Friday, 26 December 2008

Great Underappreciated or Obscure Albums 7: Y by The Pop Group (1979)

It may be a cliche, but the moment Punk rock crept into my life completely set my world on its head. Up until then, my music exploration was still -albeit less and less- in thrall to those three God-bands of student idleness: The Doors, Led Zeppelin and, most hackneyed of all, Pink Floyd. In fairness, I had always been more Jefferson Airplane and Love-centric than Jim and co, whilst I always held more admiration for Black Sabbath than for the Zep (much to the chagrin of my Page-loving pals); plus, I had long since become a devotee of Neil Young and David Bowie (all periods), so I guess I can say I was moving away from those student staples, at least slightly.

But Punk slammed into this like someone taking a dump in a Regent's Park lake next to the swans (Sid Vicious, maybe?). It was through a Rock & Folk anthology. Now, that magazine may be France's putrid answer to the UK's NME, with all the sycophantic Doherty-loving to boot, but at least they know their punk (at least of the seventies and eighties, sadly Blink 182 then seems to swindle them). The magazine blew my mind, as I trawled through the history of the UK's most controversial rock genre, with a rest-stop in NYC, taking in -like some musico-literary sponge- The Damned's first New York gig (all capes and gobbing), The Pistols' McClaren-devised publicity stunts, Suicide's literally knife-edged encounter with UK audiences, Siouxsie's first ramshackle gig, Rock against Racism and all the rest. It vibrated unrest, sexual deviance, rebellion and disdain, and I was hooked. I ripped up some of my t-shirts, turned my nose up at my friends' Floyd-and-Morrison adulations and turned from pot to pills and booze. I was never going to be a real punk, but my record collection would. Out went the prog, the classic rock (though I maintained a weird affection for Frampton Comes Alive - should I admit to that??) and the country, in came a list of names that still remain legendary for me, long after I put my dogmatism away and re-expanded my tastes: Buzzcocks, The Stranglers, The Slits, Television, Magazine, The Clash, The Jam, Patti Smith, The Undertones, The Damned, The Saints, PiL...

Of course, Punk would never last, and much of it proved to be a facade. The Pistols, The Clash, The Jam and Buzzcocks all signed to major record labels. The most forward-thinking bands of the first punk wave were met with disdain and hatred (Suicide, Throbbing Gristle, even Television and the Ramones). Ultimately, we all should have paid more attention to Johnny Rotten than to Sid Vicious. For whilst the former ditched the crass commercialism of McClaren's Pistols and turned to more challenging straights with PiL, name-checking Van Der Graaf Generator and Neil Young along the way, the latter burned out in a blaze of silly excess and cheap sensationalism. And Punk died, leading the way for tacky imitations such as Blink, Sum 41, Green Day and The Libertines.

But, what a lot of those who lament Punk's broken promises neglect to notice or concentrate upon, is that, from those halcyon years of 1977 to 1982, we have, despite all I've just written, been left with some of the most sensational music ever made. No less. Typically, the best of it came from 78 (symbolically, the year the Pistols split up)-onwards, and by that time, Punk in its purest, most incompetent, snotty-nosed and brutal form, had made way for bands that were eager to experiment, broaden their horizons and go beyond the confines of three-chord thrashing. Think Siouxsie and the Banshees, the aforementioned PiL, Talking Heads, This Heat, Throbbing Gristle, Magazine, Joy Division, and many others.

What Punk did is wipe the slate clean. The significance of Rotten's praise for Van der Graaf Generator is great. They were the black sheep of that most hated (by Punks) of genres: progressive rock. They were smart, intellectual, long-winded. But Rotten (by then back to being John Lydon) also could see that they were aggressive, nihilistic and violent, propelled by the dark visions of their screaming lead singer, Peter Hammill. In 1977, VdGG played at Punk's signature venue, The Marquee. They played long songs, full of odd time shifts, arcane lyrics (no political sloganeering here!) and lyrical musical breaks. Yet the Punks loved them. Because they had the very same passion, intelligence and sense of adventure that characterised the Blank Generation, and had become the undoing of the moral establishment and the rock aristocracy. Punk was about ripping down complacency and prejudice. Whether it was a singer-songwriter (Young), Glam Rocker (Marc Bolan, who played with The Damned), a prog band (VdGG) or a fast'n'loud punk quartet, if you had the balls, energy and bile, you could play ball.

And play ball they did. In the wake of Punk's first wave, Goth, New Wave, Post Punk, Electro-pop, Industrial and No Wave all sprang up, taking rock music to new heights. And, barely noticed among all this creative euphoria, but creating enough of a stir in their own little way, was a snarling, virulent quintet from the nondescript British town of Bristol. In the ultimate Punk move, they insolently called themselves The Pop Group.

The Pop Group were quite the flash in the pan. They appeared in 1978 and had split just three years later. They only managed two official albums, of which Y was the first, and the only one of much note. But it was a blazing flash, I can assure you. Y sounds like little else in Punk, let alone mainstream rock. Put succinctly, it is one of the greatest of all post-punk albums, easily matching PiL's first two, anything by Joy Division and Magazine's Real Life on all levels. And of the lot, it is the one that maintains the Punk spirit the most, despite being unbelievably forward-thinking and challenging.

Bristol has long had a history of leftist activism (something maintained by the likes of Massive Attack in recent years), and The Pop Group were no exceptions. Y is highly-charges, taught and angry. the perfect railing letter against Thatcherite Britain. The artwork presents gripping and disturbing images, from the creepy pygmies on the cover to the bold red lettering, via pictures of prisoner camps, shady political figures and charnel houses. The lyrics were similarly bold: "I admit my crime/I'm a thief of fire!" screams singer Mark Stewart on opener "Thief of Fire", his voice interspersed by recordings of political speeches. "But who to trust/When you're stealing from a nation of killers" he rails a bit later on. On "Blood Money" he eructs: "Money's a weapon of terror", topical words in this day and age. Other songs mention totalitarianism, torture and colonialism, the whole being so potent it's hard to imagine anything similar ever getting released today. It's just too heavy.

And that's before we get to the music. The sound of The Pop Group borders on the indefinable, which is why it's so memorable, for all it's occasional flaws (some of the more experimental bits feel fumbled, noise for noise's sake). These guys saw no boundaries, and so met none. Produced by reggae stalwart Dennis Bovell, they took in his background of fat bass and stuttered rhythm, threw in some ragged punk guitar and screams, and a fair dollop of rigid funk, and got a sound like no other. Tracks like "Thief of Fire" and "We Are Time" groove like few other punk tracks, scattered through with sax bursts, nutty effects, echoed vocals and stunning bass hooks that would almost sound perfect in a disco or in a Jamaican dance hall. Equally stunning is "Snowgirl", slower (their attempt at a ballad maybe?), but no less weird and strangely catchy, with cabaret piano (!) sneaking out of the weird vocal mixes and juddering percussion/guitar/bass explosions.

And I already mentioned the experimentation. Despite probably not having the required chops, The Pop Group were fearless, and looked to the avant-garde at all times. On "Thief of Fire", for example, this adds even more edge to the dance grooves, with even jazz touches through the saxophone breaks. It's a sensual overload of sorts, and a precursor to the sort of twisted funk the likes of The Streets and !!! would attempt two decades later, only with more convention and much less balls. On "Blood Money", "Savage Sea" "Don't Call Me Pain", it becomes full-blown experiment, with stop-start rhythm, overloads of effects and some crazy scatty vocal eructations. It doesn't always work, but when it does it's stunning, and I will always be in awe of these guys for throwing themselves at their art and their vision with such vicious abandon. All of them are great, be it Gareth Sager with his staccato bursts of distorted guitar or his Brotzmann-esque sax wails; the roaring, crooning or howling Mark Stewart; or soulful, funkadelicised bassman Simon Underwood, the beating heart of the whole thing. And special mention to Bovell for letting his charges run amok like this, whilst somehow also tying them to such a strong reggae/funk/punk vibe.

The Pop Group fell apart quite quickly after Y, managing only a mediocre follow-up and some gigs before Stewart ended up splitting to go solo, staying true to the vibe he helped launch on this masterpiece. Post-punk would continue to evolve in new and fascinating directions, but few albums released afterwards would reach such heights of bonkers fury and innovation. Luckily, the CD format has seen Y get a gorgeous sonic facelift, whilst tacking seminal p-funk single "She Is Beyond Good and Evil" to the beginning of the track-list. The album sounds all the more cohesive for it, and even 29 years on, few records can produce such a heady mix of vicious bile, musical exploration and leg-shaking grooves.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Great Underappreciated or Obscure Albums 6: BAIKAL by Baikal (2007)

If I'm honest and blunt, there is very little of any merit in today's mainstream music scene. Easily 90% is utter contemptible dross. There was a time when a musical event was the arrival of the Fab Four in a country, or the release of an emphatic and relevant protest song, or the Sex Pistol creating mayhem on the TV. The 2008 equivalent is the "comeback" performance on X Factor (obviously it always involves TV these days) of a deluded, drug-addled, white trash bint who doesn't even write her own songs, lip-synching and dancing like a drunken old lady in front of millions of sychophantic viewers and self-proclaimed "experts".

Nowadays, in lieu of truly transcendant rock (not that this is going to be a nostalgia piece. After all, previous decades gave us the Bay City Rollers and Showaddywaddy), we're subjected to album after album of mostly bland, lyrically unadventurous tripe by The Killers, Kings of Leon and Kaiser Chiefs. Nothing intrinsically wrong with those guys, I guess (the first Killers albums is a gem), but nothing special either, yet we are regularly treated to swathes of hyperbole and drivveling praise about said bands in Britain's once-great music press. And I won't even get started on Amy Winehouse...
The fact is that modern mainstream pop and rock music increasingly resembles a decrepit, influenza-riddled old man, whose occasional flashes of brilliance (Arcade Fire's flawed but essential debut, M83, Ladytron, Sigur Ros) are not so much par for the course but rather infrequent consumptive gasps for rapidly-decreasing air. To paraphrase David Bowie circa 1977, "music has become a disgusting toothless old lady", with very little of the life-affirming quality it should have. Not so much music as muzak.

In such dire and dull circumstances, it's nice to know Bardo Pond are out there. The Philadelphia heavy psych masters have been plugging away in the shadows since the early 90s, taking a bludgeoning Krautrock groove but filtering it through the influence of punk, grunge and shoegaze to leave us some of the most heroic and righteous rock this side of Japan.

Baikal is one of their many side projects (flautist and singer Isobel Sollenberger and synth player Aaron Igler are missing -the latter only from one track-, leaving guitarist brothers John and Michael Gibbons, bassist Clint Takeda and drummer Jason Kourkonis). In the past, they've also recorded a couple of stunning albums with Roy Montgomery as Hash Jar Tempo and did splits with guitarist Tom Carter and even Mogwai. Nearly everything they do is brilliant. Slow, heavy, druggy and hypnotic, Bardo Pond's music is the stuff I live for. It's like heroin. Which is probably the effect they're looking for.

At first listen, Baikal doesn't seem massively different. It's psychedelic, but with a bit of grunge and lashings of shoegazery guitar saturation and fuzzed-out bass. But it's also heavy. Much heavier than anything these guys have done before. Don't mean to go on, but this motherfucker is heavy! It seems Kourkonis, Takeda and the Gibbons brothers have been worshipping at the altar of some of rock's most gloriously heathen demi-Gods. Think Vincebus Eruptum-era Blue Cheer, the electric guitar overloads of Ash Ra Tempel's "Amboss" or early Neil Young and Crazy Horse. But heavier even than all of those. And longer. There are only two tracks, yet the album lasts more than an hour! You do the math. More than anything else, Baikal is influenced by those Japanese psych-freak outlaws, Acid Mothers Temple, even down to the Japanese words that Takeda spits out Damo Suzuki-like throughout the 36-odd minutes of opener "I Forgot" (interspersed with some English).

"I Forgot" is a slow-burner. Fuck, at nearly 40 minutes, it'd have to be. This is not Comets on Fire heavy psych. This is pulled from a deep, dark, growling well, ancient and formidable. The cover art featuring a skeleton in shamanic garb tells it all. This is truly pagan rock, the stuff Julian Cope writes about with such glee. It feels, for all it's crackling electricity and volume, like something ancient, primordial. It starts quietly, a smattering of drums, a low bass riff, some guitar noodling that segues in and out. But before long, the volume starts to clamber, Takeda begins his stoned incantations and Kourkonis and the Gibbons brothers start to unleash some of the most righteous arcane noise you'll ever hear. The guitars scissor and shoot aroung each other. Whilst one of the brothers keeps up a marathon of unfettered soloing, channeling the twins spirits of Manuel Göttsching and Tony McPhee, the other bursts in and out of the mix, sputing out some random saturated guitar noise, as if trying to use his guitar to duet with the equally spasmodic Takeda. The whole piece continues like this, a contantly shifting, growling, incandescant miasma of noise, rythm and beauty. Never dull, always surprising. Oh, and did I mention heavy??

The next track, "Hanafuda" was probably never going to match the intensity of "I Forgot". It does bring synths (courtesy of Igler) and extra percussion, showing more of an affinity therefore with Amon Düül II (to keep with the Krautrock references) than Ash Ra Tempel, but still keeping with the Acid Mothers Temple freakout vibe throughout. It's messy and almost jazzy, at times as elegiacally beautiful, haunting and mystical as its predecessor, but at others getting too experimental and freeform to really keep channeling the shamanistic spirit in quite the same way. But it does show just how good these guys really are. Kourkonis is a revelation throughout this album. He can do hard'n'loud. But he is also sensitive, propelling the tracks with heavy jazz grooves and shifting patterns, keeping the other three on the improvisational toes.

Like I said, this is the kind of music I'm most used to hearing from Japanese bands. Not just Acid Mothers Temple (although I do see Baikal as a slower, more Native American twin of the Mothers' recent tantric freakout metal opus Recurring Dream and Apocalypse of Darkness), but also Mainliner, Fushitsusha or Les Rallizes Dénudés. That's the company these guys, whether as Baikal or Bardo Pond, keep. And to return to my opening rant, it's nice to know that an album as dark, heathen, uncompromising and transcendant as Baikal is out there (special thanks to the excellent Important Records label. I owe them, and other labels such as Hydra Head, Southern Lord, Kranky,Fargo and Sub Pop a debt of grattitude for the level of quality they tirelessly put out despite meanial exposure and probably cash). It's a comfort to know that such guys will keep ploughing that furrow, and that I can turn to them when the current mire gets me down. Can I get an Amen?

And here's some irony - "Amen" is the title of one of Bardo Pond's greatest tracks! Must be a sign...

Friday, 14 November 2008

Great Underappreciated or Obscure Albums 5 - YEAR OF THE HORSE by Neil Young & Crazy Horse (1997)

It was Neil Young's 63rd birthday last week, and as such it only seems fitting that I dedicate this post to what may just be his most underrated album, even more so than Trans or Greendale (both great, and unfairly panned, by the way).

Year of the Horse came along during a decisive time in the great artist's life and career. Two years earlier, his producer, mentor and close friend David Briggs passed away. It was just after Young had turned 50, and been indicted into the Rock'n'roll Hall of Fame. Young was coming off a run of three immensely popular albums from the start of the decade (Ragged Glory, Harvest Moon and Unplugged), but already this return to favour was waning, as the fiercly underground Sleeps with Angels and the beyond-ragged Mirror Ball failed to keep up the chart-friendliness. Now, with Briggs gone, there was a concern that the Canadian's muse would follow suit.

To be honest, for those wanting a repeat of the easy-listening fare of Harvest Moon, that disappointed was possibly well-founded. Briggs' last advice to Young was "to get closer to the source", to make the music "purer". For a duo whose mantra had always been "the more you think, the more you stink", this meant stripping down even further the Crazy Horse sound, taking it to its absolute ragged grunge apex. In the studio, this floundered a tad. 1996's Broken Arrow had its moments of elegiac grunge-rock guitar beauty, but for the most part was a disappointing last tribute to Briggs' memory and legacy. Yet, the subsequent sold-out tour would be the basis for what in my mind has to be Young and the Horse's ultimate live opus.

Sure, Live Rust has the hits, and Weld has the volume, but Neil with the Horse was always about so much more than that. And during his Broken Arrow tour, the old master became increasingly dedicated to channeling the earthy, primitive vibe that had always characterised his collaborations with Crazy Horse. Indeed, on 1969's Everbybody Know this Is Nowhere, their debut, the Horse's simple rythm style provided the perfect blank canvas ("boom-boom-thack" drums, repeated guitar chords, plodding bass lines) for some of Young's most soaring musical statements, be it on short, sharp rocker 'Cinammon Girl', the mysterious avant-garde folk dirge 'Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)' or the two epic monster workouts 'Down by the River' and 'Cowgirl in the Sand'. I could write a whole book on Young's guitar-playing on those two tracks. It's the stuff that very few of even the greatest guitar heroes have ever achieved, because it channels such a heady cocktail of emotions.

Year of the Horse conjures up this very same vibe to perfection. The track selection (which oddly differs from those featured in the movie -directed by Jim Jarmusch no less- that accompanied its release) is outstanding, mixing re-vamped versions of classic tracks such as 'Pocahontas' and 'Mr Soul' (as a weird psychedelic folk raga for the latter, and a soaring metal ballad for the former), but above all featuring a wealth of lesser-known beauties. And these are great songs to "get closer to the source" on. One thing that characterised the great tracks on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, along with the primal rythym and sheets-of-noise guitar solos, were the lyrics. Oblique and mystical, they seemed to be beamed out of a timeless American folklore. It didn't matter that this was some of the most forward-thinking rock music in America, it felt as unrefined and ancient as if it had been recorded before the very first white men had arrived on the continent.

And the tracks on Year of the Horse keep that very same spirit alive. If anything, it's stronger here, with Young and the guys hitting 50+ and getting wiser, wilier and crabbier. The image on the back cover tells it all: Young leans into his microphone, face lined and grey hair swept all over his face, looking uncannily like the Old Man of the Mountain. The tracks here are long, for the most part, stretched out. Titanic. From the opening cudgeling of 'When You Dance' onwards, this motherfucker never stops bludgeoning, except a bloody brief acoustic interlude, which keeps the vibe going nonetheless, especially on 'Mr Soul'.

For the rest, this is Neil at his grungiest. Scrap that, it's beyong grunge. 'Barstool Blues' is a lesson in guitar mayhem. A riff is repeated over and over for the best part of ten minutes, whilst Neil roars some warped lyrics, including the monumental line "I saw you in my nightmares/but I'll see you in my dreams", as he rips out a non-stop avalanche of distorted, saturated solos. For nearly ten minutes! Sorry, felt I had to repeat that... 'When Your Lonely Heart Breaks' couldn't be more different, yet doesn't break the vibe. A thumping bass note repeats like a Godly heartbeat, deep and loud. Young's voice is pained, and the song -a rarely heard gem- gains so much more potency ten years after it's studio release, in the vastness of a concert hall, with Young the old man gasping hoarsly into his mike. You get the feeling he's seen his fair share of broken hearts, including his own.

The rest of the album is built around three titanic workouts, two from Broken Arrow. 'Big Time' and 'Slip Away' gain so much from the live setting, the former at last achieving its true status as a great lament for the departed Briggs. It's heavy, stripped down, meandering, rock as Briggs would have loved it. 'Slip Away' is a new 'Cowgirl in the Sand' for the nineties, another elegy to a mysterious, fleeting woman, and sees Young tearing at his guitar with manic fury. But it's a mighty, 13-minute-long rendition of 'Dangerbird', the most underrated track off 1975's Zuma that really has my heart pumping and the tears flowing down my cheeks.

It emerges in a tornado of distortion and feedback from the dismembered remains of its predecessor, 'Scattered', the lead guitar breaking forth out of the miasma and launching immediately into surely one of the greatest solos Young has ever laid onto record. The rythm cunches, the guitars twist and entwine around each other and the cryptic, mystical lyrics soar out over the whooping audience, doom-laden and intense. It's one of the most powerful moments in Neil Young's discography, and he could only have achieved it with the Horse. 'Dangerbird' is the sound of Neil Young and Crazy Horse reaching the source Briggs spoke of. Reaching it and letting it loose with full raging force.

On Year of the Horse, by getting closer to the essence of their music, Neil Young and Crazy Horse re-connect with the primeval, cosmic force of their debut, one that would constantly crop up throughout their career, but not with this regularity or intensity, as Young's lyrics often became more "literal" after his smash 1972 success Harvest. In 1969, this band was perhaps the only one in America outside Detroit that truly matched the monstrous psychedelic vibe that the German bands (Amon Düül II, Ash Ra Tempel, early Tangerine Dream) were also letting loose on their audiences. By 1997, a loss of innocence, and an even greater taste for volume turned The Horse into an even more spacey, quasi-doom metal outfit, close to the likes of Boris, Jesu or Nadja, but looser and with that eternal sense of melancholy and melody only Neil Young ever truly achieved.

This is all a pretty long-winded way of saying how much I love Year of the Horse. It's rough, anything but clean-cut, and it stretches out for seemingly eons. But it reaches heights of cosmic grunge/psych/metal/folk meltdown that few albums by a mainstream artist have ever managed. Only Neil Young, and people wonder why I worship the guy!

Thursday, 2 October 2008

20 Movies to enjoy at midnight!

Just realised this title sounds like an invitation to watch porn, rather than a reference to cult movies. Sounds like it should be followed by "with a fresh box of tissues in your hand". Which was certainly not my intention. Oh well...

Defining what -if anything- constitutes a "cult" movie is a near-impossible task. The idea of a cult movie varies pretty much from person to person. For some, it's a film that federates a whole generation or so, with thousands able to quote lines back and forth to one another. Good examples would be the Star Wars movies (I think most straight men aged 40 and under have often fantasized about Princess Leia and her gold bikini), The Godfather or comedies like The Full Monty and 4 Weddings and a Funeral. For others, a cult film is one that has languished forever in near-total obscurity, save for the attentions of a few devoted and lucky souls, who therefore venerate every second of said movie. A lot of horror films would enter this category, or the early works of John Waters and Russ Meyer. It was this that led to the Midnight Movies and Grindhouse trends of the early seventies, whilst Britain's "Video Nasties" governmental ruling in the eighties drove so many horror films into obscurity that they of course gained instant cult status among gore-thirsty cinephiles. In the era of the DVD, of course, more and more of these films are getting re-released, meaning the likes of Cannibal Holocaust and El Topo are no longer swathed in quite the same mystery as before. Which, for me at least, who came along too late to see them in their glory days (or not so glorious, in the tasteless Cannibal Holocaust's case), is really a good thing.

So, no matter what sort of films you choose for a silly list such as this one, you're always going to get someone expressing outrage at such and such a film's omission. "What, no Mad Max!? Are you mad? (har har, geddit?). It's soooo a cult movie!". How can you not include When Harry Met Sally!???" (the answer to this one seems pretty obvious to me, but I have actually had this asked of me. To each their own tastes, I guess). So, I'm just going to have to be 100% subjective and go with my gut (as it were). Basically, the films below just feel like they're cult movies.

The one trait that binds them is a rather odd one: all these films, as arrestingly brilliant as they are, seem to be, for a lack of a better word, flawed. Which makes sense really. These are films that push back the boundaries of contemporary cinema, something which has never been much of a selling point for major film production studios... Which invariably means that the films below were made by very skint, albeit visionary, people. So, you sometimes get shaky production values, occasionally mediocre acting, or dated special effects.

For example, Phantom of the Paradise, featured below, may be a stunning visual piece, resplendent in its use of colour, lighting and studio trickery. It's funny, with stirring music and some great acting from Paul Williams as the devilish Swan. However, his counterpart, William Finley (The Phantom) is downright poor, a ham of the worst order, whilst the script's denouement features such a ludicrous Deus Ex Machina, you sometimes wonder if it wasn't written by a student filmmaker rather than the much-lauded Brian de Palma. And yet, it works. Its rather implausible ending is in keeping with the garish beauty of the whole piece, whilst Finley's camp affectations become quite effective once he's in Phantom mode. It's obvious time was tight and that de Palma and co. were limited in their means, and this ends up giving the film a frenetic, over-the-top energy quite in keeping with the glam rock environment it is set in. Hence, it is perhaps the most out-there and irresistible of de Palma's movies, and is truly deserving of cult status.

And it's the same with the rest of these films, from the dodgy production values of Pink Flamingos to the somewhat thin script of Shortbus. And yet all 20 are irresistible, unique and fascinating films, defining moments in cinema history (despite often getting completely ignored by audiences and critcs alike upon their release). Without further ado, blah, blah, blah, okay will shut up now...

1) VAMPYR - Carl Theodor Dreyer - 1932

Not sure if a film this old can qualify as being a "cult" film. Certainly at the time, the absence of video formats to view films kind of reduced the chance of any picture gaining cult status. But, over the years, this dreamy and oniric answer to Murnau's Nosferatu, that disappeared quite quickly at the time, has slowly edged its way into the consciousness of more and more cinephiles, who all have become enthralled by its strange beauty and creepy atmosphere.

It's a loose adaptation of J.Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, starring producer Baron Nicolas de Gunzberg as a wandering traveller who stumbles on a village being plagued by an ageing female (!) vampire and her doctor slave. The script may be simple, with little by the way of character development, but this just gives Dreyer full freedom to dazzle with some stunning effects, that help create a deperately bleak and creepy atmosphere. Shadows dance across a deserted warehouse, despite there being no people attached to them, a door appears to unlock itself, and skulls move seemingly of their own accord. Not to mention the scene where our hero finds himself buried alive in a glass coffin.

Vampyr is truly unique, a ghostly film that relies more on atmosphere and a sense of unease than adventure and gruesome shocks. The surreal effects and gothic sets are perfect for creating a latent tension that few films of the time achieved. In many ways that puts it as a precursor to the creepy, suggestive masterworks of the Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur duo in the forties (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie).

2) NIGHT OF THE HUNTER - Charles Laughton - 1955
Charles Laughton's sole film as a director was an unmitigated disaster. Critics savaged it, so the public stayed well away. Which is the sort of tragedy that renders redundant any "if people like it, it must be good" arguments when it comes to movies or art or music (although, Ronan Keating's success is also a strong counter-argument in itself. If ever you needed proof that the public doesn't always know best, his hit songs are it!). Because Night of the Hunter is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic horror/fantasy, and features one of the best acting performances of all time from Robert Mitchum. He plays a machiavellian and murderous preacher who learns that one of his fellow inmates has stashed a huge lump of money on his property, which could be the preacher's if he can seduce the man's "widow in the making", as Mitchum's preacher says in a devilish internal conversation with God. So, he woos the mourning woman, and sets about trying to find the money, which he gradually realises is in the hands of one of the dead man's children. Cue a nail-biting pursuit across a dream-like nocturnal landscape as the children flee the murderous preacher (who in the meantime has slit their mother's throat).

With very little budget, Laughton managed to create that most unique of movies: one that does not fall into any particular genre or style. It's a crime movie, complete with murderous psychopath, but it's also a fairy tale, with the children's trip down a foggy river evoking the Styx from Greek mythology, whilst an aging Lilian Gish plays a friendly rescuer seemingly straight out of a Grimm fairy tale. It has elements of German expressionist horror, with dark, arching shadows and bold ciaroscuro lighting. The scene where the preacher murders the widow under a lofty celing, knife-wielding arm raised high with almost pious zeal, is as haunting as the shadow image of Nosferatu clambering the stairs to Mina Hutter's room. Likewise the scene when the children are cowering in a barn, only to hear the sound of the preacher's creepy singing resonate from the distance, followed by the heart-stopping vision of him appearing, silhouetted against the night, along the horizon. "Kneeeeling", he keens, a pure embodiment of evil. And there are countless more scenes like these.

Sadly, it all fell on deaf ears. The controversial decision to have a preacher as the incarnation of ultimate evil in the film, in such a puritanical country as the USA, probably played a part. And there's the fact that, as noted, this is a film that just doesn't fit into any category. Critics and audiences were baffled by this, and put off by the pure evil that radiated out of Mitchum's preacher, despite the magnificence of the great actor's performance. His chillingly cold, yet handsome, gaze, staring out of the screen as he explains the tattoos of HATE and LOVE that adorn his knuckles, is one of the most arresting images in the history of the cinema.


Kind of cult just by being a good French horror film! In the year of Hiroshima, Mon Amour and A bout de Souffle, those staples of the Nouvelle Vague, Les Yeux Sans Visage must have stood out like a sore thumb. It's a gruesome and macabre tale of a guilt-ravaged doctor, who kidnaps young women to drug them, remove their faces and graft them onto his badly disfigured daughter's, his way of making ameans for causing her injuries in the first place.

The result is one of the finest psychological chillers of all time. Pierre Brasseur is superb as the machiavellian doctor, so obsessed with finding success that he is willing to commit the most heinous acts (aided by his creepily devoted mistress, who disposes of the corpses and watches with fixed adoration as he cuts a girl's face off). The graft sequence is truly stomach-churning, and provoked outrage at the time due to its graphic details and deadpan, realistic tone. Yet perhaps the most gripping scenes as those involving the daughter, whose face remains hidden by am expressionless pearly white mask. Despite this, actress Edith Scob carries across a perfect mix of quiet desperation and hopeless melancholy. She hates herself and her father for the murders, but is desperate to get a new face and reclaim the life she has lost by being hidden away. So she drifts, ghost-like, through the house, dead features lit up by her pained gaze, and Franju's superb cinematography. And the scene where she removes her mask to show her disfigured face to one of the girl prisoners is as chilling as the operation scene itself.

Given its oniric nature and graphic scenes, Les Yeux sans Visage was probably doomed to failure. To my knowledge, it's still unavailable in France and most of Europe, but luckily the Criterion Collection released a sumptuous DVD package in the USA. If you can get a copy, you will discover one of the greatest, and most moving, horror films of all time.

4 - PEEPING TOM - Michael Powell - 1960

A film so loathed, it effectively ruined the career of the man who created it. Phew! That's some intro! But it's true. Up until Peeping Tom, Michael Powell had been one of Britain's most successful and respected director's, thanks to such memorable films as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. Granted, his career had slowed down a tad since his split with scriptwriter Emeric Pressburger, but his reputation as one of the country's leading cinematographic lights remained intact.

And then he did Peeping Tom. The critics were united in reviling this "immoral", "disgusting" and "sick" film. Here's just one snippet, from The Observer: "It's a long time since a film disgusted me as much as Peeping Tom". Another critic suggested it would be best to flush it down the toilet. And why such anger? Well, in fairness, Peeping Tom takes an angle that few films had dared up until then: the "hero" of the film is a murderous, sex-obsessed psychopath. Carl Bohm plays creepy cameraman Mark Lewis who, in his spare time between working on sets and taking nude photographs for the local pornographer, stalks young women and then films them as he stabs them with a concealed knife in his tripod. The opening scene, filmed through Mark's camera lense as he follows a prostitute home before killing her, sets the tone: this is a dark, unflinching study in murder and obsession.

The obsession is fear. Traumatised by his childhood, Mark is determined to capture on-screen a picture of absolute terror, befitting the experiments his own father did on him. But what Peeping Tom captures even better is the grim line that exists between the art form that is the cinema and voyeurism. And this was what the critics completely missed. It has taken decades of championing by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert to finally see this psychological masterpiece get the recognition it truly deserves. To watch it today is to marvel at the complex psychological issues on display (aided by a superb Norman Bates-ish performance by Bohm), as well as at Powell's gorgeously garish cinematography, where every shot is drenched in neon red, evoking both dripping blood and the seedy tints of London's red-light district.

5 - CARNIVAL OF SOULS - Herk Harvey - 1962

A bona fide gem, this, as it might just be the very earliest true cult film! Predictably, it's a horror (most cult films can be grouped into one of three categories: comedy, sci-fi and, most often, horror). It's also one of the best horrors of its age, one that is still stunningly effective over 40 years on. And this despite its minimal budget (somewhere in the realm of $30 000 - a pittance even back then). The very fact that it has survived earns it cult status as far as I'm concerned.

Herk Harvey, more than Ed Wood, surely deserves the title of "Orson Welles of B Movies", as he produced, directed, wrote and starred in Carnival of Souls. His turn as the creepy ghoul-like figure who pursues accident survivor Mary Henry into a netherworld of darkness and fear under the decaying ruins of a dilapidated pavilion, is terrifying. It's a theme that would later crop up numerously in films, from The Others to Final Destination: the idea of being trapped on this earth after "death", living a soul-less existence in the shadows. And Herk Harvey was one of the first to approach it. He used clever tricks and effects to convey the supernatural events that bring unease and fear into Mary's life. People become deaf to Mary's voice, whilst all surrounding sounds go dead, leaving her alone with just the sound of her footsteps and despairing cries to be heard. And as the film progresses, more and more ghoulish spectres with pale faces and mad staring eyes begin to chase the heroine, appearing on the buses she tries to take out of town, all leading her inexorably to the pavilion by the lake...

Like I said, Carnival of Souls is basically budget-less, yet Harvey masterfully dodges this hurdle with his simple yet effective effects, characters and production tricks. The ghouls are particularly terrifying, walking with arms outstretched, cackling menacingly, faces locked in a grimace of pure malevolence. Surely an influence on Romero's zombies or Carpenter's Michael Myers.

6 - EASY RIDER - Dennis Hopper - 1969

A truly generational film, one that enshrined the hippy dream -and fatality- into the collective consciousness with such brio and swagger that it made icons of Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson, and probably would have done even if they'd never made anything else of note (almost the case for Fonda!).

Few films have seemed so guaranteed for success, apart from maybe Titanic or Jurassic Park. And Easy Rider was made on a fraction of those films' budgets, hastily shot, edited and released by a bunch of Hollywood hippies and catapulted to fame at the Cannes Film Festival. And what a triumph. Easy Rider pretty much launched a genre, the "road movie", and had audiences head-banging to the thrilling chords of emblematic soundtrack centrepiece 'Born to be Wild' as they watched two cooler-than-anyone-else bikers glide along the American highway, the symbols of the new society's freedom.

But Easy Rider was no simple hippy trippy fun ride. It eventually showed the peaceniks' dreams come smashing into a wall of prejudice, conservatism and narrow-mindedness, underlining the severe cultural and social divide that was gripping the USA at the time. This was '69, and Altamont and Kent State were mere months away. Manson had already tipped the dream into his own version of horror and gore, and the Vietnam War showed no sign of relenting. As the tag line on the film's posters read, "A man went looking for America, and couldn't find it anywhere". As such, Easy Rider is the ultimate film of its age: it defined the hippy generation's dreams, but also their limits. So much more than just a "road movie".

7 - EL TOPO - Alejandro Jodorowsky - 1971

Not sure they can get much weirder than this. El Topo is the cinematographic equivalent of a Samuel R. Delany novel: all peculiar time shifts, fractured dialogue and hidden mysticism. It's a spiritual, haunting and intelligent film, and a disturbing one.

The director himself plays 'El Topo', a black-clad gunslinger in some unknown, Spanish-speaking desert, who rides through the desert with his nude son, cutting a bloody swathe through gangsters, bandits and rival gunslingers. Slowly, his journey becomes a spiritual one, as he has to confront three gun masters and deal with betrayal, faith and a life underground with a bunch of deformed renegades. Does any of that make sense? No, thought not. El Topo needs to be seen to be believed, to be understood, yet I think most will pretty much see, believe and understand what they like. Surely that's the mark of great cinema, a film that means something different to everyone.

El Topo's main significance would be as the first "Midnight Movie" (hence my title!). Ignored when it was first released, it became a staple of New York's art-house scene, with 12 o'clock screenings every week attended by the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The trend would continue to grow, encompassing such greats as Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, plus leading to a revival for Freaks, Night of the Living Dead and Targets. A fitting legacy for one of the weirdest and most iconoclastic movies ever made.

8 - PINK NARCISSUS - James Bidgood - 1971

Pink Narcissus is part of perhaps the most obscure and limited cinematographic current around: gay underground cinema. Yeah, not just gay cinema, this stuff is gay and underground!

As one of the community, discovering that gay cinema was not just limited to ridiculously cliched Hollywood comedies (you know, where the gays are funny and basically sex-less, most often some neurotic girl's best friend and played by Rupert Everett) or the odd hilariously camp foreign comic gem such as La Cage aux Folles or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, has had a major impact on my life. For there are countless superb films that deal with gay issues (sex, coming out, homophobia) in an intelligent, realistic and artful way. Although, in most cases (Boys Don't Cry was a notable exception), they are pushed to the sidelines, left to the obscurity of LGBT film festivals and rare DVD releases.

Pink Narcissus was one of the first films I saw that showed the potency of the gay underground. It's a pure art-movie, which will put some off, and it's 100% gay, which will put even more off. It has no dialogue (still reading?), and virtually no plot. But it is sublime, gorgeous, and moving. It features the exquisite Bobby Kendall as a, you guessed it, narcissistic male prostitute who fantasizes his way around his fancy loft appartment, picturing himself as a field-dwelling fawn, a roman slave, a harem keeper and a matador in a series of self-indulgent and erotic vignettes. At the end, however, the real world of New York's decadent underbelly encroaches onto his dreams in a final nightmarish vision.

Pink Narcissus was shot entirely on 8mm in a single location, Bidgood's New York appartment, which the former set designer had gloriously kitted out to represent each fantasy universe. The imagery is stunning, with gorgeous sets that seamlessly transport you from one imaginary world to another. Of course, the highlight is the beautiful Kendall, whose turn as the self-absorbed gigolo is stunning, his sultry good looks and effortless arrogance coming across with every glance. It's a wonder Cristiano Ronaldo isn't a fan of this movie, as he's got all the looks down to a tee!

Pink Narcissus, which remained in obscurity for eons (mainly because Bidgood rejected the completed cut forced on him by producers, and refused to have his name put to it) can be seen as one of the founding movies of the gay underground, and it would go on to influence the works of such luminaries as Derek Jarman and Bruce LaBruce. Themselves pretty obscure as well, sadly.

9 - DELIVERANCE - John Boorman - 1972

From the mid-sixties until the end of the next decade, a strange thing occured in American cinema, which hadn't happened before and has yet to reproduce itself. Basically, Hollywood went indie! The studios turned to the creation of low- to mid-budget dramas and comedies, often dealing with provocative, controversial and political subjects, and so gave us the true Golden Age of Hollywood cinema. For perhaps the only time in movie history, the big studios moved with the times, delivering such great counter-cultural masterpieces as M.A.S.H., Midnight Cowboy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Taxi Driver.

Into this wealth of creativity and originality came Deliverance, to deliver the biggest shock of the pre-Exorcist world. Based on a book by David Dickey, it told of 4 wannabe adventurers canoeing down a remote river in hillbilly country, Georgia. At first they think themselves better and smarter than the locals, and tough enough to take on the river, but soon get dragged into terrifying horror and are forced to commit drastic and criminal acts in order to survive.

Deliverance rests on a familiar concept: that of urban man descending on a remote country location only to find himself at a loss when confronted by the harsh realities of said location. It was done with less class in Straw Dogs. But Boorman takes things to the limit, with a graphic rape scene and several moments of such tension it's no wonder the film gave people of my mother's generation nightmares. It's a dark, uncompromising film, and for that it deserves more applause even than most of the other classic Hollywood "indies" that also graced our screens in that golden period.

10 - PINK FLAMINGOS - John Waters - 1972

However, miles away from Hollywood, both geographically and spiritually, in a dank corner of Baltimore, John Waters was preparing to launch his own brand of cinematic madness. Put simply, Pink Flamingos is perhaps the most disgusting film ever made!

Waters is one of the cinema's true mavericks. He made Pink Flamingos all on location in Baltimore, filming cheaply with a bunch of friends playing a rag-tag collection of freaks, perverts and lunatics. And star of the film is Divine, a 25-stone transvestite who here plays Babs Johnson, recently crowned "Filthiest Person in America". She lives with her perverted son Crackers, her Marilyn-lookalike lover Cotton and her egg-obsessed, cot-ridden mother. Between them, they rack up a number of gross antcis, from shagging with a chicken stuffed between the two bodies (Crackers and his missus), incest (Crackers and Babs) and voyeurism (Cotton). Not to mention the farting guy (complete with anal close-up!) or the mother with egg all over her tits.

And those are the good guys! For Babs' nemesises are The Marbles, an even more degenerate couple of freaks who are vying for the "Filthiest Person" title and so kidnap young ladies whom they impregnate forcibly to sell their babies to child-less lesbian couples. When they openly attack Babs, war is declared, with horrendous consequences.

Pink Flamingos is not for the squeamish, the politically correct or the easily-offended. It's cheaply made, with camp performances, poor-quality production values and a bonkers storyline. But it's also hilarious and off-the-wall, and it's notoriety alone ensures it gets cult status. Watch for the very last scene, I won't tell you what happens, but I'm sure it's pretty much unique in the world of US cinema!

11 - THE WICKER MAN - Robin Hardy - 1973

I am not prone to what I like to call "cinematographic nationalism", where you want a film to do well or win at some festival, just 'cos it's from the same country as you. It used to reach fever pitch in France whenever Cannes came around because a French film hadn't won the Palme d'Or since 1987. Not sure I get it: I couldn't care less if the Oscars are all won by Brit films, as surely films go beyond frontiers and boundaries, touching on something universal. But, as I said before, to each their own.

However, an interesting cinematographic fact is that in the late sixties and early seventies, the UK produced a string of singular and original movies that made the country, never a powerhouse like France or the USA in movie stakes, stand out more than possibly ever before (sorry, classicists and David Lean fans!). Whether it was maverick foreign directors adopting the country for their greatest works (Kubrick with 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, Antonioni with Blow Up) or homemade films like If... and Don't Look Now, there was a creative urgency about the country that left behind some of the most peculiar and original classics ever made. Chief among them, I feel, was The Wicker Man.

The Wicker Man is unique, undefinable. It's supposedly a horror film, but it goes waaaaay beyond simple shocks and things that go bump in the night. It has musical passages, but you can't compare it to West Side Story. It features a police detective trying to find out about a disappeared girl on a remote Scottish island, but to call it a crime movie would be barking up the wrong tree big time. So what is it? A U.F.O. A film that crosses boundaries, stumps expectations and bewitches by its sheer audacity. Featuring a glorious score, fantastic performances by Edward Woodward (as the stiff, highly-Christian detective) and Christopher Lee (as the creepy island overlord) and a superb, twisting script, plus one of the most shocking endings in British film history, this is a film that deserves its legendary status tenfold.

12 - THE NIGHT PORTER - Liliana Cavani - 1974

The Night Porter, Italian director Cavani's most famous film, may just be the most controversial film on this list. That it was directed by a woman has only added to its mystique over the years, and it now stands as one of the great Italian films of the seventies, a decade that saw that country supply us with quite a few strange and controversial ones, such as Salo o le 120 Giornate de Sodom and Suspiria.

Cavani's film tells the story of a former Nazi war criminal, Maximilian Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde) who is hiding under a false identity, working as a night porter for a seedy viennese hotel that seems to be overflowing with similar ex-Nazis all intent on staying well hidden from prosecution. But one day a gorgeous young woman (Charlotte Rempling, in a stunning performance) checks in to the hotel, and Maximilian recognises her as a former concentration camp prisoner he used to torment and torture and then ended up in a violent sexual relationship with. And she recognises him back. But, rather than denounce him, she is drawn perversely to her former tormentor and they rekindle their unholy and sadomasochistic liaison.

In 1974, The Night Porter was unbelievably controversial in its depiction not only of the horrors of World War II (remember, this was around the same time that John Cleese's Basil Fawlty character would order his staff in hushed tones: "don't mention the War!" when in the presence of their German customers), but also of the complex relationship between a torturer and his former victim. This was before anyone had ever mentioned "Stockholm syndrome". As such, the mutually destructive and violent relationship between Max and the girl was seriously shocking, and even today it will make you squirm with discomfort. The Night Porter is despairingly bleak, with grainy colour, grim lighting and a typically downbeat ending. Not for the faint of heart, but if you like films that make you think, and have superb actors, I can't recommend it enough.

13 - PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE - Brian de Palma - 1974

And rock'n'roll hit the movies, and in such a glorious fashion. I doubt this was the first proper rock movie (there were Elvis' dire ones for a start, plus the Woodstock documentary), but it did predate the awful Tommy and the even more irresistible Rocky Horror Picture Show by a full year, therefore setting the standard for garish, lushly camp glam-rock cinema.

A wonderfully over-the-top rock take on the stories of Faust and The Phantom of the Opera, Phantom of the Paradise sees gawky composer Winslow Leach sell his soul to devillish rock producer Swan (the peerles Paul Williams) in order toget the girl of his dreams and finish his magnum opus. Of course, Swan betrays him and steals his music, and Leach, horribly disfigured along the way, returns as a Phantom with black nails and teeth and a proto-futuristic costume to haunt Swan's lavish club, the Paradise.

As I say, Phantom of the Paradise paved the way for a generation of technicoloured rock movies that cashed in on the mid-seventies glam rock movement. It has fantastic tunes, gorgeous sets and a wild campness that is pure, unadulterated rock in spirit. Plus, with Brian de Palma at the helm, you also get a good dose of superb camerawork, inventive imagery and a few humorous Hitchcock references.

14 - THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE - Tobe Hooper - 1974

Forget The Exorcist, this is the greatest, and most terrifying horror film of all time! I'm not one for hyperbole, but then most films don't deserve it. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre deserves every compliment and every over-the-top description, even the ones saying it's sick, cruel and bleak. It is terrifying. It is cruel. But then, it was meant to be. And in barely more than 80 minutes, Tobe Hooper revolutionised the horror genre. For good.

Consider its simplicity: 5 young people head to an abandoned farm in the Texan desert and get caught and picked off one-by-one by a family of psychopathic cannibals living nearby. It's the basis for almost every slasher film ever made since. Actually, scratch that. It's the basis for almost every horror film made since. Yet, even in that, Texas Chainsaw stands head-and-shoulders above all that followed.

Indeed, Hooper's approach is unconventional even 25 years on. Instead of splatters of gore and sensationalistic violence, he goes for a subdued, realistic tone (somehow, the film's reputation is one of extreme bloodiness, despite there being very little hemoglobin on display during the film). The picture is grainy and yellowed, heightening the oppressive atmosphere of dust and heat. Buildings are dark and sparsely furnished, with the cannibals' house decorated in all manner of grisly bric-a-brac and cadaverous remains. The camera is shaky, close to the actors, hemming them in as night and the cannibals close in. So, not just slashers, but also The Blair Witch Project and its ilk have taken their cues from Hooper's chiller.

Above all, Hooper refuses to play the audience game on this. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is gritty and grim, with little in the way of comic relief, and no happy end. With little means at his disposal, the director uses his camera and sets to brilliant effect, the culmination being the horrific "dinner scene" and the revolutionary close-up of an imprisoned girl's terrified, bulging eye as the cadaverous cannibal grandfather is wheeled up to her to feed. It is just one of a series of scenes that have gone down in horror film history as examples of celluloid terror.

15 - THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW- Jim Sharman - 1975

When asked to list my top ten or five favourite movies (or albums, or paintings, or books) of all time, my five or ten invariably always end up becoming 20 or 30. And the list seems to change according to my mood, current tastes and what-not (I might be going through a sci-fi phase, meaning I'm likely to go for Gattaca or Alien). But, along with Fanny and Alexander, Naked and Midnight Cowboy, you are always certain to get The Rocky Horror Picture Show in there. It may not be a very intellectual thing to say, but it's possible The Rocky Horror Picture Show is my favourite film of all time!
I mean, what's not to love? For me, I was entranced from the first nano-seconds, as delicate piano floated out of my clapped-out TV's speakers and a glorious pair of bright-red lips began to serenade me about a "Science Fiction Double Feature". It was camp, very gay, and perfectly glamorous. If it had been off a Bowie album, it would have been a hit track. And the film doesn't relent from then on. We get the hilarious introduction to our heroes, Brad and Janet, a couple of right squares who find themselves whisked into the decadent world of mad scientist Frank'n'furter (a stupendous Tim Curry), a transvestite from the planet Transylvania who is intent on creating a muscle man in gold underpants named Rocky. Only in the seventies, eh? (well, maybe not, as some prick has decided to remake the film!)

Tim Curry's entrance alone is stunning, as he prances around in heels, stockings and a corset, all dolled up and singing the immortal lines: "I'm a sweet transvestite from traaaaansexual Transylvaniaaaaa!". None of it makes much sense, but it's hilarious, infectious, and the songs are just superb, pure glam-rock majesty. And in fact, hidden away under the garish sets, campness and goofy B-movie references, is a strong plea for tolerance and open-mindedness, perhaps best summarised by Frank's lament "Don't dream it... be it".

I must have seen Rocky Horror Picture Show 20 or 30 times now. It never gets old, and it remains one my friends and I put on at parties, so we can all dance around and, for a few minutes, stop dreaming it and actually start being it.

16 - THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH - Nicolas Roeg - 1976

The considerable reputation and aura of The Man Who Fell To Earth (man, why do I keep going for movies with ridiculously long titles?) rests on the shoulders of one man. And, no, it's not Nic Roeg, a maverick director who also gave us such wonders as Don't Look Now and Walkabout. No, if The Man Who Fell To Earth stands apart as one of the most exciting and singular films of all time, it's because of David Bowie, who was here making his first appearance in a leading role in a film.

That's not to say that Roeg's talents are not visible here. They are, in abundance, and The Man Who Fell To Earth overflows with the Brit's trademark stunning visuals, innovative camera techniques and disconcerting time shifts. It's a lyrical visual poem, detailing the arrival on Earth of androgynous alien Thomas Jerome Newton who's looking for ways to bring water back to his dried-up home planet. Before long, though, he finds his projects taken over by the government, whilst he himself becomes a slave to sex, booze and television. Typically for a Roeg film, though, this is told in elliptical style, as the dreams, memories and reveries of Newton cross into reality, giving us some marvellous and unforgettable scenes along the way.

But make no mistake, this is Bowie's triumph (although kudos must go to Roeg for taking a chance on the untried singer and for bringing out the best in the drug-addled Bowie). The Thin White Duke is fabulous as the suave, elegant, intellectually superior Newton, exhuding a natural grace and delicate beauty that makes him mesmerising in absolutely every scene. And it gets better as he descends deeper and deeper into decadence, his character becoming more and more detached, more and more sinister, and perverse. Yet throughout, Bowie retains his aura of cool elegance, but where once it hid a warm, caring soul, by the end it comes with a cold disinterest in everything, a subtle change that few actors could have handled with such panache. With The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie took a step away from being "just" a rock star and towards becoming a great actor. Whilst Roeg continued to prove he deserved a place as one of Britain's greatest ever directors.

17 - VIDEODROME - David Cronenberg - 1983

Sticking to science-fiction, I give you the incomparable Videodrome, by Canada's most notorious director, David Cronenberg. Sci-fi is the perfect genre for cult films, as it's pretty much a cult genre in itself, with books like 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' and Marvel comics having almost fetish-like status among collectors and nerds around the globe.

Luckily not all sci-fi is the realm of geeky comic book fans (I should point out here that I am a massive fan of Philip K. Dick's books), and from around 1979-onwards directors began moving away from Planet of the Apes-territory and into a type of sci-fi that was smart, disturbing and no longer very fanciful. The way had been paved by Kubrick with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and by the aforementioned Man Who Fell to Earth, but Ridley Scott's double whammy of Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) - both of which I could have included here- really set the tone: vicious, blood-thirsty aliens raced around drifting spaceships or murderous androids were chased through dank, rain-soaked cityscapes. Sci-fi had basically got gritty, urban and disillusioned.

And never more so than in Videodrome, which had the particularity of being set more-or-less in the present. But it's a present that is warped and premonitory, anticipating the rise of satellite TV and the vicious consumerism it entailed. James Woods plays Max, a seedy director of an adult satellite station in Toronto, who stumbles on a creepy broadcast called "Videodrome" that shows snuff movies with unbelievably realistic scenes of violence. He and his semi-partner (played by Debbie Harry, no less) slowly become obsessed, to the point that Max begins experiencing nightmarish hallucinations such as getting sucked into a TV screen and pushing a video tape into his own gut. As the increasingly bizarre film advances, Max is drawn into a nightmarish Orwellian underworld of mind control, corruption and disease.

Frightening stuff, and all the more so because it feels so real. In today's consumerist, TV-driven world, Videodrome still seems unbelievably modern (helped by the amazing special effects), like a distorted prediction of what our world will -or already has- become. Since Videodrome, Cronenberg has gone on to be one of modern cinema's most sucessful mavericks, always staying true to his themes of madness, bodily horror and nightmarish underworlds. But this is probably where he first crystallised those themes to perfection.

18 - BRAZIL - Terry Gilliam - 1985

Bizarre doesn't really begin to describe Terry Gilliam's masterpiece. Every time I watch it, I marvel at how the ex-Monty Python star managed to encompass so much in barely two hours.

Part of the "sci-fi boom" I mentioned, Brazil was also a film that took the genre to new heights. Whilst David Cronenberg was exploring the psychological and physical effects of new technologies in dank, realistic environments, Gilliam opted for an oniric fantasy future of towering buildings and modern technology. Yet, Brazil's future is easily as nightmarish as the one in Videodrome or Scanners. It's a world where, in true '1984' fashion, surveillance is omnipresent, apartments are close and oppressive, and bureaucracy reigns supreme. When minor administrator Sam Lowry gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity (not even his!), he finds himself set upon by government forces on one side, and a group of anti-establishment terrorists on the other. The results at first are amusing, courtesy of Jonathan Price's bumbling performance as Lowry, and Gilliam's off-the-wall humour, before rapidly getting troubling, and then horrifying.

That is Brazil's ultimate strength. Gilliam surprises his audience, catches them off guard. And what starts out as a witty critique with a hint of romance quickly becomes a terrifying race against time, with Lowry hemmed in by forces he can't resist, and that he doesn't even understand. Funny, moving, mind-blowing and scary: Brazil has it all, yet it bombed. It's enough to make you despair. Thank fuck for Cult movies!

19 - WITHNAIL AND I - Bruce Robinson - 1987

You couldn't get further from Science Fiction than this low-key, yet hilarious, comedy from ex-actor Bruce Robinson. It stars Richard E Grant as an upper-class actor, currently out of work and constantly drunk, and Paul McGann as his roommate, an equally struggling actor whose name is never revealed (hence the "and I"). Tired of slumming it in dreary Camden, they hoodwink Withnail's lecherous gay uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) into lending them his Lake District cottage for a relaxing country getaway, that turns out to be just as morose as their lives in London. Cue hilarity, though I'm not selling that side very well.

Eddie Izzard once did a stand-up routine about how British movies are often low-key, "room-with-a-view-with-a-staircase-and-a-pond"-type character pieces. Withnail and I demonstrates marvellously just how monumental such films can be. It is subdued. It is low-key. This is no special effects-laden rom-com with Jack Black doing slapstick to a hard rock soundtrack whilst looking perpetually bemused, goofy and smug all at once. Withnail and I is slow-paced, melancholic. And utterly, utterly hilarious. It may just be the funniest film ever. It relies on wit, cunning dialogue and a trio of magic performances from the inimitable Grant, McGann and Griffiths. Grant, in particular, give a stunning display of wanton perpetual drunkenness, a feat that has led to a drinking game being especially created for the movie (apparently not be tried if you value your health). It's a film that will have you quoting lines, mostly from Withnail ("I demand to have some booze!!", "Monty, you terrible cunt!", "You can shove it up your arse and fuck off while you're at it!!") and chuckling to yourself days after watching. A true comic masterpiece.

20 - SHORTBUS - John Cameron Mitchell - 2006

A bit of a leap forwards in time, I admit. I'm not sure if cult movies became rarer in the 90s, the video and DVD decade -apart from the movies of Tarantino, Wong Kar-Wai and the occasional leftfield one such as Gattaca- but as it is, I've jumped forward nearly 20 years to talk about one of the most provocative films of the last ten years.
Shortbus, put simply, is a film that dares. It dares to go where few movies have gone before. Director Mitchell saw it as his anti-Bush manifesto, a film that would fly in the face of the US president's ridiculously conservative laws and edicts. For the Bush years have been dominated by religious and moral puritanism of the most bogus degree. Sex has in America become taboo: kids shouldn't know about it, teens and young adults shouldn't do it until they marry, and the less said about the gays, the better.

Shortbus doesn't just address sex - it revels in it. It celebrates it. The result is one of the most graphic films you'll ever see. The actors actually copulate and orgasm before your eyes. A lot. Of course, this caused a bit of a scandal, meaning the film was barely seen in the US outside New York. Even European audiences seemed squeamish when confronted with such blatant sexuality (there's indeed quite a bit of gay sex, including a hilarious threesome scene), so the film fared poorly. Luckily, those that did see it mostly loved it, and a bit of a cult, and a political movement has grown up around it.
Because Shortbus is not just about shagging. It's an intensely moving film about the sexual, but also emotional tribulations of modern society. It's about freedom, to be with the person you want, to love that person, and to have sex with them, without fear of disapproval or hatred. The place you can do this is in a club called Shortbus, where an array of lost souls gather to try and find each other, and themsleves. It's about their self-discovery. And it's even about one city -New York- rebuilding itself after the horror of 9/11. For Mitchell, it needs to come from the same counter-cultural, humane, and sexually mature spirit that has long defined the city of Warhol, Allen, Hujar and Wojnarowicz. And I can only say "Amen" to that.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Before I move on...

Here's a few more essential Shoegazer/dream pop albums, some of which I may come back to in the not-so-distant future...

My Bloody Valentine - Loveless (1991): Already mentioned, legendary, but inescapable.

Slowdive - Souvlaki (1993): Another classic by these guys. So underrated!

Cranes - Forever (1993): The epitome of dreampop, and one of the best albums ever made. Listen to those vocals, like a dying baby's last breaths...

Ride - Nowhere (1990): The other emblematic shoegaze record is also a stunning noise/pop classic, all ghostly vocals and hard, beautiful riffs.

Chapterhouse - Whirlpool (1992): Where dance beats were added to the guitar noise to often stunning effect.

Jesu - Jesu (2005): Shoegaze gets a facelift on this hard-hitting, semi-metal, occasionally droning masterpiece.

Alcest - Souvenirs d'un Autre Monde (2007): One French dude takes dark metal noise and adds in the ethereal vocals and airy guitars of shoegaze, for one of the most amazing records of recent years.

Bardo Pond - Amanita (1996): More psych-noise than shoegaze, but the dreamy, lethargic pace and blissed-out vocal style are all there, so...

Lush - Split (1996): Contains the sumptuous 'Desire Lines', a strong contender for best-ever shoegaze song, as well as some of the most amazing vocals the genre has ever provided.

M83 - Dead Cities, Red Seas and Lost Ghosts (2003): Massive shoegaze noise added to majestic electronica a la Air, only even bigger and more powerful. Rivals Loveless for sheer power.

Cocteau Twins - Head Over Heels (1983): More post-punk than real shoegaze/dreampop, but this superb, dreamy album laid the foundation for everything that came afterwards.

The Cure - Disintegration (1989): Robert Smith's dreampop excursion, featuring the band's most melancholic keyboard work and lengthy, emotional tracks of hurt and loss.

Galaxie 500 - On Fire (1989): Again, more precursors than actual genre mainstays, but their high, quavering voices and noisy guitar breaks obviously left an impression.

Mazzy Star - So Tonight that I Might See (1993): Between the slowcore of Red House Painters and the dreampop of Cranes. With such a gorgeous, sad voice!

Asobi Seksu - Asobi Seksu (2004): And shoegaze enters the new millenium, with this pop-laden rock noise record that may be a tad too referential, but still has its moments of pure shoegaze charm.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Two Jewels from Head Heritage

I have already waxed lyrical about Julian Cope's fantastic website, Head Heritage (, and its stunningly comprehensive series of album reviews, band features and political columns dedicated to edifying and illuminating the minds of any "Heads" (or potential ones) that come across it. If you love obscure, psychedelic or loud music, this is the site for you. Hell, if you like just about any music, this is the site for you, and nary a day goes by without me logging on to check out what's been updated.

What I wasn't aware of until recently, is that Head Heritage is also a label, releasing some fascinating and obscure records that mostly fit into Cope's oddly shamanistic/celtic/punkish worldview, and that basically you can only get through the website. In some cases, these albums are so rare that you haven't a chance in hell of finding them on Amazon. In fact, the two below aren't even liste on As far as the (not even that) mainstream is concerned, these albums barely exist.

So, thank God for Head Heritage. As such, it stands not just as a great musical encyclopedia and information site, but as a veritable bastion against the corporate world that seems destined to try and rob as much creativity and freedom from the artists as possible. You can just tell by listening to these two albums, that they were made in total freedom, nay, abandonment, and they represent the kind of experimental attitudes and sonic adventurousness that is so lacking in most of modern pop and rock. These two records channel something primeval, natural, instinctive, bereft of studio tinckering and arrogant sloganeering. Maybe see them as the "anti-Muse", or the "anti-Coldplay". No artifice. Just music. Pure.

1) Urthona - I Refute it Thus (2008)

I have been getting deeper and deeper into Drone music in the last year. After first having my mind blown by Cluster 71, the great, planet-sized electro-drone masterpiece by Krautrock duo Cluster, I quickly found myself craving more. Drone was the new great psychedelic music, as far as I was concerned, and I was hooked. Soon I had moved on to Zeit by Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze's first two masterpieces (staying in Germany), The Taj Mahal Travellers (and their leader Takehisa Kosugi's monstruous voice-and-violin epic Catch-Wave), Sunn O))), Earth and The Dead C. Not forgetting Nurse With Wound and Metal Machine Music (for the noise side of Drone), Stars of the Lid or underground Dutch meister Machinefabriek, whose free-to-download opus Stuip/Staar is well worth checking out (

Yet, if I thought I had seen it all as far as Drone was concerned, after venturing backwards to check out LaMonte Young, Steve Reich and Tony Conrad, I was wrong. I Refute It Thus stands as one of THE greatest Drone albums ever made.

It is shrouded in mystery, even by Head Heritage standards. It's hard to tell who is making this music. Is the man who's picture's on the front cover the sole purveyor of the insane sounds held within the CD's grooves (can we say grooves when talking of CDs?)? Is he really doing all that with just one guitar? We know Cope himself was involved in the creation, conceptualisation and of course release of this album, but it doesn't look like he appeared on it. So, how to describe it? How is it possible to pinpoint the nature of the supreme mind-melting rock that is contained inside I Refute It Thus?

Well, for starters, it's worth checking out the album's artwork: a man with a guitar stands in the distance, surrounded by massive monoliths, overlooking a vast, barren plain. Man and machine, standing buffeted by the winds of time, and in the shadow of nature's splendour. Like I said, this is an album only a friend of Julian Cope could make. It's like latter-day druid music, something old, and powerful. Yet, it also, fundamentally, rock. After all, it's made with a sodding guitar, and, as far as I can tell, not much else. But Urthona knows his way around his six-string, fuck me! Opener 'Urthona Cannot Be Destroyed' kicks off with a staccato burst of guitar noise, like Jimi Hendrix (circa 'Machine Gun') filtered through Lou Reed's amp and extremist approach. It shudders and stutters, before more guitar kicks in, a sort of keening wail that whistles out of the speakers and keeps screaming for the duration of the track's ten-plus minutes. And the crazy thing? It's not long enough. This the kind of guitar pyrotechnics that allowed Jorma Kaukonen, Hendrix and John Cippolina to freak out whole audiences by sound alone back in the sixties, yet for all that it never sounds retro. The absence of drums, keys or even bass (so I can tell) propel 'Urthona Cannot Be Destroyed' either into a post-modern industrial world, or a Moorcock-ian fantasy landscape. Maybe both! It's psychedelic yet hard, natural-sounding yet modern. Decades of history (hence the Whitman and Blake quotes in the package), nature and rock have been channelled into 10 minutes of pure guitar drone. Can there be a more awe-inspiring sound than this?

Well, if there can't, Urthona sure gives it a good shot before the album pans out. Each track is longer than the last. The second, 'The Bright Burst of Morning', has a more industrial-metal feel, echoing Throbbing Gristle at their loudest and most psychedelic, as well as American drone-metal lords Sunn O))) and Earth. The guitars are heavier (more cliched, maybe?), and the piece ambles along at a drak, funereal pace. Sudden sound effects pop up: a babbling brook, the wind, birds, but this one feels less successful than the first track. The third, however, is a beast, twenty-one minutes of droning feedback and long, empty moments where the sound recedes, leaving a microsecond of silence to gorge on before the guitars return, sometimes screaming, often growling, mostly "humming" (for want of a better word). After the pyrotechnics of the opener and the heavy natural/industrial crunch of the second track, 'Sun and Moon So Heavy' seems the perfect synthesis of everything Urthona has been distilling up until then: it's metallic, rock, guitar-driven. But this is also a folk album, of sorts: an album stepped in its natural setting (in this case, the wilds of Dartmoor), an album at one with the elements, transported by rock and tree and fallow. And by guitars. Like early Klaus Schulze, natural elements collide with the machines, and leaves something that will swallow you whole, transcending science, transcending machinery, transcending nature. The sound, I guess of a black night sky that you stare at for hours on end, wholly swallowed by its infinite size. Can I get an "Amen"?

2) Universal Panzies - Transcendental Floss (1998)

Perhaps even more weird are the Universal Panzies, a Newcastle-based group of neo-seers orbiting around the mesmeric personality of their leader, Christophe F, who, as far as I can gather, is a sort of wild, unpredictable underground rock guru with a penchant for cross-dressing and Krautrock (!).

Little more is known of Christophe F, other than the fact that he seems determined never to move away from his familiar North-East stomping ground, and that he has been plagued by ill health for a while, meaning he has had to toil away in almost complete obscurity. Yet, if there is one thing Transcendental Floss demonstrates, is that the man is as close as we have come to a real guitar hero in the last two decades. Fuck Mark Knopfler and his sedate, boring noodling, Christophe F is the real deal!

Take the insane opener, 'Krautrock-lovesong/Hallowedundgallowed'. It starts as a dull dirge, a few lines of feedback with F muttering mutely over the top, like a stoned-out Thurston Moore (or was it Kim Gordon) at the beginning of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation. But then the rythm really kicks in, the kind of monolithic pounding of the tom toms and descending bass lines that characterised the best of Amon Duul II circa Yeti or Ash Ra Tempel at their peak. It's slow, the lyrics are unintelligible, the groove is insistent to the point of being numbing, and over it all, Christophe F flies on his guitar like few others! It could almost be "post-rock" (think Explosions in the Sky, only less restrained), but weirder, wilder and more fun by a country mile.
But, here's the killer: about half-way through, the song gets even better! The drummer and bassist kick into a superb motorik groove, easily as good as any Neu! or Harmonia ever managed, giving F full reign to rip out a continuous, almost-hypnotic solo that goes on for the best part of ten minutes. This is the kind of rock I thought we'd never hear in recent years: the song literally flails, seeming to careen along of its own accord, all pummelling toms, disjointed keyboard effects and forever that uncontrollable, unrelenting guitar. You can hear the references, yet somehow it still sounds fresh and new, as F puts his entire heart, soul and being into his guitar, turning the whole album, an ode to love lost, I should specify, into a rock 'n' roll requiem of sorts, a haunting serenade sung by that ripped-up axe and F's dull, plaintive voice.

Never is this more potent (except on the first track!) than on 'Star-bard and grounded', which adds wailing sax to the sumptuous mix. F sings more here, but mostly he still lets his guitar do the talking as his acolytes continue to bash out a relentless beat that speeds up or slows down as the mood takes them, yet never do they falter, never do they stumble. F just keeps thrashing out chord after chord, solo after solo, until you are left shuddering and shaking in its wake. It's music you can shake your arse to, music you can head-bang to, music you can meditate to, music you can trip to. It's krautrock, but filtered through metal, funk, trance, free-form and electronica. It's stunning, possessing more heart and soul than anything that the infinitely more popular Radioheads and Coldplays of this world were bashing out at the time.

These two albums are the defining indication that if you look to the sidelines, you can find some of the most exciting and innovative music ever made, even in these increasingly creatively sterile times. And you can actually purchase both on Head Heritage (though stocks are pretty limited, so hurry!), plus find Julian Cope's much more informative and extensive review of Transcendental Floss.

This is real music. Real because it is made by passionate people doing it for their muse, not for sales or profile-boosting. Real because it is immediate, instinctive, heartfelt. I defy you to listen to the guitar freakout of 'Urthona Cannot Be Destroyed' (how true!) or the blaring sax/guitar freeform funk freakout and not be stunned at the sheer power and beauty these two artists/bands/druids have managed to meld with such class and energy. Thank you Mr Cope! And thank you Urthona and Universal Panzies!