Okay – it’s confession time.
Growing up in the Black Country during the 1980s, there was a “movement”. Well I say movement, a movement implies motion and the nearest motion for this lot was back to the bar to get another round in. It was more of a coalition of like minded individuals that generally just enjoyed being in bands that were Black Country-centric. There wasn’t any social conscience attached to it. There wasn’t any particular stylistic element. Longish hair, jeans, DMs or biker boots were the uniform, if such a thing existed. JB’s in Dudley, West Midlands was the centre of this scene.
We used to head up to JB’s on a Friday night. You bunged your coats behind the bar, bought a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale or a can of Red Stripe or Colt 45 and the evening continued. If you had been a patron of JB’s throughout its forty or so year history, you would have had the opportunity to see (amongst others) Dire Straits, The Police, The Pretenders, Judas Priest, the Manics, UB40, Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, U2, The Stranglers, Nick Lowe, U2, Blur, Echo and the Bunnymen and on more than one occasion, Robert Plant.
The participants in our 80s scene? Well there were a few that broke out to a greater or lesser degree – The Wonder Stuff, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Balaam and the Angel, The Mighty Lemon Drops. There were a few whose appeal was more geographically selective – The Weeping Messerschmidts, the Honey Turtles, the Wild Flowers.
And then there was Pop Will Eat Itself aka The Poppies. Their shows were universally chaotic. I experienced this a few times first hand. The band were musically limited and appropriated styles from greasy guitar rock through to hip hop. I never took to them and confession coming up, I found them a pretty tiresome novelty act. In the words of their musical contemporaries, “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” They got into the top 40 though, even made it onto Top Of The Pops, before going their separate ways.
So how come thirty years later, I’m sat in the hallowed classical musical venue the Royal Festival Hall listening to one of their members presenting his film music that has been universally lauded and appropriated to a block buster level?
Well a couple of years ago, there was a fantastic three part BBC4 music documentary series on the history of film soundtracks, presented by Neil Brand. The third part focussed on the electronic and modern aspects of soundtracks, such as John Carpenter and Vangelis. And who should pop up but Clint Mansell, the singer with the Poppies and lifelong fellow Wolverhampton Wanderers fan.
As Mansell acknowledges in the clip above, his musical knowledge was limited to what he could hear and it is technology that has liberated his latent talent. The Poppies had toured with Nine Inch Nails and Mansell had stayed in touch with Trent Reznor.
Moving to America, he has composed music for Darren Aronofsky’s films such as “Pi”, “Black Swan” and “Requiem For A Dream”. He has also worked with British director Ben Wheatley whose film “High Rise” has just been released and on Duncan Jones’s “Moon”.
I’ve been a big fan of Carpenter’s work, both his films and his soundtracks. I’ve bought vinyl reissues in recent years of his music for “Assault On Precinct 13”, “They Live”, “The Fog”, “Escape From New York” and “Prince of Darkness”. There is much of Carpenter in Mansell’s work and that is probably why I have since found it so appealing. It is nuanced, unchanging but has a sense of movement. Mansell had also seen the connection with the likes of Mogwai and God Speed You Black Emperor, which is becoming increasing prevalent in soundtracks. In my opinion it is being slightly overdone now and my only criticism of the currently brilliant TV series “Happy Valley” is the Mogwai-lite aspect of its soundtrack movement.
So how did Mansell’s work translate to a live environment?
Mansell’s engaging personality helped. He obviously still can’t quite believe where his career has taken him and the show is interspersed with anecdotes that belie what he perceives as his good fortune. But it isn’t good fortune alone, not by a long chalk. The music has depth and quality. This was enhanced by large scale visuals, not of the movies that the particular section of music was from but of images that complemented it. The music was exhilarating (“∏”), mesmerising (“Moon”) and apocalyptic (“Noah”).
The section from the new Ben Wheatley film, “High Rise” was particularly moving. Wheatley introduced the evening.
The music that Mansell had produced for the film was the most Morricone-esque of his scores, with a particular focus on the string section, the Sonus Quartet. It also revealed great loss. Around the time that Wheatley commissioned Mansell to work on the film, Clint’s girlfriend died. Mansell wanted to quit the Project in the wake of her death but Wheatley offered the opportunity to defer the soundtrack until Mansell was further along in the grieving process. This inadvertently has created music of great depth, up there with the mesmeric score for “Moon”, the other highlight of the evening.
The “Moon” music started with the insistent piano motif articulating the alienation of live in LA or in a lunar landscape. It would have fitted “The Man Who Fell To Earth” incredibly well, particularly apt as the film was directed by Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones.
He spoke about proudly about working with Hubert “Cubby” Selby Jr, the author of “Requiem For A Dream”, the cornerstone of Clint’s career.
Clint dropped the visuals for this section and the intensity of the famous score shone through. The remainder of the band contributed marvellously throughout the evening, but Carly Paradis on keyboards was a particular star. Paradis has just scored the music for the new series of the BBC’s “Line Of Duty”.
What wins through though, often via typically self-deprecating Black Country humour, is Mansell’s personality. I’ve just finished reading the rather good “Book Of Strange New Things” by Michael Faber. The main character is a pastor in a community on a planet which is being colonised. He is asked to conduct the funeral of man he barely knows and speaks beautifully (based on the information he has been able to piece together) of a life of many parts, some of which were successes and some which were failures but it all added to the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
Mansell’s life has a similar resonance and I’m sure there are more to come.