In this episode, I notice a sharp increase in the number of musical biopic films being released over the past year, and given the news of an upcoming biopic about punk pioneers The Clash called 'London Town', I explain why so many music stories are becoming ripe for re-enactment. We also embark on an 'Adventure Of A Lifetime' - Coldplay's new single - and examine the unfinished work of an artist gone too soon (Jeff Buckley).
- If you would like to support the family of Nick Alexander - former merch guy for Eagles Of Death Metal - you can contribute to a GoFundMe campaign here.
- Keep a look-out for updates on the upcoming biopic about The Clash, 'London Town' here.
- Coldplay's 2015 single 'Adventure Of A Lifetime' can downloaded from iTunes here.
- Jeff Buckley's 1998 posthumous album (Sketches For) My Sweetheart The Drunk can downloaded from iTunes here.
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Welcome back everyone to Musicology With The Eagle with this our sixteenth episode! I am The Eagle, and in case you’ve been wondering, we’re now trying to stick to a fortnightly schedule. Hopefully this will mean that the end product is just as insightful and enjoyable – to produce and to consume.
During our ‘bye week’, I’d like to say that it was without drama, but I’m sure you are very well aware of the horrific events that took place on the night of Friday the 13th of November in Paris. It is with deep sadness to note that one of the city’s oldest and most eclectic live music venues – The Bataclan – was the scene of a staggering loss of life, during a performance of an artist whom we recently added to the Musicology With The Eagle family.
So our thoughts go out to all the fans and band members of Eagles Of Death Metal, and to all the families who are left without a loved one after that tragic night. I also want to take a moment to pay tribute to one of the many victims, and to shine a light on someone who was very rarely in the spotlight – just like many of his kind.
Nick Alexander was the merch – or merchandise – guy for Eagles Of Death Metal, one of the countless heroes behind the scenes at almost every gig you’ll ever go to. While the superstars are up on stage doing their thing, Nick and all the other members of the road crew are working wonders to make sure those artists are even able to do their thing. Nick was passionate about his job, and likely touched hundreds, maybe even thousands of lives with his kindness and dedication. By honouring his profession, I hope to do some honour to the man.
So next time you’re at a gig, think of him and those hardworking people who help make your music dreams come true. Here’s to Nick Alexander, and here’s to the road crew.
Is it just me, or has there been an incredible amount of musical biopics released during 2015?
This year has seen the film industry invest heavily in this type of music movie, allowing for the stories of a wide range of artists to be seen and heard on-screen. Call it nostalgia, call it cashing in, or (hopefully) call it a sincere tribute – the music biopic is becoming the new normal, and not just in Hollywood.
The rise of Netflix and other subscription video on demand outlets is meaning that independently produced music movies and documentaries with fairly modest budgets can find a path to an audience and to profitability that doesn't require mainstream theatrical success. Maybe that’s why you often don’t hear about some of these projects unless you keep closely up-to-date with your music news.
So why the seemingly sudden urge for biopics, let alone musical ones? I think we as a society are feeling more reflective with each passing year because our environment is enabling us to be. Nowadays, we can easily call up biographical information on any artist we might be interested in – admit it, you’ve paused an episode of your favourite TV show just to Google something - or download an entire career within an afternoon thanks to a speedy Internet connection. Collectively, it means that more and more musical stories are being unearthed by fans and filmmakers that are worth telling, or ripe for re-enactment.
The latter factor is of particular importance – when is the right time to tell a story? Do we wait until an artist has passed away before paying tribute, or do we only recall their youthful heyday whilst in reality, the old man continues to live out his twilight years?
A new biopic about punk pioneers The Clash finds itself somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. The film is currently in production and is going by the name of ‘London Town’- not to be confused with a similarly-titled musical film from 1946, which is apparently considered to be one of the biggest flops in British cinema history. Yikes! Not much is known about it at present, aside from some behind-the-scenes photos of Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who’s got the leading role of iconic singer & guitarist Joe Strummer.
It’s been almost 13 years since Strummer’s sudden death at 50 years old from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, so perhaps the healing, as well as administrative process has reached the point where the band’s legacy can be put to film. From what we can tell so far, the film is set in 1978 at the cusp of The Clash’s cultural impact, and centres on a teenager who ventures into central London from its bleak outskirts to find his estranged mother, played by Natasha McElhone (well-known for her work in the TV series ‘Californication’), who’s sent him a cassette of the band’s “White Riot.”
Regardless of whether a biopic aims for a direct retelling of history, or weaves a more fictionalised story together – which ‘London Town’ seems to be – a common source of concern and debate is the casting. This is hard enough for standard biopics – recently, many were left confused by Michael Fassbender’s lack of physical resemblance to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, with his casting only meant to capture the essence of Jobs’ character. But playing a musician has an added layer of complexity, as one most likely has to sing and/or play an instrument at some point to be convincing to the audience.
I was surprised to find that Rhys Meyers actually has a track record of appearing in musical biopics: first as a pseudo-David Bowie glam rock star in 1998’s ‘Velvet Goldmine, and secondly as Elvis Presley in the 2005 miniseries ‘Elvis’ – which he won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor. Morphing from the King Of Rock ‘n Roll to punk’s poet laureate is no mean feat, but trading sultry come-on’s for impassioned rallying cries seems well within Rhys Meyers’ skill set, and definitely a good ‘Career Opportunity’. The photos from the set also show him playing a replica of Strummer’s trusty 1966 Fender Telecaster, splashed with grey and black paint and decorated with an assortment of stickers. So hopefully we’ll be hearing some approximations of Strummer’s snarling vocal delivery on the soundtrack.
I’m quite a big fan of those actually, and they’re sometimes the first introduction I have to an artist, even if they’re a tad smoothed-out and theatrical. One great example that comes to mind is 2005’s ‘Walk The Line’, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash. Phoenix’s dedication to the role was inspiring, as he and actress Reese Witherspoon both went through rigorous vocal training with a band and producer T-Bone Burnett to be able deliver the goods live on screen, as well as on the soundtrack. Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Ray Charles in 2004’s ‘Ray’ was uncannily immersive. It was so believable that Foxx was able to nimbly integrate his own vocal and piano work into the final film, such as in the scene where he is shown writing "Hit The Road, Jack" while arguing with his mistress, before transitioning into lip-syncing Charles’ pre-recorded hit.
When any film genre becomes an established ‘thing’, there’s always opportunities for self-parody, and you can’t forget the granddaddy of them all: ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, a 1984 mockumentary about a fictional heavy metal band that hews so closely to historical tropes about rock music, it managed to trick many of its moviegoers into believing the ludicrous group actually existed. More recently, ‘Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story’ slipstreamed the success and serious tone of 21st century music biopics, and spoofed the genre while cleverly paying homage to the past.
Musical biopics are generally seen as rambling recollections of musicians' lives, recounting their tragedies and their triumphs, occasionally tweaking the lens through which we view those stories to suit a predetermined agenda. But it’s at that exact point where the genre has the opportunity to go deeper, to explore the issues that connect us moviegoers and music fans with our heroes being faithfully portrayed onscreen. It’s where we can see the true artist within.
This episode, we have a new release from a rock band entering a new phase of their existence: Coldplay. The song is called ‘Adventure Of A Lifetime’, and is the lead single off of their seventh and purportedly final album ‘A Head Full Of Dreams’.
Now that’s not a statement you hear in the run-up to an album release. Usually it’s a press release midway through a tour, or after it’s had its run on the charts. But band leader Chris Martin is speaking in wistful platitudes again, much like his persona on record, and it seems that it’s their way of throwing themselves fully into the project. To quote Martin: "It's our seventh thing, and the way we look at it, it's like the last Harry Potter book. Not to say that there might not be another thing one day, but this is the completion of something."
Much like another world-conquering band who were at a creative crossroads 15 to 20 years into their career, Coldplay is a 21st century version of U2, with its rock-solid line-up and long list of artistic and commercial achievements leading up to, well, anything really. Does the world need another Coldplay album? I don’t ask that with any snarky intent – there are enough music fans out there who take great joy in mocking Coldplay’s lofty output to do that for me. Rather, I ask it as a genuine fan who is interested to see what they can offer before – excuse the economics term - diminishing marginal utility kicks in, and we grow to resent what we once found pleasant.
2014’s ‘Ghost Stories’ – released only 18 months ago – might’ve been the palate cleanser that both we and the band needed. Martin has likened its dour meditative nature to moments in Bruce Springsteen’s career: a deliberately ‘smaller’ record that you don’t necessarily tour behind. The band stayed in the studio after its release, amping up the ambition, with anything being fair game.
Once a rock band has conquered its own genre, there comes a time when they start to dabble in dance. The Rolling Stones have survived long enough to do it, most recently Arcade Fire gave it go, and now Coldplay have tried it on for size with the gloriously absurd ‘Adventure Of A Lifetime’. Recalling the uplifting technicolour of their fifth album, 2011’s ‘Mylo Xyloto’, the song is a funky fornication with lush, disco rhythms which also rides the rippling waves first sent out by Daft Punk’s smash-hit ‘Get Lucky’: the song that you’ve danced to at at least 4 weddings by now.
Whilst the elements that make up this adventure aren’t entirely new or startling in isolation, the way they’ve been incorporated into the Coldplaybook seems natural and unforced, particularly after last year’s EDM-influenced banger with Avicii, ‘A Sky Full Of Stars’. Jonny Buckland’s incessant squiggly guitar line has an Afropop feel first heard in ‘Strawberry Swing’, and the looped chanting and pulsing rush before the chorus where Martin declares “you make feel/Like I’m alive again” exude the happiness and child-like optimism of any A-grade Coldplay anthem of yore. The disco detour also shows off a well-oiled and slippery rhythm section – a crucial element when going down that shimmying path. Bassist Guy Berryman busts out a meaty groove this time around, whilst Will Champion behind the kit keeps things crisp and light. It’s a real team effort, and not just a Martin-penned number where everyone falls in line – as many of their hits were up until ‘Ghost Stories’ last year.
The spirit of collaboration, both internally and externally, runs through the making of this album, and it’s shaping up to be a vibrant and democratic one. ‘Adventure Of A Lifetime’ was apparently born from a freeform musical session, with Buckland’s guitar riff being the catalyst and Martin proudly stating that he was the last one to add his spice to the creative cocktail. His mantra for this new mix of melodies is admittedly quite hippie in nature, embracing love and acceptance of one’s situation after he himself had recently battled through a divorce from his wife of 10 years, actress Gwyneth Paltrow. They’re still on good enough terms to make music together though: Martin has stated that "Everyone who got asked to sing on our album has an important part in our lives”, which includes Paltrow appearing on a ballad named ‘Everglow’, and their two children and a collection of close family members and friends, who join in choir-style across some other tracks.
Due to the band’s status in society, they can even call someone like Beyonce a friend as well, who drops in for two collaborations – one of which is called ‘Hymn For The Weekend’. If Martin is to be believed, she was recruited to sing on the track after he had been randomly listening to pop-rapper Flo Rida, and pondered whether Coldplay could ever do “one of those late-night club songs”.
In Coldplay’s world, a head full of dreams means anything is possible.
For this episode’s retrospective, we examine the unfinished work of an incredibly talented musician who was taken far too soon from this world: Jeff Buckley.
It’s a rare achievement when a cover version surpasses the original, and stands above the dozens of other versions that populate the public’s consciousness. Buckley’s exquisite interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is often considered the high-water mark of the singer-songwriter’s frustratingly-short recording career, of which only one complete studio album was released during his lifetime, 1994’s ‘Grace’.
Being the son of 70’s folk singer-songwriter Tim Buckley, Jeff faced more expectations and pre-conceived notions than most of his ilk, but earned his stripes working the coffeehouse and club circuit as a solo singer and built up a considerable cult following by the early 1990’s. Although he only ever met his father once at the tender age of eight, Buckley grew up surrounded by music, absorbing influences from his classically-trained mother and well-versed stepfather, who introduced him to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd from a young age.
But like many young musicians trying to break into the music industry, Buckley started out playing guitar in various struggling bands, getting experience from groups playing jazz, reggae, roots rock, and even heavy metal. After years of being a team player, he only began realising his own artistic vision when he went solo, unlocking his true potential and revealing a most elegant and beautiful singing voice.
‘Grace’ had coalesced the strands of his musical journey into an album that could swagger, like Zeppelin had done two decades previously, or gently caress the listener with choirboy vocals and openhearted romance. It earned acclaim from all his heroes – seriously, what would you do if David Bowie named your debut album as the one album he would take with him to a desert island? But the newfound fame hardly went to Buckley’s head, and he spent much of the mid-1990’s touring the album, occasionally releasing live EP’s, and sometimes performing under pseudonyms to recapture the anonymity of his earlier years.
That’s an important factor when trying to understand ‘Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk’. As much as Buckley was sexy and sweet on his debut, he was eclectic and capricious by nature, justifying these underground gigs by saying “There was a time in my life not too long ago when I could show up in a cafe and simply do what I do, make music, learn from performing my music, explore what it means to me, i.e., have fun while I irritate and/or entertain an audience who don't know me or what I am about.”
The pressure to deliver yet another masterpiece must have been very high, especially from the man himself, who performed take after take to capture the perfect vocals during the recording of ‘Grace’. By 1996, Buckley was moving in the right circles, and whilst working with Patti Smith on her album ‘Gone Again’, he met Tom Verlaine, lead singer for 70’s proto-punk band Television, who agreed to be producer on Buckley’s new album.
Whilst those initial recording sessions with Verlaine yielded some polished studio efforts, Buckley was somehow dissatisfied with the results, and what could have been a complete album was scrapped. Listening to these songs years later, it’s hard to see why they were rejected: except for a few sloppy moments, the material is still satisfying and evocative, a stripped-down, edgier take on the sweeping gothic majesty of ‘Grace’. I enjoyed the angular beauty of ‘The Sky Is A Landfill’ – though convoluted with words, almost grungy and straight to the point musically. But ‘Everybody Here Wants You’ is an undeniably sensual slow jam for the ages, equal to anything off of ‘Grace’. Here, Buckley simmers with passion and desire, showing off his vocal range and lyrical adeptness with lines such as “Twenty-nine pearls in your kiss, a singing smile/Coffee smell, and lilac skin, your flame in me/I'm only here for this moment”.
Still, Buckley pressed on despite the brilliance of these drafts, moving for a few months from New York City to Memphis, Tennessee to record some demos alone on his own 4-track recorder and experiment with them in a live atmosphere by night at a nearby bar called Barristers. The material was noticeably avant-garde – mainly stark, naked guitar portraits, with his trademark howl drowned in feedback and atonal chaos.
On one evening in May 1997, with his band due to fly in to the city to join him in studio, Buckley went for a spontaneous swim in the Mississippi River, while fully-clothed and wearing boots – a silly act that he had done several times previously. As a friend onshore moved a guitar and radio out of reach of the wake from a passing tugboat, Buckley slipped under the waves, never to be seen alive again.
Exactly a year after his passing, Buckley's family and Columbia Records took a brave step to release these unmastered songs on two discs – one for the sessions with Verlaine, and one for the homemade 4-track experiments. Buckley’s mother and sole heir to his estate, Mary Guibert, insisted that they reflect the unfinished state in which he left them, adding ‘Sketches For’ to the front of the working title. Thus these roughened recordings are now forever incomplete, a glimpse of what could have been.
The final track of ‘Sketches…’ is an anomaly, jumping back to a live performance from 1992 of the old standard ‘A Satisfied Mind’. The song was played at Buckley’s funeral, and its inclusion seems appropriate when you look at the lyrics and how he lived his life. Although he was still wrestling with the music, he left this world with a satisfied mind.
That’s it for this episode folks, thanks for tuning in. You’ll next be hearing from us in two week’s time, so until then, stay adventurous and keep listening to music. I am The Eagle, and you have been listening to Musicology With The Eagle. See ya next time.