Jean-Pierre Valère, whose real name is Jean-Pierre van Lerberghe, is a Belgian actor, weightlifting champion, and musician. He stars in Moloss (originally known as Lopak L’Envoûteur, Lopak the Enchanter), which premiered at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, on August 31, 2022. Moloss is co-directed by Abdelkrim Qissi and Abel Ernest Tempo. (See Grégoire Canlorbe’s conversation with Abdelkrim Qissi).
Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): Are you happy with the screening of Moloss at the BIFFF [Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival]?
Jean-Pierre Valère (J-PV): Yes, very happy. I had the pleasure of meeting an excellent journalist in you, and I also got to meet the whole team of the film, so many wonderfully talented actors. It was like a crowning for us, in such magnificent setting, on the occasion of the great return of BIFFF after this devastating epidemic.
GC: What was the shoot like?
J-PV: It was an honor to film alongside friends, Abel Ernest Tembo and Abdelkrim Qissi. Ernest is remarkable as a director cameraman. I saw firsthand his great art. Restrained, unassuming, he knows how to direct his actors without seeming to direct them. The staging subtly and brilliantly alternates the intimate with the explosive. Our two friends Abdelkrim and Ernest, really, know how to hit all the right notes in a perfect symphony of collaboration.
GC: Did you like playing your character in the film?
J-PV: I am so grateful for the chance Ernest and Abdelkrim gave me to play this offbeat role—offbeat in just the right way. The bits of humor that the character brings, like when he tries to reassure Moloss, whose best friend he is, are a contrast to the many scenes of violence and the almost constant feeling of dread found in the film. It was a shooting like no other, an adventure like I had never experienced before, which I had the chance to share with all these heroes that are the other actors of the film, all of them remarkable. I hope that a sequel will be made. Terminator did it successfully, why not Moloss?
[Spoiler alert! Skip this question and its answer about the film for those who don’t want to know about a crucial revelation]
GC: A rather late revelation in the film is that your character, up till then, had been under the yoke of a hypnotic substance. How did you get into the skin of a character subject to such a chemical “spell?”
J-PV: I like subtle acting, whether I’m playing bastards (as in the RTL-TVI series Affaires de Famille) or funny and nice characters (as in Moloss). Many humorists, if they want to be funny, must be good comedians first and foremost. I tried to play my character in Moloss with nuance—to bring out the state of mind he is in by playing him, paradoxically, as if nothing had happened. Whether it’s the role I play in Moloss, or the role of a local “J.R.” character, a real scoundrel (I love that!) that I play in Affaires de Famille, it’s all about the look, and a sincere and natural performance.
[End of spoiler]
GC: Looking back on your weightlifting career, what do you see?
J-PV: A very weighty career, if I may say so, since I was a finalist at the Olympic Games in Mexico, Munich, and Montreal, with a silver medal at the 1970 world championships. He was very proud of his little track record, this Valère guy, who was then known by his real name, van Lerberghe.
GC: How does the art of using your hands as a musician differ from the art of using your hands as a weightlifter?
J-PV: Excellent question. As you know, I have been in love with music—especially piano and guitar—since I was a child. As someone who likes to play classical improvisation, I was surprised to find out that weightlifting does not alter (no pun intended) the flexibility of the fingers when playing musical instruments; these are two reflex actions of the finger muscles that are quite specific, each in its own way. I was afraid that I would not be able to play the guitar or the piano properly after a training session, but I was amazed to discover that weightlifting and music are perfectly compatible disciplines; and that the improvement of the first one does not compromise the improvement of the second, provided, of course, that weightlifting is not too time-consuming to take away time from music. But I think that an artist, whoever he or she may be, should cultivate versatility as much as these meager twenty-four hours a day allow.
GC: You played the main role in the Belgian TV-drama, Affaires de Famille (a total of 105 episodes, broadcast since 1996). What are your favorite TV-dramas?
J-PV: My interpretation of Didier Barillot in Affaires de Famille, with the influence of Dallas’ J.R., is one of the greatest satisfactions of my acting career, as is my recent interpretation of Moloss’ best friend. I hope to have the chance to play other roles of the same quality in the near future. I used to enjoy the series Dallas, but I don’t watch any series nowadays.
GC: Among the contemporary musicians, are some particularly dear to your heart as a music lover?
J-PV: Lang Lang, an extraordinary person and a virtuoso pianist capable of an infinite number of nuances; Khatia Buniatishvili, whose physical beauty is matched only by her sublime piano playing. But above all, the Beatles—under an apparent lightness, the most inspired and diversified geniuses of the 20th century!
GC: Jean-Claude Van Damme alone is nicknamed “The Muscles from Brussels,” even though such a qualification fits you just as well, if not more? What do you make of that?
J-PV: The reason is simple—Jean-Claude is world famous. Here’s an interesting anecdote in that regard. We were both training at the Centre National des Sports in Brussels, me in weightlifting, him in karate. One evening when we were the last two in the weightlifting room and were doing our abs side by side, he told me about his plans to go to America and make a career in cinema. As I didn’t want to break his momentum, I said it was a good idea, never believing for a second that anything would ever come of it, considering the competition he would have to face. But we know what happened. I called him one day. He was in London. I hadn’t seen him in, say, twenty years; but he was still as nice and friendly as ever, just surprised to hear from me.
J-PV: Fortunately for me, we were not in the same category. He was classified as a super heavyweight, and I was classified as a light heavyweight. He weighed in at one hundred and seventy kilos, and I weighed in at less than ninety kilos. In Belgium, weightlifting was at that time a despised sport, so that everyone had to train alone in his cellar, without any real professional supervision. The Russians were pros, and we were amateurs, so to speak. That’s why I’m proud to be vice world champion!
GC: So, tell us about your friendship with heavyweight Serge Reding.
J-PV: A young man of incredible kindness! His shyness played tricks on him in competitions. He was as gifted as Vasily Alekseyev, if not more so, but he let himself be impressed by the Russian champion, who was not afraid of anything and who went through some formidable psychological training. When we both went to compete all over the world, it was always a wonderful adventure that we would remember for the rest of our lives; an initiatory journey to discover different civilizations. There is always something to learn and something to gain from meeting others—the calmness of New Yorkers in traffic, for example, or the eternal smile of the poorest of the poor.
GC: Are you still weightlifting?
J-PV: Now, I just do “maintenance of the machinery,” as they say. I go to a gym two or three times a week, with the idea of maintaining, as they say, the locomotor system and to prevent an inevitable loss of strength as one gets older. It is important to be able to keep one’s physical independence until the end. And, while we are at it, to maintain a well-balanced, or at least a presentable, body.
GC: You are a songwriter, with a particular penchant for love songs if I am not mistaken.
J-PV: My songs are not well known, but that doesn’t take away from the pleasure I take in writing them. I am a literary person above all else; some people ironically say that I speak like a book. I try, in any case, to bring a particular care to the choice of words, and to distil nuance, even humor.
GC: So, tell us about your favorite songs.
J-PV: I have a special affection for the Beatles’ songs, as they are practically the coming together of Mozart, Beethoven, Gershwin and rock. That four such talented musicians, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison, could team up is a unique event in the history of music! Other songs that blow me away every time I listen to them are the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” or Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” (a wickedly slow song, as they used to say back then, with infinite poetry!); and Jean-Louis Aubert’s “Les Plages” (a wonder of nostalgia).
GC: By your own admission, you are a “literary man.” Who are your favorite French language writers?
J-PV: I must confess that I read relatively little, suffering from a problem with the eyes that, when too active, get tired very quickly. The little I have been taught about French and Greek philosophers has been a fundamental background for me. Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, or Montaigne I do particularly like. But the one I really like and prefer is Chamfort (not the singer, the other one!), for that art of his which can express a strong idea in a short sentence. I invite everyone to read Chamfort’s Maximes et Pensées, which contains true philosophy, and whose discovery in my adolescence, a time when I was precisely in need of philosophy, was formative for me.
GC: Thank you for your time. Is there anything you would like to add or expand?
J-PV: “The most lost of all days is the one in which one has not laughed,” wrote Chamfort. I would humbly add that the worst periods in life are those when one finds oneself without the slightest project, which throws one into the darkest depression. One project that is occupying me at the moment is a book that I plan to call, modestly, A Guide to the Universe, a title that I hope will be catchy. I hope to have time to finish it (which brings us back to a subject we discussed earlier—the little time we have each day). I plan to put my thoughts on things in it, and I have written about 20 pages so far. I have a few songs with a touch of humor and irony that I would like to record in the studio, with guitar accompaniment by myself. A lot of work to do, but you know how versatility is an ideal that drives me.
I was happy to meet you. You are considerate in your interviews and let your interviewee express himself—which is so rare that it needs to be highlighted.
I’m a bit confused. I thought Putin had turned Ukraine into a hell-on-earth, top to bottom, left to right, where nothing but misery and desolation prevail. And so we have to send tons of money and weapons over there, so grandmothers and school kids can get armed-up and fight back the Russians, led by Putin who is Hitler’s clone. It’s total war, folks! And that’s why Gord, my neighbor down the road (about fifteen minutes away by car), now flies a Ukrainian flag from his porch. I’d never seen one before, and at first I thought it was one of those gay flags, until he set me straight. But it’s easy for him to get such international things because, as everyone knows, he’s a well-traveled man—he’s been out to Blyth twice (population not quite a thousand).
Anyway, him and me, we got to talking the other day, and sure enough Ukraine came up, as it always does in any polite conversation. And in his helpful way, Gord informed me that Ukraine is “just acrosst from England, there.” This then got him to talking about the “Red Army,” which is now trying to take over Ukraine. Being of a scholarly bent, Gord knew all about the Red Army since another friend, who runs a feedmill two towns over, had a granduncle or other who was a cook in the Canadian army during World War Two and who was the ultimate and reliable source of everything Gord now knows about what’s actually going on in Ukraine. “In Russia, there, they call their army, the ‘Red Army.’ That’s their name for it, just like we call our army the Canadian army.” I understood the linguistic analogy immediately… I think. Anyway, bottom line—don’t trust Russians. They just aren’t like us; never can be.
Here, I had to ask Gord about our mutual friend Serge and his wife and their three kids; everyone knows they’re Russians. Could we trust them? Gord had to think this one through a bit because he always thought Serge was out from Quebec-way, since his name sure is French (here Gord got to telling me about his childhood hockey hero, Serge Savard of the Montreal Canadiens). I guess that’s why we always pronounce Serge’s name as “Surge,” and not “Sir-gay” (which by the looks of thing just doesn’t sit right. Would you want to be called that any day of the week?)
Finally, Gord concluded that since Serge was over here and not a member of the Red Army which is now fighting “acrosst in Ukraine,” Serge is fine. This made sense, and our conversation moved on to more important things, like the oiler that wasn’t working too good on his chainsaw. I was over helping Gord cut down a few trees for firewood; winter now being a few months away.
But let me get to the part about my confusion, otherwise we’ll be here all day with Gord, who as everyone knows is a real talker, and I could regale you with all kinds of stories about him, seeing as he’s so well informed. But that’s not why I’m writing this. No, sir. You see, one of Gord’s favorite pastimes is watching a few Youtube videos after dinner with Eileen, his wife. It’s not like he’s wasting time and watching silly things like cats. Not at all. You see, Gord’s also a great woodsman, and he’s discovered these niche Youtube channels. His favorites are videos showing people cooking on an open fire, which is like a gatey to all of kinds of other similar channels. You’d think he’d watch something other than what Eileen usually does in summer, since they tend to cook outdoors when the weather is warm (keeps the house form heating up).
Once the wood-splitting was done for the day, he asked me to stay for dinner, which I did and afterwards we all sat down in front of his computer (he’s got it hooked up to bigger screen) and watched some of these videos.
It’s riveting stuff, and countries you’ve never heard of are in on the act (thanks to Youtube monetization, why wouldn’t they be?); countries like Dagestan and places like Ferghana and Tashkent. Never mind the geography, it’s that primitive fascination with meat meeting fire. Oh, and there’s travel involved, too, because you get to see places you’ll never go to. Iran has innovated the genre, bringing in pretty girls, in native costumes…
And why should Ukraine be left behind in contributing to this genre and making some decent Youtube money? Who cares if there’s a war devastating the entire country. The show must go on. Here are some of Gord’s favorites from Ukraine…
First, there’s a channel called, “Pavlo from Ukraine,” where this guy gets his pretty girlfriend to show us the sights of real Ukrainian farm life…
And, then, she gets on her bike and shows us her village…
The best way to experience an active war-zone, I say, is by watching a pretty girl riding on a bike, in short dress billowing in the wind…
Of course, even during war, there’s always time to look after the environment. Here’s Pavlo with his girlfriend cleaning the nearby river. Pollution is such a terrible thing; much worse than war even, in so many ways…
Then, one day, both of them headed off to Kyiv (how the heck are you supposed to say that??), and the war-zone they showed was just mind-boggling. Poor Ukraine…
And you thought life during a war was horrible. Well… it is! Just look at the place. Renting a scooter is no joke.
And here’s what a Ukrainian grocery store looks like in wartime. The important point Pavlo wants to make, to keep you from sitting there in agonizing suspense, is that prices have gone up…
You sure got that right, Pavlo. Prices have gone way up here, too—and that’s without the Red Army banging at the door. Just a bit of sacrifice for democracy. But at least they still get to have plastic bags in Ukraine. Over here you have to find our own to get groceries home from the store. That fact alone is enough to keep sending our money over there.
OK, enough of the mystery. Pavlo’s girlfriend has a name, and she’s called Luba, and you guessed it—she has her own Youtube channel, imaginatively called, “Luba from Ukraine.” As you know, the word “Ukraine” is the cat’s meow right now, so why not milk it for all its worth.
Luba is a real cook, and she can show you how to make all kinds of stuff…
And here Luba is out gone fishing…
The real suspense of me watching Pavlo and Luba was anticipating when the Red Army was going to show up and cut short the filming. I asked Gord if there’s a video of Pavlo and Luba meeting the Red Army and having them over for a cook-out, like the corn roast that’s going to be coming up at the park where we are next month. But Gord told me he hadn’t found one yet on their two channels. But he was sure they were going to do one.
And there’s more from where that comes from. There’s another channel in which different people in Ukraine show life on the farm. And you’d think Gord, having been a farmer all his life, would want to see something else… like city-life in Paris or maybe Chinese opera.
Anyway, this channel is called, “Food Around the World.” At first, I thought Gord said, “Fool around the world” and was expecting to see hijinks and prank videos. But instead, the channel is all about showing life in rural Ukraine, with lots of shots of mountains, ponds, grain fields and fruit trees. Not different at all from what we’ve got around here, actually. They’ve even got wood-fire ovens for bread, like some of us have built in this world. Bread just isn’t the same without real fire.
You can watch these rural Ukrainians cook stuff you’d never think of eating like boiled bits of dough stuffed with ground up tripe, or you can kind-of learn how to butcher a pig, or grow potatoes…
It’s all very instructive, too, especially if you belong to the great unwashed that we call “city-folk.” Want to try your hand at cutting down some wheat, flailing out the kernels, grinding them out and making bread? The Ukrainians have you covered…
And then, there’s a whole two-hours of the best bits from all this channel’s videos. Gord had already seen it, so we skipped over that one (Gord is nothing if not kind).
Now, you might have heard that the Red Army was busy slaughtering anything that moved in a place called Bucha. And sure enough, Food Around the World is on location. You see some wrecked buildings in the beginning and a bunch of people sitting around waiting for bread to be baked, and then it’s on to a bakery run by two guys who get busy baking bread…
After all the devastation by the Red Army, the gas still flows to fire up the bread ovens, and I guess there’s never any shortage of things like flour and yeast. It sure is good to see that the money we’re sending over is doing what it’s supposed to be doing.
Then, there’s a video that really pulls at the heartstrings (and Eileen’s favorite, I might add. Poor Gord gets a lump in his throat watching this one). It shows a bunch of kids making some cookies. We’re told they’re refugee kids who have been put to work making cookies for other refugee kids. This video has gotten the most views, something like a million and a half. And why not? This is the Ukraine the world really wants to watch…
The owner of this channel says in the description that he can’t make videos anymore because of the war. But I guess that was just temporary, because he’s still making videos.
And, getting back to Kyiv, there’s also a channel called Food and Life, which shows some fancy restaurants in that city; not from long ago—but right now. Let’s see, there’s a place where you can get burgers and fries…
You can try some local fare at an artsy restaurant…
And even pick up flowers, just before your hot date…
After spending a good two hours watching this stuff. I had to head back home and took my leave. Time sure flies when you’re having fun.
But Gord sure opened my eyes to what’s really going in Ukraine. There’s a war on, but everything looks normal. The Ukrainian people are suffering miserably, but most seem to be going about their business like all of us here.
Sure, I can dig up all kinds of videos of suffering and death in Ukraine on Youtube—but how come there are also these other videos? So, which Ukraine is really suffering? Where in Ukraine is the “war” actually happening? Are there two Ukraines, one bucolic and one war-torn? No one seems to be able to tell me. From what we’re told over here, all of Ukraine is devastated by the war, except for the Ukraine in these videos. So, they must have two Ukraines. That must be it. One Ukraine for fighting the Red Army, and other other Ukraine for pretty girls to ride around, and all those happy peasants. Yeah, that would make sense. But just to make sure, I’ll ask Gord. He’ll know what’s what. Besides there’s still quite a bit of wood waiting to be chopped.
C.B. Forde lives and farms near a small town in Ontario, Canada.
Featured: Apple blossom in Little Russia,” by Nikolay Sergeyev; painted in 1895.
In this article, Dr. Stocker promises to bring tears to your eyes—of laughter. Now, misheard pop music lyrics often aren’t normally subtle. But if a pompous and wordy commentary befitting someone with a Cambridge education is applied to them, adding a dash of autobiographical insight for good measure, then this constitutes the perfect guide to such a fascinating by-way of musicology. The majority of the lyrics are original mishearings, where Dr. Stocker alone is to blame, but a couple are better known and simply had to be included. Join him on his journey.
Misheard lyrics are on the one hand mere trifles that can be dismissed as being silly, but on the other they can be invaluable, particularly to the Freudian psychoanalyst, providing insights into one’s thoughts, feelings and love life that I never hitherto believed existed.
Perhaps my first memorable experience of such lyrics came not from me, but from my father, Oliver Stocker, whom I have written about before. He airily dismissed a lot of pop (“Here today, gone tomorrow!”) but like not a few middle-aged men in the 1960s, succumbed just a little to the charms of Sandie Shaw, a tall, skinny dollybird, who preferred to perform in her bare feet and had a very serviceable voice—though not a patch on Kathy Kirby or Dusty Springfield, mind.
Good, well-chosen songs, often by Chris Andrews (who almost certainly fancied her), provided hit material. Indeed, Sandie reached number one three times in the UK. The second such hit, “Long Live Love,” written by Andrews, chronicled a happy love affair:
I have waited a long, long time For somebody to call mine And at last he's come along Baby, oh nothing can go wrong We meet every night at eight And I don't get home 'till late I say to myself each day Baby, oh long, long live love!
These are hardly memorable or profound lyrics. But they fascinated Mr Stocker, who told me: “This Sandie Shaw is a remarkable girl. She says of her boyfriend: ‘We meet every night at eight/And I don’t get home ’till eight.’ Now, pray, how is that possible?” (He talked like me, you see).
Well, it was indeed phenomenal; the bionic woman clearly had nothing on Sandie! I told Dad he was being silly. He told me I was being impertinent. Posterity, I think, has vindicated him.
Abba are wonderful; even that swinging historian Jeremy Black thinks so and has quoted the lyrics of their stunning debut, the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest winner, “Waterloo.” Yet Abba are Swedish; they are, let’s face it, foreigners. Their pronunciation of English, though far better than my Swedish, is faulty and unintentionally comical.
I don’t think humour comes easy to people of those Northern regions: Strindberg, Ibsen, anyone? Indeed, Nordic humour seems to centre on people doing idiotic things under the influence of the multiple glasses of schnapps that they down, to keep spirits up during their interminable winters. But precisely because Abba are being serious and earnest, they end up being doubly funny. “Dancing Queen” is arguably their most iconic hit. But the lyrics are forever creating linguistic problems.
The misheard chorus line “Dancing Queen/Feeling the beat of the tangerine” (tambourine) is merely silly. But when Abba start to become a little more ambitious in describing the disco ambience, they founder badly, especially the climactic passage where we are urged to “See that girl/Watch that scene/Digging the Dancing Queen.”
‘Digging’ is clearly meant in its informal sense, that of appreciation of this disco diva rather than anything horticultural or archaeological. But the change from the imperative “See/Watch” to the present participle is troublesome.
It is entirely understandable, therefore, that this has been rendered as: “See that girl/ Watch her scream/ Kicking the dancing queen.” Indeed, this would be a clinically accurate description of a working-class disco (perhaps infiltrated by angry, anti-Abba punk rockers) in late 1970s Britain; and Abba’s lines afford quite a poignant social insight thereof.
It is highly amusing when a song containing the customary platitudes about love is suddenly invaded by an incongruous outsider. I am not the only one who can testify to the ample talents of Mama Cass (Elliott) of Mamas and Papas’ fame.
“Dedicated to the one I love” is a song from the summer of love (1967) that I still cherish. She turned solo with some success before tragically succumbing to a heart attack induced by her obesity, aged just 32. Cass, blessed with that rich voice, and I suspect quaking laughter, was one big-hearted Mama. She could have done so much more.
One of her biggest solo hits was “It’s getting better,” a charming song written by the highly talented husband and wife team of Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil. The title itself would have appealed to the great optimists of history: Dr. Pangloss, Emile Coué and Boris Johnson.
Its message centres on the singer’s love affair that is more down to earth than extravagantly romantic, and there’s nothing wrong with that. As Mama Cass explains,
Once I believed that when love came to me It would come with rockets, bells and poetry But with me and you it just started quietly and grew And believe it or not Now there's something groovy and good Bout whatever we got And it's getting better Growing stronger, warm and wilder Getting better every day, better every day.
So far, so good. But the penultimate line is highly problematic. “Warm and wilder?” No, the great American writer “Thornton Wilder!”
But what on earth does this profoundly serious commentator on “the timeless human condition; history as progressive, cyclical, or entropic” think he’s doing, straying onto the set and disrupting Mama Cass’s homespun sentimentality? Were she to sing “Barbara Cartland,” it would be considerably more apposite.
Was she seeking to impress and go intellectually upmarket, or what? Heed your social station and your unsophisticated audience, Miss Elliott! Whoever will you be namedropping next, your namesake T.S.? Mr. Wilder’s sentiments thereupon (he outlived Mama Cass by a year) remain, alas, unrecorded.
Robert Palmer, like Mama Cass, died too young. A-pack-a-day (or more) smoker, he indulged in the terrible habit to give his voice a rasping power where needed. He was elegant, he was intelligent, he was kind: just listen to the humanity of one of his standards, “Every Kind of People,” and I defy you not to melt, if not to flirt dangerously with multiculturalism.
Palmer was above all, courageously varied and open to experimentation in his musical repertoire; very unusual in this regard, and all the more admirable for it.
From the blue-eyed soul of “Every Kind of People,” he could move into a convincing essay in proto-techno in “Looking for Clues,” to the Lounge genre in “Riptide” (Robert in his tuxedo), to—for want of a better word—the stylish sexism of his biggest hit, the multi-million selling “Addicted to Love.”
And then, in “Flesh Wound,” a little-known track on his “Riptide” album, we encounter Palmer the hard-rocker, a cigarette paper separating him from Heavy Metal. There was nothing that he couldn’t do. I had fond aspirations of his intellectual pursuits.
Palmer, one feels, would have enjoyed his Trollope and his Gide, and known his Rameau from his Rimbaud. In truth, according to his partner, he liked nothing more than getting up in the night and assembling model aircraft; shucks, one’s illusions were blown! But the music remains impressive, and it is to “Flesh Wound” that I wish to turn.
As befits the popular genre, Robert is intending to “pull the bird,” as it were:
We flew over miles of ocean, be prepared I don't have the faintest notion, who'll be there You underestimated, nobody sympathized I think you'll soon feel better, once we get inside I see the door is open, why don't we walk right in? Let's put our party hats on, and let the fun begin.
It is when he is attempting to reassure his lady love, in his ardent courtship, that Robert comes to grief; she will “soon feel better.” Only I could swear he says “Zubin Mehta.” What on earth is he doing in the bedroom? Is this revered classical conductor going to make it a joyous threesome? (I hope I shock no reader who subscribes to this magazine’s wholesome family values, but do make allowances for the dubious morality of the rock music scene).
Worse, is Zubin a horrible voyeur? Did Mr Mehta seek damages from Palmer? A more charitable reading is that the namedropping of the conductor merely attests to the intelligently catholic range of music that Robert Palmer embraced. I would very much like to think that.
A wonderful misheard lyric is embedded within the signature hit of master rock guitarist and cult figure, Jimi Hendrix, “Purple Haze.”
Let me briefly digress: Jimi incongruously shared his birthday (27 November) with my great aunt, Miss Kate Henchman Stocker, MA (1895–1984), who taught English, Elocution and Drama to the grateful pupils of New Zealand’s most esteemed private girls’ academy, Samuel Marsden Collegiate School, Wellington.
In retirement, Kate rose to stellar heights in pteridology. Poor Jimi wouldn’t have had a clue. But to him, you and any other plebs, this designates the study of ferns, really quite a significant field in New Zealand. I definitely think this accident of birth made Aunt Kate more “groovy” than she could ever have believed, though when I told her this, she was decidedly nonplussed: “Who’s this man?”
To return to “Purple Haze”: in the lyrics, Jimi is, I think, holding forth upon the impact of nefarious substances, the liberal consumption of which, true believers swear, enabled his creative genius to thrive:
Purple Haze all in my brain Lately things just don't seem the same Actin' funny but I don't know why 'Scuse me while I kiss the sky
The last line is decidedly odd, but remember this was from the summer of love, when people in their thousands suddenly started behaving untowardly, particularly in the Haight-Ashbury quarter of San Francisco.
Famously, an alternative interpretation of the said line is “Scuse me, while I kiss this guy.” Now, that makes considerably greater sense, and is eminently consistent not only with the Zeitgeist of permissiveness, but with all the peace, love and whatnot that constituted such a vital part of the hippie ideology.
By all accounts, Jimi—author of “Electric Ladyland”—was joyously heterosexual, but perhaps he too was open to openness and experimentation. Yet it could still be “the sky’” and if the object of his attention had been a frilly “chick cloud”—to quote from an especially daft song by the Incredible String Band—then that would have made perfect sense.
Alternatively, yes, his lady love could have been “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Εὕρηκα, the perfect fit! Clearly there is method in Jimi’s hippie madness.
Readers may care to note that I received powerful intellectual vindication of my whole train of thought from the eminent linguistics expert (and poet), Emeritus Professor Koenraad Kuiper, who assures me: “The phonemic ambiguity of ‘the sky’ and ‘this guy’ is quite common and is disambiguated in context.”
Gee, thanks, Kon!
In retrospect, it is obvious that Herb Albert’s big hit, “The sky’s in love with you,” was a witty response to “Purple Haze.”
I will conclude this edgy, pioneering article with a reference to the gender fluidity that characterises our relativist age. In this regard, I sometimes use “It/Them” in my email and epistolary “signature” to confound and irritate woke folk, a proud assertion of my fundamental Otherness. But enough of this self-absorption.
Herman’s Hermits were a hugely successful pop group of the 1960s, part of the so-called “British Invasion,” led by the Beatles. Their success came partly because they were such a wholesome act, unlike the “long-haired vermin” that conservative folk would call the Rolling Stones, or the still-more egregious Pretty Things.
Lead singer Herman (aka Peter Noone) was a handsome, charming, youthful “boy next door” type, and with the Hermits enjoyed several US number ones, notably “I’m Henry VIII, I am,” and the poignant “Mrs Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter;” the latter sung in his broad, Mancunian accent.
A lesser-known hit by Herman’s Hermits was the jaunty, up-beat “Must to Avoid,” dating from 1965–66. It reached number 8 in the US, and number 6 in Britain. The lyrics commence thus:
She's a must to avoid A complete impossibility She's a must to avoid Better take it from me.
Herman then goes on to explain: “She’s nothin’ but trouble/Better cut out on the double/Before she gets into your heart.” In short, she’s the sort of girl that your Mother would warn you against, unless that is your Mother is a hard-core feminist who joylessly objects to the systemic misogyny of this song.
The title poses a genuine problem. “Must to avoid?” A strange turn of phrase, and the early use of the verb ‘must’ as a noun would have made it even stranger nearly 60 years ago.
The alternative reading, “She’s a muscular boy,” makes infinitely greater sense. Clearly, Herman’s dangerous girl is transitioning, and avoidance during this difficult phase of her/his/their life is called for; really, this is sensitive counsel from him.
Alternatively, Herman might just have been alluding to those formidable East German women athletes who scooped up all the Olympic gold medals for tossing cabers, hurling garden gnomes and weightlifting, aided by performance-enhancing medication that deepened their voices. And what scary, hairy creatures they were, definitely to be avoided! This, though, is a more tenuous and frankly unsavoury gloss on an otherwise charming and innocuous song.
Indeed, perhaps after reading this, some sensitive souls are despairingly saying “Dr. Stocker is a must to avoid,” so he had better conclude.
Ian Jacklin is documentary filmmaker, concert promoter, actor, and kickboxing champion. He has produced three films and holds one world kickboxing title. He is in conversation with Grégoire Canlorbe.
Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): You are ranked number two in the world by the World Kickboxing Association. Please tell us about this incredible accomplishment.
Ian Jacklin (IJ): Like many young men, I saw a Bruce Lee movie and was hooked. Especially when on the first day of grade 9 high school I had to watch a buddy of mine get beat up while being held back. I went home that afternoon and told my mom to put me in Karate at 14 years of age; and the rest is pretty much history.
Ralph Chinnick was my master at Professional Self Defense Studios in London, Ontario, Canada. His early instruction was to learn the technique. To just keep coming to every class and learn the technique. Which I did and did well.
By the time I was a yellow belt I was kicking like black belts. By the time I was a green belt I was beating black belts in sparring. And the great thing about Kenpo karate under the Ed Parker system was we actually kickboxed. No point sparring. Real fighting. And I heard then that Bruce Lee said that you learn to fight by fighting.
So it was a natural progression to go to other dojos and spar their best guys, which I did in Kitchener Ontario at Sifu Ron Day’s Kung Fu Academy, where was the future PKA lightweight champion of the world, Leo Loucks. He became my idol; and I learned from him. on his rise to the top, when he beat Cliff Thompson.
Our trainer Jimmy Fields was the best in proactive, positive mental instruction, while in the deepest and darkest moments of battles in that square circle.
I had other trainers that would try to scare you into being better. But that never worked for me. Militant instruction may work for some, but it didn’t work for me. I needed love and light, and Jimmy gave me that. I truly believe that if he and Ron Day were to be my handlers for my career I would have not only fought for the world title but would have won it and kept if for a long time. But alas… it wasn’t meant to go that way. Apparently, the universe had bigger plans for me.
I won the Canadian ISKA title by beating Conrad Pla in Montreal, when I was 18. I fought Mark Mongo Longo for the North American title in Gleasons Gym Brooklyn, which went to a draw. Many including myself thought I won that fight but it was in the US and I was Canadian, so… it was what it was.
Not long after that Lennox Lewis won the Gold in the 1988 Olympics, and he was from Kitchener Ontario Canada; so, it was only fitting for his pro debut to be in Toronto. They trained in our Kitchener Kicks/Ron Days Kung Fu Academy for that fight, so they got to see me in action. They saw a white boy that could fight and took me back to England with them.
I actually started in boxing, before karate, as a kid hanging, out at the Boys and Girls Club, London, Ontario, Canada. And although my kicks were my best weapon, my hands weren’t too shabby either.
But being in the Lennox Lewis pro boxing stable really improved my hands, and I had a lot of fun living in London, England for a while. John Davenport and Harold “The Shadow” Knight were my trainers.
After about 4 months, I decided I didn’t like where I was. I mean Lennox and the guys were cool, but London just rained every day and it was really depressing. My high school sweetheart was back in Canada and I really missed her and my family, so I eventually quit and headed home.
The main thing was, I couldn’t believe how many shots to the head I was taking in boxing compared to kickboxing. I mean my legs were wicked, so most guys never got the chance to punch me in the head; but in boxing that’s all you do. I knew if I stayed in that sport I’d be punch drunk and ugly within a few years. Besides, I had been watching Bay Watch on one of the 4 channels England had on their TV and had been California-dreaming.
Back in Canada, I worked the summer, continuing my electrical apprenticeship with Gordon Electric in my hometown of London Ontario, Canada. I had no plans. I just knew that I wasn’t done fighting and still had my dream of fighting for the world title as Leo did.
And then it happened. With 3 days’ notice, I broke up with my girlfriend, quit my job and packed up my motorcycle with a tent and sleeping bag, and headed to Hollywood, California.
Although heartbroken due to making that decision to follow my dreams, which didn’t accommodate a girlfriend whom I dearly did love… I also felt more alive than I ever had been, knowing I was going to take a shot at not only pursuing my dream to fight for the title, but maybe even get into Hollywood as an actor. After all Jean Claude Van Damme was there making all his martial art movies. So, I figured it was worth a shot.
It was such a dilemma leaving your girlfriend, family, friends, and career on a whim for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I sped through the mountains in various areas on the way to Cali with abandon. So much so that I even crashed once and almost fell off a cliff, if it weren’t for that 3-foot-high cement barrier. It was like I wanted to die for what I left, but wanted to live for what lay ahead… hard for me to put into words. But apparently, somebody up there likes me. And after picking the rocks out of my flesh and a quick stop at a local motorcycle shop, I was back on the road. It was the summer of 1990. It wasn’t my time to die yet. Hollywood here I come.
I stayed in Whittier, California with Les Sickles, the brother of one of my home boxing trainers. Jack Sickles was my mentor in Canada and his brother became that in California. He was 85 when I first met him. We became fast friends and I truly had some of the best years of my life with him as a newbie in Southern Cal. He was now a widower and had been a pro boxer when he was young, so just loved tagging along with me to the gyms.
I fought and won the North American WKA championship and eventually went to fight Javier Mendez for the world ISKA Cruiser Weight title fight in 1993. I fought him a few years earlier and beat him. Then he beat me this night and took the title. But the point is, my dream was to fight for the world title and I did that! Also, I wanted to star in a Hollywood movie, which I quickly achieved, thanks to befriending legend, Don “The Dragon” Wilson. He became my sparring partner which elevated my fighting skills and put me in a bunch of his movies like Ring of Fire II where I played the lead bad guy.
My film career included Kickboxer 3. The bad guys of the Kickboxer movies. I remember the night my agent told me I got the role. It was about a year to the date of me arriving in Tinsel Town. I was working as the VIP bouncer at the Roxbury which many know was the Studio 54 of the day. I babysat more drunk actors and rock stars than I could count in those days.
And sure enough, Jean Claude Van Damme was in the Roxbury that night. I asked Elie Samaha, one of the owners, to introduce me to him, which he did. I thanked him for doing Kickboxer the movie, so I was able to get the lead bad guy role in Kickboxer 3. He looked at me and squeezed my cheeks and said with a face like that you should be the star! I laughed and said maybe someday, man! Maybe someday! And sure enough, that did happen. I ended up being the good guy in Expert Weapon and Death Match down the line.
Many of you have heard that to make it in Hollywood you have to sell your soul. I’m not 100 percent on that, but I was offered a multi-picture movie deal if I would have slept with a gay producer. I said no thank you and left Hollywood. I had put 10 years into that place and was tired of the rat-race—and if that was the only way I was going to make it, I knew it was time to leave.
Long story longer… I went to NYC and became a filmmaker.
GC: Which leads me in to my next question. How did you move from being a kickboxing-champion to championing holistic medicine and alkaline?
IJ: So, Hollywood wasn’t a total waste of time. While doing a play I met an actress, J. Cynthia Brooks, who like myself had been on Days Of Our Lives among many other shows and movies over the years. We actually had met at the Roxbury years earlier, and now working together on a play, called Spoiled Women, I found out she had just cured herself of terminal cervical cancer. I overheard this at a rehearsal one day, and it lit a fire under me like few other things have.
I said, “What?! You can’t cure cancer. What do you mean, you cured yourself of cancer?”
And as I’ve said before the rest is history. Turns out instead of doing the usual chemo, radiation and surgery she followed a friends advice and did holistic medicine and dropped meat, dairy, sugar. Used a “Rife” machine and meditated a lot. Cured her terminal cervical cancer (of which she was given one year to live, if she did the western medical treatments) in 8 months.
I had thought cancer ran in my adopted mom’s family, so worried for her. I dove deeper. It was when the internet first started, so I researched others that claimed they too cured their cancers with holistic methods; and then I would call them too, so I could validate via their voice if they were real or not. And they were.
So, I decided to make a documentary about it, and called it by the name of the website I also started, ICureCancer.com.
Thanks to doing that I learned a lot about health and wellness, and have been a cancer coach ever since. The key is to drop the acidic lifestyle from what you eat, drink, think, breath, and these days the wifi radiation you sit in. You can book a health coaching session with me at IanJacklin.com, if interested.
GC: I must say that your fight with Sasha Mitchell at the end of Kickboxer 3: The Art of War easily ranks among the dramatic highpoints in the Kickboxer saga.
IJ: Wow! Thank you for that compliment. My favorite bad guy of the series (me included) was Tong Po! He was the best actor. The original kickboxer film with Van Damme was shot so well, too. Edited well. But for a sequel I thought KB3 was done quite well too. And we had Shuki Ron as the choreographer, who let me be the pro kickboxer I was, to make it, what I thought, one of the most realistic fight-scenes in the series, for sure.
I mean, I was actually still fighting pro kickboxing in the ring in between movies, and I don’t know how to movie fight. Just fight. And luckily by the time Sasha Mitchell and I worked together, he had been training as a kickboxer for a few years, so he was much more believable for Kickboxer III: The Art Of War.
GC: How did it feel to play a good guy (and leading character) in Death Match?
IJ: I loved being the good guy! I mean I’ve always said in real life I’m not an actor, I’m a super hero. But they don’t pay super heroes, so I have to moonlight as an actor.
GC: Do you believe a great action-movie could be made about what you call the “scamdemic?” Would you be ready to act in such movie?
IJ: Lol. Yes, that would be great! It would be me and a bunch of human beings fighting the reptiles like in They Live! I have the power to decipher who is one and who isn’t and boom we take out the ones that are. Finally, planet earth will be run by human beings, not Draconians!
GC: Thank you for your time. Anything else that you would like to add?
IJ: I’d just like to say for everyone that wants to be a hero in real life, start local. Go to your board meetings and vote out the leftist demoncrats. Watch the movie, 2000 Mules to see the truth. Trump won. End of story! Not saying he’s perfect—but come on… Biden? What a joke the bankers played on us!
Get to know your cops and sheriffs, and band together. We cannot let the Illuminati scum run us anymore. The whole scamdemic thing must never happen again. They just rebranded the flu and turned on 5G. That’s it!
Lounge Music, also known as Easy Listening, is considerably harder for an intellectual such as myself convincingly to theorise. It was—and remains—huge in terms of its popular impact and when these things were properly measured, in records sold. And yet there is a dearth of literature on it. This is music that is predominantly sung by solo male artists—though the lovely Dionne Warwick (pronounced Warrick, not War-wick, you plebs) eminently qualifies, as do a syrupy duo big in Britain in the 1970s, Peters and Lee. This is music that does not seek to problematise, nor indeed, does it follow that ambitious Marxist edict “the point is to change the world.” Au contraire, Lounge would claim itself to be apolitical and here I think it succeeds wonderfully.
Whilst you sip your Martinis or G&T in the golf clubhouse to the accompaniment of Frank Sinatra or, if the ambience is more trendy, Harry Connick Jr, you simply do not think about burning questions like the ordination of women priests or poor reading ability at lower decile schools—or even want to. Lounge is conservative, it does tend to reinforce the capitalist status quo, and, thank goodness, it doesn’t preach at us. Even fine people of the left (not an oxymoron) can and should derive comfort from Sinatra singing “Three coins in the fountain” or “Young at heart” in the background.
I like Lounge because it tends to be discreet; it doesn’t and shouldn’t aim to compete with the meaningful conversations I have enjoyed with friends sunk into deep hotel armchairs. I will go so far as saying that I even feel Frankie, Andy, Tony (Bennett), Johnny (Mathis, aka Mr. Velvet) Nat (King Cole), Matt (Monro) and indeed Engelbert (can’t spell his foreign surname, sorry!) are like friends to me.
A pivotal figure in Lounge music is Andy Williams. In the last 30-40 years of his life I think he was criminally underrated, but he had the money in the bank, focussed on his art collection and sagely told us that he believed Obama was a grave threat (a rare venture of Lounge into politics). Above all, his music continued to give many people pleasure, which was always his aim. He was blessed with a fabulous voice, looks to match and a great choice in V-neck sweaters—some guys have all the luck.
But I love him for his witty self-reflexivity, when he called one of his late compilation albums, In the Lounge with Andy Williams. He would have been well over 70 at the time, and a comfortable armchair probably seemed more enticing than ever.
The songs are from his predictable repertoire, though “May each day” is sadly absent. How I loathed that song when I was a bolshie little 10-year-old and when it was played to death on Housewives’ Choice—’For Aunty Doris, who is 80 today,’ etc., with the compere sickeningly adding, “Bless her!” (Oh, sod off—it totally justified Punk Rock, but I digress!)
In older age, with maturity kicking in, I gave it another listen; and you know what, reader, I just melted and promptly forwarded the YouTube link to a few choice lady friends:
As the days turn into weeks, and the weeks turn into years, There’ll be sadness, there’ll be joy, there’ll be laughter, there’ll be tears.
Of course, I now want the radio to play it when I reach 80. Andy, you have warmth, you shake hands with our hearts. But I concede that “May each day” isn’t exactly cutting-edge. Lounge rarely strives for such qualities, but every now and then a complex and fascinating song comes within its purview. I adore the pizzicato and clipped guitar of “Can’t get used to losing you,” and admire another lesser-known track with syncopated rhythms that make it veer towards a rock ballad: “Getting over you.” It’s also a fabulous production job, with perfect use of strings and chorus. I wish Andy had attempted something edgy rather more, but as I have implied, this goes against the fundamental grain of Lounge.
With anything half decent in Lounge, three things are vital: a professionally written song with that rarity these days, a compelling melody; a singer with a good voice; and capable production values.
Roger Chapman, of the Prog Rock band Family, who has a voice akin to barbed wire, would never have made it as a Lounge star, and probably “Chappo” wouldn’t have wished to anyway. His utterly different compatriot, Matt Monro (originally Terence Parsons, a cheery Cockney bus conductor), is probably little known to our predominantly US/Canadian readership, but there’s no question that he’s up there with the greats—his vibrato has balls alright!
Monro is a Lounge singer’s Lounge singer, and Sinatra himself recognised this, sending Matt fond wishes when the latter was on his premature deathbed (too many single malts in the 19th hole, poor Matt!) Our good friend Mrs Broadbridge wept when she heard he had passed away, but in her quick-witted way, quoted one of his loveliest hits: “Walk on, Matt!”
Sometimes Matt’s material could be jejune—he understandably disowned his 1964 Eurovision Song Contest entry, “I love the little things.” But given the right song, he was a Lounge killer: “Born free” and that art historian’s classic, “Portrait of my love,” with this delightful couplet: “Anyone who sees her/Soon forgets the Mona Lisa.” I rest my case.
Lounge has its origins in Crosbyesque crooning, in the vocal refrains which were a charming part of Swing, and can sometimes be quite jazzy. Mel Tormé is emphatically in this category—too clever by half is Mel, sometimes downright parodic (as in “I’m hip”) and subversive. I fear he was a Democrat. Yet his version of “Polka dots and moonbeams” leaves the better-known one by Sinatra for dead:
I won’t harp excessively on Frankie and it’s not because he was personally obnoxious, but because I find something slightly cold and alienating in the very perfection of his voice. Yet he wins me over with the Sammy Cahn standards of the 1950s and later when he recorded the great Rod McKuen’s “Love’s been good to me”—so infinitely preferable to bloody “My Way.”
Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck are two unquestionably significant singers who are Lounge related. Tom is best, however, when he aims at something soulful (I love his underrated cover of the Four Tops’ “Do what you gotta do”)—indeed, he’s the one improbable Lounge/ Northern Soul crossover.
Engelbert is the better Lounge suit fit though there’s a great deal of Country in him (“Ten Guitars,” “There goes my everything”). Even his signature hit, “Please release me” is emphatically Country in its origins. Gosh, this song brings back memories. Along with Rolf Harris’s nauseating “Two little boys,” it was one of the numbers I would sing in the school changing-rooms after swimming, and strangely was never beaten up as I attempted to do so. It is one of the best-selling British singles of all-time, and like “My Way,” was in the top 50 for over a year.
Its chief claim to fame was that it did the unthinkable: it kept the Beatles’ double A-sider “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields forever” (and this is the Fab Four at their creative peak) off the number 1 slot. The sheer rage of earnest rock intellectuals over this catastrophe is still something to cherish, and it was reignited when I commented in the Guardian blog many years later: “Showed those long-haired vermin what’s what.” Indeed, it marked the triumph of Lounge (and mums and dads) over its upstart, pretentious rivals (Strawberry Fields Forever indeed), and I exult!
Lounge is more complicated than you think—just you try playing any Burt Bacharach melody on the piano: it’s much closer to Grade VIII than Grade I, and this genius of composer endows the genre with creativity and even profundity. When I was aged just 8 and Dionne Warwick’s Bacharach-crafted “Walk on by” was high in the charts, I really felt the sense of hearing something special and life-enhancing. Its infinitely sad message got home to me even then, but I was a precocious as well as an endearing lad. There are of course many other songs where that came from, notably “Trains and boats and planes” and “Close to you”—aah! Jimmy Webb snaps at the heels of Bacharach as a great composer.
I particularly like “The worst that can happen” (which was covered by the obscure Brooklyn Bridge), whose lyrics show Lounge in a rare but brilliant moment of emotional sadness:
Oh girl, don't wanna get married Girl, I'm never, never gonna marry, no no Oh, it's the worst that could happen…
As befits a genre that emphatically rejected the two or three-minute pop song, this article will be the longest in my series, and unashamedly so. Progressive Rock, a.k.a. Prog Rock, is a pleasure about which I feel remarkably little guilt, and is perhaps the most reflective of my socio-economic privilege. My offering takes the form of a couple of amuses-bouches, before presenting the reader with the core of my argument.
To qualify for a Fellowship of All Saints’ College, Oxford, it is necessary to perform with distinction in an unseen three-hour examination, equipped with a Parker 51 fountain pen and a wad of foolscap paper. Starched academic dress must be worn at all times.
The exam takes the form of a theme which is sprung on the unsuspecting candidate regardless of their background. The aim is to produce a script that shows evidence of powerful and original thinking on a subject of immense human interest.
Previous themes have been “Whither Anglicanism?” “The impact of Brexit on British sovereignty,” and “Sculpture and subalternity” (that’s when Prof. Bhabha set it). This year, Professor Mark Stocker, Robert Marley Chair in Reggae and Rastafarian Studies and Fellow of Tesco College, decided that his guilty pleasure of Progressive Rock would admirably fit the brief. The exam paper is below.
Candidates must choose THREE questions. Any duplication of material or argument will be severely penalised.
“After 1980, Prog Rock was a dead duck” (M. Stocker). Discuss.
Examine the impact of EITHER folk OR jazz OR blues on Progressive Rock.
“Prog Rock knew what it was not. Yet it is far harder to say what it is” (M. Stocker). Discuss.
Examine the role of virtuosity and technique in ONE Progressive Rock album.
How “classical” was Progressive Rock?
Examine the role and evolution of the Concept Album in Progressive Rock.
With particular reference to the music of 10cc, examine the interrelationship if any between Progressive Rock, Progressive Pop and mainstream Pop.
“My Mark plays that kind of stuff on his sports car’s cassette player with all those speakers, very loudly. Probably needs to be loud, what with that horrid engine! If you ask me, it’s mostly pretentious twaddle. Those musicians claim they’re classically influenced. Well, I think classical music should be classical and if you must have it, rock should be rock. It’s neither fish nor fowl, though the way it goes on and on with those guitar bits is pretty foul to me! Every now and then though it can come up with a good melody. A song I like of this type is “Fanfare for the Common Man,” which they play on one of my all-time favourite programmes, the Horse of the Year show:
“But mostly it’s just meaningless noise. We don’t need no education? That’s bad English and shows that’s just what they do need!”
And now, reader, for something a little more serious and substantial.
As a Baudelairean flaneur and dabbler, I cannot be a profound guide, but I make up for it in feeling. As previously indicated, I very much identify with Prog’s high seriousness, aspirations even to braininess, and its early belief in taking the listener on a journey and making a better world. It’s part of the endearing mid-to-later 1960s optimism when liberalism did seem to be offering something hopeful, when there was greater income and wealth equality and access to free higher education: not ipso facto bad things, surely?
Conservatives as much as liberals bought into this ethos and this came over powerfully in researching my recent book, When Britain Went Decimal, but I digress. It was an 18th century philosophe who commented that after having seen a great and uplifting play, as they exit the theatre, “all men are friends.” This is surely the feeling engendered by the Moody Blues in their exquisite, melodic pioneering concept album, ‘Days of Future Passed’ (1967). When I first heard one of the tracks, “Voices in the Sky,” aged just 11, I felt a definite frisson: this is a special moment, a new moment, for popular music—can’t other people see it?
It’s a way forward: it offers hope. Talking of which, here is two exquisite minutes of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with the electric John McLaughlin on his double-neck guitar, Prog at its most uber-cool!
I even defend the supposed sexism of saying “all men” above. For whatever reason, women constituted a tiny minority of Prog Rock fans and musicians alike—occasional progressively inclined artists like Kate Bush aside. Why this is so is a little puzzling, because Prog is nothing like as macho as heavy metal or blues, and is characterised by the considerable, civilised respect that its exponents often manifest towards each other in their constantly varying collaborations and permutations. However, I concede that ecstatically playing the air guitar in imitation of Chris Squire of Yes or the air keyboards of Keith Emerson is not something one would normally associate with the fair sex. Isn’t the loss theirs?
You need to do a little work to acquire a mature appreciation of Prog Rock. The great art historian Ernst Gombrich declared that we see what we know. Correspondingly, with Prog, we hear what we listen to. By contrast, rock and roll, mainstream pop and still more Prog’s arch enemy punk rock are the antithesis of intellectual and instead represent three minutes of dancing animality and instant, almost invariably shallow, gratification. Thus their followers—unless they saw the light—were often aghast at Prog’s aspirations, instantly dismissing it as pretentious and elitist. A text that particularly set their teeth on edge was the sleeve notes for Gentle Giant’s album Acquiring the Taste:
“It is our goal to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music at the risk of being unpopular… From the outset we have abandoned all preconceived thoughts on blatant commercialism. Instead we hope to give you something far more substantial and fulfilling.”
So, you needed to acquire the taste. A noble aim, surely, but hoi polloi and still less forgivably leading rock critics such as Lester Bangs, eschewed and denounced Gentle Giant’s appeal. To put it coarsely, and they were coarse, they gagged. Yet there was surely an element of “épater les proles” in those sleeve notes and the problem was it worked all too well, and rebounded…
There is much in Prog that I identify personally with—it’s my roots, man. Its origins are emphatically English—and Home Counties, not Liverpudlian, thank you. Prog artists are Caucasian, though Prog Soul in the hands of 1970s Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye could be darn good. Progs are often solidly middle-class and privately educated: Genesis are mostly Old Boys of the very exclusive Charterhouse. Their values presuppose a certain degree of culture and refinement: a large proportion of Prog Rock artists were classically-trained, and had sung in church choirs, usually Anglican not Catholic. Some, like Keith Emerson, were surely moved by church organ music. They would have gone on to art school or academies of music. Those fine Prog pioneers the Zombies were grammar school boys from the cathedral city of St Albans, close to where I grew up:
What a spiffing mellotron!
I can easily envisage chatting affably to their breathily beautiful vocalist Colin Blunstone about the cathedral’s Romanesque tower and Decorated Gothic tracery in a way that I don’t think I could do to Beyonce or even Kylie Minogue, while any self-respecting punk would surely respond to my overtures with a vulgar oath.
Even in their names, Prog artists live up to these ideals: calling yourself the Van de Graaf Generator presupposes a knowledge of physics as well as orthography. The Generator’s lead vocalist, long since gone solo, is the remarkable Peter Hammill, a science graduate of Manchester University. Consider the subject matter of “The Play’s the Thing,” Hammill’s heartfelt tribute to the Bard, recorded in 1988:
Any Prog aficionado would instantly know that the genre was at its critical nadir at that time—and Hammill typically refused to concede one whit to this. With utterly perfect enunciation, he entreats us:
How could he know so much?
How could he bear such knowledge?
How could he dare to write it in the plays?
What is it Shakespeare’d say
If he came back today?
Surely he'd recognise these mortal coils
How do we carry on?
No-one knows where they fit in
No-one knows who they are or where they've been
What does the writer mean?
How do we play this scene?
What didn't Shakespeare know that we do now?
Moving stuff—and I’m not the only one who’s moved. There’s a lovely story of a dance at an upper-class girls’ school perhaps 40 years ago. A parent, one hopes with a wicked sense of humour and certainly with the right connections, engaged Hammill to play there live. The girls stood in a circle around him and his piano in their dresses, any pimply boys forsaken, while they wept at his mournfully beautiful dirges. So, Prog can appeal to the feminine!
Sometimes the name of a Prog act can be even more abstruse and esoteric than the Van de Graaff generator. I well remember Robert John Godfrey, Royal Academy of Music graduate, being interviewed about the etymology of his band, the critically underrated Enid. Godfrey is notoriously curmudgeonly and he didn’t disappoint this time, telling the interviewer: ‘I have no wish to tell you the origins of our name. It is essentially private. Next question?’ “Okay, Mr Godfrey, your track ‘The Loved Ones’ is surely a tender and knowing tribute to Rachmaninov?” “That’s more like it, my man!”
Training, technique and virtuosity are all prized Prog Rock qualities. To purists, Yes’s “Going for the one” is worryingly less sophisticated than some of their earlier recordings, treading dangerously nearer heavy rock than Prog. Maybe, and I’m the first to concede that its lyrics amount to very little, never a Yes strength:
Yet consider the following: Jon Andersen’s passionate high tenor, mimicked in the back beats of Alan White’s drums; Rick Wakeman’s piano, sometimes boogie and honkey-tonk, complemented by his state-of-the-art late 70s synthesiser. An intrepid counter-melody comes from Chris Squire’s slide guitar (and he went to the same high school as me, Squire!) Not least, there is Steve Howe’s steel guitar. The synthesis, without proper discipline, would be disastrous, but the outcome here is triumphant: “Going for the one” indeed had me shouting, entirely appositely, “Yes!” The reverse, I regret to say, applies to their later, post-Prog “Owner of a lonely heart,” whose brazen commercialism makes this devout follower yell, “No!” and perhaps, echoing the famous critic of Dylan gone electric, “Judas!”
Nobody would call the barbed-wire voice of Roger Chapman, of Family fame, classically trained or even refined. And yet it’s a central component of that band’s appeal. Folk and—relatively unusually—blues ingredients go into their musicianship, yet their place in Prog’s B-list is secure. It is Chapman’s sheer imperfection that helps make his slow ballad, “My friend the sun” so affecting. Perhaps there’s a bit of the Cézanne in Chapman. The Frenchman was a technically poor painter who flunked art at the academy, but when viewed through a modernist lens, he is one of the very greatest; likewise “Chappo” (as he is affectionately called) through a Prog lens. The signature song of Family is “The Weaver’s Answer”:
It is about an elderly man asking for the “weaver of life” to unfold the events of his lived experience. As the song gets underway, the old man recounts his childhood, his first love, and the day he took a wife; he wonders aloud how it looks on the fabric from the weaver’s loom. It begins thus:
Weaver of life, let me look and see
The pattern of my life gone by
Shown on your tapestry… [orchestral dissonance]
Just for one second, one glance upon your loom
The flower of my childhood could appear within this room
Does it of my youth show tears of yesterday
Broken hearts within a heart as love first came my way?
Did the lifeline patterns change as I became a man
An added aura untold blends as I asked for her hand
Did your golden needle sow its thread virginal white
As lovers we embraced as one upon our wedding night?
What is the weaver’s answer? I won’t spoil it, but I entreat you to listen and challenge you to remain unmoved. Prog Rock repeatedly touches these nerves. It is infinitely superior to the mediocrities (punk or otherwise), committed to de-skilling music, that savaged and trashed it – some claim irreparably – in the later 1970s. And it isn’t all humourless, contrary to what Hammill and Chapman may lead you to believe. I shall close with two delightful, if relatively minor, Prog offerings to rest my case. Firstly, Jethro Tull (I love the conceit of naming one’s band after an early 18th century agricultural improver), ‘Too old to rock and roll/ Too young to die’ (itself something of an existential paradox):
This is followed by the creativity and wit of 10cc “Art for art’s sake (money for God’s sake),” evidently a favourite saying of Jewish Mancunian front man Graham Gouldman’s impecunious playwright father, Hymie:
Paul Hertzog (PH): My greatest inspiration has always been the film itself, so I feel (strangely enough) that the action on screen told me what to do. Both of the cues you mention are final fights, the climax of each film. Since I like to compose in film order, these cues were also the last I wrote in each film. As a result, I already had melodies and rhythmic feels developed. All I had to do was find a way to fit them to picture. Since the emotions of each film had been building up to these climactic moments, I simply tried to tap into those emotions to find correspondence in music. This may not sound logical, but that’s the point. Logic has nothing to do with it.
When I compose, I have to shut off the logical part of my brain and let my emotions find the music that underpins the scene. I think, also, I was helped by the fact that the villains (Chong Li and Tong Po) in both films were so well portrayed. They gave me the opportunity to develop the conflict between good and evil that creates that emotional tension in my music.
GC: Your soundtracks for those scenes in Kickboxer in which Kurt Sloane (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is training in ruins haunted by the ghosts of ancient warriors, while an eagle is watching him, are full of spirituality. How did you find this mystical inspiration?
PH: Again, I must reiterate that the source of my inspiration was the film itself. I watched those scenes over and over until I felt (and I do mean “felt” rather than “understood”) the emotions that needed to be conveyed by the music. I’m not sure I can truly explain the source of musical inspiration, but, as I have already said, for me it is not a logical process. I have to shut off my conscious thinking and let the music flow as if it were pure emotion. That’s when I write my best music. Does this process involve spirituality or mysticism? I don’t know. We humans often try to explain the inexplicable with these terms, but I don’t worry about explanations. I simply go with the creative flow.
GC: As a musician, do you share the Pythagorean belief that the proportions ruling the distances between the celestial bodies are a sort of music?
PH: In a word, no. This seems like a rather spurious analogy to me, an attempt to ascribe logic to a process that is, as I have already said, not logical at all.
GC: Let us speak about Waking the Dragon. What does the creature that is the dragon mean to you? What is the plot, universe, you wanted to convey though this musical work?
PH: The dragon is a part of me, the part of me that is a composer. After I left film and music behind in 1991 to pursue a career as a teacher (due to a number of setbacks in my career, in my financial state, in my mental state), the composer part of me essentially went to sleep.
I attempted to wake up that aspect of my character nearly 20 years into my teaching career by writing the music of this project. I worked on it during vacation times since I didn’t have time while teaching. I also had obligations to my family, so I couldn’t immerse myself in it completely. It took probably 4-5 years to complete, and even now I’m not sure that it is fully satisfying to me, but it’s something I needed to do to get my juices flowing again. And now, in 2022, nearly 3 years since I retired as a teacher, I am writing music constantly, and some of it is the best I’ve ever done.
And, yes, I also had a story in mind when I wrote this project. I envisioned a typical martial arts sort of plot. A corrupt and evil faction has taken over a city, a province, a region, a country, whatever you’d like, and the forces of good that might countermand that corrupt faction are essentially asleep. Meanwhile, out in the countryside, an ancient master of the martial arts is retired and quiet. However, a young admirer of the ancient master finds him and attempts to enlist his help in regrouping the forces of good. In other words, he wakes the dragon. The rest of the story should be fairly obvious.
GC: I was wondering. What do you think of David Bowie’s music, especially his albums in Berlin? As you know, his Berlin album Low inspired a symphony by Philipp Glass.
PH: I listened to Bowie some in the 1980s but not since, as I am more likely to listen to classical music these days. I am not familiar with the Berlin albums, though I may have heard some back in the day. I remember liking what I heard.
GC: Thank you for your time. Please tell us about your ongoing projects.
PH: I am currently in discussion with people about scoring two new martial arts films. Both projects want the sort of music I composed for Bloodsport andKickboxer. However, in this time of international pandemic, getting the films made has been challenging. All I would say is to keep an eye on my website or on Facebook for any news.
Additionally, I am planning to release some new music soon, starting with a long composition entitled, “Legends.” When you hear it, you will know who the legends are. Also, Perseverance Records has just released my score for Breathing Fire, the final film I scored before leaving the business. It is available as a CD or download on Amazon.
Dr. Stocker hereby concludes his magisterial survey of favoured women singers…
Riding high in the same Top Ten of January 1964 that included Gene Pitney’s “24 Hours from Tulsa,” whence my interest in pop music all started, was Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want to be with You.” Though I wasn’t at all pro-girls at that stage in my almost eight-year-old existence—indeed thoroughly relieved to be at an all-boys’ school even if Mary Broad was no longer there to tie my shoe-laces—I nonetheless really liked both the song and the singer. With my discernment even then, I appreciated Dusty’s infinite superiority to Petula Clark’s contemporaneous, simpering, goody two-shoes “Thank You.” It’s cruel, I know, to put them head-to-head but history has utterly vindicated me:
Dusty posed a dilemma to me in this essay because, like Michelangelo, there is very little new or special you can say about her, but omitting her from my pantheon of girl singers would be unthinkable. So, it’s “Dusty definitely,” to quote an album title. She was arguably a more interesting character than her smarter, sassier contemporaries Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. A white, middle-class British Catholic girl whose prime love was American black music—and whose voice sounded convincingly black—perhaps had a more fraught struggle to be understood and appreciated than those born in blue-collar Detroit into that ethnicity.
Franklin and Ross were/are emphatically establishment figures, tough to the point of ruthlessness and totally focussed. “There was only room for one Aretha” is a standout line in the film 20 Feet from Stardom, while Ross, probably not as naturally gifted as her fellow Supreme, Florence Ballard, made up for it by being an alpha female. Dusty by contrast had deep self-doubt, almost amounting to an imposter syndrome, together with a fiddly recording perfectionism that required her already remarkable voice to sound superb.
There were further paradoxes: she was by definition a public performer crippled with shyness, a sex symbol who was lesbian, a natural brunette whose stage persona and public image was a (dyed) blonde bombshell. People who don’t bother to look beyond her hairstyle write her off as being “fluffy”—which is precisely what they are. Dusty’s lengthy period in the US (1972–85) was mostly a tragic write-off; a Guardian writer mourned the “lethargy, paranoia, and drink and drug-soaked self-destruction that blighted her later years.” I for one was not convinced by her late-career resurgence aided by the Pet Shop Boys, though it cheered many sentimental hearts.
The best Dusty comes from the period spanning 1963 and 1969, culminating with her poorly-selling but now iconic album “Dusty in Memphis.” Not all of her many hits during this time were great songs (“Little by Little” endlessly repeated was little better than Lulu’s execrable “I’m a Tiger,” and it sounded like “Litterbug” to me). There were songs that I admired more than liked: “You don’t have to say you love me,” her sole British number one, to me always had a slightly dreary, Eurovision quality to it. But several were stand-outs: “Losing You” sounds as fresh as it did nearly 60 years ago; there’s the pretty, soulful “Wishing and Hoping” and “Going Back;” the more dramatic “My Colouring Book;” and above all “I Close my Eyes and Count to Ten”:
Its relatively complex melody requires several listens and accompanies a complexity of emotions. Dusty tells us what the object of her love is not: “It isn’t the way that you look/ It isn’t the way that you talk,” accounted for in a lower range. Rising up the octave, she explains: “It’s the way you make me feel/ The moment I am close to you/ It’s a feeling so unreal/ Somehow I can’t believe it’s true.” It’s as if Dusty feels she doesn’t quite deserve her lover, and when we link this to her dismaying lack of self-confidence and self-belief, the pathos is all the greater.
That voice! In 1978 she was in the midst of her American period decline and the nadir of her reputation but you’d never guess when she opens her mouth to sing a charming little trifle with her friend Rod McKuen, “Baby, it’s Cold Outside”:
The gay Rod is an unlikely seducer of the protesting, lesbian Dusty: what a hoot! And they were well aware of it, touchingly at ease in each other’s company and companionship.
When I was fourteen and we had a pleasantly laissez-faire maths teacher, Mr (“Randy”) Andy Funnell, yours truly and my friend Jeremy (not Black, he was no singer and was in Set 1 anyway) would not infrequently sing duets in the middle of lessons. The intention was to goad the prog rock or heavy metal-loving contingents in the class and it rarely failed. We were also, of course, budding humanities intellectuals: our tomfoolery could retrospectively be hailed as an ironising postmodern jeu d’esprit, avant la lettre, right?
When we got a bit too operatic, Mr Funnell would tell us in bored tones to cut it out but it was good fun while it lasted. Elvis Presley’s “The Wonder of You” and the Carpenters’ “Close to You” were among our favourites. Elvis (at least in this song) I can now happily discard, but I’m still in love with ‘Close to you’. It’s a gorgeously melodic Burt Bacharach song, and when I first heard it, sung so faultlessly and with such perfect enunciation by Karen Carpenter, I knew this ushered in a fabulous new star:
Yet I still remain faintly irritated by the special ‘You’ that Karen feels close to: “Why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near?/ Just like me, they long to be close to you.” A kind of Hitchcock in reverse, absurdly improbable, plausible with cats, dogs and even horses, but birds? Ducks, kestrels and swallows, hello! But I’m being literal-minded as ever, and everything else about the song and singer I forgive.
Karen and Richard Carpenter risked looking like a duo of goodie-goodies; with their wholesome appearance and wholesome musicianship, you’d swear that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. But time and again, the singers and the songs had the last word. Their choice of material was impeccable: the nostalgic and pensively sad “Yesterday Once More” (shooby-doo-lang-lang), the obviously happier “On Top of the World,” and the lovely Tim Hardin song, thoroughly Carpenterised, “Reason to Believe” are cases in point. Slightly more daring was the cosmic “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.” If you were such an occupant, then Karen and Richard would make thoroughly civilised earthlings to meet and greet you; indeed, Karen was at pains to assert in the song “We are your friends”:
Their music trod a tightrope between the charming and the sentimentally banal, but negotiated this masterfully, aided by their technical excellence. Richard, the marginalised male arranger and keyboard player, deserves considerable credit here.
Understandably, the Carpenters didn’t move too far out of an utterly pleasing, easy-listening genre. You wouldn’t expect Karen to suddenly start imitating John Bonham (of Led Zeppelin) on her drum-kit. She was a ‘good girl’ in the way that Patti Smith, Suzi Quattro and the underrated all-girl band Fanny were exhilaratingly bad. But she and Richard did once memorably depart from the tried and tested formula, shocking their conservative fans in the process. This was with the melancholy ballad “Goodbye to Love,” when Karen’s vocals yield to the almost Bach-like fuzz guitar solo of Tony Peluso. It’s truly groovy, and it excitingly bridged easy listening with the power pop genre of Badfinger and the Raspberries:
I’d really like to think Karen and Richard showed a sense of humour in their totally anti-climactic, indeed inane, follow-up ‘Sing a song’. “Ah! That’s the carpentry we want!” their core fans would have exclaimed.
Of Karen Carpenter’s appallingly brief life and dreadful death of anorexia nervosa, the less said here the better. Ars longa, vita brevis: Karen, thank you for being you. Oh dear, this sounds worryingly like a Carpenters’ song title, but I mean it!
Linda Lewis is a far lesser known singer than Dusty or Karen but is the obvious bridge to Nina Hagen with her fantastic multi-octave vocal range. Here she’s surely the closest Cockney-Jamaican equivalent of the US one-hit wonder Minnie Ripperton (“Loving You [is easy ’cos you’re beautiful”]). Only Linda is infinitely less irritating, as she wisely refrains from imitating warbling birds. I admire her transition from precocious teenager to established (minor) star—the album title and content “Not a Little Girl Any More” says it all—and then to an amiable veteran/trooper at the Glastonbury Festival. Everything indicates that she has a regular, likeable and grounded personality: I envisage her in a late model Vauxhall, not a private jet and she may even vote Conservative.
It puzzles me, just as it does with Colin Blunstone, as to why Linda isn’t as big as she deserves to be. She’s nothing if not versatile: her first hit, “Rock-a-doodle doo,” which dates from her late teens, somehow combined the funky with the quirky, and I have to say rather annoyed me, clever though it was. I prefer the catchily retro “It’s in His Kiss” (her biggest hit, from 1975). I like her even more when her vocal pyrotechnics are intelligently utilised in “My Friend the Sun,” a cover of Family’s Prog Rock hit. I believe she was the then girlfriend of a member of that band (though not the barbed-wire vocalist Roger Chapman, that couple would have been altogether de trop):
She delivers Andrew Lloyd Webber with panache in “I’ll be surprisingly good for you” from Evita, and you believe her. But best of all is when she sings Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Moon and I” from The Mikado: try playing this end-to-end with Kate Bush’s near contemporaneous “Wuthering Heights” and I guarantee it will do your head in:
You see what I mean about versatility? I don’t think Linda did anything punk, so she has her limits. I suspect she was simply too accomplished to want to de-skill and regress, which is what that egregious genre demands.
Astute readers of these articles will have noticed that I always look for a consonance between melody and meaning in songs, and how I prize qualities of emotional generosity in the lyrics and delivery. I like this capacity in people (sadly, it’s not that common in academics) and I like it in music. The Linda Lewis song which best embodies this is the soulful “This Time I’ll be Sweeter”:
It’s very feminine, charming and manipulative: pleading and probably irresistible. Linda asks entreatingly: “Darling, can’t you see/ What losing you has done to me?” and then goes on to reassure him:
I'm not the same girl I used to be
Have a change of heart
Don't leave me standing in the dark
Don't let confusion keep us apart
Come back to me and I’ll guarantee
All the tenderness and love you'll ever need.
This time I’ll be sweeter
Our love will run deeper
I won't mess around
I won't let you let down
Have faith in me…
And “Darling” surely does!
If the reader has detected a certain dislike of punk rock in my writings, let me correct them. A lot of it is horrid, and frankly aims to be precisely that. But its derivatives in not a few instances are terrific. Azure flowers emanated from the punk dung-hill: the Jam, the Clash, the Stranglers and particularly Squeeze (oh Glenn Tilbrook, you are Paul McCartney reincarnated). But the most remarkable punk and post-punk of them all is without doubt the German singer Nina Hagen. You can divide humanity into two categories: those who haven’t heard of her and look blank, and those who have—and who promptly grin and say “You would like her!” Like her? I’d do anything she asked me to do. I’d be like Anthony Powell’s horrible, obsequious Widmerpool and thank her if she stomped on me with her fish-netted legs and metal toe-capped Doc Martens!
Nina Hagen stands alone amongst all the singers I’ve examined so far in having exerted political influence—emphatically for the good. If the Berlin Wall crumbled, it was partly because Nina kicked it with those Docs. Her first hit as a teenager, “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen/ You Forgot the Colour Film.” was a sly dig, mocking the sterile black and white communist state.
Her family were clearly too hot to handle for the authorities—her stepfather, the dissident singer Wolf Biermann, was paid the ultimate compliment of not being allowed to return to East Germany after a concert tour. In turn, the authorities did nothing to prevent Nina (and Mum) from joining him in Cologne, particularly after Nina threatened to become “the next Wolf Biermann” if they made her stay. Herr Honecker groaned: “We’ll be out of power in a month if we let her, and we can’t count on those trusty Soviet tanks!” (I made that up).
The nine-year-old Nina had been hailed as an opera prodigy and consider the year she went west, 1976: this marked the stunning advent of punk. Given its essential foundation of talentlessness, Nina ripped through punk like a knife through hot butter. Even the British, pioneers of punk and eccentricity alike, couldn’t quite believe what they saw when she took to the stage. Nina Hagen in her pomp was flamboyant, excessive, outrageous and courageous alike. Sometimes, just rolling her eyes, her ‘r’s or, ahem, her ass, she could transform herself within seconds from a Valkyrie Vampire or a Cruella to a clown—and back again.
If I stood any chance and could have Nina on my interviewer’s or analyst’s couch, baring her innermost thoughts and feelings, I would ask her this question: “Fraulein Hagen, underneath your lioness’s mane, your layers of punk makeup, all your velvets, leathers and frilly panties, isn’t there quite a shy girl lurking? Isn’t there a cashmere cardigan, string of pearls and a knee-length tweed skirt of a well-bred Bavarian Frau of ca. 1965 [Editor: exciting thought!] wanting to come out? Isn’t all your excess a carapace, a protection, from a diffident, introverted, softer and vulnerable Nina within? Don’t you in your heart of hearts wish you were recording beautiful songs like Joan Baez or Judy Collins?”
“Nein!” she would scream back, “Folk off, Herr Doktor!”
Now, let’s focus on the music—and unlike the largely prehistoric artists addressed so far, videos are integral to Nina’s appeal. Her choice of material, as you might expect, is scattergun, terribly hit and miss, probably numerically miss. And then you really need to get Nina in one of her relatively rare, subdued moods, not when she is showing off and wailing like a banshee, which is most of the time. She was not at her best when performing live by the recently toppled Berlin Wall in 1989, though we can readily forgive her glee. She’s far better when she’s acknowledging the very few sentient beings superior to Nina in her world view, e.g., the Blessed Virgin Mary:
If you played Mario Lanza’s impeccably sung version of “Ave Maria” immediately afterwards, it would appear a vapid, sanitised, 1950s anti-climax, underlying the cultural and historical need for Nina.
Her fans are split over “Hold Me”: some punk purists despise it as a sell-out to commercialism. I adore it. It’s a cover of legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s song. Listening to them sequentially underlines Jackson’s decent, boring worthiness, whereas Nina electrifies the song. I’d like to think of the Lord chuckling indulgently and a little nervously at her. In the very funny accompanying video she responds to an invitation from “Mother Mahalia” to perform her version and is aghast: “I can’t sing a [sic] gospel, I’m a white chick!” But she does:
And in her appearance Nina in 1989 resembles for all the world another Jackson: Michael. Can we rewrite history and posit the thesis that Jacko underwent all that cosmetic surgery in a doomed attempt to look like Nina Hagen? I know he was weird, but this is plain ridiculous…
Hagen’s humour resurfaces in the electro-punk of “So Bad” (1993). Sometimes she’s a bit worrying, a little too environmentalist/leftie/proto-woke for many readers. But here we should forgive her everything, especially when she rolls out all the baddies/bad things: “diet soda… user friendly… Helmut Kohl… the Yugoslavian rape”:
This is surely Chateaubriand’s romantic mal du siècle, 200 years on: go, Nina!
This first part of Mark Stocker’s fiercely intelligent celebration focuses on four singers, one famous, two obscure and one middling—but tragic. Common to each one of them is, surprise, surprise, an ability to sing…
There really was a time mid-century when a kind of infantile sexism prevailed in the popular music scene. We were supposed to thank heaven for “leetle girls” according to the creepy Maurice Chevalier. Accordingly, grown women were expected to record cute novelty records or, if they were more ambitious, inanely catchy ones. And then there were Christmas hits (shudder, Scrooge was right). I’m thinking of “How much is that doggie in the window?” (Patti Page) and “Me and my teddy bear” (Rosemary Clooney).
We can turn over the Page quite easily, but Rosemary Clooney—best known today for being George’s aunty—was a massive vocal talent. Her career had stops and starts and nearly came to premature ruin in the 1960s. Five children, the wandering paws of José Ferrer whom she married and divorced twice, alcoholism (Rosemary was probably pickled in the womb), and the capitalistic pressures of recording contracts and stardom (think Judy Garland) made Rosemary a remarkable, admirable survivor. She ultimately did it her way. I find her voice just as attractive as her legendary near contemporary Peggy Lee, and reckon she’s underrated in comparison. Give Rosemary the right material (almost anything by Rogers and Hart for a start) and you’re in for a treat. Ella and Sarah alike would have admired her—I just know it!
There are some 1950s goodies interspersing the trivia. Who can resist her duet with Marlene Dietrich, “Too old?” And there’s the tenderly sung “Tenderly”:
But Rosemary attained astonishing heights in what has become a cult album, the inanely titled “Love” (1963), where the impeccably curated material, superlatively delivered, nails it time and again. It’s the dream ticket, the sensuous orchestra of Nelson Riddle (with whom she was then conducting an illicit affair, just the conductor, mind, not the instrumentalists), which surely gives several songs their edge, and Clooney’s vocals: breath, pitch and phrasing to die for. Though recorded on the eve of Beatlemania, the record is 1950s in feel, which probably didn’t help its negligible commercial success.
The plus side of being conservative is that these songs exude repression and sublimation, and possess none of the “let it all hang out” vulgarity that still gives the 1960s a bad name. Some of the melodies are genuinely complex: am I alone in thinking that Marc Blitzstein’s “I wish it so” is possibly the finest popular song before “Eleanor Rigby?”
“Find the way” is very nearly as good, and if you like Rosemary at her more conventional, then Rogers and Hart’s “Yours sincerely” hits the spot too. Oh, you people, ‘Love’ should have been reciprocated but it was simply too good for you, you bought into the frothy Rosemary and spurned the one that had sheer class. Sometimes it is a case in music of “vox pop, vox dei” and stuff the snobby critics (early Beatles, Abba and Queen are prime examples), but here the populi still need consciousness-raising.
A long and horrible hiatus followed in Rosemary’s career: relationship and personal breakdowns, paranoia and barbiturate addiction, etc. But then, mirabili dictu, she emerged—in what was little short of the Clooney Renaissance—as a remarkably adroit, fully-fledged jazz singer, her deeper voice enhanced by her committed packet a day smoking. (Clooney’s voice and the tragic impotence of a snooker player while your opponent piles on the breaks are the two justifications I can think of for cigarettes).
Almost anything from about 1978 to 1998 in Clooney’s repertoire is worth listening to: her tributes to Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and of course, Rogers, Hart & Hammerstein. The first two tracks of RH&H, “Oh what a beautiful morning” and the witty duet “People will say we’re in love” (with fabulous trumpet AND vocals from the Louis Armstrong soundalike Jack Sheldon), make this probably the most awesome start to any album I’ve heard, and the rest doesn’t disappoint either:
Rosemary, I salute you. Yours sincerely (groan!), Dr. Stocker.
My next two singers, Lana Bittencourt and Miss Toni Fisher, are more minor stars but all the reason to resurrect them and share my guilty pleasures. As in art history, I relish the obscure. Lana who? Well, she was Brazil’s biggest female vocal star in the late 1950s, and even appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Her voice was big in the truest sense, and there was no point in resisting it.
Aldous Huxley divided the female sex into egg whisks and chests-of-drawers in the brilliant Point Counter Point, and Lana was emphatically an egg-whisk.
One Valentine’s Day, I sent a number of select fair-sexed friends her biggest hit, the passionate cover of “Little Darling” and their response was one of startled pleasure and perhaps affectionate reproach: how come I haven’t heard of her, “Little Darling” indeed!, etc. Listen and yield to Lana:
Her versatility is demonstrated in this clip from the eminently forgettable B-movie Jeca Tatu, about an endearing, lazy simpleton who has his property threatened by an unscrupulous landowner, and we all know how that will turn out. In the god-fearing society of that day in these rural parts, everything naturally stops with the Angelus bell. Note the guest appearance by Frida Kahlo (I know, I’m kidding), irritated by a fly:
Lana Bittencourt recorded admirable cover versions of “I will follow him” and, particularly, the impassioned “Johnny Guitar,” the title track of a Nicholas Ray film marginally superior to Jeca Tatu. You don’t need to translate from the Portuguese—in fact it’s a lot less risible than Lana’s hopeless English accent. Indeed, it’s a worthy rival of Peggy Lee’s far more famous version:
I’m looking for a culture anywhere on Earth that respects and preserves its sense of history, but it’s proving a vain search. My heart sank into my Doc Martens when I saw that the Israeli government hadn’t intervened to buy the archive of the “Roaring Lion” sculptor, Abraham Melnikoff, passed in at auction. Lana Bittencourt’s obscurity in Brazil today is almost as saddening. She’s approaching 90, and just a few years ago, was still bravely, albeit croakily, singing away…
Miss Toni Fisher (omitting her title is a no-no) had a brief but glorious recording career and it would not be ungenerous to pigeonhole her as a “two hit wonder.” But ‘wonder’ is the operative word. If Bittencourt’s voice is big, then Miss Fisher’s can break a Waterford decanter at 50 paces.
Her sole major US hit was “The Big Hurt” (1959). This is an irresistible combination of Miss Fisher’s vocals, pioneering electronic phasing sound effects and a winning melody. Not surprisingly, it became highly influential and was frequently covered, lending itself perfectly to big ballad treatment by Scott Walker, and exhilarating Northern Soul by the two Susans (Rafey and Farrar). But as often happens, the original version is the best:
Miss Fisher’s follow-up hit “West of the Wall” is a fascinating phenomenon, a rarity: a convincingly politicised song, recorded at a time of great international tension, the construction of the Berlin Wall. It’s on the side of angels:
A few “useful idiots” doubtless condemned it as anti-Soviet—which of course it rightly was. The singer’s passion matches the political indignation that millions felt. Possibly it wasn’t a big hit in the US because inane radio stations didn’t want music and politics to mix. This can, admittedly, be heavy-handed and irritatingly preachy (sorry, I’m no fan of John Lennon’s “Imagine”), but hardly applies here. Unlike so much noise that passes for music over the past half-century, Miss Fisher makes sure you hear and digest every word of her message:
West of the wall I'll wait for you West of the wall our dreams can all come true Though we're apart a little while My heart will wait until we both can smile That wall built of our sorrow We know must have an end Till then dream of tomorrow When we meet again.
Tomorrow would only come in 1989.
Imagine either the sex-symbol Jayne Mansfield, or her voluptuous British counterpart, Diana Dors, magically transformed from an actress into a singer. The result would surely have been Kathy Kirby (1938–2011). Tragedy is common to all three, the first two dying prematurely: Mansfield in a car accident and Dors of breast cancer, causing her grieving husband to commit suicide.
Kirby’s fate was if anything even crueller: a prolonged, squalid, impoverished forty-year coda to her relatively brief period of stardom. The Petula Clark hit “Don’t sleep in the subway, darling” inevitably comes to mind, and the ruined latter-day KK did just that. Or somebody’s doorstep.
But let’s focus for the while on the buoyant and radiating optimism that characterises the heyday of her recording career. The teenage, convent-educated (like Dusty Springfield and Marianne Faithfull) Kathy stood at the crossroads: she took singing lessons with view to becoming an opera singer, but fate intervened when she was discovered by band leader Bert Ambrose in 1956. She remained with Ambrose’s band for three years and he in turn remained her manager, mentor and lover until his death on stage in Leeds in 1971.
Like the previous two chanteuses, KK boasted a considerable vocal presence. Her material certainly lacks profundity (the early 1960s were shallow times, what with superstars like Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee and Bobby Rydell in their pomp), but it hits the spot in joie-de-vivre and catchiness. “Dance on” was kept at the top of the charts for a month by those unsophisticated Australians across the pond; then there’s “Let me go, lover;” and KK’s admirable cover of Doris Day’s “Secret Love”:
Later KK verges on the dramatically camp, particularly the theme song for “Adam Adamant,” a nutty BBC series proposing that an adventurer born in 1867 and who had vanished in 1902 had been revived from hibernation in 1966. It provided a satirical look at life in the 1960s through the eyes of an Edwardian. Touché, Dame Shirley Bassey!
The fact that KK had a far grander voice than the younger and trendier Cilla Black and Sandie Shaw unfortunately failed to stand her in good stead. She was in her element in variety shows, not the Swinging Sixties, and by the later years of that decade had become rather “square.” Is it a sexist observation to say that wearing a dress below the knee in 1966 contributed to her fate?
While KK was regularly claimed to be the highest-paid female singer in Britain, behind the scenes things were falling apart. Her alleged affair with game show host Bruce Forsyth caused Ambrose to erupt into fits of jealousy. Kirby also realised that Ambrose, a compulsive gambler, had lost almost all her money. When he died she was both bereft and skint. I hate to say it, but like a number of far more celebrated stars (Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson to name but two), I fear KK just wasn’t very bright, and this when the playing-field was unquestionably tilted against women…
Turbulent affairs with both sexes ensued, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, and survived on state benefits and meagre royalties for many years. She became a Garbo-like recluse before being moved to a nursing retirement home for entertainment professionals. This was at the behest of her niece, Sarah, wife of Margaret Thatcher’s son, the distinguished rally driver and Equatorial Africa coup leader, Sir Mark. A rare act of Thatcherite charity?! Lest I raise the hackles of some readers, I will soothe them with a lovely Kathy Kirby song, another standard (famously recorded by Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Dalida, etc.), “I wish you love”:
Listen to her, be touched by the generous spirits that this song conveys in spades, and posthumously wish Kathy blue-birds in the spring…
We are greatly honored to present this interview with Sheldon Lettich, American screenwriter, film director, and producer. He is notably known for his work in the action film genre—and his collaborations with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone, Mark Dacascos, Dolph Lundgren, and Daniel Bernhardt. Besides co-writing Bloodsport and Rambo III, Sheldon Lettich directed and co-wrote Lionheart, Double Impact, and Only the Strong. He is in conversation with Grégoire Canlorbe.
Grégoire Canlorbe (GC): What is the situation with regard to your long-anticipated movie-project about Vietnam?
Sheldon Lettich (SL): Well, I’ve written a lot of scripts about Vietnam, but none of them has been made. I wrote a script called Firebase. And it was kind of like that movie called Zulu. It was kind of like that. Basically, a small group of Americans on a hilltop firebase, and they get attacked by a huge number of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. That was the screenplay I wrote a number of years ago. And Sylvester Stallone read the screenplay, and he liked it. And that’s how I ended up working with him on Rambo III, because he had read that screenplay. I’ve written a few other Vietnam screenplays, but none of them has gotten made, yet.
GC: You collaborated with Sylvester Stallone on Rambo III. How did your team come up with the idea of the tank-versus-helicopter scene? Or the idea of colonel Trautman’s “In your ass!” line?
SL: The tank-versus-helicopter scene wasn’t my idea, that was Stallone’s idea. And I thought it was not a plausible idea, but it seemed to work. You liked it, right? A helicopter versus a tank just makes no kind of sense at all because a tank is not designed to shoot at something moving fast like an airplane. A tank versus an airplane or a helicopter makes no kind of sense at all. You’d have to be very lucky. It takes some time to aim that cannon on a tank. So for a tank versus a helicopter, I didn’t believe it, but it seemed to work. There we are; it was Sly’s idea. As for colonel Trautman’s line in the interrogation scene, that was Stallone’s idea as well. That wasn’t mine.
GC: What kind of movie could be done about the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan? Perhaps a new Rambo installment, in which Stallone rescues a group of hostages once again abandoned in Afghanistan and, in the process, decapitate his former Taliban allies turned into despots of the region?
SL: I don’t see a good action movie coming out of that because everything about that was very disappointing. That really shouldn’t have happened the way that it happened. I don’t think anybody would want to see a movie about that. And Stallone is in his 70s, now. He’s a little old to go back into Afghanistan. And I think he’s had his—I think Rambo has had—his Afghanistan adventure and doesn’t really need another one. So, I don’t see that happening at all. I’m 70 years old. Stallone’s even older than me. I don’t know, he’s like 72. I don’t think he’ll want to do some crazy action movie where he’s running around firing a gun and killing all kinds of Afghans. It’s just not going to happen again.
GC: Jean-Claude Van Damme served as an editor on Bloodsport, which you co-wrote. How much did he change the story with respect to the original screenplay?
SL: The first cut was very bad, so Jean-Claude got involved. And he basically recut the fight scenes because he was involved with those fight scenes. He knew how the fight scenes should work. And there was another editor that Cannon brought in to recut the movie and to restructure it. And so they fixed it up. But Jean-Claude basically worked on the fight scenes, and he made those work really good. In the meanwhile, they got some other writers involved who made some changes. Most of the changes, I thought, were very good, actually. What I mostly did with Bloodsport is I came up with the idea. I structured it. I came up with the three-act structure where the beginning is that everybody’s getting ready to go to the fight. The middle is the tournament, and the movie ends after Gong Li is defeated and Jean-Claude goes home. So, that’s the structure that I came up with.
GC: Before Bloodsport, were you involved with Karate Tiger?
SL: No, I had nothing to do with that. That’s the first movie that I saw Jean-Claude in, here in the US. It was called No Retreat, No Surrender. And that was the movie—when we were looking for an actor for Bloodsport, that movie came out in theaters. It was playing in theaters here, in Los Angeles. So, the producer, Mark DiSalle, told us, “We found this new actor, Jean-Claude Van Damme. Go see his movies in the theaters, right now.” And that was No Retreat, No Surrender. And we were very impressed with him. And that’s pretty much that helped him solidify the role in Bloodsport.
GC: After Bloodsport, did you get involved in Kickboxer?
SL: Well, I was involved just in that Kickboxer was the project that Mark DiSalle approached me with. When I first met Mark, he was looking for a writer, and he had an idea for a martial arts movie called Kickboxer. And so, he pitched me the idea, and I thought I had a better idea, which was Bloodsport. Bloodsport had not been written, but I’d been talking with Frank Dux about his experiences. Turned out that they weren’t real experiences. He had made all that stuff up.
GC: Please tell us about your partnership with Jean-Claude Van Damme in writing Full Contact, which is known as Lionheart in the US, if I’m not mistaken.
SL: Yes, Lionheart. Actually, I got together with Jean-Claude and he came up with the basic idea. That was his idea. It was called the Wrong Bet, at first. We sat down in a coffee shop, one night on Sunset Boulevard to talk about it. We were in that coffee shop for about three hours, and the manager wanted us to leave because we were taking up room—it was kind of empty, but he still wanted us out of there. He thought we were there for too long. And we told him to leave us alone. “We’re working on something, right now.” And then, he called the cops. So actually, we had some sheriff’s deputies come in there and tell us to leave. But in those three hours, we came up with the basic story line for Lionheart. But it was Jean-Claude’s original idea, that whole thing about… I think I came up with the Foreign Legion idea, but he came up with that idea about his sister-in-law; and she’s got a little daughter, and he has to fight in order to make money to take care of them. That was Jean-Claude’s.
GC: The fight between JCVD and Bolo Yeung at the end of Double Impact is quite an epic moment. How was it shot?
SL: Actually, it was shot in two different locations because we shot part of it in Hong Kong. I’m just trying to think about it. We were on a ship in Hong Kong. No, the exterior of the ship was in Hong Kong, the interior of the ship was in Los Angeles. That was in San Pedro. And so, we actually shot on this ship, and then we looked at the footage later. We were kind of rushed that day. We didn’t have enough time to really do it right. And so we had a set built in Santa Clarita, also in Los Angeles, to shoot some additional shots. So it was basically like, it looks like it’s all done at the same time, but it was actually done in two different locations at two different times. We cut it all together, and it looked really great.
GC: Why did JCVD never act with Bolo Yeung again after Bloodsport and Double Impact? After all, three is a magic number, as they say.
SL: Well, he made two movies with Bolo. Bloodsport has Bolo, and Double Impact has Bolo. It’s hard to just keep using the same villain over and over again.
GC: Are you concerned for the future of the cinema of Hong Kong as the Chinese Communist Party will be extending its grip on the city?
SL: I’m not an expert on that, but obviously, we’re not going to see Hong Kong movies like the old ones. It’s all going to change now because the Chinese have taken over. So there are certain things you can say, certain things you can’t say. The Chinese government controls whatever is going on in Hong Kong. So you’ll never see those Hong Kong movies like we saw before, the Jackie Chans. Oh, Jackie Chan, of course, is doing movies in China, also. But they’re not going to be quite the same as those John Woo movies. I don’t think he’ll be able to make movies anymore in Hong Kong with corrupt police officers.
Basically, the way that the Chinese government sees it, there are no corrupt police officers in China. There are no gangsters in China. So, basically, everything has to change. They’re up to do a lot of historical stuff. So, you’re probably not going to see any contemporary stories like in those Hong Kong movies where you’ve got good cops, bad cops, gangsters, all kinds of stuff like that. I think that’s going away. And all they’re going to see out of Hong Kong and China is stuff that takes place hundreds of years ago in earlier eras in China, but not contemporary. Because contemporary means that you’ve got to have good guys and bad guys. And in China, they want everybody to believe that China is a perfect country. There are no gangsters, there are no corrupt cops. So everything is wonderful in China, which means you can’t have much drama for a contemporary movie. So, that era—the era of the John Woo movies and Ringo Lam and all of that—that’s pretty much over, for now.
GC: Please tell us about The Hard Corps, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Vivica A. Fox. How did such great movie with such great cast end up as a DTV?
SL: Well, we were hoping it was going to go to theaters. And the problem was that the producers just didn’t want to spend the money to get other actors that we needed to make it a theatrical movie. Because originally, it was supposed to be Jean-Claude and Wesley Snipes. So the boxer was supposed to be played either by Wesley Snipes or Cuba Gooding, which would have made it a much bigger movie.
Basically, they said, “We’ve got Jean-Claude Van Damme. We’re paying him a lot. If we get Wesley Snipes, we’ll have to pay Wesley Snipes the same amount of money we’re paying Jean-Claude, and that’s going to make the budget too big.” Now, in my opinion, it would have helped the movie. We would have had a bigger name in there. We would have had three big names. We would have had Jean-Claude, Wesley Snipes and Vivica A. Fox. And I think for sure, it would have been a theatrical movie. And that’s why it didn’t go theatrical because we just didn’t have the money we needed to get the right cast.
GC: I’d like to hear you about The Order, which easily ranks among your best collaborations with JCVD. The scene in which Van Damme is dressed as a Hassidic Jew is just exceptional.
SL: I made another movie in Israel—I did a movie there with Dolph Lundgren, The Last Patrol. So I got to know Israel pretty well. The cops trying to catch Van Damme, it was basically my idea. But I didn’t write the original script for The Order. It was written by this guy, Les Weldon. I wanted to make it more like an old Hitchcock movie. Hitchcock made a movie called North By Northwest and another one called The Man Who Knew Too Much. And that’s what I wanted to do with The Order. You’ve got the bad guys and the cops all after Jean-Claude. So, basically, he’s in trouble with everybody. And that’s how all those Hitchcock movies worked.
I rewatched North By Northwest just recently. It was on TV. And I realized there were a lot of ideas that I took from North By Northwest. And I even forgot that I took the ideas, like this one scene in North By Northwest with Cary Grant. He’s trying to disguise himself, so he puts on some dark sunglasses. I did the exact same thing in The Order. We got the cops looking for Jean-Claude, and he’s putting dark sunglasses on to disguise himself. So that’s the kind of movie it was supposed to be. And Hitchcock put a lot of humor into those movies, too, and I put a lot of humor into The Order.
There was a Jean-Paul Belmondo movie called The Man from Rio. It was in the 1960s. I saw it in the theater. And so I wanted to make it a little bit like that. The same thing where everybody is chasing our hero. The cops and the bad guys were all after him. And then, there was another movie I saw. It was a French movie. So those two French movies, right there. It was called The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, where some guy was anti-Semitic. He’s got the mafia after him, and he disguises himself as a Hasidic Jew. And then, the bad guys and the cops are all chasing him. So that’s another part of that idea that I had. And then, just being in Jerusalem and just seeing these guys walking around, I just thought that would be a good disguise for Jean-Claude to have if he was trying to get away from the cops. So that was what pretty much led to that. And I really wasn’t sure if Jean-Claude would go for it, if he would actually do that. And he did. He totally went for it. He put the beard on and everything, and that’s my favorite sequence in the entire movie. I really love the way that whole sequence turned out. So that’s my favorite part of The Order.
Our producer was Avi Lerner. And one thing Avi told me before we did the movie, he said, “l want an action scene every 10 minutes. Lots of action.” And he paid for it, too. They had the budget. We did a lot of crazy stuff in The Order. We were at the airport. Can you imagine shooting—nobody else has done that in Israel, but Avi had some connections. He had a cousin who was a pilot for El Al. That was how he got that jet where Jean-Claude was trying to get around the jet and just coming through. That was Avi’s cousin in the cockpit. And then, Avi was a good friend of the Prime Minister of Israel at the time, Ehud Olmert. And that’s how we got permission to shoot in Jerusalem. I mean, can you imagine? We’re doing this crazy chase scene, and we’re really on the streets of Jerusalem for most of it.
It was very hard to shoot there. It’s very crowded. And the people who live there, it’s divided between Jews and Muslims. And they disagree on just about everything, but they all love Jean-Claude Van Damme. All of them are Van Damme fans. So we had a hard time getting away from them because they’d be surrounding us and chasing after us. They were like, “Van Damme! Van Damme!” They wanted him to sign autographs. It became very difficult to shoot in Jerusalem, so we ended up building sets in Bulgaria to look like Jerusalem. Half of that chase scene was shot in Jerusalem and on the real streets, and then the other half we shot on a recreated version of Jerusalem in Bulgaria. And what I find interesting about this is that even people who are from Israel or who’ve been in Jerusalem many times don’t realize that we shot in two different places. They think that we shot the entire thing on the streets of Jerusalem. So we did a pretty good job recreating that Jerusalem look.
GC: Before Mark Dacascos acted for Christophe Gans in Crying Freeman and Brotherhood of the Wolf, he was in Only the Strong. Please tell us about your collaboration with Dacascos.
SL: Well, he had a manager named Katherine James, and she was the one that was pushing Mark. She got in touch with me, said, “You need to work with my client, Mark Dacascos. He’s going to be the next big action star.” And so I met Mark and I liked him very much. And one thing I found out about him was that he was very good with gymnastics. He was a good acrobat, and I think he’d already been studying some capoeira at the time. And that was an important part of the movie. It was all about capoeira.
So Mark was willing to go to classes with this real capoeira master from Brazil. So he learned all that stuff and was very willing to do anything I asked him to do. And it ended up working out great for the movie because he was able to do so much stuff that Van Damme can’t do, for example. Like Mark was good with the gymnastics. He could do flips. He could jump in the air. Jean-Claude can’t really do that kind of stuff. He’s good with the kicks and the punching, but if he has to do something gymnastic, we generally have to get a stunt double to do it for him. And also, Jean-Claude was not good with weapons, like martial arts weapons. He can use a gun. Of course, anybody can fire a gun, but he couldn’t do like the sticks and poles and all that kind of stuff, and Mark could do all of that stuff. We realized that in the movie, we’ve got him having fights with people using sticks and everything. And with Jean-Claude we couldn’t do that.
GC: Scott Adkins is sometimes thought to be Jean-Claude Van Damme’s spiritual heir. How do you assess his performances?
SL: I think he’s great. I met him a few years ago, and I knew he was going to do great as an action actor. And he’s been doing terrific. He’s been doing a lot of great action movies. Unfortunately, we’re in a different era, now. Had I met Scott in the 1980s, he probably would have become a much bigger star because those kinds of movies were popular back then, in the 80s and 90s. By the time Scott came on the scene, those kinds of movies were not happening, anymore. And now, it’s become superhero movies. So superhero movies have kind of taken over as far as action movies. And Scott has certainly done a number of action films, and he’s been great in them; but that’s just not the kind of movie that’s getting the big theatrical releases, nowadays, which is unfortunate.
GC: Do you share Martin Scorsese’s, Ridley Scott’s, and Denis Villeneuve’s recently expressed reservations about Marvel movies?
SL: Well, personally, I’m a Marvel Comics fan. From a long time ago, I was reading all those comic books in the 60s when they came out. I would go down to the store. The day that they put the comic books on the stands, I would go down to the store and get them. So I had all the originals. I had the first Fantastic Four and the first X-Men, the first Spider-Man. I had all those. I was a big fan of Marvel comic books back then.
And then, when they started making the Marvel movies, I thought the first few were really great. I loved the first Iron Man movie, for example. And the first Captain America movie, I thought that was terrific. But then, they just started getting just too big for my taste. They’re too big, too many characters. And I started losing interest in those Marvel movies. They’re well-made, but there’s a sameness to them. They have the same kind of structure. They all end up with these huge action scenes with lots of special effects, lots of CGI. And personally, CGI is great, but I prefer action films that have some real stuff going on screen where people are actually fighting. They’re not relying on CGI.
I was a big fan of the earlier James Bond movies, the pre-CGI James Bond movie. I was a big James Bond fan for many years. But with some of these more recent ones, once they started getting into too much CGI, and I wasn’t seeing real stunts anymore, I started losing interest in those. Although the Daniel Craig ones, I think are really good. They basically made some real changes with those Daniel Craig versions. But even so, I’m just not the Bond’s fan that I used to be many years ago. And the Marvel movies, Scorsese says they’re not real movies. Well, they really are more like just an assembly-line product. There’s a sameness to all of them, now. It just feels like you’re watching the same movie: lots of CGI, lots of explosions and crazy weapons, crazy flying machines. But they just don’t have the same kind of heart that they had in the earlier ones, the first few that they made.
GC: Do you share the commonly heard criticism that Christopher Nolan’s action scenes are as bad and poorly shot as his screenplays and concepts are astute?
SL: Christopher, I think he’s great. See, his action scenes feel fresh and original to me because he’s basically running the show. He’s coming up with these movies. He’s not recycling some comic book characters. He’s doing original movies, coming up with original action scenes. Whereas with the Marvel movies, the producers are pretty much hiring directors who are basically traffic cops and telling them, “This is what the movie is going to be. This is what the action scenes are going to be. And you get out there, and you just tell the actors what to do.” They just move the characters around.
And with Christopher Nolan, it’s not like that. He’s basically making Christopher Nolan movies. He’s doing action scenes that are fresh and original and doing them the way he wants to do them. And I really admire him for that. And James Cameron, too. James Cameron is another example. I love the Avatar movie. I’ve watched it a number of times. The action scenes are great. Everything about Avatar is fantastic. But James Cameron, basically, he’s calling his own shots. He’s basically saying, “I want to do this movie called Avatar. These are the actors I want.” And he goes and makes the movie. And he’s got no studio executives telling him how to structure his movie, what characters are going to be in it. It’s basically his show. And that makes a big difference.
GC: How do you explain that Hollywood, which used to be somewhat conservative and patriotic in the Reaganian era, has become so woke in the last few years?
SL: No, it wasn’t really conservative in the eighties. It was not Hollywood. That was Stallone. That was Stallone’s own point of view. Stallone was somewhat patriotic. He was a big supporter of Reagan, America. Reagan was, I don’t know—I wouldn’t call him a close personal friend, but he knew Reagan. He voted for him. I’m not sure if he campaigned for him, but they were very closely aligned in their politics. The rest of Hollywood was not. Stallone was kind of an outlier when it came to Hollywood. Oliver Stone, for example, has a completely different point of view. So that was Stallone and Schwarzenegger. Both of them were Republicans. Schwarzenegger even ended up being the Republican governor of California. So that was really their point of view, but that was not Hollywood. Hollywood was actually much more liberal during that period.
And that’s why the Rambo movies got such bad reviews, too. Like Rambo III, I mean, we got a Golden Razzie Award for Worst Screenplay, Worst Movie because most of the press was very liberal. And so they were not really voting their conscience about the movie. It was all about politics. “Because Stallone is a conservative Republican, we’re going to say that his movie is shit.” But actually, Rambo III, I think, is a pretty damn good movie. I like Rambo II even better. But basically, that was not the Hollywood attitude at the time. That was Stallone, Schwarzenegger—Bruce Willis also ended up being a Republican.
So a lot of these action stars had a different point of view from most people in Hollywood. Like even Van Damme, he’s very conservative. He’s not an American. I think he is an American citizen now, actually. And he was a Trump supporter. Even Stallone and Schwarzenegger were not Trump supporters but Van Damme was. We’re not talking about Hollywood in general, we’re talking about action stars who, for the most part, tended to be more conservative and lean towards the Republicans more than the Democrats.
GC: Please tell us about this recent movie of yours whose main character is a soldier dog, Max.
SL: Well, that brought me back to Afghanistan because the beginning of the movie takes place in Afghanistan? So rather than Rambo in Afghanistan, Max was really Rambo with four legs instead of two. He was basically a Rambo character. Max, he’s a soldier in Afghanistan. He gets sent back to the States. And then, when some bad guys are threatening his family, well, then he uses all his skills to defeat the bad guys. So it was really Rambo with four legs and a tail. That was basically Max.
And I got the idea for that because I got some puppies a number of years ago at the pound, and supposedly, they were German Shepherds. They were little, so it was hard to tell. So I got these two puppies, and months later, I discovered that they were not German shepherds, they were Belgian malinois. And so I did some research on Belgian malinois, and I found out that the army and the police are using these dogs because they’re the best dogs for that kind of work.
So I was doing my research, and I saw that there were a couple of dog-handlers that died in Afghanistan or Iraq. And then, their families asked, “Well, my son is dead, but can I have his dog? Can his dog be part of our family because that’s all we have left of him from his time in the military?” And so these families ended up adopting the dogs, and that was the basis for Max. Basically, this dog-handler gets killed, his dog survives. And then, the family back in Texas wants to adopt the dog. And the dog ends up being their protector, coming to the rescue.
GC: Thank you for the opportunity to do this interview.
SL: You’re welcome. That’s funny, I was just exchanging text messages with Brian Thompson. And Brian is in The Order. And Brian is a real expert with swords. He was in the Conan Show at Universal Studios. So he used to work with swords all the time. He’s really good with them. And then, our stunt-double for Jean-Claude in The Order was David Leitch. Well, David is also really good with weapons, so Brian and he worked out a great sword fight sequence. And David, by the way, has now gone on to be a director. He directed Deadpool 2. He did that one, I forgot the title of it, the one with Dwayne Johnson. He did this really huge movie with Dwayne Johnson [Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw]. And he was our double for Jean-Claude.
So, we were supposed to have a sword fight at the end of The Order. But Jean-Claude, like I said, he’s not good with weapons. We tried doing a few things with him. He wasn’t comfortable with it. He’s comfortable with what he’s good at, with the kicks and the punches and all of that. So he said, “Guys, let’s not do this. I can’t do this scene.” And basically, Brian and David were going to do most of the scene with the swords. And we were just going to need some close ups of Jean-Claude just swinging a sword or something. And he just didn’t feel it was going to work. So we went away from that whole sequence. And it’s a bit disappointing because I thought we needed a really good sword fight at the end of The Order, but we ended up not getting it. It’s kind of a disappointing scene.