aka Wearside Jack, served just half his sentence (four of the eight years he was sentenced to), dying in 2019, a ‘free man’, in a kind of slo-mo suicide by alcoholism and self-neglect. Sad and sordid endings.

A typical Ripper murder locale; police conduct a finger search for evidence.

The Yorkshire Ripper’s legacy to his victims, some of whom survived, and their families, and the cops and other investigators (including the hapless souls who stumbled on horrific crime scenes) still reverberates down the years. The only upsides are that, as the books discusses, policing has been thoroughly (we hope/trust) overhauled in the light of systemic failures, and leaps forward in technology (computers) and science (forensics, esp. DNA profiling, which was what caught Wearside Jack) make a repeat spree the duration of The Yorkshire Ripper’s a highly unlikely event.

Re this book, there’s too much info on some rather dull coppers, and not enough info on or insight into Sutcliffe. But nevertheless, all in all, this a very grim but highly fascinating account.

NOTES:

[1] I don’t know the origins of this photograph. It doesn’t appear in this book. One iteration of it I saw online looked very much like a bad fake. Has someone inserted Sutcliffe’s face into a pic of some other lorry driver? Some less tightly cropped versions of this image show the truck sporting a Clark co. logo. A firm Sutcliffe did drive trucks for.

[2] Damning evidence of how Humble’s hoax lead the investigation astray, allowing the real Ripper to escape the net and continue killing.

Cones mark the tragic detritus of the Ripper’s frenzied assault on Josephine Whitaker.

And finally, not for the faint hearted, here’s a link to Sutcliffe’s arrest statements, made in January, 1981: Ripper confessions.

BOOK REViEW: Tintin & the Picaros

The last Tintin adventure that Hergé saw through to completion, Tintin And The Picaros has divided opinion among fans and critics. 

As the author of Tintin: Hergé And His Creation notes, somewhat disdainfully, Hergé appears to make some concessions to the times. Our plucky hero loses his plus-fours, does yoga, and has the CND anti-nuclear logo on his scooter crash-helmet! Prior to this Tintin and co. seemed to inhabit a permanent time warp located somewhere between the 1930s and the 1950s. 

Well, I for one still enjoy this Tintin adventure, despite agreeing that these concessions to modernity weren’t needed. It’s also not the best most engaging Tintin story either, although it is, both visually and narratively undoubtedly a ‘mature’ work. But nonetheless, it has all the major qualities: a fun globetrotting adventure, with intrigue, treachery, nobility and comedy all mixed in.

Considering some of the political ups and downs Hergé lived through, his final comment seems apt: the book starts with one form of tyranny – the neo-fascist regime of General Tapioca – and ends with General Alcazar’s socialist regime. Both add up to the same thing: the slums policed by disinterested armed cronies of either regime. 

By this time Hergé was fed up with Tintin and politics, but true pro that he was, he managed to turn in a decent solidly enjoyable final instalment in the long-running saga.

BOOK REViEW: Flight 714, Hergé

When Tintin, Cuthbert and Haddock (and Snowy, of course), en-route to an astronautical conference in Australia, bump into Skut (of the Red Sea Sharks fame) in Jakarta airport, they end up joining the party of Laszlo Carreidas, the “millionaire who never laughs”, a great if rather unattractive character (apparently Hergé based his character on Marcel Dassault, a real French aviation tycoon), they find themselves embroiled in another of their exotic adventures. Cuthbert’s antics at the airport are priceless, rather quickly causing Carreidas’ soubriquet to seem somewhat unwarranted.

Set mostly on a small volcanic Australasian island, with underground remnants of a strangely South American sort, this is one of the most beautifully realised Tintin adventures. Plot-wise it’s jammed full of incident, comedy, and good characterisation. Oh, and it gets pretty nutso too, but I won’t spoil it for you. Rastapopolous and Allan re-appear, there are new characters worth encountering, like Dr Krollspell and Rastapopolous’ other henchmen, as well as the mysterious Mik Kanrokitoff. But it’s the visual aspect of the book that is the best single feature… it’s a real beauty!

After this there was a hiatus, then Tintin and the Picaros, and that was it (I don’t count Alph-Art, as it wasn’t finished). It shows that, overall, Hergé and his team continually got better over time. A classic!

BOOK REViEW: The Castafiore Emerald, Hergé

This is, pun fully intended, an absolute gem of a story. 

Opting to keep Tintin, Haddock and co. at home in Marlinspike Hall, rather than send them on their usual globe-trotting adventures to far-flung and exotic lands, Hergé delivers a masterpiece of storytelling and artwork. 

As a kid I didn’t really like the Castafiore character, and as a consequence this was one of only two or three Tintin adventures missing from my childhood collection.  

I ended up giving away all my Tintin books to the children of a friend. Something I kind of wish I hadn’t done now! Having collected them all again, the Castafiore Emerald is now certainly amongst my favourite. You could make the case for it being more of a Haddock than a Tintin adventure, and in some ways this reflects Hergé’s possible identification with his irascible creation: numerous of the later Tintin adventures (The Calculus Affair and Tintin in Tibet both immediately spring to mind) find Haddock swearing his days of roving adventure are done.

In the CE Hergé makes good on this idea, resulting in a story that’s almost like a stage play, confined mostly to the insides of Marlinspike, as opposed to most Tintin adventures, which are more like big budget globetrotting movies in conception. This allows Hergé to maximise the character, dialogue and plot elements, all of which, like his superlative art (although he was by this stage, it has to he said, supported by a talented team at his studio) are at their peak.

I won’t go into the plot and risk spoiling it for those unfamiliar with it, suffice it to say that it’s superb, and amongst the best and most sophisticated of Hergé’s works, making it one of the Tintin adventures best suited to adult enjoyment. 

Fantastic!

BOOK REViEW: The Red Sea Sharks, Hergé

Starting with a chance encounter with an old acquaintance, General Alcazar, Tintin returns to the Middle-Eastern theatre of action of Land Of Black Gold

Tintin encounters an old adversary, Müller (first encountered in The Black island), who is involved in nefarious paramilitary oil-related activities. Müller eventually kidnaps the wonderfully appalling oily little tyke Abdullah, hugely irritating much loved son of Ben Kalish Ezab, in an attempt to fuel conflict between Ezab and Sheikh Bab El Ehr. Abdullah, rather like Jolyon Wagg, or Castafiore (who has a small cameo in the adventure), is one of Hergé’s great irritating characters, and gives him the chance for some excellent character development (not only in terms of Abdullah himself, but also in the way adults react to him), alongside some good old-fashioned simple slapstick. 

So, Tintin must rescue Abdullah – not at all easy when one takes Abdullah’s mischievous temperament into account – and get to the bottom of the exploding fuel mystery, meeting new characters (Skut), old friends (General Alcazar and Senhor Oliveira da Figueira), and old adversaries (as well as Müller there’s Dawson, of Blue Lotus fame, now dealing arms, plus Rastapopoulos and Allan, now working as a team, destined to reappear in Flight 714), preventing WWIII, foiling a slave trading ring, and reuniting Abdullah with his grateful ‘papa’. All in a days work for our plucky ‘boy reporter’ hero!

Thompson and Thomson provide alot of fun in this book, sticking out like sore thumbs on board the Speedol Star, getting lost and suffering from an inability to discern between reality and mirages in the desert, and annoying everyonme from pump attendents to worshippers at a mosque along the way. This is also the adventure in which they pick up the strange hair and skin condition that recurs during Explorers On The Moon.

At this point in his career Hergé and his team are really flying, and this is an excellent adventure, jam-packed with character, wit, slapstick, action, intrigue and all-round fun. It’s superbly written, and beautifully drawn. An absolute pleasure from start to finish.