Reviews

The Tower

Brian Holcomb

Until one can get to London, this is an eight hours well spent.


The Tower

Distributor: Koch
Cast: Sean Pertwee(Narrator)
Network: Channel 4
First date: 1993
US Release Date: 2007-05-08
Amazon

It’s hard to visit London and not get caught in all the tourist traps. It could be argued that London itself is one giant tourist trap . But to visit that great city and to ignore all of it’s wonderful history, even via the tourist experience, would make the trip pointless. It’s a wonderful city that haunts itself around every corner.

When I first visited London almost 17 years ago, I decided to skip the Tower of London tour to avoid the massive lines and go to the London Dungeon wax museum instead, where I could indulge in my darker fascination for the gory glory of England’s past. You’ll definitely find it there amid room after room featuring great re-creations of torture devices, plagues, fires, and of course, Jack the Ripper.

The Tower’s famous death scenes were on display, as well; wax depictions of the murder of the two Princes, Lady Jane Grey, and the most notorious Tower guest of all, Ann Boleyn. I enjoyed the Dungeon and actually recommend it to anyone who visits London. Even though it's lurid, it does capture a certain romance of the city’s violent legacy and will paint a more interesting picture in your imagination as you go about the old streets from your hotel to the Thames.

But it will not and should not replace a visit to the Tower itself. The Tower is truly awe-inspiring.

When I finally went to the Tower, I was amazed at the mysterious and enigmatic atmosphere of the place. Here was a massive structure that functioned as a home for the Royal family, a prison, an armory, treasury, mint, and even a zoo. Of course, since 1303, it’s been home to the Crown Jewels. Architecturally it’s a grand work-in-progress, a complex that was added to and

adapted throughout the centuries for each new purpose.

Starting with the White Tower built by William the Conqueror in 1078 as a fortress on the Thames, the Tower would end up as a mini-village of buildings completely surrounded by two massive walls and a moat. It has features that demonstrate upgrades made to deal with the ever changing technology of war as well as the ever changing needs of a monarchy. What remains fascinating is how these upgrades sit side-by-side with the original construction. The original was never scrapped, just redesigned like modern software, The Tower of London 2.0 if you will.

Today it’s still the home of the crown jewels protected by the Yeoman Warders as they’ve always been. But it’s no longer a prison, or a place of execution, or even home to the royal family. It’s a historic site that attracts tourists from around the world, most of whom are drawn there much as I was to the London Dungeon wax museum, to walk among the ghosts of a gory past that has been, in many cases, romanticized.

Channel Four has taken it upon itself to try to separate the romance from the truth with an eight-part documentary called The Tower. The program breaks the tower down to be examined from every relevant physical and historical angle. Each of the eight episodes focus on one specific aspect of the construct. At nearly eight hours in total, it would seem to be thorough, but in many ways the series just touches the tip of the iceberg.

“Fortress” examines the Tower’s origins as a stronghold. We are shown the defensive logic behind the engineering and design of hidden cannon holds, moats and pits. Computer animation is used to recreate sections of the buildings long gone and to demonstrate the maze like construction created as traps for invaders. The Tower is presented as a truly impenetrable fortress which was actually penetrated once, in a very amusing story involving corruption and the public’s outrage over taxation.

“Prisoners” focuses on the Tower as a prison for high profile “celebrity” enemies of the Monarch. People such as Sir Walter Raleigh who spent 13 years there in relative comfort. These prisoners often found themselves and their families becoming close friends with their Yeoman warders. The Tower was actually still used as a prison in WWII when Rudolf Hess was held there. The last prisoners to be held were the infamous Kray brothers in 1952.

“Treasure House” looks at the many different jewels and priceless artifacts held under the defense of the Tower. The crown jewels are at the center of this episode but it’s the charming man whose job it is to polish the jewels regularly who steals the segment. His job may seem simple, but his real passion for his work is infectious. We should all feel as much pride in our work as this man.

“The Tower at War” is just that, demonstrating the life within the Tower during the many wars that kept the sun from setting on the British empire.

“The Lost Palace” is where more computer animation is employed. History is debunked as the room in which many tourists were shown to be Ann Boleyn’s bedchamber is revealed to be a sham. It seems that Oliver Cromwell made great changes to the Tower which included the removal of the very building in which Ann lived. Computer animation and the use of old documents are used to bring these buildings back to life.

“Who Goes There?” examines the life of the Yeoman Warders who live and work at the Tower year round. “The Ceremony of the Keys” is presented, a very dramatic tradition that has gone on virtually every night for over 900 years. The warders are all military veterans for whom the day to day protection and upkeep of the Tower is their primary role. They do, also, act as tour guides and for me, one of the highlights of this program was seeing one of my own tour guides featured. He was shown in his nicely furnished and spacious quarters, relaxing by putting on the Tower green, and going about his daily duties. This segment may sound dull but it’s actually one of the best in the series.

“The Bloody Tower” is what will sell this DVD to most people. Stories of torture, poisonings, the murders of the young princes, and beheadings on Tower Hill -- it’s all here.

“Tower Top Brass” is the last and the least of the series. It focuses on the new management of the Tower and the ceremonies that are conducted to inaugurate him. Nothing particularly bad, here, just not very gripping.

Koch Vision Entertainment is releasing this 2001 production in a two DVD set that is well presented visually but with a below average sound mix. The narration by Sean Pertwee is fine but some of the interviews are mixed low next to music tracks that suddenly boom. A few extras would’ve been welcome as this subject is the kind of historical series that would be very useful for schools. Perhaps some documents as a PDF download or a map of the Tower grounds would help.

Other than such technical nitpicking, The Tower is a very entertaining primer on the history of this English landmark. But it’s unfortunate that it remains merely a primer. There is a certain tabloid style of production here with some lame recreations of famous moments such as Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up Parliament, presented in that strobe-light-like style that shouts: DRAMATIC RECREATION.

Some of the eight hours are wonderful while lots of time is wasted on shaggy dog investigations without a real payoff. But the subject is a great one, and The Tower may inspire younger viewers to seek out more information themselves. Perhaps even a tourist-type visit to this historical landmark. Until one can get to London, this is an eight hours well spent.

6

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

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