Wednesday, October 21, 2009

KISS: SONIC BOOM

Get ready to party like it’s 1975 (and occasionally, 1985).

With Kiss seemingly happy to spend the last decade as little more than a travelling nostalgic circus, and it’s two founding members pushing ever closer to pension age (Gene Simmons has just hit 60, Paul Stanley is 57), I honestly never thought I’d live to see another full album of original material by these guys. After their last studio effort, 1998s ill-conceived and disjointed Psycho Circus, Simmons and Stanley have both bemoaned the fact that the music industry is dead, killed by illegal downloading and an audience mostly apathetic to new releases by ‘heritage’ acts.

Produced by Stanley and recorded in the old-fashioned analogue way, Sonic Boom is much better than any Kiss album produced at this stage of their career has the right to be. While it might not be the vintage sounding recording that the band were hyping it up to be, it does combine elements of their most successful epochs into one tight, cohesive little package. Opening with Modern Day Delilah (which bases itself around a heaving, swaggering riff that could almost pass itself off as an obscure 1970s stoner rock classic), Sonic Boom ploughs through its ten tracks in just over 40 minutes, ensuring a brief but savage aural attack that doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Refreshingly ballad-free, Sonic Boom may rank as one of Kiss’ most consistent albums, with not a weak track in sight. Only When Lightning Strikes (sung by lead guitarist Tommy Thayer, wearing the Spaceman make-up made famous by Ace Frehley) comes close to being considered filler, although Thayer’s blistering fretwork throughout the album more than compensates (even if he does ape many of Frehley’s trademark licks and solos in order to achieve that classic Kiss sound). Even drummer Eric Singer is given a chance at the mic, with great results, on the rousing All for the Glory.

While Stanley the Starchild handles the more commercial material (the anthemic closer Say Yeah sounding like it could have come off one of the band’s mid-1980s recordings), it’s Simmons who is clearly the star here, with the Demon coming up with possibly his strongest contributions to a Kiss album to date, combining a thumping bass tone with his typically lascivious lyrics (“Baby, feel my tower of power”) on tracks like Russian Roulette, Hot and Cold and the album’s high point, Yes I Know (Nobody’s Perfect), a rocking boogie shuffle that could easily be an outtake from 1975s Dressed to Kill.

While it’s unlikely to win them an army of new fans, Sonic Boom should restore the faith in many die-hard followers who have stuck with the band throughout their 35+ year history, and is a powerful reminder that, beneath all the make-up, bombast and crappy merchandising, Kiss remains one hell of a good hard rock outfit. If this is to be their last offering, then it is a fitting and memorable swansong.

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Copyright John Harrison 2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

THE DEVIL DANCED IN DENNIS ALLEN

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A name that seems to have been pushed back somewhat from the public psyche – thanks in no small part to the more headline-grabbing exploits of the violent Carlton Crew/Carl Williams drug war (as detailed in the series of popular Underbelly books and the top-rating television mini-series of the same name) – Dennis Allen was a man fully deserving of his fearsome reputation. While he only spent a few brief years at the top of Melbourne’s criminal hierarchy, it was enough time for Allen to spread fear through even the most hardened of souls who treaded the murky waters of Melbourne’s underworld, leaving behind a trail of dead bodies that helped give credence to his self-appointed (and fully-deserving) moniker of ‘Mr Death’.

Dennis Bruce Allen was born to crime patriarch Kathy Pettingill in Carlton on November 7, 1951, and grew up in a housing estate in Heidelberg (originally built for athletes competing in the 1956 Olympic Games and turned into public housing afterwards). By the time he was 20, Allen – a social misfit - had already amassed a decent rap sheet for fights, thefts and petty crimes, before serving his first significant jail time when he was put away for ten years after raping a young woman in a Sandringham flat in October 1973. He would only serve four of those years, but quickly found himself back inside for harbouring his 14 year-old brother Jamie, who was at the time an escapee from the Turana Youth Detention Centre in Parkville. While on day release to visit his grandparents in October 1981, Allen skipped custody and was later found in a Richmond pub in the company of a prostitute, so drunk that he was vomiting up blood.

It was after his release from incarceration on July 2, 1982, that Allen’s reputation grew, as he quickly established a booming heroin empire from behind the fortified walls of his Richmond base. At the time, Richmond was looked upon as one of Melbourne’s seedier and less-desirable suburbs, and Allen snatched up a number of residential properties in the area, always paying cash for the transactions. By the first half of 1984, Dennis Allen’s drug empire had already become so prosperous he had managed to plunk down $28,000 for 108 Stephenson Street (which Kathy Pettingill ran as a brothel while living next door, dealing heroin to customers through a hole in the wall), 102 Stephenson Street ($37,000), followed by Nos 35 and 37 Stephenson Street ($58,000 total). Not bad for a man who had been unemployed since his release from jail.

It was 37 Stephenson Street that Allen decided to call his home, employing a renovator (whose name has never been released) to live at the property while he installed exposed beams, skylights, additional rooms, and a 3.5 metre fish tank that took up an entire wall. While his dealing was known to the police and came under frequent surveillance, Allen had uncanny luck when it came to avoiding charges, thanks to investigations that often broke down or went nowhere, and the fact that Dennis was not only paying off corrupt cops but was working as a police informer. Coming from a family of criminals also helped him avoid prosecution, as he often called upon his brothers to help him commit his crimes and dispose of evidence.

The Cherry Tree Hotel, just around the corner from Stephenson Street, became Allen’s base away from home, and he was often seen drinking at the bar throughout the day, downing Southern Comfort and Coke’s and chain-smoking Viscounts. Flaunting his success, his heavily tattooed, streetfighter’s body would usually be adorned by up to $250,000 worth of gold necklaces, rings and bracelets, which provided a strange juxtaposition to the bib and brace overalls he would usually favour.

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On a winter’s afternoon in 1984, Dennis Allen’s propensity for sudden, swift violence made its presence known when the renovator and his wife (who also has never been named) were having a drink while listening to the Sandown horse races at 37 Stephenson Street. As the afternoon wore on and Allen became increasingly more drunk (and likely stoned – he consumed a prodigious amount of amphetamines), a young blonde-haired man named Wayne Stanhope arrived at the house and began to party with the occupants. According to statements given years later by the renovator and his wife, Allen and Stanhope acted like friends, popping down to the Cherry Tree for a quick drink between races and returning with bottles of Southern Comfort. At one point, the pair went into the kitchen and injected themselves with speed.

As evening came on, the small group continued to drink heavily as they listened to loud music. At one point, Stanhope climbed out of his chair to change the record when Allen suddenly pulled a gun from out of his pants and fired a fusillade of shots into the man’s shoulder, chest and head. As Stanhope slumped down onto the carpet, Dennis went to the bedroom door where his young nephew Jason Ryan was staying and retrieved another handgun, which he emptied point blank into Stanhope’s head. Although the man was clearly deceased, Allen demanded his girlfriend fetch him a kitchen knife, which he used to slit Stanhope’s throat, before ordering a clean-up. The terror stricken witnesses had no choice but to comply – they didn’t want to end up the same way – and before long, three of Allen’s brothers (including Jamie and Trevor Pettingill) arrived to help dispose of the corpse. While the burned out remains of the Ford Escort panel van which he had borrowed from his grandfather was discovered in shrubs in the Brisbane Ranges the following day, Stanhope’s body has never been found, and it remains a mystery to this day where his remains ended up.

Exactly why Allen killed Stanhope has never been firmly established. He may have owed drug money that was unlikely to be paid back, or he may have been suspected of having a big mouth. But just as possible, Allen may have killed Stanhope on nothing but a spur of the moment impulse…maybe he didn’t like the way he looked at him, or disagreed with something he said. Maybe he just didn’t like Stanhope touching his state of the art stereo system. When you choose to live in this world, death can often come violently, suddenly, and without reason.

Helga Wagnegg, a 30 year-old prostitute whose best days were well behind her, was another name that ran head-on into the malevolent face of Dennis Allen and wound up stone cold as a result. Allen believed Wagnegg – a regular visitor to his den – to be the police informant that led to an earlier raid on the property, which yielded drugs, firearms and sticks of gelignite buried in the backyard. Allen’s retribution for this act of betrayal (either real or imagined) was to administer Wagnegg with a ‘hot shot’, a lethal injection of heroin well beyond the addict’s normal level of tolerance. Over a period of two hours on an evening in November 1984, as she sat slumped in his backyard, Allen injected Wagnegg no less than four times, including once in the neck. He then ordered Jason Ryan to fetch a bucket of water from the nearby Yarra River, submerging the unconscious girls’ head in it in an attempt to make it appear as if she had drowned when her body was later retrieved from the river.

But it was the killing of 33 year-old Anton Kenny on November 7, 1985 that became Dennis Allen’s most notorious, and well publicised, crime. Kenny, a former Hells Angel who was kicked out of the club when he gave a statement to police (an unforgivable betrayal in the bikie sub-culture) was shot five times with a .32 calibre pistol during an afternoon of drinking at Allen’s house (it was his 34th birthday). According to a witness, Kenny was murdered because he called Dennis Allen a ‘rat’. Treating it as though it was nothing more than a piece of meat that was in his way, Allen disposed of Kenny’s body by cutting off its legs with a chainsaw and stuffing it inside a 44-gallon drum, where it made local headlines when it was pulled out of the Yarra nearly four months later.

A classic sociopath, Dennis Allen did his own killing for a number of reasons. He enjoyed it, and the rush of power and adrenalin it brought him, and taking care of business himself eliminated the risk of having to look for hired hitmen. But above all, it enhanced his reputation as a man who was not to be crossed or trifled with. Most people who owed Dennis Allen money made sure they paid it back on time and in full.

By 1986, Dennis Allen’s empire – and his life – was already verging on self-destruction and burn-out. Years of massive drug and alcohol consumption finally caught up with his body, leading to a debilitating heart condition that slowly sapped him of his health and strength. With his grip on the heroin trade slipping, people started coming out of the woodwork to provide statements (mostly as a way to barter better deals for themselves) and police eventually put together enough evidence to charge Allen over Wayne Stanhope’s murder.

But as he had done on several occasions throughout his life, Dennis Allen would cheat the judge and avoid his day in court. Confined to a wheelchair, his once imposing frame enfeebled and shrunken by the loss of nearly 20 kilos, Allen died of heart failure in April of 1987. Ironically, his death was soon followed by the rise within the underworld of his clan of brothers, two of whom, Victor Pierce and Trevor Pettingill, were later tried for (and found not guilty of) the brutal 1988 slayings of two young policemen in Walsh Street, South Yarra (Allen’s nephew Jason Ryan also testified to be present when the Walsh Street killings were planned). After Victor Pierce was shot dead in 2002 (purportedly by Andrew Veniamin), his widow Wendy told a reporter for The Age that her husband was guilty of the police killings all along.

In the pantheon of colourful criminals who operated during those increasingly distant and gloomy days of Melbourne in the 1980s, Mark ‘Chopper’ Read may have come away with the glory, the talk shows, the books and the movie, but Dennis Allen took with him something that few people possess, and which still remains intact more than 20 years later: the power to invoke fear and anxiety from beyond the grave.

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Copyright John Harrison 2009
(Note: the above is a portion of a much longer planned piece which I am currently working on)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

ROSS KEMP ON GANGS

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Hosted by UK actor Ross Kemp – best known for his role as tough guy Grant Mitchell on the UK soapie Eastenders – Ross Kemp on Gangs is an investigative series which takes us into the inner sanctums of some of the worlds most notorious and dangerous street gangs. What could have easily been a glossy puff-piece series is given weight and made engrossing by the level of access which Kemp is given by some of the gang leaders and the fact that the host is prepared to take some obvious risks, putting himself in potentially dangerous locations and situations in his quest to get himself as close as he can to the pulse of these tribal organizations (whom, despite their different ideologies, are essentially fighting for the same thing - protection and ownership of their own backyard).

Some of the cities and countries which Kemp visits over the course of the 12 episodes in this series include El Salvador (where he investigates the notorious M 13 gang), St Louis (one of America’s most gangster rife cities, where the Bloods and the Crips fight an ongoing turf war), Poland (a vicious gang of neo-Nazi soccer thugs who make English football hooligans look like a Wiggles audience), Kenya, Bulgaria and Los Angeles (where the rising Latino gangs are rapidly outnumbering the blacks).

I’d never heard of this BAFTA award winning series until a review copy of it filed into my PO box last week…apparently it has been shown on Foxtel here in Australia at some point. If you are an anthropologist or just a casual true crime fan with an interest in the subject matter, it’s well worth picking up this three disc set when it is released in Australia on October 16.

John Harrison

Saturday, October 10, 2009

HORRORCORE MUSICIAN ARRESTED FOR MASSACRE

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The small town of Farmville, Virginia – with a population of just 7,000 - played host to a shocking multiple-murder back on September 18, when one of its pastors, his daughter, wife and a friend of the family were slaughtered in a manner which was not only brutal and senseless, but has once again thrown a spotlight on both extreme music and the impact and influence it has on its fans.

The young man accused of the crime, Richard Samuel McCroskey III, is a 20-year-old rapper who goes by the name of Syko Sam in the music genre known as "horrorcore", an extreme mutation of hip hop and death metal which features lurid lyrics based around fantasies of murder, maiming and other acts of violence. Some of the more notable bands in the horrorcore genre include Insane Clown Posse and Necro.

The victims of the McCroskey’s alleged crime were 50-year-old Mark Niederbrock, pastor at the Walker's Presbyterian Church, his 16-year-old daughter Emma, his estranged wife Debra Kelley, 53 and Emma's 18-year-old friend from West Virginia, Melanie Wells.

McCroskey had been invited to Farmville by Emma, who flew in from his home in northern California to meet up with the girl. They had planned to attend the Strictly for the Wicked Festival, a Horrorcore music event in Michigan.

No priors have been found on McCroskey's criminal record, although police have revealed they have uncovered found videos of him holding various weapons and rapping about "murderous rages" and disposing of corpses. While no specific details regarding the crime scene have been released to the press, police officers have said that all four of the deceased appeared to have fallen victim to 'blunt force trauma'.

The accused came into the picture at 4pm on Friday, September 18, 2009, when tow-truck driver Elton Napier received a phone call to assist McCroskey, whose car had broken down. Napier told police that when he arrived on the scene, McCroskey was wearing a black hoodie and that the young man "was really smelling bad, like real bad. I can't describe it."

After two deputies arrived on the scene and ticketed McCroskey for driving his Honda - which belonged to the Niedercrocks - without a valid licence, McCroskey then accompanied Napier in the cab of his lorry and Napier recalls that "I just held my head out the window so the wind would hit me in the face. That was the stinkiest rascal I've ever smelled."

McCroskey was dropped off at a newsagents about four miles away, where he retrieved a black bag from the towed car while Napier headed inside for a cup of coffee. McCroskey later caught a taxi to nearby Richmond International Airport where he spent the night. In the meantime, police had discovered the murder scene back in Farmville and quickly issued an arrest order for McCroskey. He was picked up at the airport the next day.

The deeply religious town are still in shock about what has transpired, but have dismissed McCroskey's claims that "Jesus made me do it" as Satan talking. If convicted in the state of Virginia, McCroskey will almost certainly face the death penalty, with Virginia being the second biggest endorser of capital punishment in the United States (behind Texas). 103 people have been executed since 1976 with 21 people currently on death row.

John Harrison, October 10 2009

Sunday, October 4, 2009

RACE WITH THE DEVIL

1975/USA/Directed by Jack Starrett

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This effective little horror/action/road movie hybrid is the type of film that 1970s suburban drive-ins used to thrive on. However, despite its roots being planted firmly in the low-budget exploitation genre, Race with the Devil also manages to capture that distinct sense of ‘stranger in a strange land’ alienation and paranoia which also permeated some of the more mainstream Hollywood films of the time, such as John Boorman’s Deliverance.

After an atmospheric opening credit sequence (made all the more effective by Leonard Roseman’s sinister score), we are quickly introduced to our main protagonists. Frank (Warren Oates) and Roger (Peter Fonda) are best friends and partners in Cycle World, a rising company which manufactures racing dirt bikes. Together with their wives Alice and Kelly (Loretta Switt and Lara Parker), they decide to take off for the ski slopes of Aspen, Colorado in Frank’s brand new, state of the art recreational vehicle.

Working their way through Texas on the first day of their journey, the couples pull off the highway and decide to set up camp for the night by an isolated and tranquil creek bed. Late that night, with a few drinks in the bellies, Frank and Roger inadvertently witness the execution and sacrifice of a young woman by a group of robed Satanists. When the coven discover they are being watched, it sets of a tense cross state pursuit, with the four holidayers not knowing where it’s safe to stay, or just who the hell to trust.

Apart from a couple of minor flaws (one of which is the rather flat, TV movie look which the film sometimes exudes), Race with the Devil manages to hit its mark on just about every required level. Director Jack Starrett (who reportedly came in at the last moment, after Two-Lane Blacktop helmer Monte Hellman pulled out) keeps the film pacey and tight, its 84 minutes racing by like the pages of a tacky paperback novel (of the type whose subject matter could easily have inspired Lee Frost and Wes Bishop’s screenplay). There are some effective moments of suspense, as well as an eeriness which pervades certain scenes, such as when Kelly gets the uncomfortable feeling that everyone is watching her and plotting against her while she is swimming in a trailer park pool.

Without doubt one of the finest American actors of the sixties and seventies (and sadly one not fully appreciated until after his premature death), Warren Oates delivers yet another finely drawn-out performance. Gruff, at times laconic and at others explosive, Oates had the ability to make his characters so believable and real, even when working with sub-standard material, and he interacts well with Peter Fonda, who also delivers one of the more enjoyable performances of his post-Easy Rider career. Although Loretta Switt (best known as ‘Hot Lips’ Houlahan on the long-running M*A*S*H television series) and Lara Parker also assimilate into their roles well, they are not really given much do do – women’s lib had yet to make its way into the horror genre as yet - and are relegated mostly to looking scared and screaming hysterically.

A rollicking piece of classic grindhouse fodder, Race with the Devil is nowhere near as well regarded by cinephiles as it deserves to be.

Review Copyright John Harrison 2009

PINK SLIP

Equal parts disturbing, shocking and hilariously cheesy and inept, Pink Slip is a classic piece of vintage Classroom Scare cinema from the early 1970s.