Monthly Archives: September 2015

New York eras of pre-pop music

 

Until recently, I thought that, just as Frank Sinatra’s popular song “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)”  was first performed in the film Robin and the Seven Hoods, another ode to a US city, “New York, New York”,  also originated in one of the singer’s later films.

Until, that is, I saw Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, Alex Gibney’s excellent documentary,on BBC4, and realised that the song was only adopted by Sinatra a couple of years after it was premiered by Liza Minnelli in the Martin Scorsese film of the same name.

The film centres around the relationship between a saxophonist, played by Robert De Niro, and a band singer, played by Minnelli,  during the post-World War Two period when jazz music trends moved from big band swing to improvisational be-bop and when recording and films were becoming available to singers, like Sinatra, whose ambition and popularity were pulling them beyond their band origins.

New York, New York reminds you that at one time Scorsese was a director whose films were not wholly concerned with the male crime world. However, it does have two scenes which prefigure two later films which are certainly on that theme, all of them involving Robert De Niro. One is the early shots of musician Jimmy Doyle characterised by his Hawaiian shirt with its slogans and bright colours which anticipate the early shot in Cape Fear of the tattooed back of the psychopathic Max Cady.  Another is the scene of Doyle making a phone call which we can’t hear (partly because of the playing of the club band) but which we sense will have serious consequences due to Doyle’s changing facial expressions, similar to the shot in Goodfellas where Jimmy Conway watches the behaviour off-camera of a fellow gangster whom he is forming a plan to kill, his organised but violent thoughts evoked by the driving guitar rhythms of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”.

Of course, Scorsese’s contemporary Francis Ford Coppola is also most famous for films about criminals – The Godfather trilogy – and coincidentally he too essayed a film about a past era of musical performers. Where New York New York covered the period immediately after World War Two, The Cotton Club features a mix of real-life and fictional gangsters, musicians and dancers associated with the Harlem night-club in the Prohibition era of the 1920s and early 1930s.

Like New York, New York, The Cotton Club was filmed on large studio sets rather than on locations such as the directors had previously preferred. Neither film was a success at the time, and both, in my opinion, suffer from having less attention being paid to narrative and characterisation than to design and music. The Cotton Club does have a notable scene towards the end where gangland violence is interspersed with a male dancer’s energetic rehearsal. It is a welcome memory of Coppola’s more successful films, where he depicts Mafia killings taking place at the same time as, and under the social and religious camouflage of, weddings or christenings.

And returning to our first reference, Frank Sinatra, Alex Gibney’s documentary stated that, unlike the singer Johnny Fontane in The Godfather, Sinatra did not get his film role in From Here to Eternity through Mafia influence. Gibney’s explanation was that it had more to with rival actor Eli Wallach asking for too much money!

Some parts of present-day New York which would certainly have been recognised by the 1940s characters of New York, New York and even by the earlier characters of The Cotton Club :

 

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The Statue of Liberty – famous landmark for immigrants arriving in New York by ship since 1886.

 

 

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The concourse of Grand Central railway station, completed in 1913.

 

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The Carnegie Hall music venue, built in 1891.

 

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The Empire State Building, built in 1931, surrounded by earlier high-rise buildings.

 

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One of the many 19th century sculptures in Central Park, but perhaps a less likely one: of Sir Walter Scott.

 

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Part of the 1920s art deco foyer of the Chrysler Building.

 

 

 

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An interesting political present

 

Three big political events within a year, and all three took the UK political establishment by surprise: the close result of the Scottish independence referendum;  the general election defeat of Labour, convincingly in England, overwhelmingly in Scotland; the success of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK Labour leadership election.

In explaining these three events, many analysts have pointed to the decline all over Europe of  establishment parties or government coalitions or centre-left orthodoxies, but an equally major factor, as suggested by Laurie Penney, may be the different perspectives of younger voters. Scenarios which seem terrifying to the middle-aged voter who has experience of past political controversy or upheaval may hold no such fear for the younger. If you genuinely think that Scottish independence is a wise step forward why not vote for it? If you are genuinely attracted to mainstream socialism (as distinct from its diluted 21st century establishment-approved form) why not vote for it?

To me, it also seems similar to the left-wing movements of the 1960s and even to the support for New Labour: you don’t need to defer to ideas and practices which are approved by the older generation; choose the version which you want.

Through my 40 years of voting in UK elections, certain ideas have often been seen as impractical and unachievable – peace, nuclear disarmament, an end to poverty. Mainstream politicians did occasionally flirt with them, but votes for organisations which embraced them too fully, such as the Liberals or the Greens or the far left, were always dismissed as “wasted”. It’s been quite a reassuring experience to see, with Jeremy Corbyn’s election by such a convincing majority and by a proportional system, so many people who have paid no attention to the conventional idea of what a “wasted” vote might be.

Although many of Corbyn’s political opponents have been at pains to point how extreme his views have been, they could equally be viewed as fairly mainstream. For example, Corbyn has been a long-time supporter of CND, and at many times in its 50 year-history this has been a hugely popular organisation, especially during the 1980s time of concern about Trident, Cruise and the bellicosity of Reagan and Thatcher. He also believes that the UK’s serious shortage of affordable housing might be tackled by local council house building and controls on private rents. He supports the cause of the Palestinian people and believes that they are governed unfairly by Israel. His views on a curb on the arms trade, and a fairer redistribution of the world’s resources, will be widely supported by active members of the Christian churches and by supporters of long-established organisations such as War on Want, Oxfam, Scottish Education and Action for Development and Global Justice Now (formerly WDM).

It will be interesting to see whether such challenging but popular political views will be given the prominence they deserve in the next few months through his leadership – or whether the nervous, entrenched conservative political establishment re-exerts its influence.

 

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Experimental and popular

 

Prompted by the media presence of David Byrne in relation to his curatorship of this year’s Meltdown Festival in London, I have thought back (and listened again) to some of the music of the band of which he was a key member, Talking Heads, who enjoyed much critical acclaim and fair commercial success.

I have one particular memory with relation to  “Burning Down the House” from the 1983 album Speaking in Tongues. When it reached the US Top Ten, I remember Paul Gambaccini describing it as “one of the most progressive Top Ten records of all time”. By which I presume he meant musically creative. Talking Heads was always an adventurous  band drawing on a wide range of influences, but “Burning Down the House” didn’t then, and doesn’t now, strike me as so startling compared to other of their records at the time, such as their 1981 UK hit “Once in a Lifetime” from Remain in Light, or Byrne’s collaboration with Brian Eno around that time, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

For me, one of the most adventurous records to reach towards the top of the UK charts was “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson in 1981.  Superficially reassuring vocal repetitions about families slide into more chilling hints about arriving aeroplanes, two differing characteristics of the Reagan/Thatcher nuclear era.

 

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