Movies & music

I watched The Joker last night. First up, very good movie. Secondly, Joaquin Phoenix inhabits the role to an unsettling degree. I can’t imagine a better – more committed – performance this year. Thirdly, brilliantly directed and made. It’s a very densely textured movie with great attention to detail. The colour palette is great. Fourthly, it may technically be another adaptation based on a comic book character, but this isn’t escapist nonsense. It’s full-on dark and twisted, which reflects contemporary issues regarding mental illness, alienation, and the fractures in society. Finally, I found this very disturbing (and tragic).

In conclusion, viewing this was an experience – but not one I want to repeat in a hurry.

Happier it is to report on the Harry Styles album, which is – and I never thought I’d say this – much better than I expected. To be fair, this is an excellent album on any measure, it’s just that never in my wildest dreams did I expect an album like this to come out of the One Direction dissolution. This is a really mature album with great licks throughout and attitude to boot. It has a retro feel to it, like music used to be, given a contemporary spin. I don’t know if there’s a dud track on it – I’ve been playing it on Spotify. The best of it is utterly infectious.

I tend to be scathing of modern music, much of which appears soulless to me. When I was growing up, a lot of us wanted to play in a rock band when we got older. The top 40 was the soundtrack of our lives, and we lived and breathed it. We’d sing it in the shower and talk about it at school and, when someone got a new LP we fancied, we’d get them to make a tape of it for us. The TV was full of music programs that would actually comment on the music of the day, rather than mindlessly playing videos of them one after another, as it is now. What I’m saying is that music was very grassroots and passionate – a lot of us were music geeks – and there were themes and issues often explored in the music of the day, unlike now.

On this occasion, I’m not complaining. I feel sorry for the kids today who don’t get to experience that sense of yearning devotion, and the journey that entails. I don’t listen to a lot of contemporary music because little of it has that passion that I can discern – the sense of a musical calling. A lot of the music appears written by formula, or else by a computer with the settings carefully calibrated to hit the spot.

There are exceptions. A lot of them are either old school bands who have been around forever or else have gestated in the old fashioned way – a bunch of schoolmates, or friends, passionate about music and writing it in their back rooms.

And then something like this Harry Styles album comes out and a lot of it is familiar in type, even if it has a modern veneer. There’s a vibrancy to the music lacking in most of the popular songs these days. There’s a creativity that comes from being deeply invested in the process. That takes the music in different directions sometimes and adds a depth to it. It feels human, and as if it’s been lived.

I like Harry Styles before this, if not musically. He’s got some major hype, but he seemed like a good kid, intelligent and balanced. Now I like his music too, and right now he’s the bee’s knees. Go, Harry!

The music that makes you

For months, it seems, everyone has been raving about the Queen movie, Bohemian Rhapsody. On the weekend I finally got to watch it myself.

Queen is one of those bands I grew up with. I wasn’t an early fan, but within a few years I remember raving over A Night at the Opera, which is a great album. I recall vividly when Bohemian Rhapsody came out as a single, extravagant and way over the top, and especially the music video that accompanied it. Come the eighties I was a pretty solid fan who owned a couple of albums by them. And it was pretty hard to ignore Freddie Mercury who, as his name suggests, was mercurial and talented and deliciously camp. You had to love him.

That’s one of the things that comes out in the movie. At times he was a right proper arse, but overall he was a warm and endearing personality given to excess. That meant there were times he was frustrating and unreliable, but it also gave rise to his talent and made him the affectionate and loving personality that he was. It’s the thing that probably killed him too.

There were things in this movie I hadn’t been aware of before, and remain uncertain about, but basically it followed the arc of their career from fledgling days to the triumph at the Live Aid concert in 1985. For me, I was interested in the musical side. They had some great songs – my favourites being Love of My Life (beautiful and real), Somebody to Love (lush harmonies), and Under Pressure (w. David Bowie), but there were a dozen others nearly as good. They were a great band in an era when great bands were a thing, unlike now.

I reckon a lot of the positive vibes towards this film are thanks to musical memories and raw nostalgia. I get that. It was what got me. It was well made and acted though formulaic, a fond movie no matter that ultimately Freddie would die of AIDS off-screen. That’s what gave the movie its meaning though.

Before that, I watched a documentary about Sam Cooke. Now he was well before my time, and died when I was only a few months old, but there came a time in my life that he was heavy on my soundtrack. I didn’t grow up with him but he informed my life at a formative time, from about the mid-eighties I guess. I don’t know what started it, but I suspect it was his smooth and simple crooning that affected me at a time when I was discovering all my romantic possibilities.

That’s the simple beauty of much of his music, a velvety, heartfelt voice expressing sentiments that everyone could connect with. They were elemental truths housed somewhere in the warm part of our soul. There were times in that period when I was a dreamy romantic and he was a guiding light who summed up my hearts desires so well.

But then there was another side of Sam Cooke. This documentary showed that very well – the entrepreneur, the activist, the fiercely intelligent and independent man who had a vision of a better world. He was a fascinating individual and might have become a great man besides a great artist had he lived. He died controversially, his name sullied, and it has been shrouded in mystery and outrage ever since – and for good reason.

When I came to him it was his romantic tunes like You Send Me, Wonderful World and Cupid that drew me in, but as I delved more deeply into his career I discovered his more serious compositions, great musically but profound in their message of hope. A Change is Gonna to Come and Bring It On Home To Me are heart-rending classics.

It’s great music. I like Queen plenty, but if I were ever asked to choose then Sam Cooke would be one of those few dozen discs I would take with me to my desert island. (Marvin Gaye and Nick Drake would be a couple of others top of my head).

Musical curmudgeon

I spent a good part of yesterday morning going through the annual Triple J Hottest 100 to see if I could find a song I liked.

I can’t say I grew up with the Hottest 100 – I was already in my twenties when it kicked off – but I was an avid follower of it for many years. It became a bit of an institution, with many Australia Day barbecues using it as the soundtrack. Back in those early days I listened to Triple J more often than not, and reckon I must have purchased a half dozen of the Hottest 100 CDs they put out each year – but none since the mid-nineties.

It’s been a while since the Hottest 100 was relevant to me, and same could be said about Triple J. I noted some commentary on the Hottest 100 yesterday, much of it negative, but a lot of it coming from people around my general age. They said that Triple J had changed since the golden days, and the music was a reflection of that. But then Triple J was always on the alternative cutting edge, and it probably is today – even if the music itself is much different. If there’s an issue it’s probably that while Triple J has moved with the times, a lot of us haven’t. Despite my promises long ago, that’s the case with me.

I’m not close enough to make a fair assessment these days. Like so many, I listen to the radio rarely, preferring instead streaming services like Spotify, which can be curated. I listen to the radio when I drive, and generally one of the commercial stations that play older hits and more acceptable contemporary music. There’s little played on those stations you would hear on Triple J – which is different from back in the day when you would hear crossover artists like Nirvana and Regurgitator and the Whitlams. Not so today.

I scrolled through the Hottest 100 playlist on Spotify, which went all the way back to the start. It was amazing to see how music had changed. The further I went back the more songs I liked, and way back there many more I liked than didn’t.

I don’t want to be one of those grumpy characters complaining how things were better before, but, well, musically at least, they were. A lot of it is personal taste, but I think all the same there’s a fair argument that popular music these days is less substantial. In fact, much of it seems disposable. Growing up rock and pop centred around guitars pretty much. There were techno phases, and some great bands like Depeche Mode who were almost pure electronica, but they were a part of a diverse rockscape. That diversity no longer seems to exist, and guitars themselves much in the background.

I remember growing up we were all into music in a big way. We would save our money to go down to the local Brashes to buy the latest big LP release. We would discuss it at school and, if you were lucky, someone would make a tape of it to share. We all knew the stories, we watched Countdown and Sounds and Rock Arena and Nightmoves and maybe even listen to the American Top 40 with Casey Kaysem. Music was a subject.

It was a rare kid who didn’t want to grow up to be a rock star, and if you didn’t want to play the drums you wanted to play lead guitar. Most of us never got that far, but those who did were grounded in this tradition and emerged as passionate musicians who believed in the craft. Music was a calling and they put their heart and soul into song writing and performing. There was plenty of dross, but there was some great stuff too, and some of it profound. It was a lived experience.

Listening to music these days so much of it feels fabricated. Music used to move me, but these days it feels much more like backing music, with little to really engage the heart or mind, and little profundity. It seems to me the market for a lot of music these days are young teens, and teen girls particularly. The intellectuality around music – some of it quite pompous and self-important – is now quite absent, but with that we have lost context and the sense of musical journey.

I know, there will be plenty out there today who love music now as I did then, and who find the same profundity and meaning as I experienced back in the day. That goes to show we look to find the same things, but find it in different places.

I always believe things happen in cycles and I reckon there’ll be a trend back some day to more traditional rock music. Popular music has always been subject to fashions and trends. When I look back the golden era of music is roughly 1987-1994, but everyone will have an opinion on that. And regardless of my comments here, there’s always some decent music to be found, though most of it is in patches, rather than threads.

For the record, I don’t reckon there’s been a better Australian band over the last ten years than the Hilltop Hoods. Internationally I’m left with old bands like the Foo Fighters, and even Muse. And, to be fair, there is some very clever and artistic contemporary music – top of my head though, I just can’t tell you what it is.

Titans of Aussie rock

Over the last couple of months we’ve seen the death of two Australian music legends, brothers George and Malcolm Young.

George was a driving force behind the Easybeats, who were a great Australian band of the sixties. They had a bunch of songs chockful of classic guitar riffs, and in Friday On My Mind, one of the most perfect songs of the era. Later George joined with fellow band member Harry Vanda to become a legendary song-writing and production duo.

Malcolm was the younger brother of George, and with his brother Angus formed the nucleus of one of the greatest rock bands of all time, AC/DC. It’s hard to imagine two better rock guitarists than Malcolm and Angus Young.

Vanda & Young guided AC/DC to the top of the charts, with Bon Scott as their lead singer. These are all fucking legendary names, and a great era of Australian guitar rock.

As it happened I watched a dramatization of the Easybeats story a few weeks ago, followed on by a fascinating documentary on the music and characters of that era, and the Albert’s sound – the production company that broke, and then nurtured these great performers.

I was just a kid back then when AC/DC where making it, but have sketchy memories, especially of the classic video of AC/DC performing It’s a Long Way to the Top on the back tray of a truck driving down Swanston street. Great video, great song. A few years later I remember my best mate and next door neighbour, Peter Woody, buying the Back in Black LP and us playing it on high rotation. And for many years I can recall a piece of graffiti scrawled on a bench at Montmorency railway station: Bon Scott lives!

I was rapt watching these shows, nostalgic, but also fascinated by the stories and the progression from those early days to a professional and mighty music industry. It made me realise things I’d never really taken much notice of until then. I knew Stevie Wright, and have his epic song Evie on my iTunes. What I hadn’t realised was what a powerful and charismatic front man he was. For a little fella he packed a lot of power in his voice and performance, and more attitude than ultimately he could survive. I came away convinced than in the story of Australian rock music he’s one of the three outstanding front men – he, Bon Scott, and Michael Hutchence. What does it mean that they all died prematurely?

Like so many I loved Bon Scott. He had the perfect voice for a rock band like AC/DC, a powerful snarl laden with rugged experience. Added to that he had a style that at a distance seemed menacing, but in fact he was a rad Aussie, a larrikin with energy you could bottle. He was on the edge and liked it there, and it captivated thousands of fans like me. He wasn’t just a voice (like Brian Johnson), he was a persona. I’m one of the old school fans who think the Bon Scott years were the best of AC/DC.

I remember the days of Aussie guitar bands and pub rock and in your face attitude and they’re just great memories. We’ve been lucky.

These are the times we lose what we had

Seems like most Saturday mornings these days have become tribute sessions in my home.

I do the same thing pretty well every Saturday. I’ll head out the door near 10 and walk the short distance to Hampton shops where I’ll do the bulk of my weekly shopping – groceries, bread, and the few meat veggies I haven’t previously bought at Vic Market. I’ll come home, unpack my groceries and clean the kitchen while I listen to music through my Apple TV.

Lately, I’ve been returning home and playing the music of recently deceased musicians. A couple of months back I played the music of Soundgarden and Chris Cornell back to back. A few weeks back it was Linkin Park’s turn after the death of Chester Bennington. After hearing of his death yesterday I’ve played the select few songs of Glen Campbell this morning.

I don’t have a lot of songs by Campbell, but they’re great songs. Wichita Lineman has to be one of the most poignant and evocative songs of all time. He has such an easy voice that yet expresses the yearning the song expresses. Beneath it is the strumming of the guitar that sets the pace of the song and somehow allows you to picture the windswept, lonely plains the song evokes. This is in my top 50 songs, and this an ideal version (though the Clouds did a great cover about 20 years ago).

The other song I have of his is Galveston. To me, this has a similar quality. I don’t know if I imagine it, but I always picture a man about to go off to war and an uncertain future and looking back towards his hometown, and the sweetheart he has there. He sings with a melancholy hope that he may yet get back to what he realises he really loves. We never find out if he does.

See, that’s the power of the music. The words of the song suggest the tale but don’t tell it, yet the combination of voice and music and tone create that sense. That’s how we come to love music, how it plays to our memories and inspires our imagination, our longing, our own sense of wonder and belief.

Both these songs are Jimmy Webb classics. He must be one of the most prolific and successful songwriters of all time.

These are the only two songs I have of Campbell, though I have a wider appreciation of him. I was never a fan of Rhinestone Cowboy, but I might have had Where’s the Playground, Susie? on my playlist.

The deaths of musicians and actors and those others who have regularly featured in our life always make us reflect. It’s like a little bit of your own history gets buried with them. When you get to my age you begin to see the long trail. Glen Campbell was 81, and from an era earlier than mine, but I felt it keenly when Chris Cornell died at the same age I am now.

One memory that popped into my head yesterday was curious. I had a random recollection of flicking through my bohemian aunt’s record collection sometime in the eighties and coming across an album by Glen Campbell. I must have paused. I knew some of his songs, and his smiling, handsome face was familiar to me, if only by viewing True Grit.

My aunt will be dead near 15 years come next year, but memories like this remind you that other lives have come before. Whatever trials I experience, or you, whatever joys or whatever simple pleasures we experience others have experienced before. We hold it close to ourselves, but it’s common experience in different guises, generation after generation.

Once my aunt must have picked up that album and thought to buy it. She worked, she played, possibly she loved. She was a woman of strong opinion and independent ways, affectionate and adoring to us as children. She must have played that album looking out over the harbour from her apartment in Watsons Bay, which is when I would have found it.

It wasn’t there years later after her death when I packed up her house. What happened to that album? I don’t know. She went on for a while, and then she didn’t, and all she had was scattered to the winds. But I remember.


Keeping me going

I reckon the thing I’ll miss most if and when I die is music. It has such a power to stir and rouse, to thread itself through your life entwining with your memories. If you live close to it, as I have, it becomes a sort of mirror of your existence. It’s hard to believe you could lose that – not the just I have cherished throughout all these years, but the music too that I’m yet to discover. Man, it kills me sometimes I love it so much.

I switched on the TV before and switched to a music channel and they were playing the top 50 songs of the ’70’s. A very young looking David Bowie performed Golden Years, a great song. Now he’s a performer I come to appreciate more and more as I get older. Then there was a great laid-back Aussie song, Eagle Rock by Daddy Cool.

Then one of my all time faves. There was Phil Lynott out front of Thin Lizzy performing on the steps of the Sydney Opera House singing The Boys Are Back in Town. I love that song, always have, and it has such a killer riff. A lot of attitude, both band and song, though Phil now is long gone.

Right now Boz Scaggs is singing The Lido Shuffle. I know it because everyone’s parent had a copy of Silk Degrees in the mid-seventies. It was a monster album in the adult market, but it’s a cool song.

Fuck off, now it’s Abba. Gee they were big, but more popular with the girls. Looking back now and listening they had a stream of catchy, near perfect pop songs. This one’s Mama Mia, such a fun song, but the times then were fun to weren’t that? Or is that just looking back with a nostalgic glow. I was a schoolboy. I remember learning the trumpet in music classes and a choir we had briefly singing an Abba song I think, though I could be wrong. All the boys loved the blonde, Agnetha, but I always preferred the brunette, Frida, and still do. Boys are simple, and men too, give them a buxom blonde and they’re happy. I prefer the subtle and sophisticated, but I doubt when I was 11 or 12 that came much into it.

That’s what I mean. So many memories.

That’s my afternoon sorted. Channel surfing between this and the footy while I do the housework and a bunch of cooking. Music, it keeps you going.

What’s a great Aussie song?

Switched the TV over to one of the music channels yesterday and caught a playlist of, allegedly, the 50 best Aussie songs. I listened to it in the background, then watched for a bit switching between the footy. I agreed with a lot of the picks, and disagreed with a few too. Anyway, it got me thinking, and being a bloke I decided to put my own list together.

Now I’m not going to list 50 songs, and I’m not going to put them in order either because I reckon that’s impossible.

  • Buy Now Pay Later (Charlie No. 2) – The Whitlams
  • No Aphrodisiac – The Whitlams

Coupla Whitlam’s songs, which won’t be popular with everyone, but Buy Now is a very poignant song, and No Aphrodisiac was a quirky hit at the time, added more for spice than any other reason.

  • Harpoon – Something For Kate
  • Captain – Something For Kate

Something For Kate are a forgotten, overlooked band, but they had a couple of cracking songs. These aren’t the very top shelf, but they certainly belong in a top 40. Harpoon was a cover of a great Jebediah song, and a better version.

  • These Days – Powderfinger
  • Passenger – Powderfinger

Long, celebrated Australian career, but a tad unfashionable Powderfinger. IMO these are their two best songs.

  • State of the Heart – Mondo Rock
  • Cool World – Mondo Rock

Now we’re going back to the early eighties. Ross Wilson, stalwart of Australian rock music, lead singer of Mondo Rock and been around forever – he’s also got another track on this list with Daddy Cool, when he had long hair. State of the Heart is just a very beautiful, very true song, and has memory associations for me. Cool World is just a very catchy, very clever pop song.

  • Power and the Passion – Midnight Oil
  • Short Memory – Midnight Oil
  • Blue Sky Mine – Midnight Oil

The Oils have got to be on this list, and probably unlucky to have only three songs on it. I reckon they were the best band in the world for a bit, and their passionate, hooky songs are classics. I don’t know which is my favourite. Great band.

  • Because I Love You – Masters Apprentices

Hands up who knows this song? Kinda psychedelic, late 60s/early 70s, this song creeps up on you.

  • Great Southern Land – Icehouse

This is a great song in its own right, but it also rouses a patriotic urge in me too.

  • Throw Your Arms Around Me – Hunters and Collectors

A classic Australian band, but this is their standout song. They recorded a few versions of it, most of them not it justice, but they got it right in the end. Much covered, this features Mark Seymour’s raw, imperfect voice, but it adds something to it. Has some great lyrics. Close to the top of this list.

  • What’s My Scene – Hoodoo Gurus
  • Bittersweet – Hoodoo Gurus

The Hoodoos are just a great Aussie band, catchy, fun songs, these are their two best. Continue reading