Friday, November 27, 2009

What Would Poly Styrene Think Of Black Friday At Walmart?

I got up at 4:30 AM today to go to my neighborhood Walmart to buy a laptop during this year's post-Thanksgiving "Black Friday" sale. I survived but I purchased my computer at Radio Shack instead.

As I've been rereading Jon Savage's masterful England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock, and Beyond -- having just hit the first mention of X-Ray Spex too -- the prescient lyrics of Poly Styrene were in my mind as I strode into the heaving, packed Walmart at 5:00 AM.

There is something ironic -- sad really -- about so many underpaid American workers queuing to buy electronics manufactured by grossly underpaid Chinese workers. An added irony that I was queuing to buy the computer to take with me on a trip to China was not lost on me.

I'm not going to go off on an anti-corporate rant -- Walmart does provide cheap goods to poor people in America, right? Right!?! -- but I will comment on the scene there.

There is a reason that people use the term "the great unwashed" as the majority of people in this place reeked of cigarette smoke and body odor. Now, I'm not exactly David Niven myself but I tend to bathe and launder my clothes after wearing them. And I've never been a smoker.

So the "event staff" security guards were herding us in through the barricades like we were going to a rock concert and I finally pushed my way back to the electronics department.

As I noticed mothers rifling through boxes of the day's $2 and $9 DVD specials -- not even stocked, the titles were just out on a shelf in big boxes direct from the manufacturers! does anyone need a copy of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009) for even $2? -- I spied three lines in the department. It was an unorganized scene -- were these people waiting for the laptops and big screen TVs or what? I finally flagged-down an employee -- an older woman, clearly a smoker, with the wrinkled skin of a woman twice her age -- and she said -- at 5:05 AM! -- that the laptops were already gone!

Five minutes after the "Black Friday" sale began and the hot item was already sold out!

So, I pushed myself to the front of the store and tried to get through to the exit -- the lines to pay for merchandise were already long and twisting back into the aisles of monster-sized bags of potato chips and football-team quantity boxes of Pop-Tarts -- as even the spectacle of cheap Diet Pepsi products could not tempt me to stay in this madhouse.

Yes, I love American pop culture, junk food, and junk TV but I love it -- usually -- from a perspective of scorn and derision. And even I have my limits.

Walmart at 5:00 AM is not my bag. So I drove down the highway to Radio Shack; I'll gladly pay an extra $50 for a similar laptop if it means I only have to jostle my way in with 20 people.

So, what would the one true punk think of this? What does the woman who wrote "Warriors at Woolworths" think of this kind of consumerism?

I say one true punk because, let's face it: the Sex Pistols were a pop group. I don't say that as an insult but the whole pop spectacle business of the group's rise-and-fall never felt like the story of a real band but more like the story of a media experiment. Surely Lydon was enthusiastic, possessing a wit and intellect most of his peers were sorely lacking, but, in the end, the McLaren-led enterprise didn't promise anything more than destruction.

The Clash? Love 'em but, by the simple virtue of the fact that frontman Strummer was a journeyman rocker from a few pub rock bands pre-Clash, I can't see how one could call them real punks.

The term to my mind applies to only a few of the British 1976-1977 punk movement and without a doubt in my mind Poly Styrene was one of the real ones.

In a punk scene that as early as 1977 was splintering into Boy's Own-style machismo-fantasies -- Thanks Sid, you fucking sad moron -- it took colossal courage for a fat, braces-wearing, mixed-race, 19-year-old young woman to take the stage.

As the years go by my admiration for the lyrics on the first X-Ray Spex album only increases. First single, "Oh Bondage! Up Yours! seems now 30+ years later to be one of the great rock singles.

"Chain-store chain-smoke
I consume you all
Chain-gang chain-mail
I don't think at all"

- "Oh Bondage! Up Yours!

And the full-length album, Germ-Free Adolescents, manages to contain similar gems. Sure, it prefigures the whole riot grrl thing a bit too neatly but let's forget about that.

The purity of intent is what still staggers the imagination. In a pre-MTV world, a 19-year-old girl wrote these precise words that skewered consumerism at every turn.

And unlike the lyrics of later bands with similar intentions, they are funny!

"I wrenched the nylon curtains back
As far as they would go
And peered through perspex window panes
At the acrylic road...

I drove my polypropylene
Car on wheels of sponge
They pulled into a Wimpy bar
To have a rubber bun."

- "The Day The World Turned Day-Glo"

So, Walmart at 5:00 AM in near-riot conditions is an accurate picture of American consumerism and the herd mentality.

Without Poly's wit, the Manic Street Preachers hit the nail on the head for me as I literally had to fight my way out of the shopping crowd:

"From feudal serf to spender, this wonderful world of purchase power..."
- "Motorcycle Emptiness, Manic Street Preachers

Friday, November 20, 2009

An Education

Is it possible to hate a movie while simultaneously loving the lead character and performer? After watching An Education, I think my answer might be a resounding "Yes!"

Okay, my initial gut reaction is that the film is fairly obvious and not entirely subtle with the only real suspense coming from the wait to see what the deal is with Peter Sargaard's David -- when will he finally reveal himself?

At the same time, I am at a bit of a loss for words in writing about lead actress Carey Mulligan. The mix of vulnerability, wit, and sass -- a very English mix in my mind -- recalled Emily Lloyd and I can think of no higher compliment to pay a young British actress. And if Lone Scherfig's film is not quite the expert blend of drama, camp, humour, and sadness that 1987's Wish You Were Here was, the film's lead performer is surely as memorable as Emily Lloyd was as Linda.

There are moments where Miss Mulligan so completely owns the character that I was a bit stunned. While the film is based on a memoir -- presumably true, right? -- the screenplay felt a little too pat, a little too easy.

Still, the way that Jenny expresses her eagerness without seeming too eager, her intellect(when it suits her), and her sexuality in a natural and unforced manner reveals for the filmgoer one of the most fully developed female characters in a film in quite some time.

So, while the scene of Jenny in her plain frock entering a nightclub feels a bit too obvious -- I wanted to shout: "We get it! She's a simple, teen girl out of her element!" -- Carey Mulligan is so natural that a viewer simply sits there falling in love with the performance and the character despite the filmmakers pounding us over the head with reminders of what we already clearly understand.

I could watch 95-minutes of Miss Mulligan reacting to dialogue, it's as simple as that.

While the character of David is a "serviceable villain" who serves a purpose in the plot, we still know nothing about his motivations.


Why did he propose to Jenny if he was married? His wife's bit of dialogue implies that David had done this sort of thing before, so clearly he wasn't going to leave his wife this time? Why go to so much trouble if sex was not the only thing he was after?

As the normally reliable Sarsgaard plays the role, David ends up seeming a bit mentally ill as clearly his "scheme" of seducing the girl in the high life didn't have much purpose.

Or, if it did, the filmmakers didn't spend enough time in showing us what the point was.

And, it's not enough for Jenny to get fed up with school so we've got to see her storm out of school in the middle of the day carrying her books under her arm?

As soon as Jenny visited her teacher for assistance in getting back into school, I correctly predicted that a "learning" montage was sure to follow -- complete with scenes of different seasons to let us know time had passed!

And it's not enough that she gets a letter from Oxford but she conveniently gets it at the breakfast table in a perfectly framed moment with her father and mother present.

Still, all that may be, but Miss Mulligan's reaction shots are so good in those same obvious moments that all is forgiven; it's okay that the screenplay is a hammer to our temples, telegraphing filmic moments with all the subtlety of a Brit Ollie Stone, if the result yields something as glowing as Mulligan's face reacting to her father read the acceptance letter from Oxford offscreen.


A mess of a film that teeters on the brink of greatness, spinning on the axis of a wonderfully unaffected performance from Carey Mulligan.

Maybe a second viewing on DVD will change my mind?

If it seems like I didn't enjoy the film -- that my patience was not rewarded plot-wise -- I did enjoy the central performance to such an extent that I would gladly give up another 95-minutes of my film-viewing life.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Pink Frost, The Chills, 1982

The clip below is at once so amateurish and perfect that I am at a bit of a loss for words.

While indie bands in America in the two decades after 1982 would wear their shambling indie half-assedness and ironic detachment on their sleeves with pride, The Chills here, while clearly a bit ramshackle, are aiming for something more.

This is not twee. This is not any form of preciousness.

This is a song about death delivered as simply as possible with a directness that an MTV-world would soon simply ignore or attempt to mold into something more marketable.

This song, like most of the work of The Go-Betweens, seems almost too good for a video and perhaps that is why both that band and The Chills never quite excited the rest of the American hipster underground as they did me and a few select friends.

With an opening jaunty riff that sounds like labelmates The Clean, The Chills launch into this song of a death in the family -- a suicide? too many details would only distract -- and with a thumping bass line, and a Moe Tucker-worthy caged fury from the drums, the song leaps forward.

Martin Phillips' guitar lines prefigure by 8 years the sound he would achieve on "Effloresce and Deliquesce" from the masterpiece, Submarine Bells, and his vocal seem at times a sort of pleading-in-a-whisper.

If I play this song in the car, alone, with the windows rolled up, driving in D.C. traffic, it's a pretty safe bet that I'm going to tear up.

Without even knowing the full story behind the lyrics, the sense of loss -- grief, a bit of quiet rage -- shines through.

And, like most of the great pop songs I've loved in my life, this one is not too long and is over with a rush before it becomes redundant.

"Effloresce and Deliquesce" (1990)

Effloresce and Deliquesce - The Chills

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

New Rose Elinor Dougall Single on US iTunes!

The latest single from Rose Elinor Dougall is now up for sale on US iTunes!

Fallen Over has a bracing guitar line -- a bit spacey -- and seems to be the most expansive (for lack of a better word) of the 3 solo releases so far from the ex-Pipettes singer.

It's like Sandy Denny singing a Badfinger song with Spiritualized!

(Okay, how's that for a ridiculous comparison?)

Her solo album due for release in 2010 is surely going to be one of my most anticipated releases of next year!

You can order the single here.

You can find Ms. Dougall on:



or the old Rose Dougall website.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

More Tsai Chin

I finished Tsai Chin's autobiography, Daughter of Shanghai, this week and I thoroughly loved the book.

The actress' life would itself make a wonderful film and the story of her life is told with an economy that is refreshing; where an other actress would devote pages and pages to the famous people -- especially the male ones! -- in her life, Tsai Chin spends more time on her production of Shakespeare's The Tempest in Beijing in 1982. As someone who took 5 consecutive semesters of Shakespeare in college by design, I enjoyed this section of the book the most.

There is some mention of the 5 Fu Manchu films that Tsai Chin did with Christopher Lee, as well as a nice little anecdote about turning down work with Benny Hill, despite admiration for the comedian, for fear that the comedy would be stereotypical and offensive.

Interestingly enough, the book was written a good 6 years before the triumphs of Tsai Chin in the film version of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club.

And, another bit of trivia, the actress mentions her sister, Susan, and a few visits to Washington, D.C. suburb Silver Spring, the town in which I've worked for the past 5 years and where I've shopped at various book/record/comic book stores for a good 30 more.

This picture is so great that I had to post it. It speaks of a different era, and Western styles making themselves felt in the East, but the younger version of the actress is recognizable and her expression reveals so much of her personality with one glance.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Morrissey Swords on iTunes

If you are a Morrissey fan do yourself a favor and use iTunes to buy the tracks you need from his new b-side collection, Swords.

The reason I say this is that I purchased the "deluxe" version with the mini-live album from iTunes without paying too much attention.

First of all, a full 7 tracks are already in my possession from the similar "deluxe" edition of his 2004 album, You Are The Quarry.

Another track, the lackluster "Shame is the Name" with backing vocals from Pretender Chrissie Hynde, was appended to the US iTunes version of Morrissey's last studio album, Years of Refusal.

So that leaves a fair 10 b-sides on Swords that I didn't already own and another 2 bonus tracks on the iTunes version.

Of these, I think "Because of My Poor Eduction" and "I Knew I Was Next" are clearly as good as some of the man's recent album tracks and are worth seeking out.

The others? Hmm. Nothing earthshaking but fans will probably enjoy them.

However, the mini-"live" album attached to the "deluxe" edition is really not worth the money -- there are clips on YouTube with better performances!

Morrissey's voice, buried far in the tinny mix, sounds horrible as it strains to hit the notes.

Compared to some other recent live albums from Morrissey, I am quite disappointed with this.

If I purchased all the b-sides I did not already own individually on iTunes, it would have been around $12 so buying the whole "deluxe" edition for $14.99 didn't set me out too much -- just wanted to express my disappointment with the entire package.

Here is a link to buy the album -- or tracks -- from iTunes.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

More Halloween Nostalgia (Even If A Day Late): Phantasm

(I realize that Halloween is over but after the nostalgia trip generated by this post, I thought I'd post this similar story. This is a movie review I wrote for a previous job's internal company-wide website probably six years ago [2003]. I'm not going to edit it much as I'm glad that I for once put down in writing this little bit of 1970s nostalgia.)

Glenn’s Movie Pick for October 2003: Phantasm(1979)
Directed by Don Coscarelli, starring A. Michael Baldwin, Reggie Bannister, and Angus Scrimm

In honor of Halloween I thought I’d review what I consider to be the scariest movie ever made but I realize that fear is subjective, and maybe not everyone considers The Sound of Music as terrifying as I do; I don’t know about those people, but I do know that the sight of singing nuns in the Austrian mountains sends me running in fear. And don’t even mention those kids and all that lederhosen to me.

So I think maybe I should do something more typically scary, more of a traditional horror movie? I decided on Phantasm(1979). And I can’t talk about Phantasm without talking about the first time I saw the film.

It was 1979, I was 12, and my parents and I were living in Louisiana, in the suburbs outside New Orleans. The big deal that year was that my parents’ friends, the O’Neills, had just gotten cable TV - - they lived in a slightly more modern subdivision - - and after much pleading, my mom finally allowed me to go over there one Friday night to watch Phantasm on HBO during that Halloween season.

Not only was the movie less than a year old, but it was rated R! I was living it up. This was going to be great. I was hyped in advance all week.

That Friday I went over there to watch it along with two of the O’Neill kids, Mike O’Neill, 15, wannabe bad-ass, and Kevin O’Neill, 17, honor student, along with their father who had always reminded me of a wiry Jack Lemmon for some reason (like in the original The Out-Of-Towners maybe).

I suppose a little background is in order here. I grew up an only child in an apartment and was pretty sheltered. I loved monster movies and watched them on TV every week - - "Creature Feature" on local Channel 20 was my favorite. I liked going to the O’Neills’ house because it meant I could hang out with Mike O’Neill. He liked monster movies too and, like me, made his own Super 8 film productions. My home movies tended to be herky-jerky stop motion animation filmed in the basement - - usually clay dinosaurs fighting a la Ray Harryhausen while Mike’s films were more elaborate - - he would cast the neighborhood kids as Frankenstein and his monster and have some physical action as well, use his backyard as the set, have fight scenes - - the whole works.

And it seems like every time I went to their house Mike and I would usually go in his backyard and burn model airplanes he had completed that week. I can still smell the glue in the air. Sometimes he would film them for use in some future epic he planned to produce but usually he would just go get whatever World War II fighter plane model kit he had just completed, douse it in lighter fluid and toss it airborne. Invariably the evening ended with wiry little Mr. O’Neill coming out, beer-in-hand, to yell "Goddammit! I told you to stop burning those models out here! You’re gonna catch the garage on fire!" and us frantically stamping out the pieces of the charred plastic in the flower bed.

I think Mike had a problem with fire - - my mom got a call from Mrs. O’Neill once that he was rushed to the hospital for third-degree burns because he got the bright idea to put lighter fluid on the soles of his sneakers, set them alight and then stomp out the flames up-and-down the sidewalk in front of his house. Great plan, but unfortunately, two stomps in, and the flames rushed up his pants and burnt his legs up to his knees.

So, as a 12-year-old, I’m anxious to go hang with this guy on Halloween. And Phantasm was the perfect film to watch on Halloween with Mike O’Neill. It’s a cheesy film, looks so low-budget that it looked like something Mike had filmed himself, and it was gory too.

It concerns two orphaned brothers who live near a mausoleum and notice a strange Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), the mortician, doing some weird things with bodies. The younger, more reckless brother investigates and finds that the Tall Man is really an alien and is transporting the bodies from the cemetery to his home planet to use as slave labor. And the Tall Man ships the bodies home through this "dimensional gateway" he’s got set up in the morgue - - like something out of TV’s "Star Trek". I’m not making this plot up, people. Wild stuff, but pretty creative for a film that cost less than $300,000 to make and grossed millions more. If anyone investigates the Tall Man’s sinister doings they get chased around the mausoleum by this flying silver ball the size of a softball that proceeds to impale people in the middle of the forehead and pump out their blood.

Mike and I had read about this part and were waiting for the gore. This is before all the Eighties slasher movies when the only really shocking horror films had been Halloween, The Exorcist, and The Night of the Living Dead. All I can remember now is that Phantasm scared the crap out of me and that I had to turn away the first time the orb appeared and proceeded to pump out what seemed like gallons of blood from some poor character in the film. Needless to say I couldn't sleep that night but also couldn't wait to tell everyone in 7th Grade about this awesome R-rated movie I had seen when I got to school on Monday morning. It was better than the junky action movies I had seen at the drive-in theater as a little kid.

The director followed this film up with the 1982 masterpiece, The Beastmaster, with Marc Singer, Tanya Roberts, and John Amos.

And Mike O’Neill, the fire-starter?

He ended up Sheriff of that small town in Louisiana.