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‘The Debussy Film’: The making of Ken Russell’s TV masterpiece starring Oliver Reed
05.16.2013
05:47 pm
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Ken Russell had thought about making a film on Debussy for some time. He was ‘hovering on the feature film fringe,’ having just made his first movie French Dressing, in 1964. But it had sadly flopped and he had returned to work as a producer and director for the BBC’s arts series Monitor.

Making a feature film had encouraged Russell’s ambitions, and he now had a revolutionary idea for a new kind of documentary arts film, but he wasn’t quite sure how best to achieve it. This was when Russell met Melvyn Bragg, a young Northern writer, who was also working in the Monitor office.

At twenty, Bragg had decided to become a writer, but thought ‘quite rightly as it turned out,’ that he wouldn’t be able to make a living from it. So, he got a job, to support his literary ambitions.

‘I got a BBC traineeship when I was twenty-one,’ Bragg told me in 1984. ‘Went into radio, which I liked an awful lot. Worked in Newcastle. Worked in the World Service, Bush House. Then I worked in Broadcasting House, in the Features Department. I was going to stay there—I didn’t like television, except for Monitor—and I said I’d only go into television if I could get an attachment onto Monitor. Eventually, one came up, and I got it.’

Russell wanted to share his idea with Bragg. He met him in a cafe, and told Bragg about Debussy and his plan for a new kind of arts documentary—a film-within-a-film. Together they wrote a script, and Bragg turned it into a screenplay.

‘When I did Debussy, Ken’s first talkie on television, nobody had done that before I did that as a screenplay as a way to make it work. The real problem you’ve got with biopics about people is that there is no structured drama in anybody’s life. You’ve got to make it.

‘What you’ve got are pits, which are very good, all over the fucking shop, and you’ve got to have that bit because [they’re] terrific, and you’ve got to have that bit because there’s hardly any relationship between them. Where, if you write a play, or write a book, there is a relationship because you’ve written it like that. But in people’s lives, something happens there, and 7 years later, something else happens. This enables us to dip in-and-out.’

It was a lunchtime in May, and I was interviewing Bragg in his office, at London Weekend Television, where he worked as editor and presenter of the (now legendary) arts series, The South Bank Show. Bragg sat behind his desk, dressed as usual in a suit (‘Another way to get people to forget about me and concentrate on the person that I am talking to’), eating an apple for his lunch.

Bragg said he thought Russell ‘a very brilliant, eccentric and erratic talent, he can be marvelous.’

The Debussy Film was the first of several highly successful collaborations between Russell and Bragg—as director and writer. A partnership that lasted until The Music Lovers (‘I had a big row with [Ken] on that which is fairly public. I hated it.’) The pair later worked together again on several documentaries for The South Bank Show .

It was also Russell’s first collaboration with actor Oliver Reed, who later described the director as:

Jesus is not Christ, only Russell.

Reed was a rare talent, who had been slightly over-looked by film producers because of a scar on his face, which he had received on a drunken night out. But Reed was more than just a feared Hell-raiser, he was a brilliant actor who brought an incredibly complex and emotional depth to the role of Debussy.

‘Debussy was an ambiguous character,’ Russell told one of his biographers, John Baxter in 1973.

...and I always let the character of the person or his work dictate the way a film goes. Also, one was a bit critical of artists like Debussy and I thought the time had come to ask questions, and the natural way for me to ask questions was to have a film director [Vladek Sheybal] talking to an actor [Oliver Reed], because an actor always asks questions about the character he’s playing and the director usually had to answer them, or try to, often to keep him happy. And when I found Debussy was friendly with an intellectual named Pierre Louys from whom he derived a lot, it seemed an analogous relationship to that of a film director and an actor. There are some points in the film, I think, where it doesn’t matter if it’s the director talking to the actor or Louys talking to Debussy—passages of intentional ambiguity.

Born in his music and his life, Debussy was a great sensualist. There’s a line of his in the film: “Music should express things that can’t be said,” which simply means to me that music is something which, the moment you talk about it, disintegrates and becomes meaningless. That’s what I mean by sensuality—something that’s felt rather than reasoned.

 
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Ken Russell directing ‘The Debussy Film’ (1965)
 
While The Debussy Film may at first appear a film that is “felt rather than reasoned,” it has to be understood that every element of it is based on fact, taken from letters and personal details of the main characters. Also, by presenting inter-linking narratives, Russell was able to question, examine and comment on Debussy’s creative life, and the damage it caused him to those he loved.

With Debussy I felt it was important to say something about his music and attitudes to it as well as relevant facts of his life. A good example of this is his relationship with his mistress Gaby, and her inability to understand either him or his art. There’s a scene where the actor playing Debussy goes to a party with his girlfriend (playing Gaby) and puts on a record of Danse Sacre et Danse Profane. He wants to listen to it, to be immersed completely; he sees in it images of art nouveau. But everyone else in the room, instead of carrying on talking, or dancing to it, or giving it half an ear, all become silent and listen to the music with a mixture of duty and piety, which is all too often the case. His girlfriend, who just sees him as being perverse, does a strip-tease to it and ridicules both the man and his music. People are very wary of the heightening of experience, and want to knock it down. It’s fear as much as anything that makes her do the strip dance, fear of something she doesn’t understand and so can only get level with by ridiculing. A lot of people still do that, not just with art but with life.

I wasn’t totally on Debussy’s side; in a sense he had no right to disrupt the party. But artists are dogmatic and pig-headed, and they over-ride people. Most of the people I’ve dealt with in films have quite dispassionately sacrificed someone in their way who understood them. It’s not nice but that’s how it works. The end of the film, the music from his unfinished opera The Fall of the House of Usher, with Debussy alone in the castle and his ghostly mistress—whom he drove to attempted suicide—rising up, was an analogy of the lost romantic ideal he had destroyed by his disregard for people. You can be an egomaniac up to a point but in the end it can destroy you, or your work, or both.

The Debussy Film is Russell developing the style and technique that would make him internationally recognized as one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century. His approach was revolutionary and brilliant, and The Debussy Film changed television and cinematic biography for good. It also revealed another side to Oliver Reed (who is quite brilliant) and Vladek Sheybal, who was usually typecast as KGB agents. The film also contains cameos form artists Duggie Fields and Pauline Boty.
 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher
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05.16.2013
05:47 pm
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‘Dead Joe’: Poetry slam with Nick Cave, 1992
05.16.2013
05:46 pm
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Nick Cave reads the lyrics to “Dead Joe” and manages to keep a straight face.
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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05.16.2013
05:46 pm
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Happy Birthday Robert Fripp!
05.16.2013
03:08 pm
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King Crimson’s Robert Fripp turns 67 today, just one day after his frequent collaborator Brian Eno became an OAP. They both look great for their age.

Previously on Dangerous Minds:
In the Court of the Crimson King: Intelligent BBC documentary about Robert Fripp

Dislocated: Robert Fripp & The League of Gentlemen

Fripp and Eno: The Heavenly Music Corporation

Below, Robert Fripp demonstrates Frippertronics in 1979:
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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05.16.2013
03:08 pm
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Lucifer Rising: Jimmy Page’s insane, amazing, unused soundtrack to the Kenneth Anger film
05.16.2013
01:03 pm
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I think it’s safe to say that the music composed (and performed alone) by Jimmy Page and intended for Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, but not used, was/is among the very most sought after Led Zeppelin, or in this case Zep-related, bootleg recordings.

The story has long been a foundation of the Led Zeppelin mythos: Page and the mercurial Magus of Cinema had a falling out, then Anger did his patented “curse” routine very publicly going so far as accusing Page of being a mere “dabbler” in the occult and a rich, lazy junkie. Rock journalists began to wonder if Anger’s curse had worked when a succession of tragic events saw Robert Plant badly injured in a 1975 car accident, Plant’s five-year-old son Karac dying suddenly in 1977 and the death of John Bonham in 1980 that instantly ended Led Zeppelin’s reign as the world’s biggest rock group.

There are always two sides to every story and Page maintains that he had given the project financial support, put Ken up in one of his homes (Aleister Crowley’s Boleskine House in Scotland, no less) and lent him film editing equipment. Moreover, he’d given Anger 23 minutes of amazing music. Anger needed an additional five minutes from Page to complete Lucifer Rising, but it was slow arriving and after a shouting match with Page’s wife, he threw a major hissy, “firing” Page and viciously denouncing him—for years—in the media:

“He’s a multi-millionaire miser. He and Charlotte, that horrible vampire girl – the druggie that got him on heroin – they’re both junkies. They had so many servants, yet they would never offer me a cup of tea or a sandwich. Which is such a mistake on their part because I put the curse of king Midas on them. If you’re greedy and just amass gold you’ll get an illness. So I did turn her and Jimmy Page into statues of gold because they’ve both lost their minds. He can’t write songs anymore.”

It’s not like Jimmy Page wasn’t busy back then (the time period in question roughly corresponds to the time Led Zeppelin IV was being recorded), plus Uncle Ken can go from sweet and utterly charming to homicidal in like two seconds flat. (I’ve met Jimmy Page, as well. He was super-friendly, easygoing. An old school gentleman, informing me as he shook my hand that he had been gifted with not one, but two copies of my Book of Lies occult anthology. I know which side of this tale I come down on: Jimmy’s! Look, I admire and revere the films of Kenneth Anger. I think he’s a truly great artist, touched by genius, even, but he’s fucking nuts...)

Eventually Page’s music escaped in 1981—probably sourced from the magnetic track from an early 23-minute-long “to be continued” print of Lucifer Rising that Anger showed potential investors (I’ve seen this, it’s pretty incredible)—when it hit the bootleg market as “Solo Performances by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant,” a limited edition LP with a green wax seal (I have one of these, it sounds like frying dogshit). Another blue vinyl version was released in a “Kabbalistically numbered limited edition.” Better quality digital versions started making the rounds on torrent trackers around 2005 and last year Jimmy Page released the music he’d composed for Anger’s film via his website on very limited edition red vinyl that sold out instantly.

The music itself is wonderfully perverse: a languid but steadily building Middle Eastern-sounding drone, festooned with evil chanting, tabla, screaming mellotron, a sonically shifting low frequency foreboding ambiance and shimmering 12-string guitar work. It’s a mad, diabolical symphony of beautiful evil; a fascinating piece of unconventional aggressively avant garde music from one of the rock era’s most mysterious living legends.
 

Although Page’s music was not used, the guitarist does make a cameo appearance in Lucifer Rising bearded and staring at a wreathed portrait of Aleister Crowley while holding an Egyptian stele.

Page does not often talk to journalists about his interest in the occult, but in a 2008 Guitar World interview, he did reveal a few fascinating tidbits about his creative process:

Guitar World: There was always a certain amount of speculation about your occult studies. It may have been subtle, but you weren’t really hiding it.

Page: I was living it. That’s all there is to it. It was my life – that fusion of magick and music.

Guitar World: Your use of symbols was very advanced. The sigil on Led Zeppelin IV and the embroidery on your stage clothes from that time period are good examples on how you left your mark on popular culture. It’s something that major corporations are aggressively pursuing these days: using symbols as a form of branding.

Page: You mean talismanic magick? Yes, I knew what I was doing. There’s no point in saying much about it, because the more you discuss it, the more eccentric you appear to be. But the fact is – as far as I was concerned – it was working, so I used it. But it’s really no different than people who wear ribbons around their wrists: it’s a talismanic approach to something.

Well let me amend that: it’s not exactly the same thing, but it is in the same realm. I’ll leave this subject by saying the four musical elements of Led Zeppelin making a fifth is magick into itself. That’s the alchemical process.

In Rolling Stone’s December 2012 cover story “Jimmy Page Looks Back,” Page said “...there was a request, suggesting that Lucifer Rising should come out again with my music on. I ignored it.”

Below, the unused Jimmy Page score for Lucifer Rising:
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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05.16.2013
01:03 pm
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Francoise Hardy in extreme close-up
05.15.2013
05:47 pm
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The cameraman probes the lovely Ms. Hardy like some kind of feral animal in this weirdly composed video. If the lens had a tongue the chanteuse would be streaked with saliva.

Hardy looks like she’s coming off a rough night. If there were more devil in her, she’d be Nico.

J’adore les pimples.

“Mon monde n’est pas vrai.” 1971.
 

 

Posted by Marc Campbell
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05.15.2013
05:47 pm
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Happy birthday Brian Eno!
05.15.2013
04:44 pm
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“Bon Anniversaire” to Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno. The polymath musician, intellectual, visual artist and noted pornography enthusiast was born on this day in 1948, making him now officially a senior citizen.

Brian Eno: A Sandbox In Alphaville by Lester Bangs

Brian Eno Frisbee vs. Bryan Ferry Kite

Music for Wanking: Brian Eno discusses his porno collection with Chrissie Hynde, 1974

Below, Brian Eno interviewed recently in New York as part of the Red Bull Music Academy. Of special note, his notion of “scenious” or the special kind of creativity that happens when there are large numbers of collaborators in a particular “scene.”
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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05.15.2013
04:44 pm
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Entertainment: Complete Gang of Four show, 1983
05.15.2013
02:36 pm
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Some kind soul uploaded Gang of Four’s full appearance on German music television show Rockpalast from 1983. Why it wasn’t uploaded in a single YouTube video, I don’t know. But it’s a wonderful treat nonetheless. This is the incarnation of the group that saw bassist Sara Lee (formerly of Robert Fripp’s new wavey League of Gentlemen group) replace Dave Allen who had by that time left to form Shriekback with XTC keyboardist Barry Andrews.

“We Live as We Dream Alone”:

 
“The Republic”:

 
More of Gang of Four after the jump…
 

READ ON
Posted by Tara McGinley
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05.15.2013
02:36 pm
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Ziggy Stardust’s last stand: David Bowie’s ‘1980 Floor Show’ Midnight Special
05.15.2013
02:04 pm
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It’s surprising that one of the most cherished of all of David Bowie’s American TV performances hasn’t been posted to YouTube in better quality—pristine digitally-sourced bootlegs are easy to find that even include outtakes as DVD extras—but this truncated version (which cuts off the dancers forming the show’s title and omits most of the guests) for now, is as good as it gets. (It’s also surprising that Bowie himself hasn’t seen fit to release it on DVD, but apparently he doesn’t really like it that much.)

Taped in the tiny Marquee Club on Wardour Street over the course of three days in October of 1973, the idea was to do a sort of artsy/futuristic variety show with Bowie’s first performance since “retiring” onstage at the Hammersmith Odeon earlier that year. The 1980 Floor Show featured guests Marianne Faithfull (junked out of her skull and dressed as a nun dueting with the Dame on “I Got You Babe), The Troggs and Spanish flamenco glam act—yes, you read that correctly—Carmen. Amanda Lear introduced some numbers and Bowie serenaded her with a magnificent version of “Sorrow” in one of the show’s highlights.

The 1980 Floor Show was originally aired on The Midnight Special on November 16, 1973. I didn’t see it the first time it ran—I was but seven years old then, so being up that late was not much of an option for me—but by the time it was repeated the following year, I was already a budding Bowie fan and owned the 45rpm of “Space Oddity” and the “Rebel Rebel” single (the ultra loud US-only alt version that was quickly withdrawn).

To say that The 1980 Floor Show totally blew my young mind would be an understatement. I simply could not believe what I was seeing. It all seemed so glamorous, so smart and so cool. And this Amanda Lear character, she was really pretty, but what was she?

Yes, indeed, 1974 was an excellent year to discover David Bowie. I was able to consume Diamond Dogs shortly after it came out, the back catalog up to that point (The Man Who Sold the World was probably the second album I got my hands on) and then came the steady parade of towering artistic genius that was Young Americans, Station to Station, Low, Heroes and Lodger. During the 1970s, Bowie was touched by the gods. Like The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones had in the previous decade, it was like he was holding live wires in his hands, his body channeling the electricity of his age and creating a cultural feedback loop that he also benefited from artistically. Bowie’s influence cannot be overstated. It’s only fitting that his life’s work is now the subject of a major museum retrospective. It’s a justly deserved honor.

In my never so humble opinion, David Bowie was perhaps the single most important cultural avatar of that entire era. The man could simply do no wrong… well, at least up to Let’s Dance...but on to the The 1980 Floor Show, shall we?
 

Posted by Richard Metzger
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05.15.2013
02:04 pm
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Jim Morrison in diapers
05.15.2013
03:14 am
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The Lizard King at the tender age of three.

“Killer on the road.”

Posted by Marc Campbell
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05.15.2013
03:14 am
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‘Wuthering Heights’: Alan Partridge channels Kate Bush
05.14.2013
07:54 pm
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A glorious televisual moment from Comic Relief 1999, when Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) channeled Kate Bush for stirring versions of her songs “Wow” and the classic “Wuthering Heights”, A-ha!

Bonus: David Bowie plays the recorder.
 

 
With thanks to Tara!
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher
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05.14.2013
07:54 pm
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