Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Reflections on ... Sentimental Eartha (1970)

A few days ago, I scored the obscure oddity Sentimental Eartha (1970), widely regarded as sultry atomic-era chanteuse Eartha Kitt’s strangest album. In her case that’s really saying something: Eartha Kitt (1927 - 2008) was a strange woman who made strange records. The CD version released on an independent label in the nineties is long out of print and now ultra-pricey. On Amazon it routinely goes for between £75 - £400.  Miraculously, I nabbed a used copy for only about £3 from Germany!

By 1970 Kitt was still in-demand on the glitzy cabaret circuit but the hits had well and truly dried up. Sentimental Eartha showcases the slinky feline temptress’conscious effort to update and reinvent her image and sound “with it” by embracing modern rock trends. Many of the other post-war pop and jazz divas of Kitt’s vintage were also experimenting with a more contemporary “groovy” direction. Around this time, Peggy Lee re-interpreted songs by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Sly & The Family Stone. On Julie London’s unintended camp classic Yummy, Yummy, Yummy (1969) she applied her breathless sex kitten coo to “Louie Louie” and “Light My Fire” by The Doors as if they were Cole Porter standards. A few years later saw Miracles (1972), on which Peruvian high priestess of exotica Yma Sumac explored trippy fuzzed-out acid rock.

Sentimental Eartha bombed upon release and is pretty much forgotten today. It deserved a kinder fate. As her biographer John L Williams would later assert, “The innocuous title gives little indication that this would turn out to be far and away Eartha’s most experimental album and one of her best.”

Sentimental Eartha’s cover features Kitt lounging in a woodland setting amidst autumn leaves clad in an animal-print maxi-dress, floppy black hat and the long straight wiglet familiar from her stint as Catwoman on TV's Batman. On the psychedelia-tinged music within, Kitt gamely tries on the unfamiliar roles of hippie maiden, soul sister and earth mother by tackling Herman’s Hermits “My Sentimental Friend” and three songs by singer-songwriter Donovan: “Wear Your Love Like Heaven”, “Catch the Wind” and best of all, “Hurdy-Gurdy Man”, on which Kitt cackles like a witch and suggests a sorceress casting a spell.

On some of the more delicate songs Kitt seems to deliberately and audibly mute some of her signature purring mannerisms. On others (like the ultra-dramatic opener “It Is Love”), she roars in full feline attack. And when “The Way You Are” ends with campy ad-libbed comedy Spanglish, it could only be Miss Eartha Kitt.

In his 2013 biography America’s Mistress: The Life and Times of Eartha Kitt, John L Williams interviewed the producer of Sentimental Eartha, Denny Diante.  (The album was recorded in Los Angeles for a British label). The producer recalled Kitt as enthusiastic: “She was thrilled to death; she couldn’t thank me enough for pushing the more contemporary stuff. She was very contemporary herself, very progressive in her thinking.”

Kitt promoted her new material with a German TV special. It was obviously produced on a shoestring budget. Check out that frugal set (decorated with office furniture? Hotel lobby furniture? What’s the deal with the coat stand? And why during “Sentimental Friend” does it repeatedly cut away to photos of spaghetti western actor Franco Nero?). But durable pro Eartha belts out the songs with style, sex appeal and conviction. And while the band may look square in their tuxedos, they’re tight, dramatic and swing hard. 

Thankfully there are plentiful clips from Kitt's 1970 TV special on YouTube. I've tried to assemble them all here:

/ Above: "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and "Catch the Wind" /

/ Above: "It Is Love", "My Sentimental Friend" and "The Way You Are". The dramatic spoken intros are something else! Kitt also seems to be doing some intense Method Acting with her performances. Check out her smouldering eye contact during "The Way You Are" and the way she moodily smokes and sips champagne  /

/ Above: "Genesis". Eartha at full-throttle tigress assault mode. Like Nina Simone, the volatile Kitt was the mistress of abrupt mood swings /

/ "Once We Loved": fierce! /

/ "Wear Your Love Like Heaven": Eartha Goes Psychedelic, Baby  /

/ "I remember what you said about me. You said I was a very beautiful brown Helen of Troy ..." An epic performance of that world-weary anthem "When the World Was Young" - which also featured in the Marlene Dietrich songbook /

/ One of the few nods to the old days: "C'est Si Bon", one of Kitt's first and biggest hits in the fifties /

As Williams argues, the TV special’s high-point is Kitt’s impassioned performance of the ballad “Paint Me Black Angels” (a Mexican song she’d already recorded in the fifties as “Angelitos Negros” with its original Spanish lyrics). Kitt delivers it in extreme close-up with a stark simplicity and a few tears rolling down her face. What a mesmerising presence she was!

Nonetheless, Sentimental Eartha bombed in the UK and was never even released in the US.  Kitt never pursued modern rock music again. It was a doomed but noble effort. As with Peggy Lee and Julie London, Kitt’s experimentations baffled her existing mature fans and failed to engage with a new younger audience.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Reflections on ... Sid and Nancy (1986)

/ Top: Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb as Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen. Bottom: the genuine articles. Just to confuse things, I'll be alternating photos of Oldman and Webb and the real Sid and Nancy throughout this post! / 

From the Facebook events page:

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar in Dalston devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specialising in the kitsch, the cult and the queer!

Considering February is the month of Valentine’s, we’ll be embracing a romantic theme with … Sid and Nancy (1986)! Hey! It’s a love story! (Well, director Alex Cox himself describes the film as “a horrific love story”. Its original title was going to be Love Kills). It outlines the doomed tragicomic “amour fou” between punk’s Romeo and Juliet: Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and his heroin-addicted groupie girlfriend Nancy Spungen … and let’s just say it all ends messily.

So – why not throw on a black leather jacket, stick a safety pin through your nostril and join us on 22 February for a quiet night with Sid and Nancy?

Added incentive: in honour of Valentine’s Day, Fontaine’s is being sponsored all month by the fancy French raspberry liqueur Chambord! So there will be special offer cocktails on the night – and they will be pink!

Doors to the basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt. Grab a cocktail and come down early! I'll be playing punk music and vintage erotica on the big screen before the main feature.

/ "I'll never look like Barbie. Barbie doesn't have bruises." Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen /

Happily, we had another full house downstairs in the Bamboo Lounge of Fontaine’s on 22 February for my presentation of Alex Cox’s confrontational 1986 biopic covering the whirlwind, drug-fuelled and ultimately homicidal 19-month love affair between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (10 May 1957 - 2 February 1979) and downtrodden groupie Nancy Spungen (27 February 1958 - 12 October 1978). It was great to see so many new faces. And the screening was appropriately rowdy and boozy! Well, until the film’s despairing closing scenes – when everyone was so rapt and hushed you could hear a pin drop.

Sid and Nancy was a key film for me as a teenager (I taped it from cable TV onto VHS and watched it so many times I could probably recite screeds of dialogue from memory!).  Until Wednesday night, it had been a good twenty years since I last re-visited it. How great to see it’s as powerful, scabrous and disturbing as I remembered! Thirty-one years later, Sid and Nancy still packs a nasty punch. The film is like staring into a raw open wound.

/ The real Sid and Nancy (I love Sid's engineer boots) /

The early scenes set in London – covering the rise of the Sex Pistols and Sid and Nancy’s burgeoning romance – are brash, rowdy in-your-face bad taste black comedy. Once the Sex Pistols acrimoniously implode and an increasingly heroin-addicted Sid and Nancy find themselves adrift in New York (especially once they check into their squalid room at The Chelsea Hotel), the tone turns progressively, almost unbearably bleak and claustrophobic. (Bizarrely, one of the most common criticisms levelled at Sid and Nancy upon its release was that it irresponsibly glamorised heroin use. Which raises the question: what film did they watch? It depicts addiction as a nightmare!).

I love maverick director Alex Cox's weird flourishes of romantic, art-y magic realism or poetic realism or whatever you want to call it. I think that aspect confused people at the time who expected something more straightforward. For a brief period, he was a genuinely distinctive and vivid original voice in British cinema. Sadly, like leading lady Chloe Webb, in recent years Cox seems to have entirely vanished off the radar.

Not that Cox doesn’t make some jarring false notes, and Sex Pistols fans could certainly pick holes with the accuracy of certain segments. We catch a glimpse of a band meant to be X-Ray Spex belting out “Oh Bondage Up Yours” and they look wrong, wrong, WRONG. What a disservice to Poly Styrene! The fictional glam rock star Rock Head who crops up in a few scenes (who is he meant to be? Iggy Pop? Johnny Thunders?) feels terribly ersatz and unconvincing. 

To be fair, though, Sid and Nancy was never meant to be a documentary: it’s Cox’s idiosyncratic interpretation of their story, with artistic license. When it was released in ’86, Vicious had only been dead for seven years and his story was still fresh in peoples’ minds. More than thirty years later, we can watch Cox’s film more objectively and appreciate it on its own merits.

/ Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb as Sid and Nancy /

On a purely superficial level, for aficionados of punk fashion, Sid and Nancy offers a bonanza. Sure, Sid and Nancy were stoned, destructive and barely-functioning hot messes, but boy did they have outlaw style. Their wardrobes encompass studded leather bondage belts and wristbands, black leather biker jackets, the unravelling mohair sweaters synonymous with Vivienne Westwood and McLaren’s SEX shop, green nail polish, tartan, laddered fishnet tights and painted-on skinny black Levis. (Special mention must go to Nancy’s sensational gold leather micro-mini skirt. In real life Nancy Spungen seemed to sport a distinctive “gun” necklace in every photo ever taken of her; it’s weird Cox didn’t get Webb to wear a replica). I love the padlocked chain around Sid’s neck (a gift from Nancy. When Nancy lovingly puts it around his neck and clicks the lock shut, Sid says, “Cool! Where’s the key?” Nancy replies, “What key?”). 

Sid’s best accessory, though, is his starved-to-perfection skeletal body straight out of an Egon Schiele painting or Giacometti sculpture. (In later scenes Oldman pretty much entirely abandons wearing shirts. To achieve Sid’s emaciated physique, Oldman reportedly undertook such a drastic diet he was diagnosed with malnutrition at one point).

/ The real Sid and Nancy /

All these years later, the performances of Oldman and Webb still astonish. Both are hilarious in perhaps my favourite scene when Nancy takes Sid home to meet her horrified suburban family. Black tragicomedy at its finest! This was one of the early roles that launched Oldman as one of the best and most versatile Brit actors of his generation. Poor Web was every bit as exemplary as Oldman, but she never seemed to catch another good break after this and seemingly disappeared into obscurity. Read any book about punk history and Nancy Spungen is perhaps the most reviled figure of the whole era. She was profoundly troubled: diagnosed with schizophrenia at 15, expelled from multiple schools.  At 17 she’d run away to New York, supporting herself via stripping and prostitution and embraced groupie-dom (she was already "affiliated" with bands like the New York Dolls, Aerosmith, The Ramones and the Voidoids by the time she met Sid). Webb portrays the damaged Spungen with humanity and compassion. For me, Webb’s two finest moments are her junkie freak-out shouting at her mother in a phone booth ("he loves me more than you do!") and then later Nancy’s rambling, croaky monologue about a dream she’d had, delivered to an unconscious Sid next to her bed. She rasps something about “we had a little dog and we loved it … but it died and we didn’t know where to bury it … so we ate it.” It sums up their toxic love and it’s like an eerie premonition about what lies in store.  

/ Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb as Sid and Nancy/

Anyway, to introduce the screening I quickly Googled and compiled some “fun facts” about Sid and Nancy. Here are a few!

Daniel Day Lewis was short-listed for role of Sid before Oldman got it.

A young unknown Courtney Love unsuccessfully auditioned for the role of Nancy. As consolation Cox gave her a supporting role. It’s fascinating to see Love’s almost unrecognisable original pre-plastic surgery face.

Sid and Nancy was originally intended to be filmed in black and white but the financiers vetoed that idea. I think it would have felt even harsher in grainy black and white!

Cox’s original choice for the title was Love Kills right up until the time of release - when he was advised someone else owned the legal rights to that name and would sue. Calling it Sid and Nancy was a last minute compromise, but I think it works: it’s terse and it evokes Bonnie and Clyde. When it was released on video in Mexico, the Spanish title translated as Two Lives Destroyed By Drugs. My own alternative title would be Baked Beans and Champagne: The Sid and Nancy Story.

/ Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb as Sid and Nancy /

Further reading:

Read more about the Lobotomy Room film club here

Loverboy magazine ventures into the wild, wild world of Lobotomy Room 

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"Like" and "Follow" my Facebook page for all of your Lobotomy Room needs!

Monday, 13 February 2017

Joey Arias at Brasserie Zédel 12 February 2017

Any time Joey Arias – veteran performance art / cabaret legend, toast of Mondo New York and all-round fabulous creature – breezes into London, attendance is freaking obligatory! So, a big gang of us assembled to see his gig last night (Arias is doing a residency at Brasserie Zédel inSoho 11-14 February 2017).

Arias’ speciality is his evocation of doomed jazz diva Billie Holiday in all her earthy, ravaged foul-mouthed hedonistic glory. This isn’t a conventional “tribute act”, though – Arias is freakier, raunchier and far more original than that. And the Art Deco opulence of Brasserie Zédel provided the perfect backdrop, creating a sense of mid-century café society.

Arias himself was a compelling spectacle in fetish-y black Frederick's of Hollywood-style lingerie and full Vampira make-up. His voice is a soulful smoky, scratchy rasp alternately lewd and awash with heartbreak (my friend Louise admitted afterwards she cried several times during Arias’ set). As well as samplings from the Billie Holiday songbook ("You’ve Changed", "God Bless the Child"), Arias also answered the musical question: what would unlikely other songs by the likes of Cream or Bob Dylan sound like given the Holiday torch song treatment (with added Yma Sumac-like bird noises and punctuated by deep stripper squats)? The answer – hilarious, dramatic and exquisite!

Between songs, Arias gave a swear-y but elegant masterclass in audience participation, shuttling between seduction and aggression just because it amused him. Mingling through the crowd, flirting outrageously, he stopped and asked a woman’s name. “Ann-Marie? That’s a whore’s name.” He implored two (platonic) female friends at another table to kiss on the lips. When they hesitated, Arias snapped, “I’m not saying eat her pussy! Just kiss her on the lips! It’s love!” More pointedly, he turned his full laser beams on a rude heterosexual couple who arrived late then proceed to check their mobile phones and talk amongst themselves. “Sarah! Look at me!” Joey hissed. “Focus!” (Who were those two and what were they doing there?)

For the night’s emotional high-point, Arias demanded all the venue’s lights be extinguished (even the neon sign behind the bar) so that he was illuminated by just a single blue spotlight. Then he crooned an eerie, spine-tingling “I Cover the Waterfront”, transforming the jazz standard into an anguished prostitute’s lament. Devastating!

/ Afterwards we ambushed Arias in the lobby for an impromptu red-hot camera session! L-R: (back row) Chris and Pal. Front: Louise, Joey Arias, Nell and me /

/ Above: (Back) Chris, Joey, Nell and Pal. (Front) Louise and Alex /

Further reading:

See the full set of photos from Joey Arias at Brasserie Zédel here

See my photos of Joey Arias performing at London's Institute of Contemporary Art in 2014 here

Read my account of seeing Arias perform in 2013 here

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Cockabilly at The Glory DJ Set List 4 February 2017

As I posted on Facebook on Saturday 4 February:

I know it’s ultra-short notice, but … calling all leather boys, gay greasers, cry-babies, prison wives and juvenile delinquents of all ages! We’re having a mini Cockabilly reunion TONIGHT at the fabulous Glory! Saturday 4 February! Mal Nicholson is DJ’ing upstairs and I will be joining him for a guest slot!   Expect all your favourite rancid vintage sleaze classicks! Think rockabilly, rhythm and blues, surf, punk and tittyshakers! Daring and virile! Chains, whips, knives and leather belts all swished around together in bone-jarring rock and roll! Way-out sex and sin for those who like it that way! Why not drag a comb through your quiff, swallow a fistful of bop pills and rock around the cock? Tonight!

The Glory 281 Kingsland Road E2 8AS
10 – 2 (Free before 10 pm!) 

/ Classic beefcake model Cherokee (aka Everett Lee Jackson) photographed by Kris Studio circa 1955 /

I’d love to announce “Cockabilly is back!” In fact London’s only regular queer rockabilly club night (freaking out the squares since 2008!) is still on hiatus ever since we got unceremoniously turfed from our last venue (which shall remain nameless!). But for now at least, Saturday 4 February was a bit of a one-off Cockabilly reunion when Mal and I guest DJ’d at Haggerston’s epicentre of happiness and gay bohemia The Glory! 

It’s virtually impossible to not have a blast at The Glory (their generosity with the drinks tickets certainly helps) and I grab every opportunity to DJ there that I can. (In an ideal world, Cockabilly would re-launch in 2017 with The Glory as its new permanent base – hint, hint!).

/ Mal and I sweating to the oldies /

Anyway, I did a guest spot of about 90-minutes. Here’s what I was laying down: 

Rip it Up - Little Richard
Let's Have a Party - Wanda Jackson
Three Cool Cats - The 5,6,7,8s
I Wanna Be Sedated - The Ramonetures
Somethin' Else - Sid Vicious
Be Bop A Lula - Alan Vega
Viva Las Vegas - Nina Hagen
Margaya - The Fender Four
Atomic Bongos - Lydia Lunch
Bombora - The Original Surf-aris
Hanky Panky - Rita Chao and The Quests
Gostaria de Saber (River Deep Mountain High) - Wanderlea
Party Lights - Claudine Clark
He's the One - Ike and Tina Turner
Year 1 - X
Lucille - Masaaki Hirao
Rock Around the Clock - The Sex Pistols
Whistle Bait - Larry Collins
Jim Dandy - Sara Lee and The Spades
Boss - The Rumblers
The Swag - Link Wray
Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad - Tammy Wynette
Ultra Twist - The Cramps
I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield - The 5,6,7,8s
That Makes It - Jayne Mansfield
Beat Party - Ritchie and The Squires
Aphrodisiac - Bow Wow Wow
Let's Go, Baby - Billy Eldridge
Bossa Nova Baby - Elvis Presley
Jim Dandy - Ann-Margret
Roll with Me Henry - Etta James
Ring of Fire - The Earls of Suave
Road Runner - The Fabulous Wailers
Cry-baby - The Honey Sisters
How Much Love Can One Heart Hold? Joe Perkins and The Rookies
Under My Thumb - Tina Turner
Twistin' the Night Away - Divine
These Boots Are Made for Walkin' - Mrs Mills
My Way - Nina Hagen

Updated news for all your Lobotomy Room-related needs: there are two upcoming opportunities to get down and dirty later this month at Dalston sin bin Fontaine’s! Jump on them!

Wednesday 22 February is this month’s film club. Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is, of course, the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specializing in the kitsch, the cult and the queer! (The January presentation of Russ Meyer's magnum opus Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was triumphant!).

Considering February is the month of Valentine’s, we’ll be embracing a romantic theme with … Sid and Nancy (1986)! Hey! It’s a love story! (Well, director Alex Cox himself describes the film as “a horrific love story”. Its original title was going to be Love Kills). It outlines the doomed tragicomic “amour fou” between punk’s Romeo and Juliet: Sex Pistols’ bassist Sid Vicious and his heroin-addicted groupie girlfriend Nancy Spungen … and let’s just say it all ends messily.

So – why not throw on a black leather jacket, stick a safety pin through your nostril and join us on 22 February for a quiet night with Sid and Nancy?

Added incentive: in honour of Valentine’s Day, Fontaine’s is being sponsored all month by the fancy French raspberry liqueur Chambord! So there will be special offer cocktails on the night – and they will be pink! Full details on the Facebook events page. Read more about my sin-sational monthly film club here. 

Friday 24 February 2017

“It’s just what you need when you’re down in the dumps / One half hillbilly and one half punk …”

It’s back! The first Lobotomy Room of 2017!

Revel in sleaze, voodoo and rock’n’roll - when incredibly strange dance party Lobotomy Room returns to the Polynesian-style basement Bamboo Lounge of Dalston’s premiere Art Deco vice den Fontaine’s! Friday 24 February!

Lobotomy Room! Where sin lives! A punkabilly booze party! Sensual and depraved! A spectacle of decadence! Bad Music for Bad People! A Mondo Trasho evening of Beat, Beat Beatsville Beatnik Rock’n’Roll! Rockabilly Psychosis! Wailing Rhythm and Blues! Twisted Tittyshakers! Punk! White Trash Rockers! Kitsch! Exotica! Curiosities and other Weird Shit! Think John Waters soundtracks, or Songs the Cramps Taught Us, hosted by Graham Russell (of Dr Sketchy and Cockabilly notoriety). Expect desperate stabs from the jukebox jungle! Savage rhythms to make you writhe and rock! Now with vintage erotica projected on the big screen all night for your adult viewing pleasure! Come for the special offer cocktails - stay for the putrid music and dirty movies!

Admission: gratuit - that’s French for FREE!

Lobotomy Room: Faster. Further. Filthier.

It’s sleazy. It’s grubby. It’s trashy - you’ll love it!

A tawdry good time guaranteed!

/ As ever, if you've read this far you get rewarded! /

Further reading:

Read about all the previous antics at Lobotomy Rooms to date hereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere , hereherehere, hereherehere, herehere, here and here!

Follow me on tumblr for all your kitsch, camp, retro vintage sleaze and fifties homoerotica needs!

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"Like" and follow the official Lobotomy Room page on Facebook if you dare!

Monday, 30 January 2017

Reflections on ... What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015)

Around Christmas time I finally watched the powerful 2015 Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? Consider yourselves warned: the film is wrenchingly sad. It could just have easily been titled The Torture of Nina Simone or The Anguish of Nina Simone. The inside of Nina Simone's head was  seemingly a harrowing place to be. But it’s compulsory viewing even for people with only a passing interest in Simone’s earthy but elegant musical oeuvre. It follows the former Eunice Waymon (a child musical prodigy born in 1933 in North Carolina) on her difficult transformation into the lacerating and angrily politicised High Priestess of Soul. There are plentiful hypnotic clips of the regal diva in performance, highlighting her serpentine piano playing and lacerating bittersweet voice (Simone herself explains “sometimes my voice sounds like gravel, sometimes it sounds like coffee with cream.”).

But it also explores the personal torment audible in Simone’s agonised singing. The genuine seething rage in Simone’s music makes for exciting art for us listeners but wasn’t so edifying for Nina Simone herself or the people close to her. She had a lifelong reputation for being volatile and temperamental. Only after her death was it revealed Simone lived with undiagnosed mental illness for much of her life (she didn’t start getting treatment for bipolar disorder until the eighties). She also suffered domestic violence in her tempestuous marriage with her manager-husband, a tough ex-vice cop. The documentary frequently incorporates revealing passages from Simone’s own journals, where she confides in her depression, loneliness and violent fantasies.

Her later life was blighted by financial difficulties, record label woes, legal problems (Simone wasn’t exactly thorough with her taxes), heavy drinking and the racism she routinely encountered in the country she called “The United Snakes of America.” The documentary puts Simone’s whiplash mood swings at her infamous performance at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival into context. It includes the scary moment when Simone abruptly stops playing when someone in the audience dares to get up from her seat mid-song. “You! Girl!” she hisses. “Sit down …” I wonder how long that woman required trauma counselling for? 

/ You can watch Simone's entire Montreaux performance here /

There is unlikely to be a more definitive documentary on Simone than this: all of her closest intimates come forward to give warts-and-all accounts, including her ex-husband and the musicians who toured with the imperious chanteuse for decades. Most remarkable is Simone’s daughter Lisa, who frankly discusses her prickly relationship with her frequently abusive mother without a trace of bitterness. 

On a more superficial level, What Happened Miss Simone? demonstrates how ineffably stylish Simone was over the decades. Early on she favoured cocktail gowns and sleek wigs. Later she increasingly embraced African headwraps, Cleopatra eyeliner, crocheted halter top-and-bell-bottoms combinations and Black is Beautiful natural Afro hair. The epitome of radical chic!

Simone found her true purpose giving expression to the civil rights movement in the sixties. The footage of her as an avenging fury singing for all-black audiences will make you want to give the Black Power salute to the TV. Nina Simone died in 2003 aged 70. You can’t help but wonder what she would have made of Black Lives Matter and the rise of Donald Trump.

/ "I'm gonna kill the first mutha I see ..." My all-time favourite Nina Simone track: the simmering-with-rage "Four Women" / 

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Reflections on ... Grace Jones' Warm Leatherette (1980)

It started with a photo.  Entitled Samurai Sissy, the stark black and white 1979 portrait by French artist and conceptualist Jean-Paul Goude depicted steel-cheekboned Amazonian black supermodel turned actress and disco chanteuse Grace Jones wrapped in a dramatic padded-shouldered Issey Miyake creation. At the time Goude and Jones were both artistic and romantic collaborators (he’s the father of Jones’ only child, Paulo born in 1979. In fact Jones is pregnant with Paulo in Samurai Sissy).  Sinister but sexy, the image is so powerful, androgynous and alluring it suggested a world of possibilities: Jones as a panther in human form. Black Marlene Dietrich.  Female Bowie.  Space-age Nefertiti.  Dominatrix from outer space. In her 2015 autobiography I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, Jones herself describes it as “me as an ominous hard-eyed samurai filtered through something occult and African, the killer clown interrupting some mysterious ceremony.”  Chris Blackwell, head honcho of Island Records, had the photo enlarged and stuck to the wall of his deluxe Compass Point recording studio in the Bahamas, instructing his crack team of musicians, “Make a record that sounds like that looks.”

The resulting album – Warm Leatherette (1980), a masterpiece of style and substance – succeeded. And now – over thirty five years later – Warm Leatherette is being reissued in a sumptuous digitally re-mastered two CD box set encased in sleek black leatherette packaging, with rare re-mixes, extended liner notes and lavish photos.

Call it death disco, Afro-punk or simply black alternative music, Warm Leatherette probably invented it.  Menacing but sensual, over three decades later the album still sounds futuristic and bleeding-edge.  Considering Jones herself was Jamaica-born, the album was recorded in Nassau and most of the backing musicians were Jamaican it’s no surprise the sound of Warm Leatherette is primarily rooted in reggae. But this isn’t straight reggae in any sense: spiked with New Wave rock, Warm Leatherette suggests eerie art-damaged cobwebbed reggae reverberating out of a haunted house.

But ultimately the identity of Warm Leatherette is dictated by Jones’ own haughty, scolding dominatrix voice.  The album represented a dramatic reinvention for Jones both sonically and visually, jettisoning the disco frivolity of her earlier recordings for something infinitely scarier, artier and punkier.  From Warm Leatherette onwards, Jones would have more in common with, say, Klaus Nomi, Nina Hagen or post-Broken English Marianne Faithfull than Donna Summer or Sister Sledge.  (Not to malign Jones’ three disco records, which are campy as hell and deeply enjoyable; listening to them you can almost smell the amyl nitrate). On Warm Leatherette Jones emerges as a woman of mystery from everywhere and nowhere, a world-weary escapee from the most decadent nightclubs and catwalks of Paris, Berlin and London.  Jones took the template established by Josephine Baker and Eartha Kitt (black female singers as exotic Continental sophisticates mostly divorced from blues, jazz and soul traditions) and updated the persona for the post-disco and post-punk generation.

On later albums Jones would write her own lyrics. Here she (mostly) radically reinterprets New Wave hits by others in her own inimitable style. The title track sees The Normals’ stark electro-punk minimalism transformed into lacerating blaxploitation funk. Jones amps up the sexual tension in Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug.” Just try not to get goose bumps when Jones contemptuously snarls, “Your sex life complications / are not my fascinations” to a would-be suitor on The Pretenders’ ghostly “Private Life”. Jones’ take on Smokey Robinson’s 1966 hit “The Hunter Gets Captured by The Prey” – one of Warm Leatherette’s poppier and more charming moments – uses the sound of electronic birds chirping to convey an urban jungle realm. French chanson “Pars” confirms Jones is at her most seductive crooning en francais (think of her initial 1977 breakthrough hit “La vie en rose” or the accordion-laced “I’ve Seen That Face Before”).  Best of all is Jones’ deranged rampage through Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” (re-titled “I’ve Lost Control”), a nervous breakdown set to music.

Needless to say all of this was catnip for a queer audience. Warm Leatherette turned a lot of people gay (or at least confirmed it). It certainly consolidated Jones’ status as a perennial gay favourite. In fact from Jones’ first album onwards she was deliberately marketed towards a hip gay urban audience on the (correct) assumption they would get her – an artist too barbed and strange for mass appeal. Jones is our kinky freak diva and an honorary gay (her reputation as a joyous and unapologetic bisexual probably helps).  She continues to influence queer artists likes Zebra Katz, Peaches and Christeene.

Warm Leatherette would be followed by Nightclubbing (the one with “Pull Up to The Bumper”) and Living My Life (the one with “My Jamaican Guy”). Jones closed the eighties with two frankly terrible albums (Inside Story and Bulletproof Heart – avoid at all costs) and then – except for the occasional film appearance - vanished from the pop radar for almost twenty years until her majestic 2008 comeback Hurricane. Jones reportedly has an album of new material due out later this year.  Warm Leatherette, though, represents the origins of Grace Jones’ mystique.

(Warm Leatherette boxed set was reissued by Island / UMG on 17 June 2016)

/ Grace on Chilean TV in 1980. This TV show is fascinating for several reasons. Musically it captures Jones in mid-transition: in an odd set, she performs a combination of her new edgy post-punk tracks from Warm Leatherette (“The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” and “Bullshit”) with her earlier disco material (“La vien en rose”, “Fame” and a spectacularly dramatic “Autumn Leaves” as the grand finale). On opening number “Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” Jones sings live, prowling and stalking like a tigress. It will gradually dawn on you as the programme progresses that – even though she is wielding a microphone - she is lip-syncing the rest of the time. For all we know, this was standard procedure on Chilean television at the time (certainly all musicians lip-synced on Britain’s Top of the Pops throughout the seventies and eighties). To be truthful, it hardly matters: even lip-syncing Jones makes for dramatic and riveting performance art. In fact, Jones is fragile and intense throughout (during her febrile mood swings she confesses to the host she has the flu). It’s also interesting to compare and contrast Jones with the people comprising the studio audience. They’re wearing earth toned casual lounge wear, flared trousers, have blow-dried feathered hair and facial hair (I mean the men, of course) and seem firmly rooted in the seventies. Jones – especially in the sensational dominatrix catsuit and headdress ensemble she rocks at the beginning – looks like a visitor blasted in from the future or another galaxy  /

/ Grace Jones performing "Private Life" on Top of the Pops in 1980. (The single scraped the UK Top 40). I love how minimalist this is, And I wonder what the teenage girls in the audience made of it? /

Further reading:

This review already appeared on Loverboy website in summer 2016. I'm posting it here for my archives in case it eventually gets deleted

The time I met Grace Jones in the flesh at a book signing in 2015!

I blogged my account of seeing Jones perform at the Royal Albert Hall in 2010 here.

Check out my photos of Jones performing at The Roundhouse in Camden in 2009 here. 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Canadian Freak Diva Peaches at Oval Space on 8 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Freaky Canadian raunch queen Peaches outrageous gig last year at The Electric Ballroom in London was one of my cultural highlights of 2015. So when the kinky ambisexual electro-punk diva returned to London (this time at the intimate Oval Space in East London) for a sold-out two-night engagement in November 2016, my ass was there! My boyfriend Pal and I went on the first night of her residency so we could be there for Peaches’ big opening (insert your own joke). 

How amazing to see Peaches in such a small venue: Pal, our friends and I were right up front, with Peaches and her two boy-girl backing dancers crotch-thrusting and gyrating right in our faces! It was a night of joyous, life-affirming sleaze, with Peaches performing her stark, grinding electronica (mostly drawn from her majestic 2015 comeback album Rub) in various stages of semi-nudity (loads of boobage and buttage was on display, both male and female. Peaches has always been an equal opportunities perv). Each song was a piece of wild performance art complete with multiple costume changes. Peaches was in fierce, belting voice throughout (in perfect tune even when crowd-surfing or cavorting in a giant inflatable penis suspended over the audience). At times, clad in her revealing leotard, the kinetic and impressively fit Peaches suggested a toilet-mouthed aerobics instructor gone berserk. (In September 2016 we’d all been to see swampy skank-goddess Christeene’s gutter revue at The Soho Theatre which revolved around similar minimalist overtly sexual / punk performance art aesthetic of skimpy costumes and slut-dropping backing dancers. We’re clearly living through a cultural age d’or at the moment!).

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Seeing Peaches in concert is comparable to seeing fierce dominatrix-from-outer-space Grace Jones: afterwards you can’t stop babbling, “Wasn’t she amazing?!” Peaches apparently turned 50 years old on this UK tour. Suffice to say, present-day Peaches is filthy, fabulous and 50. She is an artist at the top of her game – and makes me burst with Canadian pride. Who else is flipping over the hidebound stale, pale and male world of rock with such élan and joie de vivre? Now sing along with me: “At the dawn of the Summer I give birth to a bad girl / without a motherfuckin' epidural …”

The beautiful crisp photos are by Pal. The rubbish ones are mine (my camera couldn’t cope with Peaches’ smoke machine!). See the full set on my flickr page.

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

/ Above: Jemimah, Tara, Pal and I in the front row, bitches! /

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Peaches at Oval Space 9 November 2016

Further reading: both The Observer and The Guardian gave Peaches' 2016 UK tour concerts five star reviews!

/ Play this LOUD! /

/ Modern queer performance art royalty: Peaches and Christeene dueting /