Friday, 28 August 2015

She's A Little Lighthouse

In 1920 one of the most iconic masterpieces in cinema history, Robert Wiene's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, shook filmgoers worldwide. This expressionist, minimalist horror film introduced the world to Conrad Veidt, playing the terrifying Cesare a somnambulist that can seemingly predict the future, and his ‘keeper’, the awful Doctor Caligari… and changed the direction of movies forever.

Hans Walter Conrad Veidt was born in Tieckstrasse, Berlin in January 1893 (many biographies incorrectly state that he was born in Potsdam). he was a poor student, leaving school in 1912 without his diploma, yet within a year he was appearing on stage - in Shaw's The Doctor at the prestigious Deutsches Theatre. In 1914, at the beginning of World War I, he was conscripted into the German Army and sent to the Eastern Front as a non-commissioned officer, where he took part in the Battle of Warsaw. Contracting jaundice and pneumonia, Veidt was evacuated to a hospital; while recuperating, the army allowed him to join another thetaer troupe, this time entertaining the troops at the front.

Deemed unfit for service, he was given a full discharge in January 1917 and returned to Berlin to pursue his acting career. Although he rejoined the Deutsches Theatre he soon moved in to movies, attracted by the larger salaries paid to film actors. Signing first with Deutsch Bioscop, and later moving to the more famous Universum Film Ag (or Ufa), he would go on to appear in more than 100 films, including The Hands of Orlac (1924) and The Man Who Laughs (1928), based on Victor Hugo's novel in which the son of a lord is punished for his father's disrespect to the king by having his face carved into a permanent grin (providing the inspiration for The Joker. Veidt also appeared in the pioneering gay rights film Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others, 1919) which was a huge influence on the Dirk Bogarde film Victim.

He had a leading role in Germany's first talking picture, Das Land ohne Frauen (Land Without Women, 1929), but an early attempt to break Hollywood failed due to his thick, almost impenetrable accent. Then, in 1932 he starred in F.P 1 Does Not Answer, a bizarre science fiction epic about a future trans-Atlantic air service where planes land and refuel on a series of mid-ocean Floating Platforms. Like many talking pictures of the time, multi-lingual versions of F.P 1 were made (several Laurel and Hardy films were made in Spanish, French and German). The German version starred Hans Albers, the French version Charles Boyer and the British starred Veidt - all of whom were compelled to 'sing' a singularly inappropriate ballad about lost love in a lighthouse - When The Lighthouse Shines Across the Bay. 

Soon after the Nazi Party took power in Germany Joseph Goebbels purged the film industry of liberals and Jews, and copies of Anders als die Andern were destroyed (it only exists now in fragments). In 1933, a week after Veidt married Illona Prager, a Jew, the couple emigrated to Britain. He improved his English and starred in the title role of the original version of Jew Süss (1934). Fervently opposed the Nazi regime, he donated most of his personal fortune to Britain to assist in the war effort and became a British citizen in 1938. While in England he made three of his best-known films - The Spy in Black (1939), the Powell and Pressburger film Contraband and The Thief of Baghdad (both 1940).

In 1941, he and Ilona moved to Hollywood, principally to assist in the British effort in making  films that might help persuade the US to come to Britain's aid against the Nazis. Realising that Hollywood would most likely typecast him in Nazi roles, he had it written in to his contract that if he were to play Nazis then they must always be villains. He starred in a few films, most notably A Woman's Face (1941) with Joan Crawford and Casablanca (1942), but in 1943, at the age of fifty, he died of a massive heart attack while playing golf. 55 years later, in 1998, his ashes were interred at the Golders Green Crematorium in London.

But back to Conrad Veidt’s one stab at musical greatness... for it is his version of When The Lighthouse Shines Across the Bay, originally issued on a 10” 78 in the UK in 1933 (backed with The Airman's Song, not performed by Veidt) I present for you today.

Veidt's song seems to have been cut from the British release of the movie, but was put out on an HMV 78, and subsequently reissued – not once, but twice - in 1980 after it had been unearthed by disc jockey Terry Wogan. Veidt's sinister delivery of Donovan Parson's awkward lyrics is one of the most unsettling things I have ever heard.

Unfortunately I have been unable to track down a recording of The Airman’s Song, but here’s Conrad Veidt in all his glory, plus the two tracks that appeared on the two separate 7” reissues (both confusingly given the same catalogue number): I Liked His Little Black Moustache by Binnie Barnes, and Me And My Dog by Frances Day.


Friday, 21 August 2015

One More River

The youngest son of Grace and Robert Wauhob Sr., Ted Wauhob was taught how to play banjo by his father, a guitarist who also served as a minister at the World of Gospel Temple in Sioux City, Iowa.

There were a lot of Wauhobs: Grace and Robert had six sons and a daughter. Sadly their baby girl and one brother, Daniel, died in infancy. With the addition of Ted’s brother Thomas (on drums) and, occasional, their older brother Robert Jr. (who fancied himself as a vocalist), the Wauhobs began performing primitive, almost Shaggs-like gospel music at the World of Gospel Temple: it’s still there, on South Irene Street. 

Ted’s big dream was to make the Wauhob's music available to the world. So, in the early 1980s the group - Ted, Thomas, momma Grace (also a singer) and their father (nicknamed ‘Pop’) – started rehearsals in the basement recording studio of local music store Flood Music.

"At a time when everybody was playing big hair music, the Wauhobs were playing music that would have even been out of step 50 years before, yet alone in the 1980s," Tom Kingsbury, longtime owner of Flood Music, told Earl Horlyk of the Sioux City Journal in 2012.

"They were just dripping in kindness," he recalled. In no time at all the Wauhob Family recorded enough material for four self-produced albums of gospel standards, although only one appears to have seen the light of day. In 1984 the family issued Country Style Revival; Bob Darden, the gospel music editor for Billboard magazine, reviewed the album for the satirical Christian magazine Wittenburg Door. Here’s that review in full:

‘Once in a generation, an artist or band comes along that totally disrupts the fabric of the popular music universe: a band confident enough, gutsy enough to shatter preconceptions, artificial restraints and arbitrary rules. Such a group is, thus, able to extend harmonic boundaries for all time. Beethoven was such an artist; Stockhausen was another; Coltrane and Charlie Parker two more.

In the contemporary Christian music constellation, let me add one more such star, the Wauhob family of Sioux City, Iowa (apparently an undiscovered hotbed of avant garde music and free-form jazz). What makes the Wauhobs so amazing - so revolutionary - is that they work in a previously unmined context for serious jazz explorations: Southern Gospel music. Using, as a starting point, a startling array of old-fashioned, almost over-familiar Gospel tunes, the Wauhobs turn the melodies inside out, distort the tempos, and sometimes abandon the melody line altogether. This is adventuresome, cutting edge stuff: discordant, abrasive, and absolutely brilliant in application.

The heart of the band is vocalist/banjo player Ted Wauhob. Ted fiercely makes every song his own, reducing even the most difficult melody line to a monotone, setting up a hypnotic drone not unlike a Hindu mantra. Ted slurs the words and sometimes, as is the case on Put Your Hand In The Hand, improvises the lyrics altogether - thereby freeing himself from the tyranny of conventional rhyme, meter, and iambic pentameter.

Ted is a master of the rare, one-chord banjo, methodically strumming the instrument at the same tempo, generally on the same chord, during every song. It's an instinctive feat of audacious minimalism, recalling the droning electronic pulses of Robert Wilson, John Cage and Brian Eno. Pay particular attention to the inspired modal improvisations on Put Your Hand In The Hand.

The solos for the Wauhobs are, generally, provided by the patriarch of this awesome musical aggregation - Robert Wauhob, Sr. The elder Wauhob plays a variety of electric guitars in a bewildering array of obscure tunings and keys - sometimes on the same song. Robert listens intently to music he hears only in his head and, generally, ranges freely across the musical spectrum with every tune. His thick, oblique chords are closer to tape loops than recognizable progressions; he uses them for emphasis against the lighter banjo chords of son Ted. On something like One More River, he fights a snarling one-man duel with the rest of the band. This is dangerous stuff. Be sure to listen for the wickedly inventive chords on their anthemic version of Andre Crouch's Through It All.

The band is centered around the expressive drumming of Thomas Wauhob, a wildly original percussionist in the mode of an Elvin Jones, a Billy Cobham or a John Candy. Thomas thumps along at a deceptively slow beat, alternating between the snare drum and the floor tom-tom until you think he's lost the beat altogether. Then, suddenly, in a burst of spastic, unchanneled energy he forges ahead, catches the beat, and makes up for lost time by double-timing the tempo. All of this in a space of a single bar, no less. Incredible! Be sure and listen to his urgent stop and start rhythms on One More River, as he uses the flashy ploy of dropping a drumstick and fearlessly starting over (seemingly oblivious to the beat).

That brings us to the soul of the Wauhob family, mother Grace Wauhob. Mrs. Wauhob's influences are obvious throughout Country Style Revival. Here's a snatch of Yoko Ono and other Primal Scream therapists; there's a snippet from the Bee Gee School of Heavenly Castrati. She launches her high-pitched, harmony vocals into the stratosphere on many cho-ruses, setting up an unearthly keening that owes much to the ritual Wailing Wall tradition of certain Jewish widows. Her tour-de-force and, indeed, the entire album's highlight, is a boldly expressive version of Build My Mansion Next Door To Jesus, wherein the entire band tears into a magnificent array of varying tempos, keys, pitches and chord changes - soloing all at the same time. It's a powerful cathartic moment, unlike anything in recent memory from Christian music.

The Wauhob Family's Country Style Revial. It's music you've never heard before - nor are you likely to hear again.’

Darden originally thought that Country Style Revial was a joke. "I assumed it was someone's idea of being ironic," he said. "Then I came to realise no, this was a real family who may have been naively confident in their abilities but were true believers in their music. As a gospel music critic, I'd receive dozens of recording that I didn't want to listen to once. But with the Wauhobs, I actually wanted to listen to them over and over again."

The Wauhobs embarked on a concert tour which included bookings at Disneyland, but success proved short-lived and the family returned home to Sioux City. "The Wauhob Family didn't record music to become stars," Kingsbury told Earl Horlyk. "They recorded to share their faith and preserve their music."

Robert Wauhob Sr. died in 1996 and Grace joined him on December 29, 1998 after a long illness. The brothers continued to perform music sporadically, with Ted juggling his stage career with his day job: he spent 44 years working as a hospital dishwasher, retiring in 2012.

Here are a couple of tracks from the brilliant Country Style Revival: He Looked Beyond My Fault, and The Baptism of Jesse Taylor. If you like this, the whole album is available at Mr Weird and Wacky


Friday, 14 August 2015

Watt the Duck?

Further evidence – as if it were needed – that TV sop stars should never, ever enter a recording studio (well, not unless your name is Kylie, obviously): ladies and gentlemen, today we present Tom ‘Lofty from EastEnders’ Watt and his 1986 single Subterranean Homesick Blues backed with Guess I Had Too Much To Drink Last Night.

Thomas Erickson "Tom" Watt (born 14 February 1956 in Wanstead, London) is a radio presenter, sports writer and actor who rose to fame playing the role of the gormless and put-upon Lofty Holloway in the long-running BBC soap opera EastEnders. He studied drama at Manchester University where he directed several stage productions – and made a number of friends in the local music scene. One of his first television roles was in the dire ITV comedy series Never the Twain in 1981, but his big break came in 1985 when he was cast as Lofty Holloway, the asthmatic barman of The Queen Vic. He stayed with the show until 1988.

Other acting credits have included roles in the BBC drama South of the Border, the role of Norman in the 1990 ITV film And the Nightingale Sang, Boon (with Michael Elphick, who would later also star in EastEnders), Gerry Anderson’s Space Precinct, the 2002 TV comedy tlc, Doctors  and New Tricks as well as roles on the big screen in Patriot Games and Sherlock Holmes. He has also appeared in many theatre productions, starring in the one-man show Fever Pitch, based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name.

Since leaving EastEnders he has become better known as a sports journalist, writing regularly for the Guardian and presenting shows about football on Channel 4, Radio 1, Radio 3, Radio 5 Live, BBC London Radio and others. He also hosts Arsenal TV's Monday night Fan’s Forum, has authored two books about football, The End and A Passion for the Game and was the ghost-writer for David Beckham’s autobiography My Side.

So why in God’s name did he – in the midst of his fame as Lofty Holloway – record this abomination? The A-side, a vile electropop retread of the Bob Dylan classic (which, I have to admit, I have played and sung on stage as part of the short-lived three man band Murder Inc.) is just horrible. Due to the fact that the original video features several of Watt’s Manchester mates – including Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris and Josie Lawrence – it’s often erroneously reported that members of New Order and The Fall appear on the disc. They don’t. The B-side was written by John Scott, of the group Bet Lynch's Legs and the author, broadcaster and lecturer Chris ‘C P’ Lee, who fronted Alberto Y Lost Trios Paranoias before joining Scott in Bet Lynch's Legs. As far as I can ascertain, Watt, Scott and Lee are the only performers on the disc. 

Recorded at Paul "Machiavelli" Roberts’ Drone Studio in Manchester, Subterranean Homesick Blues was released on his own Watt The Duck label (the only record issued by the company), in 1986. The single entered the UK singles chart at number 67 before disappearing completely the following week.

“That was just a good laugh really,” Watt told EastEnders fan site the Walford Gazette. “Most people in soap operas have more money than sense, and I was no exception. I had these mates in Manchester who had a band and I worked them ages ago just messing about doing comedy routines and theatre stuff. They had this idea for a record and this idea that I might like to pay for the studio time. Yeah that went to number sixty-seven with a bullet, that one. 

"You can't get one in a music shop; I think they might be up in my mum's attic. It was a good record… New Order (were in) the video. The only time they were ever seen smiling. It was just a good crack, you know what I mean? It wasn't the kind of record that people in soap operas are supposed to put out, a money-making exercise.”

Big thanks to WWR reader Stephen Green for suggesting this week's post.


Friday, 7 August 2015

This Is Radio Crap

This will be controversial.

If you go visit The Clash’s official website, you’ll discover a homepage littered with images of 45 and LP releases – discs issued both during their career and post mortem. If you click on the ‘albums’ tab at the top of the page you’ll be taken to another page that lists and reviews all of their LP releases.

Well, not exactly all of them. For there’s no mention whatsoever of Cut the Crap, the final album issued under the band’s name, which was released in 1985 – just a few months before the band folded. Cut the Crap has been expunged from the band’s history. And that’s not surprising, because it is unmitigated drivel.

The Clash have always managed to bury elements of their history: did you know, for example, that John Graham Mellor (aka the late Joe Strummer) - feted as a working class hero and all-round punk icon – was the son of a British diplomat? Did you know that although the Mellors were of Jewish descent Joe’s brother joined the British Nazi party the National Front? Of course you didn’t. It’s not really important: what family doesn’t have skeletons in their closets? But it is indicative of the band’s (and their management’s) wishes to distance themselves from less savoury truths.

By the Time Cut The Crap came out The Clash was reduced to just two original members - Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon. Mick Jones (who wrote most of the band’s music) had been fired by Strummer and manager Bernie Rhodes, and drummer Topper Headon had been ousted from the band at the start of their 1983 tour because of his heroin addiction. Jones’ involvement in the band had been instrumental in their rise, but Strummer and Rhodes were determined to push on without him. The Clash had already replaced Headon with Pete Howard (who would later become a member of Eat) and would add two new guitarists to the line up to replace Jones; Nick Sheppard (of the Cortinas) and Greg ‘Vince’ White. This new five piece headed into the studio for what would be the Clash’s final outing.

Cut the Crap is diabolical. The songs are sluggish and vacant, and Strummer’s attempts at agit-prop politics are an embarrassment. Slathered with synths, football chants, hired-hand musicians and just about everything Rhodes (who ‘produced’ the album under a pseudonym) could lay his hands on including the kitchen sink, it’s a real stinker. Opening track Dictator is frenetic and dizzying, with horns, synth sounds and a barrage of effects. Used in more skilful hands these additions could have worked: here it’s just an abortion. Rhodes is no Trevor Horn, that’s for sure.

We Are the Clash should have been a call to arms for a newly-invigorated band, but it ends up as a thin, punk-by-numbers mess. Even Sham 69 would have done a better job of this garbage. Apparently the song was written after Jones and Headon threatened to go on tour together as the Real Clash. The less said about Fingerpoppin’, the third track I offer you today, the better. First single This Is England is probably the only redeeming feature (it's the one track that Strummer himself rated): Joe's voice is pretty good, but the kiddie overdubs and 80's synthesiser stabs don't help.

Strummer was a mess. He lost both of his parents in 1984 and was heading into depression. The sessions should have been abandoned: it seems that several tracks on Cut The Crap were unfinished, with Rhodes adding his mark to them in an effort to get the record out. Most of the blame for Cut The Crap has been laid at Rhodes’ door. He gets co-writer credit on every track on the album and even came up with the title for the collection, rejecting the band’s preferred Out of Control without even consulting them.

Mick Jones picked himself up, formed Big Audio Dynamite and enjoyed immediate chart success. Although he and Strummer managed to rekindle their friendship there was no saving The Clash. Strummer decided to break up the band, but Rhodes refused to Let it Be, holding auditions for a new singer and trying to convince the remaining members to keep going. Luckily the rest of the band decide not to be involved and the auditions were abandoned. In hindsight, this album should have been abandoned too. But if it had been, I could not present a handful of tracks from it for you today.


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