Sunday, April 24, 2022

Review: 'The Light Pours Out of Me: The Authorised Biography of John McGeoch'

Siouxsie Sioux, Howard Devoto, and John Lydon were three of the most high-profile front-people of the post-punk era. They had something else in common. During their most creative periods, John McGeoch was invaluably assisting them on guitar. Side musicians in bands at the popularity level of the Banshees, Magazine, and PiL usually are not the subjects of their own biographies, but McGeoch was more than a side musician. His artful yet subtle colorings were essential to classics such as "Shot by Both Sides", "Happy House", and "Spellbound", and his influence on guitarists without a taste for Clapton's rote blues or Van Halen's showboating is immeasurable. Johnny Marr of The Smiths, John Frusciante of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien of Radiohead, and Mark Arm of Mudhoney are among the musicians who praise McGeoch as one of the greatest in The Light Pours Out of Me: The Authorised Biography of John McGeoch

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Review: 'Faith Horror: Cinematic Visions of Satanism, Paganism and Witchcraft, 1966-1978'

As fun, transgressive, and quick-to-offend as horror can be, it is often quite conservative at heart. Just think of the means Van Helsing employs to give Dracula the willies: the crucifix. Christianity is often used as a simplistic symbol of good in horror--the supernatural cure for supernatural evil. 

However, religion's role can be more complex, or at least less direct, than this, as LMK Sheppard argues in her new book Faith Horror: Cinematic Visions of Satanism, Paganism and Witchcraft, 1966-1978. While the surface conflict of many horror movies appears to be a matter of good/christianity vs. evil/satanism-paganism-witchcraft, the core conflict may actually be one of faith vs. commerce (Rosemary's Baby) or predestination vs. free will (The Omen). In the case of The Wicker Man, that conflict might not actually be between the film's two obvious opponents-- christian cop Sgt. Howie and the pagans of Summerisle--but between the faith of both of those adversaries vs. the secular reality that leaves all of them clearly screwed at the end of the picture.

I usually avoid academic studies like Faith Horror because I'm no longer in college and I often find this kind of analysis to be merely theoretical--it rarely deepens my appreciation for the topic discussed or convinces me that the author's theory is truly essential for a meaningful understanding of that topic. While this was the case with several of the chapters in Faith Horror, chapters such as the ones on Rosemary's Baby and The Wicker Man provided enough snacks for thought that I found the overall discussion worthwhile. A quotation from a New York Times article by Leonard Wolf that Sheppard quotes in her book's introduction sums up why I, an absolutely devoted non-believer, am so fascinated with all of horror's supernatural hogwash better than anything I'd ever read. The book also contains the best typo I've ever read, one that makes Rowan Morrison, the missing girl of The Wicker Man, seem like some sort of unholy hybrid beast born in the Joke Wall from Laugh-In.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Review: 'Welcome to Elm Street: Inside the Film and Television Nightmares'

After the release of Halloween in 1978, the slasher film started shaping up to be the most pervasive, formulaic, and depressingly cynical horror subgenre of the eighties. Teens flocked to see their classmates get killed in a variety of graphic, grindingly predictable ways by personality-devoid murder machines like Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees. 

Wes Craven jolted the subgenre forward when he unleashed Freddy Krueger on them in 1984. Here was a slasher with an actual personality, a wit of sorts, and a completely original method of destruction. By attacking his victims in their dreams, Freddy allowed Craven and the various filmmakers who took on the various Nightmare on Elm Street sequels to unleash their imaginations, setting their kills in environments a lot more interesting than a suburban neighborhood or summer camp. Freddy's one-liners were always pretty lame, but his glibness somehow made the violence more disturbing and more palatable. All that personality also helped transform Krueger--a serial child killer (though not a pedophile, despite accusations from both critics and fans)--into a truly weird marketable character. Not only were there Freddy films and a Freddy TV series, but there were also Freddy toys, games, and comics. The declaration of September 13 as "Freddy Krueger Day" in L.A. in 1991 may have been taking things a little too far, but the moral outcry against it was even sillier.

Wayne Byrne takes a deep dive into most of this stuff in his immensely fun new book Welcome to Elm Street: Inside the Film and Television Nightmares. Byrne doesn't spend much time with the merch, but he does afford the films and the short-lived TV show Freddy's Nightmares more attention than probably anyone thought these things deserved when they were ubiquitous in the eighties and nineties. He provides some light analysis and critique, but the bulk of the book is devoted to the remembrances of the directors, special effects artists, and actors who made the nightmares. With a little pruning and restructuring, the book could have been a straight-up oral history.

Obviously, the late Craven does not contribute, but most of the directors of the sequels offer their memories. Freddy himself, Robert Englund, is the biggest name, and he clearly fancies himself a bit of a Freddy scholar. Some of his theories overreach a bit, but it's still great to get the perspective of the guy who clearly knows the character better than anyone, and the historical and making-of details from all participants are gold. 

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Review: 50th Anniversary Edition of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On"

In 1971, Marvin Gaye gave Berry Gordy a serious case of the cold sweats when the artist presented his latest concoction for release on Gordy's Motown. Until that time, the label had been known for light-hearted odes to love delivered in a set style designed for transistor radios and discoteque floors. "What's Going On" was something else: trippy, political, and not particularly hopeful. The album constructed around Obie Benson's composition--which was too much for Benson's own Four Tops... and Joan Baez, of all people--further exploded Motown tradition by doing away with individual tracks for a seamless suite of songs as invested in current affairs and relentlessly searching as its title track. 

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