Sunday, 20 December 2009



phantom cop
with a real sub-machinegun
watches me slouch by as
spy-cameras switch and focus,
three suits tap lap-top encrypts
through Starbucks glass at me

tracking suspect poems
in my head, thermal-imaging
for unwise sympathies,
subversive syllables spooling
from my pockets,
incendiary thoughts
leaking in DNA-streams

of breath
as Cromwell watches pennants
across Westminster shadow
‘the only good war is no war
the only bad peace is no peace’

but hey, Oliver,
if al-Qaeda don’t get me
the state will…


black mass throbbing square
in motion, if not in Movement,
ancient imperial streets still vibrant
with warm meat of new life,
paved with pizza-
pack, fast-food wrap

and a guru on the Northern Line
stands his turn in sandals and saffron
queuing in line for nirvana…

Published in:
‘VAN GOGH’S EAR no.4’ (USA/ France – January 2005)

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Ray Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451'


Review of: ‘FAHRENHEIT 451’
with Oskar Werner, Julie Christie, Cyril Cusack
(1966, DVD Universal Pictures UK, November 2003)
‘…A Novel Of A Strange And Weird Future…’

The opening paragraph punches home the shock. The fireman is hosing ‘venomous kerosene’ from his brass nozzle. It brings you up sharp. ‘kerosene’? Francois Truffaut’s only English-speaking film adapts Ray Bradbury’s classic sci-fi novel in which the Fire Brigade is not there to put out fires, but to burn illegal collections of books wherever they discover them, hidden behind false-front TV’s, concealed in radiators, suspended in Perspex light-shades, or ‘a veritable well of words’ stashed in secret loft-space. Fahrenheit 451 is ‘the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns’. So your Kindle is presumably safe! To thirty-year-old fireman Guy Montag, with the symbolic ‘451’ numerals on his beetle-black helmet, ‘it was a pleasure to burn’. In a form of gleeful pyromania he considers himself as ‘some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history’. And Oskar Werner plays this fireman, who learns to love the books he’s employed to burn.

The book is a strange mix of retro, and historical futures. The brass pole down which the firemen slide, and the eight-legged robo-hound, a precursor of Neal Stephenson’s ‘Fido’ cyborg-dog in ‘Snowcrash’ (1992), and let’s leave K9 out of this, OK? The 24-hour robot bank-tellers predict ATM’s. In fifties SF-terms there’s a sketched-in back-story of ‘we’ve started and won two atomic wars since 1960’, leaving maybe a starving radioactive world beyond America’s national borders. Nobody knows for sure. They’re now on the precipice of a new war as ‘bombers crossed the sky and crossed the sky’ above them. There’s also a kind of dystopian Political Correctness that conforms more to the fifties idea of orderly social homogeneity. ‘The tyranny of the majority.’ The ‘Little boxes on a hillside’ thought-control leveling down embodied by the three caricatured wives with their mindless harpy-inanities. As Montag’s wife uses her ear-thimbles, a kind of radio iPod, and interactive three-wall TV with its endless soap-opera ‘relations’. Truffaut has Montag offered promotion. When he’s asked ‘am I right?’ he replies ‘absolutely’, deliberately replicating Linda’s auto-response to her wall-cousins. Kurt Vonnegut also used SF as a medium to satirise this stultifying conformity. Future Graphic Novel Lawman Judge Dredd also confiscates banned books. Books offend minorities, and ‘there are too many of us, he thought. There are billions of us and that’s too many’, and with more people, there are more minorities to offend. African-American’s dislike ‘Robinson Crusoe’. Jews don’t like Nitzsche. We must be happy. So we must all be alike. Books raise awkward questions about freedom and individuality. Questions create dissatisfaction, with ‘silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words’. As if to vindicate his position Captain Beatty (Cyril Cusack) brandishes a copy of Hitler’s ‘Mien Kampf’. Books are subversive. Rebellious. ‘A book is a loaded gun’. ‘If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him, give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget…’ Of course, it’s a metaphor. As much of a metaphor as the old-fashioned salamander fire-truck they drive, or the phoenix for suave boss Beatty. Book-burning is a mark of intolerant totalitarianism from Nazi pyres to Ku Klux Klan to the burning of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ on the streets of Bradford. Like the Taliban, Truffault shows in a neat sixties, touch how conformist forces also shear long-haired youths. And Bradbury conjures this situation forced into extremis. In an increasingly inhospitable world, he shows the survival of literacy, of sensitivity, of solitude, of quiet thinking. A situation more so now than it was then. Are books dying? Small bookshops maybe, but not if you visit Waterstones. Is the internet killing off newspapers, are they ‘dying like huge moths? Are postal charges eliminating the viability of small-press publishing? Now there’s even more background noise of inconsequence. More roaring dumbed-down trivia.
Montag imagines himself to be more-or-less content until, the same evening his wife Mildred (Linda in the film) overdoses on sleeping pills, he encounters the strangely disturbing beauty of Clarisse McClellan, ‘seventeen and crazy’. In the movie she’s ‘loopy crazy’, and Julie Christie has the dual role of playing both women, implying that although they may have started out with equal potential, they evolved into two very contrasting people, despite ‘Time’ magazine claiming her portrayals differ ‘only in their hairdos’. Linda has long hair. Clarisse has a bob. In an artfully contrived subplot Clarisse even pretends to be Linda on the phone. Clarisse is a flower-child before there are flower-children. A social misfit because she asks questions where others merely accept. She’s the beautiful irritant that insinuates herself into his disquiet, into the dissatisfaction he scarcely realizes he feels. The ‘stirrings of unease’. Medics come and impersonally replace his wife’s blood so the following morning she’s unaware of the whole near-death incident. Charted in their dislocated aimless conversation. He ruminates that, along with the new blood, if only she could also be the recipient of ‘someone else’s flesh and brain and memory. If only they could have taken her mind along to the dry-cleaners and emptied the pockets and steamed and cleaned it and reblocked it and brought it back in the morning. If only…’

His life comes apart. Even the fireman’s pole rejects him. ‘Do you ever read any of the books you burn?’ asks Clarisse. ‘That’s against the law’ he laughs. But the woman at the house on Elm who burns herself to death with her ‘secret library’ Tower of Babel books sets him thinking. ‘There must be something in books, things we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house.’ There is a tantalising seep of unacknowledged quotes – ‘time has fallen asleep in the afternoon sunshine’, which is from poet Alexander Smith’s ‘City Poem: Dreamthorpe’. Montag reads an excerpt from ‘that evil political book’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. There are two verses complete and uncredited of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”. In the film you strain to catch book-titles as they burn, ‘Catcher In The Rye’, Jean Genet, Kafka, Brendan Behan, ‘Moby Dick’, Henry Miller’s ‘Plexus’, De Sade’s ‘Justine’, ‘Lolita’, an issue of ‘Mad’ magazine. ‘The World Of Salvador Dali’ burns in a long page-flickering sequence.In a Truffaut in-joke he burns an issue of ‘Cahiers Du Cinéma’.

Clarisse vanishes. Is she dead? Montag has salvaged a book and brought it home. More, he has a stash of books hidden above the vent. Truffaut portrays him reading ‘David Copperfield’, he reads aloud, following the lines with his finger. Because he’s unfamiliar with book-reading he even methodically reads the imprint. Do Beatty’s loaded comments mean that he knows? Escaping, Montag links with a poetry-quoting retired English Professor called Faber – named rather obviously for TS Eliot’s publisher. On-screen there is no Faber. Instead Montag has a dream in which it is Clarisse who burns. Then, no, it is her house which is purged, but she escapes through a skylight. Montag assists her to destroy an incriminating list of subversives. In both versions Montag’s last call is at his own house, betrayed by his wife. And the act of burning his own home becomes the act of burning his past self. Better illustrated in the book where he torches their bed ‘with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain.’ He turns the flame-gun on Beatty and incinerates him too. Then there’s the pursuit through the night city, the coordinated surveillance from every house simultaneously. Montag is deliberately almost run down by joy-riding feral teens. And where Truffaut has him drifting by punt as his pursuers use curiously-animated jet-packs to hunt him down, Bradbury uses the robo-hound. Eventually they both make his way to a secret rural commune, the outlaw custodians of literary lore, the ‘walking camp’ where members spend their days memorising books. In this way, even though the physical volumes may cease to exist, the books will not die. One of the memorised books is ‘The Martian Chronicles’ by Ray Bradbury.

The tale told in Bradbury’s evocative rapid poetry of ‘the warm-cool blowing night on the silvered pavement’ is re-told by Truffaut in elegant photography. Bradbury uses fire as a motif. ‘If he was fire, Faber was water.’ Beatty has an ‘alcohol-flame stare’. The sun burns time. And fire is the first thing Montag sees of the camp, which the film switches into a bleak autumnal railway carriage. For a screenplay focused on flame, Truffaut makes it a very chill film indeed, partly by deploying colour values, which critic Philip French describes as ‘beautifully shot by Nicolas Roeg’. There are colour-filter title-frames with voice-over credits. There are reds and greys which predominate. The screen is drenched siren-red for calls. And he effectively conveys the idea that each time a book is incinerated, it is an act of murder. John Brosnan, in his ‘Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’ entry is less convinced, ‘the film is more ambiguous than Bradbury’s original’ he argues. Where Bradbury is sharp, Truffaut is more ambiguous, more questioning. ‘Truffaut seems not altogether to accept Bradbury’s moral simplicity. This is particularly evident at the end, with the book-people murmuring aloud the words they are committing to memory, while plodding about the snow-covered landscape like zombies.’ With the boy learning Dickens by rote from his dying grandfather, a deliberate echo of the monotonous chanted times-tables that washes around Montag in the corridors between the classrooms of Clarisse’s school. The aesthetic, as opposed to the literal survival of literature still seems to be in balance. As a humorous parting shot Brosnan observes ‘Truffaut might have been less dispassionate with a story of a future where all films are banned!’ A little unfair, as Truffaut was always a literary director. And the film reflects his genuine love of books, opting for a straightforward linear adaptation of the novel, while re-crafting it in ways unlike anything a British or American director would have done. For Bradbury, there’s none of Truffaut’s cleanly appropriate reunion with Clarisse. Only the strange apocalyptical leveling of the cities Montag has left. The momentary vision of Mildred lost and alone without her comforting wall-cousins as the power fails and she’s left facing only her own reflection. Both book and film use the joke ‘as you can see, you can’t judge a book by the cover’. But only onscreen Montag becomes Poe’s ‘Tales Of Mystery & Imagination’. Clarisse becomes Louis de Rouvroy’s ‘Memoirs Of Saint Simon’.

A French ‘New Wave’ activist, he’d begun as an influential critic and ‘auteur’ movie-theorist. Until, from ‘The 400 Blows’ (1959) to his third movie ‘Jules Et Jim’ (1962) which also starring Oskar Werner, his reputation took him outside the French market. For Truffaut, his only English-speaking film proved a major challenge, not only because it was also his first foray into color, and because the large scale Pinewood production contrasted with his more usual small crews and budgets, but largely because he scarcely spoke English himself. Like his some-time collaborator Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Alphaville’, his future is suggested by selective shots of brutalist towerblocks. The one future-concession is the overhead monorail where robotic commuters read wordless picture-papers. A dysfunctional people caught in the sharp vignette of a man in the park who appears to be embracing a lover, but is actually caressing himself. Truffaut’s deliberately stylised artificiality is offset by the musical lyricism of the Bernard Herrmann score – longtime collaborator of Truffaut’s idol, Alfred Hitchcock. Yet unlike many filmic adaptations from literary sources, the book and film reinforce and complement each other, both bringing out and developing suggestions from the other. Building into an impressive cross-media continuity. Martin Scorsese rates the film as ‘underrated’, and claims it as an influence on his own work. Another Bradbury-derived film – ‘The Illustrated Man’ (1968) followed by other hands, with Rod Steiger taking the star billing in a portmanteau of three linked tales. Again, it’s an SF film for people who don’t necessarily like SF films, thoughtful and evocative with little of the flash-SFX and blockbuster zapping pace more usually associated with the genre. Truffaut died 21st October 1984, aged 52.

And, of course, paper does not spontaneously ignite at Fahrenheit 451. In fact, different brands of paper ignite at different, and generally higher temperatures. Ray Bradbury later admitted he just liked the number.


‘FAHRENHEIT 451’ (Anglo-Enterprise & Vineyard Universal, 1966. DVD Universal Pictures UK, November 2003) 112-minutes. Director: Francois Truffaut. Producer: Lewis M Allen. Screenplay: Francois Truffaut & Jean-Louis Richard (with additional dialogue by David Rudkin & Helen Scott) from the novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury. With Oskar Werner (as Guy Montag), Julie Christie (as Clarisse & Linda Montag), Cyril Cusack (The Captain), Anton Diffring (Fabian & Headmistress), Jeremy Spenser (Man with Apple), Bee Duffell (Book Woman), Alex Scott (Book ‘The Life Of Henry Brulard’), Michael Balfour (Book: ‘Machiavelli’s The Prince’), Denis Gilmore (Book: ‘The Martian Chronicles’), John Rae (Book: ‘The Weir Of Hermiston’), Mark Lester (Schoolboy), Anna Palk (Jackie), Noel Davis (TV Personality ‘Cousin Midge’), Gillian Aldam (Judoka Woman). Cinematography: Nicolas Roeg. Special Effects: Bowie Films, Charles Staffel. Music: Bernard Herrmann.

‘FAHRENHEIT 451’ by Ray Bradbury (USA Ballentine paperback original, 1953, Rupert Hart-Davis hardback 1954, UK Corgi Paperback, 1957) original short story “Bright Phoenix” in 1947, but only first published in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ in 1963. Meanwhile, the original short story was reworked into a novella as “The Fireman” published in ‘Galaxy Vol.1 No.5’(February 1951). The novel then serialised in ‘Playboy’ in three parts (March, April & May 1954)

Herman's Hermits DVD

DVD Review of:
LISTEN PEOPLE 1964 – 1969
(2009 – 120 minutes – Reelin’ In The Years Productions)

Sobering thought now that while Velvet Underground were sneaking out their paradigm-shifting debut album virtually unnoticed, one of the biggest bands in the world was this toothsome quintet from Manchester. As the Beatles and Stones matured upwards Hermania slotted in neatly beneath them soaking up all that unbridled undiluted ‘Teenbeat’ training-bra pubertal-adulation. With a respectable string of UK hits Peter Noone cracked it even bigger in the States where his fun-caricatured English charm took the charts to the bank. This DVD tells the story, through new interviews with Herman, Karl Green (bass) and Keith Hopwood (rhythm) and full original performance-film of no less than twenty-two hits.

Peter Noone had launched into show-biz as Len Fairclough’s son in ‘Coronation Street’, then fronted Peter Novack & The Heartbeats. An astute Mickie Most signed them up ‘on the strength of Herman’s face’, rejigged and renamed the line-up, with Barry ‘Bean’ Whitwam on drums, and bespectacled Leeds-born Derek ‘Lek’ Leckenby on lead (he died 4 June 1994, aged 51). The DVD opens with the Hermits at the Cavern doing “Fortune Teller”, which decades later would be done by Robert Plant & Alison Krause. In retrospect, Herman generously concedes that a group is more than just the singer, it is ‘an accumulation of things’. One of those things was producer Most who ‘heard the end product complete in his head’ before they’d even begun recording it. He brought them Earl Jean’s American single of Goffin & King’s “I’m Into Something Good”, an immediate first no.1 for them. A sequence shows the group in the studio with Most conducting them through “If You’re Thinking What I’m Thinking”, closing by telling them ‘right, come and get your money!’ Other vital elements in the Hermit’s discography include regular session players such as Jimmy Page and John-Paul Jones. As the hits gained momentum, they benefited from the cream of sixties writers too. Carter & Lewis for “Can’t You Hear My Heartbeat” – an American no.3 unissued in the UK, Graham Gouldman for “Listen People” and the northern kitchen-sink epic “No Milk Today” (with a John-Paul Jones arrangement), Ray Davies for “Dandy” – Mickie Most apparently turned down “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion” on the group’s behalf, then PF Sloan turned up for their first New York sessions at the RCA studios, and sat in on guitar as they recorded his “A Must To Avoid”. Things began to get seriously silly when they took half-an-hour out to record “Mrs Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” as a last-minute novelty album-filler, and it topped the American charts, ‘people bought that stuff in those days’ shrugs Herman dismissively. They revived and accelerated Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World”, and if no-one bought into the fantasy of Sam Cooke as a school-student, they could believe Herman was. It all comes into perspective when they appeared on the ‘NME Poll Winners Concert’ stage, with Keith Moon’s drumkit standing behind them, anticipating an altogether more explosive next set.

Some time around late-1967, within the time-span of this DVD, I was staying in Herne Bay – where my father was living with his wife, Stella. I walked into the lounge bar of ‘The Royal St George’ to find tousle-haired Peter Noone playing darts there in his small-check high-collar jacket. Herman was never – how to phrase this tactfully?, the coolest of Pop stars. But I managed to tell him I quite liked “You Won’t Be Leaving”, largely due to its vaguely sensual ‘the candlelight throws shadows of your figure on the ceiling’, which he now confides wasn’t the biggest of his hits due to BBC disapproval over the seductive suggestion of her staying the night. Tut, Tut. He obligingly chatted, signed me an autograph, before returning to his interrupted darts game. Turns out he’d bought the twenty-bedroom hotel from royalties, for his parents. They drove it into bankruptcy within two years after getting through some £23,000, a lot of money, worth more then than it is now. There was never any plan with Herman’s Hermits, beyond having a hit record, then having another one. They were a young, fun group which no-one took particularly seriously. As Herman relates, John Lennon snubbed him, and a paternalistic Keith Richards threatened to beat him up if ever he went near drugs. It was an image that denied them the ability of developing, and once their American shelf-life expired, it was pretty much over. Their final major UK hit, “My Sentimental Friend”, a No.2 in April 1969, was a song originally intended for MoR dullard Englebert Humperdinck, and you can tell, although Herman manages to invest it with a measure of plaintive charm. It closes the DVD. Later, Herman reverted to Peter Noone for his last chart appearance, in 1971, as he took neglected songwriter David Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Thing” into visibility, a Hunky Dory thing to do (even though he whimped out by changing ‘bitch’ to the ‘Earth is a beast’)! But watching this DVD now, there’s a sneaking suspicion that when the Ramones do ‘second verse, same as the first’ in “Judy Is A Punk”, they are consciously echoing the race-memory of Herman’s “I’m Henry The Eighth I Am” – the Hermits daft take on Harry Champion’s turn-of-the-century music-hall turn, even if they’d retrieved it from Joe Brown’s version. All enjoyably light-weight disposable Pop. Yes, but it’s still here.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Poem: Meditations On The Disappearance Of The Independent Record Shop


curse you, you gleam of vinyl, you spiral scratch of groove sublime,
curse you, for your magic hath prevailed against me at 33, 45, & 78rpm,
curse you, my beloved electric vampire, for the surly theft of my youth, & yet
you were my youth, from beats to brats in fractured tracks, I loved thee
for 50 yrs of bohemian life, I was pretty much mad for you, devoured you,
mainlined on your subatomic dark-matter stylus-fluff particles, got high on you,
my head a mess of matrix no’s, chart positions, composer credits in neat haikus,
yet what use my curses? your gonzo trash-aesthetic delineates my psyche,
your inherent vice and psychedelic romps define the Elektra glide of my dreams,
& now, as estranged lovers, you are no more,
there is no reason why, EMI, curse you where you lie,
let my curses reach you wherever you are and never may you rest,
once was I record-shop revenant by day, poet by night, licking surrealism off
laminated sleeves, off bebop, hiphop, ‘King Tubby Meets the Rockers Uptown’,
Capt Trips, ‘ZigZag Wanderer’, sweet Gene Vincent, Elvis, living on the flip-side,
in the liner notes, your garage-acid corrosive to reason & everything
more profound than thee, which is everything, Johnny, Joey, DeeDee, good times
curse you through sentient interstellar lifeforms radioactive with vinyl blackness,
let thy very shadows be accursed, let the power of my oath find thee, even there,
let my curses be heard even though you veil yourself in melancholy darkness,
even though you lie in flip-boxes alongside Count 5’s ‘Psychotic Reaction’,
X-Ray Spex’ ‘Identity’, Cabaret Voltaire’s ‘Nag Nag Nag’, changes, forever,
let me go down & dwell in the pit of desolation, for never shall I again hear thy like,
no Les Paul’s, no Link Wray, no lost ‘B’-sides, no Joe Meek, all is folly,
for who can reach those who sleep beneath the wings of techno-obsolescence
where not even thy devotees can hit on thee?
Curse You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),
curse your a-wop bop-a-luma a-bop-bam-boom,
curse your goo-goo-g’joob, curse your Biff Bam Pow,
sometimes withdrawal hurts so good,
once more you count yourself in, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, restart your jittery vibes,
curse you as you’re born again in jewel-cases and mp3 downloads,
may you be reborn accursed, let you be utterly accursed
from the hour of your digital rebirth until sleep again takes thee,
yea, then be thy thrice-accursed, for then shall I overtake thee
with the great vengeance of betrayal, and utterly destroy thee,
for yea, though Rock ‘n’ Roll is dead
it sure leaves a sweet-smelling corpse…

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Dennis Wheatley Books


As a human being, Dennis Wheatley was a fake. A fluent chancer, a self-promoting story-spinner in slicked-back hair and a foppishly camp velvet bow-tie. And also an advocate of a hideous and repellently ultra-conservative elitism. Although now neglected and seldom read, lost in time and out of taste, he’s primarily associated – if at all, with novels about Black Magic, spiritualism and occult forces, despite the fact that the major part of his prolific output was clunky adventure-romance thrillers. He preferred pulp espionage page-turners, racy Boy’s Own fiction closer to John Buchan, Rider Haggard, or Ian Fleming than, say, Stephen King or Simon Clark. As a result, for four decades – it’s claimed, his novel-a-year book-sales were second only to Agatha Christie, with 25-million copies sold. If his sympathies really lay with the Devil, it wasn’t so much a pact with demonic forces, as a cosy commercial arrangement.

But he did his research. He was acquainted with Aleister Crowley – the ‘Great Beast’ himself, seeking out an introduction through promiscuously gay politician Tom Driberg. He used the connection to authenticate elements of his ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (1934) by basing it on Crowley’s ‘Moonchild’, filching sections intact. And Wheatley’s style and values are apparent from its opening pages. The Duc de Richleau is first encountered in the library of his West End flat, resplendent in a ‘claret-coloured vicuna smoking suit’, drinking ‘wonderful old brandy’ and smoking one of the long Hoyos de Monterry that were ‘his especial pride’. Wheatley was not averse to exploiting the kinkier elements of Satanic ritual when, discovering that ‘an age-old evil’ was stirring in St John’s Wood, he and Rex van Ryn, a ‘virile and powerful’ young American intervene. Then on to a pagan ceremony on Salisbury Plain. The salacious content appealed to what he calls ‘The Old Adam’ in him. Yet the results are ponderously lumpy stuff. While he sniffs patronisingly at ‘sensational novelists’, among his own wackier literary preoccupations were witchcraft, the Astral plane, hypnotism, Atlantis, Walpurgis night, the Great God Pan, Devil-worship in the crypt, and furtive intrigue in dark corridors and locked rooms.

All apparently harmless flim-flam, until he confides to a youthful Melvyn Bragg straight-faced that now ‘the Devil is operating through the Communist States’. Bragg, fronting the ‘Read All About It’ TV-show (1974), looks politely amused. Elsewhere, a 58-minute DVD ‘Dennis Wheatley: A Letter To Posterity’ has been rescued from ‘The Book Programme’, another vintage Literary screen-slot, with a round-table invocation of various oddball talking-heads discussing aspects of Wheatley’s bizarre career-path, from an occult devotee (Mogg Morgan), to a publisher (Kate Bradley), to an oldster who seems to share Wheatley’s more eccentric and extreme political views (Anthony Lejeune, ‘friend and critic’). There’s even some rare interview sequences with Wheatley himself, some movie excerpts and formally-posed historical footage.
I first discovered Dennis Wheatley on holiday in Bridlington in 1966, when I encountered his shot at SF, ‘Star Of Ill-Omen’ (1952), on my cousin’s bookshelf. I’d already read better stuff by better writers and wasn’t greatly impressed – especially by the sequence detailing the physics of his Martian UFO’s non-grav lavatory! Hero Kem (misprinted as ‘Ken’ a couple of times in the ‘Arrow’ paperback), is an Agent with British Special Intelligence (SHAEF) on a mission to discover nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction in Buenos Aires, when he’s bagged by giant aliens who use his ‘bedding as a big sack’ by gathering ‘its corners together’. In the big sack with him there’s overnight girlfriend Carmen, and her cuckolded scientist husband Estévan (a graduate of Von Braun’s Peenemünde missile project). He’s along to explain – at tedious length, in a dry and (now) factually incorrect four-page planet-by-planet teach-in dissertation on the likelihood of life in the solar system – citing Percival Lowell, or the principles of motion and propulsion in space. The dominant Martian bee-beetles with their giant humanoid slave-species plan to use Estévan’s nuclear expertise to conquer Earth. Only the Argentine WMD-programme was as much a sham as Saddam Hussein’s. Estévan knows how to moor ‘a static airship’ in the stratosphere as an ‘aerial raft’, but not how to build a nuke! Yet if the Martians are dangerous – until Kem provokes an insurrection against them, it’s the three brutal Communist abductees who ‘held life cheaper than among any race of savages’, who are stranger still, animalistic, politically deluded, and humourless – they continue the devious Cold War antagonisms into their planetary exile, and even attempt to nuke London on their return to Earth. Wheatley does score some lucky hits – mentioning ‘greenhouse’ in relation to the atmosphere of Venus. And the book does accurately predict Argentina’s threat to seize the Falklands, albeit crediting it to Dictator General Juan Peron.

Wheatley’s earlier genre-stabs include ‘Such Power Is Dangerous’ (1933), ‘Black August’ (1934) – in which the English Price Regent defeats the forces of totalitarianism, ‘Sixty Days To Live’ (1939) where a rogue comet destroys civilisation, and ‘The Secret War’ (1937). Further short ventures into fantasy are collected into ‘Gunmen, Gallants and Ghosts’ (1943), while an extenuating exception can be made for the creditable ‘A Century Of Horror’ (1935), a massive genre anthology which he edited. He also edited and wrote the introductions for the ‘Dennis Wheatley Library Of The Occult’ paperback reprint series for Sphere Books during the seventies, reintroducing works by Crowley and Madame Blavatsky.

His own ‘lost-world’ SF begins with ‘The Fabulous Valley’ (1934) and ‘Uncharted Seas’ (1938) set in a dense Sargasso of lost ships, later extravagantly filmed by Hammer as ‘The Lost Continent’. Then ‘The Man Who Missed The War’ (1945) visits an Antarctic Viking realm, while ‘They Found Atlantis’ (1936), involves a cast of irritating aristos and wastrel playboys taking time out from their busy social calendar to descend via bathysphere using a Euphrates scroll found in Eridu to guide them. It’s a poor and confused narrative, with pages of diversions into the simultaneous development of the Phoenician and Maya phonetic alphabets as proof of a mid-Atlantic cultural connection, as well as various race-myth-memories of deluge, flood, and sunken realms. Meanwhile, stranded fathoms deep by pirates they encounter mermaids and cannibalistic sub-men before reaching the idyllic subterranean island of the last twelve Atlanteans, who spend their years telepathically ‘spirit-travelling’ the surface world. Wheatley then loses whatever slight plot potential this entails in pointless romantic intrigues. Until, expelled for the murderous disruption they’ve brought with them, the disparate characters finally use explosives to clear disused tunnels and return to Pico, in the Azores.

Despite such inpetitude, Wheatley’s success and wealth from such stuff bought him a Georgian-style mansion in Lymington, Hants. And it was here he wrote his ‘Letter To Posterity’ (dated 20th November 1947) ranting against the ‘anarchists and agitators’ of what he calls ‘the all-men-are-equal’ school. Insisting ‘all men are NOT equal’. He opposes what he calls ‘the coming of the machine-age’ and the ‘baleful influence’ of equality, which is causing the ‘destruction of the Old Order’. This attack on the ‘ruling elite’ – represented by the ‘socialist planning’ of Atlee’s Labour Government of 1945, is a betrayal of all he claims to value. He advocates setting up Mosley-style Secret Societies of Gentlemen’s Clubs and Country Houses, Right-Wing Aristos intent on launching a coup, an insurrection – what he euphemises as ‘extreme measures’ against the ‘unjust tyrannous officials’ responsible. ‘If need be, die for it’ he declares boldly – then squirrels the document away in his mansion where no-one can find it. Until now.
Dennis Yates Wheatley was born (8th January 1897) in the south London suburb of Streatham, his father a remote authoritarian figure. He was unhappy in the ‘detested’ Dulwich College, preferring to escape into the fiction of Dumas or ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’. Following expulsion from Dulwich he completed his schooling aboard the naval training vessel HMS Worcester, from which he was commissioned into the Field Artillery regiment. He started World War I by wallpapering his billet in a ruined French chateau until it was ‘really top-hole’, only to be invalided from the front as a victim of a gas-attack during the Ypres Salient. But coincidentally he happened to meet a certain Eric Gordon Tombe in the army. Tombe – gentleman crook, charming fraudster and colourful con-man, helped broaden his intellectual, literary – and sexual horizons, using what he terms a potent combination of ‘drink and ink’. Introducing him to the works of Proust, Nietzsche, and Joseph Conrad, fuelled by an in-debt hedonism of champagne, nightclubs, and ‘hectic nights’ with women. By age 31, Wheatley was deep into a troubled second marriage and bankrupted when the family wine-business he’d inherited was wiped out in the 1929 Crash. So he tried his hand at writing a book. ‘The Forbidden Territory’ (1933) in which Simon Aron, Richard Eaton, and Rex van Ryn – his own rebranding of ‘The Three Musketeers’, relocate Dumas’ high-action exploits to Lenin’s USSR. It immediately became a best-seller, and Alfred Hitchcock bought the film-rights. But as early as his 1936 novel ‘Contraband’ he was seeding his books with right-wing ideas, claiming that ‘Communism is the new face of Satanism’. His heroes – like charming egoist Gregory Sallust, are all decent square-jawed chaps with patriotic motives, flawed by often-sadistic sexism and now-comic jingoism. Heroes who are up against sinister figures such as the twisted Lord Gavin Fortescue, and devious ‘Johnny Foreigners’. In ‘The Devil Rides Out’ de Richleau finds himself facing what he calls ‘a most unprepossessing lot’ of racially offensive stereotypes, a mandarin ‘whose slit eyes betrayed a cold, merciless nature’, a ‘fat, oily-looking Babu in a salmon-pink turban’, a ‘red-faced Teuton’ with a hare lip and a mute Madagascan who was ‘a bad black, if ever I saw one’. Even accepting the different sensibilities of the time, such pulp-magazine caricatures suggest at best limited literary powers, and at worst, a snobbish xenophobia. At first Wheatley merely seems content to live vicariously through his characters and their high-action romantic adventures. Then, faced with a second global war, he found himself at the heart of the British Establishment. As the King’s favourite novelist, he was seconded to the Joint Planning Staff, tasked with preparing theoretical strategy papers, such as those which recommended misdirecting invading forces by switching rail-station names and spinning signposts around to face the opposite direction.

Once the war was over, of course, the novels continued. ‘To The Devil, A Daughter’ (1953), was made into the final Hammer horror film in 1976. ‘The Satanist’ (1960) fictionalised Hitler’s involvement with Satanic cults. They were given added gravitas by the addition of ‘health warnings’ about the power of Black Magic, designed to elevate their dramatic power. His Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee) is cautioned ‘in magic there is neither good nor evil. It is merely a science. The science of causing change to occur by means of one’s will. The sinister reputation attached to it is entirely groundless and is based on superstition, rather than objective observation. The power of the will is something that people do not understand. Attributing to it mysterious qualities that it does not posses.’ But it’s in that dangerously slippery interface where the Fascist ‘Triumph of the Will’ elides with Occult mysticism that Wheatley unexpectedly found his place in the anti-rationalist coven-revival of the late-sixties. Even raising his profile into the early-seventies despite the advent of ‘The Exorcist’ (1973), which made his witchery seem posed and stale, something better left to shock-rockers Ozzy Osbourne’s Black Sabbath, or more lately, the likes of Cradle of Filth. By then the writer had grown to resemble one of his own characters, living a ‘suburban baronial’ existence of the smoking-jacketed connoisseur in his Grove Place mansion, until his death on 10th November 1977.

Although it was the very-great Christopher Lee who first advocated Wheatley to Hammer Studios, and is therefore instrumental in getting ‘The Devil Rides Out’ onto the screen (scripted by Richard Matheson, 1968). And – admit it, the film is among the best of the highly variable Horror output. Yet Wheatley remains a deeply unpleasant snob, a rascally social-climbing popinjay, a nouveau riche fantasist who began to believe his own fantasies – not the harmless Black Magic ones, but the far more dangerously offensive class superiority ones.

Based on a review of DVD: ‘DENNIS WHEATLEY: A LETTER TO POSTERITY (THE BOOK PROGRAMME)’ (ARC / BBC Scotland / Lion Television – 2005)
Additional research from:
by Phil Baker (Dedalus, 2009) Review by Luke Jennings in ‘Observer’ 8th November 2009

Original Review Featured on:-
‘ZONE-SF’ website (Nov 2005)

Subway Sect CD's

1978… & NOW…!!!
Album Reviews of:
(Motion Pace CD-010, October 1999)
and ‘1978 NOW’ by SUBWAY SECT (Overground Records, 2007)

For those of you who’ve just joined us – Hi, siddown, shuddup, and pay attention. Let’s play the catch-up game? And stop me if I’m going too fast. A Subway Sect double-CD might not necessarily be an attractive proposition. The conscientious reviewer anticipates less a heart-warming nostalgia-rush as a nose-picking pimple-squeezing near-death experience. But pay attention, this is heritage stuff. Subway Sect began as two residents of the obscure suburb of Mortlake SW14. Tall gaunt Vic ‘Godard’ Napper and guitarist Rob Simmons evolved from busking the blues with the minimum of fuss, while retaining something of Mortlake’s sense of distance and insularity. Early participants in the Punk purge, they had no kamikaze controversy for the red-top nationals, little attitude for the Pop inkies or anti-star charisma for the fans to pick over, although Vic Godard’s dead-or-alive drone probably betrays too many e-numbers in his orange juice.

Sure, they were there at the Sex Pistols second-ever gig – The Nashville 23 April 1976, alongside such future luminaries as Tony James, Adam Ant, and Dave Vanian. Jon Savage’s ‘England’s Dreaming’ (Faber & Faber 1991) sets the scene. Strolling past the Marquee Club one Spring night of 1976 he was drawn in by the dissonant racket of the Sex Pistols on stage, or rather, Johnny Rotten already ‘in the audience, throwing chairs about’. Something new was in the air, above and beyond trajectories of phlegm. Savage loved this confrontational image which blew the R&B stuff he’d previously been into, clear out the water, even though he was less convinced by the actual music. Then, on the first night of Malcolm McLaren’s legendary 100 Club Punk Festival of 20th September, the first band on-stage supporting the Pistols were Subway Sect – Paul Myers on bass, Simmons guitar, Rob Ward drums, plus vocalist Vic. They played alongside Stinky Toys, and a hastily convened Siouxsie & the Banshees – with Sid Vicious on bass. First-person accounts make the event sound about as attractive a proposition as being hermetically sealed in a padded cell full of repugnance and pig-snot. Less the sound of the suburbs, more the sound of the sewers. McLaren had wanted as many groups as he could get, rough was fine, but the proto-Sect he deemed even too inept for that. Nevertheless, as Godard recounts, ‘Malcolm paid for our rehearsal time, at a place called Manos in Chelsea… he booked us in there, eight in the morning until seven at night, all week, and paid for it. And we were supposed to be on the festival the next week!’ On the night they did all five songs they had ready, including “Nobody’s Scared”, “Don’t Split It” and “Out Of Touch”. In Vic’s later lyric they were a band ‘sitting at the bottom of a learning curve’ (“Same Mistakes”).

But in contrast to the speed and blur of the other groups, there was something more rigorous about Subway Sect, even then, a stage demeanour as relentlessly drab as Eastern Europe, a sound coming in at oblique angles more akin to, but less able than, the New York art-Punk of Television. To Mark Perry they were ‘melodies immersed in a beautiful, monotonous dirge… a sign that Punk could be a lot more than the fat sonic assault of the Pistols, the Damned and the Clash’. ‘We wanted to sound like the Velvet Underground or the Seeds’ says Godard now, ‘nothing remotely heavy. We never used ordinary guitars, a Gibson or a Strat, we used Fender Mustangs because they have a trebly, scratchy sound. We became quite purist.’ Kevin Pearce called them ‘the strongest, wisest urchins ever to take part in Pop’, four ‘piquant punk pucks straight out of a Truman Capote story’. As Godard resumes, they used to ‘dye all our clothes grey in those days, in a big bath. We liked the colour. We got the twangy guitar stuff from the Velvet Underground’. Vic later conceded a more varied mix of inputs, the acid-garage of Count Five and Thirteenth-Floor Elevators all the way to French chanteuse Francoise Hardy. ‘Our guitarist refused to allow any macho Rock ‘n’ Roll attitudes on stage.’ So, no logo long before the ‘No Logo’ movement. But back then, a badly-tuned pimply guitar cutting through the tune like rusty razor was enough. A certain measure of ability was suspect. Blank, inspired incompetence was better, defined by lame-brained mentally-retarded riffs. But as blank, fast rock exponents the Sect soon reconfigured into a fuller, more coherent sound.

Clash manager Bernie Rhodes, appreciative of the Sect’s angles of subversion took them under wing – a strained relationship from the off. But it made them an integral part of Clash’s ‘White Riot Tour’ – twenty-seven dates through May 1977, what Jon Savage calls ‘the last great Punk tour’ alongside the Slits and the Buzzcocks. The Clash even poached a Subway Sect song – ‘USA’, to spice up their own ‘I’m So Bored With You’, to create “I’m So Bored With The USA”, making it a far more a brilliant rant than the Sect’s template.

Recorded some months earlier, the totally essential 45rpm “Nobody’s Scared” c/w “Don’t Split It” (Braik, March 1978) eventually came out on Rhodes’ own label. And it’s not quite Stanley-knife slash-your-wrist stuff, with Vic’s wavering wimp-vocal more ‘Pete Shelley’-vulnerable, than it is a derisive ‘Johnny Rotten’-sneer as he opens ‘everyone is a prostitute’. Vituperative bass-runs resemble pieces of heavy artillery, running high buzzing lead guitar over the top of the answering ‘singing a song in prison’. Vic’s flat-voiced inflexionless voice accuses ‘moral standards the wallpaper… media TV what’s to speak, take my decisions’. Daft Punk seldom came dafter, a poor artefact, with the Subway Sect already peaking at a low point. But essential? Yes, this is heritage stuff. If the Punk aesthetic places value on the spontaneous amateur over the virtuoso, then – where most of the bands that made it actually had respectable histories with competent Pub-Rock credentials and beyond, the Sect actually lived the aesthetic.

There were sessions in Gooseberry Studios, off Gerard Street, working towards a 1978 vinyl album, but – abruptly curtailed by Bernie Rhodes, only one ironically-titled track emerged – “Ambition” c/w “Different Story (Rock And Roll Even)” (Rough Trade, December 1978). Opening with a Who power-chord and piping organ-riff it’s their best shot at commercialism – even in the raw and flawed alternate take salvaged onto the ‘Twenty Odd Years’ compilation. ‘What you want is buried in the present tense’ yelps Vic in contemporary year-zero vein, then more mysteriously, ‘I won’t be tempted by vile evil, ‘cos vile evil is vile evil’. Elsewhere, the tapes for that projected album still gather dust, gaining legendary status as the ‘Great Lost Punk Album’. As a teasing taster, four of the tracks – including “Double Negative” and zinger “Stool Pigeon” (‘I play the right track when the needle is bleeding, / I remember money wrapped in dishonesty’), were salvaged onto ‘A Retrospective 1977-81’ (Rough Trade 1984). Then Motion Records collected further candidates onto ‘Twenty Odd Years’, with “Parallel Lines” (issued as a free ‘NME’ flexi), “Chain Smoking” and “Rock & Roll Even”. Another cut, “Exit – No Return”, resembles something like a slicked-up New Wave not a million miles from a ragged Boomtown Rats. It opens with slow guitar, although a jarring edit abruptly cuts to a faster vocal section, as though two tapes are colliding, losing some of its energy, before closing with a shimmering cymbal-clash. The gathering reputation buzz, accelerated by dedicated blogs and journalist’s re-evaluations, finally led to Punk archivist label Overground Records initiating a project to recreate the songs intended for their debut LP, reconvening the Sect for ‘1978 Now’. Despite the intervention of years and separate career-developments the resulting album recaptures what had been thought forever lost, proving that Vic’s delivery has only strengthened over his odd recording history, developing rather than losing its original character. Original drummer Mark Laff plays, and bass-player Paul Myers also appears on some tracks.

Meanwhile, caught up in the turmoil of 1978, Godard was concentrating more on solid musical settings and earnest lyrical vignettes in a tradition that runs from Dylan to Verlaine (that’s Paul, not Tom). ‘What I was trying to do with the songs was to change the way Rock songs were written. To pare it down, take out all the Americanisms. I didn’t mind what went into the song, as long as the language was different; no ‘yeahs’ and ‘babys’.’ The Clash’s JG Ballard ‘High Rise’/‘Crash’ urban hyper-realism was quickly overlaid by a more conventional sense of social relevance. For the Sect, the idea was to work – not with power, but with weakness and introversion. To them, failure was more interesting than chart success. An appropriate inclination, as it turned out. To Geoff Travis who released “Ambition”, ‘Subway Sect were so literary. Vic is the great lost soul of the era, his nihilism is more extreme than anyone’s. He seemed to have seen through the circus which he was being enticed into, from day one. He saw all the contradictions and didn’t want to be a pop star.’ On a strange track collected on ‘Twenty Odd Years’, with accordian and producer Wiggy on guitar, Vic teases out the conundrums of the Punk ethic, ‘we are part of the new breed, and love is not what we agreed…’

To Vic himself ‘I thought the Sex Pistols were the end of Rock ‘n’ Roll. But it turned out, they weren’t. Nor were the Clash...’ instead, there was movement within and without. Already the first wave of bands were charting with albums, as the Sect remained under-represented on record. Instead they supported Buzzcocks on their summer ‘Love Bites’ tour, as Sect’s continuing personnel metamorphosis charted an erosion of democracy – away from four-way tension. The split seemed inevitable. Paul Myers briefly pacted with Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cooke as part of The Professionals. Drummer Mark Laff joined Generation X. And a new Sect appeared with a revised line-up for LP ‘What’s The Matter Boy?’ (1980), recorded in Stoke Newington with Terry Chimes of the Clash drumming, and his brother Paul on bass. Rhodes brought in the Black Arabs to overdub the rest. Narrative track “Empty Shell” hangs together well. “Split Up The Money” is a petty-criminal cash-from-chaos scam that opens with laughter and develops into a kind of Sham 69 sing-along. “Vertical Integration” uses an acoustic strum of the Who’s “Can’t Explain” riff as a vehicle for symbolist lyrics about a ‘wilderness of change’, ancient monuments in the desert and ladders lying on the ground (representing vertical

At last, a Subway Sect album. Even though it was recorded with what was essentially a pick-up band, and the Sect no longer actually existed in any meaningful sense. Yet Godard didn’t even promote it, he preferred to switch direction, bizarrely pursuing a more pointedly solo career as a torch crooner for his well-received ‘Songs For Sale’ album in 1981. The new reference points were Harry Connick Jrn’s hazy sax and tinkling keyboards, Big-Band swing, David Johansen’s ‘Buster Poindexter’, and the Jumping-Jive of ‘Look Sharp’. Of course there were cross-overs, but the newly evolving story would be different from the old, and deserves separate coverage elsewhere. While ‘NME’ produced a part-work self-assembly ‘The Book Of Modern Music’ supplement, which persisted in opining that ‘Godard is a major talent in the making’. Across the years since, Motion Records issues the Subway Sect ‘Singles Anthology’ (in 2005), while eventually Vic reconvened the Sect, bringing the story full circle by recording ‘1978 Now’…


‘John Peel Show’ Radio 1 session (24 October 1977) with (1) Chain Smoking (2) Parallel Lines (3) Don’t Split It (4) Nobody’s Scared'

"Nobody’s Scared” cw “Don’t Split It” (April 1978, Braik BRS 01)

“Ambition” cw “A Different Story (Rock & Roll Even)” (November 1978, Rough Trade)

“Parallel Lines” (free ‘New Musical Express’ flexi-disc)

Unreleased Original Subway Sect Album (1) Chain Smoking (2) Birth & Death (3) De-Railed Sense (4) The Ambition (5) You Stand Back (6) Rock & Roll Even (7) I, Change (8) Parallel Lines (9) Staying (Out Of Touch) (10) Imbalance (11) Eastern Europe (12) Exit – No Return (13) Forgotten Weakness (14) Enclave (15) The Idiot Of It All

What’s The Matter Boy’ (1980, 1996 Polygram expanded CD edition) – (1) Stop That Girl (2) Birth & Death (3) Stand Back (4) Watching The Devil (5) Enclave (6) Out Of Touch - View (7) Vertical Integration (8) Split Up The Money (9) Stool Pigeon (10) Double Negative (11) Exit - No Return (12) Empty Shell (13) Make Me Sad (14) Watching The Devil (15) Stool Pigeon (16) Double Negative (17) Head Held High
‘Subway Sect: A Retrospective 1977-‘81’ (Rough Trade Rough 56, 1984) (1) Nobody’s Scared (2) Don’t Split It (3) Chain Smoking (4) Parallel Lines (5) Ambition (6) Double Negative (7) Head Held High (8) Stool Pigeon (9) A Different Story (10) Spring Is Grey (11) Watching The Devil (12) Stop That Girl

‘Vic Godard & The Subway Sect: Twenty Odd Years’ (Motion Records, 1999) 2CD set covering Subway Sect plus Vic’s subsequent solo career with Working Week and Adventures In Stereo

Subway Sect: Singles Anthology’ (Motion Records, 2005) (1) Nobody’s Scared (2) Don't Split It (3) Ambition (4) Different Story (5) Split Up The Money (6) Out Of Touch (7) Stop That Girl (8) Instrumentally Scared (9) Vertical Integration (10) Stamp Of A Vamp (11) Hey Now (I’m In Love) (12) Mr. Bennett (13) Holiday Hymn (14) T.R.O.U.B.L.E. (15) Johnny Thunders (16) Imbalance (17) Won’t Turn Back (18) Won’t Turn Back (Version) (19) Conscience Be Your Guide (20) Same Mistakes (21) No Love (Now) (22) She's My Best Friend (23) Place We Used To Live (24) Lazy So & So

‘1978 Now’ (October 2007, Overground Records – new recordings of ‘lost’ original album songs with reconvened Subway Sect) (1) We Oppose All Rock And Roll (2) Stayin’ Out Of Touch (3) Shainsmokin’ (4) I Changed My Mind (On the Telephone) (5) Eastern Europeans (6) Why Did You Shoot Me (Birth And Death) (7) Stand Back (8) Imbalance (9) Derail Your Senses (10) Not Watchin’ the Devil (11) Stool Pigeon (12) Idiot Of All (13) Exit-No Return (14) Rock & Roll Even

Friday, 23 October 2009

Poem: 'Raki In Tigaki'

(For Denis Charlton, who was there,
and who suggested this title)

he laughs something in greek, parakalo?
he nudges a glass at me, raki, do we know
are we aware of what we buy? after
a four hour storm from Rodos, we know
drawing back into bougainvillea shade,
cockerels crow somewhere near, dogs answer,
how to explain it to him?

a blur of years ago, Criti, Rethymnon,
an ossuary of human skulls, Samaria gorge,
then tabepna nudges deceptive water-clear liquid,
drink it, slam it back, raw, even as it sears,
43%, the boon and the damnation of gods,
tsikoudia, so intoxicating, so stimulating,
raki dreams are for ever, yet always new,
back to the Minoans and Mycenaeans,
they took swords to the first man who
brought the fruit of the vine, gift of Bacchus,
fearing poison, me too, yes… although
English courtesy determines we say ‘good’,
such apparent approval brings a full carafe
and he sits with us, matches drink for drink,
raki reconfigures the brain into telepathy
beyond words, the rage of poetry supersnazzing
my veins, charged alcohol molecules
that darken the day, then illuminate the dusk
storming mind-centres strangely lucid and sly
into bewilderments of bamboozlement, with
the shades of the lizard-king on my left shoulder
and Ti Jean to my right, nodding both their
stoned dazzlement, Bacchus – don’t fail me now!
he sits with us, matches us drink for drink,
‘the old ways’ he says, or rather, we agree,
we mutually determine, we understand,
the young, they don’t follow these old ways,
only value profit, money, fast material things,
we collude ‘we drink to the old ways, yammas’ as
the sun extinguishes, transferring its molten heat
into glass by glass, counting old ways into extinction…

now, he laughs something in greek, parakalo?
raki? – yes, we know raki…

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Manfred Mann @ Beverley Road Baths, Hull, 1967

HULL, 1967

Wednesday, 11th January 1967, and the Hull University Union
‘Coming-Up Dance’ was held at the Beverley Road Baths.
For your 12/6d fee you got three bands – The Small Four,
The Kodiaks, and chart-topping Manfred Mann.
The event opened at 9pm and closed at 1am. I was there…

‘Psychedelic Freak-Out time’ jeers Mike D’Abo as a burst of inconvenient feedback escapes Tom McGuinness’ amp. As if. ‘There’s one Manfred’ as Paul Jones had pointed out on “Cock-A-Hoop” near the dawn of their collective career, ‘but there’s five Menn’. Helpfully going on to list them by name on his cheekily self-mythologising “The One In The Middle”. In terms of heavy R&B-Jazz credibility that first five carried the greater weight. But the string of Pop hits that ensued – and there were a lot, inevitably eroded some of that exclusiveness. The second men, with D’Abo as a frailer prettier replacement as the ‘one in the middle’ not only readjusted into an altered, but still recognisable continuity, but, falling back more on the UK industry’s Pop professionals rather than Jazz-R&B originals for their songs, they nevertheless crafted intelligent Pop of some considerable musical merit. And when they’re booked for the Hull University ‘Coming-Up Dance’, the twelve shillings and six-pence fee doesn’t seem an out of the way extravagance. Beverley Road Baths, an imposing brick-&-sandstone block on the main north road out of Hull, periodically hosted Pop events. I saw several. Wending through admission and the changing-room area, the pool itself, presumably drained – but can you be certain? was boarded over with a temporary floor that retained a considerable degree of suspect springiness, especially when the beat provoked a bopping audience-response that achieved a near-tsunami bounce. The two support bands, The Small Four and The Kodiaks pass without exciting too much interest.

And Uh-huh, it’s the Manfreds. Just like on all those TV slots. Only the Five Faces Of Mann were not the same men of the self-referential Homeric “5-4-3-2-1”. A new record label, HMV to Fontana. Jack Bruce had been a temporary replacement for original member Mike Vickers, now he’s gone too, with Klaus Voorman on bass – the guy who drew the ‘Revolver’ cover. They were also briefly augmented by a horn section including Lyn Dobson and the esteemed Henry Lowther. But “Just Like A Woman” proves an unconvincing introduction. The much more assured “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” or the later “The Mighty Quinn” were both from Dylan’s ‘Basement Tapes’ so direct comparison with the originals were not immediately possible. Not until the bootlegs some time later. And even then the tight Manfred versions pack a punch. By contrast, Mike D’Abo’s ‘amphetamine and pearls’ pales against ‘Blonde On Blonde’, and his improvised ‘I guess I love you girl’ destroys the narrative structure anyway. Asked to name his favourite among the many artists who’d covered his songs, Dylan once claimed – not the Byrds, but the Manfreds. It might be true, who knows? Or it might have something to do with the fact that they were charting one of his songs at the time, and by bestowing his approval on its sales he was helping his own writer royalties?

And things get better. Mike Hugg might resemble Marty Feldman’s less-afflicted younger brother, but his musical invention, clear through to theming TV sit-com “Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?”, is awesome. The sweetly tuneful album track “Each Other’s Company” is an anti-celebrity celebration of ordinary lives – ‘it’s not that she’s special, it’s just that she’s mine’, while their smart jazzy instrumental take on Tommy Roe’s “Sweet Pea” proves their chops are still as sharp as ever. And “So Long Dad”, which inexplicably failed to chart later in the year, is a complete sixties class-aspirational movie in just under three minutes. Of course, when he wrote it, Randy Newman was using American reference-points, but – just as the Animals anglicised and northernised Cynthia Mann & Barry Weil’s “We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place”, the Manfreds give the song a one-act ‘Up The Junction’ east-London slant. Newman is at his most slyly observational, sketching a lyric-portrait characterisation of the low-life opportunist made good, hooked up to a rich girlfriend called Jane. Adding sociological weight as he returns to his quaint old blue-collar hometown, ‘quaint no more, just older than before’. He stomps up the stairs and down the hall ‘to my Daddy’s door’. With a playwright’s ear for nuanced dialogue, their one-sided conversation operates on satiric levels, ‘I think you’ll like her Dad, and I hope you do’, then dismissively ‘but if you don’t, that’s alright too’. Dad’s opinion doesn’t really matter either way. Jane’s uncle owns a bank, D’Abo expressively teases out his fliply patronising tone as ‘I think I’ll try my hand at that’, the unobtrusive effects investing the capsule-tale with visual depth. Finally, of course, the trendy couple won’t live around here, because ‘the smoke makes Jane’s eyes tear so bad, and we can’t have that’. Almost as an afterthought ‘we’ll write you where we’re at’, drop by – just ‘be sure to call before you do’. With the Pop revolution making the class system more porous than ever before, with a nouveau riche aristocracy of Pop stars, sports stars, clothes designers, and Angry Young Northern novelists with regional accents, not to mention predatory ‘Alfie’s taking advantage of it all by social-climbing to their ‘Room At The Top’, remaking the social landscape, “So Long Dad” was a song perfectly of its time.
Meanwhile, as Paul Jones was off being even more ludicrously teen-sweet, pouting “I’ve Been A Bad Bad Boy” over sweeping strings, the Menn were well into their second life. Manfred swaying behind his keyboards, with his slightly intimidating Beatnik gone-cool carried over from some BeBop parallel universe. Always seeming older, although he wasn’t, much. While Mike D’Abo, in a lace-ruffed shirt, is sniping “Semi-Detached Suburban Mr James”, another social-vignette. Although Ray Davies is correctly regarded as the chronicler of the Well-Respected Mr Pleasants of Suburbia, the Manfreds add the sneering frustrated-romance element of the love-object choosing safe domesticity over the presumably more trendy life-style he’s offering. The ‘Mr Jones’ in the original lyric-draft was altered in view of the departing Paul, to avoid potential misunderstanding.

Then, ‘Psychedelic Freak-Out time’ jeers D’Abo as a burst of inconvenient feedback escapes Tom McGuinness’ amp. To hoots of derision from the band. As if.

So, a good night. But the next time I come here, it’s to swim.

Brian Aldiss - 'Greybeard'


(Faber, 1964, Harcourt Brace & World, Inc
July 1965, Signet Paperback)

‘Greybeard’ starts off like ‘Tales Of The Riverback’, with a ‘Wind In The Willows’ attack by stoats, a character called Big Jim Mole, and Greybeard, his wife Martha, and their companions leaving the rural hamlet of Sparcot to sail down the Thames to find the world. Setting out from Sparcot, with its crotchety ‘Dad’s Army’ of grouchy, bickering, argumentative oldsters, settling uneasily into a strangeness that is both personal – of their own old age, and global, of a gradual de-evolution to a kind of ageing medievalism re-making England into an unknown world. This is a melancholy place that only the elderly have inherited. Oldsters who are half-frightened, half-bewildered, tantalised by memories, haunted by superstitious tales of gnomes, badger-men and other wild things. ‘Of the seven ages of man, little but the last remained’.

In our own, real time-steam, demographic imbalance is increasingly leading to a predominance of retired oldsters supported by a minority of working young people. The tastes and whims of old age are taking on greater economic and social significance than in previous more youth-centric decades. Unlike when Brian W Aldiss wrote this novel, and when it first appeared in the Beat-Boom year of July 1965. Slowly, gradually, the ‘Greybeard’ time-stream begins to appear only a nudge away. Already we can probably more closely relate to its milieu than its initial readers could. Sliding into a time when ‘one of the characteristics of age’ is that ‘all avenues of talk led backwards in time’, and ‘childhood itself lay in the rotting drawers of the world’.

‘Greybeard’ is part of the soft apocalypse movement of the sixties. Part of the restless urge, the uneasy fear, or the ominous dread of the coming global ‘cleansing’. Writers from John Wyndham to JG Ballard had imaginatively destroyed the world in innumerable ways, answering the millennial Cold War fears. There had already been the death of grass, the wind from nowhere, the thermonuclear inferno. The end-of-the-world Brian Aldiss envisaged is both consistent with that feeling, yet one that endures. A feeling that chimes with current gaia-theory that the world is making its own ‘adjustment’ to burgeoning human interference with the planet’s natural balance. There is a sense that the renewing world will be a better place for the passing of the mad human parade. A perceptive Kyril Bonfiglioli instantly recognised that ‘Greybeard’ is ‘the novel we have all been hoping someone would write’, devoting the entire editorial of ‘Science Fantasy no.68’ to advocating what he termed ‘the novel which is to emancipate science-fiction and clear it of the reproach of infantility’.

As chapters one, three, five and on relate the journey of ‘Greybeard’, alternate chapters – or ‘compartments’ as Aldiss refers to them, flashback in what Bonfiglioli terms a ‘series of wonderfully-illuminated vignettes’ to when the central character was merely Algernon Timberlane. The sterility afflicting the world begins in the early-eighties, dated precisely to the 1981 ‘accident’. These chapters are necessarily differently paced, and if they are also less atmospherically charged, more conventionally structured, that’s part of the slow tease as only gradually the truth is revealed. Rogue radiation is the obvious suspect. With atmospheric fall-out from superpower nuclear weapon-testing a serious real-life cause for concern during the late fifties and early sixties. It’s not until later that it’s made clear, that the US and UK governments detonated multimegaton bombs in space which disrupted the Van Allen belts. In the early years of the global sterility Timberlane is recruited by DOUCH(E), as a kind of USA-sponsored impartial monitor of contemporary history, which legitimises his part in the unfolding story. There is global war, with Operation Childsweep intended to conserve the one world-resource that retains value – children. ‘This one really is a war to end war’ observes one US soldier, ‘there won’t be anyone left to fight another’. An early economic casualty of childlessness is the record industry. Kids buy Pop music. No kids, no record sales. This very sixties equation was written before the advent of platinum-selling AOR! The contraceptive industry also becomes obsolete. Aldiss doesn’t mention the sad disappointed paedophiles whose tastes must also be victims of the tragedy! In Washington Timberlane watches a ‘slouch’ comedian whose message is that, in a world haunted by unconceived children, and with no biological tomorrow to work towards, ‘morality is obsolete’. As far as SF techno-speculation is concerned there’s little beyond orbital jets on transpolar parabolas, and hovercrafts are widely used – equipped to fire little tactical nuclear shells. In 2005 there’s a revolution, Britain withdraws from the war. Chapter two returns Timberlane to Aldiss’ familiar Oxford with continuity mentions of the ‘Oxford Mail’ (for which Aldiss started his writing career as literary editor) as the ‘United National Government’ collapses and devolves to regional authorities under local despot Commander Peter Croucher, and a cholera-plague decimates the already-crumbling social infrastructure. Should Timberlane support Croucher? Is any order better than none? Initially pragmatic he’s eventually forced to escape with Martha when there’s an assassination attempt on his life.

Although this back-story is essential to understand Greybeard’s world, to round out and define the character-relationships, it’s the strangeness that clings to your mind long after you’ve finished reading. For there is a past, the flimsy present to which they cling, but no future, with posterity scissored-off. Sailing down the river to Swifford Fair, with Greybeard in his fifties, yet one of the youngest men alive, Aldiss uncannily catches the brittle-boned nuances of old age, of people growing older in a world grown old. In these, the last of human days, there are still whimsical scoundrels, quack-healers, charlatans and fanciful rogues seeking advantage from the senescent chaos around them, such as the wonderfully titled Dr Bunny Jingadangelow. And as Bonfiglioli observes, the Thames ‘winds through the action with leisurely symbolism, linking together the rather complex time-scheme, pregnant with its own unchanging vitality’. To Aldiss, the narrative portrays ‘nature taking over… the jungle has become anglicised’, with England an untended entanglement ‘ceasing to be a nation, it is merely a wild country, without name’. The ragged company drift across Meadow Lake to a medieval Oxford, encroached by the slow seepage of flood and dereliction, to find each college has reverted to a kind of Gormenghastian fiefdom of octogenarian academics, where memories linger on in flickers. New Year 2030, and Balliol parades the three real, if slightly malformed children it harbours. A spectacle of wonder and curiosity. While beyond these contracting clusters of caricatured culture, wild-life is swarming back to reclaim Britain after the brief interruption of human civilisation, masking its remains, impatient even as the last human groups count out their days. To Aldiss, this is a novel of ‘figures swallowed by their landscape’. Even though it’s 2030, ‘Greybeard’ is a world’s-end novel. Yet Greybeard finds time to muse that his leisurely life of aimless drifting might even be preferable to the hectic pressured career he might otherwise have been trapped into had that world not ceased.

Aldiss himself admits ‘I cannot but feel some warmth’ for the novel (in his contribution to ‘Hell’s Cartographers’). But there are emotions other than warmth there. ‘I wrote ‘Greybeard’ in distress, when I was bereft of my children’ he divulges elsewhere. This explains its otherwise puzzling dedication to ‘Clive & Wendy, hoping that one day they will understand the story behind this story’. Following estrangement from his first wife, she was living in the Isle of Wight with their children, while Brian was in Oxford struggling with his own feelings of grief, remorse and pain over their separation, the childless world he metaphorically created reflects his feelings of loss and absence from Clive & Wendy, ‘it is an example of a personal dilemma dramatised as a universal woe’ (in ‘The Twinkling Of An Eye’, 1998). Although Aldiss has been known to chafe at the restrictions of being considered a ‘genre’ writer, it is precisely this magically flawed humanising element of his work that makes him probably my favourite writer across the decades. Thirty years later, with ‘Greybeard’ still in print and readily available, PD James mainstream best-seller ‘The Children Of Men’ (1992) is also about a future childless world, and is also located around Oxford. Without undue rancour Aldiss generously concedes that ‘ideas are free’.

Meanwhile, with Greybeard and Martha, long-time companions Jeff Pitt and Charley Samuels sailing across the Sea of Barks – submerged Berkshire, and their final encounter with Bunny Jingadangelow in his stately steamer, there are teasing suggestions that perhaps every last trace of humanity is not vanishing in this long slow extinction, that the faery-sightings and elfin-rumours are evidence that some hidden children remain. That a new world will survive and persist. Although it will be different from everything that came before.

Review in ‘Science Fantasy no.68’ by Kyril Bonfiglioli (page.3)
Brian Aldiss ‘The Twinkling Of An Eye’ (Warner Books, 1998)

Sunday, 20 September 2009


AT THE CRUCIBLE 15/09/1979

and then
moog reverb
caroming benches/
crucible of sound,
conveyor belt poets scatter
amid shredded vowels/sensibilities,
beards aquiver/sound spangled
with academic musings
on reams of punctuated poesy,
girls moon-eyed long poetic
dreamings in folds of hair
drift through/ attention cut
slithers in tides/
dance disjointed
Alaskan totem poets
squat corners talk/talk
albion’s children
dancing tongue impaled
with visions of Blake
with vipers of allusion/
trailing tarantula’s of t/reason,
discord reverb rebounds
re- sounds remade remodelled
in skeleton jangle cluster
sound sculptured New Departures
dem poems dem poems gonna
dance around your ears,
Jazz banjo-players with piles
and the shade of Prince Buster
gawp at polystyrene cup
vomit/ejaculates coffee
crushed beneath weight of
discarding white page preoccupations/
monochrome typewriter restrictions/
single-cell biological onenesses/
and dancing bone-naked
in Sheffield
in 1979

Published in:
‘BOGG no.44’ (USA – May 1980)


Book Reviews of:-
(Cosmos Books - $15.99 each - ISBN 1-58715-516-8 + 1-58715-517-6)

Sydney J. Bounds (the ‘J’ is for James) is a writer. This double-pack of strange tales cherry-picks from over half-a-century’s production. The first story – his debut professional sale under his own name (there had been earlier aliases) is from ‘Outlands no.1’ dated Winter 1946. This macabre “Strange Portrait” uses a ‘Dorian Grey’ hook in which a ‘living’ painting acts out the murderous jealousies of artist David Guest. Yet such weird tales are only one aspect of a diverse life-time’s fictional output. Sydney Bounds also writes for that most neglected of genres – the Western, with some twenty prairie-pounding titles currently in print. As well as crime, becoming ‘Brett Diamond’ or ‘Ricky Madison’ for Hank Janson-style Gangster novels, as well as contributing to the long-running ‘Sexton Blake’ series. There were also flirty ‘Peppy Stories’ and very soft-core ‘Snappy Stories’ titillation for ‘spicy’ magazines, plus a profitable parallel line in juvenile fiction, horror and fantasy. Inevitably, there are style cross-overs slip-streaming from one sub-genre to another. “Grant In Aid” from a 1956 issue of ‘Authentic SF’ adopts a mean-streets hard-boiled Gumshoe Detective voice, ‘I had my feet up and a bottle tilted to my lips when the door opened…’ The denouement is alien. The plot development pure Crime Scene Investigation. Social change also instils its own oddities. “Project Starship”, a novella from a 1954 ‘Nebula’ is a fine story set in a subterranean experimental colony on Pluto. Unusual for its time is its emphasis on strong character motivation over hard science. Even more unusual for our time is the gender divide, in which male engineers labour on the two-mile-high generation-ship under construction, while the ‘Stepford Wives’ busy themselves with coffee-mornings, dusting, and fashion. As you read you envisage them in bouffant hair and flared skirts. No Ripley’s (of ‘Alien’), Lara Croft’s (‘Tomb Raider’) or 7-of-9’s (‘Star Trek’), yet they use feminine wiles and resources of a different order to achieve their ends. When husband Russell Cazalet is unable to force production schedules, neglected wife Katherine gossip-networks pester-power with the other wives to accomplish what he can’t. He resents her success. It’s only the final crisis that reconciles his injured ego. But essentially it’s a human story built around the restrictions of strict 1950’s nuclear family gender-role models. Not even retro. That’s exactly how it was.

Yet from the same year, “Portrait Of A Spaceman” (‘New Worlds’) features career-woman Jill Hardie, an investigative reporter deconstructing the ‘Right Stuff’ myth of the hero of the ‘Martian Queen’ tragedy. Uncovering the truth, she prefers to allow the myth to stand. While “Act Of Courage” (from ‘Authentic SF’ 1956) more modestly recounts an attempt to climb the lunar Mount Pico with guide Bill Salmon hired by bickering rich couple Vivian and Alison Pascall. Hard moon landscapes and well-sketched human psychological antagonisms match the expedition’s detailed hazards, until its eventual success is found as much in the reconciliation of the Pascall’s marital dilemma as it is in mountain-climbing. These are all examples of what editor Philip Harbottle calls Bound’s ‘quiet revolution’, to humanise hard-SF towards a more mainstream literary content. There were American sales too. “The City” was sold to editor Ray Palmer for a 1951 ‘Other Worlds Science Stories’, following a market tip-off from John Wyndham. It’s an extravagant romp through the ‘usual suspects’ of the period – Atomic Death, radiation-warped mutants, ‘The Hall of the Brain’, Earth’s Last Sealed City in its vast translucent dome, the enigmatic stranger who ‘came out of the dust-bowl, a tall, gaunt figure in rags, who stood before the energy screen’, plus the sexually predatory rebel who desires to bear his child. Yet it’s a convincingly entertaining reconfiguration of such stock elements. This is a balance he’s proved more than capable of maintaining across the years. “The Predators” (originally available in the 1977 Italian-only ‘Spazio 2000’) is a hand-to-claw ‘Starship Troopers’ extravaganza pared down to relentless action as Lee Sabre fights and kills his way out of the death-arena all the way to hostile alien encounters at the galactic rim. An audaciously accomplished epic.

Then ‘Volume Two’ extends into Horror and Fantasy lifted from the ‘Fontana Book Of Great Horror Stories’, ‘Frighteners’, or Harbottle’s more recent ‘Fantasy Annual’ series. Stories featuring a man losing a battle with his own skeleton (“The Flesh Is Weak”), a hunchback’s perambulating murderous hump (“The Relic”), the isolation of the last “Throwback” in a world of telepaths, and ghost-voices lost in the Null-time of hyper-space, a siren-song that can only be endured by professional Schizos (“Limbo Rider”). Sydney J. Bounds is a writer. He writes for available markets. We are fortunate that so much of it happens to fall into the SF field.

For further details contact:- COSMOS BOOKS, Wildside Press PO Box 301, Holicong, PA 19828-0201, USA or PHILIP HARBOTTLE, Cosmos Literary Agency, 32 Tynedale Avenue, Wallsend, Tyne & Wear NE28 9LS, England

Published in:
‘THIS WAY UP no.14’ (UK – August 2005)




(Rev-ola CR REV 279)

Wimp-Folk? Peter & Gordon rode in on a trilogy of cast-off Paul McCartney songs. Chad Stuart & Jeremy Clyde hung out around the Folk Clubs until CBS slotted them into the Peter & Gordon template in which guise they scored an American Top Ten hit with the winsome “Yesterday’s Gone”. Win-some, lose some, the polite well-bred lean-faced duo with their new California tans guested on the original and the best ‘Batman’ TV-series, and charted a couple of lesser singles. When the hits stop they up-geared into the psychedelic-fantasia changin’ times ‘Of Cabbages And Kings’ complete with its five-movement ‘Progress Suite’. Then, despite its large-scale failure they followed it with this – ‘The Ark’ (August 1968), produced by Gary Usher, and their final major-label moment before getting dropped. With its title both a reference to Noah’s Biblical flood and a metaphor for the world’s renewal, this quintessentially English carnival of ornate baroque sixties Pop, with swooping woodwind, harpsichord, multi-layered vocals, anti-war nudges, sitar and soft seashore-effects, assumes all the correct poses without ever actually contributing the vital alchemy to shove it over the edge into greatness. “The Emancipation Of Mr. X” is one of those well-respected men who take off their business suits to rediscover their inner child and go skinny-dipping in the park. There’s a “Letter To A London Girl (Transatlantic Trauma)” from Boston, complaining that Chad’s uptight and Jeremy broke two strings on stage. There’s “The Raven”, a strained chamber-Folk string-quartet. A ‘Sidewalk Requiem’ which – although not stated as such, commemorates the shooting down of Bobby Kennedy at the LA ‘Ambassador Hotel’. Titles such as the decorous acoustic instrumental “Pantheistic Study For Guitar And Large Bird” promise more than they deliver, there’s some of the fey delicacy of Simon & Garfunkel with little of the poetic precision, while the closer “You Need Feet” is one of those irritating silly-voiced novelty vaudeville sing-along tracks you tend to skip over unless sufficiently stoned to find it amusing. Inevitably, over the years since, the ‘I-can-be-more-obcure-than-you’ archivist tendency has elevated these twelve-inchers into lost gem status, instigating a reunion tour, and this digital expanded reissue, inviting reappraisal. So is it the masterpiece cultists claim? Well, depends on your definition of classic. Maybe, like he says on ‘Feet’, it’s not to be sniffed at. While certainly Peter and Gordon never got this high on vinyl!

Sunday, 23 August 2009

INTERVIEW: Ben Watt & Tracey Thorn

an interview with

They’re now known as the Dance Duo responsible for
‘Walking Wounded’, ‘Amplified Heart’, and beyond, plus
high-profile Club anthems and cross-overs with the likes
of Massive Attack, Todd Terry, and Deep Dish...
But when I met Ben Watt & Tracey Thorn they were
impoverished students making acoustic music
on the outer limits of Indie Folk…

Midway, the gas fire gutters and dips low.

“Have you got a ten-pence, Trace?”

Trace hasn’t. So I dig deep.

“This is dreadful. Every time someone comes to interview us we wind up getting ten pence’s off them!”

This exchange occurs in a dishevelled ground-floor flat in the unfashionable end of Hull’s bedsitter-land. The bell-push tag reads ‘BEN WATT & TRACEY THORN’, it’s in newsprint lettering cut out of some article about them. Hopefully the anonymous journalist responsible got HIS ten pence on expenses! Ben and Tracey, a warm and unassuming couple, have such sexual chemistry that between them they’ve got a virtual domination of the British Indie chart. They carve out a quarter of the tracks on Cherry Red’s ‘Pillows & Prayers’ sampler album, and at one time hogged the top three places on the album lists above the heavyweight likes of Sex Gang Children, Box, and Danse Society. Some future Pete Frame ‘Family Tree’ researcher will go cross-eyed attempting to unravel their various mob-handed vinyl identities, line-up permutations, and inter-relationships. He might start with Tracey’s hits as one-third of the Marine Girls (“Beach Party”, “Lazy Ways”), her solo ‘A Distant Shore’ (Cherry Red Records, 1982) album, through to Everything But The Girl’s haunting “Night and Day” single. Then he might begin another life-line down through the “Summer into Winter” EP – Watt and Robert Wyatt, Ben’s solo ‘North Marine Drive’ (Cherry Red, 1983) album, to neatly intersect back at the EBTG’s “English Rose” contribution to the ‘Racket Packet’ tape-compilation. I am, in fact, interviewing five chart acts simultaneously!

Yet in this era of strict tribal denomination, their plaintive, reflective, acoustic sound seems almost the antithesis of what’s decreed hip. It doesn’t fit preconceptions. Those conditioned to think in terms of consumer groups and marketing zones might wonder who buys their records anyway?

“We were thinking about that last night,” muses Ben, deep in an armchair, in brown hat and black denim. He sits forward, nudges the trilby to a more bizarre angle with the heel of his hand. “Tracey gets fan letters, and I get the odd one. It just seems that people who buy our records buy the same sort of records we do. Things like Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, Young Marble Giants. But we get people writing saying they like Joy Division and Cure too. Also, it’s sad to say this, but I think people just see us as the ‘next new thing’ in the Pop Press.”

“It’s infuriating when the press keep dragging Folk in” agrees Tracey. “You only have to pick up an acoustic guitar and to the press you’re Folk. Basically I’m Folk only ‘cos I can’t play! I get very few letters from people who actually think of me as an ‘Old Folkie’, although I DID get ONE from an American hippie this week. He said ‘I can sin-cerely say that I rilly re-late to your music’.” Her mid-Western accent is impeccable. So far, so convincing. But their image-less image still sits at odds with the rest of the trend-riddled scene. They seem so normal, they don’t even have this week’s hair-style!

“I don’t know, what IS this weeks Indie hair-style?”

“How about this?” says Ben, whipping off his trilby like a punch-line, and ruffling a spikey jet-black barnet…

--- 0 ---

An obvious place to start, in hunting an explanation to the acoustic revival is to search up roots through their choice of non-original material. Why does Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” turn up on Ben’s solo LP ‘North Marine Drive’? To those weaned on the seventies generation of Rock surely he’s an embarrassingly burnt-out relic?

“Dylan was the first Punk Rocker,” announces Tracey. “His early LP’s are just incredible. Not musically Punk, but just their whole attitude.”

“He was brilliant then – around 1961-‘64. There’s that mixture on the ‘Freewheelin’’ LP of really funny, witty, ironies; and a lot of love songs; then some serious stuff like “Masters of War”. Sure, a lot of records from the late sixties and seventies were a load of crap. I only chose “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome” (from Dylan’s ‘Blood on the Tracks’) ‘cos it’s a good song. It wasn’t meant to say ‘I’m into Dylan in ‘74, or whatever’…”

“I was brought up thinking Dylan was just an old hippie” expands Tracey from beneath her exploding shock of black hair. “In 1976 you weren’t allowed to mention his name. It’s only over the last year or two I’ve been able to take the man seriously. You’re brought up in a tradition of what is acceptable – and Dylan wasn’t. So I had to find out for myself that he’d done things that were valid. Like John Lennon – to my age group he was just a hippie. Then you go back and discover he was at the fore-front of some of the most exciting stuff ever.”

Again Ben retrieves the narrative. “When you’re young and the only music you know is post-1977, and you see pictures of John Lennon walking into a white mansion covered in black fur and a big floppy hat, you think ‘WHAT’S GOING ON?’ But if you actually go back and LISTEN. Some of that first Plastic Ono Band LP is vicious.”

There are other covers – Tracey does Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale”, and Everything But The Girl do Getz/Gilberto’s “Girl from Ipanema” as well as Cole Porter’s ‘Great American Songbook’ “Night and Day” from 1932, a song more usually associated with Frank Sinatra, but also done by U2 and…er, Ringo Starr. The problem, to Ben, is that “when you choose to cover a song everybody wants to relate you to wherever that song came from. But we’ve picked songs from so many different periods we’ve tried to escape that.”

To present a moving target? “We’re just picking good songs. We chose “Night and Day” but it could easily have been something else. With that record we weren’t trying to recreate the forties. When it was released it got caught up in the ‘New Jazz Scene’ by default, everybody thought we were, like, the new Cocktail Set, which was a load of crap.”

Instead, Tracey suggests, their method is “like Matilde Santing, the Dutch Jazz Singer. She’s just brought out an LP which is all cover versions, she does a Beach Boys song, then some old jazz standard, then an Isley Brothers thing. It doesn’t matter where they’re from – she’s just picking good songs…”

--- 0 ---

In an atmosphere where Hull University is being Government penalised for accepting too many students, Ben and Tracey are taking Drama and Eng. Lit. courses between their vinyl commitments. The impedimentia of both trades stack the half-lit room, guitar cases, a book of John Donne poems, records (the Gist, Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’ EP, the Jam), posters and kitsch. Above the guttering fire there’s a carefully assembled montage of photos and clippings; the back-view nude Siouxie in Gestapo hat, sea-side Holiday-makers, a promo. Leaflet for the Centre 42 Big Band (led by Ben’s Dad!), various monochrome snaps of Ben and Tracey, individually and collectively, in various locations. Inevitably you think of the albums and the references within…

A line occurs on ‘North Marine Drive’ where though parted, ‘your record’s the only one I play’, then, on ‘A Distant Shore’ Tracey wonders about the things ‘that made you write those songs’. Do they write songs for each other? Ben acts cagey. “In the actual line you quote it was just ‘a record’ that was given to me. It doesn’t mean somebody’s personal record that they’d recorded themselves. People have said in reviews ‘this song is about Tracey Thorn’, but…”

“…but people just want scandal, gossip,” cuts in Tracey lasciviously. “When I brought out my album no-one had any idea who it was about. Since then we’ve done EBTG gigs, and people start thinking ‘Ah-ha – there must be something happening here!’ And if they can get a bit of scandal into their review more people will want to read it. That’s what people are interested in.” She laughs. Sings an accapella chorus of ‘Is she really going out with him?’

The most recent Everything But The Girl dates were at Ronnie Scott’s legendary Soho Jazz Dive, sharing a bill with Weekend. With searingly accurate wit they dedicated a version of Jimmy Cliff’s “Harder They Come” to a certain Paul Weller, who’d come along to renew an earlier association. “We played with Paul Weller at the ICA” explains Ben. “That was just something that cropped up. Something we wanted to do on the spur of the moment, so we did it.” There was some talk of Weller producing future EBTYG sessions, but inevitably the press inflated the tenuous link out of all proportion. “People were going along to Marine Girls gigs expecting Weller to come on stage. It was absolutely unbelievable.”

“And I still get letters from people saying ‘come and do a gig at this little Club in Nottingham… and, by the way, bring Paul Weller with you!’ As though I carry him round in my pocket all the time.”

We start talking, instead, around their own compositions, and things start to go a little silly around the edges. About accusations of over-sensitivity, of ‘drippy love songs’, Tracey – “That makes me angry. People accept those things from me because it’s alright, girls can cry. Girls are supposed to write about love because they don’t know about anything else”. Ben – “That’s an area where I’ve suffered, being labelled as the new wimp-Rock and stuff. My voice isn’t particularly soulful or black-orientated. It’s very English. But that’s just the way I sing. The voice I have goes in the particular tradition of singer/songwriter. I attempt to get away from that tradition as far as possible, although obviously – playing just on your own – it’s very difficult. Basically, I’d like to think that we are trying to make records that move away from trends. Hopefully make LP’s that last, and that people will listen to in ten, twenty years time. Perhaps that’s a bit ambitious but I think the ‘great song’ is timeless. Look at “Night and Day” for example.”

“Look at “Anarchy In The UK” for example” sabotages Tracey.

Ignoring distractions Ben extends the theme by referring back to media hipness decrees. “What tends to happen is that you get all these bands walking down the same street – then every now and then someone will dash off down some interesting alley, and trendy papers send out their journalists and herd them back to the correct path. They say ‘No, you gotta go down this road here’, because this is the ‘Folk Road’, or this is the ‘New Jazz Road’. When perhaps we’re just trying to do things we want to do rather than what people are telling us to do.”

Laudable sentiments. Although it’s true that Ben Watt has yet to write his own “Night And Day” – or indeed, his own “Anarchy In The UK” – his recent songs, like “Long Arcade” and “The Big Divide”, which he premiered at a London University concert with Pale Fountains, show a considerable evolution. And the growing power that gradually reveals itself on repeated plays of ‘North Marine Drive’ suggests that the Press has been unfairly harsh on his work, and unfairly premature in dismissing him. The best, just conceivably, has yet to come. But in the meantime, glancing back at the holiday shots on the chimney-breast, thinking of the black ‘n’ white photos of Bridlington harbour, the deck-chairs and the sand on the album sleeves, why the lyrical pre-occupation with Marine phenomena?

Ben shrugs. “We’re just totally obsessed with the sea. It just happens to be a particularly strong…”

“…perversion with us all” laughs Tracey.

“It’s a really good image to choose. It’s just a powerful image for a lot of things.”
But it’s used as a recurrent motif, and not in any of the usual poetic analogies for, say, timelessness, oceanic sexual oneness, crashing orgasmic waves, murky hidden depths, etc. Tracey tackles that. “If you pick an image and have it running through a book, or an LP, then that’s just the way it is. It’s structural as much as anything. To criticise its presence is largely irrelevant. Obviously though, we can’t go on with it. I’ve recently been writing songs, coming up with lines about the sea, and thinking – ‘NO, NOT THAT AGAIN!!!”

Finally, is there any deliberate titular cross-over between the Marine Girls and North Marine Drive? Ben. “No. It’s just coincidence.”

Tracey. “It just so happens I thought of the name ‘Marine Drive’.” She dissolves in laughter.
I leave, ten pence poorer, but an amusing and enjoyable interview richer, which seems like a reasonable exchange.