Thursday, 31 January 2013

Film Review - Django Unchained

It must be hard to be a truly great artist constantly judged against your previous masterpieces. These days when McCartney releases a new album he must know in his heart of hearts whatever he farts out will never be a patch on Rubber Soul no matter how hard he tries.

Same may be said for Tarantino who in recent years has had endure the burden of expectation with each of his subsequent releases compared to the cinematic alchemy that was Pulp Fiction. When you have been at the very top of your game like he has its a wonder he gets out of bed at all.

Whilst Django Unchained is not quite in that category,  it is a fine film and a return to form melding Tarantino's love of blaxpolitation, spaghetti westerns, martial arts sensibilities and comic book flourishes into a beguiling Southern gumbo.

Jamie Foxx plays the titular Django, a whip scarred slave who wins his freedom after entering into partnership with German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) who kills Django's captors as they lead him in chains through the Texan back woods.

Schultz interest in Django is initially all business as he needs him to point out a trio of wanted brothers residing at a nearby plantation. Their partnership soon develops and Schultz teaches him the art of bounty hunting.

‘You kill white folk for money. What’s not to like?’

Their relationship fosters a degree of responsibility in Schultz who feels duty bound to help Django in his mission to find his missing slave wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who is currently in the hands of dastardly plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man with a fine beard and a great line in passive-aggressive gentility.

The violence then strays into cartoonish Wild Bunch territory when Tarantino mainstay Samuel L Jackson, here virtually unrecognisable as a vile old Uncle Tom cronie, uncovers the pair's ulterior motives.  With their intentions exposed Django takes on Candie's henchmen and end up redecorating the inside of his mansion in crimson.

A lot of guilty white liberals and militant blacks get touchy, perhaps justifiably, when the subject of slavery gets brought up in film. There has been criticism about Tarantino's use of the word "nigger" which is sprinkled liberally throughout the film and the fact that it is white man who ultimately has to give Django his freedom.

Critics need to be reminded that there aren't many directors who have even dared to tackle this shameful period in America's history and Tarantino's script should be taken into context, politically correctness wasn't really that well established in the 1800's.  If anything he should be applauded for shining a post modern light on America's tawdry past. Most importantly people need to remember this a movie not a documentary.

It's maybe a sign of how far the civil rights movement  has come when the slavery depicted is too shocking to countenance, like the behaviour of an alien race or beings from an alternate universe.  How did whites feel it OK to own black people and trade them like cattle? Tarantino may cover the subject of slavery in his usual stylised fashion and he does take a few artistic liberties with the facts, (mandingo fighting never really happened, slaves did ride horses and dogs were used to track not tear apart their quarry) but none of the portrayals are gratuitous and you can be sure the reality of slave life was far worse than that depicted here.

Tarantino is not a director frightened to play with convention and like all great artists has cherry picked liberally from cinematic history, in this case from Sergio Corbucci's orignal Django, the entire Sergio Leone cannon and forgotten blaxpolitation films like Mandingo and Boss Nigger. It is beautifully shot (credit to cinematographer Robert Richardson), imaginatively constructed and despite the nods to his earlier inspirations, entirely Tarantino.

The verbal sparring between the delicious Waltz (who proves beyond doubt that his star turn in Inglorious Basterds was no fluke) and DiCaprio (who has proved over the years to be a damn fine actor and much more than just a pretty face) is worth the ticket price alone. Waltz has a wonderful knack of being utterly engaging in his performances. He could read you the installation instructions on photocopier toner and still appear captivating.

It is a testament to Tarantino that the 2hrs 45 running time flies by but he really needs a strong editor to get tough with him and trim off the fat as latter films have had a whiff of over indulgence about them. A few scenes drag on, the middle is a bit flabby and Tarantino's customary cameo (and abysmal Aussie accent) would have been better left on the cutting room floor.

Tarantino has said Django isn't so much a Western as a "Southern". Whatever you label it, you can be assured of Tarantino's stylistic melange running through it like a stick of rock.  He has covered crime, noir, war, blaxploitation, heist and martial arts genres. Imagine what he could do with a straight up horror. I can just see Samuel L Jackson in a hockey mask.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The 10 Richest Songs in the World - Part 2

Continuing our countdown to the highest earning song in music I must first issue a warning to all aspiring songwriters.  Your new song may charm the birds from the trees and have women's knicker elastic pinging within the first four bars but no matter how fantastic the track you are ever going to get on this list unless you have a good lawyer. 

Take the example of everyones favourite Irish curmudgeon Van Morrison.  As a naive 21yr he flew bright eyed and bushy tailed to New York eager to please would be boss Bert Berns owner of Bang Records. Van was in a particularly accommodating mode following of the break up of his band Them and would probably have traded his first born for a recording contract. 

Without legal advice he signed away rights to songs, one of which was his signature tune Brown Eyed Girl ,which guaranteed no royalties would be payable until all recording and miscellaneous expenses attributed to Big Bang records were paid first. Through some creative accounting Van says he has never received any royalties for his most famous song which has been played over 10 million times on US radio.  No wonder he is a grumpy bastard.

OK. Back to business.
5. 'Unchained Melody', Alex North and Hy Zaret £18m

Long before the likes of Gareth Gates and Robson & Jerome made the song as musically satisfying as a glass sandwich made with dog turd mayonnaise it was the soundtrack to the long forgotten 1955 prison movie ‘Unchained’ about a prisoner yearning for freedom.

It has been recorded over 650 times in more than 100 languages but the definitive version is and will always be that performed by the Righteous Brothers.

Like many of the top ten earners it got a second wind off the back of a movie, in this case the how-to-guide-to-paranormal-pottery flick Ghost. Such was the clamour to buy the single in 1990, singer Bill Medley opted to re-record the song as he wasn't making any money from the original anymore.
4. 'Yesterday', Lennon & McCartney £19.5m

Despite a co writing credit this song was written and played exclusively by McCartney (the first time this had happened) and was one of the final nails in The Beatles coffin.  A melancholy folk ballad, Yesterday was a Beatles song for people who didn't really like The Beatles.  The melody famously came to Paul in a dream so fully formed he was sure it was already a recorded song.

Even Lennon in his bitterest hatred for McCartney (as evidenced in the vitriolic How Do You Sleep?) had to grudgingly admit it was a good song. Whilst the melody came out fully intact it took Paul a while to work out the lyrics. Yesterday started off like this

"Scrambled Eggs
Oh, my baby how I love your legs"

If only McCartney had the courage of his convictions as who doesn't like women's legs and scrambled eggs. He was shouted down by his bandmates and eventually firmed up the lyrics during a Portuguese recording session.

It has been covered over 2000 times by artists as diverse as Placido Domingo, Daffy Duck and Wet Wet Wet. Michael Jackson famously bought the publishing rights rights for £24m and sold them to Sony in 1995 for £59m. Perhaps you can blame Macca's songwriting skill for Jacko's riches and his inability to decide if he preferred to be Black or White.

You've Lost That Loving Feeling, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil and Phil Spector £20.5m

According to the BMI this hold the record for having been played more times on American radio than any other song and no doubt is the reason for its lofty position in the top 10 money earners.

No wonder Brill Building husband and wife team Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil are in a cheery mood when interviewed. They recall with much hilarity Phil Spector's contribution to the track. Apart from imbuing it with his lush Wall of Sound production when the group were stuck with a line to finish off the bridge Weil tells us he came up with the classic:

"and he is gone, gone, gone, Whoa, whoa, whoa. We said Phil you can't just put whoa, whoa, whoa on a song. But it worked!"

In the UK, Cilla Black tried to get the jump on The Righteous Brothers by releasing a mediocre George Martin produced version in 1965 just before the original was released.

In response flamboyant music mogul Andrew Loog Oldham posted a full page ad in Melody Maker subtly dissing its competitor

"This advert is not for commercial gain, it is taken as something that must be said about the great new PHIL SPECTOR Record, THE RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS singing "YOU'VE LOST THAT LOVIN' FEELING". Already in the American Top Ten, this is Spector's greatest production, the last word in Tomorrow's sound Today, exposing the overall mediocrity of the Music Industry"

You could argue that Oldham was the pioneer of this type of Blur v Oasis PR hype.  Aah innocent times.

While we are are it check out Telly Savalas which I'm including for the sheer hell of it

2. 'White Christmas', Irving Berlin £24m

Proving that the maxim that it's only Jews who really know how to write a good Christmas song comes the top selling Xmas perennial of all time from the pen of Irving Berlin. Bing Crosby's version alone has sold in excess of 50 million copies and the song is the best selling single of all time according to the Guinness Book of Records.

Russian born Berlin was a prolific songwriter who wrote over 1500 songs including scores for Broadway shows and Hollywood movies.  George Gershwin called him

"The greatest songwriter that has ever lived"

He was influential in the creation of The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) the organisation that first adopted a unified system for collecting and distributing artist's royalties so we can thank him in part for the ability to create this top 10 list.

I'll be honest I hate this song mainly because I've heard it too many times and I hate Christmas.

So....all that is left is to unveil the best selling song of all time.  It has to be one by The Beatles right?  Wrong.
1. 'Happy Birthday To You', Patty Hill and Mildred J. Hill £30m

Sadly not the Stevie Wonder track aiming to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national US holiday but the ubiquitous ditty that has woven into the fabric of society and used the world over to embarrass birthday boys and girls.  Originally "written" in 1893 by two sisters in Kentucky as "Good Morning To All" as a musical greeting to their kindergarten class the kids liked it and started using it at birthday parties with substituted lyrics.

The sisters won a copyright case in the 30's and the song's ownership has subsequently passed through various faceless corporations including Warner Music Group who were earning $2m a year from public performances as of 2008.

Royalties are payable from use in film (as much as £25000 a pop), television, radio, all commercial product such as watches or birthday cards, public performances and amazingly anytime it is sang among a group where a substantial number of those in attendance are not family or friends of whoever is singing.  That sounds like one of my birthday parties.

For this reason most restaurants or other public party venues will not allow their employees to perform the song for their guests. Seriously is there no section of society that has been sullied by the greedy tentacles of some corporate asshole?  That is a rhetorical question if you were wondering.

Right, that is it. I'm off to write my own cash cow. Its called Happy Birthday to Jesus. I figure I'd kill two birds with one stone.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

TV Review: The 10 Richest Songs In The World: BBC4 Part 1

The pop song: 3 minutes of disposable tuneage often farted out in half an hour on the back of a fag packet but whose legacy can transcend generations and can be the soundtrack to billions of lives.  Those lucky few who manage to harness the intangible alchemy of lyrics and music may never have to work again. I'm looking at you Reg Presley.

There are many ways a songwriter can get paid. Selling albums is the obvious one with writers getting 7 to 8p per track. For downloads margins are squeezed even more to 4p which is perhaps a sign of the times. When you think new CD albums go for around £10 and downloaded albums go for £7 on iTunes there seems to be more "skimming" going on then at a mafia owned casino.

Whilst the rise of technology and illegal downloading has hampered writers earning potential it has also opened up different revenue streams.  Ring tones, web licensing, computer games, adverts, karaoke machines and shopping centres all offer alternate earning potential for aspiring song writers proving the demise of the music industry has been exaggerated.

Presented by the laconic Mark Radcliffe The 10 Richest Songs In The World is a fascinating and well researched documentary on the business behind the music detailing which of the songs we know and love/hate have earned the most moolah. Is it a song by the Beatles, Adele, Frank Sinatra?  Sadly, Shadap You Face failed to make the cut.

So here's a round up of the 10 biggest earners in the history of music...Ba baa ba baa ba baa ba baa ba ba ba, ba ba baa ba baa baaaaaa BA!

10. 'The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)', Mel Torme & Bob Wells. Earnings: £8.5m

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Cash flow bigger than J.Lo's"

or so the perennial Christmas classic should go. Written in 45 minutes by Bob Wells and jazz legend Mel Torme AKA "The Velvet Fog"  (sounding more a wrestler than a crooner in that incarnation) it was an effort to take their minds of the stifling summer heat of 1944 by writing a song to conjure up images of a chilly Xmas. Or as Torme puts it.

"stay cool by thinking cool"

The song has been murdered by the likes of Michael Bolton and Barry Manilow but the incarnation that is best known is Nat King Cole's. He liked it so much he recorded it four times. Despite keeping the Torme clan financial secure for generations (his son James is interviewed and is now the living embodiment of Hugh Grant's character in About A Boy) Mel was dismissive of the track calling it

"my annuity"

9. 'Oh Pretty Woman', Roy Orbison & Bill Dees £10.5m

Certainly not a one hit wonder this is The Big O's biggest earner.

Guitar legend James Burton came up with the walking guitar riff and inspiration for the lyrics came from Roy's wife Claudette who came in to ask Roy for some shopping money. Song writing partner Bill Dees quipped "pretty woman don't need money" and the rest is history.

Whilst a fantastic song I was surprised to see this in the top 10. This is mainly due to the song's resurrection in the 1990 whore-with-a-heart- rom-com Pretty Woman starring Julia Roberts & Richard Gere. It exposed the song to a whole new generation whilst ensuring a sizable fee for the licencing rights.

Normally artists are only too keen to have their songs covered but Orbison took exception to an unauthorised rap version by horny sex pests 2 Live Crew. Sample lyric:

[Big hairy woman] You need to shave that stuff
[Big hairy woman] You know, I bet it's tough
[Big hairy woman] All that hair, it ain't legit
Cause you look like Cousin It

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court who amazingly ruled in favour of 2 Live Crew saying that the song was a parody that did not require permission and their version was protected by fair use.

8. 'Every Breath You Take', Sting £13.5m

As an anthem for stalkers everywhere Every Breath You Take has done very well for Gordon Sumner earning him a cool £2000 a day.  This one song also accounts for a quarter of all The Police's combined PRS.

Sting's bank balance was swollen even further when Puff Daddy/P Diddy sampled the track for his ode to the late Biggie Smalls I'll Be Missing You which sold over 7 million copies. Sting's lawyers played hardball with Diddy when he requested a songwriting credit for his raps. They told him to get stuffed and Sting continues to get 100% of the writers credit.

Andy Summers is interviewed in the documentary and still seems a bit pissed off that he didn't get a writing credit for the riff that he came up with that was the real hook that Diddy used on the track.  Summers seemed to infer some cloak and dagger implication about a "special agreement" in the Police with regards to royalties seeing as Sting shouldered the bulk of the writing. Whether this agreement extended to once fortnightly tantric sex sessions with Trudie Styler could not be confirmed at the time of writing.

7. 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town', John Frederick Coots and Haven Gillespie £16.5m

Another festive money spinner trotted out on the usual yuletide collections and covered by every cheeseball under the sun (Bing Crosby, Perry Como, The Jackson 5 (my favourite version), Springsteen, Alice Cooper and Justin Bieber have all had a stab).

It's the first of the classic Xmas songs written way back in Depression era 1934 by Tin Pan Alley composer Haven Gillespie and John Frederick Coots.  It was initially thought to be a lightweight children's tune they had little hope for when they offered it to radio DJ and singer Eddie Cantor. He performed it live on his show and there were 100000 sheet music sales by the following morning.

6. 'Stand By Me', Ben E. King, Jerry Leiber, and Mike Stoller £17m

"Bum bum ba ba bum bum etc.."

And so goes one of the most memorable baselines in music. Its simplicity is its strength operating as it does standard 50's chord changes (AKA the Stand By Me progression).  Another that was knocked out in half an hour, Ben E King never had any intention of recording it but wrote it with The Drifters in mind.  They opted not to record it but King ended up taking up the song himself when he he started humming the melody at the Brill Building offices of legendary write/producer combo Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber.

They quickly put the song together with Stoller/Leiber agreeing a generous 25/25/50% split in favour of King. Such largesse enabled nice-guy-King to start the Stand By Me Foundation, a charity which funds music college scholarships. More importantly it allowed Ben E to finally be able to afford an "N" and a "Y" for his name.

The song's position in the financial top 10 is due in part to the fact it has been covered over 400 times (although none are better than the original). It was then  resurrected in 1986 by Rob Reiner's coming of age movie classic of the same name and went to number one off the back of a Levi's advert in 1987.

King sums it up nicely

"If it wasn’t for Stand By Me I’d probably be driving a cab."

If you are quick you can catch the documentary on iPlayer for the next 2 days

Next Week the countdown continues - The Richest Songs in the World: Part 2 - #5 to #1

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Vieques Puerto Rico Part 5 Bio-bay Baby!

Anyone who has read my last few blogs would have seen that Vieques has a lot to offer. World class beaches, unspoilt countryside and a quirky Caribbean backwater atmosphere.

You may say:

"So what? There are plenty of places in this part of the world with those qualities. How about Bocas del Toro in Panama, Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica or Corn Islands in Honduras?"

Fact is you would be right.  Many places in the Caribbean and Latin America have these same selling points that make this area my favourite holiday destination.

What sets Vieques apart from these other destinations is the fact that is has the brightest bio-luminescent bay in the world.

"The brightest bio-what now?"

OK, quiet down and let me explain.

The bio-bay in Vieques is located in Puerto Mosquito, a short 10 min ride from Esperanza down a truly atrocious dirt road (the tour operators don't want it paved as it puts off a lot of visitors).  It is unique as it only exists due to a special set of environmental circumstances that protect the microscopic organisms called Dinoflagellates which live in the bay and produce a psychedelic natural light show when disturbed. The sight of these tiny creatures lighting up the dark water rivals any of the oceanic CGI fireworks you might have seen in The Life of Pi.

On land most people will be familiar with fireflies or glow worms who create light purely from mixing oxygen and the chemical Luceferin (from the Latin: Lucifer or Light-Bringer) thus releasing energy in the form of green light. In the sea the effect is more widespread then people realise but usually confined to the deep sea where 80% of life use it to either navigate, lure prey or communicate in the murky depths.

Here the same phenomena reaches the surface although scientists are not exactly sure why the Dinoflagellates produce light when disturbed but suspect it to be a defence mechanism to ward off prey or perhaps even to communicate with each other.

The Dinoflagellates exist in open water in much smaller numbers but manage to survive to such a concentration because the the inlet to the bay is protected from the sea by a kink that stops the sea water flooding in or out at any great pace (It is rumoured that the Spanish at seeing the eerie light show thought the bay was the work of the devil and blocked the entrance up which huge boulders).

The bay is also surrounded by mangrove forest which provides the Dinoflagellates with the requisite nutrients (they are partial to vitamin B12) and protection. On top of all this there are no factories, industry or large towns in the vicinity that pollute the water with their run off.

All these factors combine to ensure the resident population has flourished over the years to reach the highest concentration anywhere in the world.  As a result their reactions are the brightest and most eye catching on the planet.

There are numerous companies that operate this tour which costs between 40-50$ per person and last for about 2 and a half hours. I went on a standard tour with Abes and in a clear canoe with VAC.  You are always told to go on a moonless night so the luminescence is not lessened by light pollution but there are always normally two tours, the earlier of which will go out before the moon has had a chance to rise.

Your party will have a bumpy shuttle to the bay in a van where you will pile out and be issued with a life jacket and and  paddle.  You are advised not to wear any mosquito spray containing DEET as this kills the Dinoflagellates and as you are likely to be wearing shorts you will be keen not to hang around in the forest. The canoes are two man affairs and although you don't have to be super fit to take this tour I think a certain degree of physicality is needed as you will be paddling for best part of an hour and a half.

I would recommend both tour companies as they are quite similar with information on the surrounding mangrove swamp, history of the bay and the science behind the light show.  I got a bit more science from Abe's guys whose tours had a more relaxed pace and more jokes and astronomy from the VAC team. The extra 10$ for the clear glass canoes really isn't worth it IMHO as the brightest effects will come from splashing your paddles or seeing fish darting through the water leaving behind luminous trails.

Seeing the luminous outline of a huge ray darting in front of our canoe into the inky blackness was a truly heart pounding and awe inspiring moment.  On a clear night where above you is a galaxy of stars and below you an ever changing glow of Dinoflagellates it feels like you are suspended in space.  Take a moment to lay back, look up and feel the comfort of insignificance.

Just before I left , Puerto Rico held a referendum to establish if they wanted to be the 51st state of the union. The population voted overwhelmingly in favour. Further integration into the US would certainly erode some of Puerto Rico's unique cultural heritage e.g. English would have to be taught in schools instead of Spanish.

With some larger scale construction currently taking place on the malecon in Esperanza I feel Vieques is on the cusp of change.  The very qualities that bring tourists to Vieques are extremely fragile commodities that can easily be lost by the understandable desire to modernise and make money.  In that sense the threats to the Bio-bay and the Puerto Rican character are intertwined.

Often change isn't always for the better.