My Pop Life #166 : Pacific 202 – 808 State

Pacific 202   –   808 State

The last few days of 1989 :  a Ford Granada with me driving, Jenny in the jump seat and my brother Paul and his boyfriend Colin in the back is driving the long endless East German autobahn towards West Berlin.  It’s cold outside and the road goes on forever.  We’ve been driving from England since morning.  For the last six months news reports coming out of the Eastern Bloc of change :  East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in particular seethe with popular unrest, and since November 17 the famous Wall dividing East and West Berlin has been tested and breached by demonstrators.  Refugees from East Germany have been granted asylum in Hungary.   Berlin is in flux.  Gorbachev is in power in the USSR talking about Perestroika (re-structuring : also the name of his book, which I read in 1989) and glasnost (open-ness), a new way forward, relaxing the tight rules on state power and movement of peoples and now in front of us, the Iron Curtain is creaking.


Mikhail Gorbachev stated in 1989 that German re-unification was a German matter

Historic times indeed.  Then on Christmas Day, hated dictator President Ceaușescu of Romania and his wife are executed by firing squad after a trial lasting one hour.  We decide to see in the new year in Berlin, in the centre of it all.  Armed with an address provided by Jonathan & Roberta, Paul and Colin’s friends from college, we finally arrive at around 10pm, climb the three flights of stairs to find a lovely two-room apartment, empty save for two Italians who had also been told that they could use the space for the New Year.  Mutual surprise all round, but these were pre-internet days.  The four English end up on two single mattresses in the main room.

Checkpoint Charlie : he didn’t crack a smile

The following morning we wake too late for hot water, our Italian friends having got to the bathroom first.  After breakfast Jenny and I drive through Checkpoint Charlie to East Berlin, receiving a small passport made of cardboard which is stamped, and we are told that we have to return before midnight.  East Berlin is eerie and strangely gentle.  At the first large square – almost deserted, very few shops open, there are rabbits hopping around.  We visit a large department store and buy AyeAye, a 1970s Donny Hathaway hat which we still have – a beautiful, madly out-of-date-in-a-good-way fashion piece, so out-of-date that it was back in fashion in the west.  We ate some unimpressive food in a quiet restaurant and made our way back to the western side.

 West Berlin was heaving with people, simply full up. Jenny and I had decided to get a hotel room, but there weren’t any.  She was something of a distraction for everyone, being black and sporting her eighteen-hole DMs.  That night, New Year’s Eve, we queued for an Italian restaurant (against my religion to Q for food : unless I’m in prison), only to be told it was a private party.  At another Italian the waiters took exception to Paul & Colin being gay, so Jenny gave them a piece of her mind and was escorted physically from the building.  We did finally eat somewhere, but seven million other people had had the same idea as us and West Berlin was rammed.  Still, if you can’t be original, join in, that’s my motto.  Sounds better in Latin.  si non potest esse prima iungas..  Imagine it on a little crest.  A badge.  Oh, never mind.

Approaching midnight and Paul and Col had gone clubbing somewhere, Jenny and I made our way to the Wall at Potsdammer Platz near Brandenburg Gate where crowds of revellers were partying on top of the Wall in full view of soldiers from both sides, dancing, smoking weed and chipping pieces of the Wall away with chisels and hammers.  An extraordinary atmosphere.  We stood in one of the holes in the Wall and could see No Man’s Land and the towers and barbed wire of the East.  I had a mini boombox and played a previously-recorded Martin Luther King “I Had A Dream” speech when a soldier told me to turn it off, despite clearly not speaking English and not understanding what it was.  I didn’t turn it off and there were too many people around to make a fuss.  In amidst the party atmosphere was a strange tension as many of the West Berliners felt decidedly ambiguous about everything opening up.  A kind of tense excitable hysteria, who are all these people?  The future was uncertain, and there were already some East Germans crossing the border, changing the nature of the enclave forever.

New Year’s Eve at The Wall 1989

We listened to cassettes on the drive over, handmade by each of us, or purchased at Our Price or Woolworths.  Certainly one of these was a best of 1989 compilation – and it was a great year for dance music in particular.

Hip hop had already come, seen and conquered.  Now we were into the Daisy Age thanks to De La Soul, while Heavy D & The Boyz had serenaded Jenny and I in D.C. with their own New Jack Swing thang  (see My Pop Life #33).  Janet Jackson was in the Rhythm Nation, Shabba Ranks was being Wicked Inna Bed, and in the summer I’d  choreographed a dance to Redhead Kingpin & The FBI‘s monster song Do The Right Thing (see My Pop Life #7) in a theatre workshop with a young David Walliams and 25 other teenagers for the National Youth Theatre.  Not to be confused with the Spike Lee film of the same name which had a terrific soundtrack featuring Public Enemy, Perri, Teddy Riley, Guy and Take 6.

The British had a great year – a new confidence in the air manifest by Soul II Soul and that Keep On Movin’ LP which dominated the summer.  Other acts which popped through were Rebel M.C. with Street Tuff, Neneh Cherry with Buffalo Stance and Stone Roses with Fool’s Gold.  But none caught my ear quite like this record.  Radio One played it every day – Gary Davies I think – until it was eventually released in November 1989 and became an immediate hit. An immediately intoxicating sound whether you had dropped ecstasy or not, we hadn’t heard much like it before on the radio.

I depended on Paul and Colin for bringing me club tunes since I didn’t really go clubbing.   I did go to legendary gay club Heaven with them a couple of times under the Charing Cross Arches but they were out listening to Frankie Knuckles, Mr Fingers, Phuture and the other stars of House Music regularly, and this year’s big song was French Kiss by Lil Louis.  Earlier in the year Paul had introduced me to seminal techno house track Voodoo Ray by A Guy Called Gerald, out of the Manchester underground, later a big hit, and this track Pacific by 808 State has his fingerprints all over it.

Graham Massey, Gerald Simpson, Martin Price – 808 State

808 State were formed in Manchester by Gerald Simpson (A Guy Called Gerald), Graham Massey and Martin Price in 1987 and named after Gerald’s Roland TR-808 drum machine.  Pacific aka Pacific State, Pacific 717 Pacific 202 etc etc was and remains a delicious electronic chilled dance tune featuring a wonky alto sax line and a collection of strange bird noises and it heralded Acid House and the Manchester rave scene, about which I know next to nothing.  My Manc friends Andy Baybutt, Jo Thornhill, Keith Davey and Josh Raikes all came of age through those Madchester years and I’ll leave it to them to explain it all to you (they all moved to Brighton though – make of that what you will…).   As for me, I never did like Happy Mondays, The Charlatans or Stone Roses THAT much and I certainly never bought the 2nd Summer Of Love designation, but I would never pour cold water over it either, I’m sure it was an intoxicatingly hypnotically fantastic and exciting time to be up in the north west of England.  Especially when Pacific State came out !   I bought the 12″ single on ZTT (Paul Morley, Trevor Horn and Jill Sinclair’s label) which had Pacific 707 (the 7 inch version) and Pacific 212 and one other mix ?  There are about 20 versions out there.  The one below is Pacific 202.  I think.  It was released in America on TommyBoy Records in 1990.

We found a hotel and a bathroom on Jan 1st 1990 in West Berlin while Paul & Col made friends with their new Italian flatmates and stayed for three more weeks.  Jenny and I explored the groovy anarchist squat scene in Kreuzberg and went back to The Wall and picked up some orange spray-painted sections for keepsakes and drove back home shortly afterward one morning.  I went back to Berlin last year and invented the David Bowie : Where Are We Now ? tour (see My Pop Life #97) and some 25 years later the city is almost unrecognisable.  Only a few parts of the wall remain, tourist attractions, protected.  I stayed in the old East Berlin, now simply Berlin.  It is thrumming with activity and endeavour, much of it artistic, simply full of energy.

As we drove home through Germany, then Belgium, we were stopped on the French border for our passport.  Most cars were getting waved through and we were blocking the road.  The passport was in my suitcase in the boot, so I offered to pull over while I got out and unpacked.  No said the French border police.  Stay in the road.  I got annoyed with him and so they decided to search the car.  Jenny and I were processed through the system, stripped,  and searched.  And then made to wait in the little central booth as the border police tooth-combed the car.  While we waited, and waited, I noticed cars queuing to get into Belgium from France looking at me with quizzical eyes.  They were asking for permission to cross the border.  There was no one else there, so I started to nod at the drivers, and they would drive through.  It was ridiculous but fun.  Eventually we were interviewed by the boss.   He explained that busloads of tourists came this way from Amsterdam every day.  I told him that we’d come from Berlin.  Earlier in 1989 I had been filming in France (see My Pop Life #9) playing Eugene Delacroix the painter who appeared on the 200 Franc note (sadly now replaced by the Euro).  As I explained this to the police chief, he asked me if I smoked weed – “and is it used for inspiration, like Baudelaire?”  I agreed that I imagined it was.  “Ah you artistic types” he sighed.

We crossed the Channel at Ostende and landed in England in the brave new world of 1990.   Capitalism won, after extra time.

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My Pop Life #109 : New Jack Hustler – Ice-T

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I got nothing to lose, much to gain, on my brain I got a capitalist migraine

I gotta get paid tonight, you motherfuckin right…

…go to school ? I ain’t goin’ for it – kiss my ass, bust the cap on the Moet !

*

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Deep in 1991.  I’ve finished shooting Alien 3 in Pinewood.  The Gulf War is over.  Jenny and I are living in Archway Road, and we’ve holidayed in Positano (My Pop Life #29).  The Channel Tunnel is almost completed.   Tottenham Hotspur have won the FA Cup and Paul Gasgoigne has ruptured his cruciate ligament.  People are going to prison over the Poll Tax, including Labour MPs.   To come : Jenny will play Mediyah in Pecong at the Tricycle Theatre, and I will film The Crying Game in Hoxton and meet David Bowie one night (see My Pop Life 54).   Musically we were at a crossroads – Nirvana released Smells Like Teen Spirit which blew my head off, Massive Attack released Unfinished Sympathy which put it back on, Jenny was hugging Optimistic by Sounds Of Blackness, and we were both digging Seal, Prince and Lenny Kravitz.   Hip hop was at a true crossroads with Gangsta Rap bidding to take over the commercial end of the scene from more ‘conscious’ hip hop acts from the old skool.   Huge sales for Tupac, Biggie and others followed OG Ice T and his role in the film New Jack City which came out in England in August 1991.

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Wesley Snipes in New Jack City (1991)

The scene I’d witnessed in Washington D.C. whilst working on my hip-hop play Sanctuary in 1989 (see My Pop Life 33) was now writ large on the screen with Wesley Snipes in the lead role, Ice-T playing a cop and providing much of the soundtrack.  I’d get to work with Wesley a few hundred years later in Bulgaria on The Shooter – he’s a solid decent-enough guy.  By then (2004)  he was about to go to prison for non-payment of tax.  He still had a loyal and very cool entourage of eleven people.  All of whom depended on Wesley continuing to make movies…

New Jack City was written by Thomas Lee Wright and directed by Mario Van Peebles, who also appeared himself.  We heard about it months before it came out, one of the most anticipated films of 1991.  A hip hop crack gang movie inhabiting the same space as my newest play “The House That Crack Built” which had just been commissioned and then rejected by the BBC (see My Pop Life 61).  It concerned a young man whose father was absent and whose family was about to be evicted from their apartment-above-a-diner in Washington DC.  He decides to sell crack to help his mum which initially works well, but when she becomes addicted and his ambitions make him enemies who are armed and vicious it all goes horribly wrong.  A cliche perhaps, but somewhat inspired by my own adolescence.  Of course all the characters in the play were black.  This was what I had found in DC.  Crack was a new drug, a crystallisation of cocaine and tremendously powerful.   One hit will send you into space.  Users feel powerful and indestructible.  Horrible shit is what it is.  Any illegal drug will be the province of gangsters and underground big business.  In a way the black community in the USA were having their “mafia moment” like the Italians, Irish, and English had done before them.  Their piece of the pie.  America being built on slavery and criminal activity, genocide and gang-war, this is all perfectly normal.  New Jack City had Ice-T playing a New York cop going undercover into Wesley Snipes crack-dealing gang, who were in their turn facing off with another gang for turf and profits.  Pawns in a divide and rule game?

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Russell Wong, Mario  Van Peebles, Judd Nelson, Ice-T

So familiar, but with black faces, pretty new.  Judd Nelson is the only white character, We also meet Bill Nunn, a young Chris Rock, and Allen Payne with Michael Michelle and Russell Wong being stereotypical black woman and asian (techy) man.  It’s Hollywood folks.  But we were all completely thrilled by this new genre becoming so mainstream so quickly.  The result of New Jack Swing – the soul beat of the early 90s – with Blackstreet, Guy and Teddy Riley, singers like Bobby Brown and Keith Sweat – colliding with the new genre of hip-hop and producing stuff like Ice-T’s album OG and Heavy D and The Boyz (see My Pop Life #33) – it was an exciting moment.  Jenny and I completely loved – and still love – the track New Jack Hustler.  It is right up there with the very best moments in hip-hop culture, a monster song.

New Jack Hustler perfectly encapsulates the paradox of black capitalism (like all capitalism it starts with a hustle) empowering the self while spreading fear through the neighbourhood, being a big man while murdering brothers (niggas – of course).   Ice-T’s brilliant rap is both a boast and a warning, his self-awareness of the ghetto contradiction makes this a truly exemplary piece of work.  And it isn’t without humour too, the imaginary impressionable kid gazing up at his gold chains and guns asking “how can I be down?” gets this answer :

What’s up? You say you wanna be down?
Ease back, or muthafucka get beat down
Out my face, fool I’m the illest
Bulletproof, I die harder than Bruce Willis

Got my crew in effect, I bought ’em new Jags
So much cash, gotta keep it in Hefty bags
All I think about is keys and Gs
Imagine that, me workin’ at Mickey D’s

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One of the highlights of the major hip-hop doc ‘The Art Of Rap‘ is the moment when Peruvian-American rapper Immortal Technique raps those very lines at Ice-T as they stand on the New York sidewalk, to both of their amusement.   My old compadre Andy Baybutt shot and directed that film after making a deal with Ice-T that it would be called “An Ice-T film, directed by Ice-T” but c’mon, Andy made it.   Ice chose the characters and conducted the interviews.  He would open his address book and say “come to the corner in 15 minutes, we’re shooting a rap movie” and they’d just shoot the result.  It’s a superb film about how these guys actually put a rap together, and although Missy Elliott should be there, and two or three others, the cast is everyone who matters (and who’s still alive) in the history of rap.

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Ice-T is an interesting dude.  Born Tracy Marrow on the East Coast, he moved to LA after both parents died.  He got his name from being able to recite chunks of black-pimp-turned novelist Iceberg Slim for his schoolmates in Crenshaw High.   Seriously interested in heavy metal he co-founded Body Count a hard rock band in 1991 and their track Cop Killer was hugely controversial.  He’s done reality TV, straight acting, married a swimsuit model ‘Coco Marie‘ and put her on his LP covers, appeared as a regular in Law & Order and run a record label.  I still think this song is his finest hour.  The deceptively smart lyrics contain their own commentary on the ghetto and the way out :

Is this a nightmare? Or the American dream?
…Pregnant teens, children’s screams
Life is weighed on the scales of a triple beam
You don’t come here much, and ya better not
Wrong move (Bang) Ambulance cot

I gotta get more money than you got
So what, if some muthafucka gets shot?
That’s how the game is played
Another brother slayed, the wound is deep But they’re givin’ us a band-aid
My education’s low but I got long dough
Raised like a pit bull, my heart pumps nitro

Sleep on silk, lie like a politician
My Uzi’s my best friend, cold as a mortician
Lock me up, it’s genocidal catastrophe
There’ll be another one after me – a hustler

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D.J. Aladdin

All mixed by genius turntablist and producer D.J. Aladdin who combines samples from the ubiquitous James Brown (Blues & Pants provides the horn rise), Sly & The Family Stone (the magnificently cracked-out drum sample – my heart pumps nitro – with a break from You Can Make It If You Try), while the guitar twang is sampled from Bobbi Humphrey‘s Jasper Country Man.   The whole piece is like a gangsta manifesto, but dressed up as a cautionary tale and it was the point where I stopped buying hip-hop.  Rappers took the ironies in this song and flattened them out into macho posturing.  A whole generation of kids grew up on guns, hoes, cars, gangs and death and were convinced that they were all cool.  Capitalism won as it usually seems to.

Conspiracy theorists would have you believe that just as the black community started to get organised and angry, spearheaded by figures like Public Enemy, Ice-T and KRS-One, the ghettos were suddenly flooded with cheap weapons and crack cocaine.  The next 15 years were all about black-on-black crime and prison, major labels reaping the big profits.

Ice-T could see it coming.

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Ice-T pointing his fingers at you pretending he has a gun

My Pop Life #87 : Prélude a l’àprés-midi d’un faune – Claude Debussy

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Prélude a l’àprès-midi d’un faune   –   Claude Debussy

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There used to be two working piers in Brighton.  The Palace Pier, which still stands and contains the Victorian helter skelter and a pub ‘Horatios’, and the West Pier where I saw my first gig (The Barron Knights – see My Pop Life #63) and which was closed in 1975 due to high maintenance costs.  Built and designed by Eugenius Birch in 1866 it was Grade 2 listed despite slowly rotting away, and in the late 1990s a little momentum gathered to apply for English Heritage and Lottery money for a full restoration.  The owners of the Palace Pier, the Ignoble Organisation (sic) were not happy at all, scenting competition.  In 2003 not one but TWO fires occurred on the West Pier’s rotten structure, home only to bird’s roosts and the odd pop video, and it burnt to a shell.

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It felt like the entire population of the town was on the beach that morning to watch it burn away.  Earlier, a speedboat was spotted leaving the scene of the crime, and in my view the Latin phrase ‘cui bono‘ is the appropriate pointer to who was ultimately responsible.  After the fires English Heritage deemed it unfit for restoration, and it was partly demolished to make way for the i360 which may also be a cause of competition for The Palace Pier, (unnecessarily re-named Brighton Pier for similar ugly reasons).

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But before the fires, Andy Baybutt and I used to enjoy sitting on the stones and watching the starlings wheel and spin at sunset every night in a glorious and mysterious ballet before roosting in their thousands beneath the structure.  We decided – in a moment of stoned genius naturally – to film this local safari and so for twelve almost consecutive evenings in 2000 we shot the birds wheeling and falling through the air on their singular and collective missions with two mini-DV cams.  The lighting was hugely different each night.  We asked and received permission to film the spectacular event on the pier itself from Rachel at the West Pier Trust, and walked down the rickety iron walkway through the derelict ballroom to the theatre at the end, shooting through broken glass at the starlings flying in their thousands past the decay.

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We’d already shot a pop video for The Crocketts on the West Pier with local mate and actor Mark Williams for a song called “Host” which you can find on YouTube – we also shot on the Palace Pier for that video…so the pier filming wasn’t unique, but the idea of filming nature was.   There’s a mini-murmuration in the “Host” video, but now we were after the full thing.  {Murmuration is the collective noun for a group of starlings}.  They gather just before dusk and start flying in random but stunning formations over and around the pier, splitting, soaring, swooping, changing direction and shape like a shoal of fish or a galaxy exploding, atomic particles under a microscope;  it really is quite mesmerising (whether you’re stoned or not).

One day before shooting we sat there watching it with various songs in the headphones wondering what would work.  As soon as Claude Debussy‘s flute line came lilting through my ears I knew it was right – and once the orchestra starts to play, in the same tempo as the birds are flying, the music really found its purpose.

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Claude Debussy

Written in 1894 and inspired by a poem by Mallarmé, this impressionistic piece of music – Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun in English – is often cited as the start of modern music in that it never concludes or resolves itself.   The poet was unhappy about someone writing music to his poem – until he heard it.  Claude Debussy himself spent time in East Sussex and wrote another impressionistic masterpiece “La Mer” (the sea) in Eastbourne in 1905.

Featured imageDebussy was a hugely influential composer, particularly on Ravel, Gershwin, Delius, and Stravinsky among the classical composers, and Ellington, Miles Davis, Monk and John Williams among the jazz and film composers.    Prélude a l’àprès-midi d’un faune was danced as a ballet in fact in 1924 by the great Nijinsky and caused much furore when he appeared to masturbate as part of the production – despite this being one of the themes of the piece.  In the original poem a satyr or puck-like figure follows some nymphs one summer’s afternoon, becoming aroused, but cannot catch them and have his wicked way so instead falls asleep in the afternoon sun.  It is a beautiful piece of music and immediately accessible, even with its key changes and tempo adjustments, the flute keeps reappearing and serenading us into bliss.  When matched with the starling’s ballet some serendipitous magic appears to be at work – surely they can hear it?

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As to why the starlings fly in this way – we do not know.   I have researched it a great deal – they are my favourite birds – and theories abound.  They’re making a defensive formation against peregrine falcons.  They’re enjoying themselves before they go to bed.  Fish do it as a defensive collective measure.  So perhaps.  Best theory I know is this :  they’re trying to get a roosting position next to the strongest flyers, the ones who can turn speed and direction fastest, because they’ve eaten best that day, and in the morning they’ll wake together and follow them out to the feeding ground.  Who knows ?

Andy Baybutt and I met as mutual friends of Mark Williams, an actor I’d met at the RSC in 1990 (my last time on stage until 2009) and who’d moved to Brighton just before Jenny and I.  Mark had surrounded himself with young people in Brighton – still friends of ours many of them : Josh, Keith & Yarra, Andy & Jo (then together), Patrick, Kirsty, Sorya, Louise.    Andy and Jo got married shortly thereafter.   For some inexplicable reason I always treated Andy B like a long-lost younger brother, possibly because I have two younger brothers.   When he and Jo split up later on it felt like all of our mutual friends sided with Jo.   I always want to stay friends with both parties, but this naive approach has got me in trouble in the past.   Somehow I managed to do it in this case, and Jo Thornhill and Andy Baybutt are still two of my close friends to this day.   Andy is a camera expert and and a very good director in his own right (see Something For Nothing : The Art Of Rap) and we made three short films together in those Brighton years –  “The Murmuration” is the best of them and quite probably the best thing I have ever done.  No words, no people, just starlings and music, a perfect match.   When we edited the footage on my computer in 2001 the music gave us a finite timeline – just over eleven minutes – and the differing skylines and colours of those 12 sunsets had to appear to be the same day – and so we had our work cut out.   The wind was also a factor, any gust of wind would cause a tremble in the picture (no tripods!) – so the edit was a major challenge in retrospect.   The finished product isn’t perfect but it does work as a piece of art – ‘ambient film‘ perhaps.   I always wondered if it could be a pre-flight soother, or play in dentist’s waiting rooms.   There is untapped commercial potential but my hustle isn’t really built for that.   For a while Andy and I sold DVDs of the film at The West Pier Trust office but that fizzled out – there must be a few hundred out there somewhere.   I don’t actually have a copy of the film myself anymore.   Andy and I talk often about putting it on youtube, but we never do.  Extra footage was shot by Amanda Ooms‘ sister Sara Kander while Andy and I were on the Pier itself, she was on the beach when tens of thousands of birds were wheeling around the crumbling structure, that was an amazing day, and some of our most spectacular footage.   Help with production was generously offered by Jo Thornhill, Jenny Jules, Steve McNicholas & Luke Cresswell.

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The last day of filming was a little overcast.  Andy thought it wouldn’t match for light, but I was a little addicted to the process and went out in drizzly weather and staked out a position at 90 degrees to the pier, looking directly out to sea.  After shooting for some 35 minutes, the battery light started to flash red.  At that exact moment the birds appeared to fly together in a series of mesmerising turns just to the west of the pier, with a section landing at each turn, the mass murmuration becoming gradually smaller and smaller.  I watched in alarm as this beauty unfolded in front of me – the camera was balanced on a 10p piece on the railing – the light flashed, the starlings dwindled, the light faded and finally the last few birds settled beneath the pier and all that remained were the grey waves and the derelict structure.  And then the battery ran out and the camera went dark.  Luck, magic, faith, love…   But there’s more.   When Andy and I realised that the footage from that day had to be the final shot of the film, as the music gently relaxes and fades, we lined up the last bird landing with the last note of the music, and then watched it back.  On at least three occasions the birds turn precisely in time with the music.  Quite extraordinary…

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There are many many versions of this online, ranging from 7 minutes (Paganini – ridiculously fast!) to over 11 minutes, which is my personal preference, and the preference of the starlings themselves I believe…

If anyone reading this has a copy of The Murmuration perhaps you could let me know…

POST-SCRIPT !  In the final moments of 2015 Andy made a digital copy from the master beta tape, and uploaded the whole damn thing onto YouTube.  So here it is pop-lovers, starlings, the West Pier, and Debussy…