Archive for the ‘Music interviews / features’ Category
From last month’s Clash.
If you examined the record collection of any suburban middle-class home in mid-Seventies South Africa you’d expect to find three albums: Abbey Road by The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Cold Fact by Rodriguez. Of course, everyone knew the story behind those first two artists. The same wasn’t true of Rodriguez. Considered by many South African music fans as the equal of Bob Dylan – in terms of both success and artistic accomplishment – even by the mid-Nineties, Rodriguez’s fate was unknown. The most common story suggested a grotesque suicide in which the Mexican-American musician’s final performance ended when he set himself on fire.
Two fans, journalist Craig Bartholomew and record store owner Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, decided to see if they could uncover the truth behind their almost mythological hero. The story is told in full in Malik Bendjelloul’s superlative documentary Searching For Sugar Man, which is how the happily unscathed Rodriguez comes to be sitting here in central London.
“It’s the best story I’ve heard in my life,” beams Benjelloul. “I found the story before I found the music. I didn’t want to listen to the music because I fell in love with the story so much and I thought I was going to be disappointed.” As David Holmes, Paolo Nutini and many others have discovered, Rodriguez’s music is a lost gem. As Benjelloul continues: “During editing, I listened to these songs thousands of times and never grew tired of listening to them.”
Rodriguez signed to Sussex Records, fronted by music industry veteran Clarence Avant, and his 1970 debut album Cold Fact was the label’s first album release. Covering the musical spectrum from gentle folk-pop infused by Bacharach-esque production embellishments to fiery, riff-orientated psychedelia, perhaps the album’s strongest trait is Rodriguez’s poetic lyrics which cover social issues, caustic personal insults (“I wonder how many times you had sex / And I wonder, do you know who’ll be next?”) and observations of degenerative city life which could’ve come directly from the mind of Travis Bickle.
“Angry?” he questions in his almost meditative voice. Rodriguez seems to be in a permanent beatific state in which perfectly refined manners and an extreme sense of modesty are permanent fixtures. It’s hard to imagine him ever describing someone as “the coldest bitch I know” as he does in Only Good For Conversation. “I’m sure that emotion was there, and you have a right to emotions. We all do. So if you feel a little tear coming out, go ahead and do it. It’s okay. Music is an expression.”
After Cold Fact and the following year’s Coming From Reality album emerged to minimal sales, Sussex Records encountered financial difficulties while Rodriguez soon realised that he needed to make a living through other means. “And that’s where my career ended…” he says, with a lengthy, knowing pause. “So to speak.”
Rodriguez’s musical story is essentially then blank until 1979, when late night airplay and subsequent record sales persuaded promoters to book him for an Australian tour which included four sold-out shows at Sydney’s Regent Theatre. He returned again in 1981 for a tour with Midnight Oil and a major festival (“Men At Work were there,” he notes. “Before they got their haircuts!”). From thereon in, the narrative again goes quiet. He gained a degree in philosophy and worked in demolition. The mention that a philosophising demolition man is an odd dichotomy amuses him greatly.
In 1996, Seagerman and Bartholemew finally found their man with the help of Rodriguez’s daughter Eva and the Internet. Rodriguez discovered the whole truth: Cold Fact had become a favourite of the nation’s white liberal middle-class during South Africa’s apartheid era and had sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Home in Detroit, Rodriguez was surely a character but, aside from some dalliances in politics, he didn’t have a public profile. In South Africa, he was a legend. “I didn’t believe it,” he states, still almost stuttering in disbelief. “I didn’t believe any part of it. I didn’t believe anything was happening there at all. How could I?”
The film shows the moment when Rodriguez played his first South African show in 1998. As the rolling bassline of I Wonder echoes around the Bellville Velodrome in Cape Town, Rodriguez steps on stage to a roar of appreciation and is instantly struck silent. “How was that?” he repeats. “It was almost a frozen moment in a sense, but there it is right there on screen. The band was rehearsed and ready, but that interruption was great.”
It also became apparent that Rodriguez hadn’t earned anything from all those years of South African album sales. Bendjelloul states that it’s a complicated case involving a multitude of companies which one music lawyer suggested would take three years to address. Noting previous legal issues faced by the likes of The Rolling Stones and John Fogerty, Rodriguez is fully aware that it will be a long journey. “I’m certainly up to the challenge,” he affirms. “I’m not going to dismiss it as just one of those things.” He also reserves special praise for Avant who he describes as a pharaoh: “He helped me when I was in dire straits.”
For now, though, Searching For Sugar Man is finally spreading word of Rodriguez’s talents to a mass audience having earned rapturous receptions at influential events such as Sundance and Sheffield’s Doc/Fest. He continues to tour and is often joined on his travels by members of his family. As for the possibility of a third Rodriguez studio album? Maybe in the future.
“Sure we do it for the recognition, the girls and a couple of bucks,” he concludes in reference to his unlikely career path. “But we also do it to be part of rock ‘n’ roll history. This is just the way it worked for me. It’s a different blueprint.”
From Record Collector’s Digging For Gold column, published in their recent Iron Maiden cover issue. Digging For Gold looks at ‘forgotten’ albums with a collectible quality to them.
Tamworth quartet Wolfsbane became the first band to sign to Rick Rubin’s über-credible Def American, but that represented the sum total of their luck. It seems unlikely that the super-producer ever delivered a production as poor as of that on the band’s 1989 debut album Live Fast, Die Fast; its weedy, tinny sound eliminating any of the band’s exuberance. Two subsequent albums for Def American packed a heftier punch, but all three of Wolfsbane’s releases for the label suffered from inconsistent songwriting. The band’s key asset was in delivering blasts of metallic rock ‘n’ roll, but each album was burdened with simplistic pop-rock anthems and ill-advised ballads. A case of misguided A&R meddling perhaps? Regardless, praise from the rock press and a tour with Iron Maiden never translated to sizeable album sales.
Having departed the label, the band sought to make amends with this live album which focused on the more aggressive side of their catalogue. Frenetic and often rather sloppily played, its raw energy nonetheless captured the very essence of the band that had been lost in their prior recorded work. For non-believers, the most remarkable aspect of the album is vocalist Blaze Bayley’s stage banter. He tells the band’s fans (nicknamed, presumably affectionately, the Howling Mad Shitheads) that they look like they’re “waiting for the cat to come in for a piss” as he commands them to “get your hands in the air or fuck off.” One unfortunate gets the full force of his venom: “You! In the glasses, by the sound desk. Get your fucking hands in the air or fuck off out of the gig.”
Bolstered by fiery passion, strong new songs and possibly the most shambolic cover of Wild Thing ever recorded, Massive Noise Injection suggested a fresh dawn for the band. But by the time they’d delivered their richest sound and their best material on their self-titled 1994 album, Bayley had already announced that he was leaving for what would become an ill-fated spell as Iron Maiden vocalist. Wolfsbane were finished. The remaining members would later issue a mini-album under the new name Stretch, while Bayley would continue recording and touring under his own name. Wolfsbane reunited in 2007 and have since toured with The Wildhearts (for whom guitarist Jason Edwards has worked as a producer) and The Quireboys. 2011 brings a tour with Saxon and promises a new Wolfsbane album.
Also released on CD and cassette, the double vinyl is the most compelling format of the album for collectors. Limited to 3000 numbered copies with a sticker boasting “the loudest cut ever”, the vinyl adds two new songs that would later be re-recorded for the double CD version of their eponymous album.
Reports of a remake of The Harder They Come reminded me of this interview from May 2007 in which Jimmy Cliff spoke about his plans for a sequel. Originally published in Clash.
The Harder They Come has exerted an enormous cultural influence since its release in 1972. Jamaica’s first feature film took the then nascent reggae scene to a global audience, giving the genre an international reputation as a vital, energising art form. The accompanying soundtrack is bursting with songs that have become staples of reggae with several Jimmy Cliff classics (including You Can Get It If You Really Want, Many Rivers To Cross and the title track) accompanied by the likes of Desmond Dekker’s Shanty Town and Pressure Drop by Toots & The Maytals. Its legacy has spread from being referenced in The Clash’s Guns of Brixton to being reinterpreted for the stage.
Jimmy Cliff was already a success in his own right before making The Harder They Come with top ten hits on both sides of the Atlantic. Cliff starred as Ivanhoe Martin, a singer who comes to Kingston to find fame and fortune but who is confronted with a city in which corruption rules. Cliff’s character was based upon Ivanhoe ‘Rhygin’ Martin, a notorious and enigmatic outlaw of the late forties.
“What attracted me to Ivan in the first place was that he was an outlaw. And I’ve always been a bit of a rebel myself. When as a child growing up you heard about Rhygin, it was a name that shot terror in people’s minds,” explains Cliff, apparently still shocked to this day. “No-one had guns in those days, so for someone to have a gun and to shoot the police, that was really unheard of. I liked the idea of being a rebel.”
Rhygin’s status as an anti-hero was established by his love of self-publicity and his continued evasion of the authorities.
“He did have friends amongst the poorer class of people,” adds Cliff to expand upon Rhygin’s phenomenon. “What I heard as a child was that he used to wear a ring and every time he touched the ring he could disappear! And that’s why the police couldn’t catch him. The mysterious side of him also intrigued me.”
When writer/director Perry Henzell cast Cliff as Ivanhoe Martin, he took elements from Cliff’s background to create a character whose criminal activity was matched by a background in music. When the fictional Martin cuts his debut single, he finds that not only is he ripped off by a music industry monopolised by one producer, but also that same producer has control of the nation’s airwaves. It’s a situation steeped in reality.
“There were two giants [record labels] in Jamaica and a few smaller ones. I tried all of them. For my first recording, I was offered a shilling because I was still going to school at the time. I really dared to ask, what is this about? Am I not supposed to be paid for it? I was asked to leave the premises!” Cliff’s hearty chuckle suggests that he doesn’t hold a grudge. “My third recording I actually got something like five pounds and that was a good amount of money those days. But that was all; we didn’t have knowledge about royalties or anything like that. You get your five pounds and consider it to be a good pay day.”
The success of The Harder They Come could’ve been the central point from which the Jamaican film industry developed a continuing international reputation. But that scenario has never quite materialised with not a single work matching The Harder They Come despite a steady trickle of features.
“I know that there are quite a few people who tried to set-up the industry, but I always heard that it was a problem of money. But my personal view of the situation is that it’s not only a problem of money, but it’s also a problem of good scripts,” he empathises. “There were films that came out after like Smile Orange and a few others, but none had a script on a same level as The Harder They Come. Perry was a very bright man and he had a good awareness of the political situation in Jamaica. So if one writes a comedy about what’s going on in the north coast, which is what Smile Orange was about, it wouldn’t have the same international appeal. A few more movies came out, like Dancehall Queen, but they just didn’t have the broad, in-depth view that Perry had, so I think that’s what was lacking for the industry to develop and that continues through to today.”
Cliff declares that acting is his first love and even now considers himself to be a more accomplished actor than he is a singer. It’s hard to disagree that The Harder They Come represents a special moment in which both of his talents are utilised. That combination is set for a revival as it is planned that a sequel to The Harder They Come will commence shooting next year
“I’m still going to play Ivan. He almost died, he had an out of body experience after being shot by the police, came back to life, served a long sentence and is now back on the streets,” he explains with a tangible sense of excitement. “For him to have served over twenty years in prison and to come out to face the world again, it’s like when he first came to Kingston. I’m part of the writing team and we’re endeavouring to capture the time of what’s going on and the energy of today. All of these years, I’ve been touring all over the world and people are still saying, when are you going to make the next one? So there’s still a real demand for it.”
If Cliff and his collaborators can make a sequel that comes even close to matching the power of the original, we can expect something quite remarkable indeed.
From Clash’s film issue, March 2011. Photo by Ella Webber
Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh has the ability to get under the skin of some of the most iconic musicians in history. It was Control, his study of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, that announced his talent. Greenhalgh’s script empathetically presented the central conflicts in Curtis’ life and earned him a reputation as one of the hottest screenwriters around.
Although reluctant to tackle another rock biopic after the success of Control, the lure of John Lennon’s teenage years for Nowhere Boy proved too much for Greenhalgh to resist. Like Control before it, Nowhere Boy emerged to tremendous critical acclaim.
Greenhalgh started his writing career as a teenager when he became a club reviewer for a Manchester-based magazine during the glory years of the Haçienda and the Madchester scene. A spell as a runner on Brookside enabled him to break into television and he would later work as an assistant director and/or writer on shows including Cold Feet, Clocking Off and Burn It.
Who else could provide the ten golden rules behind writing a successful music biopic?
Rule One: Be intrigued by your subject, but not fanatical.
I don’t think it’s a good idea if you’re a big fan of the band or the subject to do a biopic, because you’d probably end up not having an objective view. I’ve seen writers who have been given a gig and been like, ‘Oh my god, this is my dream.’ I would never write something about Morrissey, because that would be my dream. Conflict equals drama, and if you can’t bring conflict to it… [sighs despairingly].
If you’re intrigued by a dislike of the person, then I don’t think it’s worth it. If you’re going into depth, you’re looking at a year’s work. There’s no point going into it with a negative attitude and then a year down the line you’re either doing a puff piece or a real number on it. You don’t want to be hating someone for a year because that must be really bad for the soul.
Also, scripts find you. Control was a bit of a fluke. A script had been written by an American fan and it was everything it shouldn’t have been. Debbie [Curtis, Ian’s wife] didn’t even show me it. They wanted a Mancunian writer and I’d just written a series of Burn It which was very Mancunian. I was a TV writer, but I really wanted the gig and was really proactive about it. I heard about it and said to my agent, ‘If it’s in the pipeline, find out about it because I’ve already missed out on 24 Hour Party People. It’s a subject that’s very close to me and I know that I can do a good job on it.’ In the end, it was a bit of it finding me, but also me finding it. And I had a good agent.
Rule Two: Apart from music, there needs to be a revealing story.
Ian was so beyond his years intellectually and poetically. He was a wordsmith and a poet, but like with most good poets there was a sense of doom and love twisted around everything he said. For such a young man, that was amazing. He wasn’t just someone belting out rock ballads, he was a tortured soul. I’d read Debbie’s book [Touching from a Distance] which is so good because it was from a wife’s point of view of a rock star. So you’ve got a lot of conflict because she’s very hurt by what happened, and obviously he committed suicide so she feels bereft. It was almost an outpouring of grief in a book. I had a great place to start with the book as there was so much to work with.
The beauty about Control was that it was about an unknown singer and an unknown band, to the wider world at least. People went in not really knowing who Joy Division or Ian Curtis was. That’s what worked about it, and Sam Riley was so amazing in it.
I said to my agent that I wasn’t going to do another rock biopic. But then someone said, ‘How about John Lennon as a grown-up adolescent?’ With Lennon, no-one knew about those early days. It was an unknown story. Everyone knows the story after that and has a vision of it. You can’t really ‘be’ the iconic John Lennon and you can’t have an actor playing Paul McCartney as he’s still alive.
Rule Three: Listen to the music that influenced them.
Especially on the Lennon biopic, I was listening to rock ‘n’ roll, Elvis and everything he was listening to. The Quarrymen weren’t great at the time, so the good music was what he listened to and what he was connected to. It’s taken for granted that you know your subject’s music, but is it the most important thing? If you’re basing a film around some key songs I suppose it is, but if you want to know about the character, learning about what made him write his music is probably a better way to approach it.
Rule Four: Read everything, and forget pretty much all that’s out already there.
With the internet and Amazon there’s no excuse not to. You cram and research, and make sure you cover everything that’s relevant to your story. Have a few bits that are totally relevant that you don’t want to forget. It’s impossible to hold all of that information in, so sub-consciously – and I think this is where you can’t teach it – it should come out in your work. If you put a lot of pressure on yourself to remember all of that, you’re going to be frozen and you won’t come into the script. At the end of the day it has to be you that writes it. It’s not a Wikipedia article.
I had a head-start on Joy Division because the Haçienda and New Order were big parts of my life. I felt Seventies Macclesfield played into Seventies Salford where I grew up; I knew that town, I knew the scene, I was on the scene. The research was pretty easy because I knew where Ian Curtis was coming from. I plastered images and interviews on the walls all around my computer. It’s like you’ve walked into an art gallery. You go and browse it and it puts you in the place you should be. I did that with Nowhere Boy too; there were images of young John everywhere. Everyday that image talks to you.
Research is very very important, but at some point you’ve got to cut it off. Especially if you’re a fan as you’re very wary of getting it all right.
Rule Five: Talk to close friends and associates.
Everyone’s wary of you to begin with. It’s like going up to a girl in the street and saying she could be a model. Everyone thinks they own that person [the subject], but you’ve got to own him. I had a situation where I sat with an ex-Joy Division roadie. I met him in a pub and bought him a pint. And then he started taping me! “What are you doing?” And he said, “I’m going to write my own script.” And he was deadly serious. That’s how mad people get. They think their version of the story is the one that needs to be told.
Rule Six: Know when to close your ears. A lot of bullshit flies around famous people.
I tried to interview as many people as possible and it got me down as they all had conflicting stories. I rang Tony Wilson [manager of the Haçienda and co-founder of Factory Records, who died shortly before the film’s release] and he said, ‘Just fuck ‘em off and write Matt Greenhalgh’s version. It’s doing your head in, Matt, just go away and write it.’ It was totally liberating, and that night I started writing.
Tony had always been an icon of mine. I’d seen him knocking about, but we’d never been friends before the film. Suddenly I was in the same arena as him. He was just getting ill at that point. I was sitting in his flat, chewing the fat with a tape recorder. I was taking everything in as he was talking about those days. When I look back at everything, that’s up there as a ‘pinch me’ moment.
Rule Seven: If the locations still exist, visit them.
I really loved doing this on Nowhere Boy. Forty minutes down the East Lancs Road is the Mendips [where Lennon’s childhood house stands as a National Trust site]. I’d walk from there to Paul’s house which is the exact walk that John would do. When you start walking in their footsteps and doing things they used to do, that’s when the magnanimity of how great it is to be doing what you’re doing sets in.
Rule Eight: People and reviewers are going to say that you didn’t get your facts right. Take it on the chin.
You can get over protective about getting it right. What you’ve got to understand is that if you’re writing a movie rather than a documentary, it’s entertainment rather than an informative piece. Hopefully it’s informative too, but you’ve got to understand that it’s fictional and you will take liberties. As Tony Wilson said, ‘Write the myth rather than the fucking fact.’
Cinema’s a great format. You pay your money, and you’ve got to sit there for an hour and a half. If you don’t make the story interesting enough, then what’s the point? A film has to constantly create interest. Like David Peace [author of The Damned United] says, biographers purport to be experts on people’s lives but they weren’t in the room. Neither was I. It’s about how fictionalised you want to do it.
Rule Nine: Don’t listen to music when you write. You should always know it.
I’ve tried to write with music going on. When you write characters you have people talking in your head, so you don’t want other people on stereos talking into your head too. If you’re writing about a musician, you should already be hearing what he was hearing or that track that you’re writing about. You’ve got to be at one with yourself. Yourself, therefore, has to transform into other people. There can’t be any distractions. It’s a lonely job.
Rule Ten: Try to choose a subject that’s feasible to make.
You can be a writer in this game and churn out loads of scripts, but if none of them get made it means jack. People don’t say let’s read the script, they say let’s watch the film. The first mistake that beginners make is to think, ‘I’m interested in it, so therefore the rest of the world will be’, but it’s not the case. After Jesus and Muhammad Ali, John Lennon is probably the third most iconic figure in the world.