♫ Hello everyone and welcome to this much-delayed slightly-more-normal edition of everyone’s favourite monkeynuts newsletter. As I think we told you, we were a bit busy for the first two weeks, got interrupted by the sad death of Kinks bassist Pete Quaife in the third and our computer DellBoy went wrong – on his first birthday too – in the fourth week. Anyway, normal service has been resumed so sit back and enjoy film news, album reviews and plenty of music! Oh and thankyou to everyone who has been visiting us: we have now reached 1450 views since last October! Terrific!
♫ Beatles News: First up, one of our recent purchases is the film about John Lennon’s childhood and teenage years ‘Nowhere Boy’. Seeing as we’d reviewed the ‘other’ modern film on Lennon – Lennon Naked – last issue, it seemed only fair to give our comments about this one too. An equally mixed bag this one; let’s start with what it got right:
Well, at long last we have a documentary featuring Lennon’s formative years, possibly his most interesting period even with all the Beatles and solo activities to talk about, and it’s great to see previous shadowy figures in Lennon’s story brought to life. Pete Shotton, John’s best friend till Paul and Stuart Sutcliffe came along, finally gets his full due in a Beatles film and the tensions between him and Paul at the end of the film over Lennon’s friendship are intriguing. Aunt Mimi’s husband – known to Beatle fans the world over as Uncle George – is also shown at long last to be the leading light in the young Lennon’s life, sparking his nephew’s interest in comedy and imagination as well as being the contrast to Aunt Mimi’s more reserved moods. In fact, one of the best scenes of the film is the opening: Lennon sits in his childhood pose of legs leaning up against the wall, laughing at Hancock’s Half Hour and bantering with Uncle George, a world away from the traditional view of Lennon’s turbulent beginnings and a scene that shows how well the researchers have done their homework. Mother Julia and Aunt Mimi herself also get more detail than is usual in Beatles films where the former is the villain and the latter the hero – one of the major plus points of ‘Nowhere Boy’ is that even though Lennon himself idolised his mother it was Aunt Mimi who took the young Beatle in and looked after him to avoid a family scandal. One of the other enlightening themes of the film is that far from being an unwanted, abandoned child – as you’d believe if you listened to any Lennon album or interview in the early 70s – not only his mother and his aunt but also his dad wanted custody of Lennon and it was asking the 5-year-old John to make the decision who to live with rather than abandoning him that caused Lennon his biggest troubles.
The one major way in which ‘Nowhere Boy’ wins out over ‘Lennon Naked’ is the way the other Beatles are portrayed. In ‘Naked’ the others – especially Paul – are shown to be wisecracking conmen riding on the coat-tails of Lennon’s talent and holding him back. Even given that this other film is set in the end of the Beatles days, dismissing the three people who were still John’s closest allies outside Yoko and who we know just as well as Lennon seems silly; in contrast in this film Paul is as close to his real self as we’ve yet gone on film: gentlemanly, slightly in awe of his elder friend and genuinely sympathetic to Lennon’s loss (which, as the middle section of the film reveals, so closely mirrors his own mother Mary’s sudden death from cancer) while being the only friend brave or close enough to Lennon to stand up to him and tick him off. Finally, we also get the sense that Lennon saw music as his only salvation from his turbulent life throughout the film – taught to play the guitar by his mother, it quickly becomes the prop Lennon needs to act out fantasies of what he wants to be and particularly telling is the scene where he casually announces to his school friends that he expects them to form a band with him, not even expecting them to say no if he wants it so badly. Perhaps the best scene, though, is Lennon’s delight in playing his first ‘real’ song ‘Hello Little Girl’, a much-overlooked song in the Lennon/Macca canon and fits really well in the film as the time when Lennon has finally made peace with his warring family at last. The car crash that follows is sudden, not only because we – like Julia – have no warning about it, but because it comes at the only point in the film since the opening when John is actually happy for once. Overall, Nowhere Boy pulls off the difficult trick of making Lennon, his mother and his aunt not only human and believable but sympathetic, despite showing all three character’s faults quite liberally.
However, there are still some negative points about ‘Nowhere Boy’. Unlike ‘Lennon Naked’ which took its accuracy to quite ridiculous degrees sometimes this film took rather a lot of artistic license with it’s scenes. First up, I’ve never heard about John punching Paul in the face and it certainly didn’t happen the day his mother died (he is meant to have hit poor Pete Shotton, but not at this point in his life either). I’ve also never heard about the sisters patching up their differences the day Julia died, although she was indeed visiting Mimi just before she was knocked down by an off-duty policeman. The Quarrymen scenes are also incidental rather than integral to the film once the band are up and running – there’s nothing here about the turbulent line-up changes, the desperate hunt for rehearsal spaces away from Aunt Mimi’s prying eyes or Lennon’s desperate need to keep proving himself.
There’s also no real mention of Lennon’s early creative fire, when he filled up endless notebooks with sketches and cartoons and gobbledegook, adamant that he was more talented than his teachers and guardians knew (although it’s nice to see so many ‘paintings’ on his bedroom wall). Talking of teachers, there’s not even a single mention of school despite the fact that Lennon spends most of the film hanging around with his school friends. School was a major obstacle of Lennon’s early life and his teachers an equal source of annoyance as his troubled parenting. Plus it was also the place Lennon met two of the most important people in his early life who only get the briefest of mentions in the film: fifth Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe, the man who gave Lennon the courage and belief to go with his sharp eye and wit and girlfriend/first wife Cynthia, who gave a more subtle belief in the same thing. In fact, it’s interesting to watch this film back to back with 1995’s ‘Backbeat’ : there Stuart Sutcliffe is everything in Lennon’s life, even more than McCartney , with Cynthia a close second – here they aren’t even incidental characters. The film also gives up near the end – like Lennon Naked it doesn’t so much have an ending as a pause as Lennon walks down a street away from us whistling, little knowing as his audience does what lies in store for him.
Overall, then, this film is missing too much to make it a five-star classic and we could easily have done without a great deal of the padding towards the middle and end of the film (yet another scene of Lennon rowing with his mother/aunt/whoever or getting up his stepdad Bobby Dykins’ nose). But it is yet another very very good film that shows so much more purpose, style and accuracy than most Beatle films we’ve had in the past. Although its as different to ‘Lennon Naked’ as its possible to be it also shares one key aspect: the multi-layered characterisation of Lennon is spot-on and the acting is for once the equal of the script. Whilst most Beatles fans probably won’t be in seventh heaven with this film, as some critics will tell you, they should be very very pleased with ‘Nowhere Boy’, which gets an awful lot more things right than it gets wrong.
One other piece of television about Lennon was screened this week: ‘Classic Albums – The Plastic Ono Band’, which like other programmes in the more recent series struggles to compare with the delights of old. Even though I really dislike Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ album, the programme dedicated to that record in the 1990s was superb: relevant talking heads, archive footage, the chance to hear the separate elements of each master tape. But despite being the more interesting album, this episode on Lennon’s ‘primal scream’ album seems old hat. There really isn’t much more to learn about this record as Lennon himself spent his last 10 years discussing and analysing it for us and the few other titbits you need to know are in a variety of books (and our review no 43!) So, in short, we know the footage really well and chances are if you’re interested enough in Lennon to get this far or see a programme about a critically acclaimed but rather hard going and poor selling album you’ll know everything about it already.
ANNIVERSARIES (July 5-11th): Happy birthday to you if your name is AAA member Ringo Starr who turns an amazing 70 on July 7th or Jim Rodford (bassist with The Kinks 1979-93) who turns 65 on the same day. Anniversaries of events include: The Rolling Stones score their last big hit 30 years ago with ‘Emotional Rescue’ (July 5th 1980); Paul McCartney meets John Lennon for the first time, after attending the Woolton Village Fete where the first line-up of The Quarrymen are performing (July 6th 1957); The first edition of ‘Mersey Beat’ is printed, featuring an article by John Lennon on how the soon-to-be-famous Beatles got their name (July 6th 1961);The world premiere of A Hard Day’s Night at London’s Pavilion Theatre (July 6th 1964); Those naughty Rolling Stones are at it again, destroying civilisation as we know it by, erm, dragging an American flag across the stage after their set in Syracause (July 6th 1966); fellow Ormskirkian Marianne Faithful, then Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, attempts suicide while her boyfriend is on the set of his acting job playing ‘Ned Kelly’ (July 8th 1969); Moody Blue Justin Hayward scores his biggest solo hit with the ‘War Of The Worlds’ song ‘Forever Autumn’ (July 8th 1978); John Lennon releases his first solo single ‘Give Peace A Chance’, sparking rumours of a Beatles split even though the publishing credit still reads ‘Lennon/McCartney’ (July 9th 1969); meanwhile Paul McCartney’s band Wings start their biggest tour to date, hiring a bus to drive to 26 dates across France (July 9th 1972) and finally, Neil Young’s first concert film ‘Rust Never Sleeps’, premieres in Los Angeles, offering a ‘history of rock and roll’ and his backing crew dressed up as Ewoks (July 11th 1979).
Anniversaries (July 12-18th): Happy birthday to everybody who has a birthday this year (!), especially those who celebrate this week – Roger McGuinn (guitarist with The Byrds 1965-73) who turns 68 on July 13th. Anniversaries of events include: the first ever performance of the Rolling Stones at London’s Marquee Club, with Brian Jones using the stage name ‘Elmo Lewis’, no bassist and Kink Mick Avory playing drums before Charlie Watts joins the band (July 12th 1969); The unthinkable happens when half of all radio stations ban a Beatles single – no, not The BBC’s ban on ‘A Day In The Life’ but a UK-wide ban on ‘The Ballad of John And Yoko’ for using the word ‘Christ’ (July 12th 1969); Janis Joplin’s first gig with her third and final group ‘The Full Tilt Boogie Band’ just months before her death (July 12th 1970); Pink Floyd release their first post-Syd Barrett LP ‘A Saucerful Of Secrets’ (July 13th 1968); The Who begin their first full American tour, as support to – Gerry and The Pacemakers (!) who were still big in the US in the psychedelic years (July 14th 1967); Much loved guitarist Clarence White, guitarist with The Byrds for the second half of their turbulent career, dies whilst unloading his guitar from a truck outside a gig in America (July 14th 1973); Neil Young scores his biggest album hit in years with the uneven ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ (July 14th 1979); Ray Davies announces for the umpteempth time that he is quitting The Kinks during an on-stage announcement (July 15th 1977); the film of the Graham Nash-organized charity film ‘No Nukes’ premieres, featuring the first CSN reunion for three years (July 16th 1980); Beatles film ‘Yellow Submarine’ premieres at the London Pavilion (July 17th 1968); The Who release classic single ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, even if it is cut down from the album version by four whole minutes! (July 17th 1971); An anonymous music critic comes close to ruining a Stones gig after leaving a bomb in a crate containing the band’s speakers, causing untold damage (July 17th 1972); The Moody Blues open the world’s first quadraphonic studio – some two years after splitting up! (July 17th 1974) and finally, CSN release their prestigious and much loved eponymous debut album (July 18th 1969).