Here’s a personal baker’s dozen of cuts that remind me of NYC at the dawn of the Eighties, hanging out in gay Latin/black clubs and chilling to the crossover radio hits of the era…
by Andy Polaris
FreeezI O U – This British electro classic crossed the Atlantic and was pumped in NY clubs. It’s actually genius. Co-written with the legendary Arthur Baker and mixed along with Jellybean Benitez. The very similar Blue Monday from New Order came out the same year. The video of a multi-racial crew bodypopping and breaking on what looks like a Peabody estate while kids whizz around on BMX bikes seems so innocent now.
Donna SummerLucky – I’m going to squeeze this in from the end of the Seventies because the combination of Donna Summer’s sublime voice and Giorgio Moroder‘s electro pulse had been a game-changer and influenced so many artists who followed on. This was a track from the Bad Girls masterpiece.
Adele BerteiBuild Me A Bridge – Quality dance pop from an artist who was in the original Contortions, written for Sheena Easton and Pointer Sisters and sung with Thomas Dolby amongst others.
Company BFascinated – A high-energy synth-pop club favourite that dominated US radio. I can hear them counting those dance moves when those cheap wigs looked better on Daryl Hannah, the sexy android in Blade Runner.
NoelSilent Morning – Broody young handsome Latin singer who smashed it with this electro dance hit exploring the aftermath of his lover’s absence. It’s the best song Depeche Mode never made.
Paul Hardcastle19 – Innovative electro club monster that was number one on both sides of the Atlantic and one of the most potent political songs to get under the radar from the underground and force radio stations to play. It highlighted a lot of the world to a largely ignored war and the treatment of veterans.
StrafeSet It Off – Underground gay club track I think I heard first in Catacombs in Philadelphia. A stripped down electro early call-and-response anthem, it sounded almost experimental at the time. Click to play track in a new window
WhodiniThe Freaks Come Out At Night – Early hiphop anthem flying that freak flag with style. Video opens with acapella Friends and glimpses of Run DMC. The Zorro trademark hat of lead vocalist Exctasy combined with leather jacket and shorts to display the confident cool fashion of the time. A good reference is the early street photography of Brooklyn native Jamel Shabazz that documented the emerging styles adopted by hiphop fans.
Sheena EastonSugar Walls – A lot of people underestimated her but Prince didn’t. This specially penned track was a US hit with sexually charged lyrics perfect for dancefloor flirting. It changed her image overnight.
Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam BandI Wonder If I Take You Home – Club hit debut single and one I brought back from the US on Columbia import before it hit UK airwaves. It was a global hit for the Brooklyn Latin freestyle group. Click to play track in a new window
Nuance featuring Vikki LoveLoveride – Another invitation to take me home. Huge US Billboard No 1 club hit and great vocal from featured artist. Click to play track in a new window
Barbara RoyGotta See You Tonight – Billboard No 1 that sounds like soulful house with that driving bass and her gutsy gospel vocal but started out in underground gay clubs.
Jane ChildDon’t Wanna Fall In Love – Pop RnB crossover hit from the late Eighties. Her almost goth/indie look disguised her funky dancefloor style on this under-rated track about resisting the look of love. Love cuts just like a knife/ You make that knife feel good/ I will fight you to the end/
Andy Polaris reviews the mature yet still frenetic
James Chance & The Contortions in London
– catch his other UK dates this week
The artist formerly know as James White and the Blacks returned to the London stage this week for a night at Hackney’s Oslo in East London under his original name James Chance. Though discreetly announced, this small venue was however packed with a youngish crowd mostly not old enough to have seen his numerous previous incarnations and there was an air of anticipation in the room. In fact the last time I had seen him was as a surprise guest with British indie favourites Franz Ferdinand on the popular US Late Show in 2018 performing Feel the Love Go which could explain some of the younger crowd.
James White and the Blacks were one of the coolest bands of the late Seventies and early Eighties.The stylish James looked liked a poster boy for the Hollywood B-movie I Married a Teenage Deliquent with a beautiful insolence that knew how to take care of trouble. If Morticia Addams was hosting a fashionable nightclub, they would have been the house band.
The album Off White was one of the standout debuts that startled listeners with its free-form jazz playing that mixed punk attitude with a funk garage band backing. Released in 1979 on Michael Zilkha’s swiftly influential ZE Records, White became part of a family of impressive and idosyncratic label mates who included Kid Creole (August Darnell credited with production on a disco remix), Was Not Was, Cristina and Material.
Click on pictures to enlarge:
Chance live in London: at the Hammond organ
Chance live in London: convulsing in St Vitus dance-moves
Contort Yourself became an instant cult classic along with the languid Stained Sheets, a late-night booty call between a disinterested lover and a female voice purring orgasmically on the other end of the line over a seductive and sometimes discordant backing track echoing the sax melody. The voice was apparently Lydia Lunch who James also collaborated with in the iconic Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. The album dealt with race love and sex on the wrong side of the tracks and it was a fresh sound dubbed part of the NY No Wave.
White also made an album Buy with The Contortions. This was followed by the albums Sax Maniac and Live at The Bains Douches (the most exclusive fashionable club in Paris at the time). The NY scene was obviously a spiritual home for myself and many fellow London club kids and I was fortunate to capture two exciting performances of the band on home turf at the legendary CBGB’s and again later at London’s long-gone Venue in Victoria. The whole ZE ethos left a big impression on London’s burgeoning nightlife scene with their songs featuring on the more selective playlist of certain nightspots.
This week we greeted a much older James Chance, now in his mid-sixties, a little hunched over in a stylish jacket eventually removed, who launched into his set to a rapturous reception. We were treated to a selection from his numerous albums including Sax Maniac, The Splurge, Jaded, The Flesh is Weak and of course Contort Yourself. His songs deal with gritty urban life and such themes as sexual encounters, libations, drugs and romantic disappointment.
James has more in common with Iggy and the Stooges than some of his jazz contemporaries, wriggling and convulsing in a St Vitus-like dance, pushing against the jerky rhythms of his younger Contortions who followed his commanding control of each song right through to climax. Letting out those trademark high-pitch yelps between stabs of squawking sax and swirling Hammond organ, this was all as far from metropolitan cocktail jazz as you could get.
The frenetic pace only slowed down for covers of the mellow jazz standard Days of Wine and Roses and later Gil Scott Heron’s abrasive Home is Where the Hatred Is.
It was refreshing to hear such passionate playing and the now-familiar scene of a veteran augmented by vibrant younger musicians (Siouxsie, Adam Ant) killing it on stage. The Contortions were tight in delivering a sturdy backbone, a delicious foil to Chance’s irrepressible stagecraft.
We witnessed a brilliant and energetic performance from one of music’s mavericks who helped define an era of original American musical creativity: his own offbeat soundtrack was unique.
What’s unique about the dozen tracks listed below? Yeah, yeah, obviously they all formed the backbone of the funk and soul soundtrack to my teen years in the 1970s when I would hear them on the dancefloors of the Lacy Lady, Croc’s, Racquel’s, Gold Mine, and on Radio London’s Robbie Vincent show and on Capital Radio’s Greg Edwards session. What’s amazing is that only this month I heard some of them playing out at the newish if retro-styled Old Compton Brasserie as the most credible playlist in Soho that night. It reminded me of the pre-disco cocktail bars in Covent Garden which became our favourite haunts at the time.
Seventies jazz-funk in a millennial eaterie for an audience of all ages? Why? And why now? Asking the manager these very questions revealed that they reflected the personal tastes of one of the directors of the long-standing Maxwell’s restaurant group, happy to recall his own youth and his dancing feet. You wonder how many ears present during this evening knew that every tune was a gem from the golden age of club music. OK, on your feet, readers. These should be enough to get you slow-dancing and dad-dancing in your lounge.
MAXWELL’S FUNKY DOZEN FROM THE 70S
Rufus feat. Chaka KhanOnce You Get Started (1974) – The track that brought Chaka Khan to my attention in the UK. I was sent the vinyl import album Rufusized before its UK release.
EmotionsFlowers (1976) – One of the best female vocal groups who sang with EWF and featured in the video of Boogie Wonderland. This mid-tempo soul ballad was very popular.
Undisputed TruthYou + Me = Love (1976) – High-octane disco chant that had me leaping around the dancefloor thinking I was on Soul Train. A Lacy favourite.
Idris MuhammadCould Heaven Ever Be Like This (1977) – Great jazz-funk crossover. Another Lacy tune with great sax and brass.
Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah BandCherchez La Femme (1976) – Totally inspirational due to their stylish vintage fashion, multi-racial lineup and jazzy vibe, augmented by the beautiful vocal stylings of Cory Daye. Like Manhattan Transfer, August Darnell’s early sophisticated incarnation was a huge influence on me wanting to sing in a band.
El CocoCocomotion (1977) – More jazzy, mostly instrumental string-laden latin infused disco, which conjured up Fred and Ginger (the latter dancing backwards in heels) at the Copacabana. This was music for lovers to spin to, entwined close up and sensual. A Robbie Vincent and Lacy favourite.
Harvey MasonTill You Take My Love (1977) – Uptempo disco-funk percussive and brass driven with excellent Merry Clayton vocals imploring a seemingly reluctant partner to believe in love. Co-written with David Foster (who was responsible for Cheryl Lynn’s phenomenal floor-filler Got To Be Real), the gospel richness of the melody is in the same vein.
Herbie HancockThought It Was You (1978) – Veteran jazz-funker had a huge commercial hit with this early vocoder-driven disco track that’s still fresh today. From the great album Sunlight. A pioneer who later released the influential Rock It hip-hop genre-busting track with Bill Laswell in 1983.
DazzBrick (1976) – Revolutionary sound at the time and one of those funk imports that we bought the minute we heard it. Still a favourite.
Aquarian DreamYou’re A Star (1978) – Another jazz-funk band heavily played in clubs and by Robbie, very much like Crusaders. I bought this album the minute it came out and enjoyed several more gems.
Patrice RushenHaven’t You Heard (1979) Just one of the effortless jazz-funk standout tracks from her career as an accomplished vocalist and keyboards player, multi-instrumentalist who taught Prince to sequence keyboards and arrange music. Her early albums are sweet jazz-funk bliss, many tracks being sampled later by RnB stars including George Michael and Mary J Blige.
Deniece WilliamsFree (1976) – Now mostly a Gospel singer and former backing vocalist for Stevie Wonder’s band Wonderlove. This amazingly was a Number 1 and came blasting out of Essex soul boys’ cars through the summer of ’77. One of my all-time favourite singers at a time when quality soul could top the UK charts.
Andy Polaris reviews the new BBC documentary
David Bowie: Finding Fame
The much anticipated third in a series of documentaries examining the life and times of David Bowie was shown on BBC TV on Saturday almost 44 years to the date of the influential Alan Yentob’s ‘Cracked Actor’ which, along with D A Pennebaker’s ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’, has become sacred footage of his life on the road.
There is an insatiable appetite for archive material and Francis Whately’s ‘Finding Fame’ offers fascinating glimpses into the pop icon’s long and often disappointing attempts to break into the arts during a decade of trying. We see interviews with former band members, lovers, producers and a family member I’d never known about – a cousin whose family resemblance was all too evident. Such new insights illuminated this final instalment that starts in the mid-Sixties.
I came away admiring Bowie more as an artist due to his single-minded pursuit to achieve his goal and establish a career in the arts. Eleven years (which brought massive cultural changes generally) and nine different bands failed to launch his career. With such limited rewards most people would have fallen at the second or third hurdle and contemplated a different choice of career. A lot of the bands I had heard of, but the film surprised me by exhuming the music of Riot Squad (a name sounding more like a later oi/skinhead band) where he spent eight weeks as their singer in 1967.
Bowie learned quickly to jettison anyone or thing that stood in the way of his mission and made sure that he was front and centre of the action. Early associates talk of how he was the driving force behind stage performances, style and presentation and how to stand out from the crowd. Asking straight band members to wear make-up, paint flowers on their faces and add the Mary Poppins song ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’ to their set were early indicators of originality you wouldn’t find in run of the mill Mod copyists.
I had bought a re-issue of ‘Do Anything You Say /Dig Everything’ produced by composer Tony Hatch in the mid-Seventies, but written by Bowie in 1966 while fronting The Buzz. You do get the feeling from the ex-band members that they came a poor second to Bowie’s ambition but in retrospect are happy to be part of his trajectory, however brief the connection.
Women and gay men played an important role in harnessing his creative image and style with Lindsay Kemp, Angie Bowie, Hermione Farthingale and Freddie Burretti all crucial in different ways to him as an artist and performer. Of course there are others who came later. Whately’s biopic marks the first time I can remember hearing about the inspiration for ‘Letter to Hermione’ (a beautiful song on ‘Space Oddity’) in a filmed interview where his former girlfriend talks candidly about their love affair and the aftermath of their break-up. In a rare moment of personal confession it reveals the crushing effect it had on David at the time and he wanted her to forever realise the hurt.
Lindsay Kemp admitted that he cringed when he saw Bowie’s mime performance but nevertheless worked with him on ‘Pierrot in Turquoise’ in 1968 when they became lovers – he was, I think, instrumental in Bowie’s evolution as a stage performer.
Surprisingly, the film ignored Freddie Burretti,* his extraordinary gay fashion designer who made a vital contribution to his image and style that evolved into Ziggy. As a kindred spirit no longer with us, we saw him only at centre of that great photo with Bowie and Angie in 1971 at Haddon Hall, Beckenham in Kent. Angie Bowie was mentioned only in passing and her absence is hard to justify, although it might be possible that she refused permission to be involved. A rift had excluded her from his story for decades, despite blood ties: the fact that they were married and had a son in 1971 was given short shrift by this film. That’s a shame as her tastes and influence play a critical role in his work during their lives together in this important early phase. Her voice would have embellished the growing pains and furious songwriting that went on to create those cherished first albums.
Bowie’s ability to collaborate with great musicians on narrative-driven songs are the reason I, like many others, retraced his early steps to discover those first albums once Ziggy had finally changed his fortune. From ‘Images’ (1966), ‘The World of David Bowie’ (1970), and the more impressive ‘Man Who Sold The World’ (1970) and ‘Hunky Dory’ (1971), and especially with his chart single ‘Space Oddity’ (1969), Bowie’s stature grew as both writer and performer.
I recently watched the documentary ‘Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock’ based on photographer Mick Rock who created some beautiful iconic photos of Bowie, including the flame-haired androgyny of the ‘Space Oddity’ sleeve and beyond. The photographer talks about the fringe arts and drag scene that had them playing with camp and wearing make-up and kissing boys in public as he documented life in the Bowie inner circle, while watching the transformation from within.
‘Save Me From Suburbia’ is real. Despite Bowie’s modest homes, the stifling conformity of suburbia and a rather cold detached home life propelled him to abandon suburban boredom for the unpredictable urban promise of adventure. We are treated to his cousin Kristina Amadeus recalling how his mother’s approval was something he never appeared to win and Dana Gillespie, a fellow musician, noticed the lack of warmth on a rare visit to the family home, one of which we were given a peek inside, now seeming to be the exact opposite of his experience growing up.
Looking back in this documentary it’s clear that the commercial failures were important lessons learnt, although I’m sure a major source of frustration. The success of ‘Space Oddity’ as a single brought the first glimmer of his potential by capturing the zeitgeist of the Moon landing. His audio message during his 1970 set at Glastonbury illustrated his relief at getting some positive feedback from a live audience after years of lukewarm receptions – the harsh criticism from the BBC radio board following his first audition for them had been a glaring example. However others did recognise his promise and these nods of encouragement must have spurred him to continue his relentless path to eventual stardom. Evidently, it can take more than a decade to become an overnight success. Fame fame fame / What’s your name?
‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars’ (1973, 90mins), directed by D A Pennebaker
❏ His 3 July 1973 concert at the Hammersmith Odeon was to be David Bowie’s last concert with the Ziggy persona and the Spiders from Mars, when to general shock he famously announced his “retirement” in the closing moments. The live footage contains classic numbers such as ‘Suffragette City’, ‘All The Young Dudes’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, a Lou Reed cover and a Rolling Stones cover.
Associated sources for completing
a picture of the young Bowie
Alison Moyet has had a long career in a fickle music business which is unrecognisable from her early beginnings when British pop music of the Eighties dominated global airwaves and conquered America in “the second British invasion”. That legion included Culture Club, Duran Duran, ABC, Human Legue, Depeche Mode, Sade, Tears For Fears and the Eurythmics, amongst an exhaustive list of star-studded talent.
A lot of those artists have continued to record successful albums and perform to devoted crowds of fans who have grown up with their music (Culture Club and Tears For Fears currently on tour). We also have the generations who fell in love searching YouTube for clips of talent from before their time but whose orgy of hits are the diet of popular radio stations with non-stop Eighties playlists.
Alison Moyet has released nine studio solo albums and the two influential albums with Yazoo (which incidentally will be re-issued next month) and has sold over 20 million albums. Returning to the London stage after last year’s sell-out performance at the London Palladium, this month she has been the special guest on an arena tour by fellow Eighties sensation Tears For Fears.
Stripped down to a minimal trio of Alison and two talented individuals on keyboard synthesizer, drums, and backing vocals, her set was not dissimilar to the synthpop duo of Yazoo which kickstarted her successful career. Her rich timbre and yearning delivery blended with the electronic heartbeat which pulsed throughout the night’s repertoire.
Material from her most recent album ‘Other’ was mixed with gems and fan favourites from a selection of singer songwriter and collaborations. Due to the O2 venue’s chaotic security we missed the first song and were greeted with ‘Nobody’s Diary’ followed by the powerful ‘Do You Ever Wonder’. ‘Rarest Bird’ was dedicated to the LGBTQ community who Alison felt had always embraced her and no more so than in her adopted home of Brighton. Its lyric Skip a grace note on your heel/To whichever hymn you please/For the rarest birds are these, drew some audible whoops from the audience.
‘Only You’ was instantly recognisable and the dramatic emotion of ‘Love Resurrection’ chimed because of strong melodies flawlessly delivered by a voice that sounds dipped in velvet.
Of course the crowd were lifted by the uptempo electro-pop masterpieces that ushered in a remarkable knack to hit the dancefloors of NYC and have only grown in stature over the years, climaxing with the almost Moroderish stomp of ‘Don’t Go’ and ‘Situation’ beefed up to disco heaven with giant percussive stabs of electronica. Alison was feeding off the crowd up on its feet energy, beaming and looking like she was having the time of her life – and so frankly were we.
Alison live in Liverpool this week:
Tears For Fears were the headliners for this tour. They turned out an impressive show reliant on some stunning digital graphics, superb musicianship from a tightly rehearsed band and to top it all glorious vocals from Roland Orzabel and Curt Smith. Some reunions disappoint because the voices have faded or become dwarfed from rock n roll excesses but those falsettos and sweetness resonated and filled the arena, so much so that my companion and I were both mute in admiration.
All the hits cascaded out and sounded magnificent, from the opener ‘Everybody Wants to Rule The World’ and closing with the anthemic ‘Shout’. In between, the highlights were splendid performances of the Beatlesque ‘Sowing the Seeds Of Love’, ‘Head Over Heels’, ‘Mad World’ and of ‘Woman In Chains’ almost hymn-like in its beauty. A special mention must go to the featured vocalist Carina Round. Acknowledging this was their biggest UK date, the Tears duo thanked the crowd humbly and looked genuinely chuffed at the deserved reception. This was a triumphant return and should be a blueprint for how to honour your legacy.
Leave to Remain is an energetic new musical play jointly created by TV writer Matt Jones and Kele Okereke, the former frontman of indie rock band Bloc Party, who supplies new songs. In a departure from his solo career he has written for this contemporary love story, newly launched at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, which has Brexit looming over many relationships.
Above: The strongest number ‘Is it me or is it you?’ Music video by Tea Films
The story focuses on the fast-moving tumultuous romance between a young upwardly mobile inter-racial gay couple embarking on what seems to be a hasty marriage of convenience in a Britain seemingly ill at ease with immigration and suffering status anxiety. Obi (Tyrone Huntley) is a rather conservative well educated son of a first-generation Nigerian immigrant, and has started a relationship with visa-less American Alex (Billy Cullum). Alex’s US employer is planning to relocate from London and in order for him to remain in the UK, he proposes a civil partnership with Obi. Mutual friends don’t seem all that supportive and then there is the tricky question of making the announcement to both families.
This is where the play comes alive. What should be joyous news elicits feelings of apprehension as childhood upbringings reveal contrasting experiences of coming out to loved ones. It is these differences that drive the play forward and there is some laugh-out-loud hilarity from Alex’s visiting liberal parents eager to show how thrilled they are to Obi’s more reticent mother Grace (Rakie Ayola) and completely averse father Kenneth (Cornell S John) who had thrown Obi out of the family home after he came out. His supportive sister Chichi (Aretha Ayeh) gives a buoyant performance that lifts him through this trauma and sings “Hold tight, you’re safe tonight” in his moments of doubt.
Click any picture to view slideshow (stage photography by Helen Maybanks):
On the park bench: Aretha Ayeh as Chichi and Tyrone Huntley as her brother Obi. Stage photography by Helen Maybanks
Negotiating sexual and racial tension: Tyrone Huntley as Obi and Billy Cullum as Alex
Family dinner: Johanne Murdock as Diane addresses parents and offspring
Discussing their son: Rakie Ayola as Grace and Cornell S John as Kenneth
On the town: Obi and his nightclubbing pals
The boyfie’s parents: Tyrone Huntley as Obi with Martin Fisher and Johanne Murdock as Brian and Diane
Cultural differences are glossed over by Alex’s overbearing mum Diane (Johanne Murdock) who remarks to Grace how she is happy to meet her son’s partner and suggests they start their own support group. Diane’s over-familiar and well meaning attempts to embrace Nigerian culture, and the different approaches from both parents to the nuptials, are wincing or amusing depending on your viewpoint. That dinner table is like an updated La Cage Aux Folles where societal changes mean everyone knows it’s a same-sex relationship but it’s the racial and cultural responses that stir the pot. Comic relief comes from Diane, critical future mother-in-law, and from mutual camp friend self-absorbed Damien (Arun Blair Mangat) who expresses unrequited issues in Damien’s Seduction with a beautiful stand-out voice. Both come close to scene-stealing as they deliver some of the evening’s best lines.
There is a slight slump towards the end of the play which could be due to no interval and perhaps some tweaking will be done with material and perhaps strengthening of melodies but I had no problems with the voices of the cast. Tyrone Huntley’s charismatic performances have been acknowledged by an Evening Standard Emerging Talent Award and roles in Book of Mormon and Dreamgirls. Billy Cullum has appeared in Matilda and in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As an ensemble, the Lyric cast is strong.
The Sea Between Us to me was the strongest and most memorable number, portraying the doubt the couple have in a fledgling relationship, especially with their hook-up temptations and fear of commitment. “Is it me or is it you? Or are we trapped in this dance that lovers do?” This strong lyric has a yearning refrain of “start again” as distractions threaten to pull the pair in different directions and has echoes of the vulnerability of Bronski Beat’s classic Small Town Boy.
As Kele Okereke is one of a few out black singers, I’m assuming this is autobiographical material and the songs reflect his roots with percussive African highlife rhythms and language peppering the show’s original mix of EDM soundtrack. What set this show apart are the interesting modern dance moves by director/choreographer Robby Graham that fuse all characters while the two leads move in a beautiful balletic embrace. This intimacy is rare to see for a gay couple on the London stage and it’s something that LGBTQ audiences have been quite starved of. It’s a tribute that both leading actors convey touching believability.
Scenes alternate between domestic life in Obi’s upscale apartment and louche nightclubs with the cast doubling as revellers. There is an authenticity to the story and especially how the double burdens of race and sexuality come to dominate struggles for self-esteem in a harsh world – in particular Obi’s exasperation at his partner’s privilege and supportive parents. The themes of alienation, family and gay identity in a world of social media and drug culture reinforce the musical’s contemporary relevance, and make this a thoughtful look at where we stand in 2019. I think the show does have the potential to do very well, so as the Nineties delivered fresh social political drama with the musical Rent, can Leave To Remain provide the millennials with a musical for their own times? This show has much to recommend it.
Tony Kushner’s Caroline or Change has transferred to the West End after glowing reviews and an Olivier-Award winning start at Chichester and a successful stint at the Hampstead Theatre. With music by Jeanine Tesori, the show was first performed in NYC in 2003 and in London in 2006 and is set in America during the 1960s, a time of significant social upheaval. Michael Longhurst’s revival comes hot on the heels of another acclaimed run for the writer’s best-known work ‘Angels in America’ which ran at the National Theatre in the summer…
This is no way a feel-good musical – hardly surprising when the subject matter is domestic servitude and racial dynamics in civil-rights era America. It also purposely has songs and structures which reflect the dark tonal themes so you won’t find yourself humming them on the way home. They are however delivered with gusto from the professional cast in which the child actors match the adults in strong performances, especially 8-year-old Noah who has a lot of stage time. Through the southern soul sounds and heartfelt gospel we are also regaled with the clarinet and celebratory traditional Jewish music as a contrasting cultural soundtrack.
The musical opens in Lake Charles Louisiana in 1963. The African-American maid Caroline Thibodeaux (played by theatre legend Sharon D Clarke) contemplates her life of domestic drudgery doing laundry for a white Jewish family for $30 a week. We find her in a humid, windowless basement she describes in song as ’16ft Beneath The Sea’, with just a radio and her youngest charge, their only child the friendly Noah, who revels in their secret lighting of her cigarettes (‘The Cigarette’). She sees her life as hopeless and unchanged in the 22 years she has worked in the same house and the appliances – a washing machine and dryer – are centre stage in her solitude as living characters spinning around like some corny American game show prize (‘Laundry Quintet”). The radio also is portrayed as a Greek chorus of Radios 1, 2 and 3 by a trio of black female vocalists whose Motown-style songs illustrate her plight with sweet harmonies. Way up above we have the beautiful glimmering singing Moon (Angela Caesar) who oversees the action.
The main focus is the relationship between Caroline, her employers and her own young family: a feisty daughter and her three sons (one serving in Vietnam). Her employer, the rather neurotic second wife Rose, seems unwilling to offer Caroline a raise so instead offers leftover food or the opportunity to keep Noah’s loose pocket change to teach him a life lesson ironically in looking after money. Noah deliberately leaves change in his trousers which Caroline puts into a cup (‘Quarter In A Bleach Cup’) on the machine and which she eventually puts in her purse, humiliated but out of necessity, for rare treats for her children (‘I’ve Got Four Children’). This bitterness makes her tetchy and finally she lashes out at Noah when he clings to her because he’s unable to bond with his stepmother and is missing his deceased mother (‘Noah Has A Problem’).
By day, Caroline is effectively isolated from her own community which is at the centre of current affairs. On leaving work she meets up with a friend Dotty who innocently asks her how are things while mentioning her boyfriend and attending night school. Caroline is irked by her questions and ambitions and starts an argument about their different lifestyles. Dotty remarks about the strange beheading of a confederate statue in the town (‘Moon Change’) in an uncanny prediction of the real-life American national drama in the South and conviction of a Charlottesville racist killer recently. The women are shocked that the bus delay is due to the news of JFK’s assassination (‘The President Is Dead’). When she tells her daughter of his passing Emmie is unmoved, frustrated that his promises for the black community didn’t materialise.
Inter-racial differences come into focus when Rose’s Jewish family come visiting from NY for Hannukah and Caroline and her daughter find themselves preparing a celebratory meal. A lively discussion around the festive table ensues between the patriarch and Caroline’s daughter about the fate of minorities. Caroline is vexed and a little afraid of her daughter’s vocal protestations, knowing that a raised black voice to a white person could lead to a beating or much worse. She also doesn’t want to lose her job.
Things come to a head when Noah accidentally leaves a $20 bill in his pocket after being given to him by his grandfather and which Caroline keeps. Their row provokes an exchange of racial slurs that elicit an audible gasp from the audience. Caroline disappears from her basement workplace, causing consternation in a household which has taken her for granted, and mistakenly believed they shared a friendship in which there is no equality or choice. Caroline chooses this time to bond with her daughter who explains that she wants something better for her future. In a standout song (‘Lot’s Wife’) Caroline wrings out the emotion dealing with her inner turmoil and faith, the church being the sanctuary that offered hope to the harsh lives black people led. The finale leads to a less than surprising reveal of the generational attitudes of the mother and daughter and a new awareness to the fragile household.
There has a been a decades-long history of Hollywood’s troublesome affair with black maids, from the Oscar winning Hattie McDaniels in the 1940 ‘Gone With the Wind’, to Oscar-winning Viola Davis in ‘The Help’ in 2012. In that period, Oscar-nominated Juanita Moore in ‘Imitation Of Life’ and Whoopi Goldberg in ‘Corrina Corrina’ joined these portrayals addressing America’s complex issues with race and the South. One of the first depictions I can remember as a child is Mammy Two Shoes, the faceless black maid who frequently appeared as one of the only humans regularly featured in the popular long-running cartoon ‘Tom and Jerry’. Like a lot of comic stereotypes of negroes in entertainment at that time she would be roundly scorned right now.
The writer of this musical has said he doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as a non-political play. This one is based on Tony Kushner’s life and it offers a window into literally a nanny state of mind for him and a vast generation of rich American white children growing up where black maids were a constant in their lives and perhaps also a confidante and surrogate mother. What impact did this have on their view of race as adults we can’t glean as Noah is only seen as a young child, and the adults here don’t appear to form any long-lasting alliances outside of employee/employer. The show is to be recommended for depicting a slice of pivotal American social history where black women were the backbone of rich white families in a divided country, and skin colour determined your social status. We are eventually beginning to hear the voices of the women in this hidden world where recent studies show 1 in 25 female workers worldwide is a domestic worker.
Afterwards, a backstage tour and
talk with the cast
We were fortunate to join an after-show interview and brief Q&A with the actors and director who discussed the genesis of the play and how they came to be involved. We also enjoyed an interesting backstage tour, along with dressing rooms and of course I was interested in the props which included a Servis washing machine and a table setting that included plastic and real cooked vegetables.
A new musical has arrived at the NT from NY. Celebrated singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and director Rachel Chavkin have transformed Mitchell’s album into a genre-defying new musical that mixes modern American folk music with vintage New Orleans jazz to reimagine the sweeping Ancient Greek tale of Orpheus and his muse Eurydice. Andy Polaris visits London’s National Theatre to review Hadestown… +++
Hadestown opens in what appears to be a southern blues venue you may expect to find on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a split-level space with musicians overlooking the dancefloor and wooden tables and chairs for the drinkers. A spiral staircase leads to an ornate balcony overhead with a hidden back room where the management can view all the salacious proceedings that are associated with liquor and raucous revellers.
It opens with mature dapper Hermes (Andre de Shields) as the narrator who sets the stage and introduces us to young, footloose and hungry Eurydice (Eva Noblezada) who comes across another free spirit, musician Orpheus (Reeve Carney). He is quickly smitten with Eurydice and feels that their fate is entwined. Despite having little material wealth, he has the gift of music and song, so persuades her in ‘Come Home With Me’ that he will change her life.
They are joined by a talented company of singers/dancers who act as revellers in the club and work up a sweat as factory workers enslaved by the relentless hardships of the underworld. Especially in the factory scenes, the robust choreography by David Neumann is in parts sexy and solemn and it made me think of Madonna’s classic industrial ‘Express Yourself’ video, itself heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The revolving stage that hollowed out and dropped down to evoke Hadestown was impressive, as were the dancers’ chain-gang moves in several of the physical songs such as ‘Way Down Hadestown’.
Eurydice falls under the commanding spell of Hades (Patrick Page), the power behind the curtain like the Mighty Oz, whose terrific bass voice intones the rules of engagement. With his promise of no more hunger and uncertainty during ‘Hey Little Songbird’, she grasps the nettle in desperation. Throughout, the vampy female Fates (Carly Mercedes Dyer, Rosie Fletcher, Gloria Onitiri) sing and play accordion and violin to offer their judgement on the hapless lovers. The shimmying and sashaying trio deliver ‘When The Chips Are Down’ with beautiful harmonies and so much sass that I found myself humming this vocal highlight on the way home (and will I’m sure become a burlesque/cabaret favourite).
Hades’ lover Persephone (Amber Gray) belts outs ‘Livin It Up On Top’ in a voice familiar with gin and weary with eternity. When Hades and Eurydice explain ‘Why We Build the Wall’ it chimes with the current climate in the US in an effective call-and-response with the chorus. As the lovers’ separation and reunion follows the Ancient Greek myth, the action dips a little before the finale, yet the joy of this show is the beauty and clarity of the diverse ensemble who are both attractive and accomplished. Eva Nobledaze (who starred previously in Miss Saigon) has a mesmerising voice that showcases the vulnerablity of Eurydice. The boyish charm and passion of guitar-slinging Orpheus is embodied in Reeve Carney, whose sweet vocal range is reminiscent of Jeff Buckley, and together their chemistry brought conviction to this romantic tragedy.
Hadestown is a musician’s and singer’s musical with everyone on that crowded stage getting down with the funk, jazz, and blues to an exceptional high standard. I’m sure its success is inevitable on Broadway and we’re lucky to catch this American cast in London, that’s why I would urge you to invest in this fatalistic and familiar tale.
Last time that I saw the legendary Talking Heads was over thirty years ago at London’s Hammersmith Palais. It was the ‘Remain In Light’ tour, a landmark album for the band with the creative production of Brian Eno and live with Bernie Worrell from Funkadelic augmenting the line-up. So the glowing five-star international reviews for David Byrne’s ‘American Utopia’ tour 2018 meant there was genuine and palpable anticipation surging through the 4,000-strong audience packed into the Brighton Centre this week.
The set opened with a vast empty stage, only a small table and chair with a grey-haired casually suited Byrne seated and singing to a plastic brain which he held aloft. He looked like the coolest science teacher explaining its merits, albeit barefoot and to a much more appreciative adult education class. He was joined onstage by similarly attired backing vocalists Chris Giarmo and Tendayi Kuumba who we quickly realised, along with the rest of the 11-piece band, were agile in their dual role as musicians and dancers. It was the realisation that with Annie-B Parson’s sophisticated and at times elaborate choreography (especially for the backing vocalists) this was far from standard fare. I then remembered the work Byrne did with dancer Twyla Tharp in the eighties, and realised this show has become a logical next step in the imaginative presentation of his eclectic catalogue.
We moved uptempo with ‘Lazy’, the breezy solo club hit that resulted when Byrne guested as vocalist with X Press 2, and this buoyed the crowd with its almost aerobic glee. This was followed by the first Talking Heads gem ‘I Zimbra’ (Fear of Music) when we saw everyone – especially the impressive six-piece percussion section – play and dance a combination of street carnival panache and those joyous college brass bands in the US.
From here on we were treated to almost two hours of frenetic then thoughtful funky reworkings of Talking Heads material and cuts from David Byrne’s prodigious solo material including the current release ‘American Utopia’ which reflects on the dire current US political climate with a sense of hope. The standouts were many but the surreal when released ‘Once In A Lifetime’ crackled with almost evangelical zeal as Byrne flung himself around on-stage… Against giant dancing shadows like a Busby Berkeley musical number, ‘Blind’ was given brassy punch and brought energetic solos from its talented percussionist pool… The opening guitar chords of ‘Burning Down the House’ did exactly what it said on the label… ‘Everybody’s Coming To My House’ exuded an inclusive party feel which Byrne explained was also matched by his band’s origins from all around the world. Personally I loved ‘Born Under Punches’ and ‘The Great Curve’ because ‘Remain in Light’ is one of my favourite albums.
The incredibly talented and tight band were unencumbered by cables and the usual stage furniture so were free to inhabit the space and relish their obvious camaraderie. Their sense of fun was immediately reflected in the audience enthusiasm which elevated this evening to an experience more aligned with modern theatre than Brighton’s bland conference venue.
The show didn’t end with the classic ‘Psycho Killer’ but a more unexpected cover of Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’, a song whose communally chanted names of people are the grim list of victims who inspired Black Lives Matter, killed in the most dreadful circumstances, and including Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray amongst others. Before the song Byrne suggested the audience google their names if they were unaware who they were. It echoed the themes of ‘American Utopia’ and his involvement in voter registration for the mid-term elections and possibility of change.
This was a triumphant show and one that will be remembered for setting a new benchmark in creativity. I can think of ‘Wire’ at London’s Jeanette Cochrane theatre and Grace Jones’s ‘One Man Show’ at Drury Lane among the few that I can remember that successfully pulled off originality with such aplomb. Now who, I wonder, made those two-piece grey suits?