Oooh Betty

Originally published August 2010

One of the pleasures of living in a big city is the cosmopolitan cultural pleasures it offers and when I was a fresh-from-college designer working in London in the late 1980s I took full advantage and went through a phase of seeing tons of foreign films. And there were a lot to see too, back then it seemed like every week you’d open Time Out and there’d be a Jean De Florette, Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Au Revoir les Enfants, Cinema Paradiso, or Delicatessen that was packing them in at The Lumiere, Screen On The Green, Chelsea Cinema, or the Riverside Studios, and few things made me feel more like a sophisticated boy-about-town really living the metropolitan life than going to see a film with subtitles.

The one that really reminds me of that era and stuck with me ever since (not just for the reasons you might think) was Betty Blue from 1986 which is about the Frenchiest French movie I’ve ever seen. The plot is the classic Gallic cinema story of l’amour fou or “crazy love” with everything turned up to 11: a man living in a state of existential ennui falls for a wild, emotionally-unstable girl given to burning down houses and stabbing people with forks. They spend most of the film bonking the merde out of each other and the affair leads to madness and death — Fin.

It was something of a succés de scandale at the time because of the amount of naked flesh on display and the lusty nature of their rumpy-pumpy — as a friend of mine said at the time about it’s notorious opening scene: “that’s not making love, that’s fucking. But it was also memorable for the explosive performance of the astonishing-looking Beatrice Dalle as Betty.

Betty had to be played by an actress who could make you believe a man would happily follow her to Paris even after she had attacked his boss and set fire to his house, and Dalle was the sort of girl who could make you kill your own mother if she asked you to. I used to wonder if there was a factory in France somewhere that did nothing but turn out pouty nymphettes for their movies as there seemed to be a never-ending stream of them from Bardot onwards and Dalle looked like the model they produced the day they had an excess of parts to use up, giving her the most swollen bee-sting lips and biggest gap-toothed Gallic overbite you’ve ever seen. She looked like she’d just been punched in the face but also almost obscenely sensual as if she was permanently quivering with sex and just one look could melt you to a puddle on the spot.

I was a little obsessed with the film for a while, buying the video, poster, soundtrack album, and the (excellent) novel it was based on. If they made Betty Blue underpants I probably would have bought those too. Several years later while living in Florida I had a fling with a “Betty” of my own too: a dark-haired girl with the same voluptuous lips and big wonky overbite together with the same volcanic emotional ups and downs. Girls like that can be addictive, like Betty’s lover Zorg I put up with all sorts of crazy behaviour and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t worth it. Men, we’re such idiots sometimes.

Aside from it’s luscious cinematography the other part of the movie that was as gorgeous as Dalle was the superb soundtrack by Gabriel Yared, one of the few scores I can listen to on it’s own as a piece of music, with the best saxaphone theme in a movie since Taxi Driver.

Download: Betty et Zorg – Gabriel Yared (mp3)
Download: C’Est Le Vent, Betty – Gabriel Yared (mp3)


The Trendy Teacher

Originally published November 2010

Every school had one, or they used to, the fresh-faced idealist straight out of teacher-training college armed with all the latest liberal ideas in education, determined to relate to the kids. In the 1970s you could identify the male version by their facial hair and corduroy flares, while the women tended to be wispy types given to silk scarves and maxi skirts.

One term at Secondary School we had this young English teacher with scruffy shoulder-length hair who, instead of making us read Shakespeare or any boring old nonsense like that, showed us clips from movies which we’d discuss afterwards. This being the 70s he didn’t show us any morally-uplifting, boys-own stories like Reach For The Sky or The Dambusters but instead we were treated to extracts from Hitchcock’s grisly serial killer movie Frenzy and Lindsay Anderson’s radical Public School drama If… Imagine the heap of shit he’d get into now for showing a bunch of 14-year-olds a film where the pupils mow down the teachers and parents with machine guns and bombs. I can’t remember his name now but I like to think of him as our school’s very own Howard Kirk.

He obviously knew the way to a boy’s heart was through nudity and violence because we actually behaved in his class, but that often wasn’t the case with the trendy teacher who usually exuded all the authority of a timid hamster, and in the Darwinian jungle of an all-boys comprehensive the kids are savage little sharks who can smell vulnerable fresh meat in the water from a mile away so they usually got eaten alive.

Once we had a substitute Biology teacher called Mr. Bone (really!) whose life we made a living hell, and not just because of the comic goldmine that was his name. His first mistake was to tell us he was a vegetarian (the first one I ever met) which led to constant shouts of “have a nice roast lettuce for dinner Sunday, sir?” and trying to engage us in a chat about pop music by talking about Joni Mitchell’s latest album. It was like Cat Stevens trying to deal with a roomful of Noddy Holders. Every time he turned his back on us he was showered with a rain of pellets from the sacks of dried rabbit food in the classroom. He only taught us for a little while and when we asked our regular Biology teacher what had happened to Mr. Bone he told us that he’d walked out of a particularly unruly class one day and never came back. Last he’d heard he’d was living in a communal squat in Earl’s Court.

So if you’re out there somewhere Mr. Bone, I’m sorry we were such little shits. But you really should have just hit one of us over the head with a text book.

Download: I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing – The New Seekers (mp3)

And you may ask yourself…

Originally published January 2011

2010 was a banner year in my life with the birth of our second child and the milestone of a 10th wedding anniversary. Both caused a fair amount of “Well, how did I get here?” reflection on my part, but it was the birth of my son that was the most existentially discombobulating. Having one kid is a big enough deal but two of them, besides all the extra work, feels like a whole different game of soldiers entirely. Instead of just being 2+1 we’re now a proper family which is, you know, a real thing.

Finding myself part of a classic nuclear family with the house in the suburbs and the car in the driveway (we only need .5 more children and we’ll have ticked all the boxes) seem all the more surreal to me because I grew up in a single-parent family in a council flat. At dinner time when I look across the table at my wife and children — besides being filled with so much love and happiness I think I might burst — I have this peculiar out-of-body feeling of disbelief as if it’s not my own real life I’m living in and instead I’m the “Dad” character in a sitcom. But more than that it all seems so terribly adult which is another suit of clothes I can’t get to quite fit naturally.

My dad was in the same position as me by the time he was 28 but his generation were raised with completely different expectations than mine, we had the luxury of being able to put off all that boring growing-up stuff until much later in life and extending our youth with all it’s fun self-indulgences beyond our 20s and sometimes well into our 30s. I never even lived with a girl before I got married at 38 and then had my first kid at the ripe old age of 44 so I delayed it all even more than most (but boy, did I have a great time in Florida in my 30s). So despite having now acquired all the trappings of mature adulthood I still find it odd when people in shops call me “Sir” — Sir? Me? — because deep down I always think of myself as a twerpy young kid with an immature obsession with music and records, not as a husband and father.

Blogging seems a bit of a juvenile pursuit too I must admit (I mean, can you imagine John Wayne blogging? ) but what should I give it up for? Gardening? Pipe-smoking? Cardigan-wearing?

Download: Once In A Lifetime (Gigamesh Remix) — Talking Heads

My Sister’s Records

Originally published March 2007

Between 1975 and 1977 my sister went from worshipping the Bay City Rollers and the ground they walked on to thinking The Clash were the greatest thing since sliced bread. That’s quite a big leap from “Shang-a-Lang” (or “Shag-a-Slag” as we called it – what wits we were!) to “White Riot” but she didn’t make it in one bound. In between the two she had a fling with The Steve Miller Band and their Fly Like An Eagle album which she bought because she liked the “Take The Money and Run” single from it.

There’s no logical connection between Scottish teenyboppers, American soft rockers, and guttersnipe London punks but we probably all have these “stepping stone” records as we mature and go looking in all directions for new experiences as restless teenagers are wont to do. My sister’s fellow Rollermaniac friend Sue had a dalliance with Nils Lofgren before diving headlong into punk, orange hair, and bondage trousers, and I got from ELO to The Jam via Bruce Springsteen.

Fly Like An Eagle is actually a pretty good album, a mix of catchy, Fleetwood Mac-esque soft rock and trippy electronics – what Miller called “space blues” – held together by a lazy, hazy vibe which suggests everyone got very high making the record. My favourite track “Wild Mountain Honey” is an ethereal ballad that floats along sprinkling fairy dust as it goes, with Miller’s breathy vocals giving it a lovely warm and intimate feel. The title track is fairly well known but this is the longer album version with the dreamy “Space Intro” beginning which is all electronic bleeps and wooshes that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Tangerine Dream album. Its spacey groove makes it sound very modern today, though back then they probably used steam-powered synthesizers.

Download: Wild Mountain Honey – Steve Miller Band (mp3)<
Download: Space Intro/Fly Like An Eagle – Steve Miller Band (mp3)

Wilde Thing

Originally published April 2008

The French called Kim Wilde the “Brigitte Bardot of rock” and I guess they should know — about Brigitte Bardot that is, not rock music. But while she had the pouty, bee-sting lips and heavy-lidded, smouldering eyes of a French sex kitten she didn’t have the same sense of volatile emotional danger about her. You didn’t get the feeling that any minute she could explode in a fit of l’amour fou and start throwing plates at you, stub a Gitanes out on your hand, or throw herself off a bridge in passionate despair over some love affair gone wrong. Kim always seemed too sensible, too English for all that, and instead of some sleazy svengali Roger Vadim-type manipulating her behind the scenes, her records were written and produced by her brother and her dad.

All of which which made her a girl-next-door (if you were really lucky) sort of sex symbol, more Smash Hits than French Vogue.

Oh, and her records weren’t all that bad either. This is from her terrific debut album.

Download: Our Town – Kim Wilde (mp3)