Saturday 27 June 2020



death whispers along the shoreline
so close you can reach out and touch it,
old Mother Carey lives in a shingled house
on a strand of rocks that points into the tide,
children say she is older than time
children say she is more ancient than sky,
she sits in a wicker chair on the wet stones
that glisten with the wash of kelp and crabs,
she feeds the silver fish orange pips, plum stones,
pomegranate seeds, tomato and apple seeds,
then waits and watches along the shoreline
as they bloom into bright green shoots of orange
and plum, pomegranate, tomato and apples,
death whispers along the shoreline
so close she can reach out and touch it,
old Mother Carey sits on the strand of wet stones
she eats orange pips, plum stones, tomato,
pomegranate and apple seeds,
feels them germinate inside her,
and then she waits…

Tuesday 23 June 2020

Interview: LEFTFIELD


ANDREW DARLINGTON explores Leftology. 
‘T’-shirt design and ‘Trainspotting’ put their wrong track 
on its soundtrack album. They sampled all of JOHN LYDON so 
 they could put him exactly where they wanted him. They turned 
 down U2, but remixed DAVID BOWIE instead, and now they 
want to do the same with... CHRISTY MOORE

Outside, it’s raining. A black deluge of rain. The ‘a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets’ kind of rain that Robert De Niro monologues about in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976).

Neil Barnes stabs a finger out through the rain and out over Portobello Street Market where the stall canopies sag and drizzle onto hunched-up browsers. ‘Dub Vendor’, he coolly enthuses, is down just THERE. Fine selection of Reggae, Augustus Pablo, Dub, Peter Tosh, Reggae, right through to Busta Rhymes. Then there’s a trade-in emporium over THERE for twelve-inch Rare Grooves and Collector’s cut-out picture discs. While ‘Rough Trade’ is a block or so in THAT direction. You know ‘Rough Trade’, of course?

I could be wrong, but I get the impression Neil’s probably no Party Animal. But he knows his music. Dance. Dub. Electro. House. And all the acerbic rhythm japery and weirdness beyond. With Paul Daley he’s one half of Leftfield. Last year they sold over 220,000 copies of their CD, enough to shove ‘Leftism’ (January 1995) up there with Blur’s ‘The Great Escape’ (September 1995), Pulp’s ‘Different Class’ (October 1995) and Oasis ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory’ (October 1995), and if their faces aren’t as tabloidly soundbitten as such company would suggest, that’s deliberate. Neil doesn’t wanna compete or talk street, street, street.

Leftfield are no fire-breathing Pop behemoths, no rampant Teen Sex gods. They’re an (even more) Radical Dance Faction. And that’s enough. ‘The whole industry is geared towards guitar bands. Rock is an easier thing for them to market’ he explains agreeably. ‘The three-minute single is what it all revolves around. There’s something familiar about the music of Oasis. It’s the harmonies of the Beatles and all that, which is such a part of our culture. That’s why they’re going to be the biggest band in the world. And why Blur aren’t. It’s that simple.’

But while the likes of Oasis get rapidly absorbed into the cross-generational Pop mainstream, Dance retains that outlaw element. ‘That’s right. Anything that questions, anything that isn’t familiar, is never going to be as big in the mainstream. Perhaps in ten years time when everything sounds like the Prodigy it’ll be different. But in the meantime, it’s amazing how music still keep coming back to guitar bands.’

Perhaps it’s just that Oasis deliberately offer themselves up as Pop Stars? ‘Yes. They’re not frightened of it.’ Whereas Dance in general, and Leftfield in particular, are determinedly anti-Star. ‘Yes. Yes. But I mean, it’s easier for Oasis to do that, because they’ve got a vocalist who’s out front. They are the whole Rock ‘n’ Roll thing. While Dance comes from a darker area. It is a thing that comes out of the Clubs. And there’s an attitude that, I suppose, we and the Prodigy share. We don’t WANT to behave like that. We don’t WANT to see ourselves all over the place. We’re just not that type of person. Also, face facts, the press aren’t really interested in bands like us. Two guys. When we were in the chart with “Open Up” (their incendiary coalition with John Lydon) ‘New Musical Express’ put us on the cover. But they cut the photograph of me and Paul in half to put John Lydon between us. This is it. HE was the focal point. Not us. So in a way, you’re denied it even if you want it. It’s more like an attitude thing. It’s just an image that the press want. Oasis play that game, and people seem to like it ‘cos it’s what they associate with ‘Rock Stardom’. It’s the lifestyle that comes with the environment they inhabit. They’re using it. And good luck to them because they write brilliant songs. But to me it’s all very unimportant anyway.’

Doesn’t that Rock Star lifestyle appeal to you at all? ‘No. I don’t know what a Rock Star lifestyle is. Take a lot of drugs and die young, isn’t it? I don’t think either Paul or me are into that.’ There are advantages though, surely? Women, Models, Starlets, Celebrity Girlfriends. Even Liam Gallagher got Patsy Kensit. ‘I’m a family man. So is Paul, really. We’re both in long-term committed relationships. So we’re not interested in that either.’ Which firmly curtails that sleazy line of enquiry. So tell me, O Well-Vibed One, would you happen to have any illegal substances on you?



If you understand it, you’ve missed the point.

A Tube Train shuttles and mumbles past the window, where the Underground briefly goes overground on its way to Ladbroke Grove Station. Neil’s eyes switch behind his shades. Watching the graffiti’d slug of London’s enfeebled transport infrastructure as it wades through tides of black rain. As he’s distracted I’m thinking, about how on TV they have flashbacks. And when they show archive film-clips they illustrate them with historic hits representative of the period. For blurry 1950s Cold War News Shots they add, say, Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock”. For Swinging Sixties miniskirt Carnaby Street London it’s the Kinks “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion”. Then it’s the Glitter Band thump-thump double-drumming stomp of the 1970s, and Duran Duran for the Yuppie eighties. So what will future programmers select to represent the nineties? In terms of ideology, recording technique, and song structure, I’d hazard a guess at Dance. Prodigy, Orbital, or Leftfield. Unlike the timeless Trad-Rockery of Oasis, they could only operate in the 1990s, both technically and attitude-wise.

‘Yes. I think so. Dance is the most radical music around at the moment, in terms of popular music. Obviously there are more extreme specialist styles of things that are truly amazing. But in popular terms, what bands like Orbital and Prodigy are trying to do is very valid. I mean, everybody likes “Firestarter” – even if it does sound like John Lydon. It’s a wicked record. It’s extreme. It’s the hardest record that’s got to no.1 in years. Nothing can compete with it. But in terms of what’s happening in Dance it’s not where it’s at. It’s not on the cutting edge BY ANY MEANS. It’s a Pop record. Even though Prodigy might not go on ‘Top Of The Pops’ it’s still a Pop record. It’s got this element to it which is about mass sales. So what’s most representative of the 1990s? That’s tricky.’ He pauses. Scruffs his hand through his short spiky disarray of hair. Then ‘it’ll be Celine Dion, probably,’ with a leer and a nasal South London drawl.


So the future might not necessarily be orange.

But we know what its soundtrack will be.

Leftfield is Dance of a different hue, where BPM’s have more fun. It could only be happening now, and finding a dull moment on a Leftfield record is as unlikely as finding Mother Theresa at ‘Stringfellows’.

Neil’s partner-in-rhyme Paul Daley is not here. Does that mean we can slag him off behind his back? ‘Yeah, we can really have a go!’

So tell me O Dance Activist Supremo, do you have points of contention, group infights and conflict? ‘Yeee-ah. There’s bound to be points of contention when you’re working on tracks together. You argue about what should go on it – ‘what’re you doing THAT for? That chord’s REALLY strange. Really mad. Why’re ya DOING that? That don’t WORK!’ Arguments like that are all part of the creative process. We ALWAYS discuss things. Should we do this? Should we do that? Too much exposure. Not enough exposure. But we generally sort it out. We’re not just in this because we’re a partnership, y’know? The most exciting thing for us is actually writing music together. That’s more exciting than anything. And normally, because we’ve been working together for so long, we trust the other person to know what they’re doing – even if, initially, we can’t always get our heads around it. At least... that’s the way I like to think about it.’

Paul divided his growing up years between Ramsgate and Margate, where he drummed with Punk bands the Rivals and Johnny And The Haters, before switching to Club DJ-ing, spinning early Electro while moonlighting from his daytime hairdressing job. Meanwhile, Neil, from Kentish Town, already had a prototype Leftfield underway with a ‘Rhythm King’ deal (the label that brought you Bomb The Bass and The Beatmasters), and a blueprint for “Not Forgotten” even as Paul was moving on and up, and touring America with the Brand New Heavies crew. But the alchemaical fusion of the two diverse elements was probably preordained.

Since the cross-Atlantic innovations of Hip-Hop and House, Electro-Dance has been through a period of remarkably creative vigour. And Paul and Neil were in on it from the beginning. When it comes to UK Electro, Leftfield were there from day one. Then day two. And day three. ‘More or less, I suppose so, yes’ he concedes. ‘Since the start of the Alternative Dance Scene anyway. In the early nineties there wasn’t much going on, apart from perhaps Nirvana. So Dance kept things going. Before that there was Kraftwerk. They influenced Electro with their repetitive beats. And their synth sounds were so modern. That’s originally where it all came from. Kraftwerk took ideas from the 1960s San Francisco bands, turned it into a form of early Dance Music, and then it went back to America. To New York and Detroit where the Electro-type thing developed. And out of that, really, came House.’

And out of House, came Leftfield. Delivering only four well-spaced but awesome singles spread across the years from “Not Forgotten” (1990) – a seismic dancefloor crush siamesing Low Riding samples from 1970s Funksters War, to Pakistani singer Fati Ala Khan, followed by “Release The Pressure” (‘...we always wanted to make a Reggae-based record like that’), then nine minutes of what ‘ID’ magazine called the ‘glacial digital elegance’ of “Song Of Life” in November 1992, and – of course, the charting “Open Up”, a pyrotechnical no.13 a year later. Someone tagged them ‘Progressive House’, and tacked on terms like Dance Provocateurs to explain Leftfield’s cool excursions into Trance, Hardcore hybrid, deep Dub remixology and Global Trip-Hopping from Cabaret Voltaire to Frankie Knuckles.

But the fact that mixes of three of those singles appear on ‘Leftism’ says less about their productive rate than it does about the mitigating circumstances of their working methods. Taking Dance remix restructuring further into the Techno-sphere than just about anyone else, where ideas fly so fast your thoughts fry in your brain. The album more ‘evolved’ over those years. ‘Well, it’s like writing your first book, isn’t it? It’s a free-flowing thing. Like doing a painting or a sculpture. Nothing is ever final. I mean, I wrote the idea for “Open Up” three years before John Lydon came in and did it. We worked on instrumental versions at different stages, changing it, remodelling it. But I knew his voice would work with it, so we sent him a demo and he liked it. We got him in the studio and basically he sang over the demo. He supplied the lyrics, but I knew what the chorus was going to be because he’d already sung it to me – well, actually he SCREAMED it to me down the ‘phone! I’ve still got that original untreated Lydon demo on cassette, and it’s really exciting. It’s one long incredible jam. But that’s not our style. We like organisation. And that’s what the technology frees you up to do. So we actually sampled up all of his vocals. Everything he did. So that all of the bits we wanted were in the sampler. I mean – it’s John. It’s no different to live vocals. It just means that as far as the arrangement went, we could actually put John anywhere we wanted him. Rather than getting him back in and saying ‘look, here’s the new arrangement, can you sing that bit there, that bit there, and that bit there.’ It’s a bit more complicated, but you end up with something quite different. Because then we realised that the backing track wasn’t good enough. So we rewrote the backing track. Not completely. But a lot of the finer elements of it were rewritten. John didn’t recognise the finished track.’

It’s a process of continual remix. Just as – although they’ve turned down offers from Pulp, Paul McCartney, and U2, there are Leftfield remixes of Pressure Drop, Stereo MC’s (“Step It Up”), Inner City, and... David Bowie’s “Jump They Say”. ‘Yeh. We did that some years ago. Didn’t get to meet him though’ he adds ruefully. ‘At the time Bowie was going through a very lean period. But we were big fans, particularly of albums like ‘Low’ (1977). So you’ve GOT to listen to a Bowie record if it’s offered to you. We listened. And we liked it. It had a lot of Brian Eno string sounds on it. And we thought ‘yeah, we can do this one. There’s something in it that we can get our hands around.’ Later on Bowie ‘phoned us up to say how much he liked what we’d done. Though again... I didn’t actually get to speak to him.’

So what do you look for in a good remix? ‘When we first started doing it, in about 1990-’91, it was interesting doing a Dance remix of a Rock record. I thought that was good. I thought that sort-of added a twist. So perhaps you look for a bit of a twist. It’s not about money. You look for something that you can add to, really. A bad remix is when you take absolutely everything off and make it into your own record. For me, that’s not a remix. That’s just extending your own reputation. We’ve never tried to do that.’

With ‘Leftism’ ‘we left off on tracks like “Inspection (Check One)” and “Storm 3000”. And my favourite track, “Melt”. That’s where we left off, so that’s the point where we’re starting from with the new material that we’re just beginning to write now... AS WE SPEAK! It’ll be an advancement, hopefully, on what we’ve already done. So it will be different, but it won’t be too much of a leap. We’re not going to suddenly become a three-piece Rock band halfway through. Album three is where you’re expected to go all experimental, isn’t it? Playing pots and pans and stuff like that.’

And after David Bowie, John Lydon, and Curve’s Toni Halliday, are there other vocalists you’d like to work with? ‘I’m really into Christy Moore as a vocalist’ he admits. ‘Perhaps if I say it in enough interviews he might get to hear about it. He’s got a great voice. Love his voice. And, of course, his lyrics. I’ve been very much into him. I used to go down and see him play in an Irish Club in Stockwell. Just him and his guitar. I really do like slow Irish music in particular. I’ve listened to it since I was really young. And I like the Bothy Band for fast Irish Music. I can hear similarities between Christy Moore, John Lydon, and Fati Ala Khan. Different styles, but you can hear the same kind of keening Folk thing which seems to cross the barriers of countries and cultures. I love voices like that. I love that quality of vocals. I can hear it fitting into so many different contexts. So he’s someone we’d love to do something with. But whether it’ll ever happen... I don’t know.’

Add this to life’s long list of magnificent improbabilities.


Is there life beyond the Rave?

On the wall above us there’s a gold CD for the ‘Trainspotting’ (1996) soundtrack. Outside it’s still raining a black deluge of rain. And Neil Barnes shuffles a ten-pack of Berkeley red on the table between us, his eyes impenetrable behind his shades. He’s wearing a ‘T’-shirt that says ‘SENSI’. ‘It’s a joke on ‘PEPSI’’ he explains unnecessarily. Leftfield are distributed through Sony. And with a similarly satiric word-play George Michael has strong opinions about Sony. Or ‘Fony’ – as in ‘Phony’, as he spells it in his “Fast Love” video. ‘‘Fony’, yeah. Ha-ha. Well – I’ve got a ‘Fony’ ‘T’-shirt. Me and Paul both got these ‘T’-shirts done which say ‘IT’S A FONY’. But it’s just a joke’ he guffaws. ‘That’s OLD. George Michael’s just ripping off the ‘T’-shirt design. I’m sure Sony take no notice of it.’ A calculated pause. ‘I haven’t heard his new album by the way. Have you? A lot of people say it’s really good. So there you go...’

It’s June 1996. And Leftfield are going live for the first time. Playing a thunderous multi-rhythmic sonic fusion that could ONLY be happening now. Theirs is no Trad guitar Rock. It will never achieve the mainstream Pop acceptance of a Pulp or an Oasis. But when future TV programmers select the music that most crucially defines the time, they’ll choose something very like Leftfield.

It’s already happening.

If there’s one movie that catches the darkly narcotic flavour of living at the dying end of John Major’s Britain, then it’s got to be ‘Trainspotting’. The Irvine Welch story of bad haircuts, first degree sartorial abuse, and drug-ingesting holidays in hell. Leftfield are there on its massively unit-shifting soundtrack. And ‘it’s gone gold!, even though they’ve put the wrong version of our track on there. Which is very irritating. It wasn’t really intended to be an album track. It’s meant to go in the film. It wasn’t WRITTEN for anything else but the film, and it doesn’t work outside that setting. They gave us the scene for us to work on, and it’s fun because you’re working in a visual environment. It’s just a different challenge entirely, although it’s actually easier in a way than writing for an album. Because you already have an inkling of the mood that the track has to work around. But sometimes surprising things work with film. Like when they show really violent scenes, yet use stately classical music! – I love that mad contrast. And the sound quality in cinemas is so much higher than anything you’re EVER going to hear at home. It really brings out the track. We did ‘Shallow Grave’ (1994) too, and for that we just saw the opening five or ten minutes of it. We wrote a piece of music very roughly around it and then they edited it in. It worked very well. So Danny (Boyle) asked us to do ‘Trainspotting’, but this time they had a more specific idea. We actually had it time-coded. So we worked completely around the dialogue on it. Which is why our contribution to the movie is quite mellow compared with some of the other stuff. Like the Underworld track. We do the bit where the characters try out their big hit of heroin, and it goes all wobbly. That’s the start of our piece. Then they go down to London on the coach, and we’re there in the background. There’s actual dialogue all over the bits we do, so you can’t have a banging House track over that.’

Neil pauses thoughtfully. His eyes switch behind his shades, out through the rain and out over Portobello Market towards Ladbroke Grove where the black deluge is washing all the scum off the streets. ‘I think we’d like to do a whole soundtrack next. If the right offer comes along, we’d love to do it’ he resumes. ‘Who knows, we might get the chance to do the next Danny Boyle project... but you never know.’

Published in:
‘HOT PRESS Vol.20 no.11’ (Eire – 12 June 1966)
Published in a slightly revised form in:
(Headpress/ Critical Vision, UK – December 2001)


ANDREW DARLINGTON explores Leftology, and 
LEFTFIELD’s attitude to Dance Music technology, 
in the studio, on album... and live too

 ‘Let’s get electrified, Let’s get electrified 
the world is on fire... gonna take you HIGHER...!!!!’ 
(“Africa Shox” – ‘Rhythm And Stealth’, September 1999) 

‘This could have been any city...’ to quote Leftfield’s contribution to the ‘Shallow Grave’ (1994) movie soundtrack. But it isn’t any city. It’s London. Labroke Grove. And I’m here for a gab-fest with an Electro-Dance ikon. From Kings Cross I decide on a Literary/ Rock ‘n’ Roll homage tour, foot-slogging all the locations between, through Wardour and Goodge Street, Soho, out under the Westway and all the sunblasted points beyond dodging tourists, ‘Big Issue’-sellers with psycho-grins and aggressive street-sleepers, my ‘Head’-bag contains snack-banana plus ITT cassette recorder, shoulder-strap-hanging all the way. I arrive early, hefting my bag onto a record company table collaged with promo mug-shots, CD’s and fax-printouts, to find that en route my ITT has pureed my banana, and like some vile DNA-splicing experiment from David Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ (1986) the two objects have become merged on a near-cellular level. So while contriving a cool true-pro journo-mode I’m splattering the room with shattered fruit-sludge, and throughout the interview my cassette spits and squishes banana-particles as it squelch-spirals onto tape. All parties pretend not to notice. But I can tell they’re not impressed.

But if Pop is sexy, then Dance is its most erogenous zone. And while rhythm is a dancer, it’s as serious as cancer. This is Neil Barnes. He is 50% of Leftfield. Cut him, and his blood pulses dance rhythms.

“The pressure’s gotta stop 
the future’s gotta rock
...are you ready for the New Age?” 

Andrew Darlington: It’s a pity Paul’s not here.

Neil Barnes: Yes, it is a pity. But he’s tired. Exhausted. And, no, there isn’t any new product to talk about either. Although we are actually starting new product now. That’s what I’ve been talking on the ‘phone about. Just been getting some new equipment.

AD: But that means we don’t have to specifically talk about the ‘new album’, we can talk in general. 

NB: Exactly. I mean, we’ve done a lot of interviews, and it’s a bit... yeah, we’ve sort-of exhausted all the questions and answers on ‘what’s it like working with John Lydon?’ Things like that.

AD: John Lydon was going to be question no.8

NB: Yeah – Haha. But ask what you want. I don’t mind talking about the albums if you want to. It’s no problem.

AD: I am interested in how you and Paul inter-relate as Leftfield. Do you have specific roles in the recording process?

NB: Not really. No. I mean... it’s very much a dual thing, it’s not like a DJ and a writer. It doesn’t work like that. It’s very much a shared responsibility on the writing front, and in the studio. We’ve grown up with it, we’ve both written material and used equipment for so long, that we both operate our equipment at the same time, we both play instruments. And as far as writing songs goes, with the albums we had a very clear idea about what we wanted the albums to sound like. And most of the songs, most of the tracks on the albums were planned before we actually went in there. We’d sat round and gone, right, we want to work with a female vocalist. We want that sound – right? So we went and listened to a lot of vocals. That’s something I probably bring in. ‘Cos I’ve got a particular taste in vocalists and I’ve got quite strong opinions about things like that. That’s how we found Toni (Halliday, who contributes vocals to “Original” on ‘Leftism’, January 1995), because I’ve always liked Curve. We listened to Curve CD’s, y’know, and we’d already written a demo-track that we wanted to do something quite slow with – the track was really long, about ten minutes. She heard it... and when we knew Toni was interested in doing it, we started to think about the song in relation to her voice. Then we got her down to the studio. She’d already had time to think about it. Obviously we didn’t write lyrics for her or anything like that. That’s why we got her in, ‘cos we like her lyrics! And she just sort-of jammed and sang over this massive long basking ten minutes track. We let people do what they want in the studio. We often find it’s best to let vocalists... you can’t change a vocalist, y’know? ‘Could you do that chorus there’ and ‘would you mind stopping now’ – I mean, I know some people do that. But we think it’s better to actually encourage people to do what they think is best. Make them feel comfortable. And then, from that point, we often completely rearrange what we’ve done and take out the vocal elements that we think will work with the track. And almost rewrite the whole thing around the demo. It was the same with John (Lydon). I mean – I wrote the idea for “Open Up” three years before John came in and did it. We worked on an instrumental version at different stages, getting it more... sort-of, changing it and remodelling it. But I just knew his voice would work on it, so we sent him a demo. He liked it. I already knew what the chorus was going to be, because he sang it to me – like, SHOUTED it down the ‘phone. Then we got him in the studio and he sang with this demo, basically. But then we realised that where John sang wasn’t where we’d actually wanted him to sing. But we let him do it, ‘cos it was brilliant. And then we also realised that the backing track was not good enough. So we re-wrote the backing track. Not completely. But a lot of the finer elements of it were rewritten. He didn’t even recognise the finished track! But everything goes down on Audio, and then we can change the position of the vocal to fit the backing track, and keep going, chopping away at it until it sort-of merges at the end. It’s a free-flowing thing. It’s like doing a painting or sculpture or something. We don’t commit anything to tape. Nothing is final. So everything is changeable right the way through the process. There’s a continuous element of experimentation around a sort-of basic structure. That’s how we write.

AD: So you see yourself primarily as a studio musician?

NB: I’d say yeah, we are primarily a studio band. But I suppose that now we are performing, we’re a performance band as well. And as soon as you do that, it does change your ideas about how you record. I mean, obviously most Dance Music, which is what we really are, is done in the studio. And it’s using computers and midi-information. But we’ve always used live instruments too because that’s where we started. We’re both drummers. We both grew up playing guitar. So we’ve always used live musicians, and we’ve brought those elements into the live thing too. It wasn’t such a strange jump in a funny sort of way.

AD: Cabaret Voltaire once told me that they considered the ‘studio’ as just another instrument for creating their tracks.

NB: And I remember them all. Lovely. All those instruments, all those samplers, all those keyboards... I remember when that whole technology first came out, people were very nervous of it. ‘Oh, computers are just going to make robotic music. It’s a robot basically.’ I mean, people are ignorant of them. They think that you just press a button there and out comes a finished piece, a dance record. But the computer is just a means to an end. It does nothing other than what you put into it. And I suppose because chart-music is so watered down, it’s all a thin end of the wedge of what is going on in Club culture. But exactly, the studio IS an instrument. You can play an instrument well, or badly. It’s very easy to make BAD music on a computer. But at the same time, it’s really hard to make decent music.

AD: So when you say you’re writing new material, that doesn’t mean you sit around strumming melodies on acoustic guitars. You work out ideas in the studio.

NB: Yeah. We normally write at home to start off with, then we bring what we’ve done at home into the studio – and change it. Sometimes a song goes through a whole process of change before it gets to the end. It can turn on its head. But I think, because of the way our music is, it’s almost necessary to do that. And that’s what the technology allows you to do. That’s the exciting thing about technology. It’s not to be feared. Basically, you don’t even have to leave your computer to actually finish a record. You can do everything on computer. And to me, that’s fantastic ‘cos it puts all the power in the hands of the musician. I mean, I’m talking technology now, but you can get computer-program mixing desks with a limitless number of digital audio tracks. You can throw vocals into the computer, throw guitar, drums – the lot, into the computer. And you are in control. You don’t have to go through a third party. All you have to do is get your head round it. Sure, it’s nice to have a sound-engineer there too. That’s good. That’s even essential in the end. You’ve got to work with an engineer if only because that means you’ve got another person there. And if there’s only two of you it means that one of you ends up engineering anyway. Because twiddling knobs without necessarily thinking about the creation of the music is a full-on job. So there’s a little balance between the two. But it’s technically possible. People are doing it. The whole environment is becoming studio. It’s becoming a computer.

AD: The way you describe it, you use live vocals like other people use ‘samples’. Early Dance would sample interesting phrases from TV, radio, or earlier Pop records, and use them for their odd sound qualities as loops or motifs for their tracks. Do you select your collaborators in the same way, for the interesting and unique quality of the sound they produce?

NB: That’s exactly how it is. Basically, y-e-e-e-s. With John (Lydon) we actually sampled up all of his vocals. Everything he did. So that the bits we wanted were in the sampler. I mean – it’s John. It’s no different to live vocals. It just means that as far as the arrangements went, we could actually put John where we wanted him. Rather than having to get him back in and say ‘look, here’s the arrangement, could you sing that bit there, that bit there, and that bit there.’ It’s so complicated, and you’d end up with something quite different. In fact, the untreated demo is really exciting. I’ve got the demo on cassette, and it’s completely different. It’s like a jam which is incredibly nice. But that’s not our style. We do like organisation. And that’s what technology frees you up to do.

AD: How does that technique translate to live work? Is it a high-tech operation on stage?

NB: Yes. It’s really high-tech. It took nine months to actually get it to the stage where we could play live. And of course, it isn’t completely live. It can’t be. Because we like the robotic nature of some of the tracks – and no drummer in the world can play a bass-drum in that way. But the boring things come off the computer, the things that we think are neither here nor there. Whether someone’s playing them live or not, it doesn’t matter. What does matter, most of the music, the majority – all of the vocals, all of the percussion, nearly all of the drums, most of the keyboards – are put on top by us. And that’s what took the time. It was marrying up the two. ‘Cos there’s so many different sounds that we use. It just took a lot of time to actually rehearse and get the balance right between the two.

AD: You use additional musicians on stage too.

NB: Yeh. Yeh. Yeh. Nick Rapercheli uses decks and plays keyboards. And obviously the two vocalists, one of whom uses a theramin on stage too. Theramins are really ‘in’ now – ‘Retro Electronica’ (reference Add N to (X)), although initially we weren’t aware of that.

AD: Theramins go back to the very dawn of electronic music. The Beach-Boys use one on “Good Vibrations”.

NB: Absolutely. The first one. That album ‘Smile’ (recorded in 1967) is just astounding production quality, isn’t it? I don’t know how they managed it, how they recorded it. Everyone talks about all the greats, but that IS one of the landmark albums. It was the height of technology at the time and ranks with ANY of the later Beatles stuff. And it’s funny, the original theramin was the first electronic instrument of its kind, it had a ‘pitch’ and a ‘volume’ control. And that was it! Yet there were people who made a living playing classical music on it in the 1940s, didn’t they? It was quite a big thing. But with us... it’s amazing the way Noel plays it. You CAN overdo it with technology if you’re not careful. So with us it’s a combination of ‘real’ instrumentation, with the synthesised. We are not analog-heads. When it comes to digital vs analog – most people can’t tell the difference. A lot of it is to do with the amplification anyway. And when it comes to electronic vs ‘organic’ instruments, synth sax is so accurate it IS the sax. And how is the electric guitar any less an electric instrument anyway? There’s a wire which goes into a power source and an amplifier. Does that make it any more ‘real’? But we’re not bothered about whether it’s analog or not. It just has to sound interesting. I’m not one for running everything off old-style monophonic synthesisers, wires and all that everywhere, just because it’s the thing. We’re not really interested in technology per se. In fact it can get in the way. We want to keep it as simple as possible. ‘Cos otherwise it just stops the creative flow.

AD: It’s been a really creative time for Dance since Hip-Hop and House. And you’ve been there since the beginning.

NB: More or less, yeah. I suppose so. Since the beginning of the Alternative Dance Scene – which is what it was. And it’s technology that has put it in the hands of the people. There’s no doubt whatsoever. Especially in the early nineties there wasn’t much going on, apart from perhaps Nirvana. Now, lots of people – even in the more traditional Rock area, are using this technology, because it’s GREAT! It’s not just Dance people. Rock bands are using it. You hear the influence of Dance in Popular Music. The best drummers in the world are using drum-machines to supplement what they do live. But Dance is STILL the most radical music around at the moment in terms of popular music. Obviously there are more extreme specialist styles of things which are amazing. But in popular terms what bands like Orbital and Prodigy are trying to do is very valid.

AD: What do you think will be remembered as the defining music of our time?

NB: Well, I’m afraid we know what it’s going to be. It’s got to be Oasis. It shouldn’t be, because for me it should be Radiohead. They are the Rock band that are taking it on and are actually pushing it on. They’re getting coverage in America and their albums are big here now. But there’s something familiar about the music of Oasis. It’s the harmonies of the Beatles and all that, which is such a part of our culture. They’ve obviously used that, and taken it one step further. And they do it really well, it’s so clever. When you listen to their second album, there’s some brilliant string stuff there... those are the tracks I like. I don’t like the “Roll With It” part of it. I can’t abide that stuff. I hate it. But the other stuff is really good. It’s funny, I actually like bits of their last album too. Lyrically I don’t think it’s anything either. But it’s simplistic. Whereas bands like Blur, some of THEIR new stuff is more complicated, and that’s why the Americans can’t take it on.

AD: But in terms of ideology, technology, and song-structure, Oasis records could have been created at any time over the last three decades, surely the defining music of now must be Prodigy, Leftfield, Orbital, Chemical Brothers, which in terms of attitude and technique could ONLY have been recorded at this point in time?

NB: I agree. Yes. I think that’s fair. But it’s a difficult one, you could pick other people who are just as influential as those examples you’ve quoted. And who would represent the late-sixties – is it Hendrix or the Beatles? Or I suppose, in mass-market terms it’s got to be Michael Jackson for the eighties, even more than Duran Duran. THAT is your sound of the eighties. But now – it’s tricky! I mean, Celine Dion probably! But it depends what level you’re talking about. Oasis play the game. They give the press the image it wants. And people seem to like that. But I mean, Noel Gallagher isn’t like that at all, he’s a really nice bloke, and good luck to him because he DOES write brilliant songs. But at the same time I’m not going to go ‘we and them and Prodigy are all in the same business of selling records.’ Y’know – videos all over MTV. You can’t get more commercial than that. But the reason why you don’t see US all over the cover of papers like this (holds up ‘NME’) is – face facts, it’s more an attitude thing. The ‘NME’ is not really interested in bands like us. Two guys. Prodigy aren’t interested in that side of it either. It’s just showmanship on a stage and everything. That’s what people want you to be, something on the public stage. You’ve got to put on an act. Perhaps if we went around insulting people...? but to me that’s all very unimportant anyway. The other thing is, the more you put yourself about the more your longevity is damaged as a result. People get sick and tired of reading articles about the same people. They might not be at the beginning – ‘oh, what’s the new Oasis story this week?’ but in six months time...? Suede are the best example of that. Their ‘Dog Man Star’ (1994) is the best album they ever made. It’s a good album, and people bought it, but – y’know, Suede went from being on EVERY magazine cover, to being on NOTHING, to being not even a JOKE, which is ridiculous. And that’s happening to Blur and Oasis now. Whereas us and Prodigy, hopefully, will keep ticking along. Now and again. It’s not that we’re frightened of the press. We’re not frightened of talking to people. We will go on the front of ‘NME’ if they offer. It’s just that we’re not considered valid on that level.

AD: Dance Culture is very much about ‘cred’. Very often getting a Pop hit can destroy the career of a respected Dance act.

NB: I don’t like that. Exclusivity is a side of it I DON’T like. The Dance area can be very guilty of... ‘purism’, that’s the word, isn’t it? You get that in the Jazz world. And I can’t stand it. It makes me cringe. When people get like that I can get quite antagonistic towards them, because I just think that’s the wrong attitude to have. A good record is a good record. If George Michael makes a good record then it’s still a good record. I don’t care about him being a big star or not. And oh yes, we get that now. You can see the attitude changing in certain magazines towards us. And that’s crap. That’s just as bad as going the other way. You see it, you hear the attitude, and that’s not what it’s about. That’s not why we got involved in buying records. I don’t even approve of people slagging off ‘Top Of The Pops’. To a certain extent it’s still the only place where you can see a lot of things. Who would ever have thought they’d have Hole on? That’s very valid. I’ve got an open mind towards music. And that’s what people should have.

AD: But can’t that ‘I can be more obscure that you’ one-upmanship thing be a good game?

NB: Yeah. I suppose so... yeah, y’know. It just doesn’t hold any interest for me. Prodigy are a real good example of that. “Firestarter” was the HARDEST record to get to no.1 for years. Nothing could touch it. And people in the Dance area should have actually been applauding them for doing that. For making such a good record, and for being able to get it to no.1 without sticking their face all over the ‘NME’, being stupid and insulting people. It’s just music. That’s really what it’s all about. Or should be, anyway.

AD: You’ve done remixes for – among others, David Bowie (the single “Jump They Say”). How do you define the art of the remix?

NB: We do it for the artist. That’s who we are doing it for. And it’s got to have something... I wouldn’t do a remix if I didn’t like the vocal. It used to really chuff us if we heard ‘oh, so-and-so really wants you to do a remix’, ‘cos that means they like your music. We’d go ‘wow, that’s GREAT, now we can REALLY let out hair down. Perhaps they’ll like THIS!!!’ We’ve always thought that – me and Paul, I don’t see the point in people doing vocal remixes and then leaving the vocal off. That means they don’t like the vocal. We’ll obviously do instrumental versions for the Clubs, because that’s mainly what people want to hear. But Club remixes are so big now that people just do a formula remix-job to get it into the chart. I know people do it for money. We weren’t really doing it for that. All our remixes are aimed at Dance Clubs which are probably more underground, just because they’re more extreme. But you’ve got to like the vocal. So that’s the first thing. With Bowie, they just asked us, you know? We didn’t get to meet him. We could have made it a lot better, but we didn’t work in the right studio. I haven’t listened to it for a long time now. But it still works. He liked it. I think he wasn’t quite sure at the beginning, but later I heard that he actually liked it. But then he – or his record company, went off and got other remixes which didn’t sometimes work. So it became a package, and I don’t like that, because – in a way, it’s just about selling a product. And that’s what remixing has become.

AD: I was talking to Mark Brydon of Moloko. A former member of Chakk.

NB: Was he in Chakk? I remember Chakk. I think I’ve got a record by them, a seven-inch or something.

AD: He was describing how he’d done a remix for Pulp by concentrating on Jarvis’ heavy intakes of breath between lines.

NB: Amazing. That’s excellent, and interesting. Because we were asked to do Pulp. But I liked their music so much as it was, I thought ‘what can WE do to Pulp to make it, y’know, different? what’s the point? – it’s excellent as it is. We’d rather be doing our thing in the studio.’ So we didn’t do it. There was a really awful remix of “Common People”. Just Jarvis with dance-beats. It was crap. But I mean, it was big in the straighter Clubs.

‘the seeds of progress, them dun get sown, 
the choice is, there is no choice but to pursue it, 
 ..against the grain, we shall remain’ 
(“Dusted” – ‘Rhythm And Stealth’, September 1999)


1990 – “Not Forgotten” c/w “Not Forgotten (Fateh’s On The Case)” + ‘”Not Forgotten (Dub)” (twelve-inch single, Outer Rhythm/ Rhythm King FOOT3) features Neil Barnes only

January 1991 – “More Than I Know” c/w “Not Forgotten (Hard Hands Remix)” (twelve-inch single, Outer Rhythm/ Rhythm King FOOT9) features Neil Barnes, Paul Daley on B-side only

December 1992 – ‘BACKLOG’ (Outer Rhythm/ Rhythm King) compilation album made up of four remixes of “Not Forgotten”, four remixes of “More Than I Know” and two mixes of “Difference”. With ‘Djum Djum’ aka Rapper Neil Cole

January 1995 – ‘LEFTISM’ (Hard Hands HANDLP2T) album sleeve-art shows a speaker in huge skeletal shark-jaws, with ‘Release The Pressure’ (the third single and first Top Twenty entry, with Earl Sixteen and Papa Dee vocals), ‘Afro-Left’ (their seventh single, Neil Cole vocals), ‘Melt’ (Adam Wren engineering), ‘Song Of Life’ (fourth single, samples ‘Oh Mara’ by Bulgarian artist Yanka Rupkina, featured on the 2001 ‘Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’ soundtrack, and remixed by Underworld), ‘Original’ (with Toni Halliday vocals, gives Leftfield a debut ‘Top Of The Pops’ appearance when it hits no.18 as a single), ‘Black Flute’, ‘Space Shanty’, ‘Inspection (Check One)’, ‘Storm 3000’, ‘Open Up’ (with John Lydon, a UK no.13 hit. Also issued as a Dust Brothers remix – aka Chemical Brothers), ‘Twenty-First Century Poem’ (vocals by Lemn Sissay)

October 1997 – ‘SHAKEN AND STIRRED: THE DAVID ARNOLD JAMES BOND PROJECT’ (East West). Leftfield contribute one track, ‘Space March’ from the ‘You Only Live Twice’ movie to this David Arnold CD, which also includes Bond-related tracks by David McAlmont, Pulp, Propellerheads, Iggy Pop, Martin Fry and others September

1999 – ‘RHYTHM AND STEALTH’ (Hard Hands HANDLP4) with ‘Dusted’ (with Roots Manuva vocals, UK no.28 single), ‘Phat Planet’ (used to soundtrack Guinness TV-ad), ‘Chant Of A Poor Man’ vocals MC Cheshire Cat), ‘Double Flash’, ‘El Cid’, ‘Africa Shox’ (first single from album, hits UK no.7, Africa Bambaataa vocals, later included on 2001 ‘Vanilla Sky’ soundtrack), ‘Dub Gussett’, ‘Swords’ (issued as the album’s third single, Nicole Willis vocals, featured on 1999 ‘Go’ movie soundtrack), ‘6/8 War’, ‘Rhino’s Prayer’ (vocals by Rino Della Volpe). No.1 on UK album chart May

2000 – ‘STEALTH REMIXES’ (Hard Hands) different remixes from ‘Rhythm And Stealth’. Leftfield split in 2002, reforming (without Paul Daley) for the Creamfields Festival in August 2010

October 2005 – ‘A FINAL HIT: THE GREATEST HITS’ (Sony BMG) singles compilation, including ‘Snakeblood’ from 2000 ‘The Beach’ movie soundtrack

March 2012 – ‘TOURISM’ (Absolute FIELDCD1) Live album with DVD recorded in Melbourne, Australia 5-18 March 2011, featuring Neil Barnes (keyboards, programming), Adam Wren (samples, turntables), Sebastien Beresford (drums, percussion), James Atkin (guest percussion), Gary Nuttall (guest guitar), Jess Mills (vocals on ‘Original’), Djum Djum (vocals on ‘Afro Left’), MC Cheshire Cat (vocals on ‘Release The Pressure’ and ‘Inspection (Check One)’), Earl 16 (vocals on ‘Release The Pressure’)

June 2015 – ‘ALTERNATIVE LIGHT SOURCE’ (Infectious INFECT223CD) official third studio album, trailered by single ‘Universal Everything’ (with Georia Barnes vocals), includes ‘Bad Radio’ (with Tunde Adebimpe vocals), ‘Bilocation’ (with Channy Leaneagh vocals), ‘Head And Shoulders’ featuring Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson vocals), ‘Dark Matters’, ‘Little Fish’ (with Channy Leaneagh vocals), ‘Storms End’, ‘Alternative Light Source’, ‘Shaker Obsession’ and ‘Levitate For You’ (with Ofei vocals). Neil Barnes co-producing with Adam Wren


AD: Are there other artists you’d particularly like to work with?

NB: I’d like to do some more work with John, John Lydon, without a doubt. And his new album is coming up, so who knows? He might ask us to do some work on it. Yeah… I mean, there are people, obviously that we’ve got under consideration for using on our next album. I’m really into Christy Moore as a vocalist. Perhaps if I say it in enough interviews he might get to hear about it. He’s got a great voice. Love his voice. And, of course, his lyrics. I’ve been very much into him. I used to go down and see him play in an Irish Club in Stockwell. Just him and his guitar. I like really slow Folk music.

AD: I suppose that’s part of World Music incursions into Dance, where you get the contrast between the ethnic purity of Folk against the Techno setting. As you’ve sampled Indian and African influences.

NB: Yes. That’s how we started off, sampling bits of music. I mean, you can’t sample now, full stop. Really, I mean, you have to be very careful. It’s just not worth sampling. So it’s more exciting because you’ve got to use the real people. You’ve got to track them down to use them. But it is, again, it’s been done so many times now. What’s that band – Transglobal Underground?, they are really good. When they did that track three or four years ago, it had a very interesting vocal, do you know that track? It was… really brilliant. Do you know Transglobal Underground? I don’t know what the track is. I think perhaps again it comes back to the fact that in Dance Music people aren’t frightened to experiment. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes it’s a bit obvious. You hear a sample played over – an ethnic sample, and you think ‘Oh god!’. But I mean, at least you’re showing respect for another culture. And when it does work, it is more interesting.

AD: All the best music comes out of a clash of cultures and styles, right back to Rock ‘n’ Roll itself, when Elvis united black Blues with white Country.

NB: Exactly. It’s not new in Rock, is it? During the sixties it was going on all the time. This is it. That’s what amazed me when we did the track with John, that people were surprised! Because you go back to the sixties and EVERYONE was messing about with Indian music. There’s two ways of looking at it. I think a lot of white Soul producers and Soul bands have used black singers. Sometimes I think that’s a little bit dodgy myself. Y’know, it’s got to be done quite carefully. You’ve got to show respect for the music and culture. It’s easy to rip it off, which is what Presley was accused of. I don’t believe that he ever did, myself. His record company might have done, but he was very involved with the culture around him, when he was young, anyway. It’s not his fault it became successful, after all. It was the sign of a society that wouldn’t allow a black singer to actually be as successful as he was. That’s the problem.


AD: Of course, John Lydon is now back with the Sex Pistols. Which seems a strange move. (The Pistols re-united for the ‘Filthy Lucre Tour’ from 21 June to 7 December 1996, including dates at the London Finsbury Park (23 June) and the Phoenix Festival (21 July) at Long Marston).

NB: No. It’s totally in keeping with the history… of, er… that philosophy, isn’t it? I think it’s great. It’s a great idea. I’m really behind it. There’s all these people going around doing the ‘hallowed name of Punk will forever be…’, y’know? I’ve heard so much about it. They talk about it like it was ‘you don’t touch Punk’. I think that attitude is so funny. There’ll be people there for all the wrong reasons. But that’s the joke. And for all the people who start saying ‘don’t they look awful in the papers’ – that’s deliberate. They’re not bothered about that. That’s part of the fun. It’s the joke. But they are a serious band. And at the time they were the best live band going. So, you know, brilliant band.

AD: I saw the Ramones. I never saw the Pistols. Did you ever get to see the first-generation Pistols live?

NB: Yeah Yeah. I saw them at the ‘100 Club’. I saw them at ‘The Screen On The Green’. I saw them several times. A different class, the Ramones, I’m afraid. Different. The Ramones weren’t a touch on the Pistols. The Ramones were like – Rock ‘n’ Roll, compared to the Pistols. I know the Pistols were Rock – fast Rock ‘n’ Roll, yeah. Energy. Amazing.

AD: That would have been with Glenn Matlock, rather than Sid.

NB: I can’t remember. I can’t place it actually. ‘The Screen On The Green’ was definitely Matlock. Buzzcocks as well. And the Clash in an early formation. They were a good band. You know, I was even more into Public Image Ltd than the Pistols, I mean, musically. But it started to sound like… I didn’t hear this, I didn’t know this, but a friend of mine called John Grey was telling me that the later Pistols gigs were very experimental. I didn’t see them. But apparently right at the end it was actually getting like PIL anyway, in a funny sort of way.

AD: They were doing versions of the Stooges “No Fun”, and stretching it out into long improvisations.

NB: I didn’t see that performed. But apparently it was quite something. I mean – they can’t be any worse than a lot of other people who are making a living out of being in a Rock band at the moment. I’d rather see the Pistols than… a lot of other people. It’d be funny. It’d be entertaining. I think they’re probably taking it – well, I don’t know, seriously. I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully I’m going to actually get to see them. We’re also on tour, so I’m trying to work out when we’ll get a chance to see them. I don’t think we’re around for the Finsbury Park gig, and Phoenix they’re playing a different day to us – (Leftfield on the Megadog Stage, Thursday, the Pistols Main Stage on Sunday) so, if we stay on we might get a chance to see them. Everybody wants to see them, everybody. If only to say ‘Oooo, it’s a load of rubbish.’ And all the old Punks’ll be up the front. It’ll be really funny.


AD: Paul still does Club DJ sets.

NB: Yes.

AD: But not you.

NB: Naw. I used to. But I don’t. I mean, to earn a living DJ-ing now you’ve got to be REALLY good, and practicing all the time. I just haven’t got the time, and I’m not really… my tastes in music are a bit eclectic. I mean, I still love and buy the same music. But putting it together requires a certain skill. You can either do it, or you can’t. Paul is a really good DJ. But even he hasn’t been able to DJ so much ‘cos we’ve been doing the live thing, but he has DJ’ed on tour and it was when he DJ’ed it was like, the best night. Because the audience really were into what he was doing. He’s very good.

AD: You launched the ‘Hard Hands’ label in 1992 – for the “Release The Pressure” twelve-inch single, after leaving Outer Rhythm, and spurning major label offers. Is the ‘Hard Hands’ brand essentially the two of you?

NB: Yes. It’s the two of us. With Lisa – our manager, who sort-of runs it. Though we’ve got Jake and Justine who sort-of help run it as well.

AD: What involvement do you have with other ‘Hard Hands’ bands?

NB: Well, we have a lot… on a creative level, trying to guide them through it. So they can make the best music they can. At the moment we’re working with Pressure Drop who are doing an album with us.

AD: Do you actually produce them?

NB: No. We have done, in the past. But we can’t do it. We don’t have time to do it now. So it’s more like an executive sitting down and listening to Demo’s, talking to people about them and trying to guide them through it, and get the best out of them that they can possibly do. Picking tracks to go out on the label. We’ve been a bit negligent lately ‘cos we’ve been working so hard. But we’ve got lots of new stuff hopefully coming out that will be good. I mean… it’s hard running a small label, it is hard. ‘Cos it’s strange people that are not going to make a fortune. You don’t go into it thinking you’re going to make a fortune from one record. It doesn’t happen like that. We’re learning the hard way. You try to tell people. We do it for the love of putting music out. Because it’s definitely not a money-making venture.

AD: I noticed that one Leftfield interview published in ‘NME’ was conducted by Kris Needs, who is one half of Secret Knowledge.

NB: Which one’s that? Is it BY Kris or about Kris? “Anything You Want” by (their alias) Delta Lady (1993, Hard Hands 006T) was one of our tracks. Yeah, with Wonder Schneider. They did the Delta Lady work with us, which was a big track for us. I’ve known Kris for ages. He’s brilliant. Now he’s working with… that label, I can’t remember it now. He’s got an album coming out… or maybe it’s out already? He’s really one of the guy’s that’s kept the scene together. Especially writing for the ‘Black Echoes’ magazines, he’s promoted a lot of records, Kris. He’s a sound guy. He was in at the beginning of Rap as well, when he was in New York, wasn’t he? He’s actually been really involved in some astounding music, which is amazing. Even been on tour with Heavy Metal bands. Great bloke.


AD: Is movie work something you’d like to do more of?

NB: Yes. Absolutely. We would. We did ‘Shallow Grave’ (1995, EMI, includes “Shallow Grave” and “Release The Dubs”), and for that we just saw the opening seconds of it. The opening five-ten minutes of it. And we wrote a piece of music very roughly around it and then they edited it in. It worked very well. I mean, at the beginning of the ‘Shallow Grave’ soundtrack, when I first heard that I thought it was brilliant. It was just so pumping. To hear pumping dance music at the beginning of the film – and the people were just blown away. It really worked. Then Danny (Boyle) asked us to do this film and they had a more specific idea. Which obviously, was Irvine Welsh’s seriously spectacular ‘Trainspotting’ (July 1996, EMI, includes “A Final Hit”), and that’s gone gold! – even though they put the wrong version of our track on there, which is very irritating. It wasn’t really meant to be a track. It’s meant to go in the film. It wasn’t WRITTEN for anything else but the film. And it doesn’t work outside that context. They gave us the scene which they wanted us to work on… we actually had it time-coded. So we worked completely around the scene… ‘cos there was dialogue on it. Which is why the track is quite mellow compared with some of the other tracks there. Like the Underworld track (“Born Slippy NUXX”). There’s actually dialogue over the bits we do, and you can’t have a banging House track over that. So we actually wrote it so that it runs complementary with the film. It’s the bit where they try out their first big hit of heroin, and it goes all wobbly. And that’s the start of our one. Then they go down to London on the coach. And we are quite – sort of, in the background really.

AD: You are on the ‘Judge Dredd’ movie soundtrack (album June 1995, Epic). How did that come about?

NB: Oh god, I dunno. I haven’t seen that film, so you tell me! We were excited at the time, ‘cos we thought ‘yeah, it’ll be a great film,’ but I’ve heard it’s a complete turkey. They just picked the track (“Release The Pressure”) off the album for ‘Judge Dredd’. I haven’t actually got a clue. I mean, normally, we do try. We’re always asked – ‘do you want your music in a film?’ And that was… last year? Quite a long time ago. And they just said ‘we want to use “Release The Pressure”.

AD: Did you read the ‘Judge Dredd’ comics in ‘2000AD’? Were you into him before the movie?

NB: I was. And that’s why I haven’t been to see the film, you see? Because I heard that it’s not… although sometimes I find those turkeys quite funny. So I’ll definitely see it at some point.

AD: I like the ‘Judge Dredd’ comic strips.

NB: Same here. So I thought, having seen him in the comics, then seeing the movie pictures and everything, it doesn’t look very good. But… you never know! More important – we’re on the ‘Hackers’ soundtrack (September 1995, ‘Their Only Crime Was Curiosity’ features “Open Up”, and ‘Music From And Inspired By The Original Soundtrack’ includes “Inspection (Check One)”.

NB: Do you want another cup of tea or coffee while we’re doing this? OK, we’ll keep going then. I think we’d like to do a whole soundtrack. If the right offer came along we’d love to. It’s just finding a film that we like. Obviously we’ve got to do the next album. But after that I’d really like to do a soundtrack. For a good film. It’d be fun. Who knows, we might get the chance to do the next Danny Boyle… but you never know. It depends. People have you in mind for one thing because they think it will work. And for the next thing they might want something completely different. Often they stick a Rock track on and it’s just, y’know, a load of rubbish. But it’s fun because you’re working in a visual environment. It’s just a different challenge completely. It’s actually easier, in a way, than writing for an album. Because it gives you a sort of inkling of the mood that the track has to work around. But sometimes, surprising things work with film. Sometimes when you get really violent scenes – you get classical music! I love it. I think that’s brilliant. Sometimes there’s too much read into it. But I quite like the sort-of mad contrast. People say ‘oh, you can’t have Classical Music on a Detective film. And I think ‘um, that could be REALLY interesting. Why not? Why not?’ Why do you have to have sort-of synthi mood-music. It has to fit, you know?

AD: The ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986) movie is an obvious example of contrast, where Roy Orbison’s voice soundtracks the violence.

NB: I loved that. I thought that was… actually it worked so WELL. Brilliant. Brilliant. I think it’s REALLY good. I like that. I think it does create a different environment. And WOW! – you remember the scene. You always remember it, because of that music. I think that… I do think sometimes the tough stuff that we do does work. I mean… what’s the film? erm, oh, I can’t remember, one of the more Science Fiction film – it does work quite nicely (‘Blade Runner’, 1982, ?). I like the music in ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (1992). They’ve really thought about the arrangement for each scene, it’s really exciting. I saw it at a preview and it’s astounding. And actually the sound quality in cinemas is so much higher than anything you’re EVER going to hear at home. It really brings out the tracks, y’know.


AD: Will there be radical departures on the next Leftfield album?

NB: I don’t know. We’re not… a three-piece Rock band is not going to suddenly appear halfway through. No. But, I don’t know yet, really. Obviously we don’t want to repeat ourselves. I’ll say that much. So it will be an advancement, hopefully, from what we’ve done. But y’know, I mean, good, I think the people who buy our records do expect something like that. They don’t wanna hear the same thing over and over. So it WILL be different. But it won’t be too much of a leap. Album three is where you go all experimental, isn’t it? Playing pots and pans, stuff like that. I don’t know. It’s like, I always thought ‘The Flowers Of Romance’ (Public Image Ltd, Virgin, April 1981) was the most extreme album I’ve ever heard. Everybody expected sort-of like a ‘Public Image Ltd’ type-thing, and then you got BLOODY HELL! This mad sort of… you have to be careful. You’ve got to keep your audience with you.

AD: Oasis have got that difficult third album syndrome to tackle next too.

NB: They’ll just do more of the same, I think. But you can hear – I can hear, experiment in their structures. And I think it’s getting better for them. And I think with us, we left off ‘Leftism’ on tracks like “Inspection (Check One)” and “Storm 3000”. So I think they, and my other favourite track “Melt” – those three, that’s where we went, so that’s where we started from for ‘Rhythm And Stealth’. And we’re still going to have vocalists, definitely. Because we like working with vocalists, y’know. We like it, so…

AD: Are there any points of contention between the two of you?

NB: Yeah, I mean, there’s always points of contention when we’re doing tracks. You sort-of, like, argue about what should go on it. That’s all part of the creative process. We always discuss things – should we do this? Should we do that? Too much exposure, not enough exposure. But we generally, sort of… always sort it out. And normally because we’ve been working together so long we trust that other person knows what they’re doing, even if you can’t get your head around it. That’s the way I like to think about it. ‘What you doing that for? That chord’s really strange. Really mad. Why’re ya doing it? That doesn’t work.’ Arguments like that. Normally. More often than not. And then we might – both of us are strong enough people to actually admit when we’re wrong. Oh yeah, you’re right. It sounds shit. Take it off. Or – that vocal just doesn’t work, or it’s not going to work. I mean – you can’t work with someone for such a length of time without having arguments with them. It’s part of it. And if we didn’t, I think it would be a bit worrying actually. But we’re friends as well, so it’s not, y’know… we’re not just in it because we’re a partnership and we have to keep it going. We’re in it because we actually enjoy each other’s company. The most exciting thing for us is actually writing music together. More exciting than anything. That’s what we still get a real buzz from. So, that’s why it works. We haven’t had any – I can’t REALLY remember any MAJOR arguments. This is not an ego thing. We really don’t suffer from that one – like, worrying that one person is getting more attention than the other person. We both bring an element into Leftfield which is essential. If either one of us wasn’t, then it wouldn’t be the same. It just wouldn’t work. And we both know that. So it goes on. It works.

Saturday 20 June 2020

Movie and Novel: 'MIDNIGHT COWBOY'


Looking Back At: 
(1969) with Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight and Sylvia Miles. 
DVD Twentieth Century Fox (2000)

Coming directly off the back of his overnight breakthrough success as Benjamin Braddock in ‘The Graduate’ (1967), Dustin Hoffman could take his pick of ego-flattering star roles. That he chose to become the decidedly downbeat Ratso Rizzo supporting the untried Jon Voight is evidence he valued the art of movies above mere celebrity. And it was a great role.

Movies, in cahoots with the related art-forms of novels, poetry, painting and music had been defining and taking the pulse of the times by pushing at, testing and extending the limits of what’s possible, gradually breaking free from the repressive constraints of the 1950s, one increment at a time. As social change accelerated towards decade’s end, it was articulating the contentious ongoing dialogue over gender politics, racial equality, censorship, and the spreading recreational use of narcotics. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ coming in 1969, is very much part of that process, advancing what it was permissible to portray onscreen, but doing so with a strong human storyline, and two unforgettably beat-up characters.

From the opening shots of Joe Buck in the shower, there are near-pubic glimpses as he stoops to retrieve the white cake of soap. He’s singing ‘Get along little doggies, New York will be your new home,’ instantly setting the plot. In the original novel, James Leo Herlihy describes Joe as ‘a beautiful strange animal’ and a ‘sweet, dark, dangerous devil.’ He’s big and dumb, but also likeably vulnerable, arrogant to the point of narcissism, but also endearingly gullible. ‘No great shakes as a thinker’, he has no talent, other than his physique, and no future other than washing dishes at the small-town Texas ‘Sunshine Cafeteria’ (‘Miller’s Restaurant’ in the film). So he gets decked out in his finest new threads, ‘he developed a habit of hooking his thumbs into his back pockets as if his trousers were a low-slung gun belt,’ and hops the National Coach from the Houston bus depot – where the jukebox is playing Kay Starr’s “Wheel Of Fortune”, heading north for New York to start a new life as an in-demand gigolo. In green shirt, fringed buckskin jacket, cowboy boots, black-and-white horsehide suitcase, transistor radio, and chewing gum, ‘he was ready.’

The opening movie sequence, from the ‘Big Tex Drive-In’, tracks the novel’s first chapter in closely-observed detail. Impatient voices call ‘Where’s Joe Buck?’ Then he’s telling the nameless ‘coloured man’ – Ralph in the movie, who facially resembles John Lee Hooker, ‘a lot of rich women back there, Ralph, begging for it, paying for it too.’ New York men are all tootie-frooties, aren’t they? They’re all ‘faggots’ in the novel. But fiction is different to celluloid. The novel then diverges into back-story, documenting how loner Joe was raised by ‘various blondes’ and detailing his sexual initiation with promiscuous Anastasia ‘Annie’ Pratt (Jennifer Salt). All abbreviated to spliced-in flashbacks on the movie-coach, a blur of travel-dreams, as passengers come and go, a girl with the ‘Wonder Woman no.178’ comicbook, an Old Timer chewing tobacco, an awkward Old Lady in Dame Edna spectacles, a Nun. The landscape and radio-bursts of ads and evangelists fade into and out of focus. ‘Crazy Anne Loves Joe Buck’ is graffiti’d on the spindly-tall Martian war-machine of a glimpsed Water Tower. A presage to the later gothic black-and-white nightmare of violent gang-rape which tore Joe and Annie apart.

The previously untested Jon Voight completely inhabits the person of Joe Buck. Born 29 December 1938 in New York’s Yonkers, he’d done TV bit parts in cult crime series ‘Naked City’ (“Alive And Still A Second Lieutenant”, 6 March 1963), ‘The Defenders’ (“The Brother Killers” with Peter Fonda, 25 May 1963) and ‘NYPD’ (“The Bombers” 12 December 1967) as well as three different character roles in popular TV Western ‘Gunsmoke’ with James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon. But director John Schlesinger was supernaturally right to take a chance and cast him on what was essentially a gritty character-driven narrative of low-life deviancy.

I first saw the movie at the ABC-Regal in Hull, having just turned twenty, and it seemed to touch every nexus of change going on around me. The seedy underbelly of the clamouring counter-culture where sky-shooting ambition collides with Desolation Row come-down, tantalizing tastes of narcotic and forbidden erotic worlds, sealed by an unlikely friendship between misfit outsiders. All motivated by that urgent need to escape the stultifying small-town boredom and break on through to the roaring energy of the greater world beyond the horizon, with its luring promises of agony or ecstasy.

Joe was ‘wondering what to do about his predicament and not quite certain just what the predicament was.’ Like many of us were doing. The novel’s early detours chart the long build-up – all unexpressed pauses and aching waits, until Joe finally hooks up with smooth-talking Perry, who takes him to Juanita and Tombaby Barefoot’s cat-house. The dialogue is richly comic and cruelly barbed. Joe has interrupted sex with Dolores that is brought to an abrupt end when he realizes they’re being observed. Yet it’s Juanita who ‘put this entire goddam New York notion in his head in the first place,’ when she says ‘its all fags there, fags and money and hungry women. Young stud like this in the stable, I’d clean up good.’ Joe is naive, an innocent, as Perry says, despite having ‘fucked aplenty’, he’s a virgin. Everyone around him has agendas, scams, traumas, hang-ups, paranoias, he simply drifts, a pinball bounced from one situation to the next. He’s confused by the strange drifts of conversations, and never quite sure what is expected of him, despite being always eager to please. ‘Now at the age of twenty-five, with his head full of grief and worry, Joe felt the need to do some thinking. But he was unused to having any wide variety of thoughts in his head, and there seemed to be severe limits as well to his imagination. There was nothing wrong with these faculties in him, but they were untrained and did not serve him well in emergencies.’

Although John Barry’s plaintive instrumental with Toots Thielemans’ keening harmonica is the official theme tune, Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talking” – played over the first sequences, became the hit single most associated with the movie, the lyric ‘everybody’s talking at me, I don’t hear a word they’re saying, only the echoes of my mind. People stopping, staring, I can’t see their faces, only the shadows of their eyes’ catches the aimless footloose spirit of the screenplay. It became to ‘Midnight Cowboy’ what Simon And Garfunkel’s “Mrs Robinson” had been to ‘The Graduate’. As a songwriter himself it was to Harry Nilsson’s intense chagrin that his two biggest commercial hits were written by other people. Fred Neil wrote “Everybody’s Talking” which reached no.6 in the USA but peaked at a UK no.23 in October 1969, followed by “Without You” – a no.1 in March 1972, penned by Badfinger members Pete Ham and Tom Evans. Yet the ‘Midnight Cowboy’ soundtrack is vitally time-fixing. Elephants Memory were a Greenwich Village band best remembered for backing Yoko And John Lennon on their ‘Some Time In New York City’ (1972, Apple) double-album. The Groop were a LA-based soft-harmony psychedelic band, their “A Famous Myth” – which plays in the background when Joe first encounters Ratzo, opens their only album ‘The Groop’ (1969, Bell).

It’s only by page seventy-seven of the July 1969 Dell paperback edition of ‘Midnight Cowboy’ – with its ‘Now An Explosive Movie’ tie-in cover-art, that gum-chewing Joe even arrives in New York. In the movie he catches radio-burst identifications from Ron Lundy’s WABC show, which tells him so. And once there he sets up in the cheap Times Square Hotel where the bellhop patiently waits for a tip… just as I recall from my first time in Manhattan. And Joe begins to put his plan into action, finding a pick-up point where rich ladies can ‘place a bid on his wares’, although ‘his project was a delicate thing at best.’ He traipses aimlessly wide-eyed wondering through the sidewalk human mass gawping at sophisticated inaccessible women on Park Avenue and Thirty-Ninth Street, making clumsy approaches, and standing perplexed outside Tiffany And Co over an ignored man lying face-down on the paving.

He lucks-out by blundering his pick-up line at a blonde exercising her white French poodle – so small ‘it looked like a windup toy,’ on Lexington Avenue in the Thirties. The movie dialogue is book-lifted word-for word – he asks directions to the Statue of Liberty? ‘It’s up in Central Park taking a leak, if you hurry up you’ll catch the Supper Show’ she smart-asses. But she nevertheless leads him up to her One-Fourteen penthouse. She – Cass Trehune (Sylvia Miles), talks to a guy called Morey on the phone – a husband, but maybe not hers, lining up a date, as Joe licks her ear, then she un-pops the studs down his shirt and unbuckles his pants, murmuring ‘beautiful Baby’ at what she discovers there.

Cinephile John Schlesinger drip-feeds movie references. From the skewed lettering for John Wayne’s ‘The Alamo’ (1960) on the Rio movie theatre marquee Joe passes on his way to the coach, to the Paul Newman (‘Hud’, 1963) poster on Joe’s NY wall, as he investigates the pay-TV slot. Now, as Cass and Joe roll naked on the bed they repeatedly hit the remote, strobing a rapid-fire of TV-channels, a Game Show, Humphrey Bogart, a fire-breathing Monster Movie, ‘Jolly Green Giant’, Bette Davis, a ‘Super Bleach’-ad, Al Jolson, fleeting flickers so fast you need freeze-frame and rewind to track them… until a One-Arm Bandit clicks into a Jackpot line-up of three Cowgirls, and gushes pay-out. A playful play on coy cinematographic shorthand for orgasm.

When Joe guilelessly raises the subject of payment – giving her the ‘full benefit of the sweet crooked smile,’ she’s affronted, protesting and crying. She has no money, so he ends up paying her $20 for her taxi. This isn’t working out the way he’d anticipated. Then he encounters Ratso – Enrico Salvatore Rizzo, in ‘Everetts’ on Broadway, near Fortieth Street. In the book he’s a ‘dirty, curly-hair little blond runt.’ Hoffman plays him slightly older, and dark-haired, although that’s in keeping with the Italian ethnicity. ‘Terrific shoit’ he compliments Joe on his cowboy get-up, spinning a fractured line, spotting a mark, a scam-target. What Joe needs is a manager he suggests, a middleman. ‘You really know the ropes’ agrees a suckered Joe.

As they walk – ‘dragging my bum leg around’, Ratso routinely checks the Central Park phone-booths for lost change. As a result of childhood illness, his walk ‘had a kind of rolling motion to it like the progress of a lopsided wheel’, a ‘kind of crazy-wheel rhythm that rolled him towards his objective.’ They pass a protest demonstration – waving placards that proclaim generic ‘Liberate Freedom’ and ‘End Madness Now’. ‘Go to woik’ protests Ratso back at them. Crossing the road – step-drag, step-drag, step-drag, Ratso aggressively bangs the bonnet of an intrusive yellow cab, ‘I’m walkin’ here’ he complains in an apparently improvised incident filmed live on the street, that enters movie history. ‘Up yours’ yells the cabbie. The streetwise Ratso confides to Joe ‘that ain’t a bad way to pick up insurance,’ anticipating the Claims-Lawyer industry. In his ‘gravelly whisper’ of ‘a voice like rocks being dragged across an unpaved road.’

Getting $20 ‘expenses’ in advance, Ratso sets a trusting Joe up with a fake introduction to a supposed pimp-connection called Mr O’Daniel (John McGiver) in Room 901 along a corridor haunted by jazz trumpet rehearsals. In the novel it’s Room 3-17 of the Times Square Palace Hotel. ‘I ain’t a for-real Cowboy’ admits an amiably baffled Joe, ‘but I am one hell of a stud.’ Their disjointed interview circles, is Joe troubled and confused?, led astray by boy’s comics?, until O’Daniel – revealed as an unhinged religious fanatic, exhorts him onto his knees and opens up a flashing Jesus in his own toilet shrine, and Joe gets the hell out.

Broke busted disgusted Joe pursues Ratso through subway trains in a flashing black-and-white collage. He cruises nighttime Times Square as John Barry’s mournful theme plays, hunching his radio, night and day splicing in memory-sequences with insane TV-audience laughter from the ‘Midnite Show’, ‘Take it easy, but take it!’, and ‘Huberts Museum’, as glimpses of more trash film-references flick by in the background, Nick Adams ‘Frankenstein Conquers The World’ (1965, MGM/UA Toho), De Sade’s soft-core ‘Justine’ (1967) – proclaimed as ‘the erotic excess of evil’, and ‘Tarzan And The Valley Of Gold’ (1966), marking Mike Henry’s debut as the Jungle-swinging Ape-man (with a Fritz Leiber novelisation). The innovative camerawork dices and fractures strict continuity into collage, enlivened with voice-over radio-burst ads, commentary and jingles. There ain’t no heart in this city, no streets paved with gold. Just garish flash and squalor. As intoxicating as it is shallow.

After three weeks of drifting and sleeping rough Joe meets Ratso again at the Eight Street ‘Nedicks’ – ‘WORLD’S BEST COFFEE’, a Greenwich Village coffee house. With Ratso protesting ‘don’t hit me, I’m a cripple!’ Ratso lives in a series of ‘X-flats’, tenement buildings vacated due for demolition – ‘got my own private entrance here.’ They form a strange alliance, what Herlihy calls ‘a marriage of two shades of despair,’ in a place where ‘hustle’s the name of the game’, living on their wits – or rather, on Ratso’s Bronx street-wise cunning, scams and petty-theft from a Puerto Rican block in the West Twenties. Ratso has a poster of Florida on his wall, his dream destination. A ‘Real Florida Orange Juice’ radio jingle plays. And there’s a fantasy Florida sequence with a suntanned Ratso running around limp-free along the white beach where, as Paul Simon wrote, ‘the New York City winters aren’t bleeding me.’

There is some disjunction with the novel. Joe joins the rent-boys on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Forty-Second Street in order to raise cash to redeem his black-and-white horsehair suitcase, telling himself ‘you know what you gotta do, Cowboy.’ The fat bespectacled frightened college student (Bob Balaban) gives him oral sex on a Hell’s Kitchen tenement roof – not, as in the film, in the movie theatre as George Pal’s black-and-white cheap-SFX ‘Conquest Of Space’ (1955) plays, ‘Spacecraft to Earth Control, we have a malfunction of our instruments,’ in a whirl of memory and orbital separation. Outer space as shorthand for desperate isolation and loss. At the time, before the Stonewall fightback and the hazy aspirations of Gay Liberation, such sex was considered shameful and frequently illegal, so it was self-suppressed, to become a source of inner guilt, hidden and denied, or a snatched luring desire that was at once repellant and disgusting. As with Joe’s later hook-up with ‘Towny’ P Locke, who whimpers ‘I loathe life, I loathe every moment of it.’ We are wiser now.

The dysfunctional duo move restlessly through ‘this topsy-turvy daylight of neon and electricity, a kind of light that penetrated the first layer of skin, even cosmetics, illuminating only the troubled colours under the surface: weary blue, sick green, narcotic gray, sleepless white, dead purple.’ Joe – open, guileless, damaged. Ratso – devious, furtive, hurt. Joe pawns his radio, eyes a ‘Dishwasher Wanted’ sign in an eaterie window, and gets thrown out of the ‘Hotel Berkley’ for soliciting after hijacking a ‘Perfect Gentleman Escort Agency’ appointment. He even sells to the ‘Blood Bank: Donors Paid’ to raise cash. Until Joe gets invited to Hansel and Gretel MacAlbertson’s Loft Party one flat up from the corner of Broadway and Harmony in snowfall. They initially select him at random simply as a visual curio to provide an amusing ingredient for their art-bohemian happening. The movie updates it into a more freak-out psychedelic be-in, with stoned fetishistic film, art wall-prints, a fluid light-show and trippy music. It’s a Warhol scene, with Factory Superstars Ultra Violet, Paul Jabara, International Velvet and Paul Morrissey glimpsed among the hedonists.

Once there, as Ratso picks pockets and steals food, Joe swallow a brown ‘Bomber’ capsule – not Dexedrine, so that he’s numb to the smart swinger morality being discussed around him – ‘what’s an affair but marriage sans mumbo-jumbo?’ in the novel, ‘death is like heroin, it’s nothing, it’s like nothing, it’s like death’ onscreen. A woman referred to only as ‘the woman in the orange dress’ is amused and titillated by the idea of her buying sex from Joe, as a kind of feminist gesture of total freedom. In the movie she is Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro), and instead of the bomber, Joe smokes a joint assuming it to be a cigarette, not understanding the pass-around convention. Again, the movie dialogue is lifted direct when Joe is unable to sexually perform and she teases him with images of ‘a bugler without a horn or a policeman without a stick, etc etc etc,’ which incenses him, provokes him into a furious raw ‘alley-cat’ animal sex response, with Scribbage cubes stuck into his bare back as they writhe together.

His performance not only leads to a $20 payment, but she’s networking other potential assignations for him to follow. But, just at the point where it seems his Midnight Cowboy stud-dream is about to become a reality, Ratso is rapidly sickening in the freezing winter X-flat, bedridden and feverish. He’s ‘falling down a lot’, but refuses medical help – ‘don’t be so stoopid!’ Instead, in a desperate bid to raise the coach-fare in order to chase the sun down to idyllic Florida, Joe allows himself to be picked-up by a mother-fixated middle-aged man at a shooting gallery in an amusement arcade. Passing ‘Colony Records’ they arrive back in the dreary ‘Europa’ hotel-room, but the man – Townsend ‘Towny’ P Locke (Bernard Hughes), is torn and conflicted by the horrible squalid beauty of ‘his special appetites’. Haunted by a last-minute wave of guilt, he attempts to back out. ‘You’re a nice person, Joe. I should never have asked you up here. You’re a lovely person really.’ Each character is fully fleshed out, and allowed their own voice. Each character has a life. Yet, driven to desperation, Joe brutally beats and robs him. There are Gay Physique magazines in his drawer, his false teeth fall out of his bloodied mouth, ‘I deserve this. I brought this on myself, I know I did’ he sobs in wretched misery, as Joe forces the hotel telephone receiver into his open mouth. Does Joe kill him? It’s left deliberately vague. But it enables Joe to buy National bus tickets so he and Ratso can hop a southbound coach.

During the trip, Ratso’s health deteriorates further, Joe ‘looked at Ratso’s damp, wasted, bone-coloured face, and the eyes sitting too deep in their sockets’ as he becomes sweat-drenched and incontinent – ‘my leg hurts, my butt hurts, my chest hurts, my face hurts, and like that’s not enough, so I piss all over myself’ he confesses. ‘You just had you a little rest-stop wasn’t on the schedule’ jokes Joe. At a stop in Raleigh, North Carolina, Joe buys new clothing for Ratso and himself, symbolically discarding his cowboy outfit into a trashcan outside the Great Southern Hotel. On the bus, Joe tells Ratso that once in Florida he plans to ‘get some sort of job, you know, ‘cos hell, I ain’t no kind-of hustler.’ When Ratso fails to respond, Joe realizes that he’s dead. The driver tells Joe to close Ratso’s eyelids, saying there’s nothing more to do but continue to Miami. Joe, with tears welling in his eyes, sits dazed and confused with – for the first time, his comforting arm around Ratso – no, Rico, as other passengers gawp. It’s a movie moment of intense tear-jerking pathos and compassion. There are certain films with such raw emotional power that they have the ability to touch your inner sensitivity and make you choke up. This is one such moment.

Although born in working-class Detroit (27 February 1927), New York City was a familiar location for writer James Leo Herlihy. As was Florida’s Key West. A close association with Tennessee Williams encouraged his explorative ways of dealing with Gay subculture and taboo-busting subjects. Prior to ‘Midnight Cowboy’ (1965) he’d written ‘All Fall Down’ (1960) – which was also filmed, and ‘The Season Of The Witch’ (1971). Although Beat Generation writing demands the autobiographical authenticity of experience, there’s a Jack Kerouac quality to ‘you will find in the eyes and demeanor of these persons a kind of restless sadness that is probably incurable; they seem to be suffering some nameless common loss, as if something of worth has been snatched from them with such shocking irrevocability that they have forgotten even what it was.’ Herlihy wrote plays and acted, published short fiction too, before taking his own life 21 October 1993. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ remains his most powerful statement.

Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo are two lost souls equally adrift, two inadequates in uneasy alliance, who seem to embody some kind of fugitive truth about human nature. They’re still out there, haunting the unforgiving New York sidewalks. They remain one of the great pairings of movie history. In one of my all-time favourite films.


MIDNIGHT COWBOY’ (25 September 1969 (UK), United Artists entertainment from Transamerica Corp) Producer: Jerome Hellman and Kenneth Utt. Director: John Schlesinger. Adapted from his novel ‘Midnight Cowboy’ (1965, Dell Publishing) by James Leo Herlihy, with Waldo Salt. With Dustin Hoffman (as Ratso Rizzo), Jon Voight (as Joe Buck), Sylvia Miles (as Cass), John McGiver (as Mr O’Daniel), Brenda Vaccaro (as Shirley), Ruth White (as Sally Buck), Barnard Hughes (as Towny), Jennifer Salt (as Annie). Music by Harry Nilsson (Fred Neil’s song ‘Everybody’s Talkin’), The Groop (‘A Famous Myth’ and ‘Tears And Joys’ written by Jeffrey Comanor), Elephant’s Memory (‘Jungle Jim At The Zoo’ and ‘Old Man Willow’), Lesley Miller (Warren Zevon’s ‘He Quit Me’, recorded as ‘She Quit Me’ on Zevon’s debut LP ‘Wanted Dead Or Alive’), Jon Voight (‘The Last Round-Up’) and John Barry. 113-minutes DVD Twentieth Century Fox (February 2000) ‘Midnight Cowboy’ reissued as tie-in paperback by Dell, July 1969