Bowie Falls To Earth On “Nite Flights”

Whenever I talk about David Bowie, the observation that Bowie is “a god among men” usually follows within the first two sentences.  But a couple of things in the past few weeks have forced me to re-examine this nugget conventional pop-culture-meets-counter-culture wisdom.  The first instance came when I re-watched Labyrinth with my son two weeks ago.   I loved it when it came out, but unlike the Bowie himself, the film has not aged well.  At all.

The second instance came while I was perusing the youtubes for any Walker Brothers footage circa their 1978 album, Nite Flights.  I found none, but I did find the above video for David Bowie’s cover version of the title track.  It’s no secret that Bowie has long admired– some may say imitated– Scott Walker’s vocal style.  But he somehow manages to drain all the life out of the song.  It’s so bad he nearly falls asleep at the keyboard.  Let’s not even talk about the people moving the lights around for super special shadow effects.  It’s just bad, bad, bad.

Here is the original for comparison:

Nite Flights is not the best Walker Brothers album, but it’s certainly the weirdest.  The band had split up in 1968 only to reform in 1975. In the intervening years, Scott Walker recorded several solo albums, including his masterpiece,  Scott 3.  If you stop to think about just how drastically pop music changed between 1968 and 1978, it’s easy to see why Nite Flights is so different from the early Walker Brothers albums.  It’s even very different from their other two post-reunion records.  But if you listen to Nite Flights in the context of what was popular in 1978, it sounds remarkably ahead of its time.

The Walker Brothers and some dude in a psychedelic tangerine jumpsuit circa 1967.

While the Walker Brothers were crafting their hit-and-miss  album, David Bowie was a year into his staggeringly awesome Berlin Trilogy.

Few things will affirm that Bowie is indeed a god among men like listening to LowLodger, or “Heroes”.  But let’s jump forward another decade to the aforementioned Labyrinth and accompanying Never Let Me Down LP.  I bought it went it came out and count myself fortunate to have seen the Glass Spider Tour, but I never fell in love with the album.  Bowie himself was displeased with the effort, even though it was his best-selling record up to that time.  In fact, it was this album and tour that drove him insane enough to start the ill-fated Tin Machine.  I saw Tin Machine on tour and remember thinking that this was a band nobody would buy tickets to see if it wasn’t for the fact the singer was a god among men.

Now, fast forward a decade on from Nite Flights and what do we have?  Scott Walker’s output has slowed to the agonizing crawl that would come to define his work in the last 30 years.  Since 1984, Walker has released one album every 11 years.  And with each album, he goes further and further out, pushing boundaries and making what can only be called art.  In the same span of time, Bowie has recorded 10 albums (including the two Tin Machine LPs) none of which are worthy of even lesser deity status.

To put a point on it, in the last 10 years, David Bowie has done this:

While Scott Walker has done this:

I know which one I’d rather listen to now and it will probably be as interesting and challenging in another 10 years.  The other will not.  If you haven’t seen the documentary about Scott Walker, 30 Century Man, do so.  It is streaming on Netflix.  In the meantime, this BBC interview from a few years back will catch you up with what he’s all about.

If past is precedent, the Next Scott Walker album will be out sometime in 2017.


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Soviet Spaceships

I really like the concept art for these alternate-history Soviet Union spaceships made for Dawn of Victory,  a mod in the works for the video game, Sins of a Solar Empire.  I had  never heard of it before now, but looking at some of the gameplay videos makes me wish I was 15 and had piles of homework to ignore while I waged war across the galaxy.

The mod looks like it will be an epic Soviets against Germans battle for intergalactic supremacy.  The concept art for the German ships is not up yet, but I can’t wait to see it.

I found these images while trawling the amazing Concept Ships blog.  It’s been an incredibly inspiring resource for ideas as I ponder my next scratch-built spaceship.  But beyond that, there is some amazing artwork over there as well.

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Supersilent 10.8

It was a year ago today that the 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit Japan causing the resulting tsunami and disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Soon after watching the devastation in Japan unfold, I remember coming across this video where someone paired the hauntingly beautiful song,”10.8″, by Supersilent with footage from the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake that devastated San Francisco. I remember being floored by the video because of the parallels with what was going on currently in Japan and being helpless to do anything about it. I posted the video in my own blog and here is what I wrote about it a year ago:

The footage is from the aftermath of the San Fransisco earthquake from 1906. It kind of puts a historical lens on things that are currently happening in Japan and how catastrophes like this are viewed from those of us who are looking at it through the eye of the camera…

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The Artist Who Cut a House in Half- Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting, 1974

Both my sculpture and my painting have always been influenced by architecture, but my first exposure to the work of Gordon Matta-Clark changed the way I think about architecture fundamentally. His sculptural work was not only about architecture, but it used existing architecture as its medium much like a stone carver used a block of marble as a medium to carve a statue from. For Matta-Clark, the house itself was the medium to be used to create the work.

For some reason, my brain has always thought in terms of architectural spaces and I think that Matta-Clark’s rupturing of those spaces exposes a lot about the psychology of the public and the private. In all of the apartments I have ever lived in, I’ve realized that the layout had a utilitarian purpose. The bathrooms line up with other bathrooms because of the plumbing and the bedrooms line up with other bedrooms for sleeping purposes. That means that in your apartment, on the other side of your bedroom wall, you may very well be sleeping literally two feet away from someone you don’t know, which has always been something I’ve had to tell myself is perfectly normal when I still think it’s creepy.

Although this video is filmed in silent Super 8, it does capture the hard work involved in cutting an actual house in half and then lowering the back half a few inches so that the entire thing opens up.

Another thing that I find interesting about this piece is  the fact that he cut the four corners out of the house before it was finally demolished… The major point of the entire artwork is the fact that it existed outside the museum, but these were the the few things that the museum could keep as souvenirs, or possibly the “scalps” of the house that was to be demolished within weeks of the completion of the work.

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You Want a Narrative Art Form? Here’s Your Freaking Narrative Art Form!

Roger Ebert will go to his grave denying it, but games tell good stories, deep and involving stories, stories that are enhanced by collaboration with the player. Judging a medium by its least accomplished or most superficial exercises is like judging film’s narrative capacity on the strength of porn or Alvin and the Chipmunks. Does the Smurfs big screen debut nullify, oh, I don’t know — Beyond the Valley of the Dolls?

(This rant brought to you by Mass Effect 3, the only space opera — that’s right, THE ONLY space opera on the market right now, and probably the best written one in any visual medium — and the upcoming HD re-release of one of the best games ever written, Silent Hill 2. And also the notion that Dark Souls is in any way meant to be a story-delivery system. Meh!)

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by | March 6, 2012 · 9:17 pm

R.I.P. Ralph McQuarrie

Concept art for The Empire Strikes Back by Ralph McQuarrie

Ralph McQuarrie was not a household name, yet the characters and creations he conceptualized are seared into the consciousness of generations of Earthlings.  You don’t have to be a science fiction fan at all to know and love R2-D2, C-3PO, Yoda, Darth Vader, Chewbacca, or Boba Fett.  I challenge you to find a male between the ages of 8 and 48 who doesn’t want to do the Kessel Run in the Millennium Falcon in less than 10 parsecs. It was McQuarrie’s art that brought all of those characters into our lives– and yes, I would argue the Millennium Falcon is a character.  So it is with a heavy heart that I report the news of Ralph McQuarrie’s passing today at the age of 82.

McQuarrie's concept art for the Millennium Falcon.

Without the vision of McQuarrie, it’s impossible to say what the original Star Wars trilogy would have looked like.  Though since he didn’t work on the second trilogy, I think it’s safe to say things probably would have been a whole lot different.  George Lucas usually gets the credit for bringing the Star Wars universe to life, but it was McQuarrie’s blueprints, sketches, concept art, and ideas that made the characters, spaceships and planets look and feel both compelling and believable.

The ship that warped all concepts of what a spaceship had to look like-- Boba Fett's Slave I from Return of the Jedi.

It would have been more than enough to have conceived the Star Wars iconography.  But McQuarrie also designed the mothership for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he worked on E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek IV, and Jurassic Park.  And all those ships in the original Battlestar Galactica?  McQuarrie had a hand in that as well.

The Cylons taking on a Viper Mk. II. Concept art for the original Battlestar Galactica.

When I was in the 4th grade, I had this book of Empire Strikes Back concept art.  I wore the spine out of that book tracing pictures of Yoda, the snow speeders and Imperial AT-ATs.  It fired my imagination and undoubtedly played a part in my fondness for faffing about with home made spaceships nowadays.  I don’t know why it’s important, I just know that it is.  So I bid Ralph McQuarrie a heartfelt farewell.  May he be free to roam the cosmos in the coolest spaceships ever designed.

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Not A Photograph – The Mission Of Burma Documentary

Someone has kindly uploaded the Mission of Burma documentary, Not A Photograph, to the youtubes. Though it centers around the legendary post-punk band’s 2002 reconstitution, there are also a lot of great vintage clips and interviews.  Well worth a watch if you’re a fan.

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Friday Night Freakout – Krautrock Clusterfück Edition

Can vs. Guru Guru vs. Amon Düül II all live on the Germany’s WDR.  Feel free to take your brain out of your skull for the duration.

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Klaus Schulze’s Intergalactic Magic Shag Carpet Ride

Travel the spaceways with Klaus Schulze and his 40,000 keyboards aboard a shag carpet spaceship so thick and white you could lose 20 kilos of cocaine in it and never know.  At least until your ass began to tingle.  Still, it would be a hell of a lot more comfortable than the chairs the audience had to endure while watching Klaus stroke his synths with his back to the crowd in an above-the-bed mirror.  There’s a lot to like here.

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Songs About Nick Drake

Nearly 40 years after his death, Nick Drake remains an elusive enigma.  He’s been dead nearly twice as long as he lived, yet the more time passes, the more recordings are unearthed, the less we seem to know about the man.  Drake is a genuinely legendary figure in music, yet his music went nearly unnoticed during his lifetime.  In fact, he probably sold more albums after his song “Pink Moon” appeared in a Volkswagen commercial in the late ’90s than he did while he was alive.  And in the age of the youtubes, when archival video performances of the most obscure bands to roam the planet are just a click away, there is no video footage of Nick Drake to be found.

I first discovered Nick Drake from a various artists compilation CD that came out in 1992 called Brittle Days.  I picked it up because it had Loop on it.  It wasn’t very good.  My introduction to Drake’s actual music came when the owner of record store I was working at played Bryter Layter.  I thought it was woefully depressing and barked at him for playing it.  But when he played Pink Moon a few months later, I was floored.  Folk music wasn’t at all my thing at the time.  But this was different.  There was something to this music.  Something elusive and enigmatic.

This video of John Martyn is spectacular.  Not only is he funny as he deals with his busted guitar string, but he is absolutely stunning as he plays and sings his song about his friend, Nick Drake.  Well, friend may be too strong a word.  A cursory glance at any Drake biography reveals the man to be very detached and aloof, coming and going unannounced, and prone to breakdowns and temper tantrums.  John Martyn was anything but those things.  He was a big guy with a big personality.

“Solid Air” was released a year before Drake died.  Martyn said of the song, “It was done for a friend of mine, and it was done right with very clear motives, and I’m very pleased with it, for varying reasons. It has got a very simple message, but you’ll have to work that one out for yourself.”

I was a fan of this song long before I knew it was about Nick Drake.  Now that I know, it makes so much more sense and I like it even more.  And I think Martyn’s performance there from 1978 is fantastic.

Less fantastic were the Dream Academy.  When “Life in a Northern Town” came out in 1985, it was inescapable.  I guess the first 9,000 times I heard it, it was a pleasant diversion from the glut of Huey Lewis and the News, Madonna, Wham! and REO Speedwagon noise Top 40 radio was farting out at the time.  It had a sound that harkened back to a time when Ronald Reagan was making movies with chimps instead of planning Iran-Contra with them.  It was somber, yet uplifting.  Like Simon and Garfunkel on Quaaludes minus any sense of fun.

I swear there was a point in 1986 where the opening chords of that song would make my eye twitch.  It got to the point where I couldn’t turn on MTV or go out to the grocery store without hearing the “Hey-Yo-Mama” chorus.  Mercifully, the Dream Academy were a one-hit wonder and their song about Nick Drake became the opposite of its subject.

So I’m left here quite stumped about how to wrap this up.  Listening to Nick Drake is still a transcendental experience for me.  I’m not sure if it’s the same for everyone else, but when I listen to him, I always get a bit wrapped up in the mystery of the man.  I wonder what would have happened had he lived on to make more music.  What would I give to see videos of him performing?  Would it make him less an enigma if footage of him did exist?  It doesn’t matter, really.  I have the music he made and I can think of only a handful of artists who have brought me joy in the good times and solace in the bad like Nick Drake still does nearly 20 years after discovering him.


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