Friday, 17 October 2014

'QUATERMASS AND THE PIT'

This third instalment of our Quatermass series reviews is also considered unsuitable for children and those of an anti-plot-spoiler disposition


”He wasn't very tall. He had the face of an ape, but he had a big brain. And he stood like a man.”

A shorthand summary of the third ’Quatermass’ series (made in 1958) might be ‘Von Daniken upside down’. A New Age guru, professional maker-up of things and all-round crank, Erich Von Daniken claimed civilization to be a gift bestowed on us by benevolent aliens. You know, just like those benevolent European colonialists were always giving the Africans stuff. (Disclaimer, yes I do know won Daniken was writing later. This is a comparison, okay?)

Inevitably, when Nigel Kneale reflects this in the darker mirror of 'Quatermass' the aliens instead keep us bound and fearful. As in Wells' ’War of the Worlds’, the Martians ravage first their own planet then turn to ours. But Kneale brings in contemporary knowledge, that Mars is a dead planet, to incorporate a vaster timescale. The Martian capsules arrived and buried themselves deep into our prehistory and brainstems, psychically manipulating us into their servants. Our most horrific folk images, gargoyles and devils, are therefore really projections of this Martian control – boogeymen, internalised prison guards.


Like ’Experiment’, ‘Pit’ is at root a Freudian fable; we all have a brutish unthinking id within us, buried no more deeply than the dug-up capsule which sets off the story. But ’Experiment’ drew its horror from a thing which absorbed three men. The capsule here isn't the rocket, it could reduce us all to savagery! Kneale has commented this upping of the ante was a reaction to the late Fifties, which he perceived to be “a more violent time”.

Argubaly it puts its two predecessors together, the resurgence of the regressive brutes hanging out in our back-brains from 'Experiment' combined with the sinister, unknowable, puppet-master aliens of 'Quatermass II'. And perhaps partly for this reason it was this third instalment which would become the fulcrum, the template for much Brit SF which followed.

Perhaps its shallowest but most widespread influence was the idea that scientists might have some place in science fiction. In pulpy sci-fi scientists were either megalomaniac adversaries for action men heroes, worringly brainy Lex Luthors to be struck down by brawny Supermen, or ray-gun-supplying equivalents to Q from James Bond. Here it is the scientists who are the protagonists, pitted against the military and bureaucracy. One stands for the open, enquiring mind; the other the closed and blinkered. Quatermass spends more time struggling against stiff shirt Colonel Breen than any Martians, who he describes as “a career militarist of the worst type... with a slide-rule mind.”


Of course, like most science fiction the science isn’t exactly what you'd call scientific. When Breen tells Quatermass “you’re letting your imagination run away with you”, you can’t help but feel the slide-rule mind has a point. For a scientist he seems to have a shaky grasp of the distinction between theory and conjecture. After deciding the capsule is from another planet he seems to pick on Mars almost arbitrarily, which then becomes canonical for the rest of the series. Not for these great minds all that slow slog of consolidated research, they proceed by flashes of insight. (Most commonly followed by dramatic music.) Roney’s opticencephalaorgaphi (to you and me, a thought projecting machine) turns out to have been built as a hobby, the way someone else might knit a sweater. When the script describes him as “unscientifically impulsive”, you sense this is meant as a compliment.

The shameless science-as-magic of ’Doctor Who’ is still some way off. But the scientist is being fused with the creative visionary who stands against the weight of tradition. In a telling exchange Breen complains “your imagination’s running wild” and Quatermass exclaims ”Yes! Isn’t yours?” If the buried capsule becomes a metaphor for the Freudian id, space stands for the ego, for imagination. In this way the lack of any genuine scientific method doesn't really matter, as the science is only there to stand for something broader. Hence Quatermass’ poetic plea against the militarisation of exploration: “We are on the edge of a new dimension of discovery. It’s the great chance... to leave our vices behind. Not to go out there dragging our hatreds and our frontiers with us.” Perhaps its not just von Daniken that's being reversed. Surrealism prized the imagination as a ticket back to the savage state. Here it's what takes us out of it. Surrealism placed the imagination with the id, Kneale with the ego.

’Pit’ is most commonly billed as a battle between science and superstition. As Mark Fisher asserts, it “attempted to wholesale swallow Horror into SF by tracing a whole slew of ostensibly supernatural phenomena back to scientifically-plausible phenomena”. Indeed it’s even tempting to read these themes back into its predecessors. After all, they both mixed SF with horror and ’Experiment’ at least focused on the human slide back into irrationalism.

In ’Experiment’, a colleague crossly tells Quatermass “I’m a scientist not a convert to superstition”. But here, despite Fisher, science will have surprising allies before the series is out. In fact, the storyline is almost strung along Quatermass’ journey of acceptance of superstition. Early on, he has an uneasy encounter with a reader of tea leaves. But when a local Vicar later expects Quatermass’ disdain he tells him “on the contrary I agree with you”. (Similarly in the later ’IV’, (aka ‘Conclusion’ the Kapps' Jewish ceremony is treated sympathetically.) “Ever study legends?” Roney asks him. “Legends gave us the first clue in this business.”

So it becomes the fusion of scientific knowledge and superstitious notions of the devil that save the day. Nigel Kneale is no Richard Dawkins. The serial closes with the Vicar sitting at Quatermass’ side, in an echo of the way he worked alongside a journalist and police inspector in 'Experiment'. Similarly, susceptibility to the Martian’s powers is – inevitably enough - greatest in the feebler craniums of women and the lower orders. But it’s also associated with enhanced mental powers – such as psychic sensing. We’re told the humans who served the Martians had been engineered “bigger brains”. Those bigger brains alone can mean merely better servants to the Martians, science alone is necessary but not sufficent for what the human race requires.


Pixley’s notes to the DVD collection mention the BBC hierarchy disliking Quatermass’ concluding speech, claiming it put him “into a pulpit”. (It was gone from the otherwise faithful film version.) Indeed, ’Pit ‘ does contain the same humanist notions as ’Experiment’; we are not merely the puppets of Martian monkeying, we have our own selves. But ’Experiment’ suggests our better nature can appear as soon as whistled for. Here there is nothing automatic about it. Quatermass’ speech does not solve anything but comes after the final battle. And he appears not as exaltory but somber and resigned; he walks out of the TV studio after making it, as if unconvinced of his own hopes. In short it will be a struggle to “overcome the Martian in us”; in the classic quote it is entirely possible that “this will be their second dead planet” if we don't get our thinking caps on. And our main weapons in that struggle will be knowledge and rationalism, catalysed by a heavt dose of imagination.

(Historical footnote: lest the big Q's reference to “race riots” now sound reactionary, it refers not to civil rights activism but anti-immigration riots which were then besetting England, most infamously in Notting Hill. The digging crew in the opening include a black workman. As noted in 'The Quatermass Trilogy: A Controlled Paranoia' his straightforward portrayal is replaced in the later movie version by “a stereotypical, superstitious Negro of the eyeball-rolling variety”, a shift which almost works to enhance the original intent. Yet as they also note he is the only black character in the original trilogy, suggesting intergration had its limits even to the liberal mind.)


Continuing thanks to RedSock

Coming soon! Not the last word at all about 'Quatermass'...

Saturday, 11 October 2014

HAWKWIND/ GOAT/ BRAKHAGE + REDS (MORE GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

HAWKWIND
The Old Market, Brighton, Mon 29th Sept


Hawkwind, I discovered recently, now have their own covers band. Which is pretty weird when you think about it. Cover bands are of course a red rag to rock fans. Fans like to listen to the original band with the original line-up, ideally playing an original album in the correct track order. They can become almost as obsessive as ornithologists; if they insist on seeing a particular line-up with the original bass player, it's not necessarily because they think it will sound better or even different that way. It's just what they want to come and see, something to tick from the checklist.

But what if you've been in the same band, playing the same songs for decade after decade? Don't you hit a point where you effectively become your own covers band? And the whole business of staying true, of keeping it like it was, doesn't that hasten the process? Stalwartism can be an albatross.

And past reputation, that risks weighting the albatross. As argued here only recently “you couldn't overstate the importance of Hawkwind if you tried. They're a credible candidate for the most important band in the history of everything, ever.” A reputation based on the classic 'space trilogy' they produced early in the Seventies, culminating in the legendary live album 'Space Ritual'. But if they weren never quite the same sonic visionaries again, they carried on releasing classic albums throughout the decade. (This account by my blogroll buddy Murray Ewing is a pretty good guide.)

Except of course the Seventies are now a long time ago. Plus, as most reading this will already know, the two founders irrevocably fell out with Dave Brock booting Nik Turner from the band. (Twice over. The history of Hawkwind can be confusing.) Picture if Paul McCartney had continued the Beatles without John Lennon. Or, more accurately as Turner was always the frontman, Brock would be Brian Wilson or Jerry Dammers – a pivotal figure who was not necessarily terribly visible.

Which leads to the question - with all these changes and setbacks, combined with the heightened expectations people have of Hawkwind, have they been blown into becoming their own covers band? And their actual covers band are actually redundant? Let's take some pointers...

The merch stall notably only sells T-shirts. Okay, maybe there was a bag you could buy, but none of the actual music. And there must be more same-band T-shirts being sported here than at any gig I've ever been to. Hawkfans are clearly the Deadheads of the UK. It made the whole thing feel almost like some kind of rally.

Yet a fair percentage of the audience are young folk, and they seem to know as many of the songs as me. (Which left me wondering, when I first saw the band early in the Eighties, were any of the old timers there heartened to see the fresh faces of me and my schoolmates? Thinking about it – probably not.)

It is an oldies set-list. Yet quite an eclectic one, which ignores their token hit single. Their unreproducable early years quite sensibly go unreproduced, with most emphasis on the riff-based tracks of the mid to late Seventies. 'Steppenwolf' and 'Reefer Madness' are the order of the day. Notably, the politics and drugs references of the Sixties underground remain intact. If anything there's a disproportionately high number of political songs, including 'Uncle Sams On Mars' (in a different, more abrasive version) and a new track accompanied by an Occupy photo-montage.

The lengthy instrumental breaks were retained, but rather than wig-out sessions were more like regular solos. The keyboard section of 'Orgone Accumulator' in particular felt like it had dropped in from somewhere else, merely interrupting the track. At other times it felt like the music was being made a sonic backdrop while the filmshow or the dancers did something. The theatre-show notion that only one thing can happen at once, that couldn't be more counter to the crazy fugue states of the early days.

The band are extremely tight and proficient, and Mr Dibs makes for a decent enough frontman. But they're polished, they're in control. The classic space rock band has carved out some turf for itself down here on Earth. They're not their own covers band. The Hawk is still a hawk not an albatross, but does much less of the actual hunting. It's like an underground form of showbiz.

Nothing is more likely to tug at my sense of nostalgia more than this band. Those basslines are my Proustian cake. But in the great schism of the Church of Hawkwind, I guess I'm more a dissenter and a Turnerite than a devout Brockian. (His post-Hawkwind outfit Inner City Unit reviewed here. Which makes you like the Protestant heretics breaking from Catholicism, there's less of the flamboyance and the ostentation, and the congregation is normally smaller. But perhaps its stayed more attached to the roots of the thing, the Church of Hawkwind versus the Gospel.

'Motorway City' may not be most people's first thought for a Hawkwind classic. But for me it dates from the time I was first getting into the band, and represented everything about why they mattered to me – euphoria and escape given a science fictiony spin. Steppenwolf (the band, that is) gave you the image of the biker sailing on the open road, but Hawkwind upped the ante with a whole city on the move. (Was it written about the then-still-intact Peace Convoy? I don't suppose we'll ever know.) Plus it was one of the live numbers where an instrumental break actually was an instrumental break.



GOAT
Concorde 2, Brighton, Wed 1st Oct


Goat hail from Korpilombolo, a small town so far to the north of Sweden that it was never truly Christianised and pagan traditions still thrive. The music they play is simply the folk music of this town, and its something they've done since childhood. It's a blend of psychedelic funk and afrobeat, the latter influence stemming from a Voodoo witch doctor who one day decided to decamp there. They now live together in a commune from where they await “the return of the horned one”.

On the other hand, they might not do. There doesn't seem to be any history of the band before they were gigging in Gothenburg and a reliable source of gossip states they don't even spell the town's name right on their website. But the point of the story is more likely that it's a good story. Its one of those stories which should be true, to the point where the fact that it isn't becomes almost trivial.

Of course some might want to argue that, much like their origin story, with their wacky masks and crazy costumes there's something of a simulation to it all. And of course as the record shows we at Lucid Frenzy take a dim view of simulation. Like New Wave was to punk, have they taken volatile unpredictable freeform psychedelic music and bottled it, make it neat and tight, made it marketable? While they frequently go into lengthy instrumental breaks they notably keep to the beat. There's nothing that teeters on the edge.

But if there's no actual derangement to their music, there's no shortage of abandon. With many bands you can tell when they're coming to the climax of the main set, when they start pulling out enough stops to make sure they get clapped back on. With Goat the gig's pretty much at that fever pitch the whole way through. They're quite unrelentingly up.

Besides, lacing afrobeat with psychedelia actually makes for a pretty good cocktail drug. Psychedlia could get ungrounded quite quickly, and only some of its practitioners were able to fly through space in the way that lack of grounding required. Even something like Pink Floyd's 'Interstellar Overdrive' needed a heavy riff to moor it at either end of the track, more barrage baloon than rokcet. Here the afrobeat provides that grounding, stops things floating off into noodliness or indulgence. It's sky meets earth, head aligned with feet. And the afrobeat has enough space within it to stay insistently punchy without ever becoming merely repetitive. (Within tracks. There's perhaps not a massive scope to the sound between tracks.) In the Guardian, Paul Lester described their music asParliament covering Can's 'Tago Mago' with Bhundu Boys and the Incredible String Band, or a super-jam involving Faust, Funkadelic, Fairport Convention and Fela Kuti.” Which sounds like a magic potion of some sort.



And another besides, the truly out-there psychedelia was non-mainstream music which worked best in a non-mainstream setting. And the squat centres and free festivals it used to happen in, they've all been supressed in recent years. It simply won't work as well in a venue that clamps shut at 10.30pm so they can fit a club night in. Goat's more concentrated, more directed music fits better inside those confines. While notably their audience is the Hawkwind audience with the proportions inverted – a young and boisterous crowd with a fair smattering of us old 'uns.

The neologism I'd coin for it is 'bironic'. In one sense it feels a knowing parody of this sort of music, blowing up the absurdity with over-the-top fancy dress. And yet at the same time it's so compelling that you cannot help but be swept up in it. It's self-mocking and it's genuine. It's to psychedelia what the Fucked Up gig was to hardcore. And, where we're at right now, perhaps it's bironic men and women we need to come and rescue us. There's no point trying to imagine ourselves back in the Sixties, where people blithely fancied The Man would never be able to take their music. But if we're all just going to smile knowingly like a bunch of hipsters there's no point in our showing up. We could just as easily feel self-satisfied at home. The absurdity becomes the spoon of sugar that helps the medicine go down. And the medicine can still work. (According to the Urban Dictionary, bironic actually means “ironically bisexual” or some such. Whatever, mate...)

Because at the end of the day Goat seem to have the same bit between their teeth that pyschedelic music always had. Which is the same as the instinct that makes a child melt down all his plastic toy soldiers - it's to melt everything back into one again. The masks and costumes aren't just an image gimmick, but the age-old carnivalesque trigger to the loss of self. The singers wave branches across the audience like magic sticks, and indeed once you've been annointed it feels impossible to stay outside of things. The perfect Goat gig would be where we all show up in masks.

And in fact after the gig I stumbled across this quote from band spokesman Mr Goatman: “When you make music in a collective, the individual is unimportant. The music I partake in making has little to do with me as a person; there’s something else at play.... For us, it’s unimportant who we are.” Quite so, Mr Goatman.
Goat probably don't come from a small town in northern Sweden where old pagan rites are still practised. But after seeing them live you could imagine they did. Which is probably the part that counts.
Not from Brighton. Not from anywhere near Brighton. Hey, would you rather have something local or decent footage..?
BRAKHAGE'S 'DOG STAR MAN' WITH LIVE SCORE BY REDS
Fabrica, Brighton, Mon 22nd Sept


The work of American experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage is something I have always enjoyed whenever I've come across them. (Even though I am not exactly what you'd call a subject expert.) True, he's very much yesterday's avant-garde. But I suspect at least some of the appeal may stem from that. Starting in (yes, really) the early Fifties he used the most lo-fi technology, even of the day. Partly due to working practices including marking or multi-exposing the film frame itself, you pretty much have to see his work on old-style film reel projections. (At the Barbican's 'Watch Me Move' exhibition a few years ago, his was the only work to be shown this babbage engined way!)

Though coming after the classic Modernist era, Brakhage is in that way very Modernist – rather than trying to naturalise film grammar in your mind until you take it for granted, he ruthlessly homes in on everything that's unique to the medium of film, and uses that as his native language. He's less using film to talk than he is talking film. But more than that, his non-narrative semi-abstract works are almost like Pollock paintings – you're best off going to see them on a big screen rather than catching them on an iPhone while you queue for a cheeseburger.

His linked series of 'Dog Star Man' films, made between '61 and '64 and described herein as “a hypnotic visual feast”, is given a live score by local impro collective Reds. (Themselves described as “an amorphous psychedelic beast”.) Wind instruments blow up squalls while violins pluck and keyboards throw up tones. Perhaps the nearest to a conventional sound comes from the guitar, whose reverby lines live up to that psyschedelic tag with echoes of Robby Krieger. (At points even the Dead Kennedys' East Bay Ray came to mind!) The guitar can be like the skeleton of the sound, around which the other players mass. The programme tells us they're recently formed but there doesn't seem to be any casting about for themes – spirited yet accomplished, they strike up straight away. While at the same time the daunting-sounding seventy-plus minute duration of the films seems to allow them to grow bolder and wilder.

Unlike other films he made, it seems Brakhage wanted 'Dog Star Man' to be silent. Yet the programme tells us his widow okayed this performance. Personally, I side with the YouTube poster who states “this needs some crazy weird music”. After all, why stimulate just one sense?

And you know the magic is realy working when the synaesthesia takes hold. It comes in stages. Brakhage's rapid-cut and overlaid images are sometimes from abstract and sometimes from natural sources. They also vary massively in scale, from a solar corona (the High Altitude Observatory of Boulder, Colorado are thanked) to close-ups of the human face and body. (The title might be a portmanteau between the dog star and the recurring shots of a man with his dog.) Other images might well have been microscopic. But you stop making the distinctions after a while. Like the overlaid images, everything starts to multi-expose on your mind.

Similarly, having the musicans play in semi-darkness around the screen stops you differentiating between them too much. You can't observe whether the violinist or keyboardist made that particular sound (and round here its not always obvious), so you just take in how those sounds combine. In your mind, they move as one.

But after a while, when the magic is really working, you stop even diferrentiating between sound and vision. The soundtrack might well be subsequent to the film, but the two start to coalesce and you simply see what you hear, and vice versa. It all becomes one experience.


Chiefly, the word from that description of Reds that rang with me wasn't even “psychedelic” but “amorphous”. The experience is incohate without being formless, a state of flux which never settles – like swirling dots which may or may not be joined together. It's the suggestion of form, without ever spelling anything out, that sets your mind racing.

Getting hopelessly carried away, as is my wont, and riffing on the cosmic imagery I started to imagine the period just after the Big Bang, where nothing was yet locked down, before things had to become thing-like, when the universe was effectively a stem cell and everything still had the potential to become anything.

Which may be the basis of those repeating scenes of the man (actually Brakhage himself) and dog struggling to climb a snowy mountain. (An unusually recognisable image for Brakhage.) Significantly, in a typical violation of standard film grammar, we're never shown if he's made it to the top or even get to glimpse the peak. Perhaps in some ways the solar corona so frequently cut to stands for the peak, something unattainable yet still to be reached for.

The film not having a soundtrack becomes like Shakespeare not coming with many stage directions or authoral notes, it just increases the opportunities. But it doesn't work like the open ending to a novel, where you're given some information and left free to speculate what's left. You don't come away with your own reading. It's more like a space you can hang out in, with no end to the free association.

A better way to spend a Monday evening I simply cannot imagine.

Brakhage's film in full...


Various commenters come up with multiple suggestions of other pieces of music to play in a parallel browser window. Perhaps the John Cage thing would be to choose another YouTube page at total random, and try that. Or you could if you so desired try the below, an entirely separate performance from Reds (but sounding every bit as good as the one I saw)...


Coming soon! Back to 'Quatermass'...

Friday, 3 October 2014

'QUATERMASS II' (1955)


This new instalment in our overview of the classic SF series 'Quatermass', as part of our new feature on the Museum of Forgotten Futures, is also considered unsuitable for children and those of an anti-plot-spoiler disposition.

Though made by the same team of scripter Nigel Kneale and director Rudolph Cartier, ’Quatermass II’ is perhaps the oddity of the celebrated ’Quatermass’ trilogy. While (as we've seen) the first and (as we’ll see) third series concerned themselves with our overcoming the primitive in ourselves to head boldly into the future, ’QII’ gets phobic about the present. Of course, counter-intuitive as it may sound, much science fiction is future-phobic – but here that dystopian future has arrived and set up shop with no-one even noticing.

Perhaps for that reason ’QII’ is the least shown or spoken of. The first series is famous for being groundbreaking (and for the iconic scenes of Westminster Abbey) even if so little of it has survived, while the third is the one that actually gets watched. This remains true even if we include the almost as rarely-shown Hammer movie version.

But when it is spoken of, 'QII' is almost always referred to as “the zombie one” or “the British Body Snatchers”. It came out only shortly before the celebrated Don Siegel film ’Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1955 and ’56 respectively), both featuring alien invaders who take over human bodies and strip them of all individuality. But before we rush to cry ‘zeitgeist’ there are some crucial differences…

’Body Snatchers’ took the reassuring form of small-town America and undermined it. The signature scene is where the taken-over townsfolk are seen milling about, acting to assuage the suspicions of some strangers. As soon as the strangers board their bus, the townsfolk congregate to a single point – human individuals reduced to a hive mind. ’QII’ takes the familiar English landscape (a village and its surrounding countryside) and replaces it with a sinister one. The village of Winnerton Flats has been usurped by a portakabin new town of the kind then springing up around post-war England, and a secret base which was actually a real Shell refinery.


The plant’s police are another example of this. Regular policemen in ’Quatermass’ are generally portrayed as soft-hearted sentries, forever reiterating “you’re not really supposed to go in there sir, it’s a top secret base… oh very well, but be quick before me Sergeant gets back then”. But these are black-clad and ruthless authoritarians, barking orders, ignoring entreaties or enquiries. (And so of course much more reminiscent of the police we actually encounter nowadays!)

To underline the transformation, we’re given two separate sets of visitors to remind us what a great place the old place was – a tramp who praises the villagers’ kindnesses (played by none less than Wilfred Brambell) and a picnicking family, still keen to live out the rustic English dream on what looks suspiciously like a mudflat. But the key line’s given to a curmudgeonly old buffer in the pub, who pontificates about Doctors: “Doctors all work for the government, don’t they? When there was less government about things were better, I know that.”

For all its similarities to ’Bodysnatchers’, ‘QII’ is more reminiscent of Frodo’s return to the Shire at the end of ’Lord of the Rings’ – to find it corrupted by the very evil he’d been away fighting. (Though of course Tolkien dismissed any readings of this section as a comment on the nature of post-war Britain, just as Jack Finney, author of the original ’Body Snatchers’ novel, did of America.)

’Bodysnatchers’ is one of those films that engenders two quite polarised readings – some seeing in it a Cold War anti-Soviet fable, others a critique of middle class small-town conformity. (‘Pod people’ even came to be a generic term of abuse for suburbanites.) To help us overcome this dichotomy, let us throw in something to complete the triangulation of crossfire – JB Priestley’s 1953 short story ’The Grey Ones’. Priestley’s story is admittedly not great; it suffers from being schematic, at times feeling like little more than a checklist of modern conditions the author considers contribute to “greyness”. Nevertheless, this very deficiency allows it to act as a sort of skeleton key.

While for Priestley the Devil is behind all this, his infernal aim is not to turn us hedonistically sinful or wicked but “to make mankind go the way the social insects went, to turn us into automatic creatures, mass beings without individuality, soulless machines of flesh and blood”, pushing us “nearer the bees, ants, termites”. While his chief characters comments “the Grey Ones must have almost finished the job in some of those [Soviet] countries”, the Soviet threat is explicitly ruled out as their cause, in favour of modernity itself - a bureaucratised, mechanised society stifling us of our very essence.

It’s a similar story in ’QII’. In the first story Quatermass is constantly complaining about the Civil Servant Marsh. (“Hasn’t he had enough..? Damn them, damn them all! They spend their time obstructing whatever you’re trying to do, and when you don’t do it properly, they’re straight down on your neck.”) But Marsh is not a major character, indeed his chief function seems to be to give Quatermass someone to explain the basics of rocket science to – a sidekick with delusions of being an adversary. The Experimental Rocket Group seems to operate with a fair amount of de facto autonomy.

All this is over in ’QII’, where they are being sidelined and starved of funding by a bureaucratised (and, as we find out, alien-controlled) Ministry. But the infection is inside the Rocket Group too. The mathematician Pugh complains he once used his own brain “to benefit mankind”, now he merely presses buttons.


But even if this is not an explicitly anti-Soviet theme but a meditation on the modern condition, isn’t all the veneration of the pre-war world inherently conservative? We’ve already heard the old man in the pub complaining of doctors being “government men” a mere decade after the creation of the NHS. Indeed it would be easy enough to read both Priestley and ’QII’ as a critique of the post-war social contract – such iniquities as valuing new houses for workers over preserving country estates, or attempting to place toffs under the same scrutiny and regulation the rest of us have always undergone.

All this is doubtless true of Priestley, and perhaps ’QII’ as well – except here we get a googly ball thrown at us. Traditionally, before George Romero reset zombie films it was always the serfs who were made into the zombies – mindless drones, effectively automatons before automation. (Check out Hammer’s 1966 shocker 'Plague of the Zombies' for a classic example.) Priestley and Kneale both break this rule, but in different ways. Priestley presents the Grey Ones as acting as a cabal, always attempting to take over the top positions. (“They work together in teams. They arrange to get jobs for one another, more and more influence and power.”) Like his exporter protagonist, Priestley consequently has little interest in the lower orders. But in ’QII’ it is specifically only people in positions of power who are overtaken - which includes the plant’s police but not the lowly construction workers.

It’s consequently the plant’s workers who tumble the plot and rise to destroy it, marching upon it in the night as if the villagers in Frankenstein had speed-read the Communist Manifesto before springing into fiery-torched action. Mobs are a staple of science fiction and they always stand for the herd mentality, little separating them from the Thing in the previous story. Here the mob contrast with the zombies to become the clued-up ones! They cut off the supply of gases the aliens feed off, an effective metaphor for the withdrawal of labour if ever there was. “You are destroying the process which you have worked to create” they’re informed over the loud-hailer, “you and your comrades.” The aliens offer them a slap-up feed in the canteen and even a soothing burst of Worker’s Playtime – but to little avail.

Arguably, what the whole thing is really about is dehumanisation through commodification. Something has interposed in human relationships. We have come to treat each other as machines, and in so doing have come to think like machines. And the people who resist this the most, inevitably enough, are the people who notice this the most – the people most treated like machines.

Could we be looking at one of those rare points where new left and old right find a kind of common ground, and the more regulated world of the post-war social contract is being given a deserved critique? Well, let's not get carried away. It could also be claimed that this plot-line is just as ‘small-c’ conservative as the rest of the series. Though the end of the war had seen waves of strikes, by ’55 we were deep into a new era of relative peace between the classes. Revolting workers might then have seemed as old-world as quaint English villages like Winnerton Flats. Perhaps not to the same degree as today, where the Miners' Strike seems a fitting subject for musicals. But old-world nonetheless. Moreover, their activity notably swells as a result of Quatermass’ oratory, his commanding RP tones contrasting with their faux-Irish. (In the following episode a voice-over carefully explains they had been acting under his “instruction”. So that's alright then.)

Kneale was apparently inspired into this plot-line when scouting locations at oil refineries, and finding the workers unaware of what happened in their own plants. With one plot alteration (taking away the presence of other alien bases sighted in other countries), this might have become the ending - the workers heroically taking down the base but blowing themselves up with it. (The other series all end with the sacrifice of another, after all.)


However, all this happens in the penultimate episode – with the result that the explosive destruction of the base serves to overshadow the actual ending – where Quatermass flies to the alien’s planet to destroy them. As it is, in the next episode he alone seems to have survived. (A public school education being of course a good defence against explosions.) Indeed in the film version (unlike it's predecessor scripted by Kneale), this is almost what happens. The rocket still goes up, but unmanned and intercut with the battle at the plant. Strictly speaking it’s still the rocket which saves the day, but the plant remains the focus of the action. Admittedly, this does also lead to the aliens appearing from the domes like lumbering Godzillas – an awkward retreat into B-movieness. (And even if we were to overlook this lapse, the TV version would still rank as superior overall.)

The actual ending doesn’t just suffer from being anti-climactic but also (with all the rocket ship and alien planet business) from being ambitiously beyond the effects technology of the time. However, in it’s favour it does right one problem which has beset the series to that point.

Characters are forever suddenly speaking in a robotic, monotonised voice - with no-one around them seeming to notice these tell-tale signs are happening all over again. When Pugh takes the rocket up with Quatermass we are already well aware he’s become zombified. However, Quatermass reveals mid-journey he knows this himself. He does nothing, perhaps because Pugh’s presence on the rocket is a fait accompli, perhaps partly because he doesn’t want to believe this of his old friend. Their final confrontation is transformed from a telegraphed twist into something terribly inevitable. Which really couldn't fit the theme better.

Overall, if the actual ending of ’QII’ limps in after the wallop of the previous episode, it’s still a significant improvement on the squib which concluded its predecessor. If this middle section is little-seen, it really deserves to be better known.


Coming soon! A brief foray into other stuff.
Coming shortly after that! More 'Quatermass'...

Friday, 26 September 2014

‘QUATERMASS’ – AN EXPERIMENT IN SCIENCE FICTION

Attention please! This first installment in a series looking at the classic 'Quatermass' series of British TV SF is notably being posted on the very day when, seven years ago, our first ever post looked at the Hammer movie version. We don't just throw this show together, you know.

Further attention required! Please note that this review is considered unsuitable for children and those of an anti-plot-spoiler disposition.


”They are to reach a height of fifteen hundred miles above the Earth and there learn what is to be learnt. For an experiment is an operation designed to discover some unknown truth.”
- Opening narration

If British small-screen science fiction has never exactly been big-budget, with ’The Quatermass Experiment’ (1953) we can see how it’s Fifties origins were truly made from sticky tape and glue. Whenever anyone answers the phone to say (in clipped Fifties tones) “Experimental Rocket Group”, you can’t help but be reminded of Wallace and Gromit bashing together moonships in their basement. Indeed, its gang of high-minded well-meaning boffins are often reminiscent of the BBC in themselves, stumbling along between crises, extemporising history. In a way the title to the first series gives the whole thing away - it was an experiment, a prototype, built in such back-shed conditions you’re amazed they ever got it to fly.

The first series not only lacked for special effects, it was broadcast entirely live with neither space nor budget for location shoots. (We can only watch the first two episodes now, but not because the others were lost. They were just not recorded in the first place.) The ‘monster’ which appears in the finale was created by writer Nigel Kneale and his wife at home, by modifying a rubber glove from their kitchen, when the BBC effects department despaired of his requests and threw in the towel.

Nevertheless, Kneale and his producer/director Rudolph Cartier created something of more than mere historical importance. The Wright brothers may have pioneered flight, but today you wouldn’t want to ride in one of their planes - whatever the deal on air miles. Conversely, 'Quatermass' and its sequels are must-see items for anyone with an interest in science fiction. Kneale and Cartier took their limitations as challenges, as if writing a haiku, and brought to the screen a science fiction marked by intelligence and even social comment.

Dialogue, for example, tends to the smartly understated rather than the melodramatic. The rocket ship is simply described as having travelled “far”. Phrases uttered casually often come back to haunt, such as the pre-flight quip “bring something back”. (Made into the second episode title.) Which indeed they do


The most obvious and major difference between this and the later film version is that, instead of Brian Donlevey, Quatermass is played by an actor. To be specific, Reginald Tate (above), but perhaps any actor would have been change enough. While the film Quatermass is one-dimensionally remorseless, here he’s presented as much more troubled - and with it much more sympathetic. His main antagonist is Paterson, a member of his own rocket crew who takes on and amplifies his own feelings of guilt. In a live television broadcast, the big Q even asks for the world’s forgiveness. The Donlevy Quatermass would have seized the opportunity to tell everyone to stop bugging him.

The second big difference lies in the ending. If the film was 'inverted Frankenstein', this culminates in a more Prince Charles fashion. But let’s lead up to that gradually. As mentioned in the film review, the Thing represents the self reduced to a “pre-human state”. I also casually called it a “walking corpse,” and indeed it has many of the lumbering human-non-human features of the zombie. The name 'Carroon' may have been chosen to echo 'carrion'. With the novel 'The Day of the Triffids' released only two years earlier, it may be that vegetation was in those more refined times used as a stand-in for the undead. (Notably, the opening of 'Day of the Triffids' has since been recycled by '28 Days Later', 'The Walking Dead' and counting...)

In the film the Thing absorbs life, starting with the two other astronauts in the rocket, reducing them literally to powder. This original adds an extra fillip, the men’s bodies are devoured but their personalities are somehow retained inside the surviving Carroon.

Which doesn’t make for much in the way of logical sense. (There’s some explaining away that this doesn’t happen to the Thing’s other victims due to the ‘longer time’ it had to absorb the astronauts aboard the rocket). But it allows for much narrative tension as their personalities briefly burst to the surface of the stricken survivor, and the three-into-one-schema vies with our assumptions about the integrity of the self - and so underlines the theme of loss of individuation.

All of which works to underline just what sort of show this is. The rocket ship at first resembles a 'locked room' murder mystery, two men dead with no conceivable way it could have happened. Notably, its scientists and policemen who mull over this conundrum. But of course the rug is soon and quite deliberately pulled from under this, and the 'deaths' given a supernatural cause. The “something back” 'Quatermass' brings to SF is horror, rather than Westerns with ray guns or adventure stories. Just as Superman is now forever associated with the intro line "faster than a speeding bullet", 'Quatermass' comes complete in the popular imagination with the BBC voiceover warning to "those of a nervous disposition". Notably, its a story that starts with a rocket ship and ends with Westminster Abbey.


And yet for all that its not a Gothic story; even if Kneale's initial premise was “science going bad” it's never anti-science. Our protagonist is not only a scientist, he works with Police Inspector Lomax and journalist Fullalove – a microcosm of the enquiring minds within the British establishment. Here and later, horror is associated with a form of ignorance, knowledge with empowerment. Monsters (if that's even the term) are not part of the fabric of things, to be shied from, but more like Bunyanesque giants – to be toppled and overcome.

Which throws an entirely different light on the whole business of setting the finale in Westminster Abbey. However much Quatermass himself changes between TV set and screen, the Abbey may well change more. In the film the Thing appears by the end all-powerful, so you assume either it chose to go there or it stumbled upon the place by accident. But here Quatermass insists “it wasn’t chance” that took it there, and explains the Thing’s existence is parasitically contingent upon the existence of Carroon and the others. (Perhaps it's three-into-one absorption could be regarded as some perversion of the holy trinity.)

Addressing them he explains “it can only know by means of your knowledge… understand through your understanding. It can only exist through your submission”. His comments even take on the tone of an exorcism (“you will overcome this evil”), with the implication the Abbey was chosen not by the Thing but the three astronauts, as a symbol of human values from where to stage their final battle. (Albeit with the corollary that London has been reduced to a hysterical, fleeing mob – “like the beasts and the plants”.)

While in the film the Thing is destroyed by electrocution, here the astronauts are able to regain control enough to destroy it from within – by willing themselves to suicide they destroy their parasite with them. As Paterson, paralysed through guilt and blame, is ’Quatermass’s shadow self (who also sacrifices himself), so the Thing is the baser nature of the three astronauts – and by implication of us all. It is our attempt to leave the Earth that has brought it upon us, exposed our ties, like rattling the bar brings the jailer. But human values win out. Though initially juxtaposed, rocket ship and Abbey ultimately combine – standing for something like brain and heart, uniting against the mere brute body.

Kneale disliked the changes the film made to his vision, changes he had no part in. And he was right… about all of them except for this one. For one thing, this sudden change of heart makes scant sense. It’s what they’ve been trying to do all along, to little effect even before the Thing’s growth had been so advanced. Apart from the rarified atmosphere of the Abbey (presumably intended symbolically rather than as literally powerful), there seems little reason why the same trick should work now except for the fact we’ve come to the end of the sixth episode.

And while a fisticuffs ending might have felt equally hackneyed, there is always something stagily unsatisfying about ending a story with a rousing speech. It feels arbitrary and unresolving, almost a deus ex machina. More widely, this invoking of the basic decency inside us all now seems (to put it mildly) a touch na├»ve – the point where ’Quatermass’ stops seeming pioneering and becomes merely quaint. It suggests problems can be resolved not by action or change but merely by discussion and debate.

This unconvincing ending first felt to me like a product of its time, resting on notions of ‘chaps’ always ‘coming though’ when things looked at their rummest. Perhaps, had 'Night of the Living Dead' been made fifteen years earlier, they'd have given that the same ending – someone sticking on some Elgar and the zombies rediscovering their inner humanity. But interestingly Andrew Pixley’s notes to the BBC DVD edition reveal this was a widespread complaint even among contemporary audiences. (One commenting “the first five built up a terrific excitement but Episode Six went off like a wet firework”.) With recent memories of Nazism, perhaps such Sunday School notions of basic decency were already antiquated.

It's possible that Kneale took these criticisms to heart. If he had no involvement in the film version, he went on to adapt ’1984’ - where Orwell quite deliberately set out to scupper such sweet notions of some unbreakable core inside us. (More of which anon.) And the idea that alien life can be engaged in conversation, let's see how that fared in the sequels...


Coming soon! As you may have already guessed, more 'Quatermass'...

Grateful thanks to ‘Redsock’

Sunday, 21 September 2014

“FOG AROUND PLANET - UNIVERSE CUT OFF” (aka MAPPING A VERY BRITISH TAKE ON THE FORGOTTEN FUTURE...)


Having looked hard at this blog and decided it wasn’t nearly nerdy nor provincial enough, for the impending seventh anniversary the chaps in charge here have decided to devote a new series to old British sci-fi.* Fellow Englanders! Let us journey back to those days when the chaps in charge knew how to do that stuff properly, before reliable old Airfix and bakelite had been supplanted by all that CGI and 3D tommyrot.

When you could rely on a raygun to look like a hairdryer and a spaceship like another hairdryer. When the Union Jack fluttered proudly atop heathen planets, boffins were running the show and sets were as wobbly as upper lips stiff. When, for their part, envious aliens ceaslessly plotted to invade the Earth, with particular interest in the strategically important location of Chipping Sodbury.

The cheaper the effects, the more cardboard the costumes, the more black-and-white the... uh... black-and-white the better. Not emotionally constipated about everything bar football and Royalty? You are most likely a colonial. Please change channels now.

After a ribbon-cutting ceremony involving Jenna from 'Blake's Seven' (subject to availability), proceedings will commence with Nigel Kneale’s pioneering ’Quatermass‘ series. To be shortly followed by a wheezing, groaning noise. From there, who can say? Does anybody here stll remember 'Star Maidens'? If so, don't worry, there are treatments...


* Yes, I am using the term ‘sci-fi’ to try and wind up 'proper' fans...

Sunday, 14 September 2014

JOHN CALE + LIAM YOUNG/ KING BUZZO (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

JOHN CALE + LIAM YOUNG
Barbican Theatre, London, Sat 13th Sept


The selling point of this gig was that John Cale, pioneer of drone music from his early days in the Theatre of Eternal Music, would be playing alongside actual drones - buzzing round the auditorium. Something like Stockhausen's 'Helicopter Quartet', where a string quartet played inside four helicopters, and alongside their whirring rotors. Only with scaled-down helicopters.

My natural assumption that he was returning to those drone roots seemed confirmed by speed-reading the programme beforehand. The piece was titled the catchy 'LOOP>>60Hz: Transmissions from The Drone Orchestra', while Cale's sojourn in the legendary Velvet Underground somewhat downplayed. Liam Young it seemed was not a musician but “a speculative architect who operates in the spaces between design, fiction and futures”, in charge of the overall concept.

And indeed things started with Cale strumming an acoustic guitar as a lead-in to a mounting drone-fest. Stage lights stabbed straight upwards, like London was expecting another Blitz. The promised drones then took off, their rotor blades adding to the sound but ebbing and flowing in and out of your ears as they traversed the auditorium. As a drone aficionado, I settled warmly into my seat.

Yet after that initial track, things turned into a much more conventional set-list gig. Ah well, let's focus on what we got rather than what we didn't...

As the set focused heavily on Cale's more recent albums, I kept mentally comparing it to the last time I'd seen him. So surprised I was to get home, read that previous write-up and find that in my ways my reaction was the polar opposite of before.

Cale chose to stack the ballads early. Now my two favourite albums of his are both effectively ballad-led, 'Paris 1919' and 'Music For A New Society'. Yet I found this a bit of a formatting error, with the result something of a slog. They songs were also mixed in quality, with a rather lacklustre version of 'Half Past France'. If buses are supposed to all come at once, this became like all your waiting-for-a-buses at once, and I started to yearn for some scrapes of the viola.

Plus, though the drones kept diligently taking off and landing again, they added little to this more song-based material. They were superfluous or at times actively intrusive, like an over-sized mosquito had buzzed in the window and now couldn't get out. It might have been wiser to hold them in reserve until that section was over.

Later, things picked up and we were treated to a set quite similarly sourced to the earlier one from Brighton. Though many of the newer songs were quite splendid, best of all were the radical reworkings of classic old tracks – a distorted 'Mercenaries' and 'Sanities' set to a lurching heigh-ho Tom Waits beat. Several tracks I only recognised some way in, 'Sanities' I only picked up through the words. Then, after not having played a single Velvets song all night, he closed with an extended 'Sister Ray', as if rewritten for a disco in hell which neither closed nor played any other number.

Despite the common assumption that we fans like to hear old albums intact and in full, what we actually want is something we couldn't have heard by simply staying home. It's more interesting to hear their creators come at them from some new angle.

Though of course too young for their actual era, I first got into the Velvets before they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – when they were still a cult act. I can remember when putting on one of their records was a guaranteed way to clear the room. And 'Sister Ray' seemed the most extreme track by the most extreme of bands. It seemed less challenging than disruptive, it seemed to melt down every assumption you had made about music in order to re-use the materials in something new.

But of course it can't keep that shock in perpetuity. It's only by reworking it, by making it simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, that it can reignite. It reminds you of the stunning moment when you first heard it, while at the same time it's something totally new. That's what we want. More stuff like that.

So... the drone-fest didn't happen and the drones themselves were ultimately not much more than a gimmick. And the gig was uneven. Well, Cale's career has been uneven. (It's only comparison to Lou Reed's wildly oscillating musical fortunes which obscures that.) But the high points flew higher than those drones. If now in his Seventies, Cale isn't content to lay on his laurels. His brain seems as active as ever at trying out new things and at reworking old.


KING BUZZO
The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 30th Aug


No, your eyes do not deceive you. That is an acoustic guitar. And it is in the hands of one of the most recognisable haircuts this side of Sid Vicious – Buzz Osborne of the Melvins. (As enthused over here, after their earlier visit to Brighton.) In a not altogether expected development, the man whose spent the last thirty years presiding over a shotgun marriage between punk and metal has undertaken a solo acoustic tour.

However, don't go getting any notions he's decided to show us his sensitive side. Nick Drake this isn't. He's titled the new album 'This Machine Kills Artists', in a twist on the Woody Guthrie quote. And the twist is important. He strikes chords rather than plucks melodies, while vocals are fulsome and full-throated – often quite theatrically delivered. There can be quite long instrumental sections. You could call it 'mighty acoustic' if you had a mind to.

If anything, it seems more rooted in rock history than the parent band which spawned it. I took to thinking about how the Black Sabbath/ Led Zeppelin influence is more apparant on these new songs, just as he back-announces the last tracks as Melvins numbers. Maybe it's the new sound which more greatly exposes those influences, like different chassis being placed over the same engine. It reminds you how all that music was rooted in the acoustic to start with, though not always through a chronological journey back to the acoustic blues. There's all the bombast and swagger here too, and that can be a good thing. A large part of the appeal of rock music, when you first start listening to it in your teenage bedroom, is that it seems a means to finally get the world listening to you.

It's ambiguous which is in the driving seat - necessity or invention? Did Buzzo hit upon this new sound and run with it, or was the most cost-effective way to set up a solo vehicle to make the new combo a one-man band? He often employs a technique of playing overlaid bass and lead parts, and a habit of striding the stage like he's trying to fill the boots of a band. Which might suggest the latter. Then again, this is a guy whose collaborated at one time or another with pretty much everybody from the heavier end of music, so volunteers shouldn't have been that hard to come by.

The Melvins are of course a band known for their sound. Its like they built that sound up thirty years ago and have been inhabiting it ever since. But this new mighty acoustic business, that might be a narrower base. If the Melvins were a fortress this is more a bedsit. It works well for each and every track. No numbers come across as filler. But as the gig goes on it lacks for something in sonic variety, and each new number starts to feel like another slice of the same. Its a bit like visiting an art exhibition to find its all of pencil drawings. You can admire each and every drawing, but part-way through start to long for the odd splash of colour. In many ways it marks an adventurous break from business as usual. But maybe its a sound to visit rather than move into.

Some edited-together clips, with much audience chat about his wife for some reason...


Just while we're on this sort of subject... this is a pretty awesome full-length clip of the Melvins/Fantomas Big Band in full assault mode. See how long it takes you to recognise the opening number. I swear I didn't get it until the first line (which happens some way in), whereupon a great big “of course” expression filled my face…

Saturday, 6 September 2014

'COMICS UNMASKED: ART AND ANARCHY IN THE UK'



“Comics have always had the potential to be a radical medium, because they edge around the mainstream, because they are collaborative, because they play with time and form, and because they’re so much bloody fun.”

“The effect of these pulp paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant.”
- Sterling North

Noise in the Library

Of course only the most clueless straight would look at the poster to a show called 'Comics Unmasked' (above), and be surprised to see a mask. I mean, get like post-ironical, dude. Check out the nonchalant slouch of the pose, the diffident expression. Above all, check out the alley setting, chosen in contrast to some expansive, panoramic rooftop. 'Comics Unmasked' is a slack way of saying 'Superheroes Got Slack'.

Now for once in my life I may be using so dated an expression as 'slack' deliberately. The image is by Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett, and does reflect the Nineties era in which he chiefly found fame. It draws its frisson from presenting superheroes not in the heroic poses we're used to. And yet there's now nothing particularly unusual in this image. It's not impossible to imagine, say, the Black Widow from the Marvel Universe films pulling that pose. It could be taken to suggest comics have been frozen at their seeming moment of triumph, hands reached out for but never quite grasping that elusive mainstream acceptance.

But it also suggests comics have a cumulative history. They're not some cultural equivalent of a social climber desperate to hush up their lowly lineage, but amending their history for their own ends. It's not just that superhero comics, despite everything, could sometimes be cool. It's that what once seemed a firewall between alternative and superhero comics is now a porous border. Superheroes are part of the lexicon, for us to pick up and mould should they seem useful. We don't need to mask anything off.

In fact the word I most seized on in the title wasn't even 'anarchy' but 'comics'. In recent years people have taken to the term 'graphic novel' much in the way they say 'bathroom' when what they really want is a toilet, as a polite euphemism. Milligan and McCarthy's splendid 'Skin' is even applauded for “opposing the gentrification of comics”. Which it did.

But perhaps the most cheering factor of all is the choice of venue. There's an inherent problem with trying to fit comics into art galleries, whose essential purpose is to display original works of art. Even if at times they might venture into posters, they're still dealing with objects designed for public display. Whereas with comics the existence of original art is merely a means to an end (in these digital days often having no physical existence at all), with the finished product that's designed to be read. And things that you read belong in a library. It's a basic point, but an important one.

'Comics Unmasked' reverses this almost to a fault – well, actually to a fault. It was often hard to actually read those comics, given the combination of glass cabinets, low lighting and my middle-aged eyesight. It having already been established we're not looking at original artefacts, they could have done more to blow sections up on walls. (Plus you can often learn as least as much about an artist by seeing their work enlarged as you can by studying the original art.)

But of course they didn't just stick some old comics under glass. The earlier 'Propaganda' exhibition had proven the British Library able and willing to do inventive, irreverent and audacious things with display. And, despite all the jokes about patrician Librarians shushing the punters, it may be the venue feels enabled to take more liberties. After all, you go to a Klee or Matisse exhibition to see Klee or Matisse, and the curators don't want to distract from that too much. They strain to make their efforts almost invisible, like roadies at a concert. 'Propaganda' was almost the reverse, a demonstration of concepts and ideas with works chosen to illustrate them, like walking inside some virtual reality essay. I tend to use the terms 'show' and 'exhibition' interchangeably. But 'Propaganda' was quite definitely a show.

I'd hoped this would follow in the same vein, and in many ways it did. It states early “comics can be a playground for the imagination”, and then does much to provide an adventure playground for the eyes. A giant Moebius strip stretches round the gallery, with projections played upon it (below). You realise this motif is becoming a visual analogue for comics history - twisting, multi-sided, subject to be rewritten, yet stretching through time.


You have of course to see such shows as aimed at newbies and innocent bystanders, rather than us obsessive insiders. And the associated unlearning isn't always easy. It's not just that they can't hope to include all the artists we'd like to see. (A subject which has set sections of the net's comics neighbourhood a-buzzing.) It's that we cannot help but see the gaps and so things inevitably appear to us as scattershot. Of course the premise is in many ways a hopeless one, a case of setting yourself up to fail. Its not like the next British Library show will be on the history or the novel, while the Tate will counter with the history of painting and the British Museum weigh in with the history of history. We pretty much have to just accept the picture will be partial, or else stay home.
 

Anyway, the show finds nuggets to reward us fans for our attendance, for example the trial 'Dan Dare' strip (1949, above) when he was still the originally intended dog-collared Chaplain, or the Judge Dredd strip 'Battle of the Burger Barons' (1978, below) never reprinted after satirising actual burger chains by name. (They state here through publisher jitters rather than actual legal threats.)


It was perhaps less a lure to the average comics fan, and hear me out on this one, but I was also interested to see for the first time 'Bulldog' (1981). Given this was published by the far-right National Front to lure in young members, you may understand my earlier reluctance to hand over cash for a copy. And it looks pretty much what you'd expect. In many ways the far right have no identity of their own, but are just a bizarre looking-glass-world inversion of the left - no matter how absurd a place that takes them to. It includes a graphic of a cop searching a white kid, a copycat image of one originally used by the Motherfuckers, above the sentence “the police have declared war on the white youth of Britain”. Course they have mate...

Perhaps most enticing of all, the show knows when not to confine itself to comics. In something I'd never heard before, we're told the hard-drinking wastrel Ally Sloper was not just one of the first comic characters but first comics brands, also appearing on stage, screen and here as a somewhat disturbing ventriloquist puppet (below). There's similar examples from later eras.


Black-hearted Brigands Abroad (Reclaiming the Colonies)

A whole room is given to heroes, and it’s interesting how this inevitably slips into the story of the British invasion of America. (Characterised as “extraordinary” and “radical”.) And of course there’s a Stan-Lee-style prize for spotting what links the two. Our mark was made on the most hero-centric genre of all, superheroes, precisely because heroes were what we didn’t deal in. What we had that was saleable was what the show describes as “a heritage of rebelliousness”, a rich history of anti-heroes, even when they weren’t out-and-out black-hearted brigands. (The show includes, for example, a Dick Turpin comic from 1948 next to a penny dreadful featuring him from eighty years earlier.) For the American superhero publishers, we were sexy because we were bad. Centuries after the colonial era, we were still offloading our trouble-makers abroad.

But then, at least up until the arrival of the infamous Comics Code Authority, weren't American comics gaudier and wilder, with all the salacious crime and horror titles? Or even after then. Didn't Marvel essentially invent flawed and anti-heroes, such as the Hulk or the Thing? Didn't underground comics export from America to Britain?

To which the short answer is yes. But remember the stories of the Beatles first arriving in America, the source of the music which had so inspired them, and finding the place strangely straight-laced. And that music had been made in America. But it was made by currents which didn't make it to the surface of society, which either never had or which had by that point been buried again. It took someone from elsewhere to take up that music and return it to America before the home-grown variants could arise. And the British comics invasion worked much like that, re-introducing stuff which seemed obvious to us but at home had been forgotten. Alan Moore, such a spearhead of that invasion, later commented “I couldn't have done that if I hadn't been a traditionalist”.


Talking About Sex

If you want something to truly date the Sixties/ Seventies underground, and don't really want to bring up their infamous uncritical support for the Viet Cong, your best choice is their sexual politics. Or lack of them. A telling example is John Kent's 'Varoomshka' (1972, above), it's cover-girl heroine obligingly disrobing while she cries cheerily “this strip is purely political”. Politicians of the day look on in shock and disgust.

Of course we see such an image with hindsight. But its almost absurdly easy to see the chain between it and Conrad Frost's 'The Life of George and Lynn', (scathingly dubbed 'The Perpetually Naked Middle Class Bastards' by Brendan McCarthy), which debuted in 'The Sun' a mere five years later. (A task made easier by them both being in the same show, of course.) Perhaps the only difference between Varoomshka's “purely political” gesture and the cover of last week's 'Zoo' magazine is that one is a drawing and the other a photo.

And yet if you're interested in cultural or sub-cultural history, this is just what makes porn such a useful barometer. As the show says “there is something about the lens of desire that is particularly revealing about a culture”. Its precisely because sex and sexuality are defined as something natural and unmediated, that leads to its cultural content rises to the surface more openly. After all, what is there to be guarded about? It's all just innate and biological, isn't it? And this is strongest in Sixties/Seventies subculture, which often blithely assumed we could revert to some 'true' nature outside the norms of society. This hopeless simplemindedness is more flagrantly on show than Varoomshka's nipples.

Then again, at the other end of the scale... Underground and alternative comics worked better as negative and disrupting forces, upending popular assumptions - and sexuality may be no exception. 'Sourcream' (1979) was a women's comic who depicted sexual matters in a simple, de-eroticised child-like style which matched their frankness of content. A strip like 'Which Contraceptive?' could scarcely be any more demystifying. (Matching many punk songs of the era, such as the Snivelling Shits' 'I Can't Come' or the Dead Kennedy's 'Too Drunk to Fuck'.)

However, let's back up a little. That distinction between picture and photo that separates 'Varomooshka' from 'Zoo', is it actually so trivial? The prevalent trend in pornography has been towards photography, with perhaps only technological limitations ever holding it back. But I've never been sure why people are always so keen for porn to be 'real' when it's a genre that couldn't be any more about fantasy. Doesn't it work better when combining sensual thrill with aesthetic buzz, like a cocktail drug? Take Ron Embletons 'Oh, Wicked Wanda' (1983, below), with what the show describes as “colours so lavish and sensual that you could almost taste them”. (Disclaimers: Whether this strip would have progressive sexual politics is of course another thing. It was published by 'Penthouse', after all. Also, to spare the blushes of gentle readers, I have also chosen a more family-friendly sample than the one from the show.)


Can Comics Be Magic?

There being a room devoted to magic, that's not something I would necessarily have bet money on before entering. When they state “some of Britain's key comics talents are practising magicians” you are tempted to ask if by “some” they actually mean “two”. And the phrase “magic is hugely important in British culture” feels little like one of those statements you make hoping no-one actually calls you on it.

However, the show may be on stronger ground when it states “comics have lent themselves so well to dreamlike and transcendental states”. In fact, in my youth I dimly conceived of British comics existing in some schizo state. At times they'd seem populated entirely by square-jawed chaps winning the war by not showing any emotion, or footballers who strangely didn't seem to share the working class origins of footballers on the telly. But seconds later they seemed to flip, and would suddenly be brimming with enticing strangeness, with characters such as the positively deranged Adam Eterno or the sinister Black Sapper. Yet there never seemed a way of separating them, of getting one without being saddled with the other. It seems explicable enough how they could be so staid. The real question is – how could they simultaneously be so mad?

Perhaps there is something innately strange about the world of comics, rather than it being a mnaifestation of British culture. Think of the old DC Comics, ostensibly the upright goody-goody imprint which got upended by the hipper Marvel. And how downright bonkers they could become, with villains who could control anything or anyone provided it was coloured blue, with robot duplicates which turned out to be robot duplicates of robot duplicates and such like.

Perhaps the show has it upside down. When comics were really strange was before they were made by drug-crazed hippies, Northampton maguses or students of chaos magic but by hacks on scale pay and instant coffee. Take for example the pages by DC Thompson artist Dudley Watkins, who worked on both 'Desperate Dan' and 'Lord Snooty'. Devoutly religious and teetotal, he was still a source of some of the most left-field images and ideas you're ever likely to encounter.

In other words, it all happened when it normally does – when no-one was really watching. The act of observing normalises what is observed, suddenly it feels self-conscious and starts to follow rules. Clearly, speed of production had much to do with it. Surrealist techniques such as stream-of-consciousness were emulated almost by accident, because dream logic and the association of ideas assembled faster than a coherent plotline.

But there's something bigger. In the quote up top, Laurie Penny comments on the way comics “play with time and form” as something which makes them a radical medium. There's an inherent formalism to comics, which lies latent even in the comics which don't actively try to exploit it. The form is there on the paper, inextricably interwoven with the content. Comics are composed of language, while film or theatre merely use it. The naturalistic illusion becomes a bit of a non-starter, so things head in the opposite direction. And that direction is the association of ideas. Surrealism's spark came from juxtapositions. There is nothing very odd about telephones, and nothing particularly unusual about lobsters – yet a lobster telephone becomes a surreal object. And those formal qualities of comics make them inherently juxtapositional, lining up images alongside one another. (Think for example of the way Jeff Keen's paintings combined the two.)

Anarchy Amid the Short Loan?

Let's go back to that image of the Moebius strip. It suggests comics have something of a through line, albeit a bendy and stretchy one. The show takes a take not just on comics history but on what comics are, and its to do with that word 'anarchy' up there in the title. That dummy of Ali Sloper, drunken and indolent, the leery antithesis of Victorian thrift and industry, becomes something of a totem.


Comics are either like 'Action' (above) - cheap, seditious pulps you kept under your schooldesk to stop your teacher confiscating them - or like 'Nasty Tales' (below), underground, inherently antagonistic to the Establishment, more likely to be found in the dock than at an awards ceremony. Comics are gaudy, disreputable and – above all – popular. The point isn't just that you can use comics to explore ideas outside of the political mainstream, but that comics as a medium are antithetical to the dusty shelf.


In a way it's an action replay of British creators being given American heroes precisely so they could mess with them. What's going to interest the British Library is precisely what makes comics unique or different, otherwise they may as well just stick to their books. And this can often be a useful filter. For the longest time comics were full of creators trying desperately to be 'mature', by which they tended to mean aspiring to the smart or sophisticated. But the smartypants stuff only ever worked on comics fans. A comics artist might – to pull an example right out of the blue – enthrall fans by aping the Pre-Raphaelite painters. But he's scarcely likely to pique the interest of a gallery curator, who could just go and book an exhibition of the real thing. Meanwhile, Dudley Watkins has something you won't find elsewhere.

And it's not merely a romanticism. When public information strips try to ape the comics form, they often betray themselves by looking stiff and staid, by lacking the dynamics that bring a comics page to life. They're like teachers trying to utilise playground slang, like vicars trying to rap their sermons. Some of these are on show in this exhibition, sticking out like thumbs.

But on the other hand its scarcely an eternal truth. As the saying goes, everyone loves you when you're dead. It only takes for someone to pop their clogs and all their positive features – until so recently taken for granted – start to stand out. And, from the Victorians who sought to collect and catalogue the folk culture their world was destroying, does anything get celebrated more than a dying culture? The answer is yes. A dead culture does.

And there's nothing more dead than the notion of a broad popular culture existing in perfect opposition to power. Except perhaps the idea of comics as a popular, accessible medium. Those massed mannequins in the 'V' masks with throng the show (below), they're not here for a celebration. They're here for a wake.


And a perfect illustration of the way comics just aren't cheap, cheery and popular any more could be found by sampling the wares at the Comiket independent comics fair organised in conjunction with this very show. Comics are now a craft industry, a personal statement, a labour of love. Let's be clear - there's absolutely nothing wrong with any of that. I was an active part of that scene for many years, and enjoyed being so. Its appeal lies in the way its so unlike the corporatised, commodified world we inhabit the rest of the time. It's a scene where people do the things they want when they want to, and if anyone else likes any of it that's a plus. But it's quite a different appeal to a comics at war with a narrowly defined Establishment. It's more like a pocket universe where things are nicer.

At points the show tries to pin these new comics to the same big Moebius strip, like they're the latest twist in this one long line. It uses the term “every day life in comics” but let's call them Real Life stories (a catch-all term to incorporate biography, autobiography, virtual autobiography where the author has a comics avatar with a different name, metafictional autobiography, and all the rest). These are at absolute odds with the broad sweeps by which the archetypal comics of old were drawn. It never mattered much if, say, musclebound-gent-in-loincloth Morgan the Mighty bore a suspicious resemblance to Tarzan. The point was that the gentleman savage was just the sort of character you expected to turn up in a comic. There was no formal relationship between the black-clad anti-hero the Black Sapper and the black-clad anti-hero Dick Turpin, but they seemed cousins somehow – branches from the same twisted tree.

Real Life stories, conversely, prize uniqueness by their very nature. Implicit in Real Life's commonly seem phrase “this happened to me” is “it didn't to you”. It's not just that these comics are less political, even though they often are. If you look at some of the contemporary political comics artists, such as Edd Baldry or Isy Morgenmuffel (neither represented in the exhibition) they write about their political activism, but only as a feature in their lives – among going on holiday and watching DVD box sets. Which is a quite different approach to, for example, the World War Three collective. Who operated as... well, as a collective, with a loose but definite house style.

There's a disconnect, a growing divergence between appearance and content. Just as comics have become more individualised, more 'arty' they've also become more associated in the public mind with the crowd, with all that is bawdy and rambunctious. Notably the recent Tate exhibition 'Rude Britannia', while not a dedicated comics exhibition, assumed comics quite naturally belonged under its populist header.

Because of course its not just a type of comics that's dying off. We now celebrate the virtual crowd precisely because any real crowd is so quickly kettled by police, so soon demonised on the evening news. If an actual gang of masked hoodies gathered outside the front of the British Library, they'd probably be served a disposal order. So the 'V'-mask figures in the show come to be as much figures of fantasy as schoolkids in shorts and stripy jumpers. The less the signified, the greater the need for the signifier.

Overall, two words out of three in the title are well-placed – even if 'anarchy' isn't really earned. Which perhaps isn't bad odds. Could things have been done differently? Of course! Could they have been done better? Possibly. Perhaps a chronological structure, highlighting how comics have changed over the years, might have both emphasised what a durable medium they are and – perhaps more importantly - mitigated against any tendency to universalise. Plus, as the British Library like to go to town on set design, they would have scope to give each area its own identifying style. To pursue the painting analogy, a catch-all exhibition of painting would be more likely to show how Impressionism led to Post-Impressionism then Fauvism, rather that sticking all the still lifes in one room and the sea scenes in another.

But of course, as said, a single one-stop show isn't going to get the span of it. It could be said what we really need we do sort of have. The London Cartoon Museum, with its varied permanent collection and rotating special exhibitions, is by its nature not stuck with trying to sum comics up in one shot. If its a somewhat 'Blue Peter'-ish venue, that's in equal parts charming and frustrating. It may just be looking a gift horse in the mouth to say but, if it was bigger, we could import some of those classic continental comics exhibitions.



Coming soon: Okay, I did rashly promise I'd catch up on all my exhibition reviews. But it then occurred to me there might be more than the standard two or three people who'd be interested in what I had to say about this one. At least I kept to time-honoured tradition, and didn't get a chance to post this till the show was over. Should an unexpected tranche of time come my way, I may follow up with something on the Tate's 'British Folk Art' show. The two make up a pair, at least in my mind...