2001 memories

The film 2001: A Space Odyssey is back in the news with its new digital re-release being shown in London this weekend. The BBC Film Programme dedicated a special edition to the film which you can hear here. As part of the programme, they asked listeners to share their memories of the film. I have several memories that go right back to 1968 when the film was first released.

For some reason I was on a trip to London with my father. I must've been thirteen at the time. I remember sitting in the circle of the Casino Cinerama cinema and Roy Orbison sitting in the row in front of us. The film had a huge impact on me. It wasn't just the visuals which were amazing but also the music. As soon as we got back to Edinburgh I bought the original soundtrack LP. I remember it being in mono and being jealous of a friend who had a stereo copy.

I spent hours listening to Also sprach Zarathustra and The Blue Danube, imagining journeys into space. I also remember trying to make sense of György Ligeti's pieces which were slightly more challenging at the time. And I think I wrote a space monologue to read over the Gayane Ballet Suite.

When I moved to London a few years later, I ended up sharing a flat on Hampstead Heath which I discovered belonged to Keir Dullea, the main actor in the film. He was living in the States at the time. It was an amazing flat. One afternoon a few people came round and when someone mentioned whose flat it was, one of them turned out to have been an ape in the film.

A few years later I wrote the music for a musical based on the life of James Dean. It was staged at the London Casino (now the Prince Edward Theatre) which had been the cinema where I’d seen 2001 all those years ago. I only discovered recently that Keir Dullea had worked with Sal Mineo (who’d appeared with James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause). He was probably working with him while I was living in his Hampstead flat.

I’ve seen the film several times since then. The last time was at the Sitges Film Festival in 2008. It still looked amazing on the big screen and remains my favourite science fiction film and possibly my favourite soundtrack album.

Awesome Mix Vol. 1

We went to see Guardians of the Galaxy on Friday. It was a fun movie with a lot of humour, some great visuals, and an amazing soundtrack. In fact, last week the soundtrack album reached number one in the Billboard 200. The album, which is called Awesome Mix Vol. 1 is a compilation of songs from the 1970s that includes Moonage Daydream by David Bowie and I Want You Back by The Jackson 5. At the start of the movie we see the hero Peter Quill as a boy listening to I'm not in Love by 10cc on his cassette player. It's one of the tracks on a cassette compilation that his mother gives him shortly before her death. Peter is then abducted and taken into space, growing up to become an interstellar adventurer also known as 'Star-Lord', still taking his cassette player and his mother's mix tape, labelled 'Awesome Mix Vol. 1', with him wherever he goes. The mix of retro music with a space adventure isn't new but it works so well here.

Depending on your age, you may or may not have made your own awesome cassette mixes in the past. I made a few and was also given a few over the years. We tend to think of cassettes as an inferior audio format but the other day I was amazed to discover that a song which sounded so clear and bright on my iPod was originally from a cassette that I'd transferred to digital. (I went through a phase a few years ago when I transferred all my old vinyl albums and cassettes to digital as well as the old reel-to-reel tapes of my songs.)

The modern equivalent of the cassette mix is the playlist but somehow a digital playlist can't beat the fun and excitement of the other contemporary option - shuffle all. With a choice of around 8,000 tracks on my iPod from the past and present, from a wide range of genres, I'm always amazed at how tracks seemingly selected 'at random' can often fit together so well, creating a totally unique awesome mix. It happens often and is even more satisfying when one of my own songs appears sandwiched between David Bowie and Joni Mitchell! Of course, the shuffle option can get it very wrong at times and totally destroy the atmosphere you'd wanted to create. But that's part of the fun.

The random option fits the times we live in so well when we tend to think in terms of tracks rather than albums even after artists have tried so hard to create 'an album' with the perfect running order of songs.

In spite of having access to so much music online, I do wonder if young people today get to hear as wide a range of music as I did when I was growing up. The shuffle option can only really come into its own when it's shuffling a wide range of music from Mozart through Miles Davis to London Grammar and the theme from Thunderbirds. If it's simply shuffling a single genre then there isn't much scope for discovering how apparent opposites can work so well together.

As for Guardians of the Galaxy, there's an Awesome Mix Vol. 2 cassette compilation to look forward to. Let's hope the  movie sequel will manage to maintain the random feel of the current movie. Shuffle all ...

Only Lovers Left Alive

There's a scene towards the end of Only Lovers Left Alive in which Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton)  stand outside a bar in Tangier, listening to Yasmine Hamdan sing 'Hal'. Eve says she'll be famous one day to which Adam replies: 'She's too good to be famous.' or words to that effect.

I've been waiting to see this Jim Jarmusch film since it was first shown at the Cannes film festival in 2013. It took its time getting to Barcelona. And when we did manage to sit down to watch it at the Floridablanca cinema, the projector decided to pack in. Ticket price returned, we tried again a few days later at the Verdi. Going to the cinema these days can be such a depressing experience when there are only a handful of you there. A couple of weeks ago we went to the Icaria cinema and there were plastic bags over broken seats and no-one noticed that the film had started without any picture. But I can't help it - I love going to the cinema. And watching Only Lovers Left Alive on a big screen in a near-empty session felt very appropriate. A bit like Adam and Eve driving down those desolate Detroit streets.

Anyway, the film took me back to my early days in Barcelona when most of the V.O. films were shown at the Casablanca or Capsa cinemas (both now closed). Jim Jarmusch was so much a part of that period: Stranger Than Paradise (1984); Down by Law (1986); Mystery Train (1989). I think I saw them all at the Casablanca.

I wasn't disappointed by Only Lovers Left Alive. The IMDB summary reads: 'A depressed musician reunites with his lover, though their romance - which has already endured several centuries - is disrupted by the arrival of uncontrollable younger sister.' How could I not love it?

Tilda Swinton was the perfect vampire and Tom Hiddleston was great as the depressed musician. He reminded me of Mike Sheppard, bassist, guitar player, engineer, and third member of Tractorial Base. The egg boxes on the wall of Adam's room, the Revox reel-to-reel tapes turning, and the collection of guitars took me back to Steve's home studio in Shpeherd's Bush where we wrote and recorded most of the Tractorial Base demos.

The egg boxes on the wall, the Revox and the collection of guitars took me back to Steve's home studio in Shpeherd's Bush.

So I've added Welcome to Tractorial Base to the Tractorial Base album. It's really three songs linked together. It lasts more than 8 minutes but it'll give you an idea of how mad and exciting things were back then.

Teaching is an art form

'Teaching is an art form.' These were the words of Sir Ken Robinson, the educationalist, speaking on last week's Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio. Between playing the eight songs he'd chosen to take to a desert island, he talked about his life, including his childhood in Liverpool and his education which would fundamentally shape the rest of his life. 'If a teacher hadn't seen something in me that I hadn't seen in myself, my life might have gone in a very different direction.'

Now he's a successful author, speaker, and international advisor on education. His talks on creativity are famous around the world. In fact, his 2006 TED talk How schools kill creativity is the most viewed video in TED’s history. After listening to him on Desert Island Discs I watched the video again. At one point he talks about the reaction of people he'd meet at dinner parties when he told them that he worked in education.

Things don't seem to have changed much. In the same week, I went to see La vie d'Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Colour). I know people are talking about this film  for other reasons, but I was really surprised by the attitude of Emma's art-loving friends towards Adèle when they discover she's a teacher. Don't they know that 'teaching is an art form'?

In case you're interested, Sir Ken's favourite record was the Traveling Wilburys' End of the Line. You can listen to the Desert Island Discs programme here:

And if you're not one of the 25 million people who have viewed his 2006 TED talk, here's your chance.

An amazing thing happened ...

An amazing thing happened this week. Suddenly everyone was going back to the cinema. There were queues at box offices around the country and 'House Full' signs were going up. Box office staff and members of the public wrote to newspapers saying that cinema wasn't dead - it's just too expensive. (Why is there still a 21% tax on cinema tickets? Does the Spanish government really want to kill off cinema?)
For three days this week, cinemas around the country reduced their prices to €2.95 to encourage people to go to the cinema and it worked. Not only was it exciting to go to a packed cinema, some of the films on offer were exciting too. Captain Phillips was terrific. It didn't matter how much of the story you knew already, watching the Somali pirates take on the container ship was breathtaking. And I'm warming to Tom Hanks. He gives a great performance. A lot of critics don't seem to like the first dry-land part of the film but I thought it was right to start off on solid ground before setting off to sea. Gravity was the other film that sent me out of the cinema feeling dazed. There was definitely no solid ground here. OK - so the script has some weak parts especially at the beginning. But it's such an amazing ride (which has to be experienced in 3D). And I'm warming to Sandra Bullock too. We hoped to make it an edge-of-your-seat trilogy and see Rush but it was sold out. I can't remember the last time I watched a film in a full cinema.