I’m a recent convert to Spotify, and decided the other day to put together a playlist of classical music to work to. I’ve exhausted all the memory-diving of Jethro Tull, Kate Bush, The Smiths and Marillion, and wanted something a bit different.

The problem is, I didn’t have a clue where to start. I’m naturally quite un-musical, and tended to pick up pop music for the lyrics as much as the actual music behind it. I started to think about bits of classical music I knew from movies or similar sources

Carmina Burana from Excalibur, Thus Spake Zarathustra and the Strauss waltzes from 2001, Night on Bare Mountain and Dance of the Hours from Fantasia

Were comics any help? Thanks to V for Vendetta I’ll never forget Beethoven’s Fifth, which Moore points out is “V” in morse code. (“da-da-da-dum”). That’s about it from the silent medium. I knew a few other pieces – the 1812 Overture was the theme for Wizkid, the surreal 80s computer game. I once owned “Variations on a theme by Paganini” by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

And then I hit the motherlode! The movies of Ken Russell!

And that’s what this blog is really about.

Russell was the enfant terrible of British 70’s cinema, famous for his melodramatic directing style, early pre-computer hallucinogenic sequences, and a bit too much nudity for the serious film critics of the time. Perhaps his best known works are Tommy, the musical film based on The Who‘s concept album about a deaf blind mute pinball player, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which caused a suitable amount of fuss when it was released, and Lair of the White Worm, an over the top Hammer-style horror movie, starring the young Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi.

His stories tended towards adaptation rather than fully original plots – adaptations of books, folk stories, and a few biographies that sprung to mind with regards to classical music. Mahler features Robert Powell playing the eponymous composer . The Music Lovers covers the biography of Tschaikovsky, who tried to suppress his homosexuality, married a “nymphomaniac”, and well, hilarity and melodrama ensued! And of course Lisztomania, casting Roger Daltrey as a renaissance rock star with groupies, concert tours and a psychedelic lifestyle to rival that of any contemporary musician. (This last one took a bit of acquiring, and was actually a big disappointment, being too over the top for its own good.)

Russell also contributed a piece to Aria, a movie featuring 8 segments, each by a famous director, set to an Aria, all of them wildly different. For my money, Russell totally outshines the rest of the contributors with the scene below.

It has some gratuitous topless defibrillation, but it’s visually arresting, beautifully filmed, and has a really clever twist around halfway through, where it’s revealed what is really happening.

Russell’s produced a large amount of work over his career. If I were to pick out some highlights, it would be these:

Valentino (1977)

Rudolph Nureyev plays Rudolph Valentino in a biopic that plays fast and loose with the facts, but captures the spirit of the European actor and sex symbol and the early days of Hollywood. Nureyev injects an awesome sense of bruised honour, ego and pomposity to his role, particularly in the early scenes where Valentino is a nobody who acts like a prince. Valentino’s final days are very much over-dramatised here, but its makes for a gripping story of a man standing up to the conventional ideas of masculinity of the 20th C America.

Lair of the White Worm (1988)

Russell’s masterpiece of high camp. The young heroes fall foul of a snake cult in Yorkshire. Hugh Grant fits the role of Lord D’ampton, the local noble descended from a medieval dragonslayer who defeated the Lampton Worm by wearing spiked plate mail armour. Peter Capaldi plays Scottish archaeologist Angus Flint, and Amanda Donohoe camps it up as Lady Sylvia Marsh, a rich recluse and the leader of the snake cult. This shares some space with Rocky Horror Picture Show, as a celebration of trash culture that’s surprisingly well executed and thought out.

Salome’s Last Dance (1988)

Oscar Wilde’s  famous play is acted out for him in a brothel. I’m familiar with the text of Salome form a comic adaptation by David Shenton, and its stilted rhythmical style is put to great use here by Russell. Imogen Millais-Scott is mesmerising in the title role, as a servant girl who plays the part of Salome with a bizarre impish eye-rolling charm. Stratford Johns and Glenda Jackson shine as Herod and Herodia. Wolf from Gladiators appears in a speaking role as one of the guards. The whole production is very stagey and over the top, and I cannot help but think of Wilde’s saying when I see it.

“The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.  What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.”

Russell’s movies are sexy, psychedelic, strange, and a bit silly, all adjectives I used to describe Universe Gun at the outset. Elements of his work have definitely seeped into my own. The central character of Pazuzu! and some of the background ones were inspired by William Hurt and other characters in Altered States.

I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve been drawn to Russell. He’s part of a group of artists that I’ve admired because they punched through the drabness of real life, and did so at times when the conventions of their medium leaned towards realism. Russell started at a time when British cinema was identified with kitchen sink drama, when serious actors and directors were dissecting the world we live in and all its grimy details.

Grant Morrison occupies a similar space for me – the comic writer who came along when grim and gritty was the overriding fashion, and opened a box full of fantasy and imagination that took itself incredibly seriously while maintaining a light touch, a wink at the audience that say “Hey, this is fun isn’t it?” without bursting the bubble. I felt the same way about Kate Bush when she appeared on Top of the Pops performing Wuthering Heights in the dawn of punk. I’m a sucker for pretension. The proletarian pose that looks down its nose at pretension and says its a load of rubbish is to my mind just that – another pose, another costume people choose to wear in the wardrobe of styles available to us. And there’s nothing to say that stylisation and weirdness can stop you from talking about real life and the human condition. In many ways, objections to this kind of work reminds me of the ridicule Valentino faced from straight-laced guys of USA between the wars, ridicule for being too fantastic. I’m happy to say that phrase isn’t in my vocabulary.

Finally, I should refer to the title of this essay. I’ve had a good broad education thanks to the Scottish school system. At high school, despite specialising in science and maths, I was able to study English and German for most of my time there. At University, I supplemented my physics degree with a couple of electives on History/Philosophy of Science and Social Anthropology. Much of my knowledge, though, has come through lowbrow literature. I’ve been drawn to check out the works of poets and writers thanks to references in comics or pop songs. I was up on Surrealism when I read Doom Patrol, but know a lot more about Dada afterwards.

Thanks to Ken Russell’s movies, my knowledge of classical music turned out to be much better than I first thought. And so I raise a glass of rose wine to him and his work, which was always as artifical as possible.

See you in seven, scrutinisers of psychedelic stories and splendiferous sounds! Dr Mike 2000, 26 Jan 2015