Prison Songs: a snapshot in song and dance of indigenous Australians’ prison experiences, and the issues that blight their lives

Kelrick Martin, “Prison Songs” (2015)

Billed as Australia’s first musical documentary, and probably the first of its kind to be set in a prison, “Prison Songs” is a snapshot in song and dance of Australian indigenous people’s experiences in prison through the stories of individual prisoners held in Darwin’s Berrimah Prison. The film tackles issues of alcoholism and substance abuse, domestic violence, the alienation of indigenous Australians in white society and the stress and struggle they undergo in trying to find their own paths in a country that was originally their own but which has been taken away from them and moulded into something completely different and hostile to them. The stories the prisoners tell are not only very personal but highly intimate and moving.

For this film, director Martin sat with and interviewed selected prisoners with singer-songwriter Shellie Morris sitting in. Morris later took her impressions and complete interview transcripts to Casey Bennetto in Melbourne and together they wrote the songs in a mix of various styles ranging from blues to reggae, hiphop and gospel. All songs are sung and performed by the chosen prisoners: the lyrics are frank and straightforward, and thus easy to follow and even to sing along to in their choruses. The approach taken by some songs to their subject matter is often creative: one song about alcohol and its effects on people’s thinking and behaviour addresses the demon drink as a seductive and demanding lover; another song riffing on the experience of prison life presents Berrimah Prison as a hotel where inmates can enjoy 24/7 security, free food and state-of-the-art (if not visually aesthetic) exercise facilities. One very emotional song is sung by a female prisoner who finds her refuge in Christianity to counter feelings of guilt and shame, and to find a purpose in life.

Title cards that inform viewers of statistics about the incarceration of indigenous Australians and of some of the history of Berrimah prison provide the background context to the prisoners’ experiences. The cinematography uses plenty of negative space and bird’s-eye viewpoint shots to emphasise the isolation of the prisoners from the rest of the world. The film’s style is minimal and stark, in which prisoners have both starring roles and roles as background and chorus line extras.

Because the stories are often so personal, there is the danger that they may not be seen as part of a larger phenomenon in which dispossession and the colonial experience have damaged indigenous cultures and replaced them with a caricature of Western society in which poverty, unemployment leading to boredom, addictive substances and violence dominate people’s lives and become the fabric that links successive generations of people who otherwise have no hope or purpose.

Since the documentary was made, Berrimah Prison has been converted into a facility for juvenile offenders and the adult prisoners moved into a newer, larger facility elsewhere. Unfortunately there is very little information given in the documentary about the prison itself and who runs it or was running it until its conversion.

David Bowie Under Review 1976 – 1979: The Berlin Trilogy – a good if dry introduction to David Bowie’s most influential recordings

Christian Davies, “David Bowie Under Review 1976 – 1979: The Berlin Trilogy” (2006)

David Bowie’s death in early January 2016 left behind a considerable artistic legacy encompassing visual art, cinema and music but it is his music that forms the foundation and core on which everything else Bowie has done is based. In particular the music he made from 1976 to 1979 is the basis on which Bowie’s reputation as an experimentalist and innovator in music and visual artist rests, and as the title of this DVD indicates, it’s this period with emphasis on the three albums “Low”, “Heroes” and “The Lodger”, often referred to collectively as the “Berlin trilogy” – though with regards to their actual music and musical arrangements, and where they were recorded, they don’t actually form a trilogy – he made with fellow UK musician Brian Eno as collaborator that’s under the spotlight. This documentary is an exploration of what led Bowie to join with Eno in Berlin and other parts of Europe to write and record the music on these albums the way they did, how their collaboration developed and how they eventually drifted apart and went their own ways after “The Lodger” album.

The documentary’s style is as minimalist as “Low and “Heroes” are in its structure: it is chronological and relies heavily on interviews with some musicians who knew and worked with Eno, and with music reviewers and analysts like David Toop, David Stubbs and various others. Bowie and Eno themselves were not interviewed for the documentary though it features recordings of Bowie talking to other interviewers. The documentary includes excerpts of particular tracks from the recordings along with interviewees’ opinions of them, snippets of music videos and live performances, and also places Bowie’s songs in a broader context by demonstrating parallels between them and the work of other musicians and performers like Blur, Iggy Pop (whose career Bowie helped save by co-writing several songs for his classic albums “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life” and by supporting him on tour), Madonna and Talking Heads.

At times the documentary can be a bit dry for those Bowie fans expecting gossip and lots of name-checking; but for those interested in learning about what the music experts interviewed think of particular songs and instrumental pieces from the three albums, the film does a good job there. There is not much information though about the aleatory processes Bowie and Eno used to compose melodies and rhythm structures, nor about the themes that inform all three albums and how these themes fit in with Bowie’s concerns with alienation, the nature of identity and the search for authenticity in a world obsessed with appearance and celebrity, and his interests in the occult and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy.

The documentary is at its best describing the history of how Bowie and Eno came together and worked on the albums, with the assistance of musicians like Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, and especially Tony Visconti who produced all three albums as well, and the other work that Bowie did in-between recording them. Where the documentary is weak perhaps is in not interviewing artists and musicians who were inspired and influenced by these albums, in investigating those aspects of Berlin culture and society that made a deep impression on Bowie and his music, and whether the city and its citizens had any influence on him in giving up his flirtation with Nazi symbols and ideology.

There is mention of Bowie’s cocaine addiction insofar as it was this among other reasons that led to Bowie fleeing the US and setting up new digs in Europe and which inspired his 1975 album “Station to Station” – but apart from that, there is very little else about the deep psychological and spiritual crises that fed and were fed by the coke habit and which among other things led to the break-up of his marriage.

In short, the documentary is a good introduction to the making of three of the most famous Bowie albums and their place in Bowie’s career and studio output. Perhaps it could have done more for an even more informative and intriguing visual essay but we are probably not likely to see anything similar and more investigative.

An affectionate if subjective review of a musician’s life in “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 2)”

Martin Scorsese, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 2)” (2011)

I had expected the second part of this documentary on George Harrison to be more interesting than the first and to be quite deep – it covers the second half of his life after all! – but the reality is that it is no more than an affectionate series of snapshots and fond reminiscences by family members and friends who loved him or worked with him. There is little exploration into why Harrison was so drawn to following esoteric Hindu and other Indian traditions and philosophies, how he was able to reconcile being a major celebrity and popular music icon, with enormous wealth and influence at his finger-tips, with following a spiritual path which must have beckoned him at some stage of his life to renounce his material life-style and possessions. One suspects that Harrison’s understanding of the Eastern traditions might have been a bit naive or self-serving, and not very self-critical or engaged in self-examination; there is mention in the documentary of his cocaine habit and his infidelity to his first wife Pattie Boyd (who divorced him in 1977 because of his repeated unfaithfulness and his alcohol and cocaine abuse) and later to second wife Olivia Arias, so his spiritual quest was certainly an odd one that permitted self-indulgence. Since the point of the film is supposedly to investigate how a famous celebrity comes to follow a personal spiritual quest in order to deal with the pressure of fame and the emptiness of easy wealth, and how that person lives with the contradictions that arise as a result, the documentary’s failure to do so in a meaningful way to those audiences not familiar with Harrison’s music or musical history leaves the whole project looking like a moving scrapbook of memories and selected highlights that might or might not be interesting to know.

The format that Martin Scorsese uses to make the documentary – allowing interviewees to ramble at some length and slotting them together in a meandering chronological narrative along with snippets of old photographs and film – strains at its limitations: everyone interviewed speaks warmly of Harrison and his generosity with money and material possessions, his puckish humour and various eccentricities. Harrison’s boundless generosity, stemming from his beliefs, leads him to an unexpected career as a film producer, providing financial backing to various British films in the 1980s through Handmade Films and helping to keep the British film industry afloat during that decade. The interviews generally present a positive view of Harrison and he comes off looking a like a saint. The film-making approach makes a sober assessment of Harrison’s life and spirituality impossible. (The fact that Olivia Harrison was a co-producer might partly explain the film’s generally forgiving view towards her late husband.) Large gaps in Harrison’s musical career in the late 1970s,  part of the 1980s and most of the following decade are glossed over. Inexplicably there is no mention of the recording and release of his album Thirty Three & 1/3 in 1976 which revived public interest in Harrison’s career after a creative slump in the early to mid-1970s.

Anyone wanting an evaluation on how significant Harrison was as a musician and song-writer during his life, even as some sort of guide or exemplar of living a spiritual life, and whether the legacy he left after his death has stood the test of time and grown, won’t find the answer in what is essentially a hagiography.

A survey of social and cultural changes in 1960s Britain through one musician’s life in “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 1)”

Martin Scorsese, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 1)” (2011)

A really very thoughtful and fascinating documentary (in its first half at least) on the life and career of the British rock musician icon George Harrison, as told by the people who knew him and worked with him, in more or less chronological order from his days as a working-class Liverpool schoolboy jamming with the kids who together would become one of the world’s most beloved and influential rock bands. Hollywood director Martin Scorsese performs a very deft job tracing Harrison’s development as a musician, a song-writer and a man on a personal spiritual quest to find meaning and purpose in his life. Harrison’s maturation as a musician and person took place during a period of social and cultural ferment in Britain, one in which his band The Beatles was itself a major player, attracting other musicians, artists, photographers and various hangers-on, not all of whom had something worthwhile to give. The pressures of fame, wealth, the power and influence that come with having money and celebrity, and the often unwelcome attentions of a media hungry for sales and profit or of groupies, drug dealers and others, were deeply felt by the band members both individually and collectively, and Harrison felt such strains perhaps more deeply than the other members – hence the sub-title, in which living with such easy wealth pushed Harrison into questioning the direction and purpose of his life and heading onto a more spiritual path.

Part 1 deals with Harrison’s time with The Beatles: his career then is more or less synchronous with the band’s musical evolution right up until 1966 when meeting the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar exposes Harrison to a very different musical tradition and culture which leads him to investigate meditation and spiritualism. The documentary moves with the ease and flow of classical Indian improvisational music through the 1960s and shows something of the rapidly changing musical and cultural scene in Britain. The creative conflicts among The Beatles crop up as a motif throughout the documentary.

One expects that the former surviving members of The Beatles (Paul McCartney and Ring Starr) will appear in the documentary and they do. Ex-wife Pattie Boyd and best friend Eric Clapton (who was in love with Boyd while she was married to Harrison and who married her after the Harrisons divorced) also appear. Though there is a lot of talk about the internal politics that drove The Beatles apart, there is very little about how Harrison approached the song-writing process, how he became a talented and capable composer in his own right such that Frank Sinatra adopted one of his songs “Something” into his own repertoire, and why his talent was slow to develop to the extent that it was overshadowed for a long time by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

(Of course one of the problems in making a documentary about a dead person based entirely on interviews with the people who knew him is that they will often be inclined to speak well of him, rather than criticise his shortcomings, and this is certainly the case here with this documentary with the result that Harrison perhaps comes off as a better person than he actually deserves to be. His martial infidelities which cost him his marriage to Boyd are passed over. Plus one hardly expects the likes of McCartney to rue his and Lennon’s treatment of Harrison as an inferior in the song-writing department to the extent that Harrison’s contributions to The Beatles’ collective work were held to much higher standards than Lennon and McCartney’s compositions.)

Fittingly Part 1 ends with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, one of the great Beatles classics and the first such song to feature a guest musician (Eric Clapton on lead guitar) in a significant role, thus signalling Harrison’s eventual break away from The Beatles into his solo career and life which I presume will be covered by Part 2.

The documentary is aimed at people who know The Beatles’ music and something of their history and the times in which they lived. For others (mostly young people born after the 1970s), the documentary may be confusing and even pointless: Harrison wasn’t the most prolific member of the band and was certainly very self-effacing, and his otherworldly songs are not always the most pop-friendly chart-topping pieces. But perhaps that is all the more reason for Scorsese to have made a documentary about him. The film’s narrative structure seems very loose but that is deliberate: it’s intended to flow in a wandering way yet it still goes from A to B all the way to Z.

One Man Metal: brief survey of one-man black metal acts and their physical, psychological and social isolation

J Robinson  (Noisey / VICE) “One Man Metal” (2012)

An interesting if bare-bones three-part documentary, this film looks at three one-man black metal acts: Leviathan, Striborg and Xasthur as interviewed  by the Noisey / VICE reporter J Robinson. The artists talk about their music, how they were attracted to black metal and why they decided to record solo, playing all instruments on their albums and other recordings. Why did they strike out on their own, what inspires them and why do they live, work and compose and play music on their own, deliberately cutting themselves off from other people? Why do they not perform live but concentrate on writing music and playing and recording it for small audiences?

Not all these questions are answered but the three artists take Robinson and the audience into their worlds and we see something of the isolation, physical, psychological and spiritual, that surrounds them. Russell Menzies aka Sin Nanna who heads the Striborg project refers to the rural and wilderness surroundings of his farm home and how nature inspires him and his music. Jef Whitehead aka Wrest of Leviathan and Lurker of Chalice and Scott Conner aka Malefic of Xasthur may live in urban surrounds (Oakland and Alhambra in California respectively) but their inner worlds are also very isolated as they deal with personal pain and other demons in their lives. Of the three, Menzies / Sin Nanna comes across as goofy and eccentric, the most well-adjusted who happens to have a hobby his rural neighbours don’t understand; Jef Whitehead is a tragic figure who has had to deal with an unstable childhood and family life, personal tragedy and depression which led to a suicide attempt; and Scott Conner appears as a lost child, perhaps stuck in an immature phase still, in the body of a twenty or thirtysomething man.

The three artists are very guarded about their lives and personas, and we should perhaps take much of what they and Noisey say with a pinch of salt. Whitehead opened up a great deal about his life and experiences; by comparison, Conner preferred to talk about his music and influences, and what he’d like to do in the future. It seems that at some crucial point in their childhoods, Whitehead and Conner were spurned by people at home, in school or elsewhere, and from that moment they were lost. They exist on the fringes of society, eking out a living: Whitehead has a day-job as a tattoo artist while Conner doesn’t reveal what he does to pay his bills or if he exists on welfare. One interesting aspect about these men as musicians is that while their spare time revolves around music, they don’t invest heavily in musical gadgetry or gabble at length about their technical skills and what their instruments and equipment are capable of.

The entire documentary is filmed in black and white which shows up the dreariness of Conner’s surroundings and shrouds Wrest in shadow. Although Conner seems likeable and talks easily with Robinson, and is affectionate with a black cat that wanders into his room, it’s possible that in the past he had health issues which prevented him from experiencing normal social development and hindered his entry into the rat race.  The film makes no attempt to ask what it is about American society today that leaves so many people like Whitehead and Conner adrift. The scenes with Menzies show off the mysterious beauty of his Tasmanian temperate forest home; while some viewers might wish these scenes had been filmed in colour, the monochromatic filming emphasises the close bond between Menzies and nature.

Had the film had a bigger budget, Robinson might have delved more deeply into the musicians’ song-writing and the creative processes they adopt when composing and recording, plus he might have roped in other one-man black metal acts like Judas Iscariot, Krieg, Draugar, Sapthuran, Petrychor and Oskoreien to find out what it is about black metal that attracts so many loners and why in particular so much black metal about isolation, depression and despair is created by so many one-man American acts.

True Norwegian Black Metal (Vice documentary): a travel guide into the “world” of a black metal musician

Ivar Berglin and Peter Beste / Vice, “True Norwegian Black Metal” (2007)

Despite the title, this short documentary is a brief travel guide into the world of Gaahl, the lead vocalist for the Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth. Interviewer Ivar Berglin, photographer Peter Beste and one other guy are interested in why Gaahl, born Kristian Espedal in 1975, has such an extreme reputation for violence and apparent Satanism in Norway so they visit him at home in a remote mountain village. They initially find a very convivial man with a considerable wine collection who paints portraits in his spare time. Gaahl then takes the film crew through the forests and up a mountain to a wooden cabin, described as his “grandparents’ cabin; along the way, Beste films beautiful scenes of forest trees with boughs covered with snow.

The docmentary begins with a brief but quite effective survey of the history of black metal beginning with its origins in a British band called Venom in the early 1980s. Scandinavian bands such as Sweden’s Bathory and Denmark’s Hellhammer were inspired by Venom to develop a style based on what they considered to be truly dark aspects of human thought and behaviour and their example later inspired the black metal music sub-culture in Norway in the mid to late 1980s. Sensational crimes such as church-burning, attacking the elderly and immigrants, and Varg Vikernes’ murder of Mayhem’s lead guitarist Euronymous in 1993 brought the scene much unwelcome attention from the Norwegian mainstream media and beyond. Into this milieu arrived Gorgoroth whose members also received intense attention from the media and the police for acts of outrage and violence. Gaahl himself was imprisoned for beating up people and other acts of violence and at the time of his interview with the Vice team, had only recently been released from jail.

Initially appearing very much a typical news report with a fast pace, sharp edits and cuts, and a near-breathless reporting style, once the documentary starts focussing on Gaahl’s life in his remote mountain home, it becomes more intimate with a slower pace. As he takes the Vice reporting team through the forests and up a mountain in miserable weather, the reporters voice their annoyance at his actions and moan how they really came “for the music” when all the while Gaahl is showing them the source of the inspiration for his and Gorgoroth’s work!

In these later scenes, Gaahl is portrayed as a lone wolf who draws inspiration from nature and whose personal philosophy is inaccessible from the Vice reporting team, let alone the rest of the world. We are encouraged to empathise with Gaahl and his outlook on life.

Since its making, the documentary has been criticised for misreporting aspects of Gaahl’s life, among them the fact that he actually lives in an apartment in Bergen and does indeed socialise a lot. I don’t know if this misreporting was accidental or intentional but if it had been the latter, I confess to having fallen hook, line and sinker for the deception: the actual “plot” is sketchy, the film crew and Gaahl play their parts, and my own imagination fills in the details.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot: affectionate look at 1980s metal fans and an innocent world long gone

Jeff Krulik and John Heyn, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” (1986)

In the wake of news that British heavy metal band Judas Priest will cease touring and will be in the main a studio band, holding some live concerts from time to time perhaps, I thought it would be timely to sneak a peek at this documentary about the band’s fans made in 1986. The film was made in Largo, Maryland, during one of the band’s tours: this was probably just after the band had released “Turbo”, one of its lesser-selling efforts, featuring as it does synthesiser guitars which didn’t go down well with JP fans. The film-makers interviewed a number of concert-goers in the outdoor car-park in the afternoon as the early birds try to get a space and decent spots in the venue to see the band.

Most of the people interviewed are very young, ranging in age from thirteen to the early twenties with a few men in their late twenties and thirties; on the whole they are middle class and very friendly and obliging to the film-makers. They are well-mannered and enthusiastic about Judas Priest and other metal bands popular in the 1980s: mainly Dokken and Iron Maiden, with a couple of youngsters mentioning Metallica who were moving from the underground into the mainstream metal scene at the time. Several kids are sozzled on alcohol but they are well-behaved and colourful language is restricted to the occasional “f” word. Special mention must be made of the mop-topped boy wearing the “DC / 10” T-shirt who looks a little like Hollywood actor Adrien Brody: he excitedly performs an impersonation of JP singer Rob Halford singing “Living After Midnight” and ranks JP and Iron Maiden as first and (very distant) second respectively. Having heard Priest and Maiden myself – once upon a time, I owned four or five Priest albums including “Sad Wings of Destiny”, “British Steel” and “Screaming for Vengeance” and taped the song “Exciter” off the radio – I can’t help but agree with that assessment.

The police shepherding the young people into the car park and venue are gentle and friendly and there’s no sign of any hostility between the two groups. The officers are dressed as if for summer duties in their short-sleeved shirts and there’s hardly a baseball cap or set of bovver boots among them.

Watching this documentary was a real eye-opener: I couldn’t help but think of the 1980s as a joyful time when rock and metal were more innocent than now and the main aim was to party-party-party, get drunk and maybe get laid. As yet there are no songs about alienation, “Fade to Black” suicide, apocalyptic scenarios, depression or repressive governments locking down cities; then again, America in the 1980s was still fairly prosperous and young people aspired to attending college, maybe picking up postgraduate studies, and landing a decent well-paying job. If Metallica was becoming popular, it was more the speedy music and drummer Lars Ulrich’s puppyish Paul-McCartney looks than the lyrics attracting young people. Police and youth relations at least look genial. One might assume that one or two of the older guys were on the look-out for some naive nymphettes but one look at them and it seems obvious the fellas are there for the music and to practise their air-guitar fretboarding.

Perhaps later on when the concert ended and the kids were going back to their cars, there was trouble: I have heard that at one Judas Priest concert in the States during the 1980s (it could also have been in Canada for all I know), someone set the cars in the car-park alight and concert-goers were greeted with a bonfire on their return. Whatever, this is one documentary about the band that the JP men might treasure as part of their history: it’s short but it’s also a very affectionate look at ’80s metal fans, their passion, camaraderie and sense of fun and humour.

A welcome look at the importance of an independent label in the music industry through “Heavenly Pop Hits: the Flying Nun Story”

Mitchell Hawkes, “Heavenly Pop Hits: the Flying Nun Story” (2002)

A long overdue and welcome survey of a particular music scene at a particular time in a country that’s long been a minnow in global youth culture and music is this documentary about the New Zealand record label Flying Nun Records. Founded in 1981 by Roger Shepherd in Christchurch as a reaction against the domination of the large commercial record labels in the pop music industry and their imposition of a narrow set of values and expectations on music, the label originally intended to highlight the music scene in Christchurch but quickly began championing the emerging pop music scene in Dunedin, a city a few hundred kilometres south of Christchurch on the South Island. The label’s glory days soon followed with significant acts such as The Clean, The Verlaines, The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience (later renamed JPS Experience after being threatened by a lawsuit by the French philosopher’s estate), Scorched Earth Policy, The Dead C and Alastair Galbraith being signed up. The label faded as a power-player in the alternative music scene as various bands on the label either broke up or left to join other labels or market their own music and changes in ownership brought the label under Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation umbrella and then Time Warner. In 2009, Roger Shepherd bought back the label with financial help from three other New Zealand business partners including the musician Neil Finn and his wife, and is currently trying to build up the label’s reputation to what it was in the 1980s.

The documentary is well-made if very fast-paced and follows a general chronological narrative. Interviews with Shepherd, sound engineer Chris Knox who rose to virtual business partner of Shepherd and various Flying Nun alumni bands are mixed with archived music clips and snapshots of Dunedin city life, all united by narration by unseen speaker Hugh Sundae. Topics such as the label’s financial and administrative disorganisation (not a rare phenomenon among independent labels founded by enthusiastic music fans who had to learn how to run a business on the hop), the British music press’s snobbery towards New Zealand bands, the resistance of New Zealand radio stations towards playing local music that didn’t fit mainstream commercial imperatives, how the so-called jangly-guitar “Dunedin Sound” arose, various bands’ personal issues that played havoc with their careers and music, and the friction that often arose between the label and its bands because of lack of communication, the label’s chaotic running or just plain bad luck, all make appearances. Particular bands like The Clean, The Verlaines, The Chills, Straitjacket Fits, 3ds and Headless Chickens and their histories are featured.

As the 1980s progressed into the 1990s, FNR took on more adventurous, experimental or confrontational bands such as The Dead C, The Gordons / Bailter Space and The Skeptics, and the label’s inadequacies in managing its finances and the competing demands and requirements of its artists put increasing pressure on Shepherd and Knox in juggling their responsibilities. WEA Records and then Festival Mushroom Records stepped in with financial and business assistance and Shepherd, after over 15 years of running FNR, sold the label to Festival Mushroom. The influence of the new owners brought a new professionalism to FNR but some of the label’s endearing if wasteful ways were lost. At the time the documentary was made in 2002, FNR’s future looked hopeful – the end credits mention that Roger Shepherd was working in England as a wine merchant – but this was just before the label fell into a creative black hole under American ownership.

The documentary could have been tweaked in parts with some interviews shortened as it tends to drag in its second half, concentrating on some of FNR’s more significant artists, and its style seems a little too slick and professional for FNR, given that the label was as famous for its easy and lackadaisical approach to managing bands as it was for signing up and promoting underground acts in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin. While the film clips capture the New Zealand 1980s underground music scene’s energy and bubbliness, after a while they start looking generic and become tiresome. The music featured is varied for guitar-dominated indie pop jangle; only the more obscure acts like The Dead C, The Gordons (later Bailter Space) and The Skeptics really stick out for their uncompromising and sometimes confrontational styles of guitar rock with The Dead C making the jump into freeform improvised guitar noise that got my attention in the mid-1990s and makes the band still dear to me.

The issue of how a record label can reconcile encouraging wayward and uncomrpomising creativity with the need for bands to be disciplined enough to compose and record songs or other music and make money for themselves and for the label is an ever-present current throughout the film but is never really adequately addressed by the narration or the interviewees apart from Bruce Russell of The Dead C. An all too common problem also is that several of FNR’s bands like The Chills were on the verge of cracking global “alternative mainstream” music markets but failed due to lack of financial and moral support from either Shepherd or Knox as the two head honchos were often overwhelmed by their commitments or were too absorbed with finding new bands or indulging their other artists’ needs and preferences.

A revisit to FNR surely seems in order for Mitchell Hawkes and his film crew now that Roger Shepherd has regained control of his famous child; the label certainly could do with increased attention and some money! The documentary is highly informative and is a worthy history of a significant label whose influence was to spread around the world through its bands.

 

Modulations, Cinema for the Ear: boring and direction-less survey of electronic dance music genres from 1970s to 1990s

Iara Lee, “Modulations, Cinema for the Ear” (1998)

Billed as a history of electronic music and music technology in the 20th century. “Modulations …” turns out to be a survey of various electronically-based dance music genres from the 1970s to late 1990s as they developed in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. Some of the music might be nice and I did recognise some musicians and music journalists who were interviewed (Genesis P-orridge, Kodwo Eshun who used to write for The Wire music magazine, David Toop, illbient pioneer DJ Spooky, members of the 1970s German psychedelic experimental group Can) but I felt let down and cheated by the documentary’s emphasis on dance and rave music to the exclusion of everything else that happened in popular music and its associated subcultures since the late 1970s. Reliance on interviews with musicians, DJs, fans and journalists and their subjective views on dance music genres such as Detroit techno, house, jungle and their various spin-offs with no over-arching voice-over narration to tie all the different points of view together makes for a fragmented assemblage from which viewers have to piece together the competing genres into a time-line in which the genres exist in parallel on both sides of the North Atlantic pond. There’s no attempt on the film-makers’ part to make sense of the dance music phenomenon and what it says about youth culture and why it arose and became popular when it did. As the film progresses, the lack of an over-arching structure and direction means the documentary risks being boring with the constant parade of talking heads spliced with snippets of live and studio performances, some animation and general film footage.

The documentary begins with Genesis P-orridge talking about how early forms of experimental music were inspired by the cut-up techniques of William S Burroughs (in which bits and pieces of prose are cut out of their original paragraphs or story and spliced together to suggest something new or different). There is a progression from musique concrete, a genre of experimental music developed in France which uses found sound and field recordings as material for creating original music, to Detroit techno (a form of house music that arose in Detroit in the late 1980s) to jungle, a UK genre combining hiphop and elements of techno. The scene then shifts to the US to investigate disco and the rise of house in Chicago in the 1980s, combining disco with electronic influences from the German band Kraftwerk. This calls for another leap back to Europe to investigate genres like gabba (a Dutch form of techno using hyper-fast beats and an aggressive approach) and ambient versions of house.

The film’s attempt to emulate the energy and pace of the genres it covers is understandable but without an unseen narrator to tie the quick edited shots and the interviews together, “Modulations …” will lose viewers quickly. Showing snapshots of interviews rather than large passages from them loses the context necessary to understand statements made by interviewees and some of what they say could be misinterpreted by viewers. Interviewees and the people and scenes they talk about end up coming across as self-centred, hedonistic and uncaring when such may not be the case. If the purpose of much dance electronica is to induce a trance-like state through repetition, speed and over-stimulation / over-saturation of the senses with colour, sound, smell and image, that isn’t to be derided as self-indulgent: people may find their own freedom, liberation or a sense of community and oneness with others that way. The use of drugs like ecstasy is a means to an end, not a self-indulgent activity in itself, though it must be said that precautions such as drinking lots of water while dancing and ingesting ecstasy are necessary and that it’s the illegal status of ecstasy, not the actual drug itself, that could be encouraging organised crime to control its distribution networks and to tamper with its purity.

The really interesting moment comes about the 47th minute when some American house fans and DJ Spooky talk about anomie and passivity in modern Western society, and how many people feel alienated, bored and unengaged with their cultural surroundings. This is an interesting point that the documentary could have taken up to show how modern dance electronica culture can alleviate such feelings and encourage people to feel connected to others. Another interesting moment is a camera shot of Asian women workers, some looking middle-aged, in a factory inspecting synthesisiers and samplers: what do these women think of these instruments, do they know who uses them and how they are used, do they know what music is made with them? What are these women paid for making and inspecting these instruments, and do they feel proud of their work?

Though the film does mention experimental music pioneers like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer, Genesis P-orridge and Pierre Henry are interviewed and there’s even a very brief shot of Japanese noisician Masami Akita of Merzbow fame playing live, there’s no coverage of any other form of electronic-based music that isn’t dance or rhythm-based: there’s no mention of isolationist music, formal composition or improvised music that uses electronics, industrial, power electronics or noise music. If the film had been packaged and presented as a documentary on the history of dance music and that only, then it has historical value but as it is, it’s a jumbled collection of talking heads and music clips that fails to do much justice to a set of music genres that in their own way try to celebrate individuality, freedom, diversity and tolerance.

What the Future Sounded Like: modest little documentary on a pioneering electronic music company in Britain

Matthew Bate, “What the Future Sounded Like” (2006)

Here be a good little documentary about the synthesiser company Electronic Music Studios (London) Ltd, formed by British composers Peter Zinovieff and Tristram Cary (died 2008) and engineer David Cockerell in 1969, to create, build and sell synthesisers that could produce a wide range of musical tones and sounds yet sell at prices affordable by the public or professional musicians at least anyway. The film uses a mix of interviews with all three founders of EMS and various others including Dave Brock the guitarist of the British space-rock institution Hawkwind, old archived film reels, photographs, newspaper cuttings and some animation to build up an affectionate tribute to three early pioneers of electronic music composition and instrument production.

The documentary begins with the backgrounds of Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff as composers and musicians working in electronic music in the 1950s; in those days, electronic music was regarded as very avant-garde and experimental in Britain and the genre in that country was hardly developed compared to its equivalent in France, Germany and the United States. Tristram Cary briefly refers to his career as a radar engineer during World War II as a launch-pad for developing his concepts of electronic music and talks about his early work in musique concrete (a French genre of music using field recordings and found sounds) and meeting like-minded composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen in his travels in Europe. Zinovieff, descended from Russian aristocrats who fled to London after the Russian Revolution in 1917, built his own home music studio with electronic music equipment and along the way met David Cockerell. Discovering Cary, the two then found EMS with Cary and started building their first commercial synthesiser, the EMS VCS3.

Due perhaps to its limited budget, the documentary only includes one famous musician as an interviewee and that’s Dave Brock; it is disappointing that other famous musicians who used the VCS3 don’t appear to give their opinions on the instrument. Video clips of Hawkwind and a very gaudy Roxy Music wih Brian Eno playing the VCS3 enliven the film. Other famous bands known to have bought and used the VCS3 include Pink Floyd, who used it on their album “Dark Side of the Moon”, and Kraftwerk.

Disappointingly the documentary doesn’t say why EMS failed to get much financial support from the British government – one suspects that Zinovieff, Cary and Cockerell should have got an accountant / office manager to look after the paperwork instead of trying to do everything themselves – and how the company became bankrupt even though its studios and equipment were much patronised by many famous rock and electronic music artists of the time. After EMS broke up, Cary returned to composing music and later emigrated to Australia where he worked at the University of Adelaide until 1986. The EMS equipment was sold or warehoused and much of it fell into ruin. Some equipment has now been restored.

The music featured in the documentary includes Cary and Zinovieff’s own compositions which are the best part of the entire film: Cary’s music doesn’t seem all that remarkable and Zinovieff’s pieces are distinguishable mainly as early digital-computer pointillist tone poems.

The film could have made a point about how isolated musicians dabbling in extreme experimental forms often can be, to the extent that each and every one has to reinvent the musical wheel for himself/herself as it were and only later discovers that other people were doing the same thing at the same time (and everybody wishing, If only I had known these people earlier!), and the level of public resistance and wariness towards a new art form in the 1950s and 60s. The film also could have stressed the difficulties EMS had in getting money, promoting and selling their product, and the reactions they might have encountered from UK government arts bodies in applying for grants. It’s possible that Cary, Zinovieff and Cockerell didn’t have much business acumen among themselves and needed help and direction in marketing and selling their product. There is nothing that might suggest the impact EMS had on experimental electronic music generally or on further technical developments in music production and recording and how the company might have affected the direction of pop and rock on one hand, and of experimental electronic music on the other.

Overall this is a good introduction to the history of electronic music and the way in which it infiltrated gradually into the public consciousness and mainstream music in the 1970s but not much more can be said about the film.