Ahorn | Friday April 15th, 2011 | 1
By Andrew Horn
The In-Edit Festival of music documentaries originated in Barcelona 8 years ago, and in recent years has begun appearing in other Spanish speaking countries, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. This month (April 2011) it had it’s first edition in Berlin, with showings at the Moviemento and the HBC. The program ranged from films on Raves, to a portrait of Brian Eno, to Flamenco music, the Rock scene in Hamburg, to Chinese Punk. The full program can be seen here <https://www.in-edit.de/webapp/program;jsessionid=115dcs5t77nlm>
I was only able to go to five of the shows, but this is what I saw:
Upside Down – The Creation Records Story
Many years ago, I bought a copy of Black Sabbath’s first record at the flea market for a friend of mine who admitted to finding them a guilty pleasure. No great fan myself, I had, to that point, tried to live my life comfortably sheltered from their music, so out of curiosity I put it on just to check it out. To my surprise, I knew every song on the record.
Similarly, when I saw the movie “Upside Down – The Creation Records Story”, I had never heard of the label and, to be honest was never particularly a fan of so-called Brit Pop. And that being said, I soon realized I knew all the prominently featured bands in the film – Jesus And Mary Chain, Primal Scream (who I discovered by accident while looking for a metal band called Primal Fear), Super Furry Animals and the unavoidable Oasis – and, for purposes of full disclosure, was a particular fan of My Bloody Valentine.
If you like this kind of music, there’s loads of it and it’s appropriately loud. Like commercial Rock ‘n Roll radio, there was not one moment of silence. Visually, it was constructed out of an identifiable MTV aesthetic, with interviews shot it black and white with frequent arbitrary cuts to odd angles and grainy image quality, and lots of shaky super 8. While not particularly my taste, I could accept it as representative of the time and style of the music it was supporting.
One unfortunate problem with the film is the utter impenetrability of the accents, chiefly, though not exclusively, that of Alan McGee, the founder of Creation and principle character. (I was later told that McGee, who was in Berlin to support the film, was interviewed on the radio and the moderator went diligently through her list of questions totally oblivious to any of his answers.) Nonetheless one did get enough to understand that if Creation ultimately crashed and burned due to too much partying and drugs, it was established out of a love of the music and a genuine desire to support its bands. No bad thing for sure.
William S. Burroughs – A Man Within
William Burroughs: Blah blah blah, Beat Generation, blah. All well and good but actually there was refreshingly little of that is this movie. Before ever seeing a copy of On The Road, I had first discovered Burroughs through the The Fugs, a whimsical (no sarcasm intended) take on forming a Rock band by a bunch of 60s East Village poets – principally Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg. Their first album ended with a proto- (and soon-to-be prerequisite for the time) longform psychedelic freakout track called “Virgin Forest”, one of whose sections was called “Burroughsian Time Grid”. Less obviously drug induced than Sci-Fi influenced (which at 14 was more my speed anyway), I still remember the opening lines:
look anywhere dead hand
I woke up with dark information from the dead
Wounded galaxies tapped on my window
and so on…
Sounded good to me. If I could have walked around singing it, I would have. But that was a lifetime ago and forgetting that (and of course remembering all the Jack Kerouac related stuff I’d read in the meantime), my first thought on seeing this film on the schedule was, why is it on the schedule? I didn’t think about it too long though. For one thing, who cares really? And for another, after going back to thinking about it, Burroughs was somebody who had a lot to do with influencing a generation of musicians such as Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, Patti Smith and Laurie Anderson, and who worked with Anderson, Sonic Youth, John Cale, Tom Waites, Kurt Cobain, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Bands like Soft Machine and Steely Dan got their names from his writings and, as this film points out, the first recorded used of the term Heavy Metal is attributed to him.
It was only after reading a review of the film that I understood that this was supposed to “explore the personal life of the celebrated and controversial beat author of “Naked Lunch.” Having watched the movie, this came as rather a surprise to me. Not because I think in some way they failed to make it personal, or because in some way I just didn’t get it. Maybe I just somehow felt he was not exactly a person. This is not to say that he seems to inhabit some other dimensional zone of his own design (though maybe he does), but that somehow he radiated that dimensional zone around him and effected everything within that radius. At least the people in the movie appeared to respond that way. One thing the movie did do, was make me think about how really witty he was, even though I already knew it.
Due to the complimentary whiskey being offered from the festival’s sponsor, I can’t honestly say I remember too many of the details of what I saw. Which is arguably not inappropriate. I do remember Patti Smith singing through the entire end credits and nobody getting up to leave till the lights went on.
I went to this movie with no particular expectations except that I was curious see what Beijing was like, and moreover how it looked through the experience of a group of punk bands – something I could arguably in some way relate to, having been a kid on NY in the 70s. That being said, I was a bit divided about the idea of young contemporary Punk bands in the first place. My attitude sort of swings between being in awe that the idea of Punk continues to exist and influence in this seemingly never-ending cross-cultural slow burn, and a sense of exasperation – like enough already, can’t we come up with something new?
The movie featured bands Hang On The Box, Joyside, T9, New Pants and one other band which was the only one with a Chinese name so of course that’s the one I couldn’t remember. Sorry!
The movie itself is a fitting no-frills verité of a bunch of bands hanging out and playing out in a city split between the last generation’s urban decay and the new generation of capitalist uh… whatever. All the characters are unsurprisingly youthfully disaffected, feeling like they have no part of most of the life going on around them. Something I can certainly relate to from my own youth in the capitalist uh…whatever. What is interesting though is despite the fact that you might think – or at least I might think – that such music would run afoul with the “regime”, I discovered a webite called <https://wiki.rockinchina.com/w/Main_Page> which lists hundreds of Chinese indie bands, in a number of genres and there appears to be at least some kind of support system in China with clubs, music festivals and record companies. And some of the bands in the film – despite their portrayed lowdown existence – do seem to get around.
Of all the bands in the film, Joyside, came off as being the biggest bunch of slackers, talking about wanting to hang out and watch tv all the time. When asked how he pays his rent, the lead singer replies that he borrows money from his family and friends. In point of fact, the band seems to have been pretty active, in the 8 years of their existence they came out with 8 albums, appearing on 3 compilations and touring Europe. Apart from their part in this film, they were the primary subject of two other films, Wasted Orient (2006) and The Joyside of Europe (2009), the latter also screened here. While from their performance in the movie I can’t say I’m that big a fan of the music, but I have to admire the fact that they did get around.
Another band, T9, seemed to me the most interesting. Their lead singer, who’s Mongolian, does that kind of overtone throat singing, which I have to say seemed to work pretty well with their punk material, coming off like those Death Metal growl vocals. The singer has meanwhile gone on to a new band HangGai (who has been getting some airplay outside of China), which is more folk based. Nonetheless HangGai’s entry on the Chinese band site links to the site for the Wacken Heavy Metal Festival, so I’m obviously not the only one who’s making the connection here.
My favorite of the bands though was Hang On The Box, a girl (ok, grrrl) punk group. While the lead singer said in the film that their earnings from a typical Beijing gig basically cover taxi fare and dinner, they seemed to have the biggest success of the bunch, having played in both the US (including SXSW and multiple gigs in New York) and Japan, and releasing several CD’s in China, as well as in Hong Kong, UK and Japan. I also discovered their song “Shanghai” made the most-played records list on WFMU for 2001 and they have a number of clips on YouTube, so I guess everybody knows about them but me.
Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why is everyone talking about him?)
The film introduces Nilsson as someone who “you either totally get it, or you have absolutely no idea who he is”. This may be an exaggeration.
Harry Nilsson might be best remembered as the instigator of all things crazy during John Lennon’s famous “Lost Weekend” in LA in 1974. In fact several people in the movie identify his presence in their lives with the oncoming forces of chaos, from which you either had to stand back, or for better AND worse, just lie back and go with it.
I knew about him originally from his big hit song “Everybody’s Talking” from Midnight Cowboy, which in spite of him being a prolific writer, was not one of his own songs (rather from folk singer Fred Neil, who should probably get his own film), and from a hit song which I had no idea he wrote, One Is The Loneliest Number (recorded by Three Dog Night and written while listening to a busy signal on the phone – think about it). I also had no idea he wrote the song “Without Her” for the Al Kooper version of Blood, Sweat & Tears, but was all too painfully aware of his cover of “Without You” – a really hatefully sappy rendition of a Badfinger song which became a really monster hit.
He also wrote a number of humorous songs such as “Put The Lime In The Coconut” (sung in the music clip by a group of gorillas) , The Point (which became a successful TV cartoon) and “You’re Breaking My Heart (you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you!)”.
Yet another Rock ‘n Roll crash and burn story, he seemed to survive the above mentioned craziness only to be laid low by a business manager who ran off with all the money. Everybody seems to have some kind of story about him and, while not all of them are good, everybody who tells it seems to have reached enough remove to have appreciated, if only in hindsight, the sort of “adventure” aspect that contact with Nilsson seemed to bring with it. Perhaps appropriately, it seems that at Nilsson’s burial, George Harrison remarked that his favorite song was the above mentioned “Your Breaking My Heart” and somehow this was passed from one person to the next until the whole assembly of mourners was singing along at the graveside, “you’re breaking my heart, you’re tearing it apart, so fuck you!”
For reasons I can’t readily explain, this was my least movie, despite the presence of Van Dyke Parks, Jimmy Webb, Richard Perry and The Smothers Brothers. Maybe it just went on too long. Or maybe I shouldn’t have had the complimentary whiskey this time?
Johnny Mercer: The Dream’s On Me
My father used to accuse me of getting my knowledge of the world from Mad Magazine. I won’t say it was, and I won’t say it wasn’t but I will say that my first awareness of Johnny Mercer, the famous lyricist and contributor to the so-called Great American Songbook, came from the Warner Bros. cartoons I used to see on TV as a kid. They were constantly using or quoting his songs such as “Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish”, “Jeepers Creepers (Where’d You Get Those Peepers)”, “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby”, and “Blues In The Night” which seemed to be repeatedly sung by Porky Pig or Daffy Duck and a host of others (you know it – it goes, my momma done tol’ me, when I was in knee pants…). And, yeah, my awareness of “That Old Black Magic” came from Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor.
Mercer might be most recognized today for writing the words to “Moon River” from Breakfast At Tiffany’s or “Laura” from the famous Otto Premminger movie, but he was also responsible for the lyrics to such standards as “Skylark”, “Something’s Gotta Give”, “One for My Baby and One More for the Road”, “Too Marvelous For Words”, “I Remember You” “Lazy Bones” and even “I’m An Old Cowhand From The Rio Grande” as well as those mentioned above and a whole lot more. Even if you don’t recognize all the titles, you probably have innumerable songs of his in your head, which could just has easily have come from sources you can’t even remember.
This film was basically a “classy” made-for-TV special, produced by Clint Eastwood for BBC and Turner Classic Movies, and although it was the most conventional of the ones I saw at the festival – and probably the one with the most ass-kissing by those interviewed – it somehow rose above itself and remained enjoyable probably due to the impressiveness, and diversity of Mercer’s writing.
While he never wrote the melodies, he provided the words for a proverbial who’s who of American popular composers of his generation. Someone in the movie quotes Mercer as saying that a composer is the one who’s sitting at the piano at a party surrounded by a bunch of beautiful girls. The lyricist is the weasely little guy standing alone in the corner. For the weasely little guy, he did alright.