I’m a huge BLADE RUNNER fan, so I am excited to tell you about producer Ridley Scotts’s latest project, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN. The film hits theaters across the country this Friday, April 21. Our friends at Katrina Wan PR, in conjunction with Cinelou Films have released a featurette featuring Sir Ridley, alongside co-producers Wes Ball and TS Nowlin and director Justin Barber discussing the March 13, 1997 appearance of what has become known as “The Phoenix Lights,” which was the impetus for PHOENIX FORGOTTEN.
The movie relates the story of a trio of teenagers who, seeking to document the phenomenon, headed into the desert looking for answers. The three disappeared that night, never to be seen again. Much like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, this new film uses found footage of their final hours, revealing the truth behind the teens’ ultimate fate. Check out the featurette before heading out to catch the flick this weekend:
(REPERTOIRE RECORDS/COLUMBIA RECORDS; reissue 2016, original release 1966)
Throughout the early 1960s, popular music was a “singles” medium. Sure, full-length albums were part of the mix but, by and large, these collections consisted of up to one half recent single releases and massive doses of filler and cover tunes. However, by the spring and summer of 1966, album rock music was going full force, with classic records being released by the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention, the Beatles, the Kinks and the Jefferson Airplane, among others. One of the “others” was the first official studio album by a band called the Yardbirds, who had generated a string of hit singles on both sides of the Atlantic beginning in 1964. The album, released as YARDBIRDS in the United Kingdom and most of the world, was renamed OVER UNDER SIDEWAYS DOWN for North American release (as well as in France, Germany and Italy); the Australian mono release was dubbed ROGER THE ENGINEER.
The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Paul Samwell-Smith, Jim McCarty, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck) (publicity photo)
The record featured the vocal prowess of Keith Relf, Chris Dreja’s rhythm guitar, Paul Samwell-Smith on bass, Jim McCarty on drums and… oh, yeah… some guy by the name of Jeff Beck playing lead guitar. Jim McCarty’s original liner notes opines, “It has often been said that Jeff Beck is one of the leading guitarists in the country, and I am inclined to agree with him.” This is a terrific, classic 1960s rock album, with plenty of something for everyone: Fuzz guitar, Middle Eastern influences and straight-on boogie rock in the form of “Beck’s Boogie,” performed by a true master. It’s also one of the first albums to highlight a new sound, a sound that would become known as psychedelic rock.
The Yardbirds, 1966 (Paul Samwell-Smith, Chris Dreja, Keith Relf, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty) (uncredited photo)
This 2016 two disc remaster features both monaural and stereo mixes of the album and is chock full of bonus tracks. The mono disc (which was still the most common configuration for mass consumption fifty years ago) contains the more interesting bonus material, including the two singles (and accompanying B-sides) from Relf’s short-lived solo career. Also on board – and of more interest – are a pair of songs recorded after the departure of bassist Samwell-Smith: “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” and “Psycho Daisies,” released in the UK as a single. The B-side, “Psycho Daisies,” features the final line-up before the implosion that ultimately led to the formation of a legendary monster of rock; the track has a rare lead vocal from Beck, as well as a lad named Jimmy Page playing bass. “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” is a guitar-lover’s wet dream, with Jeff and Jimmy sharing lead duties. Also playing on the session was a young bassist by the name of John Paul Jones. When Page inherited the Yardbirds name, he enlisted Jones as a member of what would become the New Yardbirds before morphing into another band you might have heard of… Led Zeppelin.
The Yardbirds, 1966 (Chris Dreja, Jeff Beck, Jim McCarty, Jimmy Page, Keith Relf) (publicity photo)
The Yardbirds may, of course, be best known for having Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton playing with them at one time or another during their brief run; they didn’t achieve the same elevated status as some of their counterparts, but they did have their share of great music and have proven to be quite influential over the last half-century. The band’s first proper album, affectionately called ROGER THE ENGINEER (after Chris Dreja’s cover art, depicting the man who engineered the sessions), is a great place to start delving into the genesis of not only psychedelic rock, but two of the most iconic guitar players ever, as well as the group the Who’s John Entwistle said would “go over like a lead balloon”; it is, truly, one of the great rock albums of any generation.
Back in September, I was just back from the theater, having seen EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS. My immediate thoughts were that the film was truly an amazing ride and that director Ron Howard did a fabulous job with all of the archival film footage; cleaned and restored for the big screen, I was definitely taken back to the height of Beatlemania. After the end credits rolled, the audience was treated to a near-thirty minute segment of the Beatles’ 1965 Shea Stadium concert (almost the entire show), which was awesome… with a crisp new “remaster,” it was like being in the front row with that screaming, rabid New York crowd. Unfortunately, that piece of history didn’t make it to the DVD/Blu-Ray releases, as it was used as an “incentive” to get butts in theater seats. Oh, well… maybe someday! The film (and the bonus feature) made me realize, again, how much I miss both John and George; it really was a wonderful night of Rock ‘n’ Roll with, as Ringo said, “The biggest band in the land.”
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (George Harrison, RIngo Starr, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, circa 1964) (uncredited photo)
So, by this time, who doesn’t know the story of the Beatles’ humble beginnings? Just in case you’ve been living under a rock for the last six decades, here’s the Cliff Notes version: Paul McCartney meets John Lennon, joins his band, bringing George Harrison along for the ride; then, here comes Ringo Starr, John and Paul start writing songs together, Brian Epstein becomes their manager, the lads meet George Martin, who works with them, molding their sound in the studio… yeah, yeah, yeah! As a lifelong fan of the Fab Four, I still came away amazed by this fabulous new documentary. Seeing and feeling just how wonderful the Beatles and their music were and continue to be today makes me realize just how much they still mean to me, forty years after they went their separate ways. The narrative of EIGHT DAYS A WEEK is presented through, not only vintage interviews of the Liverpudlians, but recent remembrances from Paul and Ringo, plus various other musicians, composers and celebrities. However, the real “star” is the concert footage and the mania surrounding the mop tops. It’s great reliving how the Beatles literally took control of popular culture in the 1960s; one of the things that I enjoyed seeing was how hard Ringo was playing back in the very early live days, displaying an almost punkish verve at times.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (George Harrison, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, RIngo Starr, Washington DC 1964) (photo courtesy: APPLE CORPS)
Personal fan-boy histrionics aside, what sets THIS Beatles documentary above others – first and foremost – is the unbelievable quality of the film itself: Not only the concert footage, but the manic press conferences and even the boys simply caught relaxing, is so clear and crisp that it really just staggers you. It was worth it to hear new concert footage with clean, crisp sound, highlighting how truly hard they rocked… especially Lennon tearing up now-classics like “Twist and Shout” and “Dizzy, Miss Lizzy.” Celebrated fans as disparate as Whoopi Goldberg, Elvis Costello and Sigourney Weaver relate just how hard they fell for the Beatles… Yes, everything from THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW to the Hollywood Bowl performance to their huge world tours and all of the madness that followed, but also because they were funny and talented, met the right people at the right time (manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin would become the two most important people in their professional lives) and had a ton of belief in themselves and in their art. The Fab Four were always ready and more than willing to push the envelope. After seeing this movie, it’s very easy to see how and why these celebrities and, indeed, the world fell in love with them and why that love is still going strong over fifty years later.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (a 14 year old Sigourney Weaver at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964) (uncredited photo)
To be sure, the Beatles released an astonishing number of great, hit songs and huge, groundbreaking albums between 1962-1970… a mere eight years. It’s still hard to believe! EIGHT DAYS A WEEK tells their story quite well and, seeing it initially in the theater, on the big screen, was a huge benefit (in particular, the restored Shea Stadium footage, with all the madness and screaming, was stunning). The film is nothing short of phenomenal; Howard and his crew did a superb job of presenting another – often overlooked – part of the Beatles’ huge world wide success, aside from the string of hits and the intense madness that surrounded them everywhere they went. Quite frankly, watching them deal with the insanity going on around them all the time, it amazes me how they remained so grounded. That Shea Stadium show in August, 1965 before 56,000 people was a game changer, setting up a future for arena and stadium rock shows; that performance took Rock and Roll music to heights never before (and seldom after) imagined.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr at Shea Stadium, 1965) (uncredited photo)
Historically, one of the real turning points for the band was when they rejected George Martin’s idea of wanting them to only do other people’s songs; they wanted to write their own music and, so… away they went. The Lennon/McCartney hit-making machine was rolling and wouldn’t stop until outside business affairs jammed the gears. Still, by the time they decided to quit touring in 1966 to focus their creative output into studio work, they were just starting to hit their peak, releasing a string of masterpieces starting with RUBBER SOUL and REVOLVER. Recent interviews with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney and archival clips of George Harrison and John Lennon, commenting on and explaining things along the way, really adds to the story and to the enjoyment of this documentary. The film flows very well.
EIGHT DAYS A WEEK: THE TOURING YEARS (Ringo Starr, Ron Howard, Paul McCartney) (photo courtesy: STUDIOCANAL)
I have been a Beatles fan since their first appearance on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, solidified by seeing A HARD DAY’S NIGHT in the theater and they are still as wonderful, their music still honest and positive and still touching new generations of listeners and fans… over fifty years later. As Sigourney Weaver said in the movie, “It was this sense of world music. We were all loving them, all over the world.” The joy of the Beatles’ music is, we can all have our favorite song and our favorite album; from 1962 to 1970, they made music for the ages and, indeed, this film is a must see for fans of all ages. A big “Thank you!” to Ron Howard for bringing us a new look at a very well-known story. He did a fantastic job with this movie, with a little help from some friends… John, Paul, George and Ringo.
(SOULSELLER RECORDS/ELLEFSON MUSIC PRODUCTIONS; 2016) UPDATE BELOW
Twelve years after the band’s last release (NIGHT VISIT) and seven years after the latest version of the band came together, Ancient is back with what may be their most nuanced music ever. The album is not without problems, but BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD is more than solid enough to keep the group’s diehard fans happy and new listeners – like me – intrigued. The album exists in both digital and CD forms, as well as a two record set, pressed on beautiful gray vinyl (available only from Soulseller Records; EMP has released a marbled blue version); this review follows the latter’s format.
Ancient (Zel, Nicholas Barker, Dhilorz) (photo credit: FABIO KOCELE)
Thunderous double bass drums explode on the de facto title track, “Land of the Dead,” while the guitars and bass seem to be buried in the muck and mire of a poorly executed mix. The vocals of band founder, Zel (shortened from Aphazel), are of the standard black metal variety: Gutteral, but not in the least bit unpleasant, as some other voices in the genre can be. The guitars begin to distinguish themselves in the second half of the tune, particularly with an odd, short solo that somehow works within the context of the driving hailstorm of noise. “Beyond the Blood Moon” features rudimentary progressive riffing. Once more, the vocals are buried in the mix a bit too much to be REALLY effective; a shame, too, as the lyrics are a cut above: “Chaos, fear, turmoil, despair/Millions dazed, trapped in the snare” and “What lies beyond the blood moon?/Will the end occur too soon?” are just samplings of the song’s bleakness. Plus, bonus points are awarded for fitting “sagacity” and “antediluvian” into the densely constructed wordscape. Okay… with “The Sempiternal Haze,” I’m finally starting to get a bead on Zel’s voice; it falls somewhere between that dude from Venom and King Diamond (though without the latter’s range). The levels seem to be… uh… leveling out, as the gigantic bass and guitar riffs are a bit louder than the drums, without dampening the full-throttle pounding one iota; the vocals seem to be cranked more, as well. A softer, more melodic break – a la Tony Iommi – leads into a nice guitar solo.
“The Empyrean Sword” sets a wicked-fast pace from the get-go. The drums sound like helicopter blades decapitating a group of people who forgot to duck; the guitars churn and roil as the bass pounds in rhythm to the breakneck speed of Nicholas Barker’s percussion work. Some very nice guitar flourishes show up, once more, during a couple of slow breaks, the last right before Barker tears into a final, rapid-fire martial beat that would make Thunderstick proud. On “The Ancient Disarray,” another Iommi-esque guitar noodle leads into a downward spiral of chaos. The track features more pronounced guitar and vocals but, in breaking lockstep with Zel’s guitar parts, Dhilorz weaves some fairly interesting bass runs just below and through both the vocals and guitars. The vocals give way to an arcane-sounding incantation which lends a certain sense of authenticity to the whole affair, particularly as it leads to the song’s abrupt end. “Occlude the Gates” finds Zel’s voice taking on an animalistic, demonic air, even as the music assumes a more measured approach. The drum parts seem to be more well thought-out and… musical and powerful, as opposed to speed for the mere want of speed; the guitars hit on a majestic Maiden-like riff progression, sounding quite crisp and on-point. Even though the vocals are harder to decipher here, the song is actually one of the best on BACK TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD.
Ancient (Zel) (publicity photo)
The majority of side three encompasses a three part “suite” called “The Excruciating Journey,” an apt title indeed, as themes of darkness and light, good and evil poke a finger in the eye of world politics. As the vocals continue to be brought to the fore in a more aggressive manner, the lyrics seem to become more garbled. However, with the triumvirate’s first movement, “Defiance and Rage,” the charging guitars and perpetual brutality of the drums continue unabated, making the piece virtually impossible to ignore. “The Prodigal Years” shows a softer side of the band… musically, anyway. Here, the lyrics are delivered in whispers, barely audible, which makes the song even creepier. “The Awakening,” the final piece of the triptych, is a return to the musical themes of “Defiance and Rage.” As the trio turns up the heat, Zel gets right to the heart of the matter: “Rot! Grime! Angst and blight!” The second chorus tears the scab completely off the festering wound, intoning, “Just a neverending disarray, can’t avoid going astray/Like a fly in a flushing toilet/Surely seems the end has come.” The music doesn’t become less urgent or bludgeoning on “Death Will Die,” but there is something violently majestic about the guitars and keyboards that make this one a stand out. In fact, with Zel’s voice turning back to the biting growl of the first several tracks, this could just be the best tune on the record.
Ancient (Dhilorz; Zel; Nicholas Barker; Ghiulz Borroni) (publicity photo)
Side four opens with “The Spiral.” Powerful and intriguing, the tune’s circular (dare I say, “Spiraling?”) guitar figure offers up the record’s ultimate classic rock riff, referencing Alice Cooper and Deep Purple,as well as the twin-guitar assault of bands like Thin Lizzy and Iron Maiden. As cool as “Death Will Die” is, this track comes in a close second, due to its diversity in approach; for six-plus minutes, the band manages to incorporate not only several styles of metal, but straight-forward 1970s hard rock into the album’s matrix, including a slight slowing of the tempo behind a cool dual guitar part. Again, a more pronounced keyboard presence adds to the overall effect. It seems that band mastermind Zel has divided …LAND OF THE DEAD into two quite different parts. The first five or six numbers are playing to the Ancient base – the long-time fans who are here for the dome-crushing blackened riffs and ceaseless drive of the double kicks; the second is, for want of a better term, more experimental, giving the trio a chance to stretch out and display their talents on a wider stage. “Petrified By Their End” is a perfect example: While maintaining the band’s ultra-heavy roots, it tends to lean toward the progressive. There are four distinct sections to the nine-and-a-half minute piece that will hold even the most cynical listener rapt throughout. In point of fact, the Alice reference comes into play again as, at about the six minute mark, there’s a buzzing beehive guitar solo that reminds me of Glen Buxton’s killer (pun intended) work on “Halo of Flies.” The album ends with a bonus track (but, not really a bonus, as it appears on every configuration and version of the record). “13 Candles” is a cover of the Bathory tune that I’m not sure really adds anything to the original, but covers are always fun. Having just discovered Ancient with this album, I have just one request: Please… don’t wait another dozen years to release your next record.
(UPDATE) After further listens to BACK FROM THE LAND OF THE DEAD, I must amend my thoughts regarding the sound quality on the first few tracks of the record. The sound is not as muddied and muffled as I originally opined; seemingly, the problem actually lies with the digitized version I used for this review. So… turn it up and enjoy!
Every generation needs its “Scream Queen,” a pretty young lady destined to be set-upon by various creeps, ghouls, monsters and demonic beings in horrific movie after horrific movie. Katie Keene is working very hard at being this generation’s version of the frightened survivor of such horrendous happenings, appearing in a slew of horror flicks including LOST LAKE, UNION FURNACE, the new CLOWNTOWN and the upcoming hospital torture film, INOPERABLE. In a recent interview, Katie discussed her craft, her favorite Halloween memories, her very real case of coulrophobia and her INOPERABLE co-star, the reigning Queen of Scream, Danielle Harris. Strap in, boys and girls… Katie Keene is an up-and-coming talent who is really gonna play on your fears.
THE MULE: Okay… first things first, give us a quick synopsis of CLOWNTOWN and tell us a little bit about your character, Jill.
KATIE KEENE: So… CLOWNTOWN… a little killer clown action for you. A couple of friends go to see a concert, they kinda get lost along the way and end up in this really small town full of killer clowns. Jill is a friend that’s going with the rest of her buddies. You know, couples date. And, she gets stuck with the rest of her buddies in this terrible town… of killer clowns.
THE MULE: You do a lot and I mean… a LOT of screaming in this film. Did you ever lose your voice during your oxygen-depleting, throat-mangling, near-operatic performance?
KATIE: My big screaming scene in CLOWNTOWN, that was a tough one. I have a space that I go to and I sit in this space on set. I’m there way before we’re filming, sitting at that tree, just zoning in… I just kind of sit in the environment and… sorta let that get to me emotionally and, buddy, when I’m directed to scream and to not stop screaming, that’s what I do. I just bring everything I’ve got. I give everything my little body can give. And, when I do it, I’m physically exhausted after but… I never lose my voice. So, that’s kinda cool.
THE MULE: So, you’re physically exhausted, but that must take an emotional toll on you, as well.
KATIE: Absolutely… it does. It’s really a lot of work. I’ve made a couple of horror movies and horror movies are hard to make. They take a lot out of you emotionally. There’s so much screaming, there’s so much high emotion and, when you’re in high emotion like that every day for a month or however long, it works on you… it works on your body, it takes a toll on you. My body is literally giving everything I can to the role. That’s what I love to do.
THE MULE: You mentioned that you’ve been in a couple of horror movies before CLOWNTOWN. So, what really frightens you?
KATIE: Well, that would be those filthy clowns! Clowns are my biggest fear in all the world and when they had… When I took this role, I didn’t know it was about killer clowns. When Tommy, the director, asked, “Oh, you want to be in a movie?” So, yeah… after I booked the role, I was so excited and then he said, “But, we have to let you know… it’s about killer clowns!” I was so taken aback and was a little speechless because I have a legit fear of them. As a young girl… I suffer from terrible nightmares and ever since I was a young girl, I dream about clowns. I’m SO scared of them. It’s crazy to be thirty years old and be afraid of clowns, you know. That’s a real fear that I have and it took me a minute to really check in with myself to see if this was something I could do and I was just like, “You know what? It could be the greatest acting I’ve ever done ’cause I’m not gonna be acting… I’m really going to be scared!”
THE MULE: Oh, yeah… you gotta watch out for those killer clowns! I don’t trust any of them!
Katie Keene on the set of CLOWNTOWN (uncredited photo)
KATIE: Oh, no! Gosh, aren’t they just so terrifying?
THE MULE: So, aside from CLOWNTOWN, what’s coming up for you next?
KATIE: After this movie, actually with some of the same producers, I was… on another horror film called INOPERABLE. We’re finished filming now, but that’s my newest film coming up on the horizon. And that’s just now having a trailer come out and starting to get a little buzz from that. Then, continuing my day-to-day actor life here in LA, you know, auditioning for all kinds of different things day-to-day and working on the craft and seeing what you can land next. It’s kinda nice, ’cause I’ve got a couple films that are coming out around the same time. It’s really cool, especially with the Showmi and the Netflix. You know, I’ve got a couple movies on a couple of different things and people see the trailer for CLOWNTOWN and they go, “Oh, I’ve been a fan since LOST LAKE” or “I’ve been a fan since UNION FURNACE” or a couple other horror films I did… they’re starting to come out around the same time. It’s great for my career; people recognize me from a couple other very small independent horror films. It’s just so cool to be recognized, that people are watching some of these films. It’s just great!
THE MULE: Oh, absolutely. Now, INOPERABLE… I have seen the trailer for that one and, yeah… I guess that’s another thing that can be kinda creepy… hospitals.
KATIE: Absolutely. That hospital we filmed in WAS creepy. It was not a very fun hospital. It’s so neat what scares people… that’s what so fun about horror films – it’s like, there’s so many things you can make scary, you know, you can just play on peoples fears. I know,,, the fear of clowns is very common. There are so many people. And, fear of hospitals… people are scared of hospitals and there are just so many… so much opportunity to play off the fear of real people but… can I just say, it’s really fun!
THE MULE: Yeah, it is. I mean… people love to be scared.
Katie Keene is terrorized and tortured in LOST LAKE (publcity still)
KATIE: Yeah, they love to be scared! You know what? I like to be scared. Halloween is my favorite holiday. The scary haunted houses, they scare me. I mean, I know they’re actors… I used to act in them but, now, that’s what scares me – going to haunted houses. Horror films these days, I’m very critical. It’s very hard for me to find a scary movie that really scares me. I’m always like, “Bring it on! Bring me everything you got!”
THE MULE: I’m less than an hour away from Saint Louis and there are some really good haunted houses there. I’m talking world class haunted houses.
KATIE: Oh, absolutely! And, people will drive from all over to go to the real good ones. It’s crazy! It’s such an interesting thing that people just love to get the shit scared out of them!
THE MULE: You mentioned Halloween. It’s probably everybody’s favorite holiday… well, Christmas is up there, too. But, anyway, what is your favorite Halloween memory?
KATIE: Oh, wow… I’ve just got so many. You know, the Halloween I really liked, I was working in a haunted house; it was a couple years back. It was the Hollywood Haunted Hayride… I don’t know if you’re familiar with it but, they do big haunted houses here in LA. I was working that for Halloween one year and we just had a ball! It was just so much fun. That’s the most recent one that really sticks out in my mind. I always try to do something crazy for Halloween. A lot of Halloweens these days, I’m working. As a child, growing up, we always would dress up and trick or treat and then, when I got a little older, then started the pranks. I was always running around in camouflage, me and my buddies from school… we were big pranksters. So, every Halloween, everybody was going to get egged or pranked in some way. I had a lot of fun on Halloween growing up… always trying to scare people. I’ve got so many good Halloween memories.
THE MULE: Cool. I was just going to get back to INOPERABLE again. What is it like to work with Danielle Harris? She’s kind of a queen of the scream movies.
KATIE: Danielle… yeah, she sure is. Danielle was so great, such a big help to me, such a good friend to me, such a good mentor. She’s been working since she was three years old and now she’s kinda the big scream queen, you know, with HALLOWEEN. That’s what she does. We were so in awe… it’s always really neat when you grew up watching someone on television and then, a few years later, down the road, there you are working with them in a movie. A known movie. It’s always so great. She was just so very informative, she’s very professional. I love to watch her work, I love to watch her act and to hear her ideas and her thoughts. It was just so professional; you could just tell she’s been doing it her whole life. It was just great to see. We have a similar… She gave me a lot of great advice for my own career. She did a lot of horror films; I’m kinda… in that way, as well… doing a lot of horror films. She gave me great advice and had only nice things to say about my acting. She was like a friend and a mentor, too. I just loved her. She was amazing to work wth, so professional, so good at what she does… it’s second nature to her. It’s so cool to see people work that way, She’s a love, a friend of mine to this day. I really appreciate that. Just a lovely lady.
THE MULE: Awesome. We will be looking for that one and CLOWNTOWN is coming up soon. Thanks for the time and maybe we’ll talk again around the time INOPERABLE is released.
(MILLMAN PRODUCTIONS/STEEL HOUSE PRODUCTIONS/ZORYA FILMS (85 minutes; Unrated); 2016)
This could very well be the first current events, topical horror movie ever made. It is released in the midst of a “Creepy Clown Mania” that has overtaken small towns from coast to coast; in many in rural areas, there are (mostly unsubstantiated) reports about children being menaced and stalked by people dressed as clowns. Personally, I think it’s all a magnificently choreographed – if terribly misguided (think Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS) – promotional stunt… maybe one intended to prepare audiences for CLOWNTOWN. Be that as it may, the Tom Nagel/Jeff Miller hack and slash is, actually, “Inspired by true events.” Apparently, October 2014 saw numerous armed people in Bakersfield, California dressed as clowns, scaring the populace at-large. I guess I missed that newscast… or, just maybe, living here in the middle of the country, I’m kinda used to seeing armed clowns at the corner store and at the family diner down the street. (Before a large contingent of angry townsfolk come after me with torches and pitchforks… that was a joke! Sheesh… why so serious?) Some of the situations our hapless heroes find themselves in call for a major suspension of reality on the part of the viewer, much like great hack ‘n’ slash movies of the past, like FRIDAY THE 13TH. That doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable for what it is: A Halloween movie meant to scare the crap out of you.
CLOWNTOWN (David H Greathouse) (publicity still)
CLOWNTOWN begins – as most such stories do – with a preamble, a foreshadowing of the impending violence. A pretty blond babysitter (I would identify her as “Interchangeable Blond Rack 247,” but that would be demeaning and chauvinistic, so I won’t… the actress’ name is Kaitlyn Sapp, by the way) and her two charges enjoy a final swim before the kiddies’ bedtime; a foreboding mention of the sitter’s predecessor and random shots of clown-related knick-knacks inevitably lead to the… well, that would be telling, wouldn’t it? Fast forward fifteen years as four friends (played by Brian Nagel, Lauren Elise Compton, Katie Keene and Andrew Staton), on a road trip through Southern Ohio to a concert in Columbus, pull into a roadside diner to ask directions and use the facilities. A pair of workers (director Tom Nagel and Jeff Denton) sit at a window booth, one wanting to be on his way home and bemoaning the slow, leisurely manner of his friend’s eating style; remember them… they’ll be back later. Also adding to the (weird) local flavor is the county sheriff (Christopher Lawrence Chapman) and a leering old dude with lewd intentions (don’t worry about him, though, as he ends up dead in the next scene).
CLOWNTOWN (Chris Hahn, Lauren Elise Compton, Brian Nagel) (publicity still)
With directions for a shortcut offered by the Sheriff, the revelers are on their way. On the road once more, Mike (Staton) asks his girlfriend to locate the nearest gas station, but Jill (Keene) discovers her phone is missing. Sarah (Compton) calls Jill’s number in hopes of locating it; a male voice answers the call and directs the group to the nearby town of Clinton, promising to meet them there with the phone. The town seems deserted as the four head to the designated meeting place; after several frustrating hours spent waiting, the decision is made to abandon the phone for the time being and get back on the road to Columbus. The group returns to their vehicle only to find that it has been tampered with and won’t start; as the hood is closed, they finally see another person, a menacing looking man dressed as a clown and wielding a machete. The man disappears as Brad (Nagel) and the others approach. Desperate to be on their way, they begin searching for additional signs of life in the town and eventually run into Billy and Dylan, the two homeward bound workers from the diner, who have just had their own encounter with a clown. As notes are compared, the clowns return and Billy is… well, let’s just say that things quickly degenerate from that point. Heading into a suitably foreboding junkyard, the quintet is quickly reduced to a quartet as Jill is caught lagging behind the others; the hotheaded Mike is ready to confront the murderous clown horde, but is held at bay by the levelheaded leadership of Dylan (Denton).
CLOWNTOWN (Chris Hahn, David H Greathouse, Ryan Pilz) (publicity still)
That works out so well for the harried remnants of the little group that they find themselves surrounded, cowering in the husk of an old Winnebago until a grizzled citizen-in-hiding comes to their rescue – a variation on the whole “Follow me if you want to live” theme. Frank (Greg Violand) comes across as a stereotypical homeless psychotic, but once our heroes regroup in an abandoned warehouse, the truth about why he is the way he is comes to light. It seems that Clinton was once a thriving railroad stop, until a horrendous train wreck ruined the economy and turned the village into a virtual ghost town where the clowns imposed their own style of marshall law on the remaining citizens. Frank concludes the story by emphasizing, “Clowns own this town now.” Dylan says, “I heard rumors of clowns in this town, but I thought it was just bullshit to scare people. I heard it all started with some crazy, messed up family.” Looking away, Frank replies, “I don’t know nothin’ about that.” Which, of course, means… the clowns have discovered their hiding place and are on the hunt again. The sad thing about the whole predicament is highlighted at about the forty-four minute mark of the film, when Sarah tells Brad that she doesn’t really like Country music, anyway – had she made that fact known way back before the original foursome set out for Columbus, they would be safe at home, not running for their lives from a gang of homicidal Bozos (the killer crew are played by David H Greathouse, Ryan Pilz, Alan Tuskes, Beki Ingram and former WWE/WCW/ECW wrestler, Chris Hahn). But, then, what fun would that be for us?
So, anyway… with Frank and his new friends once again on the run, the clowns begin to exhibit certain preternatural – if not supernatural – abilities: Heightened agility, strength, speed and a high tolerance for pain among them. It’s also around this point in the flick that we finally get a glimpse of Jill’s fate; she isn’t dead, but she is being held captive at the clowns’ “compound.” The fact that she is still alive actually came as a bit of a surprise to me, even though the actual body count throughout the entire movie is startlingly low for one of this genre. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gruesome scenes to keep today’s horror fan watching, just not a lot of people dying. After escaping from the clowns (and doing damage to at least one), Frank gives the others directions to find Jill, but along the way, they are set upon once more, as Brad is separated from Sarah and Mike. Now, well after dark, Brad sees lights on in a house; entering the home, he finds a woman (Maryann Nagel… that’s right, this low budget screamer is a family affair, with many a Nagel and Uncle Greg Voiland involved, either behind or in front of the cameras) with screws looser than Frank’s and, upon seeing a familiar picture on the mantle, begins to put things together. Meanwhile, Mike and Sarah are captured as they try to get help and removed to the clowns’ sanctuary. There really aren’t a lot of surprises left by this point, but getting to the end of the story is still a lot of fun… in a “brain-disengaged” sort of way. As I mentioned at the top of this review, CLOWNTOWN ain’t Shakespeare; it’s just good, cheap fun meant to scare the bejeezus out of you around Halloween time. Having said that, I must congratulate the writers for the humorous deaths of a pair of clownsin the last few minutes of the movie. For those who are interested in such things, the movie features a very HALLOWEEN-esque soundtrack. As far as parental warnings, there are more than a few very violent scenes, some implied bondage and one topless babysitter… kinda mild for a horror film nowadays, actually.
CLOWNTOWN is coming to DVD and Video-On-Demand on October 4, 2016… just in time for Halloween and your “Creepy Clown” or “Scream Queen” festivities.
If you had told me last year that the Monkees were not only going to come out with a new album, but that it would be an extremely good one that added a new chapter to their legacy and would feature all four band members, well, I’d have said you were nuts. Davy Jones was deceased, Mike Nesmith had apparently gone into a new phase of ambivalence, and the other two, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, were keeping the group’s popularity high through frequent live shows, but hardly seemed capable of putting anything new together. How, then, did this mini-miracle occur – a fantastic new Monkees record coming out in 2016. If you wanna know who to give the lion’s share of the credit to, well, it’s Adam Schlesinger. Best known as the frontman for Fountains of Wayne and the composer of the titular hit song from the Tom Hanks-directed film THAT THING YOU DO, Schlesinger is a huge Monkees fan, the kind of person who found inspiration and delight in their music and wondered if they could recapture some of that old-time magic again. A kind of “That was THEN, this is NOW” redux. Schlesinger had talks with the three remaining Monkees and suggested putting the call out to today’s indie rockers and closeted Monkees fans for material in the Monkees’ vein. And everyone was excited by the fact that it was the Monkees’ fiftieth anniversary – wouldn’t it be kick-ass to celebrate with a brand-new album?
You bet! Songs began arriving by composers as cool as XTC’s Andy Partridge (“You Bring the Summer”), Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo (“She Makes Me Laugh”) and Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard (the luminous gem “Me and Magdalena”). Schlesinger himself wrote “Our Own World,” produced the record and plays on ten of the album’s 13 songs. If that isn’t about as auteur-ish as you can get with such a project, well, I don’t know what is! The masterstroke here, and another place where credit should be given, is the honchos at Rhino Records, the Monkees’ label, a couple of guys who love the band and began scouring the vaults for old material that might be worthy for this project. They dug up a Neil Diamond-penned tune from 1967 that had a perfectly fine Davy Jones vocal on it (well done, lads!) and simply needed a bit of overdubbing and engineering work to make it a go, a Goffin/King gem called “Wasn’t Born To Follow” which finds Peter Tork pouring all his energy and enthusiasm into (he says THIS of the song in the liner notes: “What a joy to be singing a Carole King song! This dreamy, Dylan-esque song is a tapestry unto itself.”), and even a Harry Nilsson tune, the title track, which gives Dolenz a chance to “duet” with the songwriting legend. All this, man, and even some originals! An attempt was made to recapture the sound and feeling of the late ’60s – production slickness was avoided at all turns, something that sorely diminished the appeal of two previous attempts by the Monkees to release new material (POOL IT! From 1987 and JUSTUS from 1996). So what you get is an album that almost sounds like it could have been the next project the band really put their “heart and soul” into after their amazing late ’60s run, mixing snappy rockers like “She Makes Me Laugh” with multi-textured psych-rock as represented by “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” (a truly unlikely offering from Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller that is one of the album’s high points) and seamless originals (Tork’s breezy “Little Girl” and Nesmith’s melancholy “I Know What I Know”). You just wouldn’t think the Monkees could’ve come up with something like this. It’s the nicest of surprises for long-time fans.
The Monkees, circa 1967 (Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork) (uncredited photo)
I have two quibbles with the album, one that could have been helped and one that maybe couldn’t. The latter is the fact that they could only find one Jones song to include. If they were gonna go that route of making sure Davy’s presence was felt, was there really NOTHING else in the vaults that could’ve been dusted off and messed with a bit? So pleasant is it to hear Jones sing again on “Love To Love” that you kind of LONG for the stronger balance that would’ve existed if he’d been on one more song. That balance issue brings me to my only real criticism, the fact that GOOD TIMES! opens with five songs in a row featuring Dolenz on lead vocals. Now, it’s funny for me to say this, because Micky Dolenz is my favorite Monkee, but I’m puzzled that the first half of the record is sequenced this way. Moving a Nesmith or Tork vocal to an earlier slot would’ve solved this problem – as it is, a kind of repetitiveness sets in that diminishes the listenability of “Our Own World” and “Gotta Give It Time.” That loses half a letter grade in my book, although others may not feel that way. But, from track 6 to track 13, you get pure, unadulterated Monkees bliss, and nary a misstep. “Me and Magdalena” is so beautiful, so haunting, that you can’t believe you are getting this gift of a tune from these guys. Schlesinger plays sweet, lovely piano and Nesmith turns in an intoxicating vocal just about matched by Dolenz as the secondary singer. “Whatever’s Right” sounds like a long-lost Monkees hit, even penned by their old writing mates Boyce and Hart, but no, this is a new tune. I’ve already mentioned my fondness for the Davy Jones contribution. But it’s worth commenting again that “Birth of An Accidental Hipster” is just amazing. It’s the second best song here, with inspired performances, mulitple hooks and another wonderful vocal pairing by Nesmith and Dolenz. This song breathes, shimmers and kicks serious conceptual ass. Peter Tork is another sort of hero on this record… he was often a creative underdog in the past, but both his original, “Little Girl,” and the fetching Goffin/King entry are complete delights. And the ending is perfect, a songwriting collaboration by Dolenz and Schlesinger called “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had a Good Time)” that could sum up the band’s feelings about their wacky pop culture odyssey. It rocks (a little), it’s got sass (a LOT), and it exudes spontaneity and minimalistic charm. “We are here, and we’re gonna have a good time/Like we did before/Supposedly,” Monkee Micky sings, filled with both the wry knowledge of the band’s storied and often controversial past, and his obvious glee at being here, 50 years later, not only still doing it but making one of the band’s best albums. GOOD TIMES! is just a nice surprise all around, not necessarily a masterpiece but way better than any fan could possibly have predicted. I’m a believer, that’s for sure. Nez, Peter, Micky and um, gosh, Mister Schlesinger? Thank you, and Happy 50th Anniversary!
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade) (photo copyright: ALEX WINN/awheadshots.com)
One look at Paul Slade’s web-site (Planet Slade) is all you’ll need to understand the author of the new tome, UNPREPARED TO DIE: AMERICA’S GREATEST MURDER BALLADS AND THE TRUE CRIME STORIES THAT INSPIRED THEM. You will see that Paul is not only one of the busiest men in the realm of journalistic endeavor, he is also one of the most inquisitive; that innate need to know has taken the man down some very dark backroads and alleys, into the sewers of London and the very bowels of England’s Parliament; that need to know has forced this gentle being to explore the warped psyches of criminals and vicious murderers. The time and effort put into researching the subject matter for his essays (which fall into three basic categories: “Murder Ballads,” “Secret London” and “Miscellany,” which Slade describes as “anything else I damn well feel like including”) is a full time job in itself; turning that research into entertaining pieces on significant or historic events is an art form. Working and living on Planet Slade led Paul to the idea of turning the “Murder Ballads” page of the site into a book on the subject. And, now, without further ado, we’re off to visit Planet Slade to discuss, among other things, Paul’s new book (the interview was conducted via e-mail; Iv’e kept intact the original English spellings from Paul’s replies)…
PART TWO: THE INTERVIEW
THE MULE: Paul, thanks for the great book and for taking the time to answer a few questions. First, let’s get into a bit of personal history. You’ve been a journalist for nearly 35 years. What led you down this path? Where did you start your journalistic career and what were the first stories you covered?
PAUL: When I finished my Business Studies degree in 1980, I had no idea at all how I wanted to make a living. The Watergate affair of the early 1970s had left me with a rather romantic view of journalism and I’d always enjoyed writing, so that was one of the very few areas that appealed to me, but I had no idea how to go about making that dream a reality. Then I stumbled across the media recruitment ads which THE GUARDIAN carried once a week and realised for the first time that it was possible to apply for entry-level reporters’ jobs on magazines and newspapers all over the UK.
I spent the next six months or so applying for any job in that section that looked remotely feasible and eventually struck lucky at CHEMIST AND DRUGGIST, a weekly trade magazine for retail pharmacists. They took me on to write a couple of pages of business news every week and that’s where I got my start. I was reporting company results, industry rows, boardroom changes and that kind of thing. The editor there drilled the basics of good journalistic practice into all his young team, so it proved a very good foundation.
I spent four years on C&D, then got a job on a new launch called MONEY MARKETING, which took off very rapidly and won several awards. That led to some freelancing for the nationals’ personal finance sections and the occasional bit of freelance music writing. Gradually, I managed to shift my output more towards the popular culture journalism I really wanted to do, and PlanetSlade followed in 2009.
THE MULE: I’ve been listening to music – including several of the songs chronicled in UNPREPARED TO DIE – for a very long time and, I must admit, the term “Murder Ballad” was unknown to me until Johnny Cash’s AMERICAN RECORDINGS version of “Delia’s Gone.” Can you give the readers a quick definition of the term and a brief history of the oral and lyrical traditions involved?
PAUL: I suppose a murder ballad would be any song which tells the story of an unlawful homicide – whether that story is fact, fiction or a mixture of the two. That’s a very wide field, though and I knew I’d have to adopt a tighter definition for my own work if I was ever going to do more than scratch the surface of any given song. Hence, I limit myself to those songs which tell the story of an identifiable real murder. I also decided to concentrate on songs which had been covered many times by many different artists, as these varying interpretations add an interesting extra dimension to the song’s history.
I always envisage this process as roping off a single square of turf in an enormous meadow and digging down as deep as I can in that one area alone. If I tried to excavate the entire meadow, I’d never penetrate more than an inch or two below the surface, which would not be very satisfying for either me or my readers.
Although the word’s used much more loosely these days, a ballad is actually a strict poetic form with its own rules – just as a sonnet or a limerick is. The basic structure is provided by alternating three-beat and four-beat lines, with the second and fourth lines of each verse rhyming. The opening verse of “Knoxville Girl” is a good example and here it iswith the beats marked:
I met a little girl in Knoxville,
That town we all know well,
And every Sunday evening,
Out at her house I’d dwell.
The ballad form is fairly bursting with narrative momentum, which makes it an excellent way of telling a story. In the case of that “Knoxville Girl” verse, we’re only four lines into the song, but the story’s already well underway and we’re anxious to find out what happens next. The words’ steady rhythm means they’re half-musical already and easy to remember, so small wonder written ballad verses are so often transformed into songs. Whether used by the gutter poets of the Victorian age or by great artists like Coleridge and Wilde, the ballad form is irresistible.
Murder stories aren’t the only ones ballads tell, of course, but it’s only natural that this form should have been selected when 17th, 18th and 19th century British people had a murder tale to tell. Printed ballad sheets telling the killer’s story were sold at public hangings all over Britain until around 1850 and sometimes sung by the sellers to advertise their wares. The most popular sheets sold well over two million copies.
Folk singers have always loved the ballad form too, and are never happier than when a good juicy murder is the ballad’s subject. Traditional songs like these are polished by each new generation of singers which adopt them, constantly editing the song till only the core of the story and its most memorable images remain.
Many of the classic American murder ballads have their roots in much older British songs recording real murders. Early settlers took these songs with them across the Atlantic, later adapting them to their new surroundings. “Knoxville Girl” traces directly back to a British ballad called “The Bloody Miller,” which was written around 1683. “Pretty Polly” began life as a British ballad called “The Gosport Tragedy,” which dates back to the first half of the 19th century. In their new Americanised form, these songs retain not only their ballad structure, but also much of the language and imagery coined by their original versions – sometimes word-for-word.
Just as happened in Britain, the American songs were taken from town to town by travelling musicians. Home-grown American ballads could be used to spread news from one isolated rural community to another. This was a time long before radio, remember, when even those people who could read might have access to a newspaper only on their monthly trips to the nearest town. Ballads were sung to tell all kinds of stories, but a good sensational murder always been hard to beat for grabbing the audience’s attention. Murder songs’ appeal springs from the same quirk in human nature which makes us watch cop shows on TV or read true crime stories in tabloid newspapers.
THE MULE: How much of your previous work can be seen as a genesis for the material in UNPREPARED TO DIE and on your website, planetslade.com? Where did your interest in the murder ballad genre originate? Which song, in particular, fueled that interest?
PAUL: I’d done odd bits of writing for the music press before turning my attention to murder ballads, but nothing that involved analysing individual songs in any depth. That’s about the extent of the heritage as far as subject matter is concerned. More important were the skills and good habits I’d picked up in journalism of all kinds. This work had taught me the importance of getting my facts right, given me the research experience to chase those facts down and allowed me to hone my writing to a point where I could articulate exactly what I wanted to say in a clear, gripping and entertaining way.
I think I also benefitted from the fact that I’m old enough to have worked for many years in the pre-internet era. Where younger writers might assume any information that’s yet to be digitised simply doesn’t exist, I knew to dig deep among the dusty book shelves of Britain and America’s bricks-and-mortar libraries too. For all the convenience of Google, there are vast swathes of human knowledge which remain stored on paper alone, and my advanced age meant I was lucky enough to realise that.
I can think of three things which got me started seriously researching murder ballads and they all date from the noughties. Two of these three prompts directly involve “Stagger Lee,” so I guess I’d have to say that was the single most important song which drew me in.
It all began when I heard the radio DJ Andy Kershaw mention on his BBC Radio 3 show that he collected recordings of “La Bamba.” The idea of collecting one particular song in this way appealed to me, so I began collecting different recordings of “Stagger Lee.” I can’t remember why I settled on that particular song, but I’m sure Nick Cave’s stunning 1996 version of it played a part. Also, I already knew there were an awful lot of recordings of “Stagger Lee” to collect, which made finding as many as possible of them an intriguing challenge. The internet was then still in its infancy, so hunting out obscure records hadn’t yet become too easy to provide any satisfaction.
About a year later, I bought THE EXECUTIONER’S LAST SONGS, a 2002 Bloodshot Records compilation put together by Jon Langford of the Mekons. He’d taken the album on to raise funds for a death penalty moratorium project in Illinois. Langford’s approach was to team the best of our era’s Americana performers with classic murder ballads of all kinds: “The idea was to use death songs against the death penalty”, he told me.
The album’s highlights include Steve Earle’s version of “Tom Dooley,” the Handsome Family’s take on “Knoxville Girl” and Neko Case doing “Poor Ellen Smith.” Hearing so many great versions of these ballads on a single album got me thinking about the songs much more deeply and noticing the strands they had in common. Often, the killer’s logic seemed to be, “I love you, therefore I must kill you” and that stuck in my mind. What an odd way to look at the world.
Fast forward now to San Francisco in 2003, where I was enjoying a holiday. I spent one afternoon there mooching around in the basement music section at City Lights, the legendary counter-culture bookstore, where I found a copy of Cecil Brown’s STAGOLEE SHOT BILLY, a book telling the true story behind “Stagger Lee” itself. Reading that in a bar the same evening, I understood for the first time that many of the classic murder ballads were based on real crimes – and that those crimes were often recent enough to be researched in the newspaper archives. I started writing about murder ballads on my website a few years after that, and it’s those essays which eventually led to the book.
THE MULE: Your research into the eight ballads included in the book is painstaking. How long did the research into the true facts in this collection take? The murder ballad seems to be, primarily, a phenomenon of the American South. Did the origins of one tale prove more difficult to trace than the others? Did you discover information about these eight stories that surprised you?
PAUL: It’s hard to put a firm timescale on this. I started researching murder ballads properly in 2009, when I was getting PlanetSlade started, and finally published my book at the end of 2015. I was doing all sorts of other writing throughout those six years as well, though.
The bulk of my early work on murder ballads went into PlanetSlade’s essays (but again proved very useful when the book deal came up). Whenever I could manage a vacation trip to the US, I chose a city with links to one of my chosen ballads, where I’d spend a few days visiting the murder scene and all the relevant graves. These trips took me to Saint Louis, Cincinnati and Indiana.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade in the North Carolina embalming room where the Lawson family’s eight bodies were dealt with in 1929, April 2015) (publicity photo)
Writing the book ate up most of 2015, though I took a month away from the keyboard for one final research trip. The area around Winstom-Salem and Charlotte seems to be “Ground Zero” for the killings that inspire songs like these, so I gave myself three solid weeks in North Carolina researching “Tom Dooley,” “Poor Ellen Smith” and “Murder of the Lawson Family.” As on all my research trips, I took the opportunity to interview local historians and musicians there, as well as to walk the killers’ own streets and make them as real as I could in my own mind.
On my way down to North Carolina, I paused in New York for a meal with the country singer Laura Cantrell, who I knew was particularly interested in “Poor Ellen Smith.” Laura gave me some useful clues on the song’s origin, but I had a lot of difficulty tracing these back to the song’s birth. With the book’s deadline looming, I’d resigned myself to admitting this failure in print. I did decide on one final plunge into the newspaper archives before giving up altogether, though, and this time a lucky chance produced exactly the information I needed. A few hours later, I had not only found the 1893 article which printed this song’s first-ever lyrics, but also identified the jailbird mule thief who wrote them. That was a very satisfying moment.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Poster for the 1966 movie, FRANKIE AND JOHNNY)
There were surprises in the research for every song. I’d had no idea how deeply the “Stagger Lee” killing was embroiled in Saint Louis’ party politics, for example, with Republicans determined to see the killer hang and Democrats lobbying for his early release. The central role syphilis played in “Tom Dooley’s” murder of Laura Foster came as a shock too, as did the revelation that “Pretty Polly’s” parent song was so closely tied to Britain’s Royal Navy. I hadn’t known that “Frankie and Johnny’s” Frankie Baker had sued two Hollywood studios over distorted adaptations of her song’s story either – let alone that she’d dragged Mae West into one of those actions.
THE MULE: Obviously, this book was not written in a day or two. From the time the idea came into your head ’til you finished it, how long did you work on this project? Did your research and work extend to other ballads? Would you be interested in working on a sequel?
PAUL: As I said above, I’d been researching murder ballads – at least intermittently – ever since 2009. The bulk of the book’s work got done in 2015, though. I started writing it in February that year and delivered the finished manuscript six months later.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Paul Slade at Tom Dula’s grave in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)
It was a fairly tight deadline, so I had to keep all my focus just on the eight songs covered in the book, which are “Stagger Lee,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Knoxville Girl,” “Tom Dooley,” “Pretty Polly,” “Poor Ellen Smith,” “Murder of the Lawson Family” and “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” I was determined to interview at least one relevant musician for each of the songs, which gave me a good excuse to arrange conversations with favourite songwriters like Billy Bragg, Dave Alvin and the Bad Seeds’ Mick Harvey.
I do have one idea for a follow-up book, this one looking at the British gallows ballads which were sold at public hangings, but it’s a bit too early to talk about that.
THE MULE: The psychology behind these acts is as interesting as the stories and historical references. Was there one story that caused you to reevaluate your stance, once you researched the psychological aspects of the parties involved?
PAUL: There was one song that really got to me, but it’s one I wrote about on my website rather than in the book. It’s called “Misses Dyer, the Old Baby-Farmer” and it tells the true story of a woman in Victorian London who took in disgraced girls’ illegitimate babies, promising to give them a home. As soon as she had the money the girl paid her for this service, she’d simply stifle the baby and dump it in the Thames. This happened at the end of the 19th century and she’s thought to have murdered more than 40 babies in all.
I spent about a week researching this squalid, nihilistic tale and writing it up. By the time I’d finished I had a very bleak view of the human race and just wanted to scrub my brain clean of the whole tale. I often wonder how spending a full year or 18 months immersed in the life of a serial killer must affect the writers of these people’s biographies. Inviting Jeffrey Dahmer into your head to write a book about him is one thing, but persuading him to leave again when the job’s done may not prove so simple.
THE MULE: I was surprised to learn that both “Stagger Lee” and “Frankie and Johnny” were based on events from just across the Mississippi from my home. The story of Frankie Baker, in particular, touched something inside me…. the fact that at least three movies have used the lyrics, or simply the song title, as a jumping off spot for their script, but her real story has never been told in any meaningful way. Why do you believe her story remains largely unknown?
PAUL: I think the fact that the song’s twice been a chart hit – once for Elvis Presley and once for Sam Cooke – has worked against the real story. Neither of these chart versions bear any resemblance to what really happened, and all the movie adaptations just create further confusion. In Presley’s version, Frankie’s a singer working the Mississippi riverboats, in Sam Cooke’s she’s rich enough to buy Johnny a sports car and in Mae West’s 1933 film she marries an FBI agent. Plus, of course, she’s always a white woman.
The real story – young black sex worker kills her pimp in self-defence – is far more interesting than any of these sanitised versions, but it’s been obscured by so many distortions over the years that the genuine Frankie Baker gets lost.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Frankie Baker, circa 1899) (uncredited photo)
The quote from Frankie herself that lingers most strongly with me came when she was protesting yet another cavalier Hollywood treatment of her story and the unwelcome attention which these films always brought. “I know that I’m black, but even so I have my rights,” she pleaded to one reporter. “If people had left me alone, I’d have forgotten about his thing a long time ago.” The humility and resignation of that remark breaks my heart every time I hear it.
THE MULE: Aside from your very entertaining pieces at PlanetSlade, what future works can we expect to see from the mind and desk of Paul Slade?
PAUL: I’m working on a new PlanetSlade essay at the moment, which springs from a very interesting artefact I recently discovered. It was made to commemorate a real 19th century US murder of the 1880s and, like all the best objects of this kind, leads anyone researching it into some very interesting tangents and unexpected discoveries. I don’t want to say anything more about that piece for the moment, but it looks set to keep me busy for at least the next month or so. After that, who knows?
PART THREE: UNPREPARED TO DIE
(Paul Slade; 290 pages; SOUNDCHECK BOOKS, 2015)
Let me begin by stating, “What a great read!” Most of us have heard at least one version of at least one of the eight ballads discussed in UNPREPARED TO DIE, whether it be the Kingston Trio’s “Tom Dooley” or Sam Cooke’s “Frankie and Johnny.” I hadn’t heard the term “Murder Ballad” until it was used in reference to “Delia’s Gone” from Johnny Cash’s AMERICAN RECORDINGS in 1994; I certainly didn’t know that tunes so named were based on actual killings (after reading Slade’s book, it’s kinda hard to call some of the cases “murder”). Maybe it was because songs like “Frankie and Johnny,” “Stagger Lee” and “Tom Dooley” were such fixtures on radio and television and in the movies when I was a kid that I never really paid much attention to the dark stories told through the lyrics. Whatever the reason, those tunes were simply background noise in my youth, with a melody so stunningly simple yet so immediately captivating that they ended up getting lodged in the old brainpan and tended to make their way to the top of my internal playlist at the oddest times. I now have a deeper understanding of where those songs originated and more than a passing respect for the original balladeers and the musicians who have kept the songs alive for so long… in some cases several hundred years.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Hattie Carroll, circa February 1963) (photo credit: BALTIMORE SUN)
Slade’s writing throughout these eight essays, while scholarly in its depth, is very conversational in its delivery. In other words, he manages to get to the heart of the matter with decades (or centuries) old facts without boring the reader. As it turns out, the least compelling story is the one surrounding Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which tells of the sadistic murder of a 51 year old barmaid in Baltimore in 1963, the year Dylan wrote the song. Miss Carroll was black, her attacker was a wealthy and arrogant white man. While reading Slade’s account and history of the brutal act, as well as the grossly inappropriate sentence meted out to her attacker, one thought that ran through my mind was, “None of this right! This should never have happened,” but, I also thought, “Let’s get back to some more of those hundred-year-old cases.” I hate to say it, but… it appears that Hattie Carroll’s murder was just too recent and too mundane to keep my interest. Obviously, though, it piqued enough interest in both Dylan and Slade to be the subject of a song and a chapter in UNPREPARED TO DIE.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (“They all were buried in a crowded grave.” Paul Slade at the Lawson family’s plot in North Carolina, April 2015) (publicity photo)
The other pieces, “Frankie and Johnny” and “The Murder of the Lawson Family” in particular, really managed to keep me involved in the stories of both the victims and the killers. In the case of Frankie Baker, who was charged with murdering her boyfriend, Allen Britt, for “paying attention to another woman,” the song is far more famous than the actual Saint Louis case. The song actually led to Miss Baker leaving Saint Louis, settling first in Nebraska, then moving on to Oregon; it seems that wherever she went, the song and the rumors followed. It’s amazing that, in the nearly 120 since Frankie killed Allen, at least three different movies (one starring Mae West, another Elvis Presley) have been produced based on the “Frankie and Johnny” song, but not one has bothered to tell the real story. “The Murder of the Lawson Family” is a gruesome tale of mental illness, probable incest, a guilty conscience and – after the fact – unimaginable greed. On Christmas Day, 1929, North Carolina tobacco farmer Charlie Lawson slaughtered his wife and six of their seven children before killing himself. Slade’s examination of the case presents several possible scenarios for what led to such a very bloody Christmas present, including an earlier brain injury and an incestuous rape of the Lawson’s oldest daughter. The latter theory posits that Lawson’s wife, Fannie, had discovered that daughter Marie was pregnant and that Charlie was his grandchild’s father. These and other factors led to a perfect storm of despair in Charlie’s mind, leaving only one solution. Several moneymaking schemes from Charlie’s brother and nephew after the tragedy are nearly as grotesque as the actual killing spree.
UNPREPARED TO DIE (Dave Alvin) (publicity photo)
Along with the retelling of events for each of the eight killings (more than a few are of the jealous rage or “you done me wrong” variety), are interviews with historians and, more compelling, many of the musicians responsible for keeping the “Murder Ballad” alive as a viable musical genre. Insight into the art form and the songs themselves is offered from Dave Alvin, Billy Bragg, Laura Cantrell and others. Following each chapter is a list of ten of the most iconic versions of the song discussed therein, dating from the early 1920s through to some of the most recent versions, performed by many of the musicians interviewed for the book. And, like most good releases nowadays, UNPREPARED TO DIE includes several bonus features, which can be found here. The bonus material includes additional thoughts from the various musicians on each song, the genre in particular and much more (like Dave Alvin’s musings regarding killer bees), as well as play lists for each chapter. Whether you’re a music fan, a history fan or a true crime fan, UNPREPARED TO DIE should be right up your dark alley. UNPREPARED TO DIE: AMERICA’S GREATEST MURDER BALLADS AND THE TRUE CRIME STORIES THAT INSPIRED THEM is available directly from Soundcheck Books, Amazonor any of the usual outlets.
The much anticipated thriller from filmmaker Alejandro Amenabar makes its DVD and Blu-Ray – as well as digital and On-Demand platforms – debut on May 10, 2106. The film is set in 1990, as a Minnesota youth, Angela (Emma Watson), accuses her father of sexually abusing her as a child. Detective Bruce Kenner (Ethan Hawke) investigates the girl’s allegations and becomes embroiled in tales of repressed memories and Satanic rituals. The palette of this movie is suitably dark and, like Amenabar’s genre-hopping classic, THE OTHERS, the twists and turns here keep you guessing. The plot features elements of horror, crime drama and psychological thriller all rolled into one, as first Angela, then her father begin to remember a past that may or may not be real. Hawke is at his brooding best as Detective Kenner, while the rest of the formidable cast (including David Thewlis) are swept along in his vortex. Watson is doing her best to move past her HARRY POTTER character, as she chooses roles that are far edgier than the sweet Hermione Granger. Just watching the trailer, I’m not sure this will earn her any new fans (or convince her longtime fans that she is anyone other than Hermione). Time… and a full viewing of REGRESSION… will tell.
After nearly a decade, Freakwater, the band fronted by Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean, have a new album… SCHEHERAZADE. The release is the group’s eighth overall and first for Chicago’s Bloodshot Records in what can only be described as a sporadic recording career. Likewise, live appearances by the legendary (near-mythical) Southern Gothic six-piece are exceedingly rare so we were excited to hear that they are, in fact, touring to celebrate the release of SCHEHERAZADE. The band bring their haunting, swampy Bluegrass music to Saint Louis on Monday, March 14, as they play Off Broadway. The intimate room is literally just off Broadway, at 3509 Lemp Avenue (in the city’s historic Cherokee District). If you’ve never experienced a show at Off Broadway, you are certainly in for a treat; the sound is amazing, the staff and the overall vibe is top-notch and… well, FREAKWATER! Below is a sneak peak at what you can expect: “The Asp and the Albatross,” the first single from the new record.
Freakwater are bringing along Jaye Jayle (the alter ego of Young Widows frontman Evan Patterson), who is also supporting the release of new music, the darkly miasmic HOUSE CRICKS AND OTHER EXCUSES TO GET OUT. Patterson’s deep-throated vocals and sludgy soundscapes are the perfect match for Freakwater’s intensely personal Swampgrass. Don’t miss what is sure to be one of the most talked about shows of the year. Ticket information, show time and directions to the venue are here.
The Oxford Coma (only one “m”) is a Phoenix three-piece (I suppose we could call them a “power trio”) that has alternately been described as “psychedelic anxiety rock” or “the world’s heaviest jam band.” Call them what you will… I rather prefer “math genius metal.” A few seconds into “Canadian Question Mark,” the opening cut of the self-released PARIS IS MINE, it is obvious (to these ears, anyway) that this is something exceptional. The song, a sort of progressive hard rock instrumental affair (if there are vocals, they are minimal and buried deep in the mix), features a nice mid-tempo groove, with oddly appealing dissonant guitars and a humongous, thudding bass. Though the guitars sometimes sound as if the track is about to explode in a flurry of speed, the rhythm section remains solid. On “Ritaling,” James Williams offers a very punk rock kind of a bass line, while the vocals and guitars have a distinct mid-’90s Kansas City sound (think Season To Risk). There’s a heavier-than-the-rest section with a certain Tony Iommi-like heaviness in Billy Tegethoff’s guitar; the second half of the tune is sort of creepy, with great atmospheric work from Tegethoff. “Daisies” is trippy and psychedelic, with a chukka-chukka kind of rhythm guitar thing and near-Residents like vocal outbursts (Tegethoff and Williams are both credited as vocalists, but who sings what isn‘t listed). Once again, the bass and drums (the latter supplied by Patrick Williams) border on minimalist, leaving the almighty riff to do most of the heavy lifting. This isn’t metal, but it is suffocatingly heavy and there’s a great wah-infused solo at the end that is hard to ignore.
The Oxford Coma (Billy Tegethoff, Patrick Williams, James Williams) (publicity photo)
“The Pulls” is propelled by heavier-than-thou bass and some understated (though still powerful) drumming, allowing for some excellent guitar and haunting vocals to hover just above the surface, giving the tune a demon-spawn sound akin to the offspring of some 1970s hard rock band and Stone Temple Pilots, circa their first three records. The next track, “Ados Watts Jam,” is exactly what the name implies: A jam. Clocking in at a robust ten-and-a-half minutes, the KC/Season To Risk comparisons find their way back into the conversation, with bullhorn vocals crawling just above the mix. There are also a couple of jazzy, Sabbath-esque breaks leading into the final, improvisational section of the tune, all of which proved to be quite entertaining. Even if the song doesn’t exactly fall into the “jam band” category, it is a stretch on the group’s standard song structure. The final track is well-known to rockers and blues aficionados the world over: “When the Levee Breaks,” The Oxford Coma’s version manages to out-heavy the Led Zeppelin version, with Patrick’s nearly ham-fisted Bonham-esque skin pounding and a massive guitar sound. This version is as far from Zeppelin’s version as their version was from the 1929 original by Kansas Joe McCoy and his wife, Memphis Minnie Lawlers. You can listen to (and purchase) PARIS IS MINE, as well as earlier releases, at the group’s Bandcamp page. You will not be disappointed! And, if you are… you need to acquire better taste in music.