Saturday, February 14, 2009

Films, more zines, Barack Obama (MRR #308)

I don't consider myself a film buff of any description. The wife and I have a Netflix account but have a tendency to keep a DVD for at least a month before returning it unwatched. A complete waste of money. I think watching films is an impulse thing for me: if something happens to come on the telly that looks interesting I'll watch it, or if I feel like watching a film I'll go to the video shop and see what tickles my fancy. Unfortunately the video shop nearest us closed recently (prompting the switch to Netflix) although there is a really good one that's not that far away. I hardly ever go to the cinema these days, despite living in a place where you can hardly move without passing a great art-house theatre or multiplex mall. You get the best of all worlds here, the latest special effects blockbusters play next door to the most obscure indie documentaries, so choice isn't the problem. Price might be though; it's ridiculous what they charge for films nowadays... when I was knee-high to a grasshopper you could go to the matinee and catch a Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serial, the latest Charlie Chaplin, and a newsreel about good old Tommy knocking the Hun for six (all enjoyed while sucking on a bag of jujubes), for under a shilling.
Like most red-blooded boys growing up in the Seventies, I loved Bond films. The first ones I saw in the pictures starred Roger Moore as Bond, which was confusing because I was used to him on TV as The Saint. However, there is only one true Bond, and that's Sean Connery. There was the added thrill that he was from Scotland, so it wasn't totally unrealistic to think I could grow up to be like him. Like most red-blooded boys, I wanted to be a secret agent when I grew up. The fact that I am not a secret agent (or an actor) is probably the only department in which I am not exactly like either Bond or Connery. James Bond films shaped me into the hyper-nationalistic, violent, xenophobic misogynist I am today.
My next great love was kung fu films. Bruce Lee became another hero of mine and I had a massive poster of him from the final scene of one of my all-time favorites, Enter The Dragon, on my bedroom wall. I remember being really bummed out that I was blond and definitely not Chinese so I knew I wouldn't grow up to be just like Bruce Lee. I have a hazy recollection of seeing Enter The Dragon at the cinema but since it came out in 1973 (when I was 3) I'm either wrong or I saw a re-release of it. I definitely remember my dad taking me to see The Big Brawl (1980) starring Jackie Chan. I used to come out of films like that so excited and full of energy. The film wouldn't quite leave me for a while: part of me would believe that I was in fact a kung-fu master, and that any passer-by on the rainy Scottish night-time street was a potential enemy from a rival Shaolin temple.
I think I came to the realization that there was more to the pictures than action films around the time the UK finally got a fourth television channel. Channel 4 was initially started with a remit to focus on obscure, fringe programming. They also had a reputation for showing a lot more skin than the other channels. As my adolescent self stayed up far too late watching Channel 4 on my little black and white portable telly in the hope of seeing some tits (or even the odd patch of pubic hair) I was inadvertently exposed to all kinds of artsy-fartsy experimental film making, not to mention plenty of social realism, documentaries, and a lot more queerness than I was comfortable with at the time.
As I got older (right up to the present I suppose) my tastes have centered around the sort of gritty social realism exemplified by Ken Loach or the British kitchen-sink dramas of the 50s and 60s. I love Ealing Comedies. Film Noir. Bill Forsyth (Gregory's Girl, Comfort And Joy, Local Hero). What list of film favorites would be complete without Spinal Tap?
I almost forgot to mention one film that dominated just about every kid's psyche around my school: Quadrophenia. I wasn't a Who fan before I saw it and it actually took me a while after it to become one. I also was never really a mod, I wasn't anywhere near cool enough, but that film came along at just the right time for me and many others, shaping musical tastes, fashion styles, and aesthetics for years to come, in the UK at least. I doubt whether The Jam and other mod revival acts, not to mention 2-Tone, would have been anywhere near as big without the movie version of the Who's rock opera.
Do yourself a favor and seek out some of the stuff I've mentioned above, and now you know the sort of stuff I like, get in touch with your own recommendations.

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner:

I'm writing this just after the voters of America elected their first non-white president, Barack Obama. It's still early days obviously (he doesn't take office for a couple of months!) and a lot of folk seem to have lofty and slightly unrealistic expectations for the man, but the mood is hopeful. I've said before in these pages that I don't put much faith in 'democracy' or party politics but at the very least it's encouraging that the leader of the free world is African-American.
Less encouraging is the success (by a slim margin) of Proposition 8 here in California. Proposition 8 contained an amendment to the California Constitution defining marriage as a purely heterosexual institution. This measure was sponsored by a cabal of conservative, right wing, and religious groups in response to the Supreme Court's ruling that same-sex marriage was legal in this state. As someone who's been married for over thirteen years I often tell my queer friends that it's not all it's cracked up to be, but in all seriousness marriage (rightly or wrongly) bestows certain rights on people and to deny those rights to a class of people is discrimination. 'Defenders' of the 'sanctity' of marriage insist that the Proposition was not about discrimination or about taking away anyone's rights, citing that gays could attain all the same rights as married straights by entering into civil unions. This is not just a smokescreen; it's an outright lie. While a civil partnership does bestow some of the same rights as marriage, some crucial rights are still left out. For example, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service doesn't yet recognize civil unions. I have been able to live and work (and pay taxes) in the USA for so long because my spouse is American. If I was gay, forget it. Still, the fight against Prop 8 isn't over: the Yes on 8 campaign was funded heavily by the Church of the Latter Day Saints (i.e. the Mormons, who not so long ago promoted polygamy), but as a religious organization with tax-exempt status, they're not supposed to use their money to try to influence legislation. At the very least they should lose their tax-exempt status, but let's face it, it probably won't happen.
As a result of writing about some of my old favorite zines a few issues ago I heard from my old friend Adam of Go! fanzine, who was pleased to be able to demonstrate to his girlfriend that he was once at least "a wee bit famous." Glad to be of help Adam. See ye in the Halt. I was also grateful to receive the latest issue of Seven Inches To Freedom, an entertaining read out of Florida. This issue (#6) is in fact dedicated to the best of the Florida scene. Considering that the only decent thing out of Florida is Tom Petty and I can only stand him in small doses, I expected a pretty thin issue, but in fact the zine is crammed with stuff, including an extensive discography of almost every Florida label since 1989 and an argument for the first Scrotum Grinder 7" being the best Florida record ever. I'm going to have to take your word for it on that one, boys and girls. If you want to check it out yourself I believe one US dollar will suffice (double it if yer forrin): Joe Lachut/SITF, PO Box 457, Fort Myers, FL 33902-0457)
While on the subject of zines, a recent visit to Issues (a great magazine store in Oakland) reminded me that I was remiss in not mentioning Chunklet when discussing my appreciation of mean-spirited humor. Although it doesn't come out very often, Chunklet never fails to entertain, despite the fact that it consists almost entirely of indie-rock inside jokes. Also, for some reason, they take a lot of digs at MRR even though none of the writers (and certainly none of the readers) have probably read an issue of Maximum since the mid-90s, if ever. The issue I just picked up, #20, is, predictably, dense with jokes in type so tiny you'll need a new prescription by the time you've finished it. I can't even begin to start listing some of the contents so just take it from me: you need it. It's a little pricey at $10 but one issue goes a long way. This will be in your bathroom magazine rack for months. Go to
Wow, I think this might be one of the longest columns I've done for the mag. Still, I missed last month's deadline so I've got some making up to do. PO Box 22971, Oakland, CA 94609, USA. I surf my ego at I've also been a somewhat irregular contributor to Bricks And Mortar, the music blog started by MRR's own cheeky mockney chappie Tim Brooks. See what Tim and I (and some other familiar faces) have got to say for ourselves at Cheers!

Skate Muties & Riot Grrrls (MRR #306)

I was enjoying an after-work Stella Artois along San Francisco's scenic Embarcadero with young Timmy Brooks the other day when we got to reminiscing (as we often do) about the good old days. We got onto the subject of our favorite UK punk zines from the 80s and early 90s, especially the best of the bunch, Skate Muties From The 5th Dimension. It's been noted that they 'borrowed' a lot of their schtick (not to mention their entire layout) from Rev. Norb's (Sic)Teen zine, but no-one did a better job of skewering the UK punk and skate subculture at the time. That period was a grim one in the world of UK punk zines. I was obsessed with zines for a while. I wrote off for a new one just about every time I got a crudely mimeographed advert in a letter from someone (in those days every letter came in an envelope stuffed with extra dross in the form of distro lists, adverts for tapes, records, or zines, or pamphlets about animal rights - they would have cost a fortune to post if the entire British punk scene wasn't using the same half-a-dozen second class stamps, barely held together by the soap and glue used to render the postmaster's franking machine useless). A succession of flimsy, badly written, one-or-two issue punk zines found their way into my letterbox. I'd get something in the post every day, but for the most part there was very little worth wiping one's arse with. There must have been a list of rules and regulations somewhere about what you could or could not include in your zine. The first thing that had to be excluded at all costs was any sense of humor. However, as long as you had some reprinted Hunt Saboteurs pamphlets, articles on a woman's right to choose (written by a bloke, obv.), interviews with anarcho celebs of the day (our very own R. Kanaan of Political Asylum was a popular choice) and condemnations of any band that charged more than 50p to get into their gigs, you were alright. Screeds of poorly photocopied, cataract-inducing miniscule type were produced condemning so-called anarchist activists for putting milk in their tea. Debate raged over whether or not Colin Conflict was seen patronizing the local McDonalds. Hundreds of dour, insipid metallic thrash bands without a tune between them were celebrated in crudely stapled zines that appeared to be printed on the same paper used as toilet paper in Soviet gulags.
This was the environment that Bristol's Skate Muties attempted to liven up with their mean-spirited, irreverent humor. Although they themselves were skateboarders and punk rockers, they made no bones about pointing out and ridiculing the more embarrassing elements in those scenes. Students, crusties, shit bands, skate posers, BMXers, foreigners of all stripes, Welshmen, northerners, and southerners all came in for a well-deserved slagging, but it was all done in such a unique, funny way that even if you were the object of humiliation, you had to laugh anyway. I think there are issues of this on the internet to be downloaded if you want to see what I'm talking about, although I don't know if it would have the same impact today. I think someone should compile all the issues into a book though. After SM5D some of the Muties went on to start a magazine in a similar vein called Bugs And Drugs that was just as funny but less about punk or skating and more about British culture in general if I remember. I think they tried to capitalize on the popularity of the adult comic Viz but maybe they were a bit too clever to be that successful.
Naturally, SM5D wasn't the only zine that tried to inject a sense of humor into an otherwise tedious and boringly self-referential world. Some others that came up during my chat with Tim included the infamous Have A Good Laugh (even if you didn't always agree with him, Trev HAGL wasn't afraid to ruffle a few punk purist feathers), Raising Hell, and 666 1/2. One of Glasgow's three straight-edgers (though none of the three of us can claim it any more) Adam Johnston put out a funny zine focused on international hardcore called Go!
By the early 90s (with a few exceptions) most of these zines had called it quits, having been replaced by Riot Grrrl zines. The zines that weren't done by Riot Grrrls were very much influenced by that scene, so while there were many (no doubt worthwhile) articles on how to string together a couple of guitar chords, put on your own gigs, and take back the pit from macho white men (all while having a herbal abortion), there was a distinct lack of humor. After that the zine scene seemed to pretty much spiral into an abyss of introspective, naval-gazing 'personal' writing and I lost interest in it, bar the odd issue of Cometbus.
It might seem (yet again) that I'm just being an old man griping about the good old days, but I do think that there's nothing going on these days that has the element of wicked humor that was so good about Skate Muties, HAGL, etc. If there is, I'm just not aware of it. I think people are reluctant to say anything negative about each other, even in jest, for fear of offending the wrong person. Everyone takes themselves so seriously. Are people are all nicey-nicey in their record reviews and blogs because they don't want the free records to stop coming, or because they don't want to piss off their famous(!) friends? Come on, let's all have a laugh while having our say, eh?

PS I should point out that Trev HAGL continues to publish zines under the names Savage Amusement and Negative Reaction, so hats off to him. He must be the UK's longest-running zinester. Cheers!