Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Various Artists—
Performance


Released 1970 on Warner Brothers
The Seth Man, June 2002ce
In 1970, the notorious film “Performance” and its accompanying soundtrack were released after languishing for two years in the Warner Brothers vaults due to its explicit depictions of (take your pick): nudity, violence, drug-taking and blurred sexual/gender boundaries. It maintains a challenging and unique visual style that questioned the validity of and linked together such diverse issues as public mores and private peccadilloes, male and female roles, sex and violence, straight society and its counterculture, organised crime and big business...as well as reality and fantasy. This ambitious vision that directors Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg so meticulously constructed is multi-layered, highly perceptive and (at times) outright frightening. But underneath this darkly enticing latticework was another: the contrast and comparison of a figure from the underworld (Chas, a violent gangster underling played by James Fox) and the underground (Turner, an effete retired rock star played by Mick Jagger.) For what “Performance” concerns itself with is the nature of identity: itself never a singularity but a constantly evolving and mutating duality with active and passive principles in an ongoing state of flux. But when one’s ‘identity’ reshapes through time while discarding former personalities and quickly absorbing a series of newer ones, it becomes...‘performance.’

Needless to say, Warner Brothers failed to see eye-to-eye with the film. They had already committed large sums of money towards its costs, and then promptly freaked out with what Cammell and Roeg delivered for release. It was subsequently shelved, then edited several times until two years later it was decided to just release the deranged epic and cut their losses.

It was truly ahead of its time. And the same can be said for its accompanying soundtrack.

Except for Byrds member Gene Parsons on drums, the majority of tracks were cut by an ad-hoc Warner Brothers/Reprise session group consisting of Randy Newman (vocals), Ry Cooder (guitar, bottleneck slide and dulcimer), Lowell George (guitar), Russ Titelman (guitar), Bobby West (bass) and Milt Holland (percussion.) Produced, arranged and with material almost singly composed by the gifted Jack Nitzsche, it was his long-time connection with The Stones that led to both his and Cooder’s involvement in the spring ’68 sessions for “Beggar’s Banquet” (including further material that lapped over onto “Let It Bleed.”) The interconnectedness of the musicians on this soundtrack is a hilariously complex pattern that links together The Rolling Stones, Neil Young (Nitzsche was responsible not only for the arrangements on “Buffalo Springfield Again” but also Young’s debut album and “Harvest”); Captain Beefheart’s “Safe As Milk” (featuring Ry Cooder on guitar) to The Mothers of Invention, The Fraternity of Man and Little Feat (its common thread here being Lowell George.) To top it off, Merry Clayton (the wailing voice of grace on The Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”) Buffy Saint-Marie, Bernie Krause (from the early electronic duo, Beaver & Krause) and one track by The Last Poets all make appearances...and of course, Mick Jagger sings “Memo From Turner.” The result is an overabundant ensemble of talent unified into a soundtrack that blends together and vaults from track to track between rock’n’roll, R&B, blues, ragas, gospel, symphonic washes and Moog zap-a-thons.

Opening the film is “Gone Dead Train” with Randy Newman on vocals, a gritty lament of locomotive impotence that rides the rails like an amphetamine Taj Mahal. A dramatic change of everything comes with the title track, “Performance”: it is a dark instrumental featuring the beautifully strong and wordless soul wailing of Merry Clayton gracefully soaring above Krause’s Moog operations that approximate sunspots over an accompanying rhythm drone of lunar modulation proportions. “Get Away” and “Powis Square” are two blues instrumentals featuring Ry Cooder’s bottleneck slide. “Get Away” is actually two songs pieced together: a “Rollin’ And Tumblin’” slide accompanied by tablas running directly into a full stomping backing band re-working of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom.” “Powis Square” predates the solo acoustic meditations Cooder would later re-work on the “Paris, Texas” soundtrack, itself an instrumental vamping of Robert Johnson’s “Come On In My Kitchen.” A harmoniously arranged string section lends a deceptively poignant and near-mellotronic air to “Rolls Royce And Acid” where the strings swell in a manner Nitzsche had crafted years earlier for his symphonic lushness that couched Neil Young’s Springfield lament, “Expecting To Fly” (which in all certainty lent itself in turn to inform John Cale’s “Big White Cloud.”) “Dyed, Dead, Red” is where the soundtrack creeps into forgotten corners of ethnic musical styles that blend into an overall loose and stoned jam somewhere between Marrakech and Persia as Buffy Saint-Marie contributes mouth bow and wordless vocal yearnings. “Harry Flowers” is a full-blown Nitzsche production number, representing the Muzak™ that pervades the offices of the pudgy gangster boss of the same name. The strings and horns arrange together in a weeping, bittersweet ache that is a trademark of Nitzsche’s masterful arrangement style. Soothing and melancholy, it startlingly begins to curl at the edges as Moog treatment begins to twist the piece into nightmarish phasing swirls.

Mick Jagger loosely brays out “Memo From Turner,” here far less stiff than the alternative version later released on the ultra-patchy Stones outtake compilation, “Metamorphosis.” Here it’s far sleazier: used in the scene where Jagger-as-Turner-as-Harry Flowers exposes to a now tripping Chas how his old gang’s businessman-like ‘pillar of society’ manners and mores are nothing less than a veil for their unspoken yet obvious homosexuality at odds with their brutally ruthless agendas (“Memo From Turner” is thematically placed somewhere between “Jigsaw Puzzle” and “Cocksucker Blues” as another contender in the Stones’ ongoing wanton/dirtball gambit.) “The Hashishin” is another dream-like, middle-eastern instrumental filled with sitar strings ringing sympathetically with high-pitched sitars reverberating in the dark basement flat corridors of Turner’s sumptuously decorated Notting Hill Gate psychedelic townhouse. An ominous stringed instrument somewhere between a human voice and a woodwind instrument emerges as Buffy Saint-Marie turns in an equally eerie mouth bow that signals The righteous indignation of the incendiary “Wake Up, Niggers” by The Last Poets bursts in with angry, assaultive Black Fug ghetto rapping and congas. “Poor White Hound Dog” features Merry Clayton’s wailing, wordless weaving as Krause’s Moog pulsates like a glowing, bright white light: echoing the fluorescent tube in the scene where Turner brandishes at a tripping Chas in order to derange his senses enough for his mind to blow apart. The Moog pitch increases randomly, the modulations fall and dip while startling electronic static bursts all over with no regard at all as tablas, slide guitar and percussion create a jerky robotic groove. Almost in continuation is “Natural Magic,” another Moog-based instrumental. The only track not featured in the film itself, it’s a few minutes down the road from “Poor White Hound Dog” where the jam has slowed in pace. But these two pieces together are out-there instrumentals that fuse technology and human rhythms together in a lurching and organic experiment that is truly out there. “Turner’s Murder” starts up with Moog-generated rhythms of mechanically working pistons that increase in pitch and speed as a high, solar-flare drone of bright white light rises higher and higher until The Merry Clayton Singers enter with a wordless, vocal gospel wholly redemptive in feel and uplifting to the extreme; as though releasing a soul from earth upwards to the heavens.