College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 5

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5. Billy Bragg, Workers Playtime

Billy met Mary in 1986. Specifically name-checked in the song “The Short Answer” (“Between Marx and marzipan in the dictionary/ There was Mary/ Between the deep blue sea and the devil/ That was me”), Mary provided the inspiration for a hefty number of the songs on Billy Bragg’s fourth official album, Workers Playtime. Or rather, it was Bragg’s tempestuous relationship with Mary that stirred his creativity. Even though the first song that brought him fame announced, “I don’t want to change the world/ I’m not looking for a new england/ I’m just looking for another girl,” Bragg’s reputation as a socialist-minded protest singer was well-established by the late nineteen-eighties (I still cherish the Rolling Stone concert review from 1988 that noted Bragg apologizing for his raspy singing, claiming he’d worn out his voice by spending the day screaming “Asshole!” at people with George Bush bumper stickers), making Workers Playtime feel like a heart-rending reinvention. Social commentary still comes into play — a pointed attack against the criminal justice system on “Rotting on Remand,” the anti-war coo of empathy on the a capella “Tender Comrade” — but the bulk of the album is about thwarted romance. The bulk of the album is about Mary.

I loved the album in the fall of 1988. I needed it about three years later, when I went through my first (and my worst) major breakup. Like those from a generation before me might have luxuriated in the sweet misery of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, I gave Workers Playtime a more or less permanent place on the turntable in my college apartment bedroom, finding highly relatable truths in its grooves. In the manner of the very best pop music, the album was a patch on loneliness, proof delivered at thirty-three rotations per minute that the feelings roiling inside weren’t entirely unique to me. At least Bragg knew what I was going through, as evidenced by the ballads “The Price I Pay” (“There’s something inside that hurts my foolish pride/ To visit the places we used to go together/ Not a day go by that I don’t sit and wonder why/ Your feelings for my didn’t last forever”) and “Little Time Bomb” (“He holds your letters but he can’t read them/ As he fights this loneliness that you call freedom”). Even a comparatively jaunty song (musically, anyway) like “Life with the Lions” held sadly familiar truths (“I know that I’m guilty/ But I don’t know what I’ve done”). These were exactly the songs I wanted to write at the time. Utterly bereft of musical talent, I’m lucky Bragg did it for me.

Even putting aside the album’s splendid success as a life support system for the newly lonely, Workers Playtime easily stands as one of Bragg’s strongest records. The added focus that comes from the thematic throughline certainly helps, but there’s also a stronger sense of musicianship that one previous albums. Though hardly a cacophony of noise, the album has an abundance of sonic textures, lovely caressing of melody and sound in every track. Surely some of that is attributable to the presence of producer Joe Boyd, who previously shepherded lush, delicate works by the likes of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake. Bragg usually considered himself a poet first, downplaying his skills as a songwriter and musician. By the gentle intricacy of the production, Boyd challenges Bragg’s underplaying of his own talent. Even if Bragg was ready to rely on fast-strummed exuberance like perpetual busker, the shape and sound of the album emphasized his winning songcraft.

Appropriately, then, Workers Playtime is bookended by two of the very best entries in the Bragg songbook. Album opener “She Got a New Spell” is propulsive, catchy, and scored with the sorts of clever lyrics that draw in the listener (“The laws of gravity are very, very strict/ And you’re just bending them for your own benefit”), excited to unlock its possibilities. The album closes with “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” arguably Bragg’s most enduring song and certainly the one that stands as his clearest personal anthem, if only for its direct address of the challenges of “mixing pop and politics.” Like the finest folk standards of the past, it practically cries out for a singalong, or at least it would if Bragg hadn’t realized almost from the get-go that it was also one of his most pliable songs. I’ve seen him play it live several times, never the same way twice (I’m especially partial to the revised lyric “It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll/ From East Berlin to the Letterman show”). I think of Bragg’s willingness to alter a signature song whenever I revisit Workers Playtime, I think because it hits at something I always instinctually knew was lurking there. I used the album to wallow, but it also built my strength up a little every time. Bragg obviously knew my pain. He also clearly got through his own. Life changes and develops. The heart heals and moves on. The catharsis offered by the songs was part of my process. Among everything I drew from Workers Playtime, Bragg also reminded me that it was okay to let the lyrics of my sad song change.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern
–7: Every Dog Has His Day
–6: Truth and Soul

From the Archive: The Rescuers Down Under

Looking back on this review from the first semester of our radio movie review program, I’m pretty sure I can spot where I was bluffing. Putting together Oliver & Company and The Little Mermaid as equal titles in Disney Animation’s Hail Mary revival at the cusp of the nineteen-nineties (there was talk of the studio getting out of the cartoon game following major underperformers, with The Black Cauldron usually cited as the film that almost brought about the end of “the Mouse House”) suggests I probably hadn’t yet seen the film that crucially brought Alan Menken and Howard Ashman into the fold. It’s also possible I was simply misguided about the overall value of The Little Mermaid at the time, an oversight I eventually corrected. An aberration among the musicals that fully revived Disney’s fortunes in the nineties, The Rescuers Down Under is often forgotten. It might not stand up to the classics that bookend it (preceded by The Little Mermaid, followed by Beauty and the Beast), but it’s a fine film on its own merits. A good friend recently reminded me of that.)

The latest animated release from Walt Disney Studios wastes absolutely no time in presenting the audience with something amazing. The first image of the film is of an Australian field with a tiny shack far away on the horizon. This image is held onscreen for just a moment before you begin racing toward the shack, like an eagle swooping down just inches above the plant life. It’s a daring, impressive beginning to a highly entertaining adventure.

THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER is Disney’s twenty-ninth full-length animated feature and the follow-up to the 1977 release THE RESCUERS. The Rescuers are members of the International Rescue Aid Society, a New York-based organization that is run by mice who respond to emergency situation, particularly when children are involved. This time out, they get called into Australia to help a boy named Cody. Cody has been captured by a poacher named McLeech who is in search of Cody’s best friend, a giant golden eagle. The Rescue Aid Society puts its best two agents on the case, Bernard and Miss Bianca. Bernard’s voice is provided by Bob Newhart and Bianca comes from Eva Gabor in a pair of wonderful voice characterizations. Credit must also be given to Tristin Rogers from TV’s “General Hospital” for lending his Australian accent to Jake, a kangaroo mouse, and George C. Scott for sounding terrifically nasty as McLeech.John Candy rounds out the star list as Wilber, an albatross who provides the transport to the Land Down Under. He’s funnier here than he’s been in his last five live-action roles combined.

THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER is filled with delightful, charming comedy in the interplay between the characters, and a scene-stealing lizard named Joanna who is central to one of the funniest sequences of the film as she steals eggs away from her master, McLeech. It’s also surprisingly effective as an action-adventure release, consistently exciting and entertaining. As far as the animation goes, there’s still no one out there who does it as well as the Walt Disney Company. They’ve been on quite a roll the past few years with releases like “Oliver & Company” and “The Little Mermaid,” and this latest effort can be held up proudly with the invigorating, innovative work they’ve been producing.

And, as if that weren’t all enough, there is also a twenty-three minute Mickey Mouse feature preceding the release, a retelling of the the classic tale THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER. Here, Mickey takes on the title roles as Goofy, Pluto, Donald Duck, and the Weasels from “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” show up to fill supporting roles. It, like the feature it precedes, is a solid, effective piece of entertainment. Most of the filmmakers producing movies aimed at adults should go see THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER. And they should take notes.

(3 and 1/2 stars, out of 4)

One for Friday: Billy Bragg, “The Marching Song of the Covert Battalions”

 

On this day, when crass consumerism reigns supreme, I woke up with a Billy Bragg song galloping through my head. So even as I watched the morning news programs, wherein all the more important, more meaningful, more troubling developments of the day were pushed to deep on the segment list in favor of grotesquely chipper reports on which sales were generating the most aggressive enthusiasm among desperate holidays shoppers, my mental accompaniment involved a distinct Essex accent delivering the battle cry “We’re making the world safe for capitalism!”

Bragg was one of the artists I clung to most gratefully upon my happy immersion into college radio, in the fall of 1988. His wonderful album Workers Playtime was right there in Heavy Rotation, begging to be played again and again. Besides his crack songwriting and bright, devoted playing, Bragg delivered exactly the sort of impassion, left-leaning political viewpoints that spoke to the part of me that was rabble rarin’ to be roused. Becoming a Bragg fan was like taking a stand, declaring an intention to believe in something meaningful. Sure, it was tepid soup compared to that undertaken by the activists out there holding together the crumbling parts of the world, but there was only so much I was prepared to do in my initial tottering toward enlightenment. Feeble as it may have been in comparison, I was charged up with the notion of buying a record as a revolutionary act.

A couple of years later, Bragg released an EP that further fed my sense that listening to his music helped stoke outrage on the right side of history. The Internationale took its name from the longstanding left-wing anthem, which Bragg performed in a modified version as the EP’s title cut. Following the dalliance with wounded love songs (breakup songs, really), Bragg once again took up the mantle of political commentator with a guitar and rhyming dictionary, indeed doing so with more directness and force than previously. A Bush presidency can inspire that sort of thing. Released at the very beginning of my one summer away from the radio station during my undergraduate years, The Internationale was a valuable tether to who I felt I really was. Putting on the turntable in the basement bedroom where I endured my personal high school era was like reminding myself that I had a true home I’d return to eventually. In my dirtbag, Midwestern hometown, I may very well have been the only soul singing along robustly to socialist-approved musical treatises that summer.

And when I eventually saw Bragg live for the first time, I got to sing-along even a little louder. If only I could find a way to get this song piped into every mall and big box store today, then maybe I’d properly pay back Bragg for the welcoming comfort he brought to me.

Listen or download –> Billy Bragg, “The Marching Song of the Covert Battalions” (Live at The Ritz, 1990)

(Disclaimer: I got this track from the Internet Archive website. It is my understanding that any music shared there, including unofficial live recordings, is done so only with the approval of the artist in question. By extension, I believe it’s also a-okay for me to distribute a track from the same show here. Additionally, Bragg has generally expressed the belief that file-sharing has a useful promotional element to it. Still, I’d rather not share one of his tracks that can be purchased in a way that duly compensates both Mr. Bragg and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store, hence the live recording. Though I feel like I’m on unusually solid ground here, I will gladly remove this track from my little corner of the interweb if asked to do so be any entity or individual with due authority to make such a request.)

Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Four

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#4 — Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951)
The films of Alfred Hitchcock are ideally suited for clip reels, which can skew perception of them a bit. Moreso than Billy Wilder, John Ford, or any of his other rough contemporaries who presided over at least as many classic films, Hitchcock had an eye and a knack for that one master shot — often achieved through some revolutionary manipulation of the visuals — ideally suited to pulled out of context to stand on its own. By the time distinctive shots have been shown ad nauseum in aggressively stitched together celebrations of the best the history of cinema has to offer, it can start to feel like whichever Hitchcock films were the flashiest should be automatically held up as the peak of his craft. I’m probably susceptible to this trend, forgiving, say, the strained, borderline laughable closing scene of Psycho that explains Norman’s actions through a grandiose psychiatric diagnosis in part because the spectacular shower scene is embedded in my brain. And yet, when forced to name the Hitchcock film that I consider his pinnacle (acknowledging the only person forcing me is me, as these decade lists are a self-delivered assignment), I always defer to one of his leaner features: Strangers on Train.

Starting with the novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith, maybe the most formidable writer Hitchcock ever looked to for source material, the filmmaker and his collaborators (including, briefly, Raymond Chandler as a screenwriter) burrowed into the story’s edgy complexities, creating a intricate exploration of the way shadows can infiltrate the most comfortable of lives. It begins with a chance encounter, tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and wealthy layabout Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) meet while riding the rails to their respective homes. Some idle conversation about the interpersonal challenges in their lives inspires Bruno to share his idea about committing the perfect murder, a trading of desired victims among individuals with no known connection to one another, eliminating any evident motive. Bruno takes Guy’s polite acquiescence to the twisted theory as an official go ahead to villainously seek out the person causing the tennis player grief, his cheating wife, Miriam (Laura Elliott). The film settles into one of Hitchcock’s favorite grooves, that of an ordinary fellow desperately outmatched by the troubling circumstances he’s stumbled into.

There are a couple trick shot moments — notably, the grimmest sequence viewed largely through the reflection in a pair of eyeglasses — but Strangers on a Train mostly finds Hitchcock deploying a narrative with clockwork certainty. The Master of Suspense is preoccupied with that very quality, bringing the story along with a keen attention to every little detail and every tiny turn that will enhance the noose-tightening tension of the film. This is also one of the director’s craftier outings in terms of the performances. He plays to Granger’s limitations as an actor, heightening the stolidness of Guy. On the other side of the criss-cross, Walker develops an intense level of menace in his character more through insidious camaraderie and ease. He’s no maniac. He’s simply someone whose established comfort in getting what he wants has infiltrated the darker parts of his soul, like murky tide rushing up the beach. Hitchcock is uniquely attuned to the balance that’s needed in the film, achieving a sense of mounting trouble while also keeping it firmly grounded in the interplay between individuals, tangled somewhat in misunderstanding, but mostly engaged in a mutual triggering of base desires, some of them viciously brutal. Few other films, by Hitchcock or anyone else, get at the lurking malevolence of the human psyche.

Great Moments in Literature

“I stopped listening to tapes at some point: it was a phase. You either get used to noises in your head, or you learn to focus instead on whatever other noises happen to present in the room, like the air conditioner. Still, I kept them, and they’re arranged neatly on the top of the dresser in my bedroom, which means Vicky dusts them once a week. They look like museum pieces now. Chaos Blood, Black Lake, Rexecutioner’s Dream. Sean at sixteen thought Rexecutioner’s Dream was the greatest thing he’d ever heard, something so strange and different it seemed like a message from another realm. It had cover art, but the art was glued onto the inner sleeve of a standard-issue blank cassette; the spine was hand lettered. It was the product of someone’s hard work, a vision brought into the world of real things. A dream disguised in a crude, plain package.”

— John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van, 2014

“AND THE TERROR OF THE NIGHT BEFORE — ALL ITS SIGHTS AND SOUNDS — ARE REVEALED TO HIM. THE FLAMES’ HELLISH ROAR… THE PANICKY, DESPERATE CRIES OF THE ENTRAPPED DR. NOBLE. AND OTHER SOUNDS, OTHER SHAPES…! THE FIGURE OF A YOUNG GIRL, STANDING UNHARMED AT THE HEART OF THE INFERNO… SHRIEKING… MAD, DEMONIC LAUGHTER! HER FACE… HE MUST SEE HER FACE! HE SHARPENS HIS CONCENTRATION. HIS MIND’S EYE MOVES IN…CLOSER…AND INVOLUNTARILY HIS FACIAL MUSCLES GO TAUT. HIS EXPRESSION TURNS TO ONE OF ARRANT HORROR.”

— Steve Gerber, MARVEL SPOTLIGHT, Vol. 1, No. 18, “Madhouse!” 1974

It’s so hard to contemplate you ‘cos you’re so full of interstellar soul

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I appreciate that Christopher Nolan has taken the clout he earned from making Warner Bros. a couple bajillion dollars with his trilogy of Batman films and put it towards crazily ambitious, reality-warping films. In this cinematic age, when no studio is prepared to invest much more than the change found beneath the cushions of the casting couch in any project that doesn’t hold the possibility of sequels and spinoffs all doubling back into amalgamated, ready-made blockbusters, it’s almost inconceivable that a film like Inception gets made without a director like Nolan cashing in his collateral. It’s not the massive amounts of money obviously stuffed into every frame that impress. It’s the abundance of ideas. Interstellar often feels like Nolan extracted every thought about the flexibility of time and space from the brains of a houseful of perma-stoned metaphysical philosophy majors, swirled them together, and then tried to build a narrative around the resulting corkscrew of grand supposition. The ambition is nice, but it unfortunately doesn’t guarantee a satisfying film.

For about the first half-hour or so of the film’s nearly three-hour running time, Interstellar has a pleasant Spielbergian vibe. Nolan establishes a near-future hobbled by a crumbling social infrastructure. The various technological forms of communication are largely absent, and there’s a lot of discussion that alludes to the wide-ranging repercussions of a worsening climate. In a unique touch, the slow, decisive collapse of a comfortable, established way of life hasn’t led to some awful dystopia. In a way that feels very right, people have solemnly adapted and kept moving on. Nolan mostly portrays this through the daily existence of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), and engineer and pilot turned farmer. That existence is turned upside down when his young daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy, initially), decides that the books knocked off her bedroom shelf are communicating something to her. With her initially skeptical father’s help, it’s determined that coordinates are being conveyed, and the adventure is off and running. This is all presented with the sort of genial innocence that used to be the defining characteristic of Spielberg’s work. There’s no dilemma, no matter how fantastical, that can’t be met with a little familial (or at least familial-style) problem solving.

As Nolan’s canvas gets bigger, the film gets weaker. Cooper is asked to pilot a secret mission for an equally clandestine iteration of NASA, plunging into a wormhole to rendezvous with potential planets that were explored by astronauts previously hurled into the void. This is where the script by Nolan (written, as usual, with his brother Jonathan) begins piling on both wild concepts and turns meant to explore the psychological ramifications of such a desperate undertaking. It’s on the latter account that Interstellar really falters, largely because it doesn’t have the time to develop the characters properly. Dire situations and surprise turns have marginal emotional impact. I couldn’t shake the notion that Nolan’s story would have been better served by spreading it across a high-end cable television series, something HBO might use to anchor the schedule in the part of the calendar that could use a Comic-Con-friendly companion to Game of Thrones. That would give ample time to work the scenarios, to find the characters, the build more slowly to the most jarring moments. Appropriate for a film that plays around with the relativity of time, stretching the story out would paradoxically give it more urgency.

I suspect that more of a slow play would also give the whole thing more credibility. While enough of the science roughly checks out (at least to my highly rudimentary understanding), the actors are uniformly unconvincing when charged with delivering key information. Even Jessica Chastain, who managed to play a brilliant CIA agent with fierce authority, is felled by the dumbed-down jargon and expository leaps of hypothesis faith. There’s so much in Interstellar that impresses, especially visually (the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is gorgeous, pristine, and quietly inventive), but the most splendid dressing can’t undercover fundamental problems at a film’s core. Nolan clearly has a lot to say. As anyone would discover, trying to say it all at once leads to a giant muddle.