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.

Satan Rides the Media: how media sensationalism helped create a legend and a cult

Torstein Grude, “Satan Rides the Media” / “Satan rir media” (1998)

Focussing on the sensational murder of Norwegian black metal musician Oystein Aarseth aka Euronymous by fellow musician Varg Vikernes aka Count Grishnackh in Oslo in 1993, the media hysteria that followed Vikernes’s trial in 1996 and the issue of church burnings by black metal followers generally through the 1990s, this documentary raises the question of the interplay between media sensationalism and the tendency of people in the media spotlight to play up to and manipulate news reporters with provocative stories and actions, many of which turn out to be untrue.

Using interviews with black metal musicians, police, journalists and academics, Grude builds up a clear and complex picture of the media cooking up stories about the supposed Satanic outrages of a small underground music scene whose main crimes until Euronymous’s murder were of church arson, how these stories were used by Vikerenes himself to gain sympathy among young people, and how the stories actually hindered police investigations into other crimes suspected of a connection with the black metal scene. Musicians freely admit that they deliberately used shocking images to create spectacle and theatre, to scare people, to release emotion and relieve social pressures on young people in contemporary Norwegian society. Journalists from the Bergen Tidende and other Norwegian newspapers admit to making up and embellishing stories about blood-drinking, sacrifices and Satanic worship when nothing of the kind ever occurred. Academics and police pour scorn on the sensationalist aspects of the black metal subculture which the media fabricated and obsessed over.

What gets lost amid the media hysteria is why black metal blossomed as it did in Norway and nowhere else: what was it about Norwegian society in the 1980s that a group of young people felt alienated and got together to create and play extremely aggressive and violent music that attracted people of like mind and yearning and which also drew in attitudes and behaviours that eventually spiralled out of control? A significant issue is that once Vikernes was arrested for murdering Euronymous, people in the BM scene started to open up to police about crimes committed by others they knew in the scene and provided details that often pointed to Vikernes’s involvement; as though Vikernes’s arrest was a relief and a heavy burden had now been suddenly removed. This might suggest that the level of alienation in Norway among young people in this scene was so great that though they obviously needed guidance from adults, they felt unable to ask for it and the adults did not or could not see that the youngsters were in trouble.

There is also some cursory treatment of black metal’s stand against institutional Christianity: in some of his interviews Varg Vikernes makes very valid points about the forced conversion of the Norse people in Norway to Christianity under Olaf Tryggvason who reigned as King Olav I from 995 to 1000. Olaf Tryggvason used violence, torture and death to terrorise and steamroll his people into accepting Christian beliefs. Temples dedicated to worshipping Odin and his retinue were razed and Christian churches, usually made of wood, were built over their remains; hence, black metallers who resented Christian hypocrisy and Christianity’s history of oppression against non-believers believed they were dealing out justice to an evil force by burning its houses of worship. It’s possible that much of the conformity and the sanctimonious morality of Scandinavian society, disguised as egalitarianism and fair justice for all, can be put down to Christian oppression of individuality and encouraged a passive aggression that found release in black metal.

Vikernes comes across as intelligent but self-serving: he blames his problems and his arrest on others; in court scenes, he plays up to the media and his fanbase. Other musicians say he liked to provoke people and stir up trouble to get attention for himself, his albums and for the black metal scene generally while Euronymous was keen to keep the subculture small and exclusive, the better perhaps to control and direct it. After his imprisonment – he was sentenced to jail for 21 years, the maximum allowed in Norway – Vikernes continued to be a source of unhealthy media speculation which kept linking him to church burnings and murders in other countries. As recently as 2004, a teenager burned down a church in Moonee Ponds in Melbourne, Australia, under the supposed influence of Vikernes and his Burzum project and was sentenced to three years working in a youth training centre. The church itself has been replaced by a community park.

That these issues are made very clear is a tribute to the director and his crew who made the film: some of the issues may seem complicated but they are easy to follow and the film’s style is straightforward and matter-of-fact. One might expect a lot of black metal music in the background but there isn’t much there at all; I was so absorbed in listening to the issues that emerged from Vikernes’ trial and the accompanying circus that any music that might have been there became completely invisible (or inaudible rather). For most of the film’s running time, Grude lets his interview subjects do the talking and drive the documentary, and there is little voice-over narration. It would be good if Grude had the time and resources to revisit the documentary and find out what has happened to the people involved in the case (especially Vikernes now that he is out of jail and keeping busy recording new albums and spending time with his family on his farm) and perhaps record a follow-up documentary.

Pierre Henry, or the Art of Sounds: subjective documentary says nothing about pioneer’s place in experimental music

Eric Darmon, Franck Mallet, “Pierre Henry, or the Art of Sounds” (2006)

A so-so documentary about the French experimental music pioneer, Pierre Henry, who with his mentor and early collaborator Pierre Schaeffer, helped create musique concrete, a style of avant-garde / experimental music using recordings of everyday sound as material for constructing musical works. The film’s focus is to follow Henry closely as he bustles about his routine at home, records his music in the studio or perform before a live audience. Excerpts of Henry’s music, beginning with an early gig before a bemused audience of young and old in the 1950s, feature throughout the documentary in more or less chronological order; a mix of archival material and present-day film accompanies the music.

The musical soundtrack of snippets of Henry’s work is playful and quite spacious, often energetic and whimsical in nature. One work is titled “The Love Life of the Octopus” and it is indeed a curious and humorous aural survey of how a bunch of cephalopods flirt and court each other with plenty of, erm, tentacle sex (just not of the porn kind). The early music is fairly abstract and seems deliberately provocative; the later music, especially the music composed in the period after the year 2000, turns out to be disappointingly very conventional, even a bit lazy, with wholesale looping orchestral-music samples overlaid by clicks and bits of noise. There may be rhythm (achieved with sound loops) and the music can be strongly layered and dance-oriented; even so, the sound is always sharp and clear. In one work, “Berlin, Symphonie der Grosser Stadt”, Henry uses samples of an old Jimi Hendrix piece as a major part of the opus.

Following Henry closely and featuring just his voice, the documentary is strongly subjectve: viewers learn about his work methods, what he aims to do and what he strives for. He talks about the things that have influenced and which continue to influence him (for example, his library which seems heavily swayed towards art); the sounds he heard in his childhood; his audience; his experiences as a public musical performer; and the concert as a place of ritual. We do not learn about Henry’s setbacks and failures if there were any; according to the film, Henry seems to have had a steady if not hugely successful career as an experimental music composer/performer.

Viewers get no sense of how successful, popular or influential Henry has been in the course of his career: the film could be much, much better if it had examined Henry’s place in the music world. Interviews with French and other experimental music-makers, producers, concert organisers and roadies would have been enough to convey some of the magnitude of Henry’s renown without making him look like an ageing hippie rock star. Henry’s friend Bernadette and their lady-friend stay more or less in the background; how they met Henry and what they think of him as a musician and composer of obscure experimental music are never known. The ladies are very long-suffering especially when Henry holds regular and well-attended recitals of abstract electronic music in the narrow confines of his house where the walls are positively stuffed with shelves of obscure art books!

For viewers unfamiliar with Henry’s work, the time-line of significant pieces which include ballet and music scored for operas can be confusing: overally, it is chronological with maybe jumps going back a few years before the forward pace takes over again. Curiously, Henry’s childhood experiences with sound come very near the end of the film when one would expect such influences on his music to come close to the beginning.

The music is much more melodic than might be expected from an abstract genre and is perhaps the best part of the film. Henry and only Henry talking about himself and his music can be boring – the fellow makes no concessions to viewers by trying to be entertaining and can come across as a slightly grumpy old git – and maybe something from Bernadette or the other lady-friend would have given us a different angle on Henry himself or his music. While we are fortunate to have any documentaries at all on early pioneers of experimental music who are happy to share with others their methods of working, how they approach creating a new work and how they feel about performing in public, at the end of the day I think a better and more objective documentary on Henry could have made and viewers would have a sense of his importance in the history and advancement of experimental music.

The show goes on in “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 2)”

Matt O’Casey, “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 2)”

Contrary to my expectations, knowing something of the band’s history, I found the second part of the BBC2 documentary more interesting and involving than the first part. The episode is a more unified piece and is entirely a straightforward account of the band’s years from the “Flash Gordon” album, released in 1980, up to and beyond Freddie Mercury’s death from AIDS. As in the first part, the narrative is based entirely on interviews with remaining band members Brian May and Roger Taylor (John Deacon having retired from music soon after Queen’s break-up in 1992) and other significant people who worked with the band during the 1980s.

The main issues that arise in the documentary include those that plague many bands after they achieve success: a search for a new direction after having reached the top; the drop-off in creativity and originality combined with the struggle to keep pumping out the hits; getting on one another’s nerves after being together so long and wanting to do different things that may not agree with your band-mates. With Mercury finally acknowledging his homosexuality and finding acceptance in the gay community in the early 1980s, Queen starts drifting apart in musical taste and direction at a time when the band most needs to consolidate its reputation in the United States; after a trail of literal hits followed by misses, by 1984 the musicians finally realise they will never conquer middle America, the country too conservative and restricted in culture, taste and humour. By this time having successfully toured Argentina and Brazil and playing to huge crowds in football stadiums, the members console themselves by writing and releasing more material, playing Live Aid and touring eastern Europe. The Live Aid show in 1985 is particularly invigorating and leads to a renewed purpose which doesn’t last long; by the time the band reaches the end of its 1986 tour in Wembley Stadium in London, May and Taylor already have a hunch that Mercury isn’t up to performing at his usual high level of intensity and that he is already unwell.

The other significant issue that arises is the extent to which the band compromises with the political context the members find themselves in, in agreeing to tour Brazil and Argentina, then both ruled by military fascist governments in the early 1980s, and later playing Sun City in one of the bantustans in South Africa in the mid-1980s. Although May and Taylor stoutly defend the decision to play Sun City and the band did donate the concert proceeds to charity, their justification never sounds quite convincing and the two appear to be trying to convince themselves more than their interviewer. Of course their dilemma pales in comparison with, say, the astounding hypocrisy of U2’s decision to relocate their tax base in the Netherlands after Ireland’s taxation law reform in 2006 which would have required the U2 members to pay a higher rate of tax; while minimising your income tax in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, this combined with U2 and in particular Bono’s self-promotion as leaders of charity and other “social justice” causes leaves a very sour taste in the mouth – but in the more “innocent” 1980s, to go to Sun City supposedly to play to mixed-race audiences in a country where racial segregation was a fact of everyday life was a very naive decision for people who had university degrees as Queen did.

The period from 1986 to November 1991 when Mercury died is portrayed as fairly heart-breaking; Mercury’s condition goes from bad to worse and then some. There’s a whiff of manipulation here: in 1988, Mercury managed to fit in a musical collaboration with the Catalan-Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe which is not mentioned in the documentary. Video clips alone demonstrate the ravages of AIDS on Mercury’s looks: despite a defiant blazing-eyed attitude in “I’m Going Slightly Mad”, he is shrunken and gaunt in most filmed appearances. The film filters for Queen’s last video clip are deliberately clouded over to soften Mercury’s heavily made-up features.

The documentary quickly sweeps through Mercury’s death and funeral, and the prurient attention this sparked in the Murdoch tabloid press, and concludes with the 1992 Wembley Stadium send-off that featured several famous singers of the time on a run-through of beloved Queen hits. There’s a quick race through post-Mercury projects including a musical and a collaboration with Paul Rodgers but surprisingly nothing about Queen’s actual impact on their public and on other musicians in particular.

As in the first episode, none of Mercury’s close associates appear to elucidate or defend some of his actions and the behaviour that resulted in his contracting AIDS. The fact that John Deacon doesn’t appear as an interviewee is also a blow as he was responsible for some of the band’s biggest hit-single successes during the 1980s. As a slightly more detached member of the band through much of its history, Deacon is an ideal person to offer a different though still first-hand perspective on his band-mates’ decisions and actions; May and Taylor are simply too close to Mercury as friends to offer a critical view of him though May at least tries.

The episode is better than I thought it would be: the songs that Queen offered in the 1980s aren’t anywhere near as good as what they pumped out in the previous decade but the episode does show that even when a band achieves success, the commercial pressures to maintain that level of achievement increase. It may very well be that such pressures to keep banging out hits sapped the band’s creativity and encouraged Mercury’s self-destructive behaviour. Away from the stage, Mercury was known to be shy and introverted and possibly he found the disconnect between his stage persona and his actual personality to be too much for him to handle.


Just another ordinary rock music documentary in “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 1)”

Matt O’Casey, “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 1)” (2011)

To mark the 40th anniversary of a beloved British rock music institution, the BBC made this 2-part series featuring apparently rare interviews and until now unseen archival film material. Part 1 covers the band’s early history from its formation up to the early 1980s and includes the first seven albums. The episode revolves around two of the remaining band members, lead guitarist Brian and drummer Roger Taylor, speaking to an unseen interviewer and reminiscing about significant periods in the band’s career; other people associated with the band, like John Reid who managed Queen for a brief time in the late 1970s and producer Roy Thomas Baker are also interviewed. Band recordings relevant to the passages that proceed chronologically enliven what is a basically straightforward retelling of Queen’s 1970s history which is further spiced with music video clips and a bit of old late 1970s social background context when punk and new wave erupted in the UK and for a while made Queen look dangerously antiquated.

In its first half-hour the film whooshes through the band’s timeline with an emphasis on how particular songs were put together and recorded in the studio. The second half-hour relaxes into an amble through a number of issues that affected Queen’s career throughout the decade such as the tension between preserving musical integrity and the drive for commercial success, creativity under pressure and production expenses, the hostility of the music press, the ownership of songs and the naivety of American audiences confronted by the band’s deliberate artifice and camp image. Parts of this section aren’t always interesting and feature trivia that don’t add much to viewers’ understanding of why the band formed, why the members were so hungry for success and recognition and the song-writing and recording process. Not much really has to be done by the film crew save for ensuring that the images have a structure most viewers can follow: to some extent the music itself reflects and suggests progress and change, and the band’s upward career trajectory in the 1970s and early 1980s conveniently fills out part of the episode in an entertaining way.

Ultimately the episode isn’t very in-depth and merely falls into the kind of conventional rock music documentary territory that dutifully recounts the peaks and troughs of the band’s career. I for one would really like to know what drove singer Freddie Mercury into wanting to be not just another rock or pop singer but a legend, how he developed his singing style and stage act, and what people or styles of music influenced him when he was young. The fact that Mercury was of Parsi Indian ancestry and grew up in an environment heavily influenced by British colonial culture, Zoroastrian culture and others against a multicultural background in India and the-then Tanganyika and Zanzibar territories must have had considerable effect on his vocal style, visual presentation and song-writing approach but the film says nothing about this. The film omits interviews with significant people in Mercury’s life including his girlfriend Mary Austin and family members who might have shed some interesting or revealing light on his motivations and character. Also early music influences on the band overall – influences that would have included 1960s psychedelic rock, early 1970s progressive rock and early heavy metal among others- aren’t covered much.

Shame that an opportunity to look at Queen’s career in a way different from how most rock music documentaries are done was wasted. This particular number will soon join the ranks of other ho-hum TV biographies and be forgotten by most people apart from Queen fans.

Black Metal Satanica: not very Satanic and not very informative

Mats Lundberg, “Black Metal Satanica” (2008)

This documentary promised initially to be a fairly in-depth investigation of the Scandinavian black metal music scene and its agenda and for the first half hour “Black Metal Satanica” did entertain with a pleasing mix of band interviews, music and historical archive material. Over the rest of its 80-minute course though the film deteriorated into an unfocussed parade of interviews which suggests director Lundberg lost control of the project and let the musicians he interviewed take over. I was quite disappointed at how the film turned out as the mostly Swedish interviewees were well-spoken, polite and thoughtful, and offered interesting insights into the general tenor of the scene and their own motivations for joining it; they gave the impression of being able to answer almost any challenging and provocative questions Lundberg could have put to them. The film also offers snapshots of very interesting and often expressionistic black metal film clips and energetic concert footage. The mostly black metal music soundtrack which also features a little ambient music and even some Christian church choral music in parts runs throughout the film and gives it an energetic and aggressive ambience though it is never intrusive.

The most interesting section of the film is its examination of black metal’s opposition to Christianity and how this derives from the history of Christian proselytisation in Scandinavia at the tail-end of the Viking period: in many parts of Norway and Sweden, communities were forced to accept Christianity and baptism under threat of invasion. The film omits to add that temples dedicated to Odin worship were razed and churches built in their stead which would have explained the church burnings that mentioned later on. A link is made between Scandinavia’s Viking history and culture on the one hand and black metal on the other in a superficial way: the interviewees talk about self-respect and resisting the Christian influence on current society but there is little about the appeal of Viking values such as individualism, curiosity, an adventurous spirit which drove the Vikings to explore and colonise Iceland, Greenland and parts of North America, self-reliance and a desire to beat the elements, transcend death and be remembered for heroic exploits.

After this stirring episode, the film investigates early inspirations like the northern European physical environment and climate, and bands like Bathory, Mayhem and Burzum on black metal generally (no mention of Darkthrone and Emperor?) and delves into various black metal recreations such as grave desecrations, murdering homosexual men, church burnings, studying Anton Szandor LaVey’s Satanic Bible, self-mutilation and apocalyptic fantasies. Distinguishing between Norwegian and Swedish BM is non-existent; the credits that introduce each interviewee/s at least could have indicated which country they were from and Lundberg could have asked some Swedish subjects about when and how BM became popular in Sweden. I begin to wonder whether Lundberg is becoming enthralled or overwhelmed by the style of BM rather than its substance. There is plenty substantial that is suggested by the interviewees and the activities covered here which is not covered in much depth: black metal’s emphasis on pseudo-Nietzschean elitism, freedom of expression and individuality, and closeness to and concern for nature which lead to a love of land, nationalism and Romanticism (and National Socialist beliefs) which in their turn feed a hatred of humanity, pessimism about the future of the planet and ultimately a desire for an apocalypse or a series of disaster events that will sweep humans away into the dustbin of history and cleanse the Earth.

(I always smile wryly whenever I hear or see people say that a concern for the environment indicates a left-wing / socialist point of view with a concern for social justice: I only have to think of what I learned at high school and read in books and on the Internet since to remember that the one time when a bunch of nature-worshippers and environmentalists plus others among them took over an entire government by themselves was in Germany from 1933 to mid-1945. Even today, First World environmentalists frequently advocate one position or policy after another in various Third World countries without considering the impact their ideas might have on the people who would have to live with the fallout as well as the intended results: not a good look, I’m afraid.)

Past the halfway point, the narrator with the irritating American accent drops out and the film becomes a series of the same talking heads covering familiar ground. At one point the topic of Christian black metal (a mostly American sub-genre phenomenon in which BM elements are in the employ of a robust take-no-prisoners Christianity that shoots first before proffering the other cheek) is broached to the interviewees who express surprise and disbelief and for a brief moment the film shows some sparkle. When the closing credits arrive, I realise I didn’t learn much from “Black Metal Satanica” that I wasn’t already aware of and that there is plenty more Lundberg and his guests could have spoken about. Why does black metal have an elitist point of view rather than an inclusive democratic one? How much influence does Nietzschean philosophy have on the music and the sub-culture that surrounds it? Is that influence a superficial one or are black metal followers aware that to be an Übermensch, one must not only continually test oneself against insuperable odds but welcome such tests joyfully?

Black Metal Satanica? – not very much so as it turns out: the film serves best as an introduction for viewers not familiar with BM who moreover will have to do some extra homework on the BM agenda if they want to understand it fully.

Once upon a time in Norway: film misses a lesson about social conformism

Pål Aasdal, Martin Ledang “Once upon a time in Norway” (2007)

This one-hour film is a straightforward blow-by-blow chronological account of the early career of Mayhem, one of the pioneer bands of Norwegian black metal which since the late 1980s has exploded across the world and become Norway’s most significant cultural export and contribution to international youth music and culture. Mayhem itself continues on an on/off basis with bassist Necrobutcher and drummer Hellhammer at the helm since 1995. The documentary concentrates on the band’s history from its 1984 founding by guitarist Oystein Aarseth aka Euronymous and Necrobutcher through its revolving-door personnel up to and just a little beyond Euronymous’s murder by Varg Vikernes in 1993. The film is good and very informative but I feel it could have lightened up on the information and gone for a more general overview of Mayhem’s history and the birth of black metal.

The film’s structure is dominated by interviews with various members and ex-members of Mayhem including Necrobutcher himself, Kjetil Manheim and Billy Nordheim, and various friends and associates including Darkthrone guitarist Nocturno Culto, musician Anders Odden and ex-Emperor man Tchort. Almost immediately the major focus of the interviews is Euronymous, in particular his attempt to dominate and control the music’s development and direction, and his eccentric character and bizarre sense of humour: these factors led directly or indirectly to his death. There is some discussion of Mayhem’s musical and philosophical inspirations and of the band members’ desire to create fast, aggressive and extreme music with the intent to shock. The musicians admit to flirting with Satanic beliefs, Nietzschean philosophy in a rather superficial way, nihilism and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy: anything that legitimised and support their desire to shock and rebel against perceived traditional authorities in Norwegian society. There is little investigation in the film of the philosophical underpinnings of black metal apart from the musicians’ own observations otherwise.

As the film progresses, slowly but surely – there is a lot of talk and the detail about what Euronymous got up to, his political beliefs and his attempt to run a record shop and label is immense – viewers get an inexorable sense of progress towards the moment when Euronymous is killed so when the murder does happen, it comes as an emotionless, matter-of-fact anti-climax. Perhaps the film-makers’ approach to making the documentary is just too calm and measured for the subject matter. Even the discussion of various church burnings that took place around Norway, including the destruction of the historic Fantoft stave church (it was rebuilt by 1997), in the early 1990s by fanatical black metal fans and hangers-on appears relatively unemotional, at least to my Australian senses. Norwegians are such cool, calm and collected characters!

As would be expected, excerpts of early Mayhem songs are played here and there though in my opinion there is just not enough music to carry the film. The overall tone can be very dry, even intellectual. The passage dealing with Swedish vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin, his psychological problems (he was possibly borderline schizophrenic), a near-death experience as a child and his gunshot suicide comes across as very clinical. With a film like this, there needs to be a fair amount of music throughout the proceedings to convey a sense of urgency and passion; to help viewers understand the power of black metal and how it inspired a small group of socially alienated individuals; and ultimately to inspire viewers themselves to find out more about the early Norwegian black metal scene and check out classic works like Mayhem’s first album “De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas”, Emperor’s “In the Nightside Eclipse” and Darkthrone’s “A Blaze in the Northern Sky”.

Maybe the documentary could have concentrated less on the details of Mayhem’s history and a little more on issues such as the cultural policing of the extent and boundaries of black metal vis-a-vis death metal and other forms of heavy metal, an obsession beloved of heavy metal magazines and websites; the rivalry between Norwegian black metal bands and Swedish death metal bands which reflects past historical resentments; when talking about doing something itself becomes dangerous if it inspires others to carry out the act spoken of; and burning churches as a way of gaining acceptance into a social network and later gaining power over it.  There’s an interesting diversion when interviewees talk about why Euronymous took photographs of Dead’s death scene: was Euronymous really that twisted or did he take the photos as a way of “proving” to himself and to others that Dead really was dead? Many people find accepting a piece of news difficult until they have seen it for themselves on the TV news or in the newspapers.

The narrow focus of the documentary also means an elephant in the room is completely missed: just what social conditions prevailed in Norway in the 1980s that a group of young men, well brought up, highly intelligent and very likeable, should feel alienated from society enough that they find relief in playing extreme music and through that end up involved in extreme behaviours such as beating up homosexuals and elderly people, burning churches and killing people? People outside Scandinavia imagine the region as a social democratic welfare-state utopia where everyone is equal and laws provide for equal and easy access to necessary resources. Crime rates are low and social problems are dealt with promptly and efficiently by government agencies. At the same time the egalitarian values of Scandinavian societies, laudable though they are, may mask a suffocating, mean-spirited conformism known as the Jante Law in Scandinavia and the Tall Poppy syndrome in Anglophone countries. This is an unwritten set of conventions which restrict, criticise or even punish individual achievement and elevate the collective above the individual. Could it be then that the Jante Law restricted young people then and restricts young people now from finding their place in Norwegian society as is? Does Norwegian society (or any other advanced Western society for that matter) provide adequate creative outlets for youth so that when they do things that threaten to get out of control, there is an agency or a code of etiquette or conventions that can provide them with advice and guidance so they can rein in their impulses themselves? A lesson that could be learned from this documentary is missed.