The Phenomenon that was The Shangri-las

Although rock and pop music has always been a phenomenon that has attracted fans of both sexes, the role of female artists in its development has frequently been marginalised by critics, unless the artiste under consideration has been deemed ‘authentic’ enough to pass muster.

This is especially true in the case of the artists who started to emerge at the end of the 1950s, after the commercial demise of the first generation of rock’n’rollers.

These second-generation artists are frequently dismissed as an anachronism, something that simply filled the gap between the demise of their predecessors and the rise of artists who were considered important in intellectual terms from very early on, most notably the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

There is some truth in this dismissal if, for example one looks at artists such as Pat Boone, Paul Anka and most notoriously of all, Fabian, who was notable in that he had been chosen for a recording deal on account of his good looks rather than his ability to sing, which even he confessed was somewhat non-existent.

This however, is not the full picture. It fails to take into account the role of female artistes on the pop music scene. It is 2 interesting to note that the first generation of Rock’n’roll, from 1955 to ’58 was almost completely devoid of female artists – a situation quite different to that of Blues music from which rock had been derived from.

Although male performers dominated the blues, there were certainly notable female artists, such as Big Mama Thornton, who recorded and performed Hound Dog, later recorded with great commercial success by Elvis Presley. Of course, the rock format was one of the first places in the mass media where sexuality was explicit, which, although tame by the standards of today, nevertheless provoked outrage with ‘decent’ people at the time.

And if a male singer mouthing suggestive lyrics whilst pulling lewd body movements had the capacity to draw protest, a female doing the same could well have caused blood vessels to burst in the craniums of the righteous.

It is suggested in The Story of Pop that the only two female singers in this era that were close to being female rock were Connie Francis and Brenda Lee1 . Although both came out with records that were very close to the rock’n’roll genre (for example: Francis’ Stupid Cupid and Lee’s Sweet Nuthin’s), their images were however the opposite of rock’n’roll, with both marketed as essentially wholesome acts, all permed hair and stiffly starched petticoats.

Indeed, throughout the 1960s the female rock artist was frequently presented as a far more mannered proposition than her male rivals were. The initial flowering of women in rock comprised of girl groups such as the Shirelles or the Crystals, black vocal groups who were notable for the almost complete anonymity of their line-up.

This was taken to its most notorious conclusion when the Maverick producer Phil Spector released records under the name of his (then) flagship vocal group, the Crystals, such as the classic He’s a Rebel, when the song had actually been recorded using a session group called the Blossoms.

The Crystals had been performing a concert at another town on the day of recording, so were simply stood in for.

The music produced in this period was frequently of a high standard, but artist identity was far from being a strong point. If a girl group released an LP, it would usually contain little other than their own hits and a bunch of covers of other girl group staples, which confused matters further.

Performing upbeat ditties extolling a boy that they had met, for example, the Ronettes’ Da Do Ron Ron, or wistful numbers about their heartbreak, such as the Shirelles’ Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, There was rarely any element of darkness in this type of record.

The notable exception to this was He Hit Me (and It Felt Like A Kiss) by Phil Spector’s Crystals, which was hurriedly withdrawn from the market in 1963. One of the most distinctive girl groups of this period were the Shangri-las. Although the group did not release a record until 1964, when the Beatles were on the cusp of breaking the American market, they were still able to produce several hit records worldwide, including three top ten singles in the U.S.

Despite this, the group have not been well documented in rock history – they barely scrape a couple of pages in Lucy O’Brien’s She Bop II, or Gillian C. Gaar’s She’s A Rebel. Indeed, in Tony Palmer’s All You Need Is Love – the story of Popular music (written after the groundbreaking television documentary of 1968) they are not even listed in the index. 4 This lack of recognition and dismissal is commented on in the publication The Story of Pop as this: “The Shangri-las are often dismissed as rubbish.

Those who do that though, miss the point, these songs reflected an era, and represented the secret thoughts and dreams of those very girls who went to scream and weep at groups like the Beatles2 .” The Shangri-las comprised of two sets of sisters – the twins Mary-Ann and Margie Ganser, and Mary and Betty Weiss, who all lived in the Queens area of New York, although the only constant member was Mary Weiss, and the group invariably toured as a three-piece.

The two sets of sisters befriended each other once they had started to attend the Andrew Jackson High School, which is where they started singing together, initially on an informal basis, before progressing to performing cover versions at local dances.

This led to then being signed to Artie Ripp’s Karma Sutra Production company, and a record, Wishing Well, was released at the start of 1964 on the Spokane record label (Karma Sutra would not release its own records until later in the 1960s). From the start of their recording career, lead vocals on the group’s records were handled by Mary Weiss, and her nasal, New York accent is probably the most distinctive part of this record. The use of a spoken into on this track later became a staple of the Shangri-las’ oeuvre, although this device had been prominent on other girl-group records. However, the record lacked any sense of drama, something the group’s records would develop once they had been teamed up with a previously unproven songwriter by the name of George ‘Shadow’ Morton.

Morton had been an acquaintance of the songwriter Ellie Greenwich some years previous, and had gotten in touch with her again after discovering that she had co-written a number of hit singles since they had last met. In a meeting with her and her husband Jeff Barry, Morton informed them that he wrote songs also, at which point Barry called his bluff, and asked him to compose a song with a view to releasing it on the record label he worked for, Red Bird, which was owned by the writers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Morton used the Shangri-las for the demo recording session, after having been made aware of them on the Queens dancehall circuit, and apparently composed the song for this session whilst travelling to the studio.

The song in question was titled Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand), and when it was played at the Red Bird offices it was judged good enough to sign both Morton (as a writer) and the group to the label. In Lucy O’Brien’s “definitive history of women in rock pop and soul” She Bop II, she refers to the finished record as bringing “a whole new dimension to the girl group sound, the concept of girl-talk as pop opera”.

Although the narrative in this song was more of an inner dialogue than the virtual discussions in later Shangri-la numbers, Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand) still succeeds in being high drama, and bears more of a resemblance to a Lichtenstein-esque cartoon strip than a pop song.

The song opens with a doom – laden three-note descending piano and cello sequence, repeated throughout the verses, before the melodramatic lead vocal kicks in. This is not so much sung as wailed, and respite only comes with the choruses, which are more uptempo, in music if not in mood.

The song concerns the reaction of the protagonist, who has received a ‘dear john’ type letter from her boyfriend. In Charlotte Greig’s book on girl groups Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, the song is described as “idiosyncratic to a point of absurdity”, due no doubt to Morton’s lack of musical training (he did not know how to play any musical instruments), and yet at the same time Greig acknowledges that “it also had a strong teenage emotional credibility ”.

This credibility lay in the way that the song accurately reflected the teenage mindset in the narrative. The song shows little restraint; as the sobbed verses draw to a close, the protagonist seems to pull together (“Let me think, let me think, what can I do?”) before collapsing back into self-pity again (“Oh no, oh no, oh no, no, no, no, no.”). The chorus has the singer gaining composure as she recollects being with her boy, but come the final line, her pitch rises and her voice becomes a strangulated sob once more – “Softly, Softly, we’d MEET WITH OUR LIPS!” before the song launches back into the verse melody.

The emotional response depicted in this situation is distinctly juvenile, but came as a blast of raw emotion in comparison to its predecessors. A prime example is Lesley Gore’s 1963 hit It’s My Party. This reflected a similar emotional reflex, but in a much more upbeat manner.

The Shangri-las’ song struck a chord with record buyers, and duly reached the top ten in the U.S. in the summer of 1964. 4 Greig, Charlotte. Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? London; Virago Press, 1989. P. 78 7 The follow–up was jointly composed by Morton with Barry and Greenwich, as were several of the follow-up records, and proved a much more sophisticated record, in terms of structure, use of sound effects and empathy to a teenage mindset.

While Remember (Walkin’ in the Sand) encapsulated the fairly everyday situation of a jilted young girl, Leader of the Pack was perhaps the ultimate in macabre adolescent wish fulfilment. Banned in the U.K, this song owed a direct lineage to Jody Reynolds’ 1958 hit Endless Sleep, which was covered in the U.K. by Marty Wilde, or perhaps Ray Peterson’s histrionic 1960 hit Tell Laura I Love Her – at least there were no fatalities in Endless Sleep.

Although this kind of record was decried as morbid and tasteless at the time, a reappraisal of this so-called ‘Death Disc’ formula published in the early 1970s points out, that while this is not untrue, “(in comparing a song of this genre to Romeo and Juliet) death discs plunder universal mythology. The props may be up to date (stock cars, trains, motorcycles), but the tragedy is timeless5 ”. The plot to Leader of the Pack goes something like this: Girl is asked by her friends if she is going out with the boy the song is about, and if she is seeing him that day, to which she replies in the negative.

She then recounts how her parents disapproved of him, and that her father had issued an ultimatum to end their relationship. She does so against her wishes, and the boy is so upset that when he sets off on his motorbike (“on that rainy night”) he loses control of it, crashes and is killed. The various stylistic devices used 5 The Story of Pop. P. 438 8 throughout the song accentuate this highly dramatic plotline. This is how it occurs in the song: 00:00 – 00:16 – Start of first verse. Spoken intro between three girls (“is she really going out with him?”), with a background of sparse piano chords and a girl softly humming the melody. 00:16 – 00:30 – Upped tempo. Rest of verse sung, ending (as all of the verses do) with the song’s title and the revving of a motorcycle engine. 00:30 – 01:00 – Second verse.

More strident instrumentation. Revelation of parental disapproval of the boy. “My folks were always putting him down.” 01:00 – 01:30 – Third verse. Girl finishes with boy at parent’s behest. 01:30 – 01:53 – Middle eight. This is the most dramatic part of the song.

Monologue where the girl recounts the boy setting off “on that fateful night”, and how she “begged him to go slow”, although she is unaware if he heard this. At 01:44, we hear the motorcycle revving again, followed by the sound of screeching tyres at 01:46 and the narrator yelling one second later “look out, look out, look out, look out!” as the deadpan backing vocals turn into a chant of the word “no”. Two seconds after this, we hear the sound of the motorbike crashing. 9 01:53 – 02:24 – Verse four. The aftermath.

Instrumentation pared down again to piano chords with bass and snare drums. “I can’t hide the tears, but I don’t care”. 02:24 – 02:54 – Outro. Girl sings “Leader of the pack, now he’s gone” while the backing chorus chants the word “gone”. Reprise of sound effects of bike crashing to fade. Unlike many of the earlier death discs however, Leader of the Pack tapped into more than just a morbid interest on the buyer’s part.

The Story of Pop quotes vocalist Mary Weiss in saying that “We try to stay real close to our audience. Most kids have a hangup with their parents and a lot of girls want to be the centre of attention, the way the girl in Leader of the Pack is6 .” As Mary was barely sixteen years old herself at the time the record was released, this gives her view of the song some credence. Greig agrees with this, referring to it as an “if I die, you’ll all be sorry” style of fantasy that has been known to occupy the teenage psyche7 . Although the Shangri La’s image had started off as being little different to other girl groups, when this record took off they found themselves dressed in a far ‘tougher’ looking style, defined on the website Out in the Streets: The story of the Shangri-las as “skin-tight slacks, spike-heeled leather boots, and puffy white blouses and vests.”

Greig comments that the group by this time “exuded an air of tough independence that spoke to a whole new generation of hip, white working class city girls… But it was also clear, to teenagers at least, that the Shangri-las were at heart, nice ordinary girls .”

This undercurrent was reflected in their records – although the narrator of Leader of the Pack is dating a ‘bad boy’ from “the wrong side of town,” she obeys her parents when they instruct her to call it a day with him.

Despite the popularity of this record, Red Bird decided that the follow up was to be a much less controversial, and more conventional, upbeat love song entitled Give Him a Great Big Kiss. Although this song concerned another dark horse boy (“he’s good – bad, but he’s not evil”), the delivery was far more jocular, and nobody died at the end. As with Leader of the Pack, this song features a spoken (and memorable) intro – “When I say I’m in love, you’d best believe I’m in love, L.U.V.”, which was subject to an homage nine years later by another group from the Shangri-las’ hometown, the New York Dolls.

In fact, it was stolen wholesale and used by singer David Johansen to precede a song called Looking for a Kiss on their debut album. This act was topped the following year, when the Dolls were able to persuade ‘Shadow’ Morton to produce their second (and final) album, although the results were distinctly underwhelming. Indeed, although they came in for much critical contempt at the time, the New York Dolls were later acknowledged as being one of the first groups to recognise and exploit trash culture as an art form.

Give Him a Great Big Kiss proved to be a relative flop however, charting at number eighteen in the U.S, and the following single, Out in the Streets returned to the hysterical tone of Leader of the Pack, but with the situation shifted into a parallel universe; this time, 9 Greig, P. 80. 11 the ‘bad boy’ does not meet a gristly end, he settles down with the girl.

Nevertheless, something has still died – “his heart is (still) out in the streets.” “He grew up on the sidewalk, he grew up running free, he grew up… and then he met me” sings the narrator, agonising over whether or not to set him free, back where he belongs.

Out in the Streets was a far more subtle number than Leader of the Pack, with a particularly beautiful arrangement of plucked strings, which are especially notable after the middle eight. On the website Out in the Streets: The story of the Shangri-las the atmosphere on the record is likened to that of a church10, which is particularly evident in the unaccompanied harmony that occupies the first ten seconds of the record. Incidentally, some sources report that another single by the group, a cover of the Isley Brothers’ Shout was released at the same time, but this record, dubbed with audience noise to simulate a live concert seems to have been unsuccessful.

But despite the quality of Out in the Streets, it failed to make the top fifty in the U.S, and the record that was to follow it up resorted once more to the adolescent-spite-revenge formula of their biggest hit. Give Us Your Blessings in fact topped Leader of the Pack in that both partners were killed. This time, the young couple, Mary and Jimmy elope after their respective parents had the temerity to Laugh at them when they were told of their wedding plans.

Opening to an ominous clap of thunder and a vocal refrain of “Run! Run! Run, Mary. Run! Run! Run, Jimmy,” and tells the story of their escape and tragic end, the latter of which proving to be one of the campest couplings in the group’s repertoire: “Well, as they drove off, they were crying, 10 12 and nobody knows for sure, if that is why they didn’t see the sign that read ‘detour.’” One needs a heart of stone to not burst out laughing at this point. The “you’ll be sorry” factor in this song is further heightened by the middle eight section, when the parents arrive at the crash site: “The next day when they found them, Mary and Jimmy… Dead, And as their folks knelt beside them in the rain, They couldn’t help but hear The last words Mary had said… (Chorus) Give us your blessings!

Please don’t make us run away, Give us your blessings, Say you’ll be there, On our wedding day.” This record brought the group back into the American top thirty, and an outside writing team, Bob Bateman and Ron Moseley, who had previously worked with Motown. The resultant single, Right Now and Not Later bore more than a passing resemblance to 13 material from that stable, which had the unfortunate effect of making the record sound comparatively anonymous. This would appear to be borne out by its lack of success despite an appearance on the American television show Shindig to promote it.

The last record released by the group that could be attributed to the death disc genre was also the group’s final stateside top thirty hit. I Can Never go Home Anymore reached number six in the American charts, and whilst being instantly recognisable as the work of the Shangri-las, it twisted the revenge fantasies of the group’s other hits right round. The song opens dramatically with a churning instrumental backing and another spoken word intro – “I’m gonna hide, if she don’t leave me alone, I’m gonna run away,” only for the whole thing to stop dead when another young female voice interjects anxiously: “Don’t.”

Throughout the song, the verses are performed as a spoken word piece, with the narrator warning her subject against running away from their mother. It transpires that she had done so (naturally, the argument that provoked this was over a boy), but found that she missed her mother and returned home.

By this time, however, her mother has died of a broken heart – “She got so lonely in the end, the angels picked her for a friend… And I can never go home anymore.” Their label, Red Bird, was in serious financial trouble by this point, a situation which had been becoming increasingly serious for some time, and Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich had left the label before the release of the above single. Indeed, Red Bird shut up shop in 1966, and the group and Morton transferred over to Mercury records for a further two singles before disbanding. 14 Between I Can Never Go Home Anymore and the demise of the group, a further five singles were released.

He Cried was a cover of She Cried, by Jay & the Americans, and was produced in a typically melodramatic style. Past, Present and Future, the last single for Red Bird featured oblique lyrics to the tune of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, and Sweet Sounds of Summer, a lightweight pop number, featuring an incongruously psychedelic middle eight that sounds like it was lifted from the Pink Floyd’s debut album. More interesting were the final single on Mercury, Take the Time, and the penultimate but-one single for Red Bird, Long Live Our Love. By the release of these two singles, the US had already embarked on the Vietnam War, and the drafting of young men to fight in the war zone had started.

Although no one was aware at the time of the outcome of these hostilities, the decision was taken by Morton to record not one, but two songs that were in marked contrast to popular music’s later reactions to the situation. Long Live Our Love opens with a half-spoken monologue (“When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah”) before we hear a drum roll, and the song bursts into life The second verse gives a flavour of the song: “Something’s come between us, And it’s not another girl, But a lot of people need you There is trouble in the world.” And apart from a brief soliloquy towards the end of the song (“Please Lord, don’t let anything happen to him… Please.”), there is little suggestion that the boy will come to any harm.

After all, the earlier songs of the Shangri-las were morbid fantasies that in reality represented highly unlikely scenarios; the Vietnam War on the other hand held a very tangible risk of real death, not the comic-book kind. Take the Time was even more remarkable, although it must have seemed hugely out of step in 1967. “This Country that we’re living in knows only that we’ve got to win, no matter what the cost may be, our loss is keeping you and me free” go the lyrics patriotically, to the complete apathy of the record buying public.

By 1967 though, girl groups were no longer selling, with the exception of the Supremes, who had the backing of the powerful Motown empire behind them.

The music of the Shangri-las was considered particularly anachronistic – rock and pop’s newly discovered intellectuality had no time for silly teenage angst about boys and parents. But despite this snobbery, the Shangri-las racked up two further hits in the U.K, both times with reissues of Leader of the Pack, which reached the British top ten in both 1972 and 1976 (a better chart placing than the original release had managed here). Lucy O’Brien recounts the appeal of this record to a pre-teen audience in 1970s Britain in She Bop II – “This was our pre-teen drama, the one we learned the words to – right 16 down to every tear and every rev of that deadly motorbike.”

This success testifies to the magic of this silly little pop song. The Shangri-las are unlikely to ever be categorised as high art, but this is unnecessary anyway, as the combination of the quaint lyrical thrust of the songs along with their distinctive structures makes them unique.

No matter how old fashioned their music sounds now, the Shangri-las also brought a darker edge to pure pop , turning self-righteous and immature teenage angst and rebellion into unique pieces of music.

Simon Moses

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Essay: Domestic Nostalgia

Nostalgia in the home is far from being a modern phenomenon.

In fact, it has been an integral part of consumer culture since the late 18th century.

One only has to look at some of Wedgwood’s original products, such as their reproduction Portland vase. This was sold as an exact replica of the real thing, and contemporary advertising claimed that Wedgwood had rediscovered the ancient techniques that went into making it.

This was a fallacy however, as it was actually manufactured using a technique that Wedgwood had discovered himself. The early period of the industrial revolution coincided with the first stirrings of major interest in antiquities, which would go some way to explaining Wedgwood’s choice of design.

This strand of emulating past styles of design continued to run throughout the 19th century, and even progressive movements by the turn of the 20th century such as the Arts & Crafts and Garden City movements made reference to an idealised past of simple, yet comfortable rural life. The inter-war period of the 20th century was notable of course for the onset of modern design, which had led to truly striking pieces of architecture and furnishings. However, in Britain, the style proved to be a minority interest.

This was an era of a boom in the private housing market, but most of the private homes built during this period were, on 2 the whole, built speculatively rather than architect-designed, and were cautiously traditional in appearance. Exposed timbering (for decorative purposes, as opposed to structural ones), projecting and bay windows, deep gables and the use of stained glass in door windows were all frequently in evidence, and many homes tended to be a mishmash of styles rather than a coherent pastiche of an era.

Even recognisably modern elements were thrown into the pot sometimes, such as the ubiquitous ‘sunburst’ motif, or the use of sash-and-mullion steel-framed windows. The 25 years following the Second World War were the era in which modern design was adopted by the masses. Architecturally, this period saw the hitherto unforeseen adoption of clean, adventurous and entirely contemporary design for new homes in both the public and private domains.

Homes increasingly featured continental motifs and fittings, such as timber cladding, chalet-style roofs and large picture windows, and older buildings were ruthlessly modernised; fireplaces were removed and blocked over, panelled doors covered over, ceilings lowered and so on.

A change occurred in the way people chose to decorate their homes too. Although historical styles were still bought, the fifties and sixties saw an unprecedented growth in the market for modern styled furnishings, frequently in new materials such as Formica, vinyl, foam rubber and polypropylene amongst others. By the end of the 1970s, however, modern design in the home rapidly fell back out of favour to all but a minority. At this point, we must question why this is.

At the end of the war, modern design had been seized upon with great optimism and idealism. New developments were intended to 3 free people from slums, prefabs, bomb damaged areas and one-or-two room living, whilst technological achievements such as nuclear power, the development of plastics and the construction of new roads solely intended for motor traffic were all seen as symbols of a new era. This widespread adoption of consciously modern design could also be seen as a symptom of unease with the concept of a vernacular style; after all, the idea of design pertaining to the mythologies, accurate or not, of a national identity was uncomfortably close to certain Nazi ideologies.

So for a while, modern styles were ubiquitous. It was not long before disillusion started to set in. The 1957 fire at the Windscale nuclear reactor, where a plume of radioactive contamination was released into the atmosphere, shook people up, as did the collapse at the Ronan Point flats eleven years later. As early as 1971, the AA’s member’s magazine Drive wrote about the failure of the redevelopment of Birmingham town centre, which was noted as favouring the motorist over the pedestrian by far too great a margin.

The new plastic derived textiles were also showing unfavourable characteristics; from skin sticking to vinyl upholstery to nylon bedding and carpeting generating static and causing people using them to receive mild electric shocks. By the seventies, there was also concern of the environmental impact of these developments, from the lack of biodegradability of plastics to the pollution caused by the burgeoning use of the motor car. All of this caused a considerable erosion of confidence in the ‘new’ to the eyes of the public. Since the late sixties, there had also emerged a growing interest in the past, in particular Victoriana and Art Deco.

The initial interest would have been for collectors, as items from both eras were still available for pin money during this period, but the commercial 4 concerns of Laura Ashley and Biba both marketed these two respective periods to notable success. While Laura Ashley are still successful today, dealing mainly in textile-based goods such as clothing and soft furnishings, Biba had a notably wide product range; although starting off as a ladies wear shop, by 1973, the company took over the old Derry and Toms department store in Kensington. Keeping the original deco fittings, the store sold a plethora of merchandise.

Even Biba baked beans were available, packaged in a tin with a thirties waitress on the label, or Biba Washing powder, with the image of a black washerwoman smiling while working over a wooden washtub. All the goods were packaged in black or black-labelled containers with gold coloured writing in a thirties font, and put over an image that was both playful and nostalgic. By 1975, however, Biba had closed down, and although many writings cite the extremity of the store as the reason, the founder, Barbara Hulanicki in her book From A to Biba lays the blame at the feet of Dorothy Perkins, the company who owned the largest stake in the store at the time.

She is adamant that Dorothy Perkins tried to sanitise the store, which affected its unique ambience, and then pulled the plug on it when many other businesses were suffering due to the various industrial disputes going on in the country at the time1 . Despite the recent media portrayal of the 1980s as the ‘designer decade’, this was in fact the decade where tastes started to shift back to the ‘traditional’, or at least, a liberal and idealised interpretation of it.

Despite the influence of Biba in the 70s, inspiration tends to be restricted to Victorian or Edwardian imagery, middle class at that and rarely urban. And products using this imagery are not merely updated reproductions; even the most contemporary item can derive an association with the past. A case in point is the range of  ‘Country Diary Of An Edwardian Lady’ merchandise which gained mass popularity in Britain in the early to mid 1980s.

The book that the range had been inspired by had first been published in 1977. It consisted of a previously unpublished woman’s journal from 1906, a certain Edith Holden, who had kept a record of the flora and fauna of the English countryside though the changing seasons, through paintings and words. It proved to be a great success, and spawned a plethora of related products. Products like wallpaper or bed linen in period designs made sense, but the range also incorporated goods like electric kettles and toasters. These latter items did not however emulate their Edwardian forebears though.

They were essentially entirely contemporary appliances, based on the standard Russell Hobbs range, but in muted colours with floral motifs. Domestic design that harks back to another era rarely concerns itself with such matters as historical accuracy. It is also important to note that with reproduction or retro-styled goods, any attempts at placing the style within a period are only skin-deep. Under the surface, in terms of construction techniques and mechanisms, there is little to differentiate ‘period’ designs from utterly contemporary ones. Another example of this, although the idea dates back to the 1920s, is the flame-effect electric fire.

Long regarded as being in rather dubious taste, the basic design principle of a flickering orange bulb to simulate the visual effect of a proper coal fire nevertheless still survives today, although in this age of centrally heated homes, it has become a rarer 6 sight. In part, it seems to have been replaced by flame-effect gas fires, which are both cheaper to run and more realistic looking. It is interesting to note that there are distinct parallels between the thirties and the eighties in terms of the private housing market. Both were boom periods for private home ownership, and in both periods, both traditionally styled furniture, fittings and design proved to be the dominant style.

The general mood was that modern equalled brash, while ‘olde worlde’ meant respectable. In the latter period, this led to a peculiar phenomenon, especially on council estates where tenants had recently gained the right to buy their home usually at very low prices, a policy brought in by the then-current Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher. People were keen to differentiate their homes from the homes of their tenant neighbours, and improvements were frequently carried out, such as the addition of extensions, new kitchens and bathrooms, double glazing and so on. But more interesting was the habit of installing ‘period’ features such as leaded windows, panelled and varnished front doors (grandparents) and most notoriously of all, fake stone cladding.

These all proved popular, despite the application of 19th century vernacular looking distinctly out of place on a humble 20th century terraced home. And such features were also being found on the private housing estates of the eighties and nineties, which use the imagery of rural tradition to a far heavier effect than was even the case in the thirties. A case in point is the Woodlands estate, built in the Village of Sandford, Dorset in 1989.

This is a large estate on the edge of a village, built within a small forest, the construction of which required annihilation of most of the foliage. All the roads are named after trees, and the style of houses all 7 conformed to an olde-worlde stereotype of leaded windows, canopies over front doors and fake half timbering. But why do so many people favour the traditional over the modern? It would appear that to many, the past offers reassurance and security. In Traditional Interiors, which is a book from the USA published by the Architectural Review, the notion is suggested that “In a marvellously comforting way, the past is forever there; the rules are established; the mistakes have been eliminated.

A sort of purification has taken place, and the trends of the moment have been eliminated”2 . The idea of the traditional being away from the realm of fashion is an important one when considering architecture, or home fittings and furnishings. Nothing dates as quickly as the ultra contemporary, and as the purchase of a home and/or its furnishings represent a considerable outlay, people tend to be wary about that which will date quickly. Traditional designs are a safe option; while they will never be terribly fashionable, they probably will never be particularly unfashionable either. Another interesting parallel to note is that both the inter war years and the period from the eighties on have both been periods of remarkable growth in domestic consumer technologies. While the earlier period saw the introduction of scheduled radio and limited television broadcasts and increasing ubiquity of the telephone, the later one has so far.

Traditional interiors. Los Angeles : Knapp, 1979. 8 seen mobile phones, powerful computers, the emergence of the internet and a glut of television channels all become a part of everyday life. The unprecedented levels of mass communication achieved in both of these eras served to considerably alter perception of time and space-speeding life up as well as making information ever more accessible. In a world where the unfamiliar constantly becomes the normal, people can feel the need for something tangible and familiar to grasp on to.

The future is not the certainty of an exciting new world that it was in the two decades following the cessation of WW2. Indeed, the problems associated with modern design and architecture of this period are well remembered, and add to a suspicion of the ‘new.’ Even the lack of regional variation in recently built estates can be perceived as offering reassurance. In an age where people’s jobs can easily lead to them relocating to an unfamiliar part of the country, the similarity these developments have to each other almost eliminates the need to get used to the new area, which is something that seems to have been happening over the last couple of decades in terms of global standardisation as well.

The irony is, though, that people who are quite happy to live in a modern ‘traditional’ home, with ‘traditional’ furniture could also be the kind that would turn down living in a genuinely old (but modernised) house or owning antique furniture. This is illustrated in a brilliant quote from a book on the Channel Four series Sign of the Times (broadcast in 1992) which was a show about the nation’s taste in home décor. One of the participants said that “I’m put off real antiques because to me they look old and sort of Barker, Nicholas and Martin Parr. Signs of the Times: A portrait of the nation’s Tastes.

In summary, domestic nostalgia, despite its detractors, offers the consumer a retreat from the high speed world that we live in. The mistakes made post war in relation to ‘the new’ have remained in people’s consciousness for a long time, and even today, the traditional is associated with quality, and a slower, more peaceful world. It is a completely idealised vision of the past, but because of this rose tinted depiction, a home built or decorated in this style provides a symbolically safe environment for its occupiers.

Simon Moses

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David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust and the construction of an image.

In 1972, David Bowie released his fifth album, Ziggy Stardust.

Up until that year, Bowie had been perceived in the main as a folk singer-only other success till that point was Space Oddity, 1969, which was largely perceived then as a novelty song, used by the BBC for their coverage of the 1st man in space that year.

Bowie had problems following up the success of this track, which had reached no. 5 in the charts, and despite critical acclaim for the succeeding albums, it appeared that Bowie would remain a one-hit wonder. By the end of the year, though, Bowie was one of the hottest and most controversial rock stars around. Critics were fiercely polarised- “most intellectually brilliant man currently using the medium of the long playing record” was one reaction, while he was considered to be a fraud by others.

He also had fiercely devoted fans; they copied is haircut, a group of fans at a Newcastle gig arrived in wheelchairs, only to spring out of them when he arrived on stage, and the legacy of his work was a major factor in the appearance of punk rock, which started to bloom in 1976. So how did the transformation occur from The earnest young songwriter that was described by Disc and Music Echo in 1969 as “a gentle mixture of Bob Dylan and Donovan with 90% pure (himself)”1 to what the 1973 publication The Story of Pop2 referred to simply as “The disturbing Bowie”? 1 Paytress, Mark. Twentieth Century Boy. London; Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, 1992.p147 2 The Story of Pop. London; BPC Publishing Ltd, 1974/5/6. p13 2 It firstly should be noted that this transformation was not an overnight event.

One of the notable things about Bowie’s personae were the disparate influences that went into creating both the music, the image and ultimately the character of Ziggy Stardust. His stance also fitted perfectly with the ideological state of Britain at the time. Britain was no longer an empire, and started down the slippery slope that led to the various power crises, strikes, discontentment and financial difficulties that the country experienced throughout the decade.

Despite this, people were still living as if they’d never had it so good. Synthetic fibres, food additives and colour television were making the country a more lurid and futuristic seeming place, while conversely fashions of the early seventies frequently drew upon the past; one has only to look at the Biba store in London, a shop dedicated to emulating Art Nouveau and Deco styles, both on its products and in its imagery. Britain was a sick, confused country, and Bowie came up with the ideal rock star for the era; Alien, polysexual, self-destructive, artificial and thoroughly disturbing to the parents of fans, particularly those with sons.

The interesting thing is that in this transition, Bowie’s music did not in fact go through a radical transformation; even the band were one that had accompanied him for the previous two years. Bowie’s principal themes of insanity, gender politics and alienation were in place from early on in his career, as were the primary musical influences of his first period of success. Among the most notable were Scott Walker, Jaques Brel and the Velvet Underground, and this can be heard in ‘Little Toy Soldier,’ an outtake from 1967, where much of the chorus of the Velvet Underground song Venus in Furs is coupled with verses pertaining to S&M practices between a child and a wind-up toy.

Kinky. His two 3 1971 Albums, The Man who sold the World and Hunky Dory both explored dark, complicated themes, and although both received a very positive reception from critics at their time of release, they each failed to chart until the wake of Ziggy pulled them in.

Ziggy Stardust was perceived by the public to be a concept album, which was not a new idea by then. Nor was the idea of a concept album concerning a fictitious band; after all, the Beatles had produced Sgt Pepper five years previous, and there had been similar works, for example, the Turtles’ Battle of the Bands LP, where the group played each track as a different group. Ziggy, however, was the first time that the rock world had seen a deliberate blurring between the artist and the Role they were playing.

Bowie’s record label, RCA, ran a publicity campaign stating that “David Bowie IS Ziggy Stardust”, and one could never be sure whether the figure on stage or on the television was the ‘real’ Bowie, or his creation. Although the album is not a straight narrative, and historical documentation suggests that the conceptual device was almost an afterthought, the character of Ziggy is elaborated on in the title track, and despite rumours over the years as to who he was based on, the general impression seems to be of a rock composite.

Bowie himself states that the character was based on Vince Taylor, a British Rock’n’Roller who had gone onto become a huge success in France, before becoming mentally unstable due to excessive drug and alcohol use-messiah story. Also though, in the five years or so before Ziggy, there had been a large number of Rock stars falling prey to various forms of self-destruction, either dying or succumbing to mental problems. Peter Green, Syd Barrett, Jim Morrison, Jimi 4 Hendrix, Brian Jones, Gene Vincent, Janis Joplin, Otis Reading, among others.

And the Ziggy character was designed to be one of these, as Bowie put it, leper messiah’s; godlike figures, yet essentially doomed ones. The use of playing a role as a conceptual tool was thus very important to the record, and Bowie played the part to its hilt, with the help of his Manager, Tony Defries and his staff, plus the help of his American wife, Angie.

David and Angie had married in January 1970, and it is frequently Angie who has been credited with pushing Bowie (who had been previously noted as being a rather reticent character) into becoming the outrage that he became. Before his 1972 transformation, Bowie had already become a decidedly androgynous figure, as can be seen on the sleeves of his 1971 albums. But his image was not hugely striking-long hair and feminine clothing on men were not hugely unusual on male rock stars by then, and were not totally alien from the High Street either.

The T.Rex Top of the Pops appearance for the May 1972 depicts the most extreme androgyny in the period pre-Ziggy, with Marc Bolan, dressed in Lurex with glittering eyelids pouting his way through Metal Guru. Ziggy looked shockingly different though. This was due to a combination of factors, all of which conspired to make him look completely alien to any rock star or media figure that had gone before. In early 1972, Bowie had his long locks chopped and replaced with a shocking red spiky hairdo, apparently based on that of a Japanese Kabuki lion. In an era of inevitably long-haired rockers, Bowie’s relatively short hair was a statement in itself.

Furthermore, Bowie’s clothing, both on and offstage was never anything less than striking. Bowie claimed that his tight leotard-like outfits were a Dadaist take on the ‘Clockwork Orange’ look, referring of course to the film that had been released to considerable controversy the previous year. Instead of the bleak 5 white fabrics used in the film, Bowie’s versions (designed by his friend, tailor and sometime protégé Freddi Burretti) used different styles of materials, from a circuit-board like design to Liberty print fabrics.

Rounding off this look with brightly coloured boxing style boots, this appearance was striking in itself, but when combined with his odd eyes, and by the end of the year his shaven eyebrows and increasingly gaunt appearance, it made Bowie look utterly bizarre.

Even though he had looked effeminate for some time, this new, brasher image (which was duly taken up by his band as well) had another effect; It was threatening. This was aided by his January 1972 confession to Melody Maker that he was gay (despite the presence of a wife and young son).

Although this was not taken terribly seriously by the rock media, as Bowie’s star rose the public became increasingly aware of his family’s extra-curricular ‘antics.’ It may not have been true, but it was ridiculously effective publicity. This is illustrated well in the differences with the covers of Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust.

On the cover of Hunky Dory, we have a facial close-up of Bowie, with him pushing his hair feyly off his face, and the whole picture, coupled with its hand-tinted look is reminiscent of a thirties foyer movie-still, with a hint of Warhol about it. The rear sleeve is also in soft focus, with the hand written notes on the back of the sleeves adding a note of intimacy to the album. The cover is Ziggy Stardust is quite different. Although the cover, again, appears hand-tinted, Bowie himself takes up little space on it.

But if anything, this adds to the impact; in a dark, damp, industrial backstreet in London, Bowie, or perhaps more correctly, Ziggy, sticks out like a freshly landed alien. Which of course was the intention. The rear of the sleeve is, if anything, even more striking. Bowie stands, 6 hand on hip in a telephone Kiosk, which would appear to be an allusion to the BBC Sci-fi series Doctor Who, while the maxim in the sleevenotes simply stated of the album ‘To be played at maximum volume.’

Bowie has said Ziggy was mainly ‘about clothes’-Ziggy apparently being named after a mens boutique-and the point at where Bowie stood on the front of the album is next to a building housing various dressmakers, according to the plaques by the bells which is certainly appropriate. The theatrical nature of the concept carried through to stage-shows by the band. In February 1970, Bowie and his backing band (who were a wholly different group to the Spiders) performed a gig at the Roundhouse as ‘The Hype’, dressed up in various outlandish costumes.

This gig is not recorded as being a success, but can be seen as a dry run for the theatricality of the Ziggy period. At these concerts, Bowie frequently performed mime, and on occasion was joined by the renowned mime artist Lindsay Kemp and his troupe; indeed, Bowie had received tuition from Kemp in the late sixties.

Shows were also well known for the interplay between Bowie, and his guitar player and sometime arranger Mick Ronson. One of the best known images of the period is that of Bowie gripping onto Ronson’s backside, performing some kind of symbolic act of oral sex onto his guitar.

The effect was completed by the people that surrounded him. As stated earlier, Angie was the more extrovert of the two, and if anything was even more decadent than Bowie’s image. She quite happily claimed that the couple were actively and contentedly bisexual. Indeed, at one point, she had a fan following of her own, quite at odds to the abuse that 7 say, the wives of the Beatles had received. Bowie’s management company was also instrumental in reinforcing the image.

In the summer of 1971, the play Pork, based on the diaries of Andy Warhol had run for 26 nights at the Roundhouse in London. Angie had befriended many of the players, a mixture of New York freaks and Warhol ‘superstars’ such as Cherry Vanilla, Wayne County and Geri Miller.

In Nicholas Pegg’s book The complete David Bowie, Wayne County recalls that: “There was someone else [in a newspaper] who said ‘Pork is nothing but a pigsty. Pork is nothing but nymphomaniacs, whores and prostitutes running around naked on stage’3 ”

Most of the cast ended up with Bowie’s manager Tony Defries’ Mainman business organisation, which carried on where Defries’ associate Laurence Myers’ company, Gem Productions, had started off in looking after and grooming Bowie. Essentially employed to ‘put on a show’ and create a buzz around Bowie outside of the UK, the staff excelled in their role, indeed, they probably did take it too far, particularly in the USA. They generally put the impression across that Bowie was a ‘pinko commie faggot.’

Assistants were paid to make sure that doors were always held open for him, the entire entourage travelled in a fleet of limousines and their mantra was ‘Mr Bowie does not like to be touched.’ They both helped project the image and helped him fulfil DeFries’ belief that ‘To become a star, first one has to act like one.’

Bowie himself was noted in that he refused to fly anywhere; American tours had to be embarked upon using the QE2, which was even then, an essentially obsolete yet very expensive way to travel, adding another layer to the Bowie mystique. 3 P283 8 At the time, Bowie had stated that his intention was to create something that rested somewhere between ‘Nijinsky and Woolworth’s.’ The art was not in the music alone; the art was the whole concept of Ziggy Stardust himself.

As Bowie later stated: “I wasn’t surprised ZS made my career. I packaged a totally credible plastic rock starmuch better than any sort of Monkees fabrication. My plastic rocker was much more plastic than anybody’s.” And this was quite true.

Bowie later reflected in Feb 1976 that: “I could have been Hitler in England. Wouldn’t have been hard. Concerts alone got so frightening that even the papers were saying “This ain’t rock music, this is bloody Hitler!” And they were right. It was awesome.” (bihow p30).4 And to see that, one has only to watch the footage of the final concert as Ziggy Stardust, just before the culmination of the Gig, and the final song.

Bowie makes a short speech, telling his audience at the end of it that this was “not only the last show of the tour, but the last show that we’ll ever do,” which led to one of the most anguished outpourings of confusion and bewilderment ever committed to film or tape. One feels after seeing this, that Bowie was not overly exaggerating.

Simon Moses.

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What is a Cult Film?

The interest in cult cinema seems to stem from 1950s America, as the spending power of the teenage consumer was increasingly catered for, not least by the movie industry.

This was the period in which television was permeating the American home, more so than even in Britain, and cinema increasingly had to resort to shock tactics and sensationalism to lure in audiences. Sophistication was not an option; studios knocked out cheapie flicks with lurid, disposable feels such as the 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help it.

This was a lightweight but enjoyable film, which had cameo appearances by various prominent rock’n’rollers such as Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent and Fats Domino, which although largely superfluous to the plot, gave the film ‘teen appeal’.

There was also the starring role of Jayne Mansfield to contend with, whose remarkable physique proved to be a quite different selling point, and was exploited in a variety of sight jokes, the most unsubtle of which used a milk bottle which popped open, ejaculating milk as she walks past the goggle eyed gent holding it.

1956, incidentally was the year that television in the US commenced colour broadcasts, another blow to the film industry.

The relatively lewd nature of films such as TGCHI would have been unthinkable in a television broadcast in the fifties, and this was something that the big studios exploited to the max. This is not to say, however that Cult films are purely a post-war product; films such as Fritz 2 Lang’s Metropolis remains a striking and distinctive piece of work.

Dating from 1926, silent and three hours long in its longest print, the film is hard for the modern viewer to watch, but its imagery and effects have made it one of the best known and referred to films of its era. Similarly, Films featuring dance routines by the choreographer Busby Berkeley (Such as The Gold Diggers of 1933) are rarely viewed for the quality of their plotlines; but the surreal, intricate and dehumanised dance routines are so excessive they have rarely been topped since, and are as great a cultural signifier of the period as streamlined steam locomotives or modernist concrete buildings.

Cheap horror films were also popular, such as the 1959 Roger Corman Film A bucket of blood, described by the director as a black comedy. This film was such a low-budget production, that when filming finished sooner than expected, Corman used the remaining time and funds to film the Little Shop of Horrors, which used the same props and sets.

A variation on this was the genre known as Grand Guignol. Derived from a confrontational French theatre style, the typical Grand Guignol film featured a middle-aged ex-screen starlet or two such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Olivia De Havilland, a plot that tended to hinge round mental deterioration or torture and huge swathes of overacting.

An early example of this is Sunset Boulevard from 1950, with silent film starlet Gloria Swanson playing just that, a reclusive and disturbed woman who is still convinced that she is ‘The greatest star of them all!” The best-known example of this genre is the 1962 film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Filmed in austere black and white, with Bette Davis and Joan Crawford hamming it up something rotten, the film is as famous for the bickering between the two stars as it is for the gothic horror of the story-particularly the twist in the 3 final few minutes that turns the film on its head.

By the 1960s, celluloid became an established medium for fine artists-witness work such as Andy Warhol’s films, featuring his ‘superstars’ such as Sleep and Eat, which were interminably long and banal pieces, or Yoko Ono’s similar conceptual pieces, which tended to feature John Lennon getting an erection or smiling to the camera on a film that had been slowed down so much that it ran for several hours. But this experimental attitude promoted a new wave of films that appear to owe more to fine art than the conventions of Hollywood, such as Nicholas Roeg’s Performance, or Michelangelo Antoni’s Blow-Up.

By the end of the sixties, there was a distinct blurring between the arthouse and the commercial; while the Monkees’ only feature film Head proved to be an essentially plot free railing against Vietnam and their own plastic image as opposed to a standard teen flick, The Paul Morrissey film Trash, ‘produced’ by Warhol, an out of focus, partly improvised piece about Heroin Addiction was subject to lobbying for an Oscar Nomination for Holly Woodlawn, one of Warhol’s ‘superstars’, who played a key role in the film.

Interestingly, although the former missed the teen market it should have hit by a country mile, the film (which was not shown in the U.K. at the time of release) later assumed a mythological status which led to the ICA in London shipping over a print in 1977. The film is an age away from the simple slapstick comedy of the Monkees’ television series, featuring cameo appearances from such diverse cultural icons such as Annette Funicello (star of many of the teeny ‘Beach Party’ films of a few years previous), faded Hollywood bad boy Victor Mature, the boxer Sonny Liston and the all-American weirdo rocker Frank Zappa, and incorporating footage of atrocities in Vietnam, clips from Hollywood classics, and television excerpts, most notably a 4 sequence that constantly refers to ‘The world’s largest Ford dealership’, where one of the cars for sale is priced at 666 dollars.

Very few pop-star vehicle films have been as allegorical, political and impenetrable as Head, although note must be taken of the 1966 Paul Jones (ex Manfred Mann) film Privilege with the theme of pop star as government tool for the manipulation of the masses. Although fifties schlock films were not given cult recognition at time of release, by the turn of the 1970s, theatrical productions such as The Rocky Horror Show and the work of maverick directors such as John Waters were indebted to fifties trash cinema-witness the use of the title track to The Girl can’t help it in one of the sequences in the first film that brought Waters recognition, Pink Flamingos.

The RHS is particularly interesting, as it was turned into a film, which was released in mid 1975, and flopped dramatically. However, after a little reediting, the film was re-released in 1976, as what was then termed a ‘midnight movie’. This time it proved successful, and many elements of the obsession a fan has with a cult film came to the fore with this: audience participation proved to be an important part of the experience, with the audience dressing up, taking props and joining in with the dialogue of the piece.

This ‘Midnight Movie’ phenomenon is of special note to the concept of the cult film, though more specifically in the United States. This started to occur in the seventies, when movie theatres, particularly those within reach of a large student population started running obscure exploitation films as late-night features 1 . The films shown essentially provided a spectacle that was simultaneously quaint, bizarre and unlike anything in contemporary circulation. Although tacky fifties Sci-fi was an early staple, some films (such as the Rocky Horror Show)  were barely out of general release before they were launched on this circuit.

But the catalyst for the current interest in cult cinema, particularly in Britain must be a combination of the video recorder and the increasing amount of television channels available to the consumer, from the 1980s onward. Before these, the only outlet for cult film would have been at the more arty independent cinemas, making them difficult to see outside of the few places in the UK that had one. But the video boom of the 1980s put the cult film on the shop shelf as their reputations grew, and by the late 1990s, television channels like Film Four provided another outlet for them.

This made the cult film immediately more accessible to the consumer, and indeed there are now many different imprints releasing such work, much in the way that the Compact Disc revolution has led to the re-release of the most obscure records for reappraisal.

The Cult film is now almost mainstream; Biopics of Ed Wood; John Waters becoming an established director (his breakthrough film Hairspray was apparently the No 1 film rented out for children’s parties at one point), and of course the creation of films intended from the start to appeal to ‘knowing’ audiences. But what is cult film? There are no hard and fast rules as to what turns a film into a cult item. However, these films all have some (often curious) aspect or another that makes them interesting.

It might be the director, the actors/ actresses, the special effects, the music or the subject matter, for example Danny Peary, writer of the trilogy of Cult Movies books, takes this argument up too, stating that the attraction of these films is that they “differ radically from standard Hollywood films in that they characteristically feature atypical heroes and heroines; offbeat dialogue; surprising plot resolutions; highly original story lines; brave themes, often of a sexual or political nature; ‘definitive’ performances by stars who have cult status ” and so on.

In his essay on Casablanca, Umberto Eco speaks about attributing the fascination with the work as being due to what it fails to do, rather than what it achieves. Many films designated as cult movies have failed in some way or other; While many failed as commercial entities, there are other factors in evidence that could be considered. For example, the Monkees’ Head failed to get the band taken more seriously. BTVOTD failed to turn Russ Meyer into a mainstream director, and Death Race 2000 was not always recognised as a satirical piece.

Also, a cult movie tends to be caught very much in its own period, rather than transcending it, and this tends to be part of the appeal. A film such as The Wizard of Oz still holds appeal to a similar audience to that which it sold to in 1939. They almost certainly would not care about the apocryphal story of the munchkin that was unintentionally filmed committing suicide on set, or about deleted sequences from the original print. In these days of marketing demographics, the cinema industry produces product intentionally destined to be cult pieces.

Films such as Being John Malkovich, or the work of Kevin Smith or Quentin Tarantino are marketed to appeal to a ‘select’ audience to whom a light-hearted romcom or a good versus evil action film would be anathema, even though they are mainstream products, and represent a strong box-office draw. Such an instant cult following for a film would rarely have been considered thirty years ago, and certainly not by a major studio.

It is only the eventual phenomenal success of the RHPS that awakened filmmakers to the potential of cult appeal as a selling point. That is not to say, however, that cult cinema cannot be produced today. A prime example of this, and conforming to many stereotypes of the genre, is the 1997 film Velvet Goldmine, directed by Todd Haynes. On release, the film underwhelmed critics, despite the hype and anticipation that heralded it.

On paper, it seemed like a winner; A semi-fictional account of rock decadence (read: David and Angie Bowie and the Mainman entourage) and sexual fluidity in early 70s Britain, produced by an up and coming auteur, starring many hot new actors and with a soundtrack that mixed classic glam rock tunes with remakes and pastiches by several cutting edge rock musicians such as Thom Yorke from Radiohead and the group Placebo.

In practice, however, the film showed itself to have a rather garbled plotline, suggesting that Oscar Wilde was, quite literally, an alien, and the clumsy portrayal of 1984 as a repressive totalitarian state, a la both George Orwell’s novel and Bowie’s aborted musical production of it. Bowie had refused to allow Haynes to use any of his songs, so the film had to resort to numbers by Roxy Music, Brian Eno and Cockney Rebel, and the film proved to be a rather revisionist version of the era-much of the dialogue comes from contemporary quotes by Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop (plus a smattering of Wilde-isms), but while characters like, say, Mandy Slade are instantly recognisable to Bowie buffs as being Bowie’s first wife Angie, other key players of the era are distorted into completely different people.

The film is unsatisfying as either a work of fantasy or a factual document as it veers erratically between 8 the two. But despite its disastrous reception (“Ziggy Plop!” said the now-defunct Select magazine), the film has gathered a dedicated cult following-one has just to search the internet to find several fan-pages dedicated to it.

Despite its numerous faults, it has to be said that the film is beautifully shot throughout, the soundtrack remains entertaining despite the conspicuous lack of Bowie material, and although most of the principal players are rather unengaging, there is a feast of entertaining bit-part characters such as Toni Collette’s Mandy Slade, and the performance artist The Divine David’s role as a particularly flamboyant member of the Bijou Records entourage.

The film seems to be particularly popular amongst a select band of young gay men, especially those who feel outside of the mainstream. Cult cinema is difficult to define, as it is pan-genre, and although some films are similar enough to have featured on double bills together, such as Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Myra Breckenridge in 1970, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise in 1975, cult films tend to stand very much alone.

A film can be a cult item because it proves to be more effective than its sum of parts or it could be because it falls into the camp double bluff of the “its so bad its good” kind. The style of the film tends to be a more important consideration than the plot, and like with 1960s episodes of the TV show Doctor Who, the more quaint and unconvincing the special effect, the better. But perhaps the main appeal of the cult film is that it was either rejected by, or never intended for, the mainstream. Finding art in that which is perceived as trash by the mainstream can be a lot more satisfying than simply consuming that which is an accepted part of the dominant cultural ideology.

Simon Moses

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is maverick 1960s porn purveyor Russ Meyer’s finest achievement.

Mayer had made many low budget flicks before this, like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, a great film depicting the adventures of three psychopathic go-go-dancers (it’s as good as it sounds).

But Beyond the Valley was his first for a major studio, and as well as having a higher budget (all the better for filming the crowd scenes and financing an appearance by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, a late 60s rock group that was on the wane).

The script was jointly created by Meyer and Roger Ebert, a film critic, of all people. Although a colourful whirl of Los Angeles life at the turn of the decade, BTVOTD was not based in any fact – the men got their idea for the unhinged ‘Teen Tycoon of Rock’ Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell from Phil Spector.

Neither of them actually knew him, or knew much about him, so they wrote the character as they thought he’d be like. It certainly isn’t an accurate source of reference for its period, but it is lots of fun.


Claimed (later) by both men to be a parody, BTVOTD is an odd film – it looks several years older than its release date of 1970. Interestingly, the band that the film is centred round, The Carrie Nations, nee whatever, had no precedent at the time – successful female groups of this time tended to be a puppet of a pop svengali, not the feisty, songwriting, instrument-playing bunch depicted here.

The band, consisting of feisty lead singer Kelly, doe-eyed and melancholy Casey and hip soul sister Petronella were all played by ex-Playboy centrefold girls. Despite their dubious pedigree, all three pull off their parts with great aplomb, even given Dolly Read (who plays singer Kelly), whose accent sometimes veers back into English – she was born in Bristol.

The film charts their rise to fame, and their downfalls along the way. Starting off by playing college gigs, they move to Los Angeles, where one of the band has a long lost aunt, who she is convinced will help them. And this she does, by promptly offering her neice half a million dollars of an inheritance.

She then introduces them to a leading music producer at one of his parties, the suave Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell. This bizarre character, who constantly talks in a cod-shakespearean way was indirectly inspired by legendary loony record producer Phil Spector -neither Meyer or Ebert had met him, and so came up with a fantasy of what they imagined him to be like, a technique which helped them create other characters too.

All three of the girls were played by ex-nudie models with no previous acting experience. To their credit, they pull their roles off very well, although Dolly Read, the female lead, does occasionally slip back into a British accent (she was from Bristol, fittingly enough).


But the most striking character goes by the name of Ashley St. Ives. Played by Meyer’s then-wife, she is quite terrifying in the pursuit of the band’s original manager, Harris Allsworth. “She went after me like a barracuda”, quips one (clearly gay) gentleman at one point, and you can clearly see what he means. Sadly she isn’t in the film for long, but she sure makes her mark.

The film looks rather older than it is, which makes all the jaunty drug references and sudden nudity all the more jarring. In fact, it is more reminiscent of a highly condensed soap opera than a movie at times, a fact borne out by the use of dramatic organ music at pivotal points, in the way that a show such as Peyton Place would have done.

BTVOTD comes across as a lurid and hysterical piece of exploitation, and a lot happens during the running time. Apparently Meyer and Ebert insisted that the parts were to be taken seriously by the actors, but had intended the whole thing to be a send up, and the lack of knowing smiles or winks just heightens the ridiculousness.

Filmed in glorious, saturated Technicolor, and with sets that represent the worst (or best) of late sixties design, BTVOTD is quite a trip in every way possible.

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Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte

While Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a very well known film, its follow up, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte is rather more obscure.

It was originally conceived as another vehicle for Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, on similar lines to Baby Jane – a slightly crazy aged Southern Belle who has long been suspected of murdering her lover is fighting eviction from her home, and enlist her Cousin Miriam for help. The Role of Miriam was originally Crawford’s, and she was present and correct at rehearsals and the first days of shooting.

Unfortunately for her, Davis was a shareholder in the film, and chose to take it upon herself to pointedly criticise Crawford’s playing. Soon enough, Crawford was rushed to hospital with some unspecified illness, which she didn’t recover from until she was released from the contract.

Her place was taken by Olivia De Havilland, a lady who had been friends with Davies for years, and was more capable of dealing with Bette’s temperamental nature. She gives a fine performance, although you can’t help but wonder how Crawford would have played the role – particularly as the film progresses.


The film opens in 1927, with Charlotte’s father insisting to her married lover that he ditch her. He does, much to her distress, and she runs off. As he broods alone in a room, someone enters. “Charlotte?” he asks, only to be chopped to bits with a meat cleaver. In the next scene, Charlotte enters the ballroom, with blood splattered on her dress, symbolically over the crotch area.

Cut to 1964, and a bunch of kids dare each other to go into the dilapidated mansion. The kid that does accidentally sets off her musical box, and she springs up. But there is no malevolence there – she calls out for her long-dead lover, and the credits roll with her staring out into the distance, a tear running down her face.

As with Baby Jane, this film was directed by Joseph Aldrich, in moody black & white. the early part of the film is much lighter than its forebear, with the apparently sweet Cousin Miriam trying in vain to explain to Charlotte that there is very little she can do to prevent demolition of the family home.

Charlotte launches into a speech about how ungrateful Miriam was when her family took her in, while Miriam retaliates about Charlotte’s family bullying her over the hand-me-downs she has to wear. This is the first sign of tension between the women, with Miriam seeming exasperated and Charlotte downright stubborn.

Unknown to Charlotte, her cousin is plotting against her, with the help of the boozy family doctor, Drew Bayliss, played by Joseph Cotten. Her crotchety maid Velma, played by Agnes Moorehead (unrecognisable from Bewitched, susses out what is happening, especially once she finds Charlotte in a drugged stupor in bed, but before she can do anything about it, she is sacked, then shoved down the stairs to her death when she returns to help Charlotte escape.

Miriam and the doctor are plotting to send Charlotte even more loopy than she already is, and this climaxes when, with the aid of some sort of hallucinogenic, they manage to make Charlotte think that she is back in the 1920s, at the ball where her lover dies. With lots of shadows (to hide Davis’ less than youthful appearance), she enters a ballroom full of masked dancers, only to have the headless corpse of her lover show up. In terror, she shoots at the body, only to come back into reality and discover that the corpse was in fact her doctor. Miriam decides that they have to get rid of the body, and turns real nasty.


Olivia De Havilland is particularly good in her role, especially as she normally played a wholesome character in most of her films. In Charlotte, her character’s about face, from angel to monster, is carried off with great aplomb – it would have been even more shocking to a sixties moviegoer who had only ever seen De Havilland in nice-girl roles, to see her hiss “Damn you! Now will you SHUT your MOUTH!” to a boggle-eyed Bette, after a few good slaps.

Charlotte is in my humble opinion, a better film than its predecessor. The pace is snappier, and the horror more ludicrous. And unlike Baby Jane, the ending could almost be described as a happy one.

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Ocean Hotel, Saltdean, Brighton

Along with the Lido to the south, the Ocean Hotel (sometimes known as the Grand Ocean Hotel) is another fine example of thirties seaside architecture in the south coast village of Saltdean.

Indeed, it was constructed by the developers responsible for the Lido and much of the actual village, the saltdean Estate Company, formed by speculator Charles Neville in 1924.

The Ocean Hotel was acquired by Butlins and opened its doors for business in May of 1953 after an extensive refurbishment. Six months of hard work had gone into restoring the near-derelict building to its former glory.

As luck would have it the hotel turned out to be excellent investment for Sir Billy Butlin. With its close proximity to the bright lights and night-life of Brighton, the hotel proved a very popular destination for honeymooners throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies.

It stayed in their ownership until Rank Leisure, the owner of Butlins, put all of the Butlins hotels up for sale in 1998. They went to the Grand Hotel Group.

There is so little demand for accommodation in the hotel now, that plans are being made to house asylum seekers there, which is currently rousing local protest.

Unfortunately, the front view from the hotel (which faces north-east) was blighted in the 1950s when the countryside opposite it was redeveloped for housing.

However, the hotel appears to be in good condition, retaining many original features, including glass-brick columns flanking the main entrance, and the mouldings on the ceiling of the foyer. Due to its slightly off the beaten track location, it is not somewhere you would find without looking for it, but it is a beautiful building.


The sun shining over the hotel…


…and setting.


Looking southeast over the facade.



Looking west, showing the curve of the facade.


Inside the foyer, showing the original ceiling mouldings.

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Embassy Court, Brighton

Embassy Court is one of the most striking buildings on the seafront at Brighton and Hove, although the reasons for this have differed over the years.

When built in 1935, the building contrasted sharply with the more sedate and ornamental architecture of King’s Road; but by the 1990s, the structure drew comment because of its terribly run down nature.

The building made the local press after chunks of render and windows fell from the building onto the street below, and it appeared until recently that it may suffer the same ignominious fate met by the West Pier sat opposite it, which finally succumbed to the elements (and arsonists) in early 2004.


Luckily this proved not to be the case – a consortium formed by residents and owners were able to wrestle the freehold of the building from the previous ineffectual management company, and with the assistance of the Conran group, restoration commenced in 2004.


The decline of Embassy Court was all the more worrying due to its significance in architectural terms. Although there are several blocks of flats in the Art Deco style in Brighton and Hove, none encapsulates the boldness or prominence of Embassy Court. The building was designed by the architect Wells Coates, a Canadian/Japanese designer acknowledged as one of the masters of the machine aesthetic of the 1930s.

One year previous to this, Coates had been responsible for the design of the Isokon flats in Hampstead, London, which were intended to provide affordable housing with a communal slant, and in the year that Embassy Court was completed, one of Coates’ most iconic designs appeared on the market – the striking Ekco AD65 radio set, housed in a perfectly circular bakelite cabinet, and now highly collectable.


Embassy Court was intended to be luxurious, and this was reflected in the well off (and sometimes famous) occupants in the building’s early life.

One of the features of the building was a restaurant in the basement to cater for residents; and even though this meant that kitchens in the flats were rather small, they still featured built-in cupboards with integrated Electrolux refrigerators, a feature practically unheard of in British homes of the period. The building also incorporated the first ever penthouse flats to be built in the UK.


Like the Isokon flats, Embassy Court was uncompromisingly modern; the sole concession made to integrate the building with its neighbours was the way that the windows were designed to line up with those of its neighbour.


However, such was the contrast between the two styles of architecture, such a subtle gesture went largely unnoticed. The failure of the building to blend in with its surroundings was a frequent criticism, but its appearance found favour with one very significant man. That man was Herbert Carden, who had been a town councillor for Brighton since 1895.

Carden was a great believer in what was referred to as Municipal Socialism, and had been responsible for the formation of Greater Brighton in 1928, leading to a knighthood in 1930. So taken was Carden with Embassy Court, that in a booklet commemorating the Royal Jubilee in 1935, plans for the complete reconstruction of the seafront area were revealed, which would have entailed mass demolition of the original Georgian properties to make way for a slew of new and ultra modern blocks.

Thankfully, such destruction did not go ahead, leaving Embassy Court as the only modern building on the seafront until the construction of the Cavendish hotel and the Kingswest Centre in the 1960s.

By the time that these two buildings were constructed, Embassy Court was in physical decline, a situation exacerbated by a cheap and shoddy programme of refurbishment in the 1960s. The fabric of the building was also in poor condition; the steel framed windows were highly vulnerable to the salty sea air, as was the steel reinforcement of the concrete structure of the flats.

Maintenance work on the block was skimped, and by the late 1990s, the block had a reputation that was at best bohemian, and at worst, downright dodgy. The proliferation of absentee landlords did not help matters, and it appeared that the block would face more years of neglect until it was razed to the ground, despite listed status.

The state of the building was so poor that it was impossible to get a mortgage on any of the flats; and it was not until the management company Bluestorm formed by residents were able to gain control of the building at the turn of the 21st Century that work could commence on reviving the block.


This is currently in process, with repairs being carried out both externally and internally, with the intention being to restore the block to something approaching its original state, although with some modernisation such as the replacement of the centralized heating and hot water system with individual units for each flat; but it would appear that once more Embassy Court will become a building that strikes one because of its unique and uncompromising appearance rather than the semi-dereliction that had affected it for such a long time.

The pictures on this page were taken in 2001, long before any work had started, and show how poor the condition of the block was externally. At the time of writing, work is being completed on the restoration of the side of the building that faces the seafront, and the scaffolding that shrouds it is due to come down soon.

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De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea

The De La Warr Pavilion was erected between 1934 and 1935 in the otherwise sleepy seaside town of Bexhill-on-Sea, following a competition held by the mayor, Earl De La Warr. He sought a design for a new leisure complex for the town, and this was to be the winning entry.

The design was by Eric Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, both celebrated designers of the modern movement. It was truly a stunning design, with a welded steel frame and cantilevered staircases, and even today it is considered to be one of the most significant modern movement building in the United Kingdom.

Although the building has never been subject to some of the indignities or neglect that many of its contemporaries have, over the decades there had been some unsympathetic ‘modernisation’. Happily, the pavillion has been Grade 1 listed since 1986, and the building is currently undergoing a gradual but sympathetic restoration.


The front of the building, showing one of the projecting staircases.


A closer view of the streamlined lettering above the front entrance.


The cantilevered rear staircase, which overlooks the English Channel.


The remarkable light fitting that runs up the rear staircase.


A view of the balconies of the Pavilion from the seafront.


In the auditorium of the theatre, showing the exquisite wood panelling, and the remarkably space-age ceiling.


More original detailing in the auditorium-note the original chrome 1930s ‘Exit’ sign.

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Bishopstone Railway Station, Seaford

Nowadays, Bishopstone railway station is almost forgotten, an unstaffed halt and the last stop on the Lewes – Seaford railway line. The whole site has an air of neglect about it; it is easy to forget that it was part of a plan to bring the railway network of south east England firmly into the 20th century.

Before 1923, the railway lines of Great Britain were owned by numerous different companies, a situation that was to change that year with the grouping of the companies. Four new companies were formed, the one responsible for lines in the south of England being the Southern Railway.

This company differed from the rest in that much of their network centred around commuter traffic into London, using some of the most intensively worked lines in the UK. Due to the high volume of traffic carried, the Southern proved to be the company that carried out the most expansion before World War Two.

New railway lines were built; existing ones were electrified; and new stations were constructed to handle commuters from new and intended suburban housing estates.


Following the electrification of the London-Brighton railway, completed in 1933, the lines to Eastbourne and Seaford followed in the summer of 1935.

Three years later, a station at Bishopstone on the latter line opened in 1938. The village of Bishopstone itself had a tiny population, and was situated almost a mile from the railway, but the new station, located about a mile from the terminus of the line, was built speculatively – in the hopes that its construction would encourage the erection of new homes nearby, giving commuters easy access to the frequent electric trains and increasing the income of the Southern Railway.


These intentions were however thwarted by the outbreak of war in 1939. Home building ground to a halt throughout the country, and the area never was developed to the extent that was hoped.

This situation also occurred elsewhere on the Southern Railway, including the stillborn seaside resort of Allhallows-on-Sea on the Thames estuary, and the station at Lullingstone near Swanley, which, although apparently architecturally very similar to the one at Bishopstone, was never opened to passengers and was later demolished.

Bishopstone was a modest station, constructed with only passenger traffic in mind. The frontage of the station was largely constructed in a typical art deco style, with corners incorporating windows that smoothly curved round the sides of the building.


The roof of the booking hall towered above the frontage of the building, and it was a rather unusual structure in octagonal shape, foreshadowing the pillbox defence structures of the Second World War. Although flat roofed, the ceiling of the booking hall was built from glass bricks rather than a more conventional method, which had the advantage of making the booking hall feel light and airy.

Today, Bishopstone station is still open to the public, although it is now rather forlorn, having never reached its potential.


It is unstaffed (although a newsagents still operates in part of the frontage), and one of the two railway tracks running through the station has been removed, leaving a derelict and crumbling concrete platform opposite the operational one.

As late as 2004, the station still had a rather isolated feel to it, located at the end of a road with large private houses running down one side, and nothing but fields and a campsite on the other, but by the middle of that year, work had begun on a new housing development to the immediate west of the station – construction that the Southern railway had planned for nearly 70 years ago.

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