Up Against It

Review by Gareth Davies-Morris (Switch to

Given that only one other person has posted a review – and that 10 years ago -- I figure another opinion is needed of a terrific "lost" Todd release that all hardcore fans should discover. I believe that Andrew McGarrigle’s review is fundamentally wrong about the success of Todd's demos, the only version of the Up Against It score that will ever likely be available, after all. If you just like a few tunes or are new to Todd, then probably Rhino's quite decent Best Of is the place to start. But if you like Todd's more complex work (Initiation, RA, TR's Utopia, and especially the piece A Wizard A True Star), you'll find this work, recorded 86-88 but unreleased until 1997, a wonderful discovery.

A little background: this is Todd's score to the stage adaptation of playwright Joe Orton's Up Against It, the unfilmed screenplay originally mooted as the third Beatles film (after Hard Day's Night and Help). They declined it, so he reworked it to lessen their presence, successfully sold it to the producer Oscar Lewenstein, and then was violently done in by boyfriend Kenneth Halliwell in a notorious murder-suicide. With Orton no longer around to help push it along, development stalled and the script was never filmed. It was published in book form a couple of times, however, and in the 80s Joseph Papp decided to give the script a new lease on life as a piece of theater. Hence this score.

In the liner notes, Todd observes that he probably got the gig based on having created the various Beatles parodies on Deface The Music. Whoever hired him must not have known about Todd's general disinterest in rock musicals or the overt contempt he had voiced for John Lennon during the former Beatle's infamous "lost weekend" (he wrote Rock'n'Roll Pussy about Lennon, evidently; you can find their exchange of words in Melody Maker right here on this site: http://trconnection.com/trconn.php/article=lennon.art).

Certainly, anyone expecting Beatlemania wouldn't find it here; this is pure Todd, in the melodies, the arrangements, and above all the vocals. There are no Beatles similarities at all, really, except the deliberate echo of the Billy Shears theme at the start of From Hunger, which I'd guess was intended for the Ringo-style character. All quite fitting, given that the Beatles rejected the screenplay and Orton died thinking it wouldn't be a Beatles film anyway; what we get instead is effectively a new piece of theater scored with a great set of Todd songs. The story's dated and rather silly but certainly reflects 60s concerns: gender roles, women's rights, sexual liberation, and revolution. In the plot, the battle of the sexes is taken into outright civil war, with the women winning and men losing all political rights. It's sort of like Norman Lear's All That Glitters encountering a bizarre gender twist on Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, but it's entertaining, no doubt, and I wish I'd seen it staged in its brief run.

The production sound is similar to Healing or TEPTAE: rich synths, electric piano, and syndrums (in fact, you could almost say that you get an hour's worth of Shine or Hideaway here), and, at least to my ears, is amply full and finished-sounding. It helps if you like musicals such as West Side Story or anything by Gilbert & Sullivan, or if you at least enjoy Todd's musical-hall songs like Emperor of the Highway or his cover of Lord Chancellor's Nightmare song. It's most definitely a musical, after all, with repeating themes and multiple vocal parts. But it's Todd, too, so it rocks, at least in places: ie, You'll Thank Me In The End, Lili's Address, & the title track. Sadly, there's no guitar, thus what you don't get are any of Todd's trademark soaring solos, which usually appear at least once on any of his albums. In terms of performance, the real strength here is Todd's vocals. He sings all of the parts -- yes, in character in several places, such as Lili's Address, When Worlds Collide, and the Finale. But that adds to the fun, I think, and makes this the closest thing to a cast album that we'll ever get. In particular, Lili’s Address, which the other reviewer found so irritating, is for me the album’s high point, pulling together several key themes over a thumping beat and some of Todd’s best vocals. The Lili voice may grate but it works in context and the other parts (the reporters, the delegates, the anthem) are fantastic; the song is a mini-musical in itself.

Four tracks have appeared elsewhere, and one track dropped from the performance is reinstated -- thankfully, as it's also one of the best here. Todd shrewdly reworked the Tony-nominated Parallel Lines on Nearly Human, but while that version was clearly geared for top-40 radio, the original is slower and more pensive, but ever bit as enjoyable. Three other tracks, The Smell of Money, If I Have To Be Alone, & Love in Disguise, were rerecorded on Second Wind, and those performances are, I imagine, very similar to how the stage versions must have sounded. I like them a lot, but finally enjoy Todd's sparer solo originals more. As for the dropped song, We Understand Each Other, the other reviewer was spot on; it’s fantastic. The bluesy shuffle belies the highly complex counterpoint of the vocal lines, which were evidently just too hard for the actors to learn. Go figure, lazy bums; no wonder Todd's solo version is the only one we'll ever hear - or need to!

About the packaging, this is a Japan-only release, and the extra-thick jewel case allows for two version of the libretto, one in Japanese, the other in English (in an odd two-piece fold-out). Todd provides brief but humorous liner notes, including comments about improvements he wishes he’d made to the lyrics and performances on certain tracks. My only complaint is the artwork. We get nothing more than a frankly awful photo of Todd that looks like a colorized version of his back-cover shot on Oops Wrong Planet. I don't understand why Pony Canyon couldn't have used a promotional shot from the play or a page from its program, or even a photo of the marquee showing the play's title during its brief run. Someone must have had that memorabilia. Or even better, a still from the Orton biopic Prick Up Your Ears, a fine film with Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina that features a very brief recreation of the proposed last scene from Up Against It (Miss Drumgoole in bed with the Fab Four). Any of those would have nicely tied the play to Todd's score and shown us something a bit more appealing.

Oh well, a minor gripe about a major work in the career of this ferociously talented artist. Again, if you like his progressive side in particular, you should discover this little-known gem.

Other reviews for Up Against It

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