Friday, February 26, 2010

Video Affects - Split Enz: Dirty Creature, 1982

Continuing your host's journey through vividly remembered music with pictures...

I am twelve, or thereabouts, and able to watch Doctor Who, Blake's 7, and pretty much most things I'd care to on the family TV without a censuring pair of eyes from adults. In fact that seems rather a childish thing to admit to given that in less than two tender years my musical tastes will turn to heavy metal, by which time I'll have seen Michael Jackson dance with the undead and turn into a wolf-cat creature. But despite a childhood fascination with myths and legends, pulp Science Fiction and monsters in general my viewing has been sensibly monitored by my parents and there are some areas my developing mind haven't yet ventured into.

Music videos are a pretty new thing - maybe a couple of years old as we know them now, specially-shot, sometimes narrative and in the early 80s style brimming with the latest video effects for added interest (q.v. Doctor Who of the same era). Punk has been and gone shaking up the performance angle of bands - where once it was enough to have musicianship and perhaps a charasmatic front(man) to convey the band image now the music video offers a chance for all those other members to get out from behind their instruments and share the limelight. Or not. Certainly the emphasis now more than ever has been on the visual, the arresting image, the fantastic.

Compared to the young Jackson's transmogrific efforts the following year Dirty Creature is small beer, although locally it does pretty well. The song's extremely catchy and has aged pretty well, driven as it is by co-composer Nigel Griggs' seven-beat rhythm and Noel Crombie's crisp percussion: hi-hats and snare for verses, toms for the chorus with just a touch of crash. There's precious little guitar in this song even though Neil Finn their best player has recently joined them and lent his talents to the composition. Instead it's Eddie Rayner's keyboards and piano that provide the fills, with the odd phaser thrown in. On top of it all is a reliable vocal track from Tim Finn, relating a nervous breakdown episode via the metaphor of treacherous water; a common theme in the song's parent album Time and Tide.

As with Baby It's You the song and video go hand in hand, and to my tweve year old self Dirty Creature is a backyard horror with its stagnant lake, sun-bleached jetty and skeletal drowned forest. Filters render the sky a psychedelic maelstrom and I know that at the end of verse two something that will disturb the bejesus out of me is going to happen. It's not the first time a music video will disturb me (welcome to my nightmares Andy Partridge as a scary New Wave clown in XTC's Making Plans For Nigel) or the last one of the Eighties (Er, Headless Chickens' Slice I'd say*, joined by Fetus Productions' Flicker), but thanks to a watery ninja and Tim Finn's decapitated head my taste of 1980s videos is off to an unforgettable start.

(*to clarify, from 2:35 on and Chris Matthews' rarely-unshaded pupils, although that cleavage at 2:22 is pretty disturbing too)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Legends of RPG Art - Erol Otus

Erol Otus. Eight letters, four vowels, two magic words.

Along with Ellenmoor and Mount Silverberg, the seafaring Elf-king Aerelotus is a name from my old RPG fantasy world based devotedly on a real world counterpart.
To me the art of Erol Otus is 1970s Dungeons and Dragons, as much as multiple polyhedral dice and reaction rolling on village NPCs. Each revision of the D&D rules set has carried with it a distinct fantasy aesthetic - the 1983 Basic rules ushered in the studied sketchiness and painterly cheesecake of the Jeff Easley and Larry Elmore illustrations, while the 2nd Ed AD&D Monster Manual opted for a unified look to its creature catalogue using a block-coloured comic strip style. From the 3rd to the 4th edition the internal illustrations have been more complex, but also more homogenous – their unity and slavish naturalistic palettes I find rather too prescriptive (much like my impression of the revised rules themselves), and would fit in a police line-up with movie conceptual art from, say, the recent King Kong or Narnia movies without standing out - to their detriment. There’s no risk of that happening with the 1970s D&D art, and nobody’s come close to aping the work of Erol Otus.

Seventies RPG art gets a bit of stick for being clumsy, amateurish and cheesy, and to be fair there’s a good amount of it that is, particularly in the old 1st edition Monster Manual, but a lot of that artwork was groundbreaking in a way, coming from a time when fantasy art itself was a genre largely set aside for paperback covers, record sleeves, posters and panel vans. If the titans of that decade’s art were the likes of Boris Vallejo, Frank Frazetta and Christos Achilleos you can understand why their styles weren’t often seen in the pages of RPG literature. In most cases they simply don’t match the rag-tag pick and mix influences of the game – part Tolkien, part Vance, part Ashton-Smith, Leiber, Lewis, Aesop, Swift et cetera. The answer to visualising such a hodge-podge world (not that anyone was asking) worked best by either going down the traditional route (Dave Trampier’s exquisite woodcut-style creatures and tableaux) or farther out - perhaps somewhere akin to the Odd Rods cards of that era. Guess which one Erol Otus was?

It was years before I dug Erol Otus’s style, usually opting instead for some of the more realistic and traditional, clean-cut works listed above, or the smooth lines of Jeff Dee’s comic book figures. But in returning to the game years afterwards Otus’ vivid and lurid paintings are the ones that last and still enthral me. You won’t find many pictures of traditional mythological monsters in his portfolio, and even those you would find carry his signature details – smooth, almost fishlike skin, spines or webbed feet, goggling glassy eyes, grinning maws. His Lovecraft interpretations are borderline goofy, but are all the more unearthly for it, compared to the Gigeresque examples you’ll find elsewhere. His heroes are similarly unorthodox – a blend of heroic Greek, high fantasy and Nordic myth, with no breast unplated and no helmet un-horned, un-winged or un-crested. His pictures of dem-ihumans are rare (except for the Elves and Drow he painted, which surely defined the look of the latter thereafter), and I don’t think he could have drawn a Gandalf-styled Magic User to save himself – his examples look more like Biblical magi. A breath of fresh air. Similarly his boldness with colour and light are arresting, often blending complementary colours like yellow, green and purple to produce skin tones and clothing and even skies that seem to owe more to the hues of marine biology than anything above ground.

There have been hundreds of great fantasy artists working in role playing games over the past forty years, but I can’t think of a world more alarming, horrific, or more vibrant and fun that I’d like to play in than that of Erol Otus.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Killers (2/2/1981)

1981 in Heavy Metal:

AC/DC - For Those About to Rock We Salute You
Accept - Breaker
Alice Cooper - Special Forces
Billy Idol - Don't Stop (debut)
Black Sabbath - Mob Rules
Blue Öyster Cult - Fire of Unknown Origin
Def Leppard - High 'n' Dry
Gillan - Future Shock / Double Trouble
Girlschool - Hit and Run
Hanoi Rocks - Bangkok Shocks, Saigon Shakes, Hanoi Rocks
Judas Priest - Point of Entry
Kiss - Music from "The Elder"
Krokus - Hardware
Mötley Crüe - Too Fast for Love (debut)
Motörhead - No Sleep 'til Hammersmith (live)
Ozzy Osbourne - Diary of a Madman
Samson - Shock Tactics (Bruce Dickinson's last)
Saxon - Denim and Leather
Thin Lizzy - Renegade
Van Halen - Fair Warning
Venom - Welcome to Hell
Whitesnake - Come an' Get It

Notable group beginnings: Metallica, Anthrax, Pantera, Slayer and Mötley Crüe - of which more later. In an important way however Killers is as much informed by 1980's run of metal, as this album is almost entirely comprised of new material (by contrast Iron Maiden's tracks were a good two or three years old by the time they were cut). It's also almost entirely a Steve Harris composition, with some input by Dave Murray and Paul Di'Anno.

Other commentators have tried to find a general theme for Killers, but if there is one it's not really that evident. Certainly the songs have recurring motifs, being either about those who kill, their victims or the wrongfully accused, but it's hard to read anything more into such rudimentary and perennial rock and roll subjects; both 'accused' songs have the protagonist beseeching a mother or other female for sanctuary or support. It's not as if there's anything new being said here, and we're still some way off from Steve Harris' better writing with some ropey rhymes ('bad'/'mad', 'knees'/'please' in Prodigal Son). The opening instrumental, The Ides of March, is as close to prog and the likes of early metal pioneers such as Sabbath as you're likely to get. It stands out once it's done, not for its quality so much as its sound - the drums are really muted, making it sound as though it was performed in a cardboard box. No time to waste though, as Killers properly cranks up with early favourite Wrathchild and one of the first of Steve Harris' classic bass intros. Harris will also introduce later track Innocent Exile making more exploratory use of the fretboard, while in Twilight Zone there's the characterisic 'gallop' in the choruses, propping up the pace of the song from the front as Harris himself would do onstage, one foot on the foldback monitor, bass head machine-gunning the crowd below.


(L-R Dave Murray, Clive Burr, Paul Di'Anno, Steve Harris, Adrian Smith)

So it goes with Killers - this is Maiden consolidating their sound and far from the 'difficult second album' syndrome. If anything this release is more about the singles than the first, and as stated above, the prog element is rapidly disappearing (although it would reappear in later albums as the group relaxed into things more), with only Ides of March and the opening bars of Murders in the Rue Morgue offering anything in that vein. Everyone's in good form - the drum fills are better, and Di'Anno's found a new voice - more powerful, confident and with a higher end, perhaps inspired by the likes of Judas Priest's Rob Halford, Steve Priest of The Sweet and Paul Stanley of Kiss, whom Maiden supported in an extensive European tour the year before. Unfortunately it would be the touring and to a greater extent the increasing pressure on the band to keep the momentum up, performing for months on end on the road that would see Paul DiAnno resort to stronger stuff to keep it together. Exhausted, and with the demands of the band's first tour in the US showing no signs of slowing, he was let go by manager Rod Smallwood in September 1981 before the Killers tour, and the rest is fodder for the next post. You have to feel sorry for Di'Anno - in interviews and documentaries he comes across as a genuinely nice guy, a joker and with an easy charisma that would have served him well on stage. It's worth noting that as far as I can see Maiden fans bear him no ill will either, unlike a later more polarising singer and, lest I forget to mention this next time, the arrival of Bruce Dickinson was not universally welcomed by the band's fan base. But when said and done perhaps the fit wasn't perfect, and Di'Anno's dismissal speaks more down the years of the sheer drive to professionalism maintained by Harris and Smallwood. With few opportunities for international success on merchandising and music videos, Iron Maiden's early success was directly down to a tried and true method of almost constant gruelling touring. Of course there would be causalties, and more would come.

But it's not all bad, as Adrian Smith - new guitarist and ex-schoolmate of Dave Murray has entered the room, and the difference in the band's sound again is palpable. For the first time Maiden can reliably be said to have no lead guitarist, nor rhythm - both would compliment each other and share lead breaks, often working in harmony across the same break in another highly distinctive, signature sound for the band. Smith has a different sound to Murray, and they bounce off each other well. It's a muscial relationship that's still to pay off in this album - there are hints here and there (the extended breaks in album closer Drifter for one), but for the most part Smith's contribution is not to balance out Murray's contribution as Dennis Stratton's part had tried to do, but add to it turning a previously weak spot into another offensive wall.

I've been guilty of undervaluing this album, perhaps looking forward more to the arrival of Bruce Dickinson and the more stable line-up that followed, but Killers is a pretty solid and consistent album, aided greatly by Steve Harris' almost sole writing duties and some greater attention paid to Paul Di'Anno's role in the band. Wrathchild is a great single, and a clear standout, but also good are Rue Morgue, the title track, and Prodigal Son. Only Drifter is the throwback, repeating verse and chorus and descending into a lengthy instrumental at the end, but as it ushers in a new sound to the band capitalising on a new second guitarist and allows Di'Anno the last undulating howl of his Maiden voyage, it's still a pass.

Killers is in a way almost mark 2 of the Iron Maiden cover, but a vast improvement - it's dynamic, makes better use of light and colour, and Eddie is better formed, rather than the head and shoulders of the debut artwork. Standing over an unseen victim clawing away up his cadaverous form (following the loose single sleeve continuity one might get away with suggesting it's a certain UK ex-PM and other iron maiden) he has in his hand a tomahawk - a very 1970s serial killer weapon, and once more he stared devillishly out at the viewer, white pinpricks of hellfire 'blazing in his eyes'. The primary light source is no longer the moon but a street light. Behind him is the East End neighbourhood, not greatly removed from that of Iron Maiden, although the houses are clearly inhabited this time - there's life in the streets, and it's suggested that the 'red light' window with dressing/undressing occupant belongs to a number 22 Acacia Ave, the aforementioned Charlotte the Harlot. As Maiden covers go it's one of the best, and kicks off a winning sequence by stable artist Derek Riggs that become ever more imaginative through to the band's seventh studio album. For the time being and excluding the Twilight Zone single cover this is the last time we'll see Eddie in an urban setting; like his band his destiny lies far beyond London's mean streets.
Tracks via YouTube (live where possible)

1. The Ides of March (instrumental)
2. Wrathchild (live at the Rainbow, 1981)
3. Murders in the Rue Morgue (US tour Bootleg)
4. Another Life (from the Maiden Japan EP)
5. Genghis Khan (live instrumental - enjoy the drums!)
6. Innocent Exile (live Soundhouse Tapes recording)
7. Killers (Harris/Di'Anno - another Live at the Rainbow clip)
8. Prodigal Son (studio version)
9. Purgatory (Maiden Japan track - HUGE bass!)
10. Twilight Zone (Harris/Murray. 1998 reissue bonus track, album version)
11. Drifter (Live at the Marquee)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A (seriously) Long Time Ago...

Here I am, blogging about Star Wars. No I didn't know it was coming to this either. The phenomenon was HUGE with me as I was just the right age - seven or eight - for the franchise, and my interest lasted until the onset of my teenage years and Return of the Jedi arrived. Okay, there may have been some slight and lively lingering between Lucas' vision and my hormones around Jabba's Palace, but I believe I wasn't alone there.

Anyway here I am, with my best friend Derek on Bushy Beach, a little somewhat south of Kakanui (where the spuds come from) re-enacting Tatooine' sandy expanses some time in the dying days of the 1970s or early 80s.

We inevitably had double-ups in our collection of figures, hence Derek's demonstration of our no longer solo Han figures.

The 'story' begins here, with the crashed escape pod. Eagle/old eyed readers will detect the retro stylings of a 1970s plastic mug and 'Leggs' egg top adding to the verisimilitude.

Meanwhile on another sand dune tragedy has unfurled, with a stray Imperial missile casing causing a poor Playmobil-finger puppet hybrid some grief. Lord Vader looks on (story may not be canonical) and a weird green eraser alien watches from the dunes.

But that doesn't mean it's not the time to party! Several androids of the Lucasverse engage in a desert 'happening', joined by an old school Cylon. That Jawa to right looks suspicious...

And we're suddenly back on track! Some Playmobil flooring doubles effortlessly for a Sandcrawler as that Jawa brings out his wares. Young master Luke at front looks slightly less authentic - the genuine article was as rare as hen's teeth in Oamaru - I made do with the X-Wing version, but Derek was more industrious, fashioning his from a to-scale Superman figure, masking tape and marker pen.

A wretched hive of scum and villainy and ice cream containers. That Playmobil Wild West General Store (mine) doubles for the Cantina, and we could have made a reasonable fist of populating it, as we both had Hammerheads (Ithorians, apparently), a Rodian (Greedo) and Derek had the allegedy quite rare Walrus Man - though it's likely he was easier to come by than Luke in those days.

I have one last photo from this set not scanned - Obi Wan's infamous decapitation scene of the Rodian-finger puppet*. Even blurrier than the other shots, you're better off imagining it, really.

Photos were taken by me (I think) with the aid of my Mum who drove us there. It was a hot day, despite the photo and I recall squinting and blinking into the sun for the first shot. Derek and I discussed continuing the photo story with our Death Star playsets and, later, a hosed-up part of his garden for Dagobah (so these may have been taken later than I remember), but for the moment history records only these.

*Yes, I had to look this up. Derek's Greedo lost his head and we were recycling even then.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Video Affects - Promises: 'Baby It's You', 1978

In which your host recalls key music videos in his formitive years.
This week:

Right, that's that out of the way.

Possibly a formitive experience for me (but not for the reasons you might think), and a huge and hypnotic music video from a time when music videos were barely in their infancy. Baby It's You is deceptively simple - it's the band on separate stages, some coloured backdrop, strategic lighting and a smoke machine. And a thunderous combination of yearning passionate male vocals(tm) on verses and ear-hammering female chorus. You thought The Pixies invented loud-quiet-loud? Nope, the Canadians did.

My association of this song is from a family trip around the West Coast in the family Vauxhall. Grouped with Eruption's I Can't Stand The Rain and Heatwave's Boogie Nights in a seemingly endless rotate of whatever local radio station we could pick up on the car stereo, it was around Kaikoura that we heard the DJ tell all listening that siblings Leslie and Jed Knauer (two thirds of the band, a family affair, had been killed in a car accident. Or was it the other brother? Who died? Who lived? It was a load of DJ bollocks of course, but without the tools of the trade you're reading from now we believed it for years, adding a sad eerieness to those voices with every replay, as these things sometimes do.

I was entranced by the band - they looked like nothing I'd ever seen before - Jed had Luke Skywalker hair, Leslie had a short spiky barnet and a man's shirt and braces. It was mystifying - how could three people make such a HUGE noise in such a small space?

Down the years the video would get brought out for the occasional airing on TV - quite often on the New Year's Eve shows back when watching them was a fair option for a teenager not yet able to 'go out'. Incredibly it wasn't until a few years ago that I worked out why. Incredible. But still a killer song.

Despite the album being a commercial failure and the follow-up single Let's Get Back Together being really really bad, this single stayed at number one in the NZ charts for five consecutive weeks here in NZ, and even prompted a cover version in the early 1990s by Hamilton metal band Blackjack. You won't get that sort of recall on Wikipedia you know.

Oh, and for the freakiest 'live' version of this courtesy of German TV where they were also huge (oh stop it) - here.