Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Bow Wow Wow at The Garage on 20 August 2016

/ The original 1980s line-up of Bow Wow Wow: guitarist Matthew Ashman. bassist Leigh Gorman, vocalist Annabella Lwin and drummer David Barbarossa  /

The last time I saw Bow Wow Wow was in 2012 at The Islington Academy and the line-up featured two of the original members: singer Annabella Lwin and bassist Leigh Gorman. Since then, Annabella and Gorman have clearly fallen-out (Bow Wow Wow was always a rancorous band) and she’s now doing her own incarnation of Bow Wow Wow in which she is the sole originator and is backed by entirely new musicians. (Her version of the band is called Annabella’s Original Bow Wow Wow.  Confusingly, Gorman is continuing with his own edition. Seriously, that would be like Blondie touring without Deborah Harry or The Banshees minus Siouxsie). For all I know a lawsuit has been involved at some point between Gorman and Annabella over ownership of the name. In her between-song banter Saturday night at The Garage Annabella said something along the lines of, “If there are any of my original musicians in the crowd tonight, I hope you understand why I need to do this ...”

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Much as I enjoyed Saturday night, the 2012 gig was infinitely better in musical terms. Bow Wow Wow’s best New Wave-era tunes are catchy and minimalist but deceptively complex and sophisticated with African and Latin polyrhythms and surf guitar influences. It felt like the newbies in the band were loud and powerful, but steamrolled over those nuances.

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The 2012 concert really was a definitive greatest hits performance and I couldn’t complain about the track selections. Last night’s set list was weird and patchy. On plus side: essential stone-cold classics like “C30, C60, C90 Go!”, “Louis Quatorze”, “Mile High Club”, “Aphrodisiac”, “WORK”, “I Want My Baby on Mars”, “Baby Oh No”, “See Jungle (Jungle Boy).” They sounded as sexy, funny, punky and exotic as ever. On the downside: no “Uomo Sex Al Apache” (a 2012 concert highlight), “Elimination Dancing”, “Sexy Eiffel Tower”, "TV Savage" or “Chihuahua”. (To be fair, they seemingly never play “Chihuahua” live. I’d argue that song is Bow Wow Wow’s magnum opus.  I suspect this is because Malcolm McLaren forced Annabella to sing lyrics like “I can’t dance / And I can’t sing / I can’t do anything ...  I’m a rock’n’roll puppet in a band called Bow Wow Wow .. I’m a horrid little idiot / can’t you see ...” etc). They treated “I Want Candy” as the climactic big finale – understandably, because it was their biggest chart hit but it’s not their best song by a long shot (I bet Annabella is secretly sick to death of it).

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Annabella is presumably calling the shots now and she displayed a strange lack of confidence in her own back catalogue. They padded things out with a cover of Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” (an interesting experiment to hear that given a Burundi beat / tribal make-over but hardly essential) and then she introduced a brand new song. And with the best will in the world, it wasn’t good. They really tried to sell it, with Annabella delivering it enthusiastically and grinning hard for the duration (and urging us that “it’s available on iTunes and Amazon.com”) and the bassist giving the thumbs-up (cringe!). But it was frankly mediocre, with  a tired eighties slapped-bass funk sound (Pal said it sounded like the Red Hot Chilli Peppers).

Bow Wow Wow 20 August 2016 at The Garage

The charismatic Annabella herself was on great form. At 49 she’s still gorgeous (killer cheekbones, shapely legs), still kinetic (she dances hard the whole time – she’s like a whirling dervish) and her voice is still an alluring girlish punkette coo. Why isn’t Annabella celebrated as one of the great punk frontwomen just a few notches below Siouxsie and Deborah Harry or the equal of Poly Styrene and Ari Upp? I suspect the rockist Mojo generation simply don’t rate Bow Wow Wow.

Bow Wow Wow 20 August at The Garage

Anyway, something was clearly riling Annabella because a few times between songs she demanded, “Am I too old? Do you think I’m too old? I’ve been told I’m too old.” I’d love to know what that was about. (For what it’s worth: considering she was only 14 when she joined Bow Wow Wow, Annabella is substantially younger than most of her post-punk peers).  Her stage-wear was disappointingly lacklustre:  she was wearing one of her own tour merchandise t-shirts! She’d customised it (shredding it up and wearing it backwards) – but still! This is someone who used to wear head-to-toe Vivienne Westwood pirate gear! And her hair was a shiny, jet-black 100% acrylic wig. In 2012 she sported her own hair in long cornrow braids tied with ribbons. The wig was an odd touch. If Annabella was worried about her hair, she should just resurrect her trademark early eighties Mohawk: no woman ever looked more beautiful with a Mohawk than Annabella.

Bow Wow Wow 20 August at The Garage

Similarly, the crowd was a mixed bag: it’s been a while since I’ve been to a gig where the audience was predominantly older first or second-generation punks. Life had clearly been tough on some of these people. As I hoped, some looked great in vintage Vivienne Westwood. But there was a dismaying amount of older guys wearing anoraks, dad jeans and trainers! You’re letting the side down, people!

Playing us out: classic-era Bow Wow Wow captured onstage in 1982.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Reflections on ... Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

/ The leading ladies of Russ Meyer's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965): Haji (as Rosie, seated atop Porsche), Lori Williams (as Billie, in white hotpants) and the mighty Tura Satana (as Varla) /

From the 27 July 2016 Facebook events page:

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to violence, the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favourite mantle still remains: sex. Violence devours all it touches, its voracious appetite rarely fulfilled. Yet violence doesn’t only destroy – it creates and moulds as well! Let’s examine closely, then, this dangerously evil creation, this new breed, encased and contained within the supple skin of woman… the softness is there, the unmistakable smell of female.  The surface shiny and silken.  The body yielding yet wanton. But a word of caution – handles with care and don’t drop your guard! This rapacious new breed prowls both alone and in packs, operating at any level! Any time! Anywhere! And with anybody! Who are they? One might be your secretary! Your doctor’s receptionist! Or a dancer in a go-go club!”

Yes! The Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies film selection this month is ultimate sexploitation B-movie Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966). Perhaps cleavage-fixated director Russ Meyer’s defining masterpiece, it follows a trio of vicious thrill-hungry go-go dancers going on a homicidal rampage in the desert.  As cinema’s sleaze maestro John Waters argues, “Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is beyond a doubt the best movie ever made. It is possibly better than any film that will be made in the future!”

Waters also describes butch, black-clad gang leader Varla “one of the best villains in screen history.” Varla was, of course, portrayed by the late, great tassel-twirling burlesque queen turned snarling Russ Meyer leading lady Tura Satana (1938-2011). The truly Amazonian Satana’s fierce, exotic beauty and powerful screen presence in Faster ensured her perennial cult status. Satana’s birthday would have been this month (10 July). So let’s celebrate all things Tura in an evening of dames, booze, chains and boots! It will leave a taste of evil in your mouth!

As usual: arrive circa 8 pm to order your drinks and grab the best seats. The film starts at 8:30 pm prompt. The film is FREE and seating is limited. If you’re feeling proactive, contact Fontaine’s to reserve a seat in advance: email ruby@fontaines.bar or call 07718 000546.

"If you want wild living FAST! And if you want to end up giving your all / That’s because pussycat is living reckless / pussycat is riding high / If you think that you can tame her / Well just you try!”

Spontaneous outbreaks of frantic go-go dancing are encouraged at the FREE 27 July 2016 Lobotomy Room presentation of Russ Meyer’s vicious 1965 sexploitation cult classick Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! downstairs in The Bamboo Lounge of Fontaine’s!

This was the most successful and rammed Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies club yet. About 31 attendees were crammed into the Fontaine’s basement Bamboo Lounge – our biggest crowd to date. That may not sound like much, but as far as I knew the place only seated twenty-odd people! I actually had to post an update on Facebook the night before announcing if you hadn’t reserved a seat in advance, not to come to avoid disappointment as we’d reached maximum capacity. Pal and I had to watch the film standing in the DJ booth because there was no seating left!  It’s a real testament to how beloved Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!  remains well into the twenty-first century. Russ Meyer’s fifty-one year old twisted vision about homicidal go-go dancers running amok in the desert is still enflaming (warping? Corrupting?) peoples’ imaginations.

As usual, I stood up to give a garbled, blurted introduction to the film, incorporating the following fun facts:

The film premiered in Los Angeles on 6 August 1965. Early working titles included The Leather Girls and The Mankillers.  This was veteran sexploitation maestro Russ Meyer’s fourteenth film. At the time Pussycat came and went without making much of an impression:  just another trashy low-budget B-movie for the drive-in and fleapit grindhouse circuit. (Pussycat was one of the rare Meyer films to lose money at the box office). Seen today, Tura Satana’s ferocious performance as Varla is so sensational and screen-scalding it should have heralded film stardom (even if restricted to the realm of B-movies). Instead, she simply resumed her burlesque career and only made a few more scattered minor film appearances. Lori Williams (who plays blonde sex kitten Billie) admitted that when she was getting lots of TV work in the seventies she deleted Pussycat from her résumé because it was embarrassing to be associated with it.

Pussycat wasn’t properly re-discovered and reappraised until circa the late seventies and early eighties as scabrous young punk Baltimore filmmaker John Waters rose to prominence and began championing it in his interviews. (Waters first saw Pussycat as a teenager at a Baltimore drive-in. Intoxicated, he then dragged Divine with him to see Pussycat again). In Big Bosoms and Square Jaws (Jimmy McDonough’s essential 2005 biography of Russ Meyer), Waters would succinctly nail Pussycat’s weird allure as “a redneck lesbian killer drama, and because it was black-and -white, somehow arty”. In particular, Waters devoted a whole chapter to his to Meyer (and another of his key influences, Herschell Gordon Lewis) in his 1981 book Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste. Waters’ acclaim – plus The Cramps covering The Bostweeds’ theme tune and the advent of home video in the eighties – is when Pussycat’s status as a much-loved cult film revered by punks, gays, trash-hounds and feminists alike truly began.

Satana and Haji were already friends in real life before Pussycat, having worked together as exotic dancers since the early sixties. The explosive opening scene of the three women frantically go-go dancing was filmed at an actual Los Angeles burlesque club called The Pink Pussycat where Haji and Tura worked (the leering, sweaty-faced men shouting, “Go, baby! Go!” were members of the crew).

Satana was a burlesque dancer for about 18 years, beginning when she was just 15. By all accounts Satana (real name: Suvaki Yamaguchi) endured a tough childhood and spent time in a reform school. Her ancestry was a spicy mixture of Japanese, Filipino and Cheyenne (American Indian) hence her exotic jasmine-scented looks and why she routinely billed herself as “Miss Japan Beautiful” when she was headlining strip clubs. (Tassel-twirling was her speciality).  Reading some of Satana’s more outrageous interviews, you get the impression she never let the truth get in the way of a good story. For example she claimed to have had a lengthy romance with Elvis Presley and that he proposed marriage. Who would know? Is this romance documented in any of the many Presley biographies? (Not that I begrudge her: great stars like Satana are allowed to embellish and self-mythologize as much as they like).

/ Above: "Miss Japan Beautiful": Young Tura Satana in her striptease days /

Of the triumvirate, only Lori Williams is still alive: Satana died in 2011 aged 72. Haji died in 2013 aged 67. Williams is now 70.

“Billie (Lori Williams) is the femme of the group, the main things on her mind being sex and alcohol. In her white short-shorts, halter top and knee-high patent leather go-go boots, Billie is forever breaking into torrid go-go steps whenever trouble arises.” From John Waters’ 1981 book Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste /

For anyone interested: Satana’s bra size at the time of Pussycat was 38DD. Later in life she was 38FF. Unsurprisingly, the bra Satana wears in Pussycat is from Frederick’s of Hollywood – purveyors of glamour wear for the discerning starlet.

Satana made no secret of genuinely loathing Susan Bernard, the 16-year old actress who played perky cry-baby kidnap victim Linda.  For her part, Bernhard admitted she was actively terrified of the imposing Satana. Bernhard’s panic-stricken, tearful reactions are not acting!

It’s unfair that Satana’s performance sometimes overshadows those of Lori Williams and Haji, who are both excellent. In particular I love Haji’s depiction of tempestuous Rosie and her thick Mexican “Spanglish” comedy accent. (In real life Haji was French-Canadian and hailed from Quebec – the same part of the world as me).  This is also Haji’s original nose in Pussycat and she was never more beautiful. In subsequent films it was dramatically whittled-down to the standard issue “electric plug socket” starlet nose job ubiquitous in the sixties.

“(Varla’s) girlfriend Rosie (Haji) is a mean Mexican with a weakness for switchblades who emphasises her many moments of disgust by spitting or picking her teeth with whatever is handy.” From John Waters’ 1981 book Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste /

One thing I intended to mention in my introduction but completely forgot: the implied lesbian relationship between Varla and Rosie, which definitely contributes to Pussycat’s reputation as a LGBT favourite.  (Meyer himself would later – accurately - exclaim about Pussycat’s cult followers: “Lesbians and fags are crazy about it.”). Haji would later relate being surprised when Meyer instructed her to look stricken with jealousy and start to cry when she catches Varla making out on in the hay with a man (Paul Trinka as Kirk). Why? Meyer had never once explained to either actress they were meant to be portraying lovers. And that was mid-way through filming! Haji had no objections to playing a lesbian character, she explained - she just would have approached certain scenes differently had she known. In fact maybe Meyer not telling them was a stroke of genius. As a result, the way Varla and Rosie’s relationship is hinted-at as no big deal rather than spelled-out seems coolly nonchalant and modern. I particularly love it when Rosie snaps to attention and lights Varla’s cigarillo for her like a good submissive. No doubt who is the “top” in that couple.

Also intriguingly queer is Meyer’s appreciative filming of muscle-bound Dennis Busch as the simple-minded, childlike brain-damaged brother known as The Vegetable.  Seemingly an equal opportunity perv, Meyer’s camera lingers over Busch’s sculpted beefcake brawn almost as lovingly (lecherously?) as it does over the women’s décolletage in a surprisingly homoerotic manner. (The scene of The Vegetable pumping weights shirtless wouldn’t look out of place in an Athletic Model Guild film. I was curious if the actor Busch had done any homoerotic physique modelling in the fifties or sixties. Surely Bob Mizer would have swooped on him? A Google search didn’t reveal anything (he may have used a different nom de porn for beefcake modelling). In fact, Google revealed virtually nothing about Busch at all. His IMDb bio, for example, consists of precisely one sentence: “Dennis Busch is an actor, known for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)”. Who was he?). This is interesting because the ultra-conservative Meyer’s treatment of gay, bisexual and transsexual characters is frequently problematic (they usually end up luridly and brutally killed at the end!). But to be fair, he was pioneering for routinely including such characters in the sixties at all when it was far from the norm. And it’s also nice how Meyer allows Billie in that sequence to frankly and unapologetically ogle The Vegetable’s physique and take the lead initiating sex. Take that, “male gaze” theorists!

I hadn’t actually watched my Pussycat DVD in many few years so it was a great opportunity to re-visit it. This is surely Meyer’s magnum opus. It holds up beautifully: like John Waters has argued, Pussycat “ages like fine wine.” This is exciting virtuoso filmmaking by any standards. Not a single wasted shot, everything stark, primal and minimal. It’s still as intense, perverse, gritty and kinky as the first time I saw it, probably at London’s Scala cinema in the early nineties. (The Scala regularly held Russ Meyer double bills – bliss!).  The terse, hardboiled but campy dialogue is endlessly quotable. I love the opening strip club sequence of the scantily-clad trio frantically doing the Watusi and later how Meyer films them from looming low angles so that they look truly towering, Amazonian and menacing in the stark desert setting.  Pussycat’s influence on Waters’ sensibility is obvious, especially the perfectly-judged broad acting and the way everyone shouts / snarl their lines. (Satana’s sneering, abrasive delivery definitely anticipates Divine as bad girl dawn Davenport in Female Trouble (1974). Not to mention the black liquid eyeliner).

“She's a cold one, alright… more stallion than mare. Too much for one man to handle.” /

Varla would be Tura Satana’s only major film role. What a powerful presence! And what a performance: Satana goes from initially sexy to monstrous by the conclusion when she’s become an utterly implacable killing machine. Meyer would later admit that he regretted not engaging Satana for more film roles. Maybe other parts would have been anti-climactic anyway? (I have to admit I’ve never seen Satana’s subsequent films The Asto-Zombies (1968) or The Doll Squad (1973)). Ultimately it probably doesn’t really matter: Satana’s one starring role in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! ensured her immortality as cinema’s greatest bad girl.

Further reading:

I highly recommend you track down Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer by Jimmy McDonough on Amazon.

The Miss Meyer blog is devoted to Russ Meyer, sexploitation, horror, cakes, wrestling and other musings. Check it out here.

On a related note, read my interviews with John Waters and Poison Ivy of The Cramps

My next Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies film club in  the basement Bamboo Lounge of Fontaine's in Dalston is Federico Fellini's swirling decadent masterpiece La Dolce Vita (1960)! Bank Holiday Sunday (28 August). Full details here.