Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: 'To Sir, with Love' Blu-ray



To Sir, with Love is one of those movies that are impossible to separate from the period in which it was made. That period is Sixties London, and the film’s most enjoyable elements are knotted up with that swinging setting. You’ve got period pop-star Lulu serenading period movie-star Sidney Poitier with the lovely/corny title song, one of the period’s biggest smash hits. There are a bunch of teenagers fruging to The Mindbenders’ generic R&B and serious discussions about how revolutionary long hair and The Beatles are. There isn’t a ton going on under such surface elements. The “compassionate teacher swoops in and tries to save the souls of delinquent classroom” trope wasn’t new in ’67— in fact, this film’s teacher, Sidney Poitier, played a delinquent in another such movie, Blackboard Jungle, twelve years earlier—and the fact that this particular film features a Guyanese teacher presiding over a classroom of mostly white English kids is not explored in any meaningful way. We don’t get to know that much about Poitier’s Mark “Sir” Thackeray, or his three prominent students: Pamela (Judy Geeson), a minor-league upstart with a heart of gold, Denham (Christian Roberts), the requisite leather-jacketed rebel without a wit, and Babs (Lulu), the sassy one. You’d never know that these cardboard cut outs were based on real people (the kids even wear the same outfits every day like cartoon characters).

The plot is not really developed beyond the aforementioned trope, and To Sir, with Love mostly functions as a string of vignettes, the best of which break out of Sir’s classroom. The museum outing sequence, a montage of still pictures set to the title song, is quaint and delightful, a sort of super-restrained flipside to the abandoned “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence in A Hard Day’s Night. The climactic school dance is great fun, as Poitier drops his cool to dance with Geeson. Lulu performs the song again as all the kids stare at their emotionally overcome teacher in a genuinely poignant moment. 

Poitier is celebrated for his “dignity,” a dull designation that doesn’t do justice to his abilities. Screenwriter (and director and producer) James Clavell translated the real Sir, E.R. Braithewaite, into a movie character in sketchy strokes. Poitier breathes life into Clavell’s creation with flashes of bemusement (I love his reaction to an old woman who says she wants Sir Thackeray “in her Christmas stocking” on a bus), joy (ditto how he dances around when he gets a new job offer) and scary anger. Sir has come to symbolize the perfect teacher in the same way Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey has come to symbolize the all-American husband and dad, but both characters are much darker than such malformed distinctions imply. Sir rightfully freaks out when his female students burn a mysterious object in his classroom (those who read Braithewaite’s book will know it’s a used maxi pad; the rest of us have to figure it out for ourselves), but it’s really ugly when he calls them “sluts.” A lot of his teaching methods—such as having his students read random phrases from their textbooks or giving them salad recipes—are pretty strange too.

For the most part, the bad kids really aren’t that bad, which makes the whole affair a pretty low-stakes one. The worst thing they do is saw a leg off Sir’s desk. A more typical transgression is when Denham gets caught playing with a rubber chew toy in class. Call the cops!

It’s considerable flaws aside, To Sir, with Love is generally a sweet and enjoyable period piece, and Twilight Time’s new blu-ray does right by the film in every way. The well-grained picture adds a layer of grittiness the sweet kids in Sir’s class can’t always deliver and colors are good. Unlike a lot of Twilight Time discs, there is an abundance of special features. The best is a 23-minute talk with E.R. Braithewaite, who discusses the issues of race the film doesn’t wade into very deeply, including his relationship with a white teacher (played by Suzy Kendall in the film) her small-minded father brought to a sad conclusion. Braithewaite also gets a commentary track he shares with Salome Thomas El, an author and contemporary African-American principal, who discusses how the film reflects the actual classroom experience (El also gets his own 11-minute on screen featurette). Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman host an alternate commentary track with Judy Geeson, who discusses the film’s making (strangely, those costumes the cast wear over and over are their own clothes) and impact. Featurettes featuring Lulu and Michael Des Barres discussing the hit title song (which producer Mickie Most repressed from being an A-side in the UK!) and the film’s making, agent Marty Baum discussing client Sidney Poitier’s work in it, and an isolated score track round out this thoughtfully produced blu-ray. Get it on Screen Archives.com here.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Review: 'Lenny' Blu-ray


The subjects of celebrity biopics are almost never as important as the people who make them. Too many celebrities live lives that hit the same beats. This is even true of Lenny Bruce, the infamous and groundbreaking comic who became a martyr in the war against censorship with routines notable for their truthfulness about sex, media, and self-expression, not their alleged dirtiness. Bruce’s career began inauspiciously; he hooked up with a tolerant woman, achieved stardom by pushing boundaries, succumbed to various vices, broke down, and died young. It’s a tale often told. How Bob Fosse told it is rare.

Fosse, off course, made his name in musical theater as an actor, dancer and choreographer, and his cinematic work followed suit when he directed and choreographed the musicals Sweet Charity and Cabaret. A biopic about a comedian may seem an odd choice for Fosse’s third directorial effort. It all makes sense when you see it. Lenny is a musical without a single musical number. Everything from the editing to the actors’ movements appears expertly choreographed, the rhythms flowing from one potentially jarring time jump to the next with the abandon and perfection of a John Coltrane riff.

The director does not deserve all the credit. Dustin Hoffman as Bruce and Valerie Perrine as his wife give landmark performances: Hoffman’s final contempt-of-court monologue is one of the truest things on film, and Perrine’s interview sequences don’t betray a splinter of artifice. But one thing I really dig about Lenny—and which really, really sets it apart from the mass of biopics—is how interested the director is in everyone on screen. I mean everyone. Even the briefly glimpsed audience members seem to have inner lives as they react to Bruce’s routines with laughter, gaping mouths, rolling eyes, blank expressions, or even a complicit and touchingly romantic stolen kiss. As stylized as Fosse’s rhythms and chronology are, his people are utterly real whether they’re participating in an abstract ménage à trois totally fabricated by the director or pseudo-documentary interviews.

Fosse shot Lenny on high-contrast black and white stock, although the smoky, gauzy lighting of nightclubs, crummy apartments, drug dens, and jails defuses its crispness. Twilight Time’s new blu-ray doesn’t sharpen the film, but it is a clean presentation with healthy grain. Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman provide a new commentary track in which they gab about the significant differences between the film and the play on which it was based (both written by Julian Barry), Bruce and Fosse’s careers and legacy, and how Fosse dragged such an extraordinary performance out of Perrine. It’s a lively commentary, but some actual footage of Bruce would have been a cool bonus too. The disc also includes the customary isolated score track and is limited to 3,000 units.

Get Lenny on Screen Archives.com here.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: 'St. Valentine’s Day Massacre' Blu-ray


An insulting amount of the commentary on the honorary Oscar Roger Corman received in 2009 focused on how he launched the careers of directors Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, and others of their ilk and basically dismissed the man’s own directorial work. Despite that naked gold guy on his mantel, Roger Corman is still considered a B-movie hack by a lot of critics, which is total bollocks. Even when working on super low-budget, abridged-schedule stuff like Little Shop of Horrors he made original and fun work. When he was more artistically invested in his projects, he could make truly audacious, genuinely inventive pictures, such as The Masque of the Red Death and his rarely seen masterpiece The Intruder, a film that dealt with racism in such a head-on way for its time that Corman would have deserved that Oscar even if it he’d never done anything else.

When the independent-minded Corman got the odd opportunity to make St. Valentine’s Day Massacre for a major studio in 1967, he got to work with a bigger budget, schedule, and cast than ever before. Though all the frivolous spending that went down at Twentieth Century Fox repelled him, Corman still made the most of the opportunity. He directed big stars Jason Robards (as Al Capone), George Segal (Peter Gusenberg), and Ralph Meeker (Bugs Moran); shot on sets originally used for such huge productions as The Sound of Music and Hello, Dolly; and commanded a camera that swoops around those sets like a bird of prey. Before shooting the climactic scene, he had his actors study photographs of the actual gangland massacre to mimic the positions of the actual corpses. That’s a pretty keen attention to detail for a “B-movie hack” (incidentally, I recently read a great interview with Corman in which he takes issue with that designation for purely semantic reasons; a B-movie, he reminds us, is not any old trashy flick but a lower-budget supporting feature specific to the 1930s and ’40s).

Although Cormans visuals are top notch in St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the film is not without its issues. There is no attempt to empathize with the assortment of hoods, as there was in the same year’s Bonnie and Clyde, so its difficult to care about what happens to these creeps. Beloved voice-over artist Paul Frees’s narration distances the viewer further, introducing each of the film’s many, many characters by stating the time and date of his death. This makes everyone’s actions seem mechanical, a bunch of rats scurrying through a simplistic maze on the way to their inevitable dooms. This could have been done with effective grimness, but Robards and Segal give such over-the-top performances that its hard to feel the gravity of what they do or what is done to them (and keep an eye and ear out for Jack Nicholson, who delivers his one and only line in a silly voice). The closest the film comes to a sympathetic character is Bruce Dern’s mechanic, a loving dad who gets off-handedly swept up in the violence, but only has about three minutes of screen time.

A bit cold and nihilistic, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is still a beautiful looking picture, and Twilight Time’s new blu-ray presents it splendidly. Colors are gloriously vivid (there are a couple of sequences that are a bit pink but its likely this was an aesthetic decision in line with Corman’s use of colors in Red Death), and I noticed no significant blemishes. Extras are slight but neat. There’s a new three-and-a-half-minute interview with Corman created specifically for this release and five minutes of vintage Fox Movietone newsreel footage about the arrest and prosecution of Capone. The picture quality of some of these clips is really strong. As always, there are also Julie Kirgo’s illuminating liner notes and an isolated score track. Get it on Screen Archives.com here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: 'Love and Death' Blu-ray


Woody Allen never stopped making “funny” movies, as some of his earliest fans complain. He just stopped making a certain kind of funny movie: wild, silly spoofs that might cross into Zucker Brothers territory if they were more slap happy with the visual puns and less intellectual and neurotic. 1975’s Love and Death brought an end to Allen’s goofy spoofs while finding the heretofore-undiscovered hilarity in Tolstoy, Bergman, and Eisenstein. Unlike those cats, Allen is willing to exploit the clownishness of falling in love with a woman who’d sooner marry your brother (or at least settle for a herring monger), going to war despite your pacifism only to get shot out of a cannon and decorated with medals for heroism, and dying (that is not a spoiler. This movie is called Love and Death).

Aside from the constant stream of jokes ridiculous (Woody’s inability to control the sword sheathed in his belt… the literal one) and very ridiculous (sex involving oven mitts, and possibly, a herring), Love and Death is great because the guy who wrote, directed, and starred in it was so generous with the humor. Almost everyone is very, very funny in this movie, which is not always the case for early Allen movies, and no one is funnier than Diane Keaton, who shuffles between melodramatic mannerisms (“Wheat!”) and scatter-brained naturalness with such ease that she seems like she’s improvising every line. Of course, no one improvises when they’re working from a Woody Allen script, and this is one of his most purely funny. His next one, Annie Hall, is really funny too, but with its pronounced melancholy and lack of crazed silliness, it marks a new, mature phase in his career. A lot of great art came out of that period, but you couldn’t always count on the kind of fun he whips out effortlessly in Love and Death.

Like all Woody Allen movies from this period, Love and Death looks soft, a bit grainy, and drab, though with its ornate interiors and pastoral exteriors, and Ghislain Cloquet’s refined cinematography, it is prettier to look at than most of his pictures. As always, Twilight Time’s new blu-ray maintains Allen’s aesthetic and merely suffers a scattering of white specks that will only irk the nit-pickiest videophiles. This disc includes TT’s standard isolated music track (so you can dig all that Prokofiev without getting distracted by the jokes) and a booklet essay by house historian Julie Kirgo. Get it on Screen Archives.com here.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Review: New Vinyl Edition of Rush's 'Caress of Steel'


Neil Peart was well integrated into Rush when they made their third album, and his obsessions with fantasy and long-form storytelling that brought us “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” would clearly be integral to the band’s destiny. Unfortunately, he still hadn’t learned the best way to channel those obsessions. Two cumbersome epics occupy the bulk of Caress of Steel, only leaving room for a scant three concise songs. These include “I Think I’m Going Bald”, a generic blues-metal riff that at least shows Peart continuing to tackle unlikely topics (what other heavy rock band would lament aging so early in their career?), “Bastille Day”, a stronger opener than “Anthem” was on Fly by Night though still somewhat unformed, and the nostalgic “Lakeside Park”, another terrific piece of pop in the tradition of the previous album’s title track and by far the best thing on Caress.

The album’s main problem is that, at this point, Peart’s desire to tell a story was a lot stronger than his willingness to tell one. Both “The Necromancer” and “The Fountain of Lamneth” waste a lot of grooves describing journeys on which very little happens. There are musical moments worth hearing, such as Alex Lifeson’s ominous arpeggios and backward guitar shrieks that begin “The Necromancer” and Geddy Lee’s catchy “Bacchus Plateau” section from “Lamneth”, but most of this rambling fluff would never have gotten through quality control if it hadn’t been thumb-tacked to a larger concept. Peart must have realized this himself because he really buckled down when penning his next epic, making sure to compose a purposeful plot with a clear arc and a more assured tie to the baser joys of Rock & Roll than any of the fantasies on Caress of Steel. But that’s a story for the next album…

As it did with Fly by Night, UMe is presenting Caress of Steel with warm and profoundly deep sound via Direct Metal Mastering on 200g vinyl with bonus download code. Get this new edition on Amazon.com here:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1975


The seventies really hit its doldrums at the midpoint. Many of the decade’s best artists either sat out 1975 (such as the Stones, who were officially past their due date anyway) or produced mediocre work. David Bowie created a great title track and little else for Young Americans. Pink Floyd was never as boring as their critics charged they were…at least until putting out the overrated Wish You Were Here. “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” would have seemed endless even if it hadn’t appeared on the album twice. Some of the year’s most popular discs—Fleetwood Mac and Dreamboat Annie, for instance— contained a few good buoys floating in a sea of filler. A lot of the year’s best albums were merely good, though there were a few genuinely fabulous ones tucked in there too. So without further shoulder shrugging, here’s the good and the great, a teeth-pulling effort I’m forced to call Psychobabble’s Ten Greatest Albums of 1975… or Come on, Ramones, Quit Dragging Your Converse All-Stars and Save Us Already!

10. Venus and Mars by Wings

The critics started getting kinder to Paul McCartney when he released Band on the Run, a collection of well-crafted, well-produced, well-played songs. Although that record was credited to Paul McCartney and Wings, it was his most solitary album since his one-man-band debut. Credited just to Wings, his follow up was his most collaborative to date and the first convincing evidence that Wings was more than a reaction against Paul’s control-freak reputation. His relinquishing of some control actually means Venus and Mars isn’t as strong as Band on the Run. The only song the band’s acknowledged leader didn’t write was Jimmy McCulloch’s so-so bluesy rocker, “Medicine Jar”. Paul handed his own “Spirits of Ancient Egypt” to Denny Laine, leaving that dedicated sideman to sing its idiotic lyrics. More conscientiously he handled the album’s worst offense, the saccharine and patronizing “Treat Her Gently”, himself. Much of the rest of the album rates among Wings’ best. The title track is a mysterious and tuneful prelude to the arena-quaking “Rock Show”. “Love in Song” is alluringly eerie. “You Gave Me the Answer” is a pleasing revival of Paul’s fascination with quaint pre-Rock & Roll pop. The comic booking “Magneto and Titanium Man” is silly fun. “Listen to What the Man Said” is a catchy single with bubbly sax work from legit jazzman Tom Scott, and the soulful “Call Me Back Again” is one of the finest artifacts of the Wings years.

9. Slow Dazzle by John Cale

Between his twin pop masterpieces Paris 1919 / Fear and Helen of Troy, a calculated emotional-meltdown record (he appears in a straight jacket on the cover…subtle) John Cale made Slow Dazzle, which bridges those two phases. On the one hand, you have polished pop such as “Taking It All Away”, “Ski Patrol”, and “I’m Not the Loving Kind”; on the other you have the sheer insanity of the gory, scatological “Guts”, a mannered “I’m co-raaaazy!” cover of “Heartbreak Hotel”, and “The Jeweler”, a spoken word nightmare about vagina eyes. Somewhere in the middle is “Mr. Wilson” a plea to Brian that freaked out King Beach Boy despite being a rather majestic piece of art, and “Darling I Need You”, a bubblegum stroll about a girlfriend who runs off to join the Snake Handlers. Inconsistency is an issue with Slow Dazzle, which has as much trouble keeping its quality straight as its sanity, but when the record is at its best (“Mr. Wilson”, “Guts”, “Taking It All Away”,  “I’m Not the Loving Kind”), it’s further proof that Cale had the most enduring talent of any ex-Velvet.

8. Toys in the Attic by Aerosmith

Monday, February 16, 2015

Review: 'Toons in Toyland: The Story of Cartoon Character Merchandise '


In early 1981, Reagan appointed a new FCC commissioner named Mark S. Fowler who fell in line with the president’s “deregulate everything” philosophy. Consequently, kids’ TV shows could now hawk toys with impunity, though cartoon producers didn’t get around to taking advantage of the new regime for a couple of years. However, they didn’t drag their oversized feet when it came to turning illustrated characters into toys. In fact, that kind of thing had been going on decades before TV existed, way back since the Yellow Kid became a phenomenon in the late 19th century. Comic and cartoon characters found lives outside newspapers, funny books, and television for decades as stuffed animals, bubble bath bottles, and PEZ dispensers, as well as featured faces on lunchboxes, record sleeves, pajamas, Halloween costumes, Christmas ornaments, Valentine’s Day cards, Little Golden Books, View-Master reels, cars, motel signs,  food packaging, and even envelopes of vegetable seeds.

Colorful images of the sundry merchandise manufactured between the Yellow Kid and Fowler eras is the main draw of Tim Hollis’s new book Toons in Toyland: The Story of Cartoon Character Merchandise, but there are plenty of tidbits that make the text equally fun. Whether he’s hipping us to the paranoid economic reasons behind Disney’s reintroduction of Mickey Mouse’s Depression-era look in the seventies, relaying the mutual hatred of rival lunchbox companies, or simply mocking the often horrid representations of such characters on the merchandise in his vast personal collection, Hollis is an entertaining tour guide… and quite the cartoon character, himself. In his introduction he explains how he created a museum containing recreations of the rooms in his childhood home. And I thought I was a nostalgia freak.

Get Toons in Toyland: The Story of Cartoon Character Merchandise on Amazon.com here:

Review: 'The Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000'


“Mystery Science Theater 3000” started as a bit of filler on a Minnesota UHF station, graduated to The Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central) for 11 seasons, and continues to live on in the hearts and minds of geeks who like watching human comedians and their two robot buddies crack wise about the shittiest movies in the galaxy. One such geek is Chris Morgan, a pop culture writer who is paying tribute to the cult fave with The Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Morgan’s book is nearly as odd a duck as the show it explores. It’s analytical, though our tour guide realizes it would be a violation of all that Joel, Mike, Tom Servo, and Crow T. Robot held sacred to get too academic about something so low-rent and goofy. So Morgan wisely keeps the tone light and wise-cracky in the spirit of his topic. It’s the format that seems off. Morgan chooses one representative episode from each season (plus the feature Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie) to analyze, spending the majority of his pages critiquing the movies the “MST3K” cast lambastes. The point of the show is that these men and robots are being forced to watch bad movies, so we already know they stink, and the cast’s wise cracks give us a pretty good idea why. A few of the shows he selects actually feature pretty good movies-- such as This Island Earth and Danger: Diabolik--but Morgan doesn't seem to appreciate them much more than Manos: The Hands of Fate or Pod People, so there's none of the fresh perspective that makes reevaluating B-movies more than an excuse to sneer. There is a bit of critique regarding the casts wise cracks, and though Morgan is an admitted fan, he rightfully calls out the cast for coasting through episodes or for knocking movies for their “ugly” actors or being shot in black-and-white. Fans might still be interested in the more historical details that bind the critiques together, though we get very little insight into basic details like why Joel, so history is hardly this books purpose. Overall, there’s too little discussion of what made “MST3K” worth watching in The Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Get The Comic Galaxy of Mystery Science Theater 3000: Twelve Classic Episodes and the Movies They Lampoon on Amazon.com here:

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review: The Criterion Edition of 'Don’t Look Now'


No one would ever label Nicholas Roeg a genre filmmaker, but he always manages to sneak a bit of horror into his films, whether it’s the nightmarish decadence of Performance (co-directed with Donald Cammell), the demented obsessions of Bad Timing, or the shocking, out-of-left-field violence of Eureka. Among the few true horror films Roeg directed (he’d been cinematographer on Roger Corman’s genre masterpiece, The Masque of the Red Death) is his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now. Yet as disturbing, violent, and supernatural as the film is, Rogue still isn’t content to play on a single generic field. At heart, Don’t Look Now is a family drama about a couple’s grief following the death of their child. The horrific elements of the film always carry the weight of that grief, making it incredibly sad even when playing with conventional horror elements.

All that being said, the less said about this sad, and surprising film to those who’ve yet to see it the better (I get more into plot in the film’s entry on my 150 Essential Horror Movies list), but rest assured that Don’t Look Now is the most artful and dramatic true horror film of the seventies. So who better to bring it to blu-ray than the Criterion Collection? Based on how above-and-beyond the company has gone with its new blu-ray, I guess the answer is “no one.” The film looks excellent, the new 4k digital restoration respecting its misty aesthetic while delivering the sporadic blasts of red with Technicolor punch. Because of the films intentionally soft look, this is not the kind of restoration that will stun viewers, but it is completely correct. 

There are also more than three hours of supplements (only about an hour of which is spent discussing the film’s too-famous-for-its-own-good sex scene). The major new one is “Something Interesting”, a 30-minute assemblage of recent interviews with stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, co-screenwriter Allan Scott, and cinematographer Anthony Richmond. No disrespect to the guys behind the camera, but Christie and Sutherland are the ones who really fascinate in this featurette, discussing their very different reservations about making the movie, and Sutherland discussing the terrifying circumstances of the broken-gantry scene and hopefully demystifying that sex scene once and for all with a hilarious recollection of its filming.

There is also a 43-minute conversation with Graeme Clifford, whose editing is as integral to the film’s disorienting brilliance as Roeg’s direction or the stars’ performances. He reveals that he went so far as to alter the script in the cutting room. An 18-minute love letter to Roeg from Steven Soderberg and Danny Boyle is full of insights (particularly from Boyle, who convincingly compares the director to Pablo Picasso and David Lynch) and confessions about which scenes from their own movies they pinched from the master. As for him, Roeg gets his due spotlight in a 47-minute Q&A from 2003 and a 19-minute documentary on Don’t Look Now from Blue Underground’s DVD released the previous year. Unfortunately, Roeg has a tendency to reveal too much about his intentions for his films. I prefer it when filmmakers trust their viewers to decode their work. Another Blue Underground leftover, an interview with Italian pop-singer turned film-score composer Pino Donaggio, rounds out the definitive presentation of one of seventies cinema’s definitive films.

Get the Criterion Edition of Don’t Look Now on Amazon.com here:


Monday, February 9, 2015

Review: 'Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky: The Complete Pretty Things Deluxe Boxset Collection'


Could The Pretty Things have achieved more than cult success in America if their manager didn’t have the lack of vision to book them on a New Zealand tour instead of taking them to the U.S. in the early days of their career? Did this possibly fatal decision allow The Rolling Stones to swoop in and swipe the title of Rock’s dirtiest, nastiest band in the world’s biggest pop market, leaving The Pretty Things doomed to cult act status? I kind of doubt it. Just hold up photos of the two bands circa 1965 side by side. See how relatively short the Stones’ hair is. See how nattily they dressed, even if they weren’t wearing matching suits like those fit-for-grandma Beatles did. See how long and unkempt The Pretty Things’ hair is, and I don’t just mean singer Phil May’s celebrated mane. Dick Taylor’s facial scruff looks like it reeks of beat clubs and pot stench and stage sweat. Had this mob appeared on American shores in 1965, they probably would have been tossed in the nearest zoo.

But could they have made it here if radio played their records more aggressively? I doubt that too. Unlike the Stones, who had good noses for pop hits, the Pretties were too uncompromising in their devotion to the hardest blues. They were so unwilling to bend to the strictures of radio that they not only recorded an obscure R&B song called “Come See Me” as aggressively as possible, they left in the line about laying a girl, and had the sheer madness to put it out as a single. Naturally, U.S. stations refused to play it. By the time The Pretty Things went psychedelic with “Defecting Grey”, a “song” that sounds like it was pieced together from bits of tape during some sort of arts and crafts class at the local mental institution, the possibility that they’d ever hit it big in America had long since gone AWOL. Hell, we didn’t even give them credit for putting out the first LP-length rock opera!


Normally, bands who don’t come within a mile of taking America as assuredly as the Stones did don’t get the kind of treatment The Pretty Things do with their new box set Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky: The Complete Pretty Things Deluxe Boxset Collection. Once again, they have little interest in such rules. This heavy duty set audaciously expects cultists to plunk down some serious coin for all eleven of the band’s studio albums, two extra discs of rarities, a replica acetate disc, two DVDs, and sundry books and posters and artwork. Actually, Bouquets isn’t terrible value if you don’t have all this stuff already. Compare it to another fairly recent box from Snapper records: Small Faces’ Here Come the Nice. That 2013 set only had four CDs and no DVDs and went for about £95.00 on Burning Shed.com compared to the £125.00 they’re asking for Bouquets as of this writing. Granted, that deal is less enticing for anyone who already owns all the Pretties CDs that have been available for years, because they are apparently identical to the ones in this new set. I only received a fifteen-song sampler, but listening to its tracks against the discs already in my collection, I detect no mastering differences. There is no indication otherwise in the pdf of the hardback book I also received (it’s a well-illustrated, critically balanced mini-biography of the band’s fifty years of bad behavior, though it does contain a few minor errors and really just whetted my appetite for the full-blown biography the band really deserves). Snapper’s decision to go with the stereo mix of S.F. Sorrow instead of the far superior mono one is a questionable decision, and the true completist will want to purchase it elsewhere.

Nevertheless, you still have three discs of material unavailable anywhere else. I am unqualified to assess those two CDs of rarities (which do not contain any of the fabulous recordings the band made under the name The Electric Banana, probably because of rights issues) since I didn’t receive it, but I did get to stream Midnight to Six 1965 – 1970, Reelin’ in the Years Productions’ documentary that was supposed to see release back in 2011 but was derailed by clearance and distribution issues. Like other entries in Reelin’ in the Years’ British Invasion series, Midnight to Six features new interviews with band members intercut with vintage song performances in their entireties. The interviews are interesting, though there’s a lot of informational overlap with the book included in this set. Still it’s cool to hear these wild stories right from the guys’ mouths, just as it’s cool to see them perform even when they’re only lip-syncing to recordings. The totally live performance footage, however, is spellbinding. It’s one thing to listen to these albums. It’s another to see 21-year old Phil May flipping his outrageous-for-1965-length hair while dropping to his knees as Viv Prince drums on his spine and an army of Dutch teens go to war with the cops in the audience. You wanna know why Rock & Roll used to scare the shit out of parents? This is why, motherfucker. Even seeing an awful, awful mime mugging while the band lip-syncs to “Private Sorrow” isn’t enough to make this early footage less potent.

The most well known footage of the Pretties from this era is the 14-minute short film “Pretty Things on Film” (sort of a grungier A Hard Day’s Night without all the plot and dialogue bits), which received wide release as a video bonus on Snapper’s Get the Picture CD in 1998. Midnight to Six doesn’t cheat by including this relatively familiar film within its two hours, but “Pretty Things on Film” is conscientiously included as a bonus. Hopefully the whole highly anticipated DVD will receive a stand alone release for the many Pretty Things diehards who already have every other disc in this box set.

Bouquets also throws in the band’s 1998 performance of S.F. Sorrow at Abbey Road, This is another readily available video, but it is an excellent one with the band performing their greatest work impeccably with bonus narration by Arthur Brown and occasional guitar support by Dave Gilmour. The name of this box set’s game is completeness, and it would not be complete without S.F. Sorrow Live at Abbey Road.

Despite having a pretty limited concept of what’s in Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky, I can say that anyone whose Pretty Things collection is currently pretty skimpy and wants to get everything in one swoop—and really, if you have any interest in sixties R&B and psychedelia, why wouldn’t you?—Bouquets From A Cloudy Sky: The Complete Pretty Things Deluxe Boxset Collection would probably be a wise purchase. Hopefully if enough of this limited edition set’s 2,000 pieces sell in the U.S., the Pretties will be a little less underrated here. 
Get Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky on Burning Shed. com here.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Review: 'Batman: The Silver Age Dailies and Sundays Complete 1968 – 1969'


We have already seen gangster “Pretty Boy” Floy employ his sister to pose as astrologer Madame Zodiac to control tycoon Tyrone Koom. Zodiac claims her star charts pinpoint Batman as Koom’s killer! Batman predicts this astrologer is not on the level! Zodiac slides Koom a gun! Will he kill Batman before Batman “kills” him? The worst is yet to come in the long awaited follow up to last year’s lavish Batman: The Silver Age Dailies and Sundays 1966 – 1967.

This latest volume is quite different from the first, largely because Batman was changing by the end of the sixties. The comic’s Pow! Zap! campiness dissipated over the course of IDW’s first collection, and it remains gone for the entirety of this second one (no guest appearances by Jack Benny this time, kids). The storylines are pretty dark, that extended Koom arc ending in a shockingly gruesome manner that would be unimaginable in a contemporary newspaper comic strip. We also see Batman’s transformation from his “new look” of the mid-sixties to the sleeker, more finely detailed appearance of his seventies incarnation. Perhaps because the TV show gave his comics a new boost, we do not see writer Whitney Ellsworth messing with the storylines of the essential Batman rogue’s gallery; our hero strictly faces off against obscure, comics-only villains in this series, though familiar friends Superman and Aquaman have significant guest spots (we also see the rare comic appearance of TV’s Chief O’Hara).

One negative that stood out to me reading this second volume was how the daily strips tend to waste the first panel of a lot of these three-panel strips by reiterating what happened the previous day. This creates a bit of a halting reading experience, although Ellsworth’s stories continue to be interesting and Al Plastino’s artwork is top notch. This collection also ends cleaner than the first volume with the complete resolution of a Face/Off style extended arc, so you won’t be left hanging on the cliff’s edge for another year before the arrival of the third volume of Batman: The Silver Age Dailies (there will be no Sundays in that final book).

Get Batman: The Silver Age Dailies and Sundays Complete 1968 – 1969 on Amazon.com here:


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Review: New Vinyl Edition of Rush's 'Fly by Night'


After passing themselves off as a sort of working class Led Zeppelin on their nondescript first album, Rush got a new drummer who brought along a lot of the elements that would make them one of Rock’s most worshiped bands. Not all of these things were great. Neil Peart’s obsession with Ayn Rand politicized the band in all the wrong ways and his obsession with Tolkien contributed to the cliché that prog is strictly for Dungeons & Dragons geeks. Still, the guy could play a set of drums. Plus, as hit-or-miss as his lyrics could be, they displayed a level of literacy and originality sorely lacking in the beer and partying belches of Rush’s first record.

Fly by Night is a transitional album, which is also why a lot of it sounds particularly fresh. While most of the lyrics are less dumb than the ones on Rush, there’s still a really basic Rock & Roll drive to this record over which the grand epics and high concepts would soon take precedence. The title track is a power-pop masterpiece, and Alex Lifesons Who-circa-1966 chords are what won me over after years of resisting those epic concepts and Geddy Lee’s banshee screech no matter how much my Rush-crazed friends worked to convert me. “Making Memories” is the kind of breezy folk-rock Rush bashers would never expect the group could pull off. “Beneath, Between, Behind” hits nearly as hard as “Best I Can” (one of two songs with Geddy Lee lyrics), which could almost pass for an AC/DC single. Some of the stuff doesn’t land as well—“Anthem” suffers from some particularly ugly Rand-inspired lyrics and an amorphous tune, “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” is Rush’s goofy first pass at a conceptual epic, “Rivendell” is strictly for elves—but Fly by Night is Rush’s first album to really sound like Rush, and that should please people who like Rush. Plus, I should repeat, the new drummer really is quite good.

So is UMe’s new edition of Fly by Night bashed onto 200g vinyl via the analogue Direct Metal Mastering method. What is DMM? Eh, you can look that up for yourself. All I can do is rave about the extreme quietness of the spaces between tracks and the extreme depth and volume of the tracks themselves. This record sounds fucking great; its big bottom compensating for the fact that Rush is a mere three-piece band averse to excessive overdubbing with a bass player who tends to keep his tone extremely bright. Fly by Night (download code included) re-launches the reissue campaign that began last spring with a box set devoted to Rush’s debut. The wait for new releases won’t be as long this time around with new installments in the pipeline every month. Get this one on Amazon.com here:

Monday, February 2, 2015

20 Things You May Not Have Known About The Pretty Things!

Aficionados of R&B freak-outs and totally freaky psychedelia already know The Pretty Things were the nastiest, longest-haired mob of hooligans Swinging London ever belched up. They know the band was a (sort of) outgrowth of the Rolling Stones, an early form of which counted Pretty Dick Taylor as a member, and that they beat The Who to the shops with the first LP-length rock opera, and that the Pretties will soon be the focus of their very own luxurious career-spanning box set. But even the die-est hardest Pretty-o-phile may learn something new among these 20 Things You May Not Have Known About The Pretty Things!

1. Singer Phil May was raised by his aunt and uncle, and believed them to be his biological parents. Phil was devastated when sent to live with his biological mother and her new husband at the age of nine. Although this meant he became Phil Kattner for a while, he ultimately decided to permanently keep his aunt and uncle’s surname May for himself.

2. Phil May told journalist Richie Unterberger that he learned many of the lyrics to the blues and early R&R the Pretties played from the songbook Mick Jagger personally compiled in a notepad.

3. Brian Jones and Andrew Oldham’s shaky relationship probably didn’t get any better when Jones moved into the same Georgian house as Phil May, Viv Prince, Brian Pendelton, and Jones’s former bandmate, Dick Taylor, in 1964. Rolling Stones manager Oldham supposedly hated the Pretties because he considered them his clients’ direct competition.
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