Monday, April 18, 2016

Pop stuff: The legendary John Peel; Batman v. Superman

What I'm reading, hearing, watching, etc.


Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life. From psychedelia to Sonic Youth, John Peel was always a few steps - and sometimes years - head of his fellow disc jockeys.

In numerous cases, he was the first person in Britain - and, often, the world - to play music by now legendary acts. The list stretches from the mid 1960s, when he was a disc jockey on pirate station Radio London, through his long tenure on the BBC's Radio 1, and it includes everyone from Elton John, Davie Bowie, T. Rex and the Faces up through the Ramones, the Sex Pistols and his beloved Undertones, to Joy Division, the Smiths, Nirvana and the White Stripes.

And those are just the big names. Peel's wide-open ears and broad tastes also exposed audiences to world music, electronica, jazz, avant garde, comedy and numerous other, often uncategorizable, sounds. If Peel hadn't died in 2004, who knows what he'd be playing us now.

Today in Britain and even the United States, where listeners tuned into his shows on the BBC World Service and are familiar with releases of his "Peel Sessions" featuring live-in-the-studio performances by numerous acts, Peel is seen as an icon.

There's an annual John Peel Lecture in Britain, which has been delivered Pete Townshend, Brian Eno and Iggy Pop, and the BBC's eclectic Radio 6 Music was built on the Peel template, delivering sounds of all sorts 24 hours a day.

Yet, during his long radio career, as this book by David Cavanagh details, Peel was largely taken for granted and often shabbily treated.

The BBC allowed Peel to say and play essentially whatever he wanted for more than 30 years, yet the network confined him to the wee hours of the evening, often cutting back the length of his shows and bouncing him around the schedule to make more time available for safer and more predictable fare.

In numerous cases, daytime jocks got credit for introducing hot new acts that Peel had played on his show, late in the evening, months before.

Yet, he persevered, listening to the thousands of records and cassettes unsigned and otherwise unheard of musicians sent him in the mail and playing those he liked best on the air.

Cavanagh's book isn't a biography, but a tour through Peel's nearly four decades on the air. Rather than conventional chapters, we're presented with chronological entries in which the author details highlights from Peel's shows, including his remarks and some of the music played, and contrasts these with a news story from that particular day.

Through the Irish Troubles, the 1970s energy crisis, the British miner's strike and the Falklands War, we see how Peel's musical choices reflected the temperament of the times.

The book also highlights some of Peel's most legendary exploits on the air. He wasn't a wild, frenetic U.S.-style deejay, but a soft spoken, self-deprecating, often mordant, wit. And full of nerve.

When the BBC banned the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen" and Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax," Peel played them anyway. And when he got excited about music, he let it show. He once played five Chuck Berry songs in a row and, upon playing the Undertones "Teenage Kicks" on the air for the first time, wept with joy and immediately played it again. The tune's lyrics are on his tombstone.

As Cavanagh makes clear, we'll be scrutinizing Peel's set lists and gaining a better understanding of his huge influence for decades to come.

It all goes to show that, sometimes, its not just the players who make music history, but the fans as well.


Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has been roundly trashed by critics and crowds alike, but I had to give it a look. After all, World's Finest was one of my favorite comics titles as a kid and I've been a Batfan since nearly birth - I had see who won!

Nobody, it turns out. Unless you count Wonder Woman. I agree with the many viewers who thought Gal Gadot's portrayal of the Amazonian princess was the highlight of the movie. So there's five minutes.

The rest of the film is nearly three hours of humorless, joyless set-up and execution. We need to get these two guys at odds, have them fight for a bit and then team up. But couldn't it have been done with a bit of fun and pizazz?

There's not one laugh in the picture - nothing to diffuse the overwrought, soundtrack-fed tension and let us know this is all for fun. No "you're light, I'm dark banter" that might provide either of the title characters with a little (super) humanity or character. By the time the heroes finally battle, you don't really care who wins, because both are so glum and cardboard it's tough to muster up much emotion over either of them.

Director Zack Snyder and the film's writers take it all so seriously. The intention, it seems, is to make this improbable story as "real world" as possible. But doing so just highlights how ridiculous it all is.

The movie is distractingly full of real people: Charlie Rose, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Anderson Cooper, Nancy Grace - it's like flipping through cable channels. And the film's efforts to amp up it's real worldiness via scenes of terrorism, including blowing up the U.S. Capitol, are outrageous and tasteless.

The perpetrator of all this destruction is Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg), though he might as well be the Joker - he's more unhinged chaos agent than scheming super scientist.

After the whole bombastic, predictable ordeal of watching the film - seriously, the soundtrack nearly pummels you with pounding percussion - I came away thinking about how much Marvel does this stuff than DC.

Marvel's films, while full of high-stakes action, are always winking at the audience. The characters joke, falter and triumph. Unlike this Batman and this Superman, they are identifiable and full of personality. You want to hang out with them - maybe not for three hours, but for two. I wouldn't want to chat with this film's Batman or Superman for two minutes at a cocktail party.

The comparison between Marvel's and DC's films today is much like the one between their comics of the 1960s. Back then, Marvel came along with books that were fun and full of interesting, flawed, "human" characters. And, until they started copying Marvel, DC's heroes were old-fashioned, dull, interchangeable cardboard cutouts. Hasn't DC learned anything in 50 years?

Before they screw up a could-be-great Wonder Woman movie and fully launch a Justice League franchise, DC should take a close look at what Marvel's been doing - and copy like crazy.

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