Wasted on the Youth: Geoff Barrow of Portishead and BEAK>

Barrow on his childhood Dredd and William Shatner's wobbly career

Sep 30, 2010 Web Exclusive
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(Under the Radar's Summer 2010 Issue is a special issue named the Wasted on the Youth Issue that features musicians and actors talking about their childhood memories and things they loved when they were kids. We're also posting web-exclusive articles that were not printed in the issue, including this one about Geoff Barrow of Portishead and BEAK>. The issue features an article in which Barrow talks about the post-apocalyptic movies of his youth, but he talked about a ton of other topics from his youth, which this article covers.)

Legend has it that the apocalypse will be preceded the sound of the hooves of four horsemen. But the British trio BEAK>, fronted by Portishead's Geoff Barrow, creates a Krautrock sound so exquisitely doom-laden that you'd be forgiven for thinking that the end of days are near.

It's no surprise, then, that when Under the Radar interviewed Barrow for its Wasted on the Youth issue, the musician revealed that post-apocalyptic movies of the 1980s were a formative influence on his worldview and music. Back then, Barrow feared the Cold War would culminate in nuclear annihilation.

"I was absolutely convinced that the world was going to end," says Barrow, talking by phone from England. "I didn't have any trust in governments; in Margaret Thatcher, especially. She took us to war with Argentina. Argentina!"

During the interview, Barrow also dialed back his memories to revisit the TV shows and comic books that dominated his childhood in the town of Portishead, England. Principal among them: the violent British comic 2000 AD, featuring the iconic character Judge Dredd.

"Judge Dredd was the main character and it was a post-apocalyptic Earth with five megacities left," Barrow explains. In the comic, the perennially helmeted policeman had the shoulders of an NFL linebacker and carried a bazooka-sized handgun. He was also armed the kind of legal power that even a PATRIOT Act supporter might deem excessive. Dredd is simultaneously a judge, jury, and on-the-spot executioner.

Unfortunately, the 1995 Hollywood movie version, starring Sylvester Stallone, was far too slick for Barrow's tastes. It was a far cry from the gritty, B-movie production values of his favorite dystopian films, including Terminator and Mad Max.

"What was good about [those movies] was they were rough," says Barrow. "You watch films nowadays and you know it's not real. Even The Dark Knight was very shimmeryeven the dirt looked like it had been processed on a computer."

Barrow says he has tried to purge the Judge Dredd movie from his memory, especially since the production fell far short of what he always imagined a film adaptation would look like.

"Me and my mates used to sit in Portishead around the lake and talk about what the film version would be like," recalls the musician. "Judge Dredd would be [played by] Clint Eastwood and, especially in the '80s, when we wanted it to happen, he could easily have done it. Then we got the news that it was Stallone and we thought, 'Hmmm, well, he's got the chin for it. He might be alright.' "

So much for Barrow's prediction. "It was shocking!," says Barrow, almost spitting into his phone's mouthpiece. "The worst part was when they brought a bloke in as a comedy sidekick."

Barrow says that Hollywood will, inevitably, try to revive the franchise at some point. (This time, Barrow's prediction is spot on. Just weeks after the interview, a production company announced that actor Karl Urban will star in a 2012 reboot titled Dredd.) Barrow hopes future cinema adaptations will stay faithful to the feel of the original comic book. "The themes it brought up about modern society were really interesting and really forward looking," says Barrow. "It took everything to an extreme about living in a metropolis. There were guys who needed scooters to get around because of their obesity. There were block wars. And there was so much crime that policemen had to become judges. They could judge you and sentence you to death as the crime was being committed. The crimes became less and less as the penalties became greater."

Barrow grows wistful about how the television of his childhood portrayed a tidier, rosier view of crime and punishment. For instance, the 1980s television show The Equalizer featured scowling English actor Edward Woodward as an AARP-age vigilante who cleans up the mean streets of New York. In truth, Woodward was less intimidating than Grandpa Simpson doing a Charles Bronson impression.

"He was the most unscary bloke. But he was supposedly ex-intelligence CIA, so you were supposed to be scared of him. It was hilarious, really, because he had this overly English character," laughs Barrow. "All the street gangs were the worst-dressed street gangs ever. They all had knuckle dusters and cut-off denim jackets. They stood around those tubs full of fire in the middle of a street with a crazy Puerto Rican guy wearing chains."

Indeed, TV shows imported from the U.S. exerted a strong pull on the young Barrow. Especially those featuring helicopters armed to the teeth with the kind of technology normally only found in James Bond's Aston Martin.

"There was Airwolf and Blue Thunder," Barrow recalls. "They were the most useless storylines ever. It's only ever going to end up with a helicopter battling something else in the air. And only Airwolf or Blue Thunder is going to win."

Britain often produced its own versions of American TV shows, says Barrow. Starsky & Hutch, for instance, was renamed as The Professionals. "It was a lot grittier, with sexual undertones and a bit of bad language. It was more hardcore and less comical. But I used to enjoy watching CHiPS and T.J. Hooker, as well. But T.J. Hooker was shit, wasn't it? It was this guy [William Shatner] in a girdle and he could just about waddle around while chasing some überfit black guy and catching him at the end of the subway pass."

By contrast, Barrow is full of praise for Shatner's role as Captain Kirk.  "The original Star Trek was incredible," he says, marveling at the show's willingness to boldly go where 1960s network television hadn't dared to venture. "You only have to look at the cast. You had a black American woman who was in charge of [the ship's] communication! It wasn't like she was a waitress." 

Barrow hastens to add that Shatner has an even worthier legacy: His comedy records. Barrow heartily recommends searching YouTube for the actor's rendition of Elton John's "Rocket Man." "It's shockingly amazing," he concludes.



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