Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Raconteur

Latest edition of literary magazine The Ranconteur (in its new bi-annual paperback format) has landed in the shops. Weighing in at a door-stopping 300+ pages it will keep book lovers and culture junkies enthralled for the entire duration of the Xmas period (and beyond). The theme of the new issue is ‘America’. Inside you’ll find original San Franciscan Beat poet Jack Foley discussing the first ever performance of Ginsberg’s Howl. Journalist and political historian Godfrey Hodgson on the beast that is the American political machine. And an interview with best-selling author Allegra Goodman. Contributions from Wales-based writers, as ever, are strong: Robert Lewis explains how Noir exploded the American Dream; and Dan Tyte takes a peek at the history of Gonzo journalism. There is much else besides, including articles on the Civil Rights era in Queens, NY, and Afro-Cuban/Latin Jazz. I do believe there is a magazine launch at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, scheduled for December 7. The magazine costs £10 and would make an ideal stocking-filler for that special culture vulture in your life.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Lawrence Langner and James Cagney

Here’s a fine photograph of Swansea-born theatre impresario Lawrence Langner enjoying a chin-wag with actors James Cagney and William Bendix. It’s a 1947 behind-the-scenes publicity shot for the film The Time of Your Life. Langner was a hugely influential figure in American theatre. He co-founded the Theatre Guild in New York in 1919, which, in turn, contributed to the success of Broadway itself. Langner also co-founded the Washington Square Players and later set up and ran the Westport Country Playhouse. Furthermore he was founder and chairman of the American Shakespeare Festival. Weirdly, Langner was also a prominent patent attorney and expert on inventions. Amongst his most famous chums were playwrights Eugene O’Neill and George Bernard Shaw. He died in 1962.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Going Underground

The above photograph is from an historic set taken by Londoner James Jarche for the Daily Herald in June 1931. It was the first time that flash photography was employed underground in the UK. The pictures were used to illustrate a series of articles entitled In Search of Wales, penned by H V Morton. In his 1934 memoir People I Have Shot, James Jarche elaborated on his groundbreaking Welsh commission:

“We got permission to go down one of the deepest coal-mines in Wales, the name of which I deliberately withhold, owing to the controversy that arose by my taking shots by flash. For it was the first time that pictures had been taken in an explosive area with the new safety-light, now, however, extensively used in photography. This is not a naked flame though it looks like one. It is shaped like an electric bulb, and is full of magnesium foil, ignited by a 2 volt battery, synchronised with the camera. Before permission was given me to descend the mine, I had to demonstrate with the light to experts on the surface. They themselves made experiments with it, holding the light over a gas-ring to see whether it would light the fumes. Of course nothing happened, and when they were satisfied as to its safety, they gave us permission to go down.” And later underground: “There was a most tense moment before I shot the men at work. Then the flare went up, and simultaneously I shot. There was absolute dead silence, followed by a sort of hum of relieved talk, for never had that mine expected to see itself by clear light.”

Crazy Sked Moaners

Manic Street Preachers currently have an album in the shops entitled National Treasures, a run through of their back catalogue of singles. Given the amount of scorn heaped upon them by some sections of the music press/media down the years I can’t help but think that the title is somewhat ironic. Take this toe-curling interview by Rhona Cameron, for instance. Or the Melody Maker’s Manic Street Preachers Fan: A Diary – in which your average MSP fan was depicted as a pretentious, misery-obsessed, teenaged brat. Admittedly the column was actually quite funny but you get the picture. A combination of MSP's anachronistic sound and their intentionally provocative public statements have regularly invited derision. One of the more imaginative parodies of the band appeared in a Judge Dredd story (Muzak Killer: Live! Part 3) in June 1993. In the strip we observe Clarence of the Crazy Sked Moaners lasering 4 RALE (sic) into his forehead (see pic) on a TV show. It is, of course, a parody of the infamous incident in 1991 when Richey Edwards razored 4 REAL into his forearm for the benefit of NME journalist Steve Lamacq, who had suggested MSP were a cartoon band. By all accounts Edwards was a big fan of Judge Dredd and even had a drawing published in 2000AD when he was still a kid. The band’s song Judge Yr’Self was also influenced by the comic. Furthermore the character of Domino in the 2000AD story Zenith Phase IV Part 2: Blind Justice (Aug 1992) was based upon Nicky Wire. Seems like MSP might just have been a cartoon band after all.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Hywel Bennett in Percy

Percy (1971) was the first ever film about having a penis transplant. It starred Welsh actor Hywel Bennett as Edwin Antony the recipient of a new, generously proportioned, todger. In the film Bennett’s character sets out to road test his new member and discover all he can about his dead donor, who turns out to have been an outrageous philanderer. If you think this sounds like a ridiculous idea for a movie you’d be absolutely right. The flick was made during the early ‘70s – the so-called golden age of the British sex comedy and the result is not much better than your average Carry On film. Percy also starred Elke Sommer and Britt Ekland. The most curious (and interesting) thing about the film for the modern viewer is the specially penned Ray Davies soundtrack, performed by The Kinks. At one point a woman does a striptease to an instrumental version of Lola. The soundtrack also included the hit God’s Children. As for Bennett’s performance, he did his best to add a bit of existential gravitas to the role but ultimately floundered in a quagmire of sexual innuendo.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Alison Statton Front Cover

This edition of music paper Sounds is from May 1980 and features Alison Statton of Cardiff post-punk band Young Marble Giants on the front cover. She is subverting expectations by being all jolly. On vinyl her cool, dispassionate vocals provided a perfect complement to the eerie sonic meanderings of the Moxham brothers. The band’s one and only album, Colossal Youth, still sounds astonishingly fresh today. If you don't own a copy buy it -it's phenomenal. Their most famous fan was, of course, Kurt Cobain. Listening to melancholy records by the Young Marble Giants certainly never did him any harm. Ahem.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Black Junk by Exit International

Exit International's Black Junk is a hip-thrusting, filthy beast of an album. Lurid, anarchic and gloriously trashy, it is impossible not to love this debut offering. Most of the songs featured are body-centric. EI get physical on Glory Horn, Sex W/ Strangers, Shake Your Bad Ass, Body Joyrider, My Mouth is Your Mouth and Blindfolds. An air of menace is pervasive with imagery culled from horror films and the murkier corners of the fairground. Psychosis, claustrophobia and sexual perversion are all present and delightfully incorrect. No room here either for gloomy introspection - Black Junk is as much a trip through the fun house as the mad house.

Exit International consist of TWO bass guitarists and a drummer. Such self-imposed instrumental limitation serves only to bring the best out of the band. The vocal delivery, especially, is highly inventive, shifting from ‘in character’ theatrics to schlocky screams to outbursts of percussive, stabbing speech, where every word hits home like an expertly wielded knife. Carl Bevan who recorded, mixed and produced the album deserves praise for eliciting fine performances from the trio and for capturing their expressionistic verve. Like being chased around your house by a chainsaw-wielding maniac Black Junk proves to be a hair-raising but ultimately invigorating experience.

*The excellent Black Junk by Exit International is out now on Undergroove Records. Watch a video for the track, Bowie’s Ghost, here.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Desert Flower Trilogy

Howells department store in Cardiff is where the posh people of south Wales do their shopping. The well-heeled have been purchasing horrendously expensive goods from there for decades. For mere commoners like myself the huge emporium functions only as a convenient means of getting from St Mary Street to the Hayes Island pissoir without getting wet during bouts of inclement weather.

In 1961 Howells did something unexpectedly cool – they exhibited 3 Salvador Dali paintings on their premises. Known collectively as the Desert Flower Trilogy, the artistic creations had originally been commissioned in the 1940s to promote a new brand of perfume (Desert Flower). American cosmetics firm Shulton’s were behind the original venture and it was they who were doing the Howells promotion.

The 3 paintings (The Invisible Lovers, Mirage and Oasis) had arrived by plane at Rhoose airport and were given a police escort into the city. They were insured for £75,000. Inside the store the artworks were hung near the cosmetics department. A small railing was erected to keep shoppers at a safe distance. An ex-commando was employed by Shulton’s to guard the pictures for the fortnight’s duration of the exhibition. Shop assistants were briefed on the connection between the art and the perfume which they were then able to impart to curious customers.

*The above painting is Mirage which formed part of the Desert Flower trilogy.