When I first heard Bruce Springsteen singing of “57 Channels and Nothing On”, I thought he was talking rubbish. Back then, us poor provincial folk in the UK had a measly 4 channels and any more than that just seemed greedy. Now we have way more than 57 and guess what, old Brucey was right all along. Who actually watches all those antiques programmes and re-runs of Catchphrase?
My telly spends most of its time showing Chorizo Junior’s favourite DVD “Cars 2”. I’ve seen it so many times I’ve now become convinced that it is Michael Caine’s best performance.
When we can get something else on, Mrs Garbanzo and I spend our time watching films, comedy and various US crime dramas (currently trudging our way through Boardwalk Empire series 2). A picture of domestic bliss in Casa Garbanzo.
But then, after everyone else has gone to bed, out come the freaks. That’s when I catch up with all the stuff I’ve recorded that nobody else in my house wants to see. More often than not, this means a music documentary, usually recorded from BBC Four or Sky Arts 1. BBC Four’s musical tastes often seem to be stuck in the 1970s which can be a nightmare (eek, prog rock!) but can also turn up some real gems.
This week I have watched 2 documentaries about 2 British “new wave” singers whose music I have had very different relationships with.
First up was BBC Four’s showing of “Graham Parker: Don’t Ask Me Questions”.
My introduction to Graham Parker came in 1989 when a mate of mine said to me “you like Bob Dylan don’t you, you should listen to this bloke’s new album” and he played me an album called “Live Alone In America”. Here’s a sample of it, the wonderful Hollywood critique “Three Martini Lunch”.
Without wishing to state the bleeding obvious, Live! Alone in America is a live album with no band, just one man, his guitar and what sounds like quite an intimate crowd. Heartfelt impassioned vocals and great, great songs about big subjects. Drugs! Abortion! Racism! Sex! It was clear from his voice and his songs that this guy wasn’t messing around. Along the way there were bits of Bob Marley’s “Crazy Baldheads” and a brilliant cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
That album won me over completely and still remains probably my favourite GP album. After hearing that, I sought out some of the older albums that had the original versions of those songs on it and whenever I spotted any of his other albums in bargain bins or in 2nd hand shops, I’d snap it up. So over the years I’ve become a fan but never a fanatic. I like him enough that I’ve bought a good 7 or 8 of his albums but at the same time, I’ve never felt the need to become a completist and fill in the gaps by buying all the albums I don’t have. Heat Treatment and Stick To Me are particular favourites along with the more recent Struck By Lightning with its brilliant Dylanesque opening track She Wants So Many Things.
So I started to watch this documentary with a decent idea of Parker’s music, but really no idea at all about the man himself or what he’d been doing musicially since I last bought one of his albums nearly 20 years ago. After watching the film, I ended up wanting to re-visit the LPs I own, buy some of the ones I don’t and go to see him next time he plays in the UK. Isn’t that what a good music documentary should do? Make you want to listen to the music and investigate further.
I thought I’d like to take my hat off to director Michael Gramaglia (also responsible for another music documentary that stands out from the crowd, the Ramones film “End of the Century”) and here’s a list of some of the things he did that made this film so good.
- Show some actual music! Too many music documentaries don’t really have that much music in them, just lots and lots of talking. Often the clips are too short and you rarely get to see a whole performance of a song. But in the Graham Parker film, there were a few times in the film where they showed a whole performance of a song and that really helped to give the viewer an idea of why people thought this Parker bloke was going to be a big star.
- Not too many celebrity interviewees! I get really pissed off with music documentaries which have people in it who are only there because they’re famous. You’re watching a film about the Pixies and up pops Bono or someone from Travis with their opinions. Why would I want to know what they’ve got to say about Pixies? They weren’t there, they don’t know what went on. Johnny Marr is someone who’s guilty of this, he seems to pop up in pretty much every music documentary. This film had longtime fan Black Francis and Parker’s former backing singer Bruce Springsteen but apart from that it was pretty much just Graham Parker and his bandmates talking. Not too many rent-a-gob journos or people who just want to get their mug on telly.
- Otters! Some of the best bits were when they showed Graham Parker doing the things he does when he’s not being the “rock star”. It was brilliant to see him out with his binoculars talking about birds and wildlife. Who could’ve guessed that the man with the big shades was also an enthusiastic otter spotter.
- The Rumour’s alternative careers! Parker disbanded his backing group The Rumour in 1980 and has occasionally worked with some of them since. Then in 2011, the whole band reformed to record a new album “Three Chords Good”. It was great to see them back together again and really enjoying each other’s company. But it was also fascinating to hear them talking about what they’ve been up to for the last 31 years. I was amazed to see that guitarist Brinsley Schwarz worked in a guitar shop in Kew that I’ve been into myself many times having no idea who the bloke behind the counter was. Keyboard player Bob Andrews has been living and playing in New Orleans. Most of The Rumour were still involved in music in one way or another but bassist Andrew Bodnar has been working as an unassuming librarian. He explained that he doesn’t even like books that much, he just enjoys helping people.
- Fortuitous happy ending? Much of the film’s narrative arc tells us that Parker should’ve been huge but a combination of bad decisions, bad timing, excessive touring schedules and the rise and rise of one Declan MacManus all conspired to make him a bit of an also-ran, much-loved by those in the know but hardly a household name. But then a peculiar thing happens near the end of the film. Hollywood comes calling in the unlikely shape of director Judd Apatow who casts Parker and the band in his film “This is 40”. So the last part of Gramaglia’s film suggests that maybe now after all this time, Parker may finally get the commercial success his songs deserve.
Meanwhile, I’ve just ordered “Three Chords Good” and I’ll be watching “This is 40” as soon as it’s on DVD.
On to Robyn Hitchcock then. For many years now, people have been telling me that I would really like Robyn Hitchcock. Not just any people but people whose musical judgment I trust (including my fellow wizards Kicker and Rebel!) I’ve given ol’ Robyn a fair chance too. I’ve listened attentively when friends have played me his music. I’ve heard quite a few of his live songs on a bootleg cassette I own (the famous 1991 secret gigs REM played at The Borderline under the pseudonym Bingo Hand Job) I even bought a CD single of his around the same time (So You’re Think You’re In Love on Go! Discs)
But despite all that, I’ve just never really “got” Robyn Hitchcock. Everything I’d heard by him sounded alright but I didn’t particularly like or dislike it. I couldn’t really understand why anyone would really get that excited about him.
Until now that is. Something’s finally clicked when I watched “I Often Dream of Trains In New York”, a concert film where Robyn plays his album “I Often Dream of Trains” in, yes you guessed it, New York.
Right from the start of the film, I was on board because I saw brassman extraordinaire Terry Edwards was in it. He’s played with loads of people and has his own band The Scapegoats but he has a place close to my heart for his work as an almost full-time member of one of my favourite bands Tindersticks.
The concert itself is shown pretty much as is, interspersed with short interview sections recorded, appropriately enough, on a train. But it’s the songs and the performances that really grabbed me. The original “… Trains” album was recorded by Hitchcock singing & playing everything. In the New York version, he’s accompanied by the aforementioned Edwards and another multi-instrumentalist Tim Keegan. After opening the show with a snippet of a song played on a cassette player, Hitchcock then plays a melancholy piano instrumental. This is followed by another piano song (“Flavour of Night”) with some wonderful ascending piano lines. By the time the film got to the end of that song, I was already completely sold.
And yet more great songs were to come. A catchy song called “Sounds Great When You’re Dead” (what a fantastic songtitle too) is followed by a jolly-sounding acapella tune performed like a warped Gilbert & Sullivan trio with lyrics that go “uncorrected personality traits that seem whimsical in a child may prove to be ugly in a fully grown adult.” And that’s the chorus! Watch this, it’s bloody great.
Other particular favourites were the Nashville sounding “Sleeping Knights of Jesus” and the nostalgic “Trams of Old London” and “My Favourite Buildings.” Along the way, we heard some surreal adlibbed song introductions and saw a marvellous combo of matching polka dot guitar and shirt.
Since watching the film, I’ve now bought the original album and I’ve been listening to it loads in the last few days. Not all of the songs in the concert film are on the album which is a bit of a mystery but one thing’s for sure, I’ll now be keeping an eye out for UK tour dates from Robyn Hitchcock and Graham Parker too.
So next up for my viewing pleasure, a film I’ve been meaning to see for ages but I’ve kept missing it when it’s been on before: Oil City Confidential, the Dr Feelgood film by Julien Temple, a man with a good track record for music documentaries.
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