Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day Four). “Whiplash Caught The Silver Son, Took The Film To Number One”.

“If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he is dead, then maybe he was a great man”.

– James Dean

At a dusty and isolated crossroads in Central California on the outskirts of nowhere, James Dean’s crash course with destiny came to an end.  It was Friday, 30th September, 1955.  Dean was just 24 years old.  Dean made just three films in his lifetime, East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and Giant (1956), which was still in the production stages at the time of Dean’s death.

In April 1954, in celebration of securing the lead role in Cal Trusk in East of Eden, James Dean purchased a 1955 Triumph Tiger T110 650cc motorcycle and later, a used red, 1953 MG TD sports car.  Earlier in 1955, Dean had traded his MG in for a brand new 1955 Porsche Super Speedster, purchased from Competition Motors in Hollywood.  He traded his Triumph sports car in for a 1955 Triumph TR5 Trophy three days after the end of filming on East of Eden.  Shortly before starting to film Rebel Without A Cause, Dean entered the Palm Springs Road Races with the Porsche Super Speedster on March 26 -27.  He finished first overall in Saturday’s novice class and second overall in the Sunday main event.  Later in the year, Dean raced the Speedster at Bakersfield on May 1 – 2, finishing first in class and third overall.  His final race with the Speedster was at Santa Barbara on Memorial Day, May 30, where he started in eighteenth position, worked his way up to fourth, before over-revving his engine and blowing a piston.  He did not complete the race.

During the filming of Giant, from June through to mid-September, Warner Bros. had placed a ban a ban on Dean competing in racing.  After finishing the filming of Giant, Dean traded his Porsche Super Speedster in for the brand new, more powerful and faster 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder and entered the upcoming Salina Road Race, scheduled for October 1 – 2.  Dean proudly named his new car “Little Bastard”.  On introducing himself to British actor Alec Guinness outside the Villa Capri restaurant in Hollywood, he invited Guinness to view his new car.  Guinness has since said that he found the car ‘sinister’, telling Dean:  “If you get in that car, you will be found dead by this time next week”.  Guinness’s prediction was scarily and sadly accurate:  James Dean’s fatal car crash took place seven days after this encounter.

On the day of the crash, Dean and his Porsche factory-trained mechanic Rolf Wutherich travelled to Competition Motors in Hollywood to prepare the Porsche 550 Spyder for the weekend sports car races at Salinas, California.  The original intention was to tow the car to the race site but because the Porsche did not have enough break-in miles prior to the race, Wutherich recommended to Dean that he drove the Porsche to Salinas.  Wutherich accompanied Dean on the journey.  Whilst travelling to Salinas, they were stopped by a California Highway Patrolman at Mettler Station on Wheeler Ridge, just South of Bakersfield, for driving 65 mph in a 55mph zone.  A few hours later, a black and white 1950 Ford Tudor Coupe was travelling at high speed east on Route 466.  Its driver was a student named Donald Turnupseed.  Turnupseed made a left turn onto Route 41 headed north, toward Fresno.  As Turnupseed’s Ford crossed over the centre line, Dean, who was driving at a reported speed of 85 mph, apparently tried to steer the Spyder in a “side stepping” racing manoeuvre, but with insufficient time and space, the two cars crashed almost head on.  Dean’s Spyder flipped up into the air and landed back on its wheels in a gully, northwest of the junction.  The impact was of such force that Turnupseed’s Ford was sent broad-sliding 39 feet down Route 466 in the westbound lane.

California Highway Patrol Captain Ernest Tripke and his partner, Corporal Ronald Nelson, had been finishing a coffee break in Paso Robles when they were called to the called to the scene of the accident at the Route 466/41 Junction.  Before the officers arrived, James Dean had been pulled from the wreckage of the Porsche Spyder.  Dean had taken the brunt of the horrendous crash and suffered a broken neck as well as several internal and external injuries, including his foot being crushed between the clutch and brake pedal.  The unconscious and dying Dean was placed into an ambulance, whilst a barely conscious Wutherich, who had been thrown from the Spyder, was lying on the shoulder of the road next to the wrecked car.  Wutherich and Dean were taken in the same ambulance to the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital 28 miles from the crash site.  James Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at 6.20pm.

Ironically, shortly before that fateful day, whilst he was filming Giant, Dean had filmed a short Public Service Announcement with fellow actor Gig Young for the National Safety Council.  Dean, dressed as his Giant character Jett Rink, spoke of how driving fast on the highway could be more dangerous than racing on a track.  At the end of the Public Service Announcement, instead of saying the intended catchphrase, “The life you save may be your own”, Dean said, “The life you might save might be mine”.

There have been many songs written about or mentioning James Dean over the years, many of which either portray Dean as the ultimate all American hero or a Hollywood poster boy.  Take for example, Electrolite by REM, from the album New Adventures in Hi-Fi (1996), with the line “Hollywood is under me, I’m Martin Sheen, I’m Steve McQueen, I’m Jimmy Dean”.

Occasionally some centre on Dean’s crash, usually in a metaphoric sense.  One that springs to mind is Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side, from Transformer (1972), which features the lines, “Jackie is just speeding away, Thought she was James Dean for a day, Then I guess she had to crash, Valium would have helped that bash”.

However, the most powerful retelling of James Dean’s death is Daddy’s Speeding by Suede from their second album Dog Man Star (1994).

Daddy’s Speeding was inspired by a dream that Brett Anderson had about James Dean’s death.  He told  “I was immersing myself in overtly clichéd Hollywood iconography at the time.  I guess it was an extension of the isolation / pornography themes where I saw people forming relationships with fantasy figures rather than real people; Our new communities were soap operas, our new friends were characters in American sit-coms”.

The first lines of the song tell of how “Whiplash caught the silver son, Took the film to number one”, of course referring to Giant, which was released posthumously, gear us up for a song which manages to evoke a feeling not dissimilar to one you would get from reading Crash by JG Ballard with images of “death machines” in a barren landscape of “green fields”.  There is something of a hero worshipping homoerotic quality to Daddy’s Speeding, with Anderson telling of how the leader (the “daddy”) of the gang of car obsessed teenagers “crashed the car and left us here” and how “Daddy turned a million eyes, Took the teenage dream to bed”.

Anderson’s drug of choice at the time was Acid, and its influences on the song are quite evident.  Daddy’s Speeding is a drug induced dream of a song, a tale of a doomed car race and a Hollywood star undone by destructive self-decadence in the dark underbelly of existence.

The song’s macabre but strangely beautiful depiction of James Dean’s death is aided by its stunning music.  Slow paced, starting with little more than a solitary guitar and Anderson’s mournful voice, building and building into a cacophony of white noise and feedback which is probably the greatest musical depiction of a car crash ever put on record.  The song ends with what sounds like the grim aftermath of the crash, fading away with the narrator, the ‘child’ of the “Daddy”, in his dreaming state, realising what has happened on that dusty and isolated crossroads.  This is a highly disturbing song of Ballard-like proportions, one which seems to be coming through the stereo speakers from another dimension or more accurately, from Brett Anderson’s drug fuelled dreams.

First Listen To New Suede Songs.

On a decidedly cold and wet but beautiful Spring morning in Bontddu, North Wales, after saying good morning to the dogs and my wonderful boyfriend, I switched on my computer and felt like listening to a bit of Suede to get the day off to a good start.  I have always felt an affinity with Suede.  I discovered them way back in 1992 when they were heralded “The best new band in Britain” by the NME and went on to collect every album and single they released.  From Suede, I also really discovered David Bowie in the same year and will always be eternally thankful to Brett Anderson, Bernard Butler, Mat Osman and Simon Gilbert for turning me on to a man who I would later write my university dissertation about.  My musical journey, save for the 80’s stars which dominated my pre-teen years, whom I also still love, started in 1992 with Suede, Bowie and a handful of other new bands who were then breaking such as Manic Street Preachers (but that is a whole other story and one I shall probably write about on this blog someday).  From these bands, I would trace back the origins of their sound and discover untold number of gems and in turn uncovering a whole new world which still enthralls me to this day and always will.

Turning on my computer, I chose ‘Suede – The Singles’ from YouTube and still felt the euphoria I felt in 1992 as the bombastic opening drum salvo of The Drowners blasted from the speakers across the front room of the cottage.

I had moved on from my early teenage years in suburbia, for which Suede provided the perfect soundtrack and was now listening to Suede’s paean to melodramatic and ambiguous love nestled in the beautiful countryside of Snowdonia National Park.  You can take Suede out of “the disguised suburban graves” and “ride from the bungalows, where the debts still grow each day” as they sung in the stunning The Wild Ones (from the band’s second album, 1994’s Dog Man Star), which is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful songs ever written, but when you have finally escaped suburbia, these songs still have the power to take you back to the places that they wrote about and still write about to this day.

However, now, as I listened to Suede’s stunning collection of singles from those glorious early days, they took on a whole new meaning:  Suburbia was now just a distant memory in a music obsessed girl’s mind.  I had done exactly what Brett Anderson had sung about on The Wild Ones and had rode from the bungalows, those disguised suburban graves and I was one of “the wild ones, running with the dogs today”.

As I moved on through Suede’s back catalogue of singles, still taking in every word that Brett sung and every note that Bernard, Mat and Simon played as if my life depended on it, such was still the power of these encapsulations of urban Britain coupled with the glam sound that will always fill my mind, I typed ‘Suede’ into Google with the intention of seeing some of those glorious photographs of the band from the early days.  To my excitement, I discovered that a new Suede album is due this year.  Such is Suede’s influence on me that every time a new Suede album is due, I have to remind myself that I am a woman in my early 30’s with full bladder control.  As with every Suede album due to be released, the details were sketchy, with aspects such as the title still to be announced.  I still remember reading with high expectation the details of Head Music (1999), following the glam pop album Coming Up (1996), where Brett teased fans by announcing a letter of the album’s title every week in the music press.  The only details I had to go off were an assortment of interviews with Brett on the web.  On the 25th February 2015, Brett told The Daily Star that the new album is “a journey” with songs flowing into each other throughout the record and that: “It’s an album that needs to be listened to from start to finish. If I was being bloody-minded, I’d demand that iTunes list it as only having one song so that you couldn’t skip tracks on it.”

This started to really excite me as I have always enjoyed concept albums, albums with a start, a middle and an end and albums that feel like a realised piece of work rather than simply a collection of a few singles and album tracks that seem disassociated from certain record companies’ notion that albums must have a number of singles to sell the album and the work as a whole hinges on the ability to sell the product rather than producing a piece of art where every song should be as recognised as the next, as both a piece of art in its own right and also recognised as fitting with the concept of the album as a whole.  Contrary to this opinion, I am a big fan of the single and it genuinely pains me that in this digital age, where I still strive to buy my music from a record shop as opposed to downloading it, the single now seems quite obsolete as an art form.  Pretty much gone are the days when I bought a single with the excitement of wondering what would be on the B side or what the artwork would look like.  Suede were one of those bands where the release of a single was a big event, in a similar vein to The Smiths and Manic Street Preachers.  Nowadays, the single is more about multi-million selling megastars such as Beyonce and the like gaining as much rotation on television music channels as possible.  Back in the day when I was fully immersed in the, also now quite obsolete, Indie music scene, I enjoyed bands who had the ability to incorporate their singles previously released into an album with panache, making them as enjoyable to listen to as part of the album as they were when I bought the single and was still wondering what the album would sound like.  Suede always managed this effortlessly.  I am very interested in a Suede album where each track merges into the next. This idea of merging one track into the next to create an album which sounds like a fully realised work with a beginning, middle and end brought to my mind the Everything Picture album (1999) by the much maligned Ultrasound, a favourite of mine around that time.

If the two tracks from the new Suede album I have just heard, I Don’t Know How To Reach You and Tightrope, are anything to go by, I am on the edge of my seat with anticipation about the record. Bloodsports (2013) was a wonderful return to form for the band after the disappointing 2002 album A New Morning and a decade in the wilderness and I hope just a taste of what the band are still capable of.  If Bloodsports was the sound of a newly re-energised Suede starting with a blank canvass after a decade away, we could think of that album as being in parallel with their debut, Suede (1993).  So, could the new album be a magnum opus akin to Dog Man Star (1994) in the making?  We can only dream.

As I finish listening to every Suede single to date, ending with 2013’s For The Strangers,

I cue up I Don’t Know How To Reach You, perhaps with the anticipation of it being the next single or perhaps just still curious about how Brett’s obvious ambition regarding the new album or simply just longing to hear one of my all time favourite bands play me a song which I will be thinking of for years to come, just like they have often managed to achieve in the past.  The blustery weather sweeping across the beautiful countryside in Wales was the perfect backdrop for what I was about to hear.  Coupled with some powerful and erratic guitar work from Richard Oakes, the gorgeous half ballad and half foot stomper sounded as sweeping as the Welsh weather.  Brett can still sound as longing and lovesick as he did on songs such as The Drowners and the rest of the band are still as able to put a tremendously throbbing beat behind it but this is a band who have now come of age with a renewed sense of purpose and direction.  I am very interested in hearing the final recording of I Don’t Know How To Reach You but if the live version from The Teenage Cancer Trust benefit concert in 2014 is anything to go by, I doubt I will be disappointed.

Next up is the second new song, Tightrope.  Tightrope is a slow-paced acoustic strum-along which recalls some of Suede’s most beautiful moments such as those found on the second side of Dog Man Star and on those wonderful early B-sides such as The Living Dead (from the Stay Together single, 1994), The Big Time (from the Animal Nitrate single, 1993) and High Rising (from the So Young single, 1993).  In Tightrope, Brett still sings of ‘the high life’, “The high life is within you”, like it is a something from an ever occurring distant dream punctuated with gritty, kitchen sink imagery from a life where the only high life is the tightrope he walks upon with the love interest of the song.  Now that Brett has 23 years of highly acclaimed songs under his belt and is very much settled into suburban family life with his partner and children, can such lyrics still be credible or are Suede simply rehashing tried and tested themes?  Are the lyrics in remembrance of the days when the singer dreamt of the highlife in “disguised suburban graves … where the debts still grow each day”?  Is Brett now taking on a persona of somebody still living in a life that they wished to escape?  Were the songs that Suede have sung over the years ever about Brett or were they Brett adopting a character?  There is no doubt that Brett once felt this way and by tapping into the psyches of listeners, such as myself, who dream of escape from the situation or the place that they find, or once found themselves in, he struck a chord with millions.  Listeners to Suede are either still in such situations that Brett still sings about or have been in those dark places, so yes, I feel that the lyrics are still credible although perhaps slightly detached from where the singer is in his own life.  This is still the Suede I know and love and it would be very un-Suede if Brett started singing about how content he is with his partner and children.  I now look at Suede, what they stand for and the words Brett sings, in a different way, probably much as Brett does himself.

Suede, just like their forthcoming new album, is like a journey.  You yearn for escape from your life, you imagine the highlife, a different way of life and when you reach the point in your life where just as Brett sings in I Don’t Know How To Reach You, you think “I never thought it would happen to me”, you can look back on Suede’s impressive canon of work and trace your life up until that point through their songs.  That is the feeling that your favourite bands should evoke and why Suede will always be one of my favourite bands.  But are they still relevant?  Yes, because by rights, Suede should be out there influencing “a new generation calling”.

As I look across the rain and windswept countryside of Snowdonia National Park, I wonder if the journey in question on the new Suede album will lead to happiness and fulfilment?  Again, that would be very un-Suede.  Real Suede fans, wherever their own personal journey has taken them, will always be “real drowners” at heart.