:: Buzzwords Archive: June 2009. Click here for the latest posts.

Saturday Night at the Movies (published 27/06/2009)

By Cathi Unsworth.

The title sequence alone is enough to send you. Hitch a time tunnel ride on the back of a dustbin lorry through the monochrome Soho of 1963; a world that is waking with the traders on Berwick Street market and simultaneously crawling to bed as the spielers kick out their night’s trade onto Old Compton Street. Watch mesmerised, snapping your fingers to Kenny Graham’s swinging jazz score, as the camera sweeps past the legendary 2i’s coffee bar, where Larry Parnes found Tommy, Cliff and Dickie; lingers along the billboard for Harrison Marks’ Naked as Nature Intended; and finally comes to rest on the type of exotic revue bar for which Soho will always be famed. Stumbling through this dawn, fresh from another lost card game, comes our eponymous hero, strip club compere Sammy ‘Lee’ Leeman. Still with a spring in his step despite all that lost gelt, sharing a tip with the newspaper hawker, passing it on down the phone to the bookies to the roar of a Gaggia machine. About to find out he’s got just seven hours to pay up the £300 he owes… or face the cosh boy consequences.

Fans of Edmund T Gréville’s 1959 juvenile delinquent classic Beat Girl will find Ken Hughes’ The Small World of Sammy Lee comes as a revelation. It’s set in exactly the same milieu that Gréville populated with Christopher Lee, Adam Faith, Ollie Reed and The John Barry Seven. But its depiction of the caustic strippers, razor-wielding enforcers, wideboy shysters, bored brasses and hepcat jazzers is so much more kosher. It’s not just the exemplary cinematography of Wolfgang Suschitzky, nor Hughes’ direction of his own corking script that brings this world to such vivid life – it’s the towering central performance of Anthony Newley as Sammy.

As with just about every performance of his life, Newley draws deep from his personal well of darkness and moral ambivalence in the portrayal of the fast-talking ladies’ man desperately scamming all angles. Surrounded by some of the era’s finest character actors – Wilfrid Brambell as his bagman Harry, Warren Mitchell as his long-suffering brother Lou, Alfred Burke as a pool shark dead ringer for Derek Raymond, Roy Kinnear as a blustering club owner and Derek Nimmo as his swishy aide — Newley swindles shopkeepers, punts bent Swiss watches and fences maryjane. Even the arrival of the lovestruck Pasty (Julia Foster), down from Bradford on a long-forgotten promise, does little to slow down his fevered mission.

The script is shot through with rich Jewish humour. When he first calls on Lou at the family deli on Petticoat Lane, Sammy’s beleaguered brother despairs: “Five minutes you’ve been in my shop, you haven’t even asked me how’s business.” “How’s business, Lou?” acquiesces Sammy. “Don’t ask!” The undercurrents between Lou’s iceberg wife Milly (Miriam Karlin) and Sammy hint that this bad brother has always been prepared to stop at nothing to get what he wants, and indeed, by the end of the movie, he will be hocking his very soul.

But along way, there is so much fun to be had, particularly in the environs of the strip club, where one girl looks like Amy Winehouse, one girl actually is Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (Lynda Baron) and Sammy’s patter gets ever-more nihilistic: “Gentlemen, and I use that term loosely, we have in here one of Soho’s lowest, cheapest and downright shoddiest shows, and by the look of you lot, you deserve it.”

The Small World of Sammy Lee is a teeming vista of tenderly-rendered lowlife that totally transcends the exploitation genre it was aimed at and preserves for us every last, lingering detail of the haunting and eternally fascinating post-War, pre-Swinging London.

Paul Goodhead, secretary of the Anthony Newley Appreciation Society, talks to the Sohemians upstairs at The Wheatsheaf, on 8 July. Details to be posted at the Sohemians website.

What happened to music journalism? (published )

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John Harris writes about the history of music journalism in today’s Guardian, focusing especially on the work of Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus and Nick Kent (here):

Behind the printed page lay a culture somewhere between Fleet Street and an undergraduate common room, full of people whose energy was heightened by an understanding that the fun couldn’t possibly last. The collected journalistic works of the NME’s Tony Parsons – the grandly titled Dispatches from the Frontline of Popular Culture, published in 1994 – trowels on the mythology, but gets to the heart of the young music writer’s essential condition: “We were callow and cruel and selling 250,000 copies a week. We were so successful that our owners left us alone to merrily run amok. And if you were lucky enough to work there, it commandeered your life . . . [but] it was never meant to last. Not one of my contemporaries ever considered making the music press a lifetime’s work. It was like doing your national service – a couple of years and you were out.”

[...]

[Nick] Kent, whose memoir Apathy for the Devil will be published next year, remained at the NME until the early 1980s. “I was never edited,” he marvels today. “There was no interference at all, and I was also getting paid.” Looking back, he takes umbrage at the arrival of Parsons, Burchill and so on, who would serve their time, and then branch out: as he sees it, this signalled a shift “away from people driven by a deep love of music towards more opportunistic agendas”.

“When I joined the NME,” he says, “I didn’t think, ‘If I play my cards right, three years down the line I’m going to become the wine correspondent of the Daily Telegraph‘.”

Swells RIP (published 25/06/2009)

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“To think of Martin Amis or Ian McEwan as dangerous or subversive is like saying that Phil Collins and Pink Floyd are the bad boys of rock.”

By Richard Marshall.

Steven Wells (1960-2009) was a serious man. Everything he thought and wrote and did was directed by a passionate ethical desire to point up the hypocrisies and stupidities of the world around him. He was a very warm, friendly and clever guy who was never short of an encouraging word to his friends and a devastating blast against those who would try and bugger up everything through greed, viciousness, selfishness and sheer deliberate stupidity. His satirical writing was wonderful, his targets always well chosen and his sheer energy and indefatigable strength an inspiration to all who knew him.

He encouraged me to write books which never in the end got published but boy did we have a good time putting them together. This was at the time he was getting his fantastic Attack! Books out, a publishing venture that is still for me one of the most daring and truly radical of its kind. Tits Out Teenage Terror Totty was his book in the series and the title alone has to count as one of the funniest in-your-face titles of all time.

He pissed a lot of people off but if he did then they deserved it. He was our times’s great blugeoner, a political fighter as sprightly and fast on the draw as any satirist working today. His wild imagination and deft muscular language worked like a great brain splattering club. Again and again he relentlessly went at it, straight and hard. He never sailed with the stream but developed a pugnacious disposition of battering-ram humour that often meant that even his friends might at times think him too much, too far. But he was to me one of the great resistors, resisting all fashions and easy opinions that carelessly dropped social justice from their concerns, a writer who continually pressed against received wisdoms, herd mentality and bullying populism. His field was popular culture – music and football in particular – and he pursued his egalitarian and democratic instincts into these arenas where such political values are more often than not drowned in the self-regarding idiocy of ego and unrestrained greed. He was so effective because he loved that culture, which meant that his satire was fused with a genuine sense of this love. His writings are some of the funniest and most brilliantly styled pieces of contemporary satire around and his exuberance and phlegmatic constitution is something we desperately need and which will be sorely missed.

On a personal note I remember him being very kind and supportive to me and being tremendous company. The last email I got from him only a few weeks ago was about the anthology Andrew Stevens had commissioned [Love Hotel City]. ‘I loved it’ he wrote. That kind of sums him up for me, a man with a devastating sense of humour and a trustworthy moral compass who was also incredibly supportive of those he liked. It’s like a force of nature just got removed. And I’m going to miss him badly.

Stewart Home adds:

This morning I received several emails about the death from cancer of Steven Wells. Swells was best known as a music hack and was the dominant figure at the New Musical Express for much of the eighties and nineties. While he was at the NME, Swells was always prepared to go out on a limb with an opinion to support off-beat bands and writers. It was Swells who penned the infamous quote about Will Self and me that both AK and Do-Not Press used as a blurb on my books:

Stewart Home’s sperm’n’blood-sodden scribblings make Will Self’s writings read like the self-indulgent dribblings of a sad Oxford junkie trying to sound hard.

This quote created an enormous amount of bad blood between Will Self and me. Swells knew exactly what he was doing; he wanted to help me find a larger audience and this soundbite created a big stir. And I wasn’t the only person Swells pushed in this way, he did it for a legion of people. He was very loyal and if he though what you did was worthwhile, extremely vocal in his attempts to create space for you in an overcrowded cultural arena. Swells wanted to make things happen, he wasn’t interested in passively reporting cultural and other news.

Swells was a laugh to be around and you could always count on him for a good argument too! His essentially Trotskyist stance rubbed up against my left-communist positions with at times explosive results. That didn’t stop us working together and being friends. Swells brought me in as an extra on some of his Pig Productions pop videos, and also put out ‘my’ novel Whips & Furs: My life as a bon-vivant, gambler and love rat ‘by’ Jesus H. Christ on his short lived Attack! Books (co-run with Tommy Udo).

Although Swells initially made his name as a poet, his real strength was as a stream-of-consciousness prose writer. His book Tits-Out Teenage Terror Totty is a sustained assault on the idea of what the novel should be, and it is stuffed with his crazy word play – brilliant turns of phrase like ‘a pol potpurri’. After his move from London to the USA, Swells was writing for the Philadelphia Weekly, and you can find his final piece of writing for them and links to other pieces by him HERE.

I’ll miss Swells, although recently my contact with him was mainly via the links he’d email me to his articles as they appeared. My thoughts are, of course, with his wife and family.

‘Morrissey Attack’ – by Steven Wells (from Love Hotel City)
‘Popular Culture at its Most Mental’ – the Attack! Books story
‘We’re brutal but brilliant’, Elizabeth Young

Up and Down the Westway (published 24/06/2009)

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There’s no London Lit Plus this year, so it’s fallen to Housmans to provide the programme to ‘shadow’ the more corporate London Literature Festival, during the months of July and August. Their ‘London’s Burning’ season of events is positively astounding in its breadth and value, featuring a River Fleet walk, Blake as anarchist, John Williams on Michael X, the launch for Anthology (a book celebrating zines, small presses and self publishing in London), Tom Vague on Notting Hill community politics and counter-culture, Violent London with Clive Bloom and Merlin Coverley and friends on ‘The Books that London Forgot’.

The Missing Links (published )

joeshusterEwan Morrison‘s favourite literary ménages à trois. (More Ewan Morrison coming up in 3:AM.) * An interview with Stephen Elliott. * Boris Vian in Saint-Germain. * Richard Brautigan is still “pounding at the gates of American literature”. * Big Sur revisited. * Marinetti and the Futurists. * The biography of Naked Lunch. * Molly Flatt shows off her perfect knickers. * Can women write about sex? Can men? * The history of the slogan T-shirt. * Ben Myers on Hughes, Plath and Yorkshire. * Reading books that don’t exist. * Former lead singer with Parisian punk band Guilty Razors (turned painter) Tristam has a new website. * The literary parks tour. * John Harris on Blur‘s comeback: “Here, for what it’s worth, is my theory. Blur came into being just as the Berlin Wall fell and our generation was nudged into the decade-or-so of innocence that ended with 9/11. Most of that time was prosperous and thereby apolitical. The result was a culture that was heady and celebratory, but also troubled by the idea that all of a sudden there was not much to hang on to”. Albarn: “He mentions Blue Jeans, a song from Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993), written in the first flush of his relationship with Justine Frischmann. Until their break-up in 1998, the two of them shared a house in Notting Hill and jointly plotted the ideas that initially defined Britpop, before Oasis took it somewhere else entirely. The song mentions Dr Martens and Portobello Road, before a chorus in which he sings, ‘I want to stay this way for ever’. ‘Blue Jeans just makes me feel like being in love, and moving to this part of London, and falling in love with the place,’ he tells me. ‘There’s an innocence to it. It sounds like being 23′.” More Blur. * Writers’ cameos. * The return of Adam Ant. * Drawing the Gruffalo. * Viv Albertine. * Owen Hatherley interviewed. * Paul Morley on Kraftwerk. The band are interviewed here. * Underelict London: the London Shop Fronts gallery * George Whitman’s hair is on fire. Again. * Patti Smith at Meltdown. * Kill Author‘s Roland Barthes special. * City boys vs punks. * The art of the matter. * ‘An Understanding Wife’, an Irvine Welsh short story in The Dubliner. * David Foster Wallace‘s legacy.
[Pic: Joe Shuster.]