Thursday, 22 January 2015

HERBERT HUNCKE: Notes From The Beat Underground



HERBERT HUNCKE: 
EPITAPH FOR A DEAD BEAT 
(9th December 1915 - 8th August 1996)


‘Huncke, whom you’ll see on Times Square, somnolent and alert, 
sadsweet, dark, beat, just out of jail, martyred, tortured by 
 sidewalks, starved for sex and companionship, open to 
 anything, ready to introduce new worlds with a shrug’ 
                                        Jack Kerouac, “Now it’s Jazz” 
                                         (Desolation Angels, Chapter 77)



Herbie Huncke (rhymes with JUNKIE) is dead.

Who cares? A low-life hoodlum, shiftless thief, liar, Rent-Boy, Junkhead, he ‘lived in other people’s apartments all his life’ and ‘seldom got a habit unless someone else paid for it.’ But if the term elegantly wasted still has any currency value, then he embodies it.

J Edgar Hoover once called Beatniks the third greatest threat to the American way of life. And Huncke was the Godfather of Beat. The first hipster. He not only defined its curiously diseased attractions, but gave it its name. If, to William Burroughs ‘Junk is not, like alcohol or weed, a means to increased enjoyment of life. Junk is not a kick. It is a way of life,’ then he learned that ‘Junk Equation’ from Huncke’s Monkey. Allen Ginsberg uses Huncke’s hustler story-telling and Junkie jargon as poem rhythms and source material. And if Burroughs and Ginsberg become totally immersed in Huncke’s subterranean milieu, Jack Kerouac is only slightly more detached. He observes the corrupt romance of its decayed dissolution, and makes Huncke the devious nihilist outlaw of his novels. Even John Clellon Holmes uses Hunke, as ‘Ancke’, in his influential novel ‘Go’ (1952).


Huncke stays over with Burroughs in the squalor of ‘Naked Lunch’ Algiers, and steals the only thing of value there. A rug. He crashes over with Ginsberg and steals his phonograph. ‘The more anyone has done to help him, the more certain he is to steal from or otherwise take advantage of his benefactor’ Burroughs warns Ginsberg in a letter.

To Burroughs, Huncke is ‘small and very thin, his neck loose in the collar of his shirt. His complexion faded from brown to a mottled yellow... his mouth drawn down at the corners in a grimace of petulant annoyance’ (‘Junkie’). To Kerouac he’s a ‘dark, Arabic-looking man with an oval face and huge blue eyes that were lidded wearily always, with the huge lids of a mask. He moved about with the noiseless glide of an Arab, his expression always weary, indifferent, yet somehow astonished too, aware of everything. He had the look of a man who is sincerely miserable in the world’ (‘The Town And The Country’).

Hunke is a 42nd St Hustler for four years, turning tricks, doing blow-jobs, stealing from cars. Spends six months at sea trying to kick a heroin habit, second cook on a rusting tanker ferrying high-octane gas from New Jersey through the Panama Canal to Hawaii. But making an on-board connection he does the trip ‘in a morphine glow’. Later – January 1946, back in a low-rent New York Rooming House on Henry Street, under the Manhattan Bridge, Burroughs makes his first call. Already lured by fringe-criminal sleaze, and hoping to find an underworld connection to fence a stolen machine gun and some morphine syrettes, his first impression of Huncke is of ‘waves of hostility and suspicion (that) flow out from his large brown eyes like some form of television broadcast.’ Huncke’s paranoia has mistaken Burroughs for an FBI agent! But he’s soon hitting on him for ‘spare change’. Burroughs is fascinated by this cool parasite, and the inept bohemian black comedy growing from their collision is to become a bizarre 1940’s ‘Trainspotting’, soundtracked not by Underworld or Leftfield, but by the fragile beauty of Billie Holiday on a wind-up phonograph, or by the frantic Bebop of all-nite jazz dives. It will revolutionise and reverberate all the way through literary and anti-Lit America, igniting new confusions of incandescent possibility that have yet to be exhausted.

Burroughs – soon an ice-cold hipster in an anonymous suit locked into heroin dependency, introduces Ginsberg and Kerouac to the chemical compound ‘characters of the underworld’. Including Huncke, who not only anti-hero’s in Kerouac’s first novel as ‘Junky’, but gets first Beat Generation use of the word ‘Beat’ in print. A word plucked from Huncke’s real-life speech-patterns. United by (what Ted Morgan calls) links between ‘students and thieves, book-smart and street-smart’, and a mutual interest in recreational pharmacology, they share a 115th Street Crash Pad. The proto-Beats raging euphorically through sexual, narcotic and artistic conundrums, while finding their vocabulary through essential lifestyle-catalysts provided by Huncke, ‘always high on something – weed, benzedrine, or knocked out of his mind on ‘goof-balls’’.


He tour-guides eighteen-year-old Ginsberg around the nomadic floating population of Times Square, the meat-racks and dives where he scores drugs, makes mysterious connections and feeds his cellular needs with petty crime, then the bus terminal where he regularly steals suitcases. To Ginsberg the ‘utter sordidness of my NY’ becomes ‘A Vision Of Apocalypse’. While Kerouac, exploring ‘states of consciousness’ through benzedrine (even its suicidally depressive come-downs providing ‘brooding introspections useful to the writer’), gives Huncke further pivotal roles in the monumental ‘On The Road’ (as Elmo Hassel) and ‘Book Of Dreams’ (as Huck).

A second scene develops as drug busts and Rikers Island ‘cures’ take their toll. Burroughs sets up in New Waverly, a wasted run-down property in Texas where he intends growing marijuana. Huncke joins him, driving regularly into nearby Houston to score for them. Ginsberg and Neal Cassady (Kerouac’s ‘Dean Moriarty’) arrive. Huncke himself recording the ensuing chaos in his ‘The Evening Sky Turned Crimson’ (Cherry Valley Press, 1980), a minor – but sought-after Beat artifact.

Huncke’s own infrequent writing leaks scant and wilfully unreliable details of his own origins. Born in December 1915 in Greenfield Massachusetts he’d always been a deliberate misfit, rejecting the safe dull hypocrisy of a middle-class background to wander the lower depths of the Gay and narcotic underside of America, living on his wits and his sexual talent – ‘my Mother had gone west to California. I had nothing whatsoever to do with my father, and, finally, with my brother. As far as friends were concerned, those that I knew were a dime a dozen. I just didn’t want to be bothered with any of them. I had had one sort-of love affair, so I thought, with a young fellow from the University of Chicago. I had really hurt him, no getting around it, and he certainly didn’t want any more to do with me. I began to realize that I was a pretty insensitive sort of person, that I wasn’t nearly as smart as I thought I’d been, and that there were people doing things in life, and I was doing nothing’ (‘Guilty Of Everything’).


By the time he gravitated to the red-light subworld of New York he was ‘a beautiful kid’ recounts Burroughs’ character Bill Gains, ‘the trouble is, he lost his looks...’ Huncke’s extensive sexual history even attracts the attention of the Kinsey Institute For Research In Sex, Gender & Reproduction, who interview him – and measure his penis (soft and erect!) for the best-selling ‘Kinsey Report On Sexual Behavior In The Human Male’ (1948).

Through the final months of 1946 he’s in Bronx County Jail for possession. Then, released from a further stint on Rikers Island and warned off the Times Square zone by Police, he spends February 1949 wandering homeless, ‘sick dirty and more dead than alive,’ living on Benzedrine, coffee and doughnuts, walking ‘all night with (his) shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steamheat and opium’ as Ginsberg – at who’s door he eventually fetches up, recounts it later in the epochal ‘Howl’.

Ginsberg’s biographer Barry Miles knowingly observes that ‘under Huncke’s veneer of misery and impotence there was a calculating mind that would exploit Allen’s every weakness,’ and Ginsberg’s gullible generosity and sanctuary extends indefinitely. Not only is Hunke now living with Ginsberg in his New York 1401 York Avenue apartment, but he’s using it as a hot goods storage-space for stolen property; cameras, radios, pornographic books, clothes – and even a huge cigarette dispensing machine. The stay-over inevitably results in colourful disaster. Caught inadvertently in a car chase and autowrecked with two of Huncke’s accomplices Ginsberg desperately phones ahead to warn Huncke that the Cops are looking for him, imploring Hunke to ‘clean up the place’. Beat chronicler Ann Charters writing that as the Police arrive Huncke is laconically sweeping the floor oblivious to the mounds of contraband all around him!

Ginsberg gets sent down for psychiatric observation. Huncke gets five-years, emerging from Sing Sing in Fall 1959. By then the seismic publication of ‘Howl’ and ‘On The Road’ have ignited the Beat Generation into notorious celebrity. He recontacts Kerouac for a $25 loan. Kerouac turns him down. But already, to poet/artist Jeff Nuttall, Huncke’s become ‘half-legendary’, a shadowy but vital figure, and as Beat mythology complexifies increasingly into archivist obsession he’s tracked down with greater regularity.

The Beat relationships remain – if slightly more distanced, into the sixties (despite further arrests for methedrine). Ginsberg edits Huncke’s attempted fiction while interest in Beat minutiae gives him a fame by association to writers like Gerald Nicosia researching and publishing Beat histories. Diane Di Prima publishes ‘Huncke’s Journal’ (Poets Press) in 1965, a first collection of his fragmentary stories and prose. It’s followed by ‘Elsie John And Joey Martinez’ (1979) and ‘Guilty Of Everything’ (1991). Then, when Ginsberg organises his ‘Literary History Of The Beat Generation’ celebration at the University of Colorado in Summer 1982 Huncke (rhymes with JUNKIE) is there giving workshops alongside William Burroughs, Michael McClure, Timothy Leary, Greg Corso, Abbie Hoffman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the rest.

And then, August 1996, he’s dead. A ghost heroin-pale presence behind the guises of the century’s most hip writers. That’s no small achievement for a lowlife hoodlum, shiftless thief, Rent-Boy and Junkhead.


Published in:
‘THE SUPPLEMENT Issue.49’ (UK – March 2010)


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Book into Film into Book into Film: KARL ALEXANDER'S 'Time After Time'



‘ONE MORE TIME 
FOR TIME AFTER TIME’ 

A RETROSPECTIVE 
OF THE NOVEL 
 ‘TIME AFTER TIME’ 
BY KARL ALEXANDER


 Book Review of: 
‘TIME AFTER TIME’ 
by KARL ALEXANDER 
(Panther, 1979 £1.25, 320pp ISBN 0586-050795) 


You’ll probably see, or already have seen the movie ‘Time After Time’ (August 1979), currently doing its late-night re-runs on various digital TV-channels. So you’ll probably know the plot concerns HG Wells – played by Malcolm McDowell with moustache, inventing a real Time Machine, said Time Machine being hijacked into the future by Jack The Ripper – portrayed by David Warner, and Herbert George’s pursuit of this villainous quarry into today, that is – into 1979. McDowell, in a more sympathetic role than we usually expect from him, is as excellent as ever.


And it’s a feel-good soft-centred serial-killer thriller balanced with humour and romance, as Wells and his former friend compete for possession of the ‘return key’ of the time machine, which has become an exhibit in the San Francisco museum. But despite the surface protestations ‘Now A Major Film’ the Karl Alexander book tie-in, purportedly expanded and fleshed out from director Nicholas Meyer’s original screenplay, seems to lie more in the genealogy of the ‘Star Trek’ merchandising-novel, or the ‘ET’ novelisation. Although the full interactions between and betwixt film and book are a little more complex than that, it’s still difficult to judge it as a real work of Science Fiction, as distinct from a mainstream movie spin-off. If viewed as the former, the diligent critic would be conscience-bound to point out that, although playfully intriguing, the core-themes are by no means original.

As early as 1967 Robert Bloch wrote a first, and far more chillingly convincing Ripper-projected-into-the-future story – “A Toy For Juliette”, followed that same year by Harlan Ellison reworking the theme in his ‘Dangerous Vision’ “The Prowler In The City At The Edge Of The World”. Christopher Priest wrote HG Wells as a character into his enjoyable fantasy ‘The Space Machine’ (1976), while Jherek Carnelian converses effectively with a sceptical Wells on the topic of Time Travellers in Michael Moorcock’s ‘The Hollow Lands’ (1974). Moorcock also evokes a far more tactile picture of Victorian London than Alexander’s second-hand American view condescendingly-affectionately extracted from previous Hollywood imaginings.

Similarly there’s little development of the Time Travel concept. Needless to say, there’s none of the temporal conundrums mapped out by Isaac Asimov (‘The End Of Eternity’, 1955) or Poul Anderson (‘The Corridors Of Time’, 1966). While none of the ideas are taken to the staggeringly complex consummation of Barrington J Bayley’s novels (‘Collision With Chronos’, 1973 and ‘The Fall Of Chronopolis’, 1974) with time spliced, looped, overdubbed, phased, and wiped clean like so much recording tape. But that is never its intention.


Karl Alexander, for example, has Wells snatched out of 1893 London into what the DVD blurb calls ‘The Wildest Chase Of The Century’. Once in a 1979 San Francisco of McDonalds and Hari Krishnas, he sees the ‘Star Wars’ movie. But there’s no suggestion that, so inspired, he returns to the nineteenth-century to write ‘War Of The Worlds’, published just five years later. Because that’s not Alexander’s purpose – because this isn’t a real SF novel, surely it’s more a movie merchandising vehicle aimed at a wider public? So it should escape such sectarian scrutiny. The Time Machine is a plot device, just as much a gimmick as the modified DeLorean in ‘Back To The Future’ (1985), useful only in that it brings the characters together in one space-time location. A Disneyfied fantasy around which he builds a mildly comic, charmingly romantic, highly entertaining novel of ‘time-crossed lovers’, crime detection, and gentle satire. Isn’t that enough? Can’t spin-offery also be creative? After all, Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock and Simon Clark have all contributed to the ‘Dr Who’ library of tales.


In that he has any motive other than entertainment, Alexander’s main concern is to mirror the Jekyll & Hyde nature – to subsume yet another Victorian-lit archetype, of technological ‘progress’, seen through the reactions of his two protagonists. A duality represented by Wells’ idealistic optimism contrasted with John Leslie Stevenson’s (the Ripper’s) nihilistic negation, ‘ninety years ago, I was a freak’ he protests, ‘today… I’m an amateur.’ The morally ambiguous muddle of 1979 is competently delineated. The accuracy of Wells’ naïve enthusiasm occasionally even jolts our own carefully nurtured cynicisms. He sees a culture that has ‘seen it all, has done everything, but doesn’t have the time to reflect upon one iota of it.’ Although we’ve yet to achieve the scientific utopia he anticipated, Wells alone recognises the immense strides in social progress that have been made, but which it is so fashionable to ignore, counterbalanced by the palliative of the price paid. Perhaps that price is really not as high as we imagine?

Hindsight nudges forward the corrective that Wells’ own perspective shifted considerably in later life, reaching its darkest expression in his final bleak tract ‘Mind At The End Of Its Tether’ (1945). But the Ripper’s vision, as devil’s advocate, is equally laser-bright, recognising that 1979 reflects more exactly his own philosophies. He prefers Alice Cooper’s mayhem to Fleetwood Mac’s soporific – never having got as far as Sid Vicious!, and he feels slighted by Charles Manson’s greater notoriety. He plans to use the Time Machine to literally carve his manifesto clear across the ages, by ‘surprising Cleopatra in her boudoir. He could be assaulting and butchering her voluptuous body before Anthony ever reached the shores of the Nile. A few minutes further along the Fourth Dimension, and he could be sodomising Helen of Troy… Mary Magdalene could be his too, raped and slaughtered before Jesus ever had a chance to save her wretched soul… and he could violate and murder Joan of Arc.’ Fortunately, he never gets to carry out this catalogue of vile deeds.

There’s tension and fast-paced chase-sequences as Stevenson abducts Wells’ bank-teller love-interest Amy Catherine Robbins (played by Mary Steenburgen), and tries to use her to bargain for possession of the time machine’s control key. Wells, in deerstalker hat, is mistakenly arrested on suspicion of the murder of Amy’s co-worker, who has fallen foul of the newly-styled ‘San Francisco Ripper’. Wells even uses the machine to take Amy on a three-day hop into the future, where she’s shocked to see a newspaper headline reporting her as the Ripper’s next victim. There’s a final confrontation around the machine itself. ‘You have my word as a gentleman’ promises the Ripper, before reneging, ‘I would have expected that you’d noticed by now, that I am not a gentleman.’ The struggle results in him being hurled endlessly into the future, while Wells decides to return – with Amy, to his own time, where he intends to destroy his invention. It has too much potential for evil to be allowed to exist.


One reviewer adjudged Karl Alexander to be a keen student of all things Wellsian. And that Nicholas Meyer’s screenplay was actually based largely on his ‘uncredited’ novel, which was unfinished during the time of filming, incorporating a story by Alexander, and by Steve Hayes. So definitions become more blurred than on first assumption, with some elements of creative interaction at play. Yet I’d instead gauge the research to be more the result of a hasty speed-reading of a Wells biography. No matter, the characters are drawn well enough to induce reader-identification, and they function well in their roles as ciphers. Wells becomes something of a bumbling eccentric, his socialism conveniently diluted – bad for the US market! While his lover – Amy, was real, even if she did originate in Putney and not San Francisco.

Alexander is on more shaky ground with his Ripper speed-reading, even if one concedes that some scene-shifting was necessary to compress the two protagonists into the same timeframe. In fact the Ripper’s last attributed murder was on 9 November 1888 – five years before the novel’s setting. Similarly, the murder detailed in the opening chapter – that of Elizabeth ‘Long Liz’ Stride, was only his third victim anyway. However – despite being out of time, the setting for the event is carefully and accurately described, clear down to the witness-authenticated ‘International Workers Education Club’ meeting nearby, overhead singing the “Internationale”. Alexander’s accuracy is only undermined by his description of her ‘butchered’ corpse. Beyond the fatally slashed throat, Liz Stride’s body was not mutilated. But what the hell, gory murder is a reliable plot ingredient – and it IS an extremely entertaining novel. Not one to change your life irrevocably, but it will pass an hour or two most enjoyably, and comes cheaper than getting the 2008 Warner DVD from Amazon.

You’ve probably already seen the movie on its late-night re-runs on various digital TV-channels. Borrow a copy of this book some time too.


Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Live: NAZARETH in Hull, September 1981




TAKE THIS FLIGHT TONIGHT… 

Gig Review of: 
 NAZARETH 
at ‘City Hall’, Hull 
(17 September 1981) 

Humberside might be in recession, but for Nazareth it’s business as usual. The ‘City Hall’ is a large echoing labyrinth of Victorian excess better suited to Symphony Orchestras, and more than several bands have retired defeated by its eccentric acoustic properties. But the Naz ride smooth and effortless through a set distinguished by pristine competence, if topographically undistinguishable from any other set they’ve done over the last ten years. Their galvanisation of Joni Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight” made perfect radio programming sense in 1973 – a no.11 hit, now they do it note for note with big-haired Dan McCafferty’s voice slewing alarmingly from a leap to a hoarse crawl over a vocal range that would stagger seismic print-outs, yet running through the entire gamut of emotions from A to B!

Next they’re doing Tim Rose’s “Morning Dew”, thumb-printed by all the Naz stylistic flourishes, Pete Agnew’s gut-thumping bass riff churning and vibrating on hot rails to hell, yet that energy paced, the climaxes spaced, the sound well balanced. Originally featured on their debut LP ‘Nazareth’ (November 1971), it could’ve been a hit in 1974, or 1976, or 1978, but no – it’s reconfigured into their new 1981 single! Deep Purple archivists in the audience tonight might recall that Roger Glover recorded the song as part of Episode Six in 1966. That same Roger Glover who took producer credits for Nazareth’s breakthrough ‘Razamanaz’ (May 1973) album – boasting hit singles “Broken Down Angel” and “Bad Bad Boy” (no.9 in August) – ‘we’re gonna razamanaz you tonight, we’re gonna razamanaz you ALL night!’, as well as its equally successful ‘Loud ‘n’ Proud’ (November 1973) sequel. ‘Damn right!’


Which was part of the problem, even though it might not have seemed so at the time. The early 1970’s was a weird transition period. Singles hits were suspect. Zeppelin never issued any. Deep Purple and Black Sabbath both had Top Ten hits, but they were spin-offs from epic albums, they were career-exceptions sensibly not followed up. Nazareth – by contrast, embraced the full hits thing, with regular ‘Top Of The Pops’ promotion, caught up partially at the periphery of the sartorially flash Glam thing. “Broken Down Angel” was no.7 in a June chart headed by Wizzard, Suzi Quatro and Sweet. Which devalued their credentials within the heavy-osity pantheon. Too slick and too Pop-melodic for the new Heavy Metal tribes, yet too mechanistic and flash to interest other sub-cultures. The audience tonight is a disparate miscellany with few unifying labels, some denim, some AC/DC flashes, some long-hairs.


“Love Hurts”, the self-pitying Roy Orbison ‘Mills & Boon’ weepie was lead track on the US edition of their mega-selling ‘Hair Of The Dog’ (April 1975), and radio-play highlight on their 1977 no.15 EP – despite a rival Jim Capaldi revamp of the same song. Here it’s treated to full overkill kitsch, dripping theatrical heartache at full Richter intensity. Best for me, though, is their retread of the Yardbirds’ “Shape Of Things” with Manny Charlton’s tasteful lead guitar embroidering at length all around Jeff Beck’s old vinyl-imprinted chording patterns, McCafferty’s lyrics pleading ‘please don’t destroy these lands, don’t make them desert sands’ suddenly regurgitated into Cold War relevance all over again, his Dunfermline phrasing there in the ‘time and tide’ line. Then they slot JJ Cale’s “Cocaine”, “Every Young Man’s Dreams” and “Hearts Grown Cold” in and around for light and shade, with Darrel Sweet, behind a massive drum-array, never less than adequate. Nazareth is (are?) timeless. Technically awesome, if emotionally vacuous.

Afterwards, the promoters can be heard bemoaning the mere six-hundred punters who traipsed here to be assailed by this near two-hour album-full-of-hits spectacle. But if Nazareth fall between several stools, there’s plenty of empty ones here to fall between! Restraint, like intelligence and ability, don’t exactly bring kudos in what passes for the current Music Scene. But, inoculated into sheer competence by marathon American tours, I doubt if the Naz even notice…


Monday, 22 December 2014

Poem: 'You Can Call Me Al Zymer, The One-Time Rhymer



YOU CAN CALL 
ME AL ZYMER, 
THE ONE-TIME RHYMER 



I remember the day Elvis died
but forgot where I put my keys,
they should be on the hook by the door,
I’m sure I had them a moment ago

I remember the Moon Landing
we watched that one small step,
it was on the black-and-white TV,
but I forget my PIN number,
I wrote it on a post-it, then mislaid it,
could happen to anyone

I remember all the lyrics to ‘Like A Rolling Stone’
but who did the record? for the moment
the name escapes me, wait, it’ll come to me,
maybe I’ll google it

I remember when John Lennon got shot
I came home from work and
it was all over the tele
it seemed like the end of something
the past slipping away, beyond recall,
but I forget my son’s birthday,
and the name of… my grandchild

I remember less
and forget more
I remember
I forget
I forget

Listen, I heard this joke, it starts
‘You can call me Al… something’
it’s a good joke, you have to laugh, don’t you?
‘You can call me Al’ it goes, yes, it’s a good one

sometimes I find myself crying for no reason
I don’t know why

I remember my first night with Cathy
the warmth, the tenderness,
but I wonder who this is sitting across
the breakfast table from me,
the smile looks familiar
as though I should know her

someone wrote this poem onscreen,
I don’t like it very much,
was it me? was it…?



Featured on the website:
‘CAPTAIN MUSE’ (UK – 9 October 2014)
Published in: ‘KRAX No.51’ (UK – December 2014)

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry: Two Band Interviews from 1986



RED LORRY 
YELLOW LORRY: 
TWO WEEKS IN 
ANOTHER TOWN…


 Red Lorry Yellow Lorry are a Leeds Indie band who take 
 their independence seriously. Andrew Darlington discusses 
 its implications with the band in a 1986 interview… 


 ‘this is the place where I have seen
 
you hide behind your sunken dreams
 
I had this feeling deep inside
 
you hid behind those hollow eyes’ 
                             (“Hollow Eyes”) 


‘One of my friends invented a computer program. It’s a quiz for bands. One of the questions is ‘Is there a Svengali in the band?’’

Is there a Svengali in Red Lorry Yellow Lorry? ‘No. Not Really.’

There’s a drum machine on the floor. A huge group tour-poster along the facing wall. A dead TV with a row of Birthday Cards along its polished brow. And there’s three – out of four, of Leeds finest Indie band Red Lorry Yellow Lorry up for analysis. Guitarist David ‘Wolfie’ Wolfenden who speaks in a slow, loping – but lethally articulate drawn. Vocalist Chris Reed who talks in precise art-school lack of accent and wears a vaguely moderne demeanour. He formed the band’s first line-up circa mid-1981, and it’s his girlfriend’s birthday today. Plus resident big drum-beater Chris Oldroyd in token Rockist black leather jacket. Sending his apologies in absentia is bassist Leon Phillips.

I’m examining the Beatbox, looking for clues…

‘I think it’s boring talking about technology’ leers Dave mischievously, pre-empting muso-speak.

‘We enslave the drum machine to work for us’ adds Chris O, more helpfully. ‘It’s very important to the live sound of the group – because it’s relentless.’

‘It’s a ‘Slave to the Rhythm’’ from Dave.

The Lorries – RLYL, operate on a cusp that’s aurally shocked somewhere between Killing Joke and Hüsker Dü, between the angry hard-core burn of their “Jipp”, to the chopped tribal beats of “Hand On Heart”. The success of their two albums – ‘Talk About The Weather’ (1985), and more particularly ‘Paint Your Wagon’ (1986), led to exhaustive European dates and two ball-busting coast-to-coasters across the States. You probably know their contagious singles too – “Monkeys On Juice”, “Crawling Mantra”, “Hollow Eyes”, “Cut Down” etc? Well, now their whole Red Rhino period is retrospected on an impressive compilation – ‘Smashed Hits’ (1988), while the Lorries, who re-signed to Situation Two, have already scored an ‘NME’ ‘Single Of The Week’ (21 November 1987) from Jane Solanas for their current 45rpm “Open Up”, their first for the new label. They’re a powerful and highly individual band, who are also very accessible, and ideal interview material.

So, open up time. Chris is the most recent addition to the line-up. ‘I was WORKING up to last February! I joined the group about then, in time for the ‘Paint Your Wagon’ album. That’s the first time the Lorries actually used a full drum-kit, before that – ever since the beginning of the band – they’d had a drum-machine used with a stand-up percussion set-up. Now, with drum-kit AND drum-machine, it’s like having two drummers in a way, it tends to harden up the rhythm. Keeps the beats very very minimal – so it’s like being on a train that you can’t get off! But we intend to go along with the idea that we’re going to make technology work for us. The technology is NOT going to dictate how we go. I’m a bit of a Luddite really.’

‘That’s what the guy from ‘Melody Maker’ said’ smiles Chris Reed. ‘He said people think you’re all Luddites ‘cos you don’t use synthesizers. But I really like Jim Foetus (of Foetus Under Glass, You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath, etc) – what he does is good. I like the INTENSITY of Foetus music. I think it’s quite in keeping with the intensity of our music.’

But, like RLYL, ‘he CONTROLS the technology, he’s not subservient to it!’ points out Dave.

In fact the Lorries are subservient to no internal Svengali’s and no external controls either (’I think that we’re very much trying to uphold the ethos that individualism, individuality, is very important’). ‘Insular’ is a word they use to describe their fierce independence, one they’re rightly proud of. It’s a conscious self-sufficiency that starts in the studio and is carried clear down the line to sleeve art and merchandising, their records initially issued through a hook-up with the Red Rhino cartel. ‘We really try to control as much as we can ourselves. So that what WE do as a band comes across. That’s why we produce ourselves. The last recordings we did – the single, and the ‘Paint Your Wagon’ album, were done at Rockfield in Wales’ – Dave Edmunds studios, informs Reed.

Chris O takes up the narrative. ‘And one interesting thing about the way we record, which Rockfield’s environment helps, is that we stay miles from anywhere, in this old farmhouse. And there’s nobody else in the studio apart from the four of us. No tape operator or engineer or producer. And for two weeks – which is how long it took to make the album, or however long, we more or less lock the door, and that’s it.’

‘For ‘Paint Your Wagon’ we had two offers of producers,’ from Reed. ‘One was Colin Newman from Wire, the other was Nick Glossop, y’know, who did the Ruts and people like that. But we virtually turned them both down and did it ourselves. And that adds to the separateness of the music. It separates it out from anything else, from any other influences. It increases the group identity. We are very receptive to environment, and it’s like we take all the tensions that we pick up, and we just sort of – UNLEASH it all in one burst.’

‘The more we put into it, the more we get out of it in terms of satisfaction and fulfillment’ explains Dave.

‘A lot of the album was actually influenced by spending two weeks living in New York’ Reed continues, ‘and the intensity that we’re trying to project on the record is a similar intensity to living in a place like New York. We did an interview with ‘Radio Luxembourg’ the other week and the guy was saying ‘what do you think about New York, some people say it’s like hell on earth?’ And we said ‘yes, that’s a really good analogy of what New York is like.’

‘There’s a real tension to the place’ adds Dave. ‘And conflict – which gives it a spark, a vibrancy.’

‘We listen to a lot of music’ admits Reed. ‘We can probably listen to a hundred records – and the ones that cut across to us are the ones that have that sort of energy and that tension to them. That’s what actually stimulates our ears at the end of the day. Something that just LEAPS out of the speakers, and cuts straight in at your ears. That’s the sound we’re very fond of.’

‘It’s kind of like picking up the REAL electricity’ from Dave.

While Chris O retunes the conversation to the logistics of the long-distance touring that followed. ‘There’s a sense of unreality’ he says thoughtfully. ‘It’s a kind of situation where your head tends to become detached from reality. And when you come back from touring you get this continuing sensation of movement. It’s an absolutely physical sensation that you want to keep moving. You know, when you’re used to climbing into a vehicle and taking all your things with you every night…’

Dave: ‘It is like you’re living off nervous energy, and then – when you come home, you’re expected to switch it off, and you can’t do it. Its impossible.’

Chris O: ‘So you end up going out and just walking around compulsively, or driving vehicles all night aimlessly.’

‘We did three months of touring, and we were living LIKE THAT!’ Chris Reed sums it up with the moral. ‘And then we come back here, to Leeds, and we exist on a subsidence level. But THIS IS REALITY. This is how we live, and we respect that. It’s very important to keep our feet firmly on the ground and not lose sight of living day-to-day – rather than living in some complete bubble, some sort of cloud, which is the world of Rock ‘n’ Roll!’

In a fragmented Indie scene, with long-term Market Leaders either breaking up (The Smiths), or signing to majors (Cabaret Voltaire), RLYL continue to disseminate their edgy sonic violence, their zipgun guitars and gut-whacking thermo-emotional vinyl assaults through Independents – despite label hopping. So can we still look to the Indies for inspiration thus far into the terminal end of the eighties? When it’s as intense and committed as Red Lorry Yellow Lorry we can.

As the interview-tape winds down, Dave smiles a slow-motion drawling smile. ‘We’ve not really talked about music all that much, have we?’

‘What kind of guitar-strings do you use, Dave?’ cuts in Chris O like a perfect punch-line…

‘…a Rock band who have forgotten the rules.
This can only be a good thing…’ 
 (‘Melody Maker’, 17 December 1983)





RED LORRY 
YELLOW LORRY: 
 REPAINT YOUR WAGON


Red Lorry Yellow Lorry are a band with Leeds written all over it. 
 Is that a bad thing? Andrew Darlington discusses the 
implications with the band in a 1986 interview…



From Leeds – to the pleasure centres of your mind.

‘Did you ever see the Bear Pits?’ enquires a Lorry. ‘There’s actually some REAL Bear Pits up Cardigan Road. Somebody was telling us ‘did you know that the whole of Leeds’ Hyde Park used to be a zoo?’ I thought he was joking. It’s like one of those useless little-known facts. DID YOU KNOW…? But it’s true. There’s still the actual pits they put the bears in.’

Dave Wolfenden, dark stubble, dark shades, dark Bebop berry leans across at me. Shows me the contact sheet of promo photos. He’s there in flat shades on monochrome, in the Bear Pits. He’s just to the right of vocalist Chris Reed who’s in regulation pale studio tan. Blonde drummer Chris Oldroyd and Leon Philips – in-group bassist, are stood just behind them, all neatly caged behind rusty bars.

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry are full of surprises. Did YOU ever see the Bear Pits?

I mean – I’d thought the scenario was all mapped out, ‘four gaunt guitarmen of the apocalypse’ with ‘a scorched-earth Pop vision to shock us out of our lethargy’ said ‘Record Mirror’ (16 August 1986), ‘tales of dark dislocation with a close, jerky energy’ from ‘Melody Maker’ (19 July 1986). It’s all there isn’t it? The ONLY problem I’d actually anticipated in interviewing Red Lorry Yellow Lorry was how to pronounce their tongue-twisting name in their presence without garbling Yerrow Lollies and the like. I practice beforehand in front of mirrors, and – by speaking it slowly one word at a time I’d about perfected it to rights. But while they settle any potential awkwardness immediately by referring to themselves exclusively as ‘the Lorries’ (or in print ‘RLYL’), they then muddy the picture further by their resolute refusal to fit the frame they’ve been assigned by my pre-digested press expectations.

Chris Reed hefts the inky tabloids, ‘did you see that review we got for the single from ‘New Musical Express’?’

‘Yeah, I just read it’ from Dave, none-too enthusiastically.

‘It’s ACTUALLY pretty good’ ventures Reed, ‘isn’t it? – for the ‘NME’!’

Chris Oldroyd talks it round further. ‘It’s not actually a slating, is it?’

I glance through the William Leith prose about the current “Cut Down” 45rpm, ‘suicide play’ it begins, ‘decked out in full regalia, creepy-crawly insect-bass, nasty guitar with slight feedback, rangeless gruff voice…’ (‘NME’, 1 November 1986), so far, so – not BAD!

‘But then they say – right at the end of it ‘THIS ONE HAS LEEDS WRITTEN ALL OVER IT’!’

Which is odd. Is there a recognisable ‘Leeds Sound’, like there’s a Sheffield sound or there was a Liverpool sound? Does Leeds have the same tightly-knit, mutually supportive scene, where musicians interact, like they’re supposed to do in Sheffield? Or is the scene something that’s more apparent to those outside looking in?

‘Probably he just meant the toughness, the abrasiveness of the music’ hazards Dave. ‘But in a way, what happens is that a band seem to get to a certain level of success here, and then move down to London, so it’s not really a Leeds scene. There used to be a scene – around when John Keenan’s old ‘F-Club’ was open. It was kinda like a focussing point for everybody to meet, people just getting together to have a drink and a laugh. Competing all the time. It was a lot friendlier then. There’s not as much of that kinda rivalry and incestuousness now.’

‘I think that’s something we don’t really want to enter into though’ censures Chris R quickly. ‘You see, we don’t want to enter into being competitive with other bands. That’s probably the difference between somewhere like Sheffield – as you put it, where maybe people ARE less competitive towards each other and they WILL actually genuinely try and help each other out. Whereas here there does tend to be a lot of rivalry which is a thing we don’t really want to enter into, as a band.’ His low sigh breaks into one of his rare smiles. ‘Somebody put it to us the other day that we’re… sorta, the biggest band in Leeds – because everyone else, like the Mission, are now basically based in London!’

Leeds is diverse. It’s Mekons, Gang of Four, Sisters Of Mercy, Sinister Cleaners, Rose of Avalanche, Three Johns, March Violets, Prowlers, etc etc – very little common denominator there, as – for eg, Kraftwerk /electro-Industrial was for Sheffield. They have their own ‘otherness’, but surely it CAN help to be seen as part of a ‘scene’. A promotable image package, even if – in reality, it’s more fiction than reality? ‘Y-e-e-e-e-s,’ he seems none too sure, ‘It probably is a fiction, but a lot of people come and stay with us, y’know – from America and Europe. We meet them on tour and they all say ‘can we ‘ave your address, we really want to come over and stay in Leeds, we really want to meet all these people in Leeds where this great scene’s happening.’ So THEY believe it exists.’

‘There was a guy who came over from Holland a while ago’ relates Dave. ‘He liked the Leeds ‘scene’ so much that he booked some time in a studio here, just to go in and make a record. He thought it would give him the ‘Leeds Sound’ (whatever THAT is!), and that’d solve all his problems. But even the studio he booked into was one that NONE of the Leeds bands had ever set foot in! Har Har Har!’

From Leeds – to the pleasure centres of your mind. Formed by Chris Reed in July 1982 the first Red Lorry Yellow Lorry single – and first Indie chart entry, was the modestly packaged seven-inch “Beating My Head” c/w “I’m Still Waiting”, a cavernous post-Punk sound informed by Joy Division bleakness, enlivened by token promo in the form of two free badges, one of an oncoming left-forking Red Lorry, the other of a right-forking Yellow Lorry. ‘I’ll go anywhere, I’ll go anytime, Beating my head, Beating my drum…’ I’ve still got my badges!


They played a near-residency at ‘Raffles’ – a small upstairs club in Wakefield. ‘We started playing there when they first thought of putting bands on. They didn’t even have a proper stage, we had to build our own stage, then dismantle it after the gig AND take it home with us! It was a nightmare in logistics setting it up, y’know. It was TOTALLY impractical. So we tried to sell our stage to the bloke who owned the Club. He’d say ‘I really ought to buy that stage off you,’ but then by the end of the night he’d change his mind again. We were so fed up of moving the fucking thing that eventually we just left it there. So he got himself a free stage…’

From that point, with minimal hype and flash, relying instead on a strong group integrity allied to the chemistry of solid live performance work, the Lorries’ profile gradient scored a strong ascent clear up to their breakthrough ‘Paint Your Wagon’ (1986) album. It proved their defining moment to date, all murkily numbing guitar drone, guttural throbbing industrial-dance drums and claustrophobic low-mix vocals, with odd allusions to the American old west. ‘I joined the group about then, in time for that LP’ remembers Chris O (replacing original percussionist Mick Brown). ‘That’s the first time the Lorries had ever actually used a full drum-kit, before that – ever since the beginning of the band, they’d used a drum machine with a stand-up percussion set-up. Now, with drum-kit AND drum machine, it’s like having two drummers in a way, it tends to harden up the rhythm. Keeps them very very minimal, so it’s like being on a train that you can’t get off.’

The success of ‘Paint Your Wagon’ led to prestige European dates and ball-busting American tours (‘they think of us being like an English Hüsker Dü, high energy raucous music’), selling out New York’s ‘Danceteria Club’ twice in the same week. All achieved through creativity over gigantesque overstatement or brazen-hussy cartoon-Rockist postures. A vindication for what the old Fabian party used to call ‘the inevitability of gradualism’? ‘We’d rather play to six-hundred people who appreciate and understand the essence of what we’re trying to do, than six-thousand people who are just there hero-worshipping.’ No bombast or outrageous claims either. Asked ‘is there a favourite RLYR track where you’ve achieved all you set out to do?’ Reed answers disarmingly ‘I think we should think that we’ve NEVER achieved it.’

He speaks carefully, each assertion hedged in with a qualifying ‘I think’, ‘in my opinion’ or ‘what is important to me.’

‘Each record we do is kind of our favourite record’ he explains, ‘because it means we’re getting a little bit nearer to finding the nucleus, to understanding how we want to project the music, really. But we’re never so smugly self-satisfied to say that we can’t improve upon it. Each time we make a record it’s got to be – certainly for us, a step on. A lot of the last album – ‘Paint Your Wagon’, was actually influenced by spending two weeks living in New York, and the intensity we’re trying to project on the record is a similar intensity to living in a place like New York. We did an interview with ‘Radio Luxembourg’ the other week and the guy was saying ‘what do you think about New York, some people say it’s like hell on Earth?’ And we said ‘yes, that’s a really good analogy of what New York is like.’ Its years ahead of what’s likely to happen in so many other places around the world. It’s just a VERY intense place, where – if people see someone lying in the street they won’t do anything for them, they’ll just completely turn a blind eye, it’s ‘look, I’ve got enough problems at the moment, thank you very much, you’ll have to stay there…’

That happens in Leeds. ‘But to a lesser extent.’

‘In New York there’s a real tension to the place’ adds Dave. ‘And conflict. Which gives it a spark, a vibrancy. Although the fact we’re all aged around thirty tends to help, because whereas a lot of younger people’d think, y’know – we might be in New York for two nights, let’s do EVERYTHING that New York can possibly offer in those two nights. But we wouldn’t do that to that extent…’ A pause, ‘well – we would, but we’d do it more intelligently!’

No Rawk ‘n’ Rolling life-style? No sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ boogie all night – from the band who recorded classic psycho-stormers like “Mescal Dance” – an imagey instrumental, and “Head On Fire”?

Chris R: ‘To some extent that’s from having done it all already, and come out the other side.’

Chris O: ‘Yeah, we’ve been through the mincer. There’s a sense of unreality when you’re touring. It’s the kind of situation where your head tends to become detached from reality. People are patting you on the back all the time telling you how good you are, until eventually you start to get used to it. You’ve got an unreal amount of money for food and unlimited drinks, and you’re staying in huge hotels – in America, one hotel we stayed in was just UNBELIEVABLE. You can’t focus your mind at all.’

Chris R: ‘You can imagine how confusing it is for us to experience things like that, then come back here – to Leeds, and exist on a subsistence level.’

Chris O: ‘When you come back…’

Chris R: ‘…it’s confusing sometimes.’

Chris O: ‘Yeh it is. When you come back…’

David W: ‘...it turns your metabolism upside down’

Chris O: ‘Yes, it does. When you come back from touring you get this sensation of movement. It’s absolutely a physical sensation that you want to keep moving. You know, when you’re used to climbing into a vehicle and taking all your things with you…’

David H: ‘It’s like living off nervous energy, and then – when you come home, you’re expected to just switch it off, and you can’t do that. In fact, it’s impossible.’

Chris O: ‘So you end up going out and just walking round compulsively, or driving vehicles all night aimlessly.’

David W: ‘Is that how you overturned your van? Har Har Har!’

And the UP-side to touring? ‘We were in Italy towards the end of May – we did six or seven dates there which were EXCELLENT, they were smashing audiences. In northern Italy they told us we’re selling a lot of records over the border in the northern parts of (what was then) Yugoslavia too, but obviously it’s a lot more difficult to play there. But I enjoyed Italy, I like the country.’

‘Some girls came to see us in Italy, and they baked us a cake’ adds Dave, obviously impressed. ‘Even the response of the press is better over there’ continues Chris O.

‘Even if they don’t really LIKE YOU they WILL report what you’ve done fairly. While some of the things we’ve had in England have been just vitriolic and personal. I don’t know why they bother doing it. There’s a pessimistic sort of atmosphere to this country. It goes along with the economic climate! That we’re on the way down and everything’s got to be UUURRRGGGHHH!!!’

‘Being able to travel is a great thing’ from Reed. ‘It’s a privilege really, to be able to do it.’

The doorbell chimes in the background.

Chris Reed gets up to make the coffee. ‘Did you say ‘no sugar’?’

From Leeds – to the pleasure centres of your mind.

DID YOU KNOW that the Fish Finger was first commercially marketed over thirty years ago – 1955, which makes it about as old, and as exciting as most Rock Music? Convenience food, and convenience sounds quick-frozen and served to taste. But RLYR resolutely and deliberately refuse to fit the frame of anyone’s expectations, be it their press critics – or their Leeds ‘scene’ contemporaries. So can we still look to the Indies for inspiration thus far into the terminal end of the eighties? When it’s as intense and committed as Red Lorry Yellow Lorry we can.

Chris Reed winds down with the moral. ‘Something that we’re very conscious of being vitally important to us is – as we were saying before, when we did this three months of touring, we were living LIKE THAT, and then we’re coming back and suddenly finding ourselves – stationary… y’know. But THIS IS REALITY, this is how we live, and we respect that. It’s very very important to keep our feet firmly on the ground, and not lose sight of living from day to day – rather than living in some complete BUBBLE, some sort of cloud, which is the world of Rock ‘n’ Roll.’

From Leeds…


RED LORRY 
YELLOW LORRY: 
SMASHED HITS 


1982 September – “Beating My Head” c/w “I’m Still Waiting” (Red Rhino RED20) Formed in 1981 by Chris Reed (ex Radio Id) with vocalist Mark Sweeney (ex Knife-Edge), bassist Steve Smith and Mick Brown (percussion). Sweeny quit late 1981, leaving Reed to assume vocals, Martin Fagan joining as second guitar. This first single is lifted directly off their demo tape, relentless machine-drums, feuding guitars

1983 April – “Take It All” c/w “Happy” (Red Rhino RED28) written by Chris Reed. Fagan and Smith are replaced by Dave Wolfenden (guitar) and Paul Southern (bass) for this single

1983 October – “He’s Read” c/w “See The Fire” (Red Rhino RED39) both written by Chris Reed

1984 March – ‘This Today’ (EP, Red Rhino RED48) with ‘Beating My Head’ (re-recording), ‘He’s Read’, ‘Take It All’, ‘See The Fire’, the sleeve reproduces Edvard Munch ‘The Scream’

1984 June – “Monkeys On Juice” c/w “Push” (Red Rhino RED49) + “Silence” on 12” edition, writers Reed-Wolfenden c/w Reed, reaches no.9 on ‘NME’ Indie chart. RLYR do two Radio One John Peel sessions in March and November of 1983

1984 October – “Hollow Eyes” c/w “Feel A Piece” (Red Rhino RED52) + “Russia” on 12” edition. Writers Reed c/w Reed-Wolfenden. Reaches no.7 on ‘NME’ Indie chart

1985 – “Chance (Extended)” c/w “Generation” (RED55) Reed c/w Reed-Wolfenden

1985 – ‘TALK ABOUT THE WEATHER’ (LP, Red Rhino REDLP50) with Chris Reed (vocals, guitar, main songwriter), David Wolfenden (guitar), Paul Southern (bass), Mick Brown (drums), includes ‘Talk About The Weather’, ‘Hand On Heart’ (Reed-Wolfenden), ‘Feel A Piece’, ‘Hollow Eyes’, ‘This Today’ (Reed-Wolfenden), ‘Sometimes’, ‘Strange Dream’, ‘Happy’. Recorded at ‘Spaceward Studio’, Ely, Cambridgeshire. Sleeve notes by Alex Ogg. Reaches no.3 on ‘NME’ Indie album chart


1985 October – “Spinning Round” c/w “Hold Yourself Down” (RED60), plus “Spinning Round (Crash Mix)” on the 12” edition. Written by Chris Reed. Peaks at no.11 on ‘NME’ Indie chart

1986 – “Walking On Your Hands” c/w “Which Side” (Red Rhino RED66), plus “Jipp (Instrumental)” on the 12” edition. Written by Reed-Wolfenden

1986 February – ‘PAINT YOUR WAGON’ (LP, Red Rhino) with Chris Reed (vocals, guitar), David Wolfenden (guitar), Leon Phillips (bass), Chris Oldroyd (drums). All songs by Reed-Wolfenden, includes ‘Walking On Your Hands’, ‘Jipp’, ‘Last Train’, ‘Mescal Dance’ (instrumental), ‘Shout At The Sky’, ‘Which Side’, ‘Blitz’ (instrumental), plus written by Reed only ‘Head All Fire’, ‘Tear Me Up’ and ‘Save My Soul’. Early copies include bonus 7” single “Paint Your Wagon” c/w “More Jipp” (Red Rhino REDF65)

1986 November – “Cut Down” c/w “Running Fever” (Red Rhino RED73), plus “Pushed Me” on the 12” edition. ‘Cut Down’ by Chris Reed, two others by Reed-Wolfenden-Phillips. Management at the time of these interviews was ‘DNA’, Dave Hall at 3 Hessle Terrace, Leeds

1987 – ‘Crawling Mantra’ (12” EP, Red Rhino REDT52) recorded and released as by ‘The Lorries’, with ‘Crawling Mantra’, ‘All The Same’, ‘Hang Man’ and live ‘Shout At The Sky’ from Detroit

1987 –‘SMASHED HITS’ (compilation LP, Red Rhino REDLP86) with, ‘Take It All’, ‘He’s Read’, ‘Hollow Eyes’, ‘Monkeys On Juice’, ‘Generation’, ‘Hold Yourself Down’, ‘Cut Down’. ‘Q’ magazine says ‘from the nihilist, Eldritch-inspired debut ‘Beating My Head’ to the bonus tracks… most of these songs are just formula industrial-goth – bass lines like the growling of the Devil’s belly, vocals which sound like bass lines, a drummer who sounds like a drum-machine, shoutalong choruses with unhappy lyrics. But they did have their moments, particularly the manic ‘Spinning Round’, the Doors-gone-techno ‘Chance’, and ‘More Jipp’ – which pre-empted the Fall’s electronic phase by five years’ (Sam Taylor, September 1995)

1988 – “Open Up” c/w “Another Side” (Situation Two SIT49), plus “You Only Get What You Pay For” on 12” edition. By Reed, ‘Open Up’ with Wolfenden-Phillips. ‘NME’ Single of the Week

1988 – “Nothing Wrong” c/w “Do You Understand” (Situation Two SIT50), plus “Calling” on 12” edition, by Reed-Wolfenden-Phillips

1988 – ‘NOTHING WRONG’ (LP, Situation Two SITU20, Beggars Banquet), with Chris Reed (vocals, guitar, keyboards), David ‘Wolfie’ Wolfenden (guitar), Leon Phillips (bass, keyboards), track listing ‘Nothing Wrong’, ‘Hands Off Me’, ‘Big Stick’, ‘She Said’, ‘Sayonara’, ‘World Around’, ‘Hard – Away’, ‘Only Dreaming’, ‘Do You Understand?’, ‘Never Know’, ‘Pushing On’, ‘Time Is Tight’ (cover of Booker T & MG’s). Produced by Bill Buchanan

1988 September – “Only Dreaming (Wide Awake)” c/w “The Rise” (Situation Two SIT 54), plus “Only Dreaming (3:43-min edit)” on 12” edition

1989 – ‘BLOW’ (LP, Situation Two SITU25) with Mark Chillington replacing Chris Oldroyd, plus guests Jilly Myhill (backing vocals), Steve Hagarth (keyboards) and Dick Adland (drums). Includes ‘Happy To See Me’, ‘Temptation’, ‘Shine A Light’, ‘Too Many Colours’, ‘Heaven’, ‘Gift That Shines’, ‘In A World’, ‘You Are Everything’, ‘West Wakes Up’, ‘It Was Wrong’, ‘Blow’. After the release of the album Leon Phillips is replaced by Gary Weight, while Chillington is replaced by George Shulz

1989 – “Temptation” c/w “Don’t Know Why” (Situation Two SIT60), plus “Blow” on 12” edition. ‘Temptation’ by Wolfenden, ‘Don’t Know Why’ by Reed

1991 – “Talking Back” (Deathwish Office MLP20694) 12” only, with “Talking Back (3:45-min edit)” and “Running Fever (Live)”

1991 – ‘BLASTING OFF’ (LP, Deathwish Office CD23556, Sparkhead), with Chris Reed (vocals, guitar, keyboards and production) plus Gary Weight (bass), George Schultz (percussion), and beatbox ‘Korky’ (and guests Martin Scott, guitar on ‘Train Of Hope’ and Sam Bell, percussion on ‘Talking Back’), track listing ‘This Is Energy’, ‘It’s On Fire’, ‘Don’t Think About It’, ‘Train Of Hope’, ‘Talking Back’, ‘Down On Ice’, ‘In My Mind’, ‘Sea Of Tears’, ‘I Can See Stars’, ‘Driving Me’ after which Red Lorry Yellow Lorry cease to exist, to be revived by Chris Reed in 2004

1994 – ‘THE SINGLES 1982-1987’ (compilation LP, Cherry Red CDMRED109), twenty-six tracks includes all of ‘Smashed Hits’ plus ‘I’m Still Waiting’, ‘Shout At The Sky’, ‘Crawling Mantra, ‘Spinning Round’ etc

1994 – ‘GENERATION’ (compilation LP, Cleopatra CLEO9404-2)

1995 – ‘GOTHIC ROCK Vol.2: EIGHTIES INTO NINETIES’ (Cleopatra Records) multi-artist collection includes ‘Monkeys On Juice’ plus tracks by Bauhaus, Theatre Of Hate, Southern Death Cult etc

2000 – ‘THE VERY BEST OF’ (compilation LP, Cherry Red CDMRED167)

2001 – ‘NOTHING WRONG /BLOW’ (LP, Anagram CDMGOTH11)

2004 – ‘Black Tracks’ (Not On Label, self-released) with “Worlds Collide”, “I Need Time”, “The Only Language” and “Driving Black”

2006 – ‘MINIMAL ANIMAL’ (LP) despite renewed group tours and website downloads, this acoustic album is issued as by the Chris Reed Unit



 Published in:
‘NORTHERN KICKBACK no.4’ 
(‘From Leeds…’ UK – February 1987)
‘B-SIDE no.3’
(‘Angels Of Anarchy…’ USA – May 1987)
‘BUZZ no.34’ 
(‘Two Weeks In Another…’ USA – September 1988)

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Live: CAPTAIN BEEFHEART in Wakefield, 1980




‘REVIEW OF THE AUDIENCE AT THE 
CAPTAIN BEEFHEART/ 
COMSAT ANGELS
CONCERT AT THE UNITY HALL, 
WAKEFIELD’
 (16 November 1980) 


Beefheart wit. ‘I eat bananas – but I ain’t no monkey.’ Brandishing said fruit menacingly at the heckler.

But generally speaking there’s a simian quality about this audience, on the press-the-green-button-for-bananas, press-the-red-button-for-voltage principle. Solitary heckler aside it’s Beefheart’s audience. He expects, and receives unquestioning homage. Saunters on stage in floppy hat, bagged pants, pockets crammed and bulging with undisclosed goodies, plastic bag and sketchpad. Opens sketch pad at page one – Pentel-pen zigzag wander droodles, audience ovation. Sketch pad page two – slightly Jean Cocteau cartoon bullet-head figures and indistinct dialogue, audience ovation. Turn to back of sketchpad, blank cardboard held out for inspection, audience ovation (audience goes bananas?). A mild jest, perhaps even a mild Dada jest, but also a litmus test for audience credulity.

Long hair. Shit, I’ve not seen so much hair since the Isle of Wight 1970. Grateful Dead buttons, and even sweatbands in ratted (oft now-balding) foliage. And dope – don’t bring your own, just inhale. Can this really be 1980?

Comsat Angels are first up, identikit JG Ballard moderne, leather pants, Joe Strummer/ Marlon Brando biker cap, synth burbles, sharp, fast, percussive. They press the red button and get the voltage. This audience don’t connect, don’t want to know, pointedly refuse to know. Sure, I’ve seen better new bands, they are a mite imageless, less visually impressive and audially intriguing than other Sheffield bands who lack major-label signings and reviews in ‘Sounds’ (such as Clock DVA, Vice Versa), but they play their album well and deserve better.

Beefheart makes sarcastic putdowns of what he calls ‘New Wave’, the audience laps it up, perhaps no longer even adulation of the derider as of their own perception. This is tedious, close your eyes, razor all preconceptions, ephemeral clutter and period signposts, and are the basic elements that different? Beefheart hasn’t changed significantly since 1970. All the necessary components were there on his epic ‘Trout Mask Replica’ (June 1969) album, he’s fattened some bits of it out, underlined here and there, rearranged the punctuation, but the fragments of spaced-out chopped-up Blues chording, methedrine stream-of-surreal lyrics and Howlin’ Wolf vocals were present. The fact that the Magic Band personnel can change entirely, yet the sound remain fundamentally the same surely indicates more than a tad of formalisation? But after touring thirteen years that’s probably inevitable, a slickness, a blurring of the Don Van Vliet with the Beefheart persona until even he don’t know where the one ends and the other begins. If such an interface exists.

But what’s important surely is that, if he stopped in 1970, then the rest of Rock has only now got around to assimilating the full implications of ‘Trout Mask’, and that where he was then (and is still, despite repetitions) is also where we find PIL, Residents, Pere Ubu, the Fall. What he should be doing is recognising this – not fighting it. The Comsat Angels, if anything, come on more Pop, more melodic – he more dissonant, adventurous, unconventional, if he but had the nouse to realise it.

The audience also stopped, literally, in 1970, and don’t venture one nanosecond beyond. Sample audience dialogue ‘the Comsat Upstarts, never heard of ‘em.’ ‘No, Comsat Angels.’ ‘Must be thinking of Angelic Upstarts. Never heard of them either.’ Smug insular laughter. Press the green button. There’s a Beefheart poem about a woman taking a bath, who’s killed by a vagrant star from Saturn. Rapt attention. You wonder how they’d react to that same poem if anyone other than Beefheart wrote it? ‘Don’t bore me people’ he warns. They’re boring the shit outta me. A Beefheart poem from ‘Replica’ done on type-wrote script cigarette-burned and crumpled, its incantation cut up by ‘SHUT UP’ bellows aimed at the heckler at the back. Beefheart seems singularly perturbed by what is, after all, a regulation gig occurrence. Can’t he tolerate such lack of homage? ‘If I was that clever, I’d flex my muscles at you’ he howls, flexing said muscles. Cue ovation.

Yet all this detracts from the music, no – the spectacle, or the experience, or perhaps the total experience of Beefheart in full spate, when each facet of the disparate whole somehow gells into a multi-sensory phantasmagoria of euphoric absurdity, when the twains meet, when the merits or demerits of his lyrics, the complex simplicity of his scales, the idiot-genius hick-sophisticate mirrors no longer seem to matter, and it just IS, in perfect balance and rightness. He digs deep, the hallowed antiquity of ‘Safe As Milk’ (1967), the midstream stormer “Big-Eyed Beans From Venus” through to ‘Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)’ (1978) and a stilted tele-prompter promo for ‘Doc At The Radar Station’ (1980), sprinkled with Zen Koan-like epithets aimed variously at Oedipal relationships, Reagan/Thatcher, ‘drums and percussion, percussion and drums, drums and percussion, percussion and opium and drums, drums and percussion.’

Trouble is, I guess, Beefheart comes from a time when demarcation was crystal clear, there was us and them, Hip and Straight, aware and brain-dead. Now there’s a multiplicity of Hip, each having relevance only to its peer group, no more Renaissance-man idea of complete knowledge of Rock totality. Cyclically each tribe has, or will have its period of media glimmer. CND as next year’s Two-Tone for eg. This gig is a minor Regimental Reunion masquerading as World War I. And this gullible coterie of retired Hippie sycophants are now lined up alongside the other, equally valuable/valueless subcultures of Punk, Young Soul Rebels, Post-Modernists, Mod, Rockabilly Rebels etc, each with their own vision of absolute truth. Comsat Angels deserve better. Beefheart deserves better, but somehow I guess the exact ratio of homage/homage-object suits him fine, and he don’t want to wander out into the big world outside clique adoration. Tough.

Published in:
‘WOOL CITY ROCKERS No.11’ (UK – January 1981)


Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Science Fiction Vs Religion - C.S. LEWIS: 'The Cosmic Trilogy'




C.S. LEWIS: 
A MINUET OF GIANTS 


The creator of the ‘Narnia Chronicles’ had an 
odd relationship with Science Fiction, and wrote 
his ‘Cosmic Trilogy’ as a Christian retaliation to 
what he saw as a dangerously atheistic genre 


Clive Staples Lewis had an odd relationship with Science Fiction.

To Lewis, myth is important. Myth embodies the aspirations and hidden truths of a culture, in a deeply Jungian sense.

Science Fiction is the mythology of the machine age. Its truths are those that can be rationally quantified. Its aspirations are those of scientific veracity.

CS Lewis was a Christian.

While he was fascinated by the virile energies of Science Fiction, its mytho-poetic possibilities and awesome scope, he was repelled by what he saw as its materialistic ethos.

His answer – his retaliation, was what is now termed ‘The Cosmic Trilogy’ (single volume edition, Pan SF/ 1990). Three novels in which, according to the original blurb, ‘using the apparatus of Science Fiction and his brilliant imaginative gifts, CS Lewis presents the problems of good and evil.’ It is a unique project, one only partially located in the unique genre it hopes to unsettle. A work totally unlike anything else within, or outside the phantasmagorical realm of Science Fiction.


‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ was published by John Lane /the Bodley Head in 1938. It introduces Dr Elwin Ransom, who is to be the central protagonist of the action. He’s a philologist – that’s linguist to you and me, and fellow of a Cambridge College. On his voyage to Mars he is pitted against the scientist Professor Weston who ‘has Einstein on toast and drinks a pint of Schrödinger’s blood for breakfast.’ And the mysteriously devious Mr Devine who, as well as being Ransom’s contemporary at Cambridge, is prone to uttering ‘strange blasphemies and coprology’s.’

‘Perelandra’ – later retitled ‘Voyage To Venus’, followed in 1943. Early mention of ‘the black-out’ locates its creation within the convulsions of World War 2, which perhaps throws its fictional moral conflict into sharper relief. One of the proofs of Weston’s evil in the novel is his professed readiness ‘to sell England to the Germans.’ And later, in a moment of reflection, Ransom muses that ‘at that moment, far away on Earth… men were at war’ in a ghastly reality far removed from the book’s delicate discourse. ‘That Hideous Strength’ arrived in 1945 with an American name-switch to ‘The Tortured Planet’ in an abridged edition ten years after. To Lewis it’s ‘a modern fairy-tale for grown-ups’, its terrestrial – or ‘Tellurian’ setting makes it more a creature of its time than its two predecessors, and it doesn’t travel well. Similarly its multiple narrative viewpoints – one of them through the eyes and brain of Mr Bultitude, a huge black bear, loses the novel its tightness of focus.

Each fictional instalment, although linked by common cosmology and characters, is distinctly different in tone. ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ draws most directly on the conventions of Science Fiction. ‘Voyage To Venus’ is a lush and entrancing allegory. ‘That Hideous Strength’, a bizarre and often unwieldy concoction of mysticism and Ealing Comedy.


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Born in Belfast, 29 November 1898, the young ‘Jack’ Lewis’ early reading included proto-SF and Fantasy from Arthur Conan Doyle, H Rider Haggard, George MacDonald (‘Phantastes: A Faerie Romance For Men And Women’, 1858), and Jonathan Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (1726). While, still at school, he was so affected by HG Wells’ ‘War Of The Worlds’ (1897) that he briefly embarked on his own first juvenile attempt at interplanetary fiction. As an academic, a Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Magdalene College, Cambridge, he became a prolific writer and poet. His first-published work of prose fiction was ‘The Pilgrim’s Regress’ (1933), a kind of obscurely allegorical rewriting of John Bunyan. Its mixed reception, and a conversation with fellow-‘Inkling’ JRR Tolkien determined that his next venture would be more accessible. So making ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ a hypnotically fascinating and luminously exciting adventure.

Its image of Mars is as distinctive as any in the extensive literature of the red planet. Many writers have personalised Mars, stamping their fictional imprint in its ochre sands. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Stanley Weinbaum, Ray Bradbury. Leigh Brackett. And particularly HG Wells, who – according to Brian Aldiss, ‘awoke Lewis’ imagination and his moral dislike at one and the same time.’ And Wells’ mechanistic, socialist, atheistic vision is regularly alluded to by Lewis, by way of contrast.

Initially on a walking tour of the Midlands, Ransom is kidnapped by Weston and Devine who carry him to ‘Malacandra’ with the intention of trading him to placate the planet’s inhabitants. Critic Peter Nicholls suggests that Ransom ‘like Christ is… offered as a ransom for mankind’ (in ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’). Ransom doesn’t realise he’s on Mars until relatively late in the plot, speculating at one point that he could even be on the Moon’s dark side. Escaping his captors, his journeys on the strange world are shadowed by constant fearful anticipations of Wells’ insectoid reptilian monsters and the soulless dehumanised rule of science he’d learned to expect from ‘War Of The Worlds’ and ‘First Men In The Moon’ (1901). Ransom even recalls specifically ‘how HG Wells’ Cavor had met his end on the Moon’ – although technically it should have been IN the Moon!

Lewis exactly inverts those expectations.

Malacandra is a world in which three sentient species – or Hnau, co-exist in perfect harmony, under the tutelage of the Eldila who are like ‘footsteps of light’, and the world-spirit Oyarsa. It is Earth – Thulcandra, which is the ‘bent world’, the Silent Planet, excluded from the cosmic dialogue because its world spirit, its Dark Lord, the depraved Oyarsa of Tellus, is insane. Devine brings greed and death to Mars, ‘we are all a bent race. We have come here to bring evil.’ While Weston brings more complex ills.


When I first read ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ as a teenager, I did so without preconceptions, and enjoyed it simply as a singularly different slice of SF, and some of its descriptions of Martian alieness remain stunning. ‘He gazed about him, and the very intensity of his desire to take in the new world at a glance defeated him. He saw nothing but colours – colours that refused to form themselves into things. Moreover, he knew nothing yet well enough to see it; you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are.’ Lewis’ portrayal of Mars is largely in keeping with the then-contemporary ideas of the planet. Ransom learns that ‘the Malacandrian atmosphere lay chiefly in the handramits; the real surface of the planet was naked or thinly clad.’ The former, seen from the heights of the ‘undimensioned, enigmatic blackness’ of space, are the wide artificial valleys mistakenly called ‘canals’, cut into the harandra, or dead crust of the ancient world to extend its habitation. This accords with the consensus view of Mars still recognised by fictioneers well into the mid-1960’s. And as yet, CS Lewis’ occasional religious allusions are not highly visible, more a co-opting of religious vocabulary.

Space? ‘Older thinkers had been wiser when they named it simply the heavens.’

Meeting the Hrossa is ‘like the meeting of the first man and the first woman in the world… the first tingling intercourse of two different, but rational species.’ The Hrossa, Ransom considers, resemble talking animals, ‘as though Paradise had never been lost.’ And ‘ever since he had discovered the rationality of the Hrossa he had been haunted by a conscientious scruple as to whether it might not be his duty to undertake their religious instruction’! The climax of the novel is a cleverly-constructed comic three-way dialogue in which Ransom (the philologist) translates Weston’s self-justification of racial destiny, social Darwinism, and scientific ambition into Martian terms that the Oyarsa can understand. His simplified paraphrase reducing the arguments – and hence the underlying premise of most Science Fiction, down to an internally contradictory nonsense.

 

Brian Aldiss calls it ‘one of the most delightful space voyages in the literature’ (in ‘Billion Year Spree’, 1973), and Lewis returns briefly to Mars in one of two short stories – originally published in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’, and later incorporated into the 1966 collection ‘Of Other Worlds’. “Ministering Angel” – from the January 1958 issue, envisages a different and less ethereal planet, with a Monk who had ‘chosen three years on Mars as the nearest modern equivalent to a hermitage in the desert,’ and the whores who arrive there to upset his calm!

But then… of course, the fiction of CS Lewis has ulterior motives. What he calls the ‘hidden story’ beneath the surface plot. It’s entirely possible to read his charming Narnia stories as delightful fantasies without necessarily deciphering the coded messages of their symbolism, although that symbolism is visible. Narnia is a ‘country of walking trees… of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants… of Talking Beasts.’ A world in which Digory picks, and is tempted to eat an apple from the magic garden (in ‘The Magician’s Nephew’, 1955). A world breathed into life by the benevolently god-like lion Aslan who is resurrected from death, whose blood can revive the dead (‘The Silver Chair’, 1953), and who finally bids the fantasy world’s cessation with the words ‘the dream has ended, this is the morning’ (‘The Last Battle’, 1956).


With ‘Perelandra’ the moral is even less easily avoided. ‘Authentic Science Fiction’ magazine (no.38, October 1953) calls it ‘a rather slow, somehow boring treatise that grinds an axe so crudely you can see the chips fly off.’ The prefatory disclaimer that ‘all the human characters in this book are purely fictitious and none of them is allegorical’ is difficult to accept, for this – the second ‘Cosmic Trilogy’ novel, is a Perelandrian Book of Genesis. He playfully argues back that ‘a strict allegory is like a puzzle with a solution’ – as his biographer Brian Sibley quotes Lewis as saying, yet his own stories, Lewis claims, more resemble ‘a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place.’

In the emerging fragrance of his fictional cosmology Mars provides life’s rough blueprint, a first attempt at animating life-forms. Learning from its crudity, Earth creates humanity, advanced – but flawed by its ‘fall’ from grace. The Moon possesses an underground machine civilisation, suggested but never encountered, which marks the outer limits of Thulcandra’s sphere of evil. While Venus is a new world, its myths yet to be written. ‘The distinction between history and mythology might be itself meaningless’ considers Ransom, in much the same way that with the Eldila ‘the distinction between natural and supernatural, in fact, broke down.’

This time Ransom is summoned through space. He travels to mist-shrouded Venus in a ‘coffin’ powered by Eldila. His interplanetary voyages are all made nude. The inference is of reaching worlds ‘beyond death’, and of rebirth – never stated, but implicit in the image. He discovers Venus, or Perelandra, to be a world of ocean with few points of fixed land, but fleets of floating islands that Lewis illustrates with painterly richness and vivid attention to detail, snaring descriptions with often stunning precision of observation. ‘Great globes of yellow fruit hung from the trees, clustered as toy-balloons are clustered on the back of the balloon-man.’ Lewis later explains that ‘the starting point of the second novel – ‘Perelandra’, was my mental picture of the floating islands. The whole of the rest of my labours, in a sense consisted of building up a world in which floating islands could exist’ (an interview in ‘SF Horizons’, Spring 1964).


Ransom soon meets the Green Lady. The world’s Eve. And shortly after, he discovers Weston there in his familiar role as emissary of evil, but this time he enacts a more focused part. Weston’s soul is owned by the mephistophelean Tellurian Oyarsa. As the novel slowly progresses he decays further into a thing of pure malevolence, becoming first the Un-man, and later the Tempter, as his true intentions clarify. Ransom ‘had a sensation not of following an adventure but of enacting a myth.’ And Lewis adds to that myth-building process with every simile. At one point Weston’s corrupt body even tempts the Green Lady with the suggestion that ‘he (Ransom) does not want you to go on to the new fruits that you have never tasted before.’ Fruit? – what is at stake here is ‘Original Sin’, the loss of Venusian innocence, the prospect of a second Fall, all balanced on the outcome of their individual actions, ‘the sense of precariousness terrified him.’

The leisurely pacing accelerates when Ransom, losing more rounds of philosophical and theological debate than he considers fair, decides to kill Weston. The ethical equation posed by such a murder perhaps being as equally ‘sinful’ as the attempted seduction is not something that worries either the author or his character. The ensuing pursuit takes hunter and hunted to the forbidden fixed land and through a bizarre subworld of caves and their half-glimpsed monsters. A labyrinth compounded of Hades and the Narnian Really Deep Land of Bism beneath the Underland (in ‘The Silver Chair’), a domain complete with a glimpse of its waiting thrones.

Perelandra is saved. Ransom meets the ‘King’ (Adam), and the Oyarsa of both Mars and Venus, to learn more of the true nature of the solar system, and of god – ‘Maleldil’. ‘On Mars the very forests are of stone; in Venus the land swims.’ CS Lewis extends this hard-soft imagery into a definition of male-female beyond physical sexuality, personified by the qualities of these worlds. The interplay of history, myth and morality is its ‘Great Dance’. The fact that it places the human form above all other animals – ‘a little lower than the angels’, is hardly surprising considering its context. As is its sexism. The Green Lady, although nominally equal-but-different, is treated as being of lesser importance than the king. Yet ‘Perelandra’ is a beautifully-woven tapestry of deep and subtle colouration with areas of exquisite prose. His description of ‘ripple trees’ and their tiny denizens runs ‘the wind was blowing the streamers not down the mountainside but up it, so that his course had to the eye the astonishing appearance of lying through a wide blue waterfall which flowed the wrong way, curving and foaming towards the heights.’


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Clive Staples Lewis was a strange, repressed, solitary man who – in Anthony Burgess’ memorable description, was ‘god-drunk’. And he had an odd relationship with Science Fiction. To CS Lewis the spaces separating worlds are ‘god’s quarantine’. This assertion is intended to be serious. A chapter in Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The View From Serendip’ (Gollancz, 1978) amplifies his attitude. Lewis was intensely opposed to all aspects of modernism, including the Rocket Societies that were then being organised by equally fanatical enthusiasts into the grandiosely titled ‘British Interplanetary Society’. Clarke, the group’s treasurer and chief propagandist met ‘Jack’ Lewis for a pre-arranged open debate in an Oxford pub. Lewis was seconded in the confrontation by JRR Tolkien. Clarke by Val Cleaver – who was destined to become head of Rolls Royce Rocket Division!

The debate is fiercely passionate, although from a twenty-first century perspective it increasingly takes on the slightly unhinged air of two bald men fighting over a comb. Lewis contends that space flight will spread humanities crimes to other, as yet uncontaminated worlds. Reduced to absurd simplicity his attitude is of the ‘there are things we are not meant to know /humans should know their place in god’s scheme of things /if people were meant to fly they’d have been given wings’ variety. That human beings should be content with their allotted span – both racially and individually, and when it’s done they should die with dignity as the Martian Hnau will, once they’ve served Maleldil’s purpose. CS Lewis’ mind-set is as mustily pre-industrial and myth-riddled as Tolkien, his colleague in the debate.

While Clarke ripostes that the inevitable future of the race lies out there beyond the atmosphere, quarantine or no. Neither possibility seems any more imminent as the new century lurches into its teens. But Lewis’ opposition to his concepts did not blind him to Clarke’s qualities as a writer. A dust-jacket blurb for ‘Childhood’s End’ (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1954) quotes a Lewis book review with this barbed recommendation – ‘here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim on humanity than its own ‘survival’.’ Clarke himself – in ‘The Coming Of The Space Age’ (Panther, 1970) refers to ‘my old sparring partner’s… theological exercises in SF’. While critic Sam Moskowitz’s essay in the same volume contends that Lewis not only borrowed from HG Wells, but from Olaf Stapledon too, and also assumed his ‘entire religious philosophy as it applied to the space age.’

There’s some evidence that CS Lewis DID admire Stapledon’s elaborate fantasies in which evolving future races hop worlds to escape the extinction of Earth, eventually colonising Neptune two-thousand million years hence – indeed, Lewis even wrote about them with some enthusiasm in ‘The Christian Herald’ (1958). But he obviously rejects what he calls the ‘desperately immoral outlook’ that puts so much faith in humanity’s own ability – in phrases from a letter quoted by Lewis’ biographer and disciple Roger Lancelyn Green, to ‘revitalise the cosmos’.

So can a healthily logical atheist still read and enjoy the books of CS Lewis? The answer is obviously yes, despite himself. In the same way that we can listen to Bach with pleasure, without sharing his faith.


With ‘That Hideous Strength’ even his most dour attitudes seems to have darkened. Prefacing ‘Out Of The Silent Planet’ he’d admitted ‘…this author would be sorry if any reader supposed he was too stupid to have enjoyed Mr HG Wells fantasies or too ungrateful to acknowledge his debt to them.’ But the later novel portrays Wells himself as ‘Horace Jules’ – ‘a cockney, a very little man, whose legs were so short that he had unkindly been compared to a duck. He had a turned-up nose and a face in which some original bonhomie had been much interfered with by years of good living and conceit.’ The novels that ‘had first raised him to fame and affluence’ were flimsily grounded in ‘science… taught him at the University of London over fifty years ago.’ The snide character assassination ends with Jules being shot to death!

As Arthur C Clarke writes amusingly in his ‘Astounding Days’ (Gollancz, 1989) World War 2 is brought to a close with the unleashing of two SF concepts into the real world – rocketry, in the form of the V2 Flying Bombs, and atomic power, devastatingly at Hiroshima. Perhaps the muddled and unsatisfactory third instalment of ‘The Cosmic Trilogy’ is presaged by this realisation? That the atheistic proponents of the space age were seeing their dreams enter the realm of news reportage.

To CS Lewis ‘That Hideous Strength’ is ‘a tall story about devilry, though it has behind it a serious point.’ Lewis had already produced a mild and amusing novel about devilry. ‘The Screwtape Letter’ from 1943 depicts a senior devil writing instructions to his young inexperienced nephew, Wormwood, on how to win human souls. Yet here, from the timeless spaces of other worlds, ‘That Hideous Strength’ reduces the scope of its vision down to a very pre-war Little England and the trivial concerns of a highly dated and class-riddled cast of terrestrials, Bill the Blizzard, ‘Fairy’ Hardcastle, Mrs Maggs – the domestic ‘woman who comes in twice a week’, and Mother Dimble. Dr Elwin Ransom doesn’t appear by name until halfway into the book. He is now the ‘Director’, in a beatific state of numinous transfiguration, with the bite on his foot – inflicted by Weston on Venus, borne as a stigmata. While Devine is also present in the form of Lord Feverstone, who becomes Emergency Commissioner of Edgestow – a ‘conquered and occupied city.’

The new protagonists are Mark Studdock – a Sociology Don at Bracton College, part of the Edgestow University complex, and his dissatisfied wife Jane. The first fully-drawn female character in the trilogy – the Green Lady of Venus scarcely counts, she discovers to her own unease that she’s capable of precognition. Aligned with the College ‘Progressive Element’, Mark is inveigled into joining a government-sponsored research centre that has bought the ancient Bracton Wood from the college. N.I.C.E. is the ‘Avengers’-style acronym for this National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments. Weston may be dead, but NICE continues his work by other means, with the ultimate objective of ‘a new type of man’ achieved through ‘sterilisation of the unfit, liquidation of backward races, selective breeding’ creating ‘a new era. The REALLY scientific era.’ Science, equated with fascism.

NICE is an attempted totalitarianism with unconvincing Kafkaesque overtones, and it is – of course, in the sway of the Dark Eldils. They plan to revive the ancient Atlantean magics of Merlin, the great Wizard of Arthurian legend, who ‘had not died. His life had been sidetracked, moved out of our one-dimensional time for fifteen centuries. But under certain conditions it would return to his body.’ Merlin lies secretly entombed beneath the contested Bracton Wood suspended in time, a state that Lewis calls ‘parachronic’, ‘dead and yet not dead, something exhumed from that dark pit of history.’ His pagan Druidical power will be reinforced by what Lewis sees as the new demonic power of science – epitomised by NICE, in which ‘dreams of the far future destiny of man were dragging up from its shallow and unquiet grave the old dream of man as god.’

Here Lewis states his anti-science thesis most nakedly. Science leads to a ‘despair of objective truth’ in which ‘all morality was a mere subjective by-product of the physical and economic situations of man.’ Science undermines belief. And if this conspiracy of logic, realism, and human rationalism ‘succeeded, hell would be at last incarnate.’ Needless to say, Lewis ensures that it doesn’t succeed. A convention of five Oyarsa – those from Mercury (Viritrilbia), Jupiter (Glundandra), and Saturn (Lurga), as well as the two we’ve already encountered, lend a hand. Mark sees through the beguiling pretence of ‘progress’ and returns to more traditional values, and Merlin – once revived, unexpectedly joins the side of light against darkness. 

There’s little of the prose richness of the two earlier novels, but some notes of humour en route. The ‘Head’ of NICE is discovered to be just that – a severed head maintained by a system of tubes, pipes and drips. A horror image lifted directly from the cruder Gernsbackian pulps! While NICE, in its search for the resurrected Merlin, takes an unfortunate and confused tramp into their custody believing him to be the great Druid. But it is more occult flim-flam that SF, and this third volume of the ‘Cosmic Trilogy’ would have been long forgotten if not for the furnace heat of its two predecessors.

And anyway, by March 1949 Lewis’ interests had moved elsewhere. He wrote ‘once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy…’, opening ‘The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe’, with six more ‘Narnian Chronicles’ to follow until ‘The Last Battle’ in 1956.


‘I’ve never started from a message or a moral’ Lewis protests to his ‘SF Horizons’ interrogators, adding ‘of course, it wouldn’t have been that particular story if I wasn’t interested in those particular ideas.’ Science Fiction is an essentially atheistic medium. Perhaps it has to be. Its imagery follows HG Wells Time Traveller to the slow entropic devolution at world’s end. It crosses Olaf Stapledon’s trackless aeons of random evolutions and meaningless extinctions. Even once it had outgrown its early role as propaganda vehicle for the space race, it still conjures up intriguing blasphemies of alternative christ’s, with Michael Moorcock’s ‘Behold The Man’ (1969). The ‘hidden story’ here is inconsistent with belief in god’s eternal plan, inconsistent with the CS Lewis cosmology in which ‘Maleldil was born a man in Bethlehem.’

James Blish questions religious morality by using a Jesuit priest as protagonist of his ‘A Case Of Conscience’ (1958). Anthony Boucher allegedly puts his SF short story “The Quest For Saint Aquin” (1951) at the service of his Catholic faith. Ray Bradbury’s Episcopal priests meet sinless Martians in his “The Fire Balloons” (1951, collected into ‘The Martian Chronicles’), while Walter M Miller’s ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ (1960) centres on the rituals of a Catholic monastery in post-apocalypse America. But even accepting such exceptions, Science Fiction remains the ultimate literature of rationalism. It is the mythology of the machine age. Its truths are those that can be analytically quantified. Its aspirations are those of scientific veracity, with an implacably healthy atheistic subtext. What CS Lewis condemns as ‘the idea which is at this moment circulating all over our planet in obscure works of ‘scientifiction’, in little Interplanetary Societies and Rocketry Clubs, and between the covers of monstrous magazines, ignored or mocked by the intellectuals, but ready, if ever the power is put into its hands, to open a new chapter of misery for the universe’ (‘Perelandra’).

Clive Staples Lewis died on 22 November 1963… living long enough to see Yuri Gagarin, Gherman Titov, Alan Shepard and others follow Weston and Devine in gloriously transgressing god’s quarantine regulations…


C.S. LEWIS: 
THE COSMIC TRILOGY 

The Dark Tower And Other Stories’ edited by Walter Hooper (London, Collins, 1977) unfinished manuscript of disputed authenticity published posthumously, featuring Elwin Ransom involved in an experimental screen that enables glimpses of a parallel universe


Out Of The Silent Planet’ (1938 by John Lane, The Bodley Head, Scribner USA 1938, Pan Books 1952)

Perelandra: A Novel’ (1943 by John Lane, The Bodley Head, also published as ‘Perelandra: World Of The New Temptation’ by US Avon, 1950, and ‘Voyage To Venus’ by Pan Books 1955)

That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale For Grown-Ups’ (1945 by John Lane, The Bodley Head. Specially abridged version by CS Lewis published by US Avon retitled ‘The Tortured Planet’ in 1958, first paperback by Pan Books 1955)

The Cosmic Trilogy’ (single-volume edition by The Bodley Head in March 1990, Pan SF/ 1990, ISBN 0-330-31374-6. Published as ‘The Space Trilogy’ by Scribner Paperback Fiction US 1996.