The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Category: 80s (page 2 of 3)

Straight Down the Hatch

As the 80s boy racer dreamboat the Peugeot 205 GTI turns 30 Mark Simpson remembers stroking its stick-shift

Hot. Hatch.

In the world of car porn there is no other conjugation that raises the punter’s pulse more than that one – evoking as it does fuel injection, tight handling, firm suspension, snug interiors and accommodating rears.

And amongst hot hatches, the Peugeot 205 GTI is the ultimate car porn star. This year the French stunner, launched back in 1984, when the miners were on strike and Frankie Goes To Hollywood were in the charts, turned an ancient and decrepit 30, but is still widely regarded as the hottest hatchback ever.

It’s certainly my favourite car ever. I owned one in the early 90s, round about the time they stopped production in 1994, and I still dream moistly about it in a way I don’t about, say, my old Golf Mk 1 GTI, even though I suspect the Golf was a rather better made car.

I had a 1.9, 205, introduced a couple of years after the 1.6. It simply had to be a 1.9. Not because it had a few more HP than the 1.6 (126 compared to 105), or because it did 0-60 in 8 seconds (instead of 8.7), or because it had disc brakes all round instead of just at the front. And certainly not because it had more torque. But because of that ‘9’ on the badge. Who wants an average 6 when you can have a whopping 9? Especially when you’re still in your twenties, as I was at the time.

Apart from the badge, there were other key visual signifiers of your ownership of more cubic centimetres: the alloy wheels were fatter, and you had sexy half leather seats, vs cloth. I became practised at spotting these giveaways from a distance, before I could get a good look at the badge on the side. I’m sure I wasn’t the only Peugeot 205 size queen, constantly dismissing 1.6ers as unworthy of my interest.

In fact, being so lightweight – or what safety engineers now would call ‘horrifyingly flimsy’ – either 205 GTI was a joy to drive, even though neither had power steering (drivers back then were expected to have shoulders when it came to parking). It would take bends with an alacrity and eagerness that was positively arousing. Admittedly the pedals were rather too close together, particularly if you had size ‘9’ feet – but you just had to be careful to operate them delicately with pointy toes.

It was a great car for belting around a city like London before ‘traffic calming’ measures were introduced, speed humps installed every few feet, and rat-runs closed off, turning London’s roads into railways for cars. In addition to being great for engaging the ‘safety power’ and nipping around ‘obstructions’, the 205 GTI would leave most cars standing at the lights, watching your sexy arse disappear into the distance.

Peugeot-205-GTI-01 rear

It was remarkably practical too. Despite the fact that from the outside it looked like the proverbial rocket-powered roller-skate, a road-legal single-seater with the driver crouched over the sports steering wheel, head almost sticking out of the sliding sun roof, inside it was surprisingly spacious. People with legs could even sit in the back. If you owned a Peugeot GTI you could actually have friends, or a family.

If, that is, you had any time for anything that didn’t involve zooming around with a big stupid grin on your face.

GTi interior

But if I’m honest none of these were the real reasons I possessed one. It was the 205 GTi’s scorching looks that bowled me over. It was a very, very sexy piece of 1980s styling – quite possibly the definitive one. A kind of supermini American Gigolo with black and red bumper car trim. The wheels were exactly where they should be, in the corners, and it had a very sexual shapeliness to it. I even loved the two-tone plasticky interiors that everyone mocks now. (Though admittedly most of the plastic bits did break off.)

I had a red one, but I wanted a white one, and black one, and a blue one, and slate grey one as well. I thought they were all good enough to eat.

The Peugeot 205 GTI: the tastiest hot hatch ever.

205-1

Originally appeared on LeasePlan

Yes, I know he’s not driving a Peugeot 205 GTI – but he so should have been 

1983: The High Summer of (Synth-)Pop

From the gender-bending antics of Eurythmics and Culture Club, to the propulsive synthpop of Depeche Mode, New Order, and the Human League, was there ever, asks Mark Simpson, a more spectacular time for pop?

In 1983, the year that McDonald’s introduced the Chicken McNugget and the second Cold War was at its height, the world very nearly ended when large NATO exercises were mistaken by an understandably jittery USSR for preparations for a new Barbarossa.

More ominously, compact discs went on sale in the United States and Europe, the first commercial mobile telephone call was made, and the Internet as it’s known today came into existence. Oh, and Carrie Underwood was born.

In other words, while the world itself didn’t end in 1983, all the necessary means were invented for eventually bringing about something much more serious: the end of pop music.

Which, rather like the best pop itself, is a bittersweet thought to savor, since 1983 was unquestionably the finest year for pop music ever.

1983 was also — perhaps not so coincidentally — my final year at high school, and instead of studying for my exams and thinking about what I wanted to actually do with my life, I’d taken to hanging around hi-fi shops on my way home, hypnotized by the LED and LCD equalizer displays on the latest sound systems. I fell head over heels in love with a Technics SL-5 Turntable. There were various reasons for its quasi-sexual appeal: It was very slim, and from above no bigger than an LP sleeve, plus the turntable had a really cool linear arm tracking inside the lid that was automatically operated with buttons at the front. It was very futuristic; like a giant, clunky, analog CD player, before anyone I knew had a CD player.

But the real reason for my infatuation with the turntable was the 12-inch of Eurythmics’ “Love Is a Stranger” that the cunning salesman slapped on at full volume. Not only did the otherworldly, drivingly sequenced synth sounds and Annie Lennox’s operatic range superbly showcase the sound dynamics of the product, the lyrics Lennox breathed, seemingly in the back of your mind, were the ultimate hard sell:

“And I want you / And I want you / And I want you so.”

Pop moozic in the early ’80s was a stranger in an open, glamorous, sleekly designed car: tempting you in and driving you far away. And not only in Eurythmics songs; the Smiths’ second single, “This Charming Man,” also released in 1983, featured that same car-driving stranger offering Morrissey a ride.

This year was a pre-Fall moment when everything and anything seemed possible — because it was. The neck-strainingly rapid developments in music-making technology meant that no one really knew what they were doing until they’d actually done it. Every record was a revelation. A miracle. There were no rules because there was no manual. Invention was king.

Eurythmics recorded their sophomore album, Sweet Dreams, for example, on a simple TEAC eight-track in an attic, without any of the fixtures of a professional studio. The title song was recorded in a single take, with Lennox improvising most of the lyrics on the spot and David Stewart tapping on half-filled milk bottles to produce that chiming sound as Lennox sings “Hold your head up / Keep your head up.” In this new landscape, record companies had little choice but to indulge their prodigies in their pixie boots with their pixie powers. (Although that didn’t stop “Love Is a Stranger” from being yanked off the air during an early transmission on MTV by executives who confused Lennox for a transvestite.)

This was also the era of the wizard producer: industry legends like Martin Rushent, who fashioned the sound of the Human League, and most famously Trevor Horn, former lead singer for the Buggles, who produced ABC’s stunningly beautiful 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s pounding 1983 single “Relax,” a siren call to closeted young gay teens if ever there was one. Horn, who deftly deployed the dark magic of the famous Fairlight sampling synthesizer, was nothing less than a creator of brave new sonic worlds. (Appropriately, Horn’s 1979 Buggles single “Video Killed the Radio Star” was also the first to be aired on MTV when the channel launched in 1981.)

Early ’80s British synthpop — or “new wave,” as it was known in the United States — was madly ambitious and utopian, offering an analog dream of a digital future. And it sounded gorgeous. In fact, it sounded much better than the properly digital future did when it actually arrived, with greater processing power, a few years later. It was also much better than drugs or sex, which turned out to be piss-poor substitutes for pop music when they finally showed up at the end of the decade in jeans at an acid house rave somewhere in a field near Manchester. Synthpop — or “new pop” as the genre was more broadly dubbed by the music journalist Paul Morley at the time — was the glorious culmination of the 1970s’ aesthetic revolts of glam and punk rock. It was pop music at its most fun, its most danceable, its most pretentious, its most gender-bending, and its most fashionable.

The 12-inch single was a mainstay of synthpop, which in many ways carried on where disco (for which the 12-inch was invented) left off after America murdered it at the end of the ’70s. The greater treble and bass response afforded by 12-inch singles demonstrated the new recording, mixing, and lavish production techniques all the better — and made it hip-twitching. Today, if you listen to extended mixes from that era, especially the ones with the long intros with, say, a single sampled snare drum playing for several minutes, you often wonder where people got the time. But back then, before the Internet and mobile phones ruined everything, they were the height of indulgence. They were a way of making the blissful perfection of the pop single last forever, instead of just three minutes.

Our sixth-form common room didn’t have a Technics SL-5, but it did have a battered 1960s mono Dansette record player. Undoubtedly, the most played record on it in 1983 was New Order’s epoch-making, four-to-the-floor new wave disco track “Blue Monday,” which was, in a calculatedly haughty gesture, only available as a 12-inch single and infamously not included on the album Power, Corruption & Lies – though with a transporting track like “Your Silent Face,” whose final kiss-off lyric is “You’ve caught me at a bad time, so why don’t you piss off?” I wasn’t complaining about the album.

“Blue Monday” became the bestselling 12-inch single ever in the United Kingdom. It’s difficult, in a post-“Blue Monday” world, to understand the seismic impact of that New York hi-NRG sound recycled gloriously through Manchester melancholy. We played it so many times we had to weigh the ancient chisel of a needle down with putty to stop it from jumping.

Other 1983 synthpop singles that got played to death, either in the common room or in my bedroom, included the deliciously silly “Blind Vision,” by Blancmange; the surprisingly political “Bad Boys,” by Wham!; the sublimely whiney “Everything Counts,” by Depeche Mode; the cutesy-funky “Rip it Up,” by Orange Juice; the fantastically pretentious and pompous “Visions in Blue,” by Ultravox; the hair-prickling “Song to the Siren,” by This Mortal Coil; the tantrummy torch song “Soul Inside,” by Soft Cell (their last hurrah); the toe-tapping, fringe-flapping “Too Shy,” by Kajagoogoo; the plaintive but insistent “Come Back and Stay,” by Paul Young; the revving synth-reggae of “Electric Avenue,” by Eddy Grant; the beating beauty of “All of My Heart,” by ABC (released in 1982 but so big that it hogged much of 1983, too).

The delightfully absurd synth-goth of “The Walk,” by the Cure; the stolen kisses of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” by Fun Boy Three; the bitter-sweet “Church of the Poison Mind,” by Culture Club; the exhilaratingly obscure “Burning Down the House,” by Talking Heads; the lipsticked charm of “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” by the Human League; the dreamy reverie of “Don’t Talk to Me About Love” by Altered Images; and, of course, David Bowie’s Nile Rodgers–produced smash “Let’s Dance,” a record that manages somehow to be both criminally danceable and strangely austere, like the White Witch of Narnia on roller skates.

With records like that as the soundtrack to our teenagerdom, is it any wonder that we thought ourselves the cat’s meow?

Bowie had, in many ways, made the glamour and swish of synthpop possible. He was certainly the stylistic inspiration for the romantic wing of new wave (many of whom, however, chose to sing like Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry), famously bestowing his benediction on Steve Strange and assorted Blitz Kids in the video for 1980 “Ashes to Ashes,” dressed in a Pierrot costume, being followed by a bulldozer. By 1983, Bowie had finally achieved the stateside success he had longed for throughout the ’70s with his “Serious Moonlight” tour, becoming part of the “second British Invasion” of new wave acts.

The second British Invasion — which, by the way, was almost certainly the last — was more successful than the first, changing the American aesthetic as well as musical landscapes. Schooled by ’70s Bowie, British new wave acts like Duran Duran were masterful at drawing attention to themselves onscreen and got saturation exposure on the newly founded MTV. Although their hit single “Girls on Film” was released in 1981, it wasn’t until an MTV-friendly “day version” was reissued in March 1983 that the video became a staple on the channel, along with “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “The Reflex.”

The synthpop sound and kooky styles of those quirky Brits became the hallmark of ’80s MTV, and eventually made its way into the classic ’80s high school movies of John Hughes. British new wave was especially popular on the West Coast and with Los Angeles’s KROQ station — and continued to be long after new wave had been rolled back in the U.K. (When I visited Los Angeles for the first time in 1990, I couldn’t quite believe that all this British synthpop was still being played so much — and in such a sunny place.)

It didn’t hurt that many of the Brit synthpop bands were also very easy on the eyes. The women, like Lennox, could be very handsome, and the boys could be very pretty — Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet certainly were, with the possible exception of their lead singers. In the promo for “Everything Counts,” the seemingly sweet Essex boys of Depeche Mode look like they’re in a Bel Ami video, albeit with clothes.

For my part, I had a crush on the fresh-faced Edwyn Collins from Orange Juice and Bernard Sumner from New Order (it was a long time ago); I always thought Sumner sang like a boy crying in his bedroom with the window left deliberately open. I also crushed on Curt Smith from Tears for Fears — yes, even with those mini pigtails. There was something about the boyish vulnerability and sensuality of synthpop that went with their kind of looks — there was definitely a sexual ambiguity in the sequenced air.

Unfortunately for Smith, he also looked a bit like a lad at school I was hopelessly in love with. It was a requited but unconsummated affair — which meant, of course, that it was endlessly orgasmic. I listened to the Tears for Fears album The Hurting, particularly the heartfelt yearnings of “Pale Shelter” — “You don’t give me love / you give me cold hands” — much, much too much, and heard things that weren’t really there. I even wrote to them via their record label, thanking them for daring to write such “openly homoerotic lyrics” — and received a diplomatic letter of acknowledgement back from a PR agent informing me that Curt and Roland would be very pleased to hear their music “meant so much.”

But of all of the pretty early ’80s boys — or girls — Marilyn, a.k.a. Peter Robinson, was perhaps the prettiest. A star of new romantic stomping ground the Blitz club when his mate Boy George was working in the coat check there, he finally got a record deal in 1983 and had a hit with the catchy single “Calling Your Name.” Finally the pop charts had a male gender bender who was sexy instead of mimsy, famously describing himself as “Tarzan and Jane rolled into one.”

But a line had been crossed. Sadly, the story of Marilyn is also the story of the end of the high summer of synthpop/new wave. We had traveled too far and too fast in that stranger’s open car — the brakes were being applied. Margaret Thatcher, whose much vaunted “Victorian values” were to include a ban on gay propaganda, was reelected by a landslide in June 1983, thanks largely to the victory of the British armed forces over Argentina in a far-flung colonial outpost. Her bosom buddy Ronald Reagan had meanwhile essentially put the West on a war footing against the “Evil Empire,” as he dubbed the Soviet Union. And Dr. Robert Gallo had isolated a virus he named HTLV-III, which had snuffed out Klaus Nomi and Jobriath in that same year. We now know it as HIV.

The delicious “art fag” decadence of new wave — or “that queer English shit” as it was sometimes known — was clearly doomed in the militaristic, materialistic, AIDS-terror climate of the mid-1980s. Male vulnerability and sexual ambiguity were now fatal weaknesses.

Marilyn’s second single, “Cry and Be Free,” a ballad released in 1984, was doing well until he appeared, pouting, on Top of the Pops in a glittery off-the-shoulder number. There was a visceral reaction as a nation recoiled from its own arousal. His single plummeted. His third, the ironically prescient “You Don’t Love Me,” stalled at number 40 on the U.K. charts. The career of the most beautiful boy in British pop was over.

And so, essentially, was new wave – banished by a mid-’80s counterrevolution of guitar-led rock. Disco sucked again, and it gave you AIDS. And Bruce bloody Springsteen was the biggest thing on the U.K. charts in 1984. Yes, it’s true that Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s spunktacular dance track “Relax” finally hit number 1 in January 1984, but it had been released in 1983 — and was banned by the BBC in 1984. Frankie went on to have more hits that year in the U.K., including, most famously, ‘Two Tribes,” which satirized the threat of the Cold War turning hot, and certainly sold a lot of T-shirts. But for my pocket money they definitely peaked with “Relax.”

My school days ended in the summer of 1983, and with them my exquisitely doomed love affair. Synthpop, as it turned out, was also doomed. So you see, contrary to what the history books tell you, the world really did end in 1983 — but at least I got the Technics SL-5 turntable for my 18th birthday.

I ended up playing the Smiths on it a lot — and their eponymous first album, released in January 1984, complete with young Joe Dallesandro’s naked torso on the sleeve, was very definitely the homoerotic bonanza I’d mistaken Tears for Fears’s The Hurting for, albeit a celibate one.

In a sense, the Smiths were the ultimate new wave/new pop band, one who eschewed synthesizers for guitars, which lead singer Morrissey, an uber fan of glam and punk, professed to hate. This turned out to be a smart move that kept them in business until 1987 — and Morrissey, as a solo artist, to this day.

But I suspect the Smiths were only allowed to happen at all because, despite their enormous fame today, they were a very well-kept secret in the ’80s, barely troubling the British top 10 and effectively banned from daytime radio airplay.

The Smiths were semi-underground new wave. Otherwise known as indie.

(Originally appeared on Out.com, 18 Feb, 2014)

Joe Brown has kindly made a Spotify out of some of the songs in this essay:

Stretch Jeans & Synthpop: The Human League’s ‘Dare’

By Mark Simpson

IN THE EARLY YEARS of the 1980s stretch jeans were all the rage. Stretch jeans and The Human League’s Dare. Both were revolutionary but practical and, when wrapped around youth, snugly-smugly invincible.

I was sweet 16 when Dare was released in 1981 and it confirmed all the psychoses of teenagerdom. We thought the future belonged to us and our arrogant thighs, with our denim/spandex mix and new-fangled dance-orientated synth-pop. We thought we were so fucking clever. So fucking fuckable. And we were so fucking right, even if our future didn’t turn out to be quite so cool and snug and fun as we thought it would be.

Dare had the effrontery to stretch the sparse, avant-garde, electronic dreams of the early, pre-1980 split, art skool Human League around pop music, disco and everyday desire. It was a perfect, thrilling, highly sexy fit. There’s a simple, timeless test of whether pop music is any good or not: can it be played really loudly at a fairground while you’re being spun around by a tattooed lad on the Waltzers?

To this day, whenever I hear the opening bars of ‘Love Action (I Believe in Love)’, the bit which sounds like flying saucers talking to one another before the hip-wiggling bass line kicks in, the hairs still obediently rise on the back of my neck and I’m all giddy and spotty and about to spew up my Merrydown again.

Dare is one of the greatest pop albums ever made, and quite possibly the greatest UK dance album. It changed what pop music could be. It changed what the world was going to be. This thrice-platinum album was wildly successful and influential, cool and high street, arty and commercial, on a scale that has never really been repeated and can never be, now that pop music is essentially a spent force. And this cultural colossus (with a little help from Virgin Records) stepped out of the post-industrial wreckage of ‘Steel City’ aka Sheffield. Not London, not Manchester, but the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. Tyke pop.

The Vogue-styled album gate fold cover, with The League’s devastatingly pretty and provocatively made-up lead singer – and now unchallenged creative director/dictator – Phil Oakey as front-cover girl, with Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, the pretty schoolgirl dancers/backing vocalists famously recruited by Oakey in a Sheffield nightclub called Crazy Daisy’s, barely managing to compete on the inside. (Philip Adrian Wright, the only surviving non-Oakey member of the pre-split Human League, was not given the Vogue treatment.) It was a work of pop art that Factory Records, just over the Pennines, might have envied – if they weren’t so post-punk puritanical.

Listening today, over thirty years on, almost nothing has aged about this album, recorded at the very apogee of synthpop and its analogue daydreams of a digital world – this, after all, is what ‘synthpop’ was before digital technology actually finally arrived years later, and ruined everything. Those Korgs and Rolands were analogue. It is much, much easier to make synthpop music now, and almost everyone does. But none of it has any heart.

The first track, ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, an anthemic invocation of desire, exhorts the listener to ‘do all the things you ever dared’. The stirring football chant chorus—‘These are the things! These are the things! The things that dreams are made of!’—is undercut by the almost banal modesty of the detail of those dreams: ‘New York, ice cream, TV, travel, good times’.

But that’s the intoxicating drama of Dare: a utopian soundtrack with a down-to-earth, suburban ‘good time’ vibe. ‘Everybody needs love and affection. Everybody needs two or three friends.’ By the austere, highly political post-punk standards of a Thatcher-ravaged, deeply recessed 1981, Dare demanded the impossible.

The new, purged Human League’s first offspring was very much Oakey’s baby. It really was Phil talking, having rid himself of dissenting voices of Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who went on to form Heaven 17 (and take on that fascist groove thang). Phil’s inimitable baritone suffuses the album – a voice as distinctive as the sound and the look. A voice so distinctive, in fact, that like many from that era, it’s impossible to imagine it succeeding today. Except perhaps as a novelty act to be voted off before the semi finals.

Martin Rushent, the synth-pop producer brought in to make good the loss of the technical skills of Ware and Marsh, should almost be credited as a fifth band member on Dare. His virtuoso deployment of synths and sequencers effectively adds another lead vocal to the tracks, while the introductory bars are micro overtures that instantly announce the irresistible genius of each song. Is there an album anywhere that has better, hookier, more outrageously sashaying intros? ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, ‘The Sound of the Crowd’, ‘Open Your Heart’, ‘Love Action’, and the Sheffield nitespot operetta of ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby?’ – da da da-da dum da da da DUM!

You know exactly what’s coming and you can’t wait. Much like love itself.

The final track ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’ became of course the Human League’s best-selling single and 1981’s Xmas Number One, selling over 2 million copies worldwide. It is also the most perfect pop song ever made, running the sublime gamut from epic to trashy and back again, with a sing-along chorus that is the purest distillation of all pop lyrics ever:

‘Don’t you want me baby? 
Don’t you want me, OHHHHH!’

After that there really is nothing more to be said on the subject.

‘DYWM’ brings perfect ‘closure’ to Dare’s theme of pursuing dreams. Oakey plays a Svengali figure spurned by his creation, voiced pitch-perfect by Susan Anne Sully, and threatens: ‘Don’t forget it’s me who put you where you are now and I can put you down too.’

She’s ‘dared’ – and doesn’t need him any more. But the biggest Dare of all was Oakey’s. Everyone thought boffins and band founders Ware and Marsh were the brains of the outfit and hence Oakey would fall flat on his pretty-boy face after the 1980 split. Phil was working not as a cocktail waitress but as a hospital porter when Ware found him in 1978, and turned him into someone new.

But his worst turned out to be better than their best.

(Originally appeared on Culture Kicks, June 5 2013)

How Ridley Scott invented the 1980s

Inevitably Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, which I went to see last night, was Gladiator crossed with Kingdom of Heaven – but with the embarrassing mistake of Orlando Bloom dead-headed. Though actually I found myself missing Bloom’s lightweight charms. Robin Hood is even more boring and pretentious than both of Scott’s ponderous epics combined (which is an achievement of sorts).

Except that is for the entertainment provided by Russell Crowe’s idea of a northern English accent – a mixture of Harry Enfield Scouse and Brad Pitt Irish, with some Kiwi mumbling thrown in.

Much worse than Robin Hood though is the news that Ridley Scott is going back to the future by making not one but two 3D prequels for his masterpiece Alien. The prequels will make scads of money of course, but almost certainly at the cost of making you think you didn’t like the original very much after all.

It needs to be said: Ridley Scott can’t make great or even particularly good movies any more. Mostly because almost no one can. We live in an age when movies don’t really matter any more. There’s nothing sacred about widescreen when everyone has one in their front room, and a widescreen HD camcorder in the bedroom. Which is of course why Hollywood as a whole wants to go back to the future and convince us that we need to see movies in souped-up 1950s 3D.

In a sense, Scott dramatises this sorry development more poignantly than any other contemporary director, because, as this appreciation (below) published in 2005 shows, his films used to matter more than most – literally inventing an epoch that we’ve yet to properly escape from. The 1980s.

And also because his films helped bring about that world in which pretty much all films are forgotten before we’ve even seen them.

Men at Arms

Alien egg

First he predicted our dark and soulless future in ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’. Then he opened our eyes to a new, softer kind of man and a harder kind of woman. Now Ridley Scott has turned his attention to the Middle East with a film set during the Crusades. But if his work has always been prophetic, says Mark Simpson, what is he trying to tell us this time?

(Independent on Sunday, 24 April 2005)

Generally speaking, I’m not terribly interested in film directors.

At least, not living ones. I don’t rush out to see so-and-so’s latest; I watch films that have nice trailers (and am usually as disappointed as everyone else). But the British director Ridley Scott, whose new Crusades epic The Kingdom of Heaven is out next month, is different. I usually make a point of seeing all of his films, even the unwatchable ones like 1492: Conquest of Paradise and GI Jane.

Why? Because Scott’s films don’t only tell us about the world we live in today. They are that world.

It may be a sign of the degradation of our culture, or it could just be my brain, but amongst other terrifying things about our future, Ridley Scott’s first blockbuster Alien (1979) seems to predict reality TV: a bunch of people sealed off from the world, a sense of being watched, a Hobbesian battle for survival in which only one person comes out alive, and very bad table manners. When I re-watched the film recently I noticed that the spherical room where the ship’s giant computer (called “Mother”) is consulted even looks like the Big Brother diary room.

Like reality TV, the purpose of Alien seems to have been to put humans in an inhuman environment and find out what being human was really all about. There is a great deal in Alien that proved eerily prophetic. What’s striking about the film now is how it hasn’t aged; the vacuum of space has preserved it perfectly, which is rather more than can be said for the legion of non-Scott directed sequels.

Perhaps this is because Alien invented the 1980s – a decade that none of us has actually escaped. And Ridley Scott, who was born in 1937 and grew up in Teesside, was perhaps more than anyone its visual architect.

In Alien the world of scary opportunity beckoning from the other side of the 1970s is apparent. The crew bicker over shares and bonuses, and in fact they only investigate the distress beacon and seal their doom because a clause in their contract means The Company will rescind their share entitlement if they don’t. It’s every man and woman for themselves. In the same year as a champion of the free market emerged as the victor at the British polls, the sole survivor of the Darwinian struggle unleashed on the Nostromo turns out to be a tough, bossy iron lady (though without the handbag or the hairdo).

The female of the species, Scott seems to be telling us, is more deadly than the male.

Consider also that crewmate Kane, played by John Hurt, is orally raped by a face-hugging organism with testicle-shaped lungs, impregnating him with the monster that kills him gruesomely and then goes on to massacre his crewmates. All this, years before Aids, the great terror of the 1980s, had even been named. Kane, it turns out, not Gaetan Dugas, was patient zero.

Like Aids itself, the symbolism of Alien (designed by Ron Cobb and H R Giger) went very deep. Part of the reason why it is such an extraordinarily arousing film is that it’s horribly Freudian. The entrances to the alien spacecraft are giant vaginas. The hatches in the ventilation shaft are clenching steel sphincters. And then there’s the creature itself, with its huge penis-shaped head and phallic-jackhammer tongue that drips with a threading, translucent fluid as it unsheathes before penetrating its victims.

For many years before he started to make films Scott had worked as a director of adverts. And advertising knows about Freud and about desire – in particular, that our desire is actually something that stalks us. Advertising of course tells us to say ‘yes’ to desire, because in doing so we are saying yes to advertising, which then uses us in its own sweet way. Alien gives us a glimpse of what an “id” world fuelled by consumerism, competition and appetite might look like. That world has arrived. The eggs in the hold of the alien vessel contained the future. Or, at least, embryonic reality TV contestants.

But perhaps the most prophetic part of Alien is its bleakly beautiful look. Every detail is closely controlled by former art-director Scott (who also shot around 80 per cent of the movie himself: “My performance,” he once said of his films, “is everything you see on the screen”) and his trademark high-contrast background and low-lit foreground makes everything seem desirable. Even the Nostromo’s dazzlingly complicated self-destruct mechanism becomes something you feel your home is really missing.

“Its structural perfection is matched by its hostility,” the Science Officer (Ian Holm) famously says about the creature in Alien – something that could be said of several of the lead characters in Scott’s other famous films: the replicant rebel Batty in Blade Runner, Lt. Jordan O’Neil in GI Jane, Maximus in Gladiator. Scott’s early interests in the Nietzschean superman are put on display in the shop window here, helping to make Alien so much more than just “Jaws in space”.

Blade Runner (1982), set “early in the 21st century”, is almost a kind of sequel to Alien. (It was based on Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; as with almost all of his films, Scott is not credited as a writer on Blade Runner.) It shows a chaotic, isolated, cool and cold world of surfaces that could have produced the Nostromo. In this world of signs, people have become artefacts. Replicants. And the famously “layered” technique Scott used to create a believable future actually helped to bring that world about – then trademarked it: almost every major sci-fi film since makes reference to it. We may not have flying cars yet, but the globalised, mediated, soulless, virtual world it portrays is here right now.

Perhaps the most prophetic scene has turned out to be the one in which replicant “retirer” Deckhard (Harrison Ford) explores a photograph via a computer, going around corners and examining reflections in mirrors to catch a glimpse of a sleeping, partially dressed woman.

Even in the pre-digital age of the 1980s, film, advertising and music were fast replacing human memory. The fake memories implanted in the Blade Runner replicants to make them think they’re human are like the fake memories implanted in us all by pop culture – and Ridley Scott films. Perhaps the film’s greatest achievement is the way it manages to evoke a sense of ersatz nostalgia. The simulacrum of being human.

We now live in a world where so many memories are being manufactured in so many different formats and media that we really don’t have enough room for them. Like today’s ads and pop music, films are designed to be forgotten before you’ve even finished watching them to make room for the next implant. Blade Runner, seen next to something inconsequential like Minority Report, would be much too rich a diet for today’s audiences.

Scott did such a good job of imagining what the 1980s would look like that, after Blade Runner, the 1980s had no further use for him. The film was a critical and commercial failure when it was released (though now it regularly makes lists of the top 10 best films and has earned millions in video/DVD sales). Scott’s next three films, Legend (1985), Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) and Black Rain (1989), were hardly noticed. It was not until Thelma & Louise in 1991 that he hit paydirt again.

Despite or perhaps because of its ostensibly serious subject-matter – two women on the lam after shooting dead a rapist before consummating a suicide pact – Thelma & Louise is something of a hen-party movie, complete with a baby Chippendale in the form of a young, lithe Brad Pitt in his first major role as the hitch-hiking cowboy who gives Geena Davis a night of six-packed passion and then steals Susan Sarandon’s life savings. For much of the previous decade, ads had been addressing women with the codes of gay softcore pornography, reprogramming them to treat men as commodities and pursue their desires – and associate feminine freedom with consumption.

Even more appropriate then that Thelma & Louise should take the form of an ironic rehash of that notoriously male homoerotic genre, the buddy movie.

Pitt appears here as an early sighting of a simulacrum of masculinity that is now dominant, a pleasingly-made hospitality replicant known as the metrosexual (though Pitt is a particularly annoying example: I found myself agreeing with Harvey Keitel whose character in the film complained: “This guy is beginning to irritate me” – and this was just Pitt’s first big movie…).

Interestingly, Scott’s brother and business partner Tony, who also has a background in advertising (and pop promos), made the film Top Gun (1986), which lit the afterburners for Tom Cruise’s career by portraying military life as a gay porn shoot.

With Thelma & Louise Scott succeeded in setting the tone for the Nineties, but once again his success undid him: his other Nineties movies Conquest of Paradise (1992), White Squall (1996), and GI Jane (1997) met with muted responses. GI Jane (alias Ripley – played by Demi Moore – Joins the Army) is a fictional tale about a woman who tries to complete an elite, all-male, hellish training course; it is not so much a feminist film as another example of Scott’s Nietzschean tendencies: the Will to Power. The sadistic DI asks at the end of every new torment, “Are you ready for the next evolution?” Clearly audiences were not. (Though even as I write it has been announced that a woman is taking the Parachute Battalion training course.)

The most memorable moment in the film, where Demi tells the DI who has threatened to rape her to “suck my dick”, is a self-conscious reference to Thelma & Louise, where the rapist’s use of the line prompts Louise to shoot him. But by this time audiences probably thought Scott was quoting Madonna.

Perhaps the failure of GI Jane persuaded Scott that, after three decades of unprecedented change, what people wanted was nostalgia. Maybe he himself, now in his sixties, was tired of the changes that he had helped to bring about. Gladiator (2000), was Scott’s first hit since Thelma & Louise, and the first sword-and-sandals epic for nearly 40 years (spawning several others, none of which repeated its critical or commercial success). It seems to reject the brave new androgynous world and retreat to more reassuring, manly sentiments. A very well-made film to be sure, but it’s difficult though not to feel like you’re being sold something dodgy – like one of the fake photographs/memories in Blade Runner. It’s rather like Scott’s most famous and memorable UK ad: the boy on his bicycle on cobbled streets to the strains of Dvorak selling us tasteless, industrially-made bread as something timeless and authentic (it even seems to use the same golden filters).

Like noble, self-sacrificing Maximus’s (Russell Crowe) vision of being reunited with his family as he lies dying in the Colosseum, Gladiator is a sepia-tinted reverie of masculinity, selling back to us what capitalism has already alienated us from. It is, however, a spectacularly convincing world.

Maximus’s nemesis, Emperor Commodus (Joachim Phoenix), is selfish, cruel, unmanly, perverted, posturing – in other words, representative of the contemporary world. Wittingly or not, Gladiator provided the ideological-sentimental palette for Bush’s successful election campaign in 2000 against the “corrupt’ and “immoral” Clinton legacy. (Bush turned out to have much in common with Commodus’ populist posturing in the Colosseum: such as his Op Gun moment on a US Navy aircraft carrier – a photo opportunity that referenced Tony Scott’s classic Eighties flyboy movie.)

Gladiator has other portents in its entrails. The famous opening of the film, the awesome, flaming forest battle sequence – “at my word, unleash hell” – seems to have anticipated, or prompted, the “shock and awe” opening to Bush’s own blockbuster, Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Scott has mentioned in interviews several times that he very nearly joined the Royal Marines after attending art college but was persuaded to go back into education by his father, an officer in the Army. Black Hawk Down (2002), based on the events in Mogadishu in 1993 when two US Army helicopters were downed and in the ensuing fire fights 19 American soldiers died, seems to be Scott’s paean to his lost/alternative world of male camaraderie and esprit de corps.

Black Hawk Down isn’t just Scott’s lost world, however, but ours too. Cynicism is everywhere. Talking about civilians who think soldiers are drunk on war, a grunt in the film complains: “They don’t understand. They don’t know it’s all about the man next to you. That’s all there is.” This fraternal love is very physical – so physical that it’s beyond sex; a point underlined by a scene in which a soldier has to root around in his wounded buddy’s pelvis for his severed femoral artery in a (fruitless) attempt to stop him bleeding to death.

It’s a harrowing, brutalising and moving film, and quite possibly Scott’s best for two decades, certainly a far more realistic movie than, say, Pearl Harbor – or Top Gun.

But the gory glory of war is precisely what gives Black Hawk Down its glamour. It seems that its gorgeously shot (again that golden filter) heroic realism, and the almost pornographic detail of the SFX mutilations, may have helped prepare the American public for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Originally slated for a 2002 release it was rushed out a few weeks after 9/11. American audiences, reeling from the civilian casualties at the World Trade Center, and understandably looking for someone to punish, must have been relieved to see American men who were actually trained for battle in the firing line instead. Mogadishu may have been a disaster, but Black Hawk Down turned it into America’s Rorke’s Drift.

In other words, another memory implant. (Ironically, given what was to happen in Iraq, some critics attacked the film at the time because it seemed just one long, shocking, confusing, endless battle.)

Maybe Scott regretted the way Black Hawk Down was interpreted. Or maybe he calculates that a contemporary Hollywood film set during the Crusades needs to portray Western intentions in the best possible light. Whatever the answer, his new epic Kingdom of Heaven goes so far out of its way to show war as a terrible last resort, to emphasise respect for Islam and to advance tolerance in the “multicultural” world of the medieval Middle East, that the whole thing gets lost in the woolly undergrowth. The Blairite preachiness of the film and its patronising cod-history leaves you longing for a bloodthirsty massacre. Whatever happened to Scott’s Nietzschean/Darwinian tendencies? Whatever happened to all those alien eggs? Surely one must have survived? How did we end up, 26 years later, with this Care Bear of a Crusades movie?

One of the major problems is that the film’s star, Orlando Bloom – who plays an orphaned blacksmith who becomes a great swordsman and defender of Jerusalem – is too much of a modern pleasing simulacrum of masculinity for us to believe in as a hero. But then, that is the nature of the world that Scott made for us. Whatever the reception for Kingdom of Heaven, it is clear that, for Scott, historical epics are the new science fiction – his escape shuttle from the eternal Eighties.

Now that the future has arrived, and has proved inevitably to be something of a disappointment, the past is the place to colonise. And it is the science of CGI which makes that fiction possible. Scott may not have joined the military, but he has become a general, even if most of his men are virtual ghosts.

The memory implant he has given us with Kingdom of Heaven is, like his earliest movies, a visually stunning and entrancing world. It may be a manufactured memory designed to make living in the present, uncertain world more possible and peaceful – to help us sleep more soundly, like an android dreaming of electric sheep.

But even if it were twice the picture it is, then it would still, in this digital, Blade Runner-lite world, be just as disposable as all the other implants out there.

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This essay is collected in ‘Metrosexy: A 21st Century Self-Love Story

Don’t Mess With the Bull Young Man, You’ll Get the Horns

Mark Simpson on director John Hughes’ pristine legacy

(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2009)

So here’s the pitch:  A Hollywood teen movie in which nothing happens.  All day. In a school library. Introduced by a pretentious quote from David Bowie’s ‘Changes’.

Or how about this: A boy bunks off High School to take his friends to mooch around an art gallery, to the strains of something especially delicate by The Smiths.

What do you mean you’ll call me? Don’t you want to invest your millions in these sure-fire hits??

When the director John Hughes died this August, aged 59. much was made of how ‘influential’ he has been for today’s generation of movie-makers. But it’s difficult to conceive of almost any of his classic mid-80s teen films, which included Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off being made in Hollywood today. Unless you re-wrote them to include slo-mo amputations.

John Hughes movies had great scripts, they had great characters, winsome, quirky actors: all these years later young Molly Ringwald with her red hair and angsty complexion still looks to me like the prettiest, loveliest girlfriend I never had (while Emilio Estevez looks a lot like a lot of the boys I have had – at least in my mind’s eye).

Hughes movies had feelings, they had intelligence, they had heart – all of which tend to get in the way of films being made today. They also had a view of the world that, while often-times wise-crackingly cynical – ‘Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?’ – wasn’t afraid to be lyrical:

‘Life moves pretty fast.  You don’t stop to look around, you could miss it.’

Just like, in other words, the best British pop music, with which Hughes peppered his films liberally. In fact his work, although celebrated now, often by a forty-something crowd crying over their spilt youth, looks like fragments of a lost America. A much better one than the one we ended up with – with much superior taste in pop music.

Precisely because of their humanity and wit, Many of Hughes’ movies are as startling twenty years on as the Union Jack on the back of Ferris Bueller’s bedroom door, the posters on his walls for Blancmange and Cabaret Voltaire – and a glam Bryan Ferry puckering up over his bed. Matthew Broderick’s intoxicating mixture of all-American, unblinking, huckstering confidence and very Anglo, coquettish flamboyance is inconceivable in a lead Hollywood actor in a teen movie today. It would be loudly dismissed as ‘TOO GAY!’.

The famous parade scene where he jumps on a parade float and mimes to a 1961 recording of fey Wayne Newton crooning ‘Danke Schoen’ like a Vegas Marlene Dietrich, and then to the Beatles’ deliriously, adenoidally sexy ‘Twist and Shout’ (from the previous Britpop invasion of John Hughes’ own youth) and everyone in Hughes’ hometown of Chicago, black and white, male and female, young and old, falls in love with him, is nothing less than a dreamy pop cultural epiphany.

It was a false one, however. The future, as we now know, belonged not to sentimental, art-loving, anglophile, androgynous Ferris in a stolen red 1961 250GT Ferrari Spyder (which apparently, and quite appropriately, was actually a glass fibre fake with a British MG sports car underneath), but to ruthless career-planner and Reaganite Republican Maverick in an all-American F-14 Grumman Tomcat. Top Gun and Tom Cruise were launched into the stratosphere by steam catapult the previous year, in 1985 – the  same year as The Breakfast Club were chewing their fingernails and wondering, oh-so-deliciously, what they were going to do with their fucked-up lives.

Despite success with the warm adult comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), which once again spoke of a better, kinder America than the one that actually happened – one full of belly-laughs rather than today’s comedy cringe, snobbery and sadism – Hughes’ Hollywood career didn’t quite make it into the 90s, never recovering from the frightening success of annoying kiddie comedy Home Alone in 1990, for which he wrote the script. He later left Hollywood and became a farmer. Growing things for people to eat was the perfect riposte to today’s terminally toxic movie business.

As Ferris in his dressing gown put it, raising a quizzical eyebrow at us: “You’re still here??  It’s over!  Go home!”