Created by Brian Clemens – ‘Thriller’

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Brian Clemens 1976

Brian Clemens died on January 10th at the age of 83.  His name is inextricably linked with television action-adventure and crime series of the 60s and 70s from Danger Man and Adam Adamant Lives to The Professionals.  Surely his most notable achievement remains The Avengers, a series so innovative and original it almost defines 60s cool.  Clemens himself was responsible for casting Diana Rigg as Emma Peel.

But for me, the name Brian Clemens is most closely associated with the 1973-76 ATV series Thriller.  Clemens created Thriller, wrote the majority of its 43 episodes and storyboarded the others, adding to his already prolific output.

Thriller had a number of good things going for it.  Each episode lasted seventy-five broadcast minutes (typically 65 minutes without commercial breaks), a very specific and unusual length for a British TV drama series.  That schedule-stretching extra twenty minutes seemed to symbolise the import of the series and, when well used, allowed room for a mood of mystery or menace to slowly develop.

Harpsichord stings

Even the shrill blasts of the ATV ident seemed to announce a deliciously terrifying seventy-five minutes was in store.

ThrillerThen there was Laurie Johnson’s doom laden opening music – creepy woodwind and those dreaded dissonant ‘ker-drrrrmmm!’ harpsichord stings accompanying a blood red framed, fish-eyed view of the locations to come – a forbidding old house (often with pillars) or bare trees clawing at a wintry sky.

The anthology format of self-contained episodes had the advantage of providing fresh actors in a new story each week.  It’s a shame that this flexible but reliable format has virtually vanished from television screens today.

Casts were stuffed with well known names – Dinsdale Landen, Peter Vaughan, Hayley Mills, Jenny Agutter, Jeremy Brett, Nyree Dawn Porter, Patrick Allen, Richard Todd, Patrick Troughton, Diana Dors, Tom Conti, Peter Bowles, Denholm Elliott to name but a handful.  To help sales to the States, American actors were planted in some episodes which could make for a slightly contrived feel.

Having seen the entire Thriller series on DVD forty years later, it’s a largely positive experience.  Unfortunately the series lacks the charm of The Avengers and there is a sense that the gin-and-jag world it portrays is a pretty corrupt place where seemingly anyone is prepared to kill, usually for money.

Some of the characters feel interchangeable but that could be down to box-set syndrome.

I don’t have a problem with the studio-bound sets which are actually pretty lavish by 1970s’ TV standards and were something of a hallmark of ATV.

Experiments with supernatural-themed stories work rather less well and the series feels on a firmer footing when these are phased out though Diana Dors is creepily enjoyable as evil nurse Bessie in Nurse Will Make It Better (1975).

I feel a little uneasy that a prevalent theme is a female menaced by a male (Clemens claimed audiences identify more closely with the vulnerability of a female lead) but my favourite Thriller, A Coffin for the Bride  (1974), turns the tables magnificently.

The series can descend into schlock, sometimes nerve-rackingly so as in A Killer in Every Corner (1975) with Max Wall’s first straight role as an obsessive shoe-polishing psychopath much talked about at the time.

When Thriller was sold to the States as a collection of standalone made for TV movies, the atmospheric original titles and music were excised to be replaced by truly terrible garishly coloured openers with generic music plastered over the top and some episodes renamed.  British TV viewers got to see these cheap and nasty versions when Thriller surfaced sporadically across the ITV regions around 1981 though many viewers would have missed these repeats altogether as there was little indication they belonged to the 70s Brian Clemens series.  Thankfully the Network DVD release restores the original fish-eye credits though the export versions are included as extras if you can stomach them.

Several Thrillers do stand out. Here are my two favourites.

The Eyes Have It

I missed the majority of Thrillers first time round.  Nine year olds were not the target audience (although, surprisingly, some episodes began as early as 8.15, well before the 9pm watershed).

But I did get to see one of the best stories, 1973’s The Eyes Have It on a 1975 repeat.   The sense of excitement at being allowed to stay up to watch this adult drama – and it felt exceedingly ‘adult’ – was immense and, that night, Thriller certainly did not disappoint.  A certain aura surrounded the series, handed down from parents and passed around in gossip at school and it felt great to at last be inducted into this exclusive club.

In 1975, The Eyes Have It thrilled and terrified me in equal measure.  The clichés of ‘glued to my seat’ and ‘unable to look away from the screen’ could not be more apt.  My childhood favourite, Dr Who, was moving into its Gothic period at this time which meant more realistic portrayals of the darker side of human nature in stories like ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (Sarah being sadistically dangled high over the edge of a rocket’s scaffolding, Nyder’s cruelly complicit smile as the Daleks’ slaughter commences).  In many ways Thriller felt like a natural step-up and satisfied a need in me to be both chilled and excited in greater measures.

The Eyes Have It pre-credits teaser (a key aspect of the series) shows us a doctor murdered by strangers as a young woman stands by apparently unconcerned.  The killer waves his hand across her line of vision as she continues to smile.  Only then, after this unnerving opening does the camera pan to ‘Clinical Training Centre for the Blind’ and we’re into the title sequence.

A group of terrorists have infiltrated the school because its location offers an ideal vantage point from which to carry out an assassination.  The story is of how the blind students gradually become aware of what is happening and, despite the odds being severely against them, seek to overcome the terrorists.

The acting (Peter Vaughan, Sinead Cusack, William Marlowe, Denis Waterman) is very good and there are some wonderfully poignant scenes which stick in the memory, such as the students continuing life as usual while, unbeknown to them, the body of the doctor lies only feet away.  In another nail-biting scene, one of the students seeks help from a stranger only to realise from the familiar feel of his ring that he is one of the terrorists.  The precision of the storytelling and the sense of menace is almost palpable.

A Coffin for the Bride

Once you get over the slightly tacky double murder scenes at the start, this opens out into a thoroughly original mystery.  Michael Jayston plays Mark Walker, a charmer who makes a living out of marrying and then murdering wealthy women.  But his well oiled schemes fall apart when he meets the beautiful Stella Mackenzie (there’s a clue in her being a set designer…)

A Coffin for the Bride relies hugely for its effectiveness on a strong performance from its female lead and a young Helen Mirren is terrific.  I can’t say too much here for fear of spoiling your enjoyment if you’ve not seen it.  Suffice it to say that the ending is as devastating as it is completely unforeseen (well, by me, anyway though I do think Mark might have noticed those dentures before they are pulled out on him).

I played this story a second time and noticed a crucially placed lookalike figure in the background at the health resort.  Whether this passer-by is a purely incidental inclusion or a deliberate one, her presence acts as a subliminal decoy, steering you off the scent of what’s really happening and making the outcome all the more shocking. Subtle and clever.  I got as much enjoyment seeing A Coffin for the Bride for a second time just to enjoy the careful setting up of the story at each stage.

A Coffin for the Bride is reputedly Brian Clemens’ own favourite from the series.

The wrap-up

In some ways, Thriller reminds me of a traditional ‘good night out’ at a provincial theatre where thrillers have long been a production mainstay and always seem to star Gerald Harper or Christopher Cazenove.  The mood would be one of deadly melodrama threatening to burst through English middle-class self-restraint.

It’s quite rare to see anything approaching genuine psychological motivation in thrillers (Psycho, is a notable exception) and to an extent you have to accept the limitations of the genre to enjoy this collection too.  The thrills are indeed psychological but they stem from imposed plot devices rather than from characters of subtlety and complexity. Thriller takes a premise, setups a scenario which implies a certain endgame and then deliberately subverts that or, in some cases such as I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill (1974), simply plays it out relentlessly.

Thriller Box setYou can enjoy the sense of manipulation when it’s in the name of suspense – and suspense, Thriller delivers in spade-loads.

For all the thrills you could ever want, visit the Thriller website.

The entire series is available on DVD box set.

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More Bee Gees updates

Until now, almost all posts on the Bee Gees have been tagged with all three brothers’ names individually which seemed a bit pointless.

So now only posts making special mention of one of the band members are tagged by that name.  So, for example, selecting Robin Gibb in the side bar tag cloud will take you to posts on Robin’s solo material and selected Bee Gees posts which are of special relevance to him or which make special mention of him (eg. Lamplight, a Bee Gees single but crucially Robin’s song which, when relegated to a B-side, provoked his leaving the group).

Admittedly this is a more subjective way of tagging but I hope it helps identify posts which relate to Barry, Robin or Maurice in particular.  It also means their names don’t completely dominate the tag cloud, leaving more space for others!

Tagging by year and album name remains the same.

After a bit of a break, the Bee Gees Top 50 continues counting down next month.

Aphrodite’s Child and ‘early Demis Roussos’

As Demis Roussos died earlier this week, I cast my mind back to his early success as part of pop-psych-prog-rock band Aphrodite’s Child  and listen again to their first album, 1968’s ‘End of the World.’


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Vangelis Papathanassiou, Demis Roussos, Lucas Sideras – late 60s

I first heard Rain and Tears on a 1968 chart countdown on Radio 1 in the late 80s.  Once the Top 15 had aired, if there was time, listeners got to hear entries from lower down the chart.  This was often the most interesting part of the programme as it was a chance to catch new, perhaps less commercial material.  ‘Rain and Tears’ reached only number 29 in the UK but still, a significant achievement for an unknown, non UK/US group.

Rain and Tears takes the very familiar chord progressions of ‘Pachabel’s Canon in D Major’ and adds an instantly memorable melody within a musical style somewhere between the Bee Gees and the Moody Blues (think Majority One, perhaps).

The band name Aphrodite’s Child was new to me but I soon recognised the vocalist as unmistakably that of Demis Roussos.  Still the song’s quasi-psychedelic style steeped in tragic poeticism is far removed from the overtly romantic /pan-European personality cult Roussos of 70’s MOR success.

Aphrodite’s Child‘s magnum opus appears to be their last album, 1972’s 666, although in what sense this is the monster of myth, I have no idea as I began as I usually do in the 60s and the band’s first album.

End of the World   

End of the World CD coverThis is an unusual one to be sure, cast very much in the mould of full-blown 60s experimentalism with Rain and Tears being the most conventional offering though title track and solid follow-up single ‘End of the World’ follow not far behind.

Elsewhere the album veers from the wild rock of You Always Stand in My Way to the soulful, pounding, Timebox-like Don’t Try to Catch a River.  The Grass Is No Green aims to intrigue with its alternating frantic/wearied passages, Byzantine echoes, lone animal sounds and an impressively wailing vocal.

Mellotron features prominently on Greek fable The Shepherd and the Moon though Vangelis Papathanassiou was reputedly not fond of the instrument.  Final track, Day of the Fool is like an outtake from a rock opera, a highly theatrical descent into madness – this band always showed a predilection for the apocalyptic.  Only on obligatory portrait-of-an-outsider Mr Thomas do they sound uncharacteristically tentative.

Procol Harum are never too far away and there are nods to early Genesis.  All the tracks are written by Boris Bergman and Vangelis (Pachabel apart).  Throughout Demis Roussos shows that he can do frazzled and frenzied every bit as much as he can gentle and lyrical vocals.

I was surprised to find that I’d listened to End of the World only once since I bought the album maybe four or five years ago.  Although I appreciated its ambitions, I can’t quite have been taken with it enough to listen for a second time.  Hearing it again today, I’m not sure why as it’s really rather an enjoyable trip.

And it’s how I’d like to remember Demis Roussos.

Artemios “Demis” Ventouris-Roussos – 15th June 1946 – 25th January 2015

Bergen White: For Women Only – tracks 5-9

The second of three posts taking Bergen White’s  1970 soft pop album For Women Only track-by-track.  Tracks 5-9 include two of the album’s finest, ‘Lisa Was’ and ‘Second Lover’s Song’.


5. Lisa  Was (Barry Mann, 3.13)  *****

It’s always a lovely surprise when an inconspicuously placed album track jumps out at you for its sheer brilliance.  Track 5, Lisa Was, does this and is (narrowly) the best track on For Women Only.  Lisa Was will haunt you without ever seeming to try too hard.  But looking behind the scenes you can see just how much careful craft went into the making of this three minute thirteen second masterpiece.

The rising/falling arc of the melody is well done and Bergen’s arrangement is one of his best – melodic bass, xylophone or marimba and piano opening giving way to passionate strings and blasts of brass which work surprisingly well in so gentle a song. But it’s the lyrics which really take Lisa Was to another level, from its stunning exposition ‘Lisa was a morning, She was all her heart could hope for…’ to the crucial Lisa ‘was a moment’ and ’…such a long, long time’ juxtapositions.

The lyrics, along with the melody, were written by Barry Mann but bare all the hallmarks of his songwriting partner, Cynthia Weil, in their vivid evocativeness and imaginative use of broader contexts to conjure a virtual mythology out of the purely personal.

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Barry Mann

The imagery remains consistently strong and original throughout ‘(Lisa saw the colours underneath the city river, She wept for the gypsies who were put on trial’), so that when we reach the far more conventional lines ‘Lisa how I miss you, God much I miss you’ we believe in them because of the colour and originality of what has gone before.  So many love songs (modern ones especially) forget the colour and demand that we feel on the basis of emoting alone – feel my pain!

How would you describe a doomed love affair in just a line?  Bergen sings ‘Lisa, it’s just so useless, there are just too many armies.’  It’s such a great line, instantly evoking love’s fragility in a harsh world though it might also be interpreted as the male protagonist receiving his draft papers to fight in Vietnam.   Whatever the specifics, we don’t have to hear the complications of the relationship or what happened – this one line says it all perfectly.

Then we have the elegiac ‘And the wise man on the mountain speaks a nursery rhyme’ – the moment has passed never to be repeated and the time has come for the lovers to part.  Yet his love for Lisa remains, transformed from a moment into ‘such a long, long time’.  The vocal hovering over the floating suspensions of ‘she stayed for just a while’ as the key moves up a notch is a wonderful touch.

I can discover nothing about the history of this song.  Did Barry Mann donate it to Bergen?  Wherever it comes from, this is great songwriting and Bergen more than does it justice.

From this great height, we move to tracks 6-8, the weakest part of the album but still eminently listenable.

6. Hurt So Bad (Teddy Randazzo, Bobby Weinstein & Bobby Harshman, 2.50) ***

The most conventional track so far with its ‘sad/bad’ lyrics, this soul-pop offering is given a perky arrangement with violins EQ’d perilously high.  Bergen says he aped Little Anthony’s version but to my ears Bergen’s is closer to the subsequent cover by The Lettermen in terms of its instrumental lushness.  Little Anthony’s version is the most passionate, The Lettermen’s the most sumptuous.

Although a come down after the gorgeous Lisa Was, Hurt so Bad and the following track On and On provide necessary contrast from the overall melancholy mood of tracks 2-5.

7. On and On (Bergen White, 2.33) ***

A fully uptempo number (the first since track one) this is a driven piece with a lively, classically influenced, contrapuntal guitar breakdown.

8. Gone Again (David Gates, 3.00) ***

Not one of David Gate’s finest.  Gone Again is the album’s least essential track, probably dating from Gates’s days as a staff writer though it does serve to lighten the mood a little before the intensity of tracks 9 and 10.

The chorus uses recognised chord progressions which were also to feature prominently (and more successfully) in IfDiary and Aubrey in the early 70s.

Any one of the bonus tracks 13-16 would have made a stronger substitute for Gone Again.  What Would You Do in My Place would do very nicely.

It’s good to know that Bergen appreciates the under-appreciated Gates though.

9. Second Lover’s Song (Townes Van Zandt, 2.12) *****

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Townes Van Zandt

The album is firmly back on course again from this point, with two of its strongest cards yet to be played.

Second Lover’s Song is definitely one of them, an exquisite unfolding of an intimate moment explored with both tenderness and precision.  The overall honesty and kindness of the song – and so short a song – is astounding.  Bergen’s vocals shine here ‘Oh honey, can’t you see, I love not jealously, For all you are to me, And all you’ll be tomorrow’.

I love the quiet flurry of strings at the end, somehow reassuring us that all is well.

My final post on For Women Only is in two weeks’ time.
 


For Women Only: tracks 1-4
For Women Only: tracks 10-18
For Women Only: album overview 

 

“And now… the Gallery”

New Year, new side bar!  Sorry, that has to be the worst sales pitch ever. 

Anyway, you can now enjoy browsing the sidebar Gallery which shows the albums, CDs and DVDs featured on lightspots so far.  I have also added covers for Manfred Mann’s Mighty Garvey and Piccadilly Sunshine Volume 16 into their respective posts and the Gallery as the thumbnail somehow got missed off.   

Next to the Gallery is a new Search side bar feature which will scour this whole shebang and find whatever you ask it to.

With a Little Help from Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker’s death just before Christmas gave a new lease of life to his indefatigable cover of With a Little Help From My FriendsThis set me thinking about cover versions especially those which, as with Joe Cocker’s, are light years away from the original.

Joe’s blistering ‘soul-anthem’ (Paul McCartney’s moniker) stretches ‘With a Little Help…’  to its outer limits and beyond.  Dispensing with The Beatles’ boppy neatness, he refashions the song into a full blooded, rasping assault on the listener’s ears, nerves and heart (though not necessarily in that order).

When you read that song title, is it the Joe Cocker version that you hear in your head?  Does Joe’s Sheffield steel eclipse The Beatles’ charming original – or at least dent it a little?  The Fab Four’s take seems really rather polite, almost effete in comparison to Cocker’s manly barn-stormer.  But does sheer force of impact necessarily make for a better version?

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Hey Joe

Let’s look at this a little differently…   If With a Little Help From My Friends never made it onto Sergeant Pepper, in fact if it had never been recorded by The Beatles but had been given away by them from the start, how would we feel about the song now with Joe Cocker’s becoming the definitive version?  Or do we need the blueprint of a straight and narrow melodic original to fully appreciate the extended radical re-take?

It helps to know what is being subverted.  The Sex Pistols’ My Way is a far more amusing experience having heard the Sinatra original.  Similarly, an early encounter with The Beatles’ ‘With a Little Help…’ makes Joe’s all the more impressive, that anyone could extract so much intensity from ‘a work song for Ringo’ (McCartney again).  But when you listen closer to The Beatles’ version, there is just as much feeling in Ringo’s dry, stoical vocal as there is in Joe Cocker’s rip-roaring one.

Perhaps a song has no definitive blueprint.  It’s often down to which version you hear first and for many that will have been Joe Cocker’s 1968 Number One.  But I wouldn’t want anyone to launch straight into Vanilla Fudge’s eight minute Eleanor Rigby without having at least considered George Martin’s elegant string quartet.

All sides covered

It’s harder to imagine the cover process in reverse, how a rip-it-to-shreds hair raiser might be backwardly distilled into a three minute perfect pop song.  Does it ever happen that way round?   It would be like putting the genie back into the bottle, surely.  Or trying to make a silk purse….

So if pristine pop turning into free radical tour de force is the natural order of things, the renegades and the rebels rely more on the tunesmiths to come up with the goods than the other way round.  Interpreters take the raw material, beat it up and put it back together into something looser, freer, elongated, barely recognisable even but it all comes out of that essential germ of an original.

Boasting a title like that, With a Little Help From My Friends was always crying out to be covered.  Actually I always preferred Joe’s Delta Lady.

Joe Cocker – 20th May 1944 – 22nd December 2014

Bergen White: For Women Only – tracks 1-4

The first of three posts looking at Bergen White’s  1970 soft pop album For Women Only track-by-track.


1. She Is Today, (Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil, 2.34)  *****

An uncharacteristically uptempo track, She Is Today opens For Women Only with light strings and Bergen White’s attractive feathery vocal.

‘She Is Today’ combines drama with a sense of joyful liberation.  The track is pure late 60s and you might say it is the most dated on the album inasmuch as it describes the up-to-the-minute young woman of the times – ‘she is flipped and tripped out but she still cares…. she is today.’  At this point I almost expect a voiceover to enter over the top of the track – ‘Today!  The new perfume for today’s woman…’ – and I don’t mean that to belittle this lovely song in any way.

Busy strings, xylophone, bubbling bass, timpani and brass move things along at a fair old pace whilst Cynthia Weil’s characteristically imaginative lyrics describe the woman by portraying the times she embodies.

The song itself dates from several years earlier.  Barry Mann released it as the B-side to his April 1967 single Where Do I Go From Here showing, before the dawn of the Summer of Love, just how in touch with the zeitgeist were Mann and Weil.  Barry Mann’s version uses a significantly different arrangement which is every bit as adventurous as Bergen’s if not more so.  I admire the way he brings out the tenderness of the title lyric.  Bergen’s cover is altogether smoother in style and his vocals more suited to the gentleness of the song.  Each version has brief instrumental melodic motifs which don’t feature in the other.

‘She Is Today’ strikes me as different from all the other uptempo tracks on For Women Only which tend to borrow from country or country-pop conventions for their appeal.  ‘She is Today’ is pure melodic pop.  It’s interesting to speculate how Nashville’s Area Code 615 musicians, accustomed to working on country material, responded to working on ‘She is Today’.

2. It’s Your Time (Bergen White, 2.10) ***

After the open track’s free-wheeling vitality, this comes as a slight disappointment which led me to think For Women Only isn’t going to be quite as great as I at first thought.

It’s Your Time has (to my ears) an over-loud four-string tenor guitar opening which then audibly reduces in volume as the vocal comes in, one of the album’s very few less than stellar arrangement/production moments.  I find the melody slightly repetitive though this does help drive home the final verse’s emphatic ‘When you said your love was dead…’ lyrics.  The arrangement throughout is comparatively underplayed.

It’s Your Time succeeds in establishing the predominantly melancholic feel of For Women Only but is overshadowed by tracks yet to come.

3. Let Me Stay Awhile (Mickey Newbury, 3.21) *****

This opens to a great introduction featuring marked stereo separation and a heavily treated vocal repeated at the lead-off.   This backgrounded vocal somehow adds to the heavily reflective mood of the song, as if it’s a refrain happening inside the singer’s head.

Let Me Stay Awhile is an emotionally raw, melancholic piece typical of Mickey Newbury in the way it exposes the singer’s vulnerability and fatalism.  The melody line curves Bergen White 1-4 byline2away in different directions rather than following a straightforward repeat; as well as showing a craftsman’s attention to detail, touches like this heighten the song’s emotional tenor.

Mickey Newbury’s original features along with other rarities and unreleased material on Disc 4 of 2011’s American Trilogy box-set.  Bergen’s version downplays the song’s country origins in favour of a smoother, more baroque treatment which works beautifully.

4. Look at Me (David Gates, 2.38) ****

Bergen says he isn’t happy with hearing this now, even going so far as to say he would have omitted Look at Me and the album’s other David Gates song, Gone Again and indeed I don’t think Bergen’s magic quite works on either song in the way that it emphatically does on Let Me Stay Awhile, Lisa Was and Second Lover’s Song.

Look at Me is one of my favourite David Gates songs.  It’s also one of his most uncharacteristic as it is steeped in existential bleakness.  A lonely individual longs to be seen and to be known but realises that the possibility eludes him: ‘Look at me, I’m blending into the wall and I wonder if I’m really here at all’.

In David Gate’s hands Look at Me expresses a gracefulness (in both vocals and guitar) which I feel Bergen’s slightly lacks even although he maintains elements of the original such as the short-lived but rather lovely clarinet solo and the stark vocal harmonies of ‘On the edge, I feel like I’m going to fall…’  He adds rather regimental, arpeggiated acoustic guitar in unison with another instrument, keyboard, I think.  Occasional isolated drum pattern and castanet rattle are well placed.

Overall Bergen’s version is really fine but can’t quite match the subtlety of the Gates original.  If you’re coming to this song for the first time, I would say go to the Bread version first.  It’s on their underrated self-titled first album.

We’ll take up For Women Only again with Track 5, Lisa Was and continue through to Track 9, Second Lover’s Songin two weeks’ time.
 


For Women Only: tracks 5-9
For Women Only: tracks 10-18
For Women Only: album overview