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Sex, Politics and Religion: The making of Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’

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The great film director Ken Russell once remarked that if he had been born in Italy and called, say, “Russellini” then critics would have thrown bouquets at his feet. He was correct as Russell’s worst critics were generally slow-witted, myopic beasts, lacking in imagination and untrustworthy in their judgement.

Take for example the critic Alexander Walker who once dismissed Russell’s masterpiece The Devils as:

...the masturbatory fantasies of a Roman Catholic boyhood.

Walker was being petty and spiteful. He was also badly misinformed. Russell was not born a Catholic, he became one in his twenties and was lapsed by the time he made The Devils. More damningly, if Walker had taken a moment to make himself cognisant with Russell’s source material—a successful West End play by John Whiting commissioned by Sir Peter Hall for the Royal Shakespeare Company or its precursor the non-fiction book The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley—then he would have realised Russell’s film was based on historical fact and his so-called excesses were very tame compared to the recorded events. However, Walker’s waspish comments became his claim to fame—especially after he was royally slapped by Russell with a rolled-up copy of his review on a TV chat show in 1971—Russell later said he wished it had been an iron bar rather than a newspaper.
 
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Oliver Reed as Grandier and Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne rehearse under the watchful eye of Ken Russell.
 
The Devils is the story of a priest named Urbain Grandier and his battle against the ambitions of Church and State to eradicate the independence of the French town of Loudon. In a bid to have this troublesome priest silenced, Grandier was tried for sorcery after a confession was brutally extracted from a nun, Sister Jeanne, who claimed he was an emissary of the Devil. Grandier was acquitted of all charges but a second show trial found him guilty and he was tortured and burnt at the stake. Russell described Grandier’s case as “the first well-documented political trial in history.”

There were others, of course, going back to Christ, but this had a particularly modern ring to it which appealed to me. He was also like many of my heroic characters…great despite himself. Most of the people in my films are taken by surprise, like [the dancer] Isadora Duncan and [the composer] Delius. They’re out of step with their times and their society, but nevertheless manage to produce rather extraordinary changes in attitude and events. This was exactly Grandier’s situation. He was a minor priest who was used as a fall guy in a political conflict, who lost his life and his battle but won the war.

After that they [the Church and State] couldn’t go on doing what they were doing in quite the same way, and around that time [1634] the Church did begin to lose its power. Twenty years later no one could have been burned as a witch in France. The people of Loudon realised too late that this man they knew so well simply couldn’t have been guilty of the things he was charged with, and if they hadn’t been so bemused by the naked nun sideshow that was going on and the business and prosperity it brought to the town, they’d have realised it sooner. So the fall guy achieved as much in the end as if he had been a saint. And to me that’s just what he is.

Though Russell was on a high after his international success with the Oscar-winning Women in Love (1969) starring Glenda Jackson, Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Jennie Linden, and The Music Lovers (1970) a flamboyant biopic on the life of Tchaikovsky with Richard Chamberlain and Glenda Jackson, he had found it difficult to find a backer for The Devils. Original producers United Artists pulled out, leaving Russell “out on a limb: having written a script and commissioned set designs from Derek Jarman and costume designs from Shirley Russell.

It would have been a disaster to scrap all that work. Bob Solo, the producer, who had spent years getting the rights to Huxley’s book and Whiting’s play started looking around for another backer, but it took four months of offering the package before Warner Brothers agreed to have a go.

Russell’s script was considered too long and cuts were made. He had originally made Sister Jeanne the focus of his story, following the nun through her involvement in Grandier’s execution to her career as a star:

I suppose it’s the film that turned out most like I wanted it to, though I would have liked to carry the story further to show what happened to [Cardinal] Richelieu and Sister Jeanne. At the end de Laubardemont says “You’re stuck in this convent for life”, but as soon as he’d gone Jeanne set about getting out because her brief moment of notoriety had whetted her appetite for more. So she gouged a couple of holes in her hands and pretended she had the stigmata, saw ‘visions’ and, with the help of Sister Agnes, gulled some old priest into thinking she was the greatest lady since the Virgin Mary.

So she and Agnes went on a jaunt all over France and were hailed with as much fervour as show biz personalities and pop stars are received today. In Paris 30,000 people assembled outside of her hotel just in the chance of getting a glimpse of her. She became very friendly with Richelieu, the King and Queen wined and dined her, she had a grand old time. When she died—I particularly wanted to include this scene—they cut off her head and put it in a glass casket and stuck it on the altar in her own convent. People came on their knees from miles around to pay her homage.

 
More from Ken Russell and ‘The Devils’ including special documentary, photospread and Oliver Reed interview, after the jump…
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Roky Erickson’s isolated vocals for ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ are crazier than a bag full of snakes
11.30.2015
08:38 am

Topics:
Music
Punk

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Along with mashups, shreds, goofy gifs, LEGO and crazy things Christians do, the isolated vocal meme has pretty much worn out its welcome at the unabashedly hip Dangerous Minds. Even the word “meme” is dead. So we’re busy moving on to the next big thing…whatever that is. Don’t worry, we’ll find it. But in the meantime, humor me.

Roky’s isolated vocal track is from the studio session of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” synced to a clip of The 13th Floor Elevators performing the song on TV’s Where The Action Is in 1966. The vocal track is such a concentration of pure unadulterated rock and roll that I had to share it.

Erickson’s vocals are as primal, soulful and manic as it gets. From the first “yeah” to a series of blood-curdling “ahhhhhs” and yowls of “not coming home,” Erickson sounds like a snake handler who has fallen into a psychedelic briar patch. If moonshine made a noise, this would be it.

In the absence of sound, the head bobs and hand jive of The Where The Action Is dancers (The Action Kids) is some seriously spooky hoodoo - the rocking dead.
 

 

Posted by Marc Campbell | Discussion
Remembering Detroit’s legendary cult-zine, The Orbit
11.17.2015
09:33 am

Topics:
Literature

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The Orbit

Fabulous Cover Art for The Orbit Magazine Anthology
 
For decades upon centuries, revolution of various stripes has often had roots firmly wrapped around and within the print medium. From Martin Luther to Karl Marx, manifestos, underground papers, comics, fliers—the pen not the sword, in other words—have caused change. These are the occasions where the medium itself was indeed the message. When it comes to cultural revolution, this is all truth times nine and with the birth of the counterculture and especially its prodigal bastard child, punk, print media in the form of zines were an absolutely vital part of this.

But all of this pseudo-flowery historical talk is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Rob St. Mary’s incredible tome-tribute to Detroit’s alternative culture magazine, The Orbit Magazine Anthology: Re-Entry. Influenced by its forefathers White Noise (1978-1980) and Fun:The Magazine for Swinging Intellectuals (1986-1990), The Orbit managed to take the punk ethos of the former, the polished yet primed fuck-it-ness of the latter and out of both emerged a local publication whose shakes, quakes and reverberations could be felt not only outside of the Detroit area, but for years later after its demise in 1999.
 
Niagara on the cover of White Noise
 
White Noise featured interviews with punk stalwarts like DEVO, Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers and Pauline Murray from the UK group Penetration. Fun had such biting political activity book whimsy like “Ronald’s Mind Maze,” where you get to navigate around such topics as world destruction and Jodie Foster in the former actor/president’s appropriately ghoulish head. Fun was put to bed permanently in the spring of 1990 and out of its ashes sprung Orbit.

Losing the politics and adding emphasis on local art, culture, humor and entertainment, this bi-monthly free alternative paper quickly established itself as the right mix of edge with just enough professionalism to make it truly subversive. At the center of this paper was its creator, Jerry Peterson, better known to some as “Jerry Vile,” the same man behind the two previous publications and self-described “sloppy perfectionist,” Peterson is revealed as an artist, musician, editor, writer and publisher as a controversially catalytic personality. If you want real creative impact, complete with cultural shrapnel, then you need guys like Peterson, whom might burn down the whole hen house to make the omelet but it will be an omelet you will never forget. The man pissed off everyone ranging from their only real competition, the Metro Times, assorted ex-advertisers and former staff members, including Film Threat editor Chris Gore (all of which is beautifully detailed in the Fun chapter), but his mark was and is undeniable, and the proof of that is all lined out in this anthology.
 
Head of
 
Created with the goal of being “friendly as possible for all readers while retaining a hip vibe” is a lofty one that can leave a veritable football-field sized room to fail, Orbit escaped this folly by enlisting a strong crew of artists and writers over its nine year lifespan. Influenced by magazines as seemingly divergent as Spy and Oui, Orbit stood out on a visual level alone, complete with its own mascot, “Orby,” a grinning, slightly smug looking globe-man loosely based on former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. Designed by illustrator Terry Colon, who would go on to create work for Time and Entertainment Weekly, Orby would gain further fame when featured on a T-Shirt worn by Quentin Tarantino in his 1995 film, Pulp Fiction. (Orbit was one of the earliest mags to write about the then indie-darling now Hollywood titan, when his debut, Reservoir Dogs first hit the screen back in 1992. It was a kind act the young director did not forget.)
 
Quentin Tarantino in Orby Tee in Pulp Fiction
 
Along with its own personal Alfred E. Neumann-ish mascot, Orbit would feature the work of established artists, like the inimitable and Bathory-like-in-her-ability-to-not-age Niagara, whose artwork was used for the most recent Kid Rock album, First Kiss. Niagara was also a member of both the terminally underrated psychedelic-punk-rock band Destroy All Monsters and the super group Dark Carnival, which also featured both Asheton brothers. But Orbit became known for breaking more artists into the world, including Glenn Barr (DC Comics,The Betty Pages Digest, etc), Tom Thewes (Hi-Fructose), Mark Dancey (Motorbooty Magazine, assorted rock posters) and more. Humans are visual creatures, so if you’re going to have hip content then you’d better have an outside that not only draws the readers in, but also visually reflects the trip you are about to take them on.
 
Glenn Barr's Art for the debut issue of The Orbit
 
Another facet of the arts was the weird array of local Detroit bands that got their first taste of fame via the pages of Orbit, ranging from Kid Rock (back in his flat top days)  and Insane Clown Posse to The White Stripes and His Name is Alive. Detroit’s rich and diverse musical history continued well into the 1990’s and all of that is reflected here. One of the biggest surprises is that Rock himself, who not only contributed $20,000 of his own money to the Kickstarter for this book but who also comes across impressively self-effacing within the pages. “Talk about someone trying to get attention—-running around with a flattop hair cut with too much Aqua Net screaming, ‘I’m the pimp of the nation!’” It’s enough to almost overlook the fact that this is the same man that wrote a song called “Jesus and Bocephus.” Almost.
 
Pimp of the Nation
 
Orbit also delves into the assortment of ways the staff writers would keep themselves and their readers entertained. A personal favorite was their concert listings section, called “Critical Dates.” There can be a certain type of beauty when a writer is bored and the “fuck it! Let’s have some fun!” instinct kicks in. My personal favorite was the write-up for an upcoming Eagles gig. “You would think with all the senseless violence in the world that somebody would get sensible and inflict some bodily hurt on these money-grubbing-has-beens. Hell Freezes Over?” And this was BEFORE the classic butt-rockers released an album only through Wal-Mart.
 
Niagara Detroit designed cover for The Orbit
 
That’s not even touching the borderline-Subgenius levels of prankdom, including throwing the world’s worst garage sale, where one could purchase such “treasures” as “two really ugly mens wigs,” “single rusty metal coaster,” “broken Sweet Valley High cassette” and “a latex sex device that was left in a garage for 20 years and is now covered in mold spores.” There were more serious moments, including Detroit historian and geographer Bill McGraw’s (using the pen name of Silas Farmer) column entitled “Detroit’s Shameful History” that delved into the city’s less covered and more unseemly past.

Orbit folded in 1999 but thanks to Rob St. Mary’s tireless research and academic-meets-pop-culture-sage approach with this Re-Entry, it will live on for both those who experienced it firsthand and those who never had a chance to hold an issue in their hands. The formatting on this book alone is a graphic designer’s sweet-laced dream but the content meets it riches for riches. To quote Orbit father, Jerry Peterson, “I really, really enjoy making people upset. I think that is my art.”
 

Posted by Heather Drain | Discussion
Ork Records: When New York lost its mind and changed rock and roll forever
11.02.2015
10:19 am

Topics:
Movies
Music
Punk

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Ork Records captured a moment in time when rock and roll tossed off its restraints and went impossibly mad. A gloriously weird era when a generation of fearless young fuckers wandered into New York City, trading suburban Formica and the “hissing of the summer lawns” for rat-infested drywall, clanging water pipes and the low-pitched drone of junkies muttering dead prayers in dark alleys . Walking south of 14th Street toward the Bowery instantaneously transformed the sunniest complexion into a mugshot pallor followed by a sudden explosion of electroshocked hair twitching on your scalp like an epileptic porcupine. Time lapsed as your body grew a pair of black jeans with 13-inch pegs and dirty Converse sneakers erupted on your feet like canvas blisters.

Boys from Baltimore took on French names and smoked like Belmondo. Girls from Pittsburgh wore black and white striped t-shirts and were Sebergian in their breathlessness. We started bands and slouched around in our own imaginary Godard films. The rest of the world may have been in color but for us everything was grainy black and white. We were role players. And we had the names for it: Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, Jane Fire, Link Cromwell. “The Blank Generation” wasn’t just a song, it was a pose, an attitude. It was 1975 and the lofts of downtown Manhattan contained the syllabic languor that echoed scenes from Jean Eustache’s The Mother And The Whore. The talk was angst-ridden. Bodies slumped against decrepit refrigerators while the perpetually nervous vomited in sinks stained with cockroach shit and Listerine.The sun outside wasn’t yellow. It was jaundiced and it came in listless spurts julienned by sagging venetian blinds.
 

 

“Something’s not in orbit in the capital of this Galaxy.”—Lemmy Caution in Godard’s Alphaville.

Paris had the Left Bank, New York had the leftovers. The French had the Eiffel Tower, New Yorkers had something stuck on the bottom of their shoes. Same thing. It was all romantic. Even a knife wound looked vaginal in the shadows of the night. In July of 1977 the entire city blacked out, something many of us had been doing since coming to New York. Waking up in strange beds with people whose names you didn’t know and writing songs about it.

The Bowery and Lower East Side were movie sets, perfect for stories about rebellion, crime, sex, drugs and rock and roll’s dark night of the soul. So it was fitting that a guy who worked in a store that was a mecca for film fanatics, Cinemabilia, should start a record company. Terry Ork’s label was the soundtrack to the movie that Ork had playing in his head. I remember the day he handed me his label’s first release, “Little Johnny Jewel” by Television. I took it home and listened to it several times that night and I could imagine Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd’s guitars playing under scenes from Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. Notes spiraled in glassy fugues as precise and cold as Alain Delon’s eyes.
 

 
Terry Ork was the Phil Spector of spectres. A lot of the tunes on Ork’s label seemed haunted by the edgy paranoid vibe of a city on the verge of “who knows what?”  Even the poppiest Ork releases were spastic and twitchy—the musical equivalent of restless leg syndrome. Bands like The Marbles had clearly lost theirs. The Erasers were designed to disappear. Teenage band The Student Teachers had their innocence murdered in the bathroom of CBGB. The Feelies played with the nervous energy of altar boys in a rectory. The older dudes, like Mick Farren and Lester Bangs, the ones who had been ridden hard and put up wet, found humor in the Manhattan mess. Farren brought some whiskey drenched pub rock irreverence to the mix and Bangs filled in for the absent Iggy Pop by blurting offensively hilarious shit to anyone who’d listen.
 

 
Terry tapped into the poetry of what Tom Verlaine called “life in the hive,” put it on vinyl and sent it out to an unsuspecting world. Most rock fans reacted like a nun seeing an erect penis for the first time. The number one bestselling song of 1975 was Captain and Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” It would be another four years before Joy Division tore love apart. Ork was rock and roll’s turd in the punch bowl and he loved it. Punk was being born, rock and roll had lost its mind and music would never be the same again.

Continues after the jump…

Posted by Marc Campbell | Discussion
Deep inside the psychedelic underworld of Cleveland, Ohio’s Acid-drenched ‘Love Commune’
10.26.2015
01:07 pm

Topics:
Drugs
Movies
Music

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Sign Of Aquarius (aka Love Commune) is a hippie exploitation movie shot in Cleveland in 1970. Arriving on the heels of Altamont and the Manson Family murders, Sign Of Aquarius is a hot mess of cliches that sees the counter culture through a brown acid fog instead of rose-tinted Summer Of Love granny glasses. It’s an Easy Rider bummer filled with hard drugs, bathtub LSD and softcore flower child group gropes. Later, padded with some blaxploitation jive (power to the peepholes) it was re-titled Ghetto Freaks to bring in the Times Square crowd. The movie stinks as bad as a crash pad mattress but it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than Milos Forman’s hippie dippy crapfest Hair. And it has a weirdly compelling, occasionally amazing, soundtrack composed by Tom Baker and Al Zbacnik.
 

 
The soundtrack was released as Sign Of Aquarius on the Adell label in 1970. It’s rare as shit and I couldn’t find the soundtrack anywhere on the ‘net for downloading. But I managed to source three of these tunes from a VHS copy of the movie I own and one from the album itself. Four songs that make up the best tracks on the record: “Om, Pax, Om”, “Mousey,” “Soorangi,” and the strangely titled “We Are The Aquarius” (shouldn’t it be “Aquarians”?) are here for your listening pleasure. It’s some really dynamite stuff with the particularly awesome “Om, Pax, Om”  being, to my ears, a psychedelic classic. The other tunes are funky breakdowns with one Moogy drone bit with some jazzy sax that takes place during a bad acid trip that pre-dates some of John Carpenter’s minimalist synth work.

I had to add some light show trickery to obscure a bunch of nudity during “Om, Pax, Om” but otherwise here’s my favorite moments from Sign Of Aquarius in all of its unadulterated badassness.
 

 

Posted by Marc Campbell | Discussion
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