Graded on a Curve: Performance, Official Motion Picture Sound Track

In Performance, the surreal British crime drama starring Mick Jagger as the reclusive former rock star Turner and James Fox as Chas, a soldier in the east London gang of Harry Flowers, Turner says, “The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness. Am I right? Eh?” Right you are, Mr. Eccentric Former Rock Star, as I can attest with 100% certainty following two failed marriages featuring performances by yours truly that indeed “made it all the way.”

Performance, which was directed by Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg in 1968 but not released until 1970, was one of the seminal motion pictures of the seventies, and went so far in the direction of Arthur Rimbaud’s “derangement of all the senses” that at a test screening in Santa Monica in 1970 the wife of a Warner Bros. executive blew the chunks fantastic, and customers had to be offered a vomit refund. It ends with Chas shooting Turner, then driving off (presumably to be murdered) by a member of the Flowers’ gang. But the face looking out the rear window could be either Chas or Turner

While Performance, with its hallucinogenic use and bi-sexuality, still has the capacity to shock the timid, it’s the film’s soundtrack, which includes songs by Mick Jagger, Randy Newman, The Last Poets, Merry Clayton, Bernard Krause & Merry Clayton, Ry Cooder (with and without Buffy St. Marie), and Jack Nitzsche (also with and without Buffy St. Marie) that retains the capacity to amaze. It’s worth owning for the Jagger (“Memo From Turner”), Newman (“Dead Gone Train”), The Last Poets (“Wake Up, Niggers”), and Ry Cooder and Buffy St. Marie (“The Hashishin”) tracks alone, to say nothing of the Ry Cooder bottleneck guitar tracks (“Get Away” and “Powis Square”).

The soundtrack is groundbreaking for several reasons. First, Bernard Krause’s Moog synthesizer work was so pioneering that no Moogs were commercially available, and a prototype had to be used for the recordings. Furthermore, while Jack Nitzsche’s music is for the most part your typical orchestral soundtrack fare, his “Dyed, Dead and Red” and “Natural Magic” are both freaked-out tunes. Finally, the “band” that performed on some of the tracks was “conducted” by Randy Newman and included such notables as Little Feats’ Lowell George and Russ Titelman on guitars, The Byrds’ Gene Parsons on drums, Nasser Rastegar-Nejad on the Santoor (a 72-string trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimer), and Bobby West and Milt Holland of Don Van Vliet’s The Magic Band on bass and percussion, respectively.

Let’s begin with the Jack Nitzsche songs, because some of them I listen to and some of them I don’t, because as I said previously they’re typical orchestral soundtrack fare. I never liked Nitzsche’s work with Neil Young, and overall I have nothing but contempt for the man’s aesthetic. The wonderfully titled “Rolls Royce and Acid” highlights a flute and other woodwinds, but unfortunately does absolutely nothing for me. The same goes for Nitzsche and Newman’s “Harry Flowers,” a string- and piano-heavy piece with horns, which is pretty as far as such things go. Fortunately “Dyed, Dead, and Red” strikes a more exotic note, thanks to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s mouth bow solo and Nasser Rastegar-Nejad’s santoor. And the same goes for Bernard Krause’s whooshing Moog work and Ry Cooder’s excellent slide guitar on “Natural Magic.”

Russ Titelman’s opening track “Gone Dead Train” features Newman as you’ve never heard him, basically rocking and rolling in a full-tilt, take-no-prisoners boogie backed by Cooder (guitar, bottleneck slide, and dulcimer), Lowell George (guitar), Russ Titelman (guitar), Milt Holland (percussion), and Bob West (bass). The man who brought us “Short People” spits out the words and doesn’t betray the slightest trace of his trademark irony or humor, and he has the perfect N’Orleans slur of a voice for the song, and it makes me wish he’d gone in for this sort of straight-up performance more often. As for the title track, “Performance,” it features Krause’s Moog synthesizer playing a repetitive riff backed by a drone, over which Merry Clayon does some impressive Middle Eastern keening. But it’s over before you know it, and it’s Ry Cooder’s turn to cut loose on “Get Away,” which opens with Cooder and Holland playing some ZZ Top-style blues, only to segue into a honking fast and propulsive boogie featuring a monster riff and Cooder going hog wild. “Powis Square” is a slow, slurred blues and highlights Cooder’s otherworldly bottleneck skills, and bears a subtle resemblance to “Amazing Grace.”

As for Jagger’s “Memo From Turner,” what can I say? It’s a tremendous tune, my favorite from the album along with Newman’s “Gone Dead Train,” and features one-man band Steve Winwood on guitar, bass, piano, and organ; and Jim Capaldi (also of Traffic) on drums. Co-written by Donald Cammell and Mick Jagger, “Memo From Turner” features Winwood playing a wonderful slide guitar, while Capaldi’s percussion is nothing short of brilliant. And Jagger’s at his best, especially on the excellent chorus: “Come now/Gentlemen, your love is all I crave/You’ll still be in the circus/When I’m laughing… laughing in my grave.” It’s followed by a monster jam, with Winwood’s guitar kicking ass and taking names, and ends with Jagger crying, “Oh Rosie dear/Don’t you think it’s queer/So stop me if you please/The baby’s dead my lady said/You gentlemen/Why you allll… work for me!”

“The Hashishin” is a great track, featuring Buffy Sainte-Marie and Ry Cooder. Sainte-Marie’s mouth bow establishes a haunting Middle Eastern drone, while Cooder plays lots of heavily strummed single notes. I also hear percussion, tablas or some such, and I have no idea just how many people might be playing on this track, which is generally attributed to just Cooder and Sainte-Marie.

Harlem’s The Last Poets’ “Wake Up, Niggers,” a composition by Alafia Pudim off the group’s 1970 debut LP (which also includes the immortal line, “Don’t talk about revolution unless you are ready to eat rats”) is an odd choice for the LP, but makes for a fine addition, and features lots of congas, the verse of Pudim backed by voices intoning the words, “Wake up, niggers.” The band’s proto-hip-hop is merciless in its depiction of poverty: “In Uptown, two roaches are drowned in each other’s piss/In Downtown, interracial lovers secretly kiss/While junkies are dreaming of total bliss/Somewhere in the atmospheeeere, far away from heeeeere/Beyond realms of white dimensions, gathered by suppressed intentions.” And it ends on the bleak note, “Wake up, niggers/Or we’re all through.”

Finally, there’s Merry Clayton’s great “Poor White Hound Dog,” which features a long instrumental intro featuring slide guitar, exotic percussion, and Krause’s booming and droning Moog, at which point Clayton comes in with some soaring vocals backed by Krause’s Moog, which really cuts loose. As for closing track “Turner’s Murder,” Bernard Krause’s Moog intro is phenomenal, and the Merry Clayton Singers follow it with a very exotic Gospel spiel, with no words but lots of humming and “Aaaaaaaahs” until the fade out, which is followed by a brief reprise of Newman’s “Gone Dead Train.”

Performance is the perfect album for smoking hash under glass. It’s full of odd tunes and exotic instrumentation, alternates nicely between hard-charging numbers like “Gone Dead Train,” “Memo From Turner,” “Get Away,” “Wake Up, Niggers,” and “Poor White Hound Dog” and more sedate but exotic symphonic fare, and you will up your street cred 192% just by owning it. It’s on that list of must-have soundtracks along with Repo Man, Dazed and Confused, O Brother, Where Art Thou, I’m Not There, Saturday Night Fever, Goodfellas, and The Big Lebowski.

Speaking of which, I’ll leave you with an anecdote. Manager Allen Klein wanted $150,000 for the rights to use Townes Van Zandt’s “Dead Flowers” in The Big Lebowski’s closing credits. Klein wouldn’t bend until he watched a screening of the film and the Dude said, “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man!” At which point he jumped up and said, “That’s it! You can have the song!” I love that story, almost as much as I love the scene where Joe Pesci beats a man to death in Goodfellas to the accompaniment of Donovan’s “Atlantis” playing on a bar jukebox. Or where the Circle Jerks perform a live lounge version of “When The Shit Hits The Fan” in Repo Man. Or where Christian Bale throws himself into some inspired Dylan gospel in I’m Not There. They all make it all the way to madness, just like “Gone Dead Train” rides roughshod past a deadman’s switch to madness. “Kids if you want some fun/See what you never have seen/Take off your cheaters and sit right down/Start the projection machine.” Because everyone’s gone to the movies, and the music’s better than all right; it’s a sure ticket to madness. You might even puke on your shoes!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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