Saturday, 7 December 2019


Chalk, Brighton, Thurs 28th Nov

Blanck Mass is the solo project of Benjamin John Power, one half of the inimitable Fuck ButtonsWikipedia describes his “musical style… as drone music, post-rock, electronic and experimental." While I caught him at the Mutations festival four years ago, this was the first time I’ve been immersed in the full-length gig.

The backdrop filmshow dropped out a couple of minutes in, leaving him looking a little nonplussed. After some backstage shenanigans, it resumed. And proved a perfect complement to the music, flickering rapidly between abstract coloured shapes which may once have been distortions of images, abstract coloured shapes which just looked like abstract coloured shapes, animal scenes and advertising images. (Disclaimer: this list should not be seen as exhaustive.)

Like the filmshow it was often hard to tell where the musical elements came from. There were pure electronic sounds, what sounded like treated samples, distorted voices (sometimes supplied live) and what may have been machine parts. (Disclaimer: this list should not be seen as exhaustive.) All hurtling past your ears at far too fast a rate for you to stop and analyse.

Or, for those who haven’t seen the backdrop filmshow, it also reminded me of the surrealist collages of Eduardo Paolozzi. (In fact the cover art to the most recent release ’Animated Violence Mild’, a bitten and bleeding apple, is itself something of a Surrealist collage.) Mid-set, he went into the most abstract noise, sounding almost like a field recording of continental drift in action. Which he them followed by the most straightforwardly dancey section of the whole thing. But more often he’d overlay such elements, piled teeteringly over one another with cavalier disregard for musical norms. Like Paolozzi, his aim was to bombard you into a point past processing

Also, Paolozzi frequently used commercial advertising images - but not necessarily in an ironic or adversarial way, more like his eye was genuinely drawn to those bright shiny colours. As I said after an exhibition of his: “Instead of elitist disdain, we should revel in the situation, bathe in the cathode ray bombardment.” Similarly, Power can bring in dance tunes… at times quite regular party-time dance tunes, as if he simply loves the way they get people dancing. At the very same time he mixes them in with the most incongruous elements.

Then at other times he’d go into full-on power electronics mode, proving the point that this is the real punk music of today. The set finished in a sheer screamathon. It hadn’t lasted for much more than an hour but felt like two or three hours of music input had been compressed into one. Had it gone on any longer, I think my receptors may well have burnt out. With gigs finishing so early these days, it was bizarre to emerge from so different a reality system and be back on the sofa to watch ’Question Time’.

Right tour, but Madrid not Brighton…

Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London, Thurs 5th Dec

Regular readers of Lucid Frenzy… that gag never gets old… will know I’m a fan of Spectralist music, and in particular the Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas. And the programme to this event quotes him to give perhaps the best summation of its twin tenets I’ve heard:

“Twelve tones… per octave are too few for me. I need smaller intervals, finer nuances. And I want to compose expressive, emotional music which moves and takes hold of people.”

After seeing his classic ‘In Vain’ five years back, I commented how his music is often “made up not of individual notes but something closer to sound fields”. Here this proved most true of the strings. A ten-strong string section dominates, playing minimal agitated strokes, with much more variation in the bow-wieding left hand than in the neck-holding right. But even when they all do the same thing they rarely do it at the same time, constantly slipping out of step with one another.

The composite effect is that of a swarm, buzzing like a flurry of disturbed bees. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever heard instruments swarm so much before! This would repeatedly stir itself into motion, grow bigger and more agitated, and then subside. The piano and percussion worked as a kind of counter-weight, much slower, much more assured, possibly even melodic.

I’ve said before that Spectralist music shouldn’t be assumed to be difficult, that it really is expressive, emotional music which takes hold of people. This, however, was perhaps on the more difficult end of the Spectralist spectrum. It lasts only forty minutes, but makes you work for each one of them. It’s formula, something very much like repetition but which isn’t actually repetition, presents something of a challenge to the listener. Do you chew on it, or just let it wash over you? But the results are worth the effort.

As the name might suggest the composition was a tribute to the acclaimed Op artist Bridget Riley, currently on show at the nearby Hayward gallery. (A show, alas, I’m unlikely to make.) After ’In Vain’, I commented how I loved the piece but didn’t think I’d have got the theme (opposition to fascism) unaided. And I’m probably the same here.

But then that’s not really the point. There was a brief pre-concert filmshow which ended on one of her paintings. This led me to briefly fear they’d slideshow her works through the piece. Happily they left comparisons more open and associative, less deterministic.

On the other hand, once you were tipped off it did provide a particular perspective on her. Haas finds the basis of her art not in the repetition or patterning but in the dynamism. As the programme puts it “they are crowding in some direction, cohering in some larger design, impelled by some force.” And this piece portrays her almost as a sorceress, evoking some inexorable force of nature which couldn’t be constrained.

Coming soon (ish)! More Spectralism!
Coming sooner than that! Back to the classic ’Doctor Who’ posts.

Saturday, 30 November 2019


St. George’s Church, Brighton, Sat 23rd Nov

If I’ve not seen Rhiannon Giddens’ rootsy Americana before, five years ago I did catch Dom Flemen
s, her compatriot from the old-time music outfit the Carolina Chocolate Drops. At the time I found Flemens the Flava Flav of roots music, broad of smile and as good-humoured as he was black-humoured. 

And you could go some way portraying Giddens as its Chuck D, righteous and soulful. Except she’s at the same time its Lisa Simpson, even if she clutches a banjo rather than sports a sax. She’s as transmissive of knowledge as Flemons was infectious of smile. Back-announcing a song about the slave trade, she confesses she’s “that girl at the party” who never lets that sort of thing go. (I don’t know who Flemons would be from the Simpsons. The analogy kind of breaks down there.)

If her staple is roots, a lot of branches turn out to have roots. And the set ranges from acapella folk to Vaudeville show tunes to Gospel. (Yes, Gospel in a Church!) A range extended further by the presence of Francesco Turrisi, who brings in the Mediterranean and South America. The first half closes with a Southern Italian number believed to cure sufferers of spider bites. (No idea if it works, but it’s so exuberant I expect it got the spiders dancing.) They joke about the seeming incongruity of combining the banjo with the Iranian dram, which at least in their hands sounds pretty awesome. Maybe Twenty Twenty will be all about the Banjo/Dram genre.

Giddens programmes all this smartly, closing the set with a poignant acapella vocal about migration, eschewing even a microphone, then following that slug of hard stuff with a rousing Rossetta Thorpe singalong. (For “that girl at the party”, she knows how to party.) And she inhabits each different number, sassing up the show tunes.

But perhaps it fared too far to hold your interest throughout. The highs were no less than sublime, the sparse but precise musical accompaniment, seemingly aware of precisely what was required and what wasn’t, perfectly underlining her vocals. She mentioned the title track of the new album, ’I’m On My Way’, being put up for a Grammy, though it seems way too good to win.

Yet at the other end… An Irish shanty didn’t really come off for me. While I confess folk instrumentals usually lose me, I fared better here than I might. Perhaps because, despite its hokey image, the banjo actually has a spiky sound. Even Turrisi’s tambourine solo worked better than that dread description might suggest, but was still a tambourine solo. (Though I did enjoy the sight of him tuning tambourines, surely the mark of the perfectionist.)

Giddens was originally conservatory trained, but gave it up to reach for music’s roots. And her voice can be an effective instrument indeed, with that unflamboyant inner-strength quality. But it does at time retain the rather mannered diction of the world, which cuts against the sense this music is the history of the socially excluded. Not to suggest you can only sing if you’re straight outta Compton. Just that music is often a dish best served raw.

Speaking of Grammy-nominated numbers…

The Ropetackle, Shoreham-by-Sea, Sun 24th Nov

The one Chris Wood album I actually own, ’Trespasser, always impresses me with the different styles of songwriting it combines. Unusual for folk, which can at its worst feel a restrictive genre. Whereas this gig seemed to more-or-less stick to one style. Possibly because the set-list skewed to the new album ’So Much To Defend’, skipping ’Trespasser’ altogether. But on the other hand that one style was to prove fertile.

He does one song about that great folk staple Superman, in which the big S is reluctantly forced to give up on all that truth and justice business. It employs, and employs well, the comic trick of contrasting the big against the small. (Imagine Superman leaving a note to stop the milk.)

But he has a more common trick, in both senses of the word. He tells an anecdote about getting chucked out of Art College after his photography displayed only “an eye for trivia”. (Not least because ehe was supposed to be studying Graphic Design at the time.) It’s a line he likes enough to put on the front page of his website. For, as he points out, that’s the eye he’s been using ever since.

Contrast him to Bob Dylan, who would fill his songs with iconoclastic characters such as the Jack Of Hearts and Einstein Disguised as Robin Hood. Whereas Wood’s songs feature common folk such as chip shop owners, long-suffering Ebbsfleet football fans and Maureen who’s just learnt how to Skype her grandkids. The title track of ’So Much To Defend’ would be a good example, a series of snapshots of everyday life not so significant in themselves but whose effect is cumulative. They start to compose a bigger picture, albeit one which only has time for the little people. He then drops in a line such as “To the masters of the universe we are naught but fertiliser/ What kind of beast is man”.

And of course he’s right. Evil is always banal. There’s nothing grand or thrilling or even very interesting going on inside Trump’s orange dome or Johnson’s blonde coiffure. They’re not even particularly good at being bad, they’re just petty and grasping. It’s the everyday where life happens. Orwell’s famous line, “if there is hope it lies in the proles”, hovers behind a lot of Wood’s songs.

And his stage persona comes in here, which is… well, it’s not to have a stage persona at all. He professes to dislike “shows”, where everything is rehearsed to the point of rote. That doesn’t turn out to be a problem here.

When he walked out solo, I did feel my expectations shrink. The last time he’d fronted a trio, which seemed one too many. A duo would seem just right. You only need a little colour with Wood, as a little colour goes a long way with him. However, the one-man-band set-up did throw the focus onto the lyrics, and this is odds on to be the most words-foremost gigs I’ve heard this whole year. (Blanck Mass, still to come, seems unlikely to beat it.)

In fact, so much did I enjoy this, that when he suggests it was Spider-Man’s father who came out with the “with great power” line, I didn’t loudly object. Which is really the first time ever.

YouTube seems sparse for live Wood. This is something on the tour before this…

Saturday, 23 November 2019


The Old Market, Hove, Sat 17th Nov

Earth aren’t a band to do things in a hurry. Five years since their last album and seven since they last showed up round here they’re finally back. In the intervening time they’ve reduced in size, removing the cello and shedding something of the Country influence.

And if this is a back-to-basics, reset moment then Earth are primarily known as a heavy band. But, though the music does at times resemble slowed-down Black Sabbath, the sound isn’t thick or ominous. Firstly there’s a melodic element, sometimes partnered with the riffs, some times combined with them. (We may need some new portmanteau term like ‘rimoldy’.)

And there’s a great sense of spaciousness to it, particularly in the slo-mo drum shuffles of Adrienne Davies. It’s as if the beats are no more important than the spaces between them, her natural pose arms poised and aloft. Though Carlson is the only constant member of the band, Davies has been on board since the band reformed in 2001. And she’s as prominent as him on both the gig poster and cover to the new CD, ’Full Upon Her Burning Lips. (The album was recorded as a duo with Carlson filling in the bass parts, though they’ve added a bassist here.)

The CD quotes George Santayana, “the earth has music for those who listen”, and I’d guess the title alluded to some kind of love affair with our home planet. Which may well be putting it better than I can. In today’s bid for Pseud’s Corner, let’s say the band can channel that music and make it audible to the rest of us. Tracks become something akin to landscapes, places to hang out. You don’t want them to come to a close just so you can linger longer. A friend told me he’d listen to the album on train trips to London, as the Downs rolled past the window.

In short this is a heaviness with a measuredness to it, less of a sonic assault and more like protective arms wrapped around you. It certainly has a more calming quality than all that New Age crap, which just sounds like a tap dribbling. They’re clearly a band who need to take their time about things, but hopefully they’ll be back sooner next time round.

From London, where they seem to have found a venue also called Earth…

The Con Club, Lewes, Sun 10th Nov

The Woodentops were last sighted, at least by me, four years back. And last seen before that some thirty years ago, as the band dropped out of my orbit and all the good music made in the early years of indie got buried under a deluge of excruciating tweeness.

I hoped to enjoy this gig more than the last, which had focused on the album ’Giant’, which wasn’t a personal favourite, and where they hadn’t played ‘Well Well Well’, which was. Whereas this tour is named after that very track. As things turned out, I enjoyed that gig more than I expected, and found this an oddly uneven affair. At times it would stray towards ramshackle, then at others become intently focused, firing on more cylinders than they seemed to possess.

The juxtaposition was encapsulated by the encore. After audience requests, they agreed to play ’Plenty’. But it didn’t really come together and they decided, seemingly on the hoof, a better finale was required. And served up the most blistering track! I wondered how I could have possibly have forgotten this sparkling gem, and later discover it’s a new number, ‘Stay Out of the Light’. (Well five years old, that counts as new for me.)

Several tracks started out in stripped down fashion, so much so they made James Brown sound rococo. ‘Well Well Well’ itself began with frontman Rolo reciting the words. They’d then assemble themselves mid-flight before taking off for orbit. Rather than cut loose they did the very opposite, grew more and more intense and driven. And a large part of their appeal always was their ability to straddle both poptimistic exuberance and Velvets-level savagery, a band for every occasion.

At the time I wondered if the quality variation might be down to numbers being taken out the oven too early. This was apparently only the second gig of the tour, and as Rolo cheerily informed us the last night they’d had to do without a sound check. (Yes the tour poster makes it the third, don’t ask me!) Then I read my earlier review where I enthused over that being the first night of the tour, with everything served fresh and piping! Some things may be meant to stay a mystery…

Are you ready now for ’Why Why Why’, from Glasgow..? (A different track to ’Well Well Well’, they must just have a thing for triplicate.)

10,000 RUSSOS
The Hope, Brighton, Sat 9th Nov

Hailing from Porto,10,000 Russos cite as influences Neu! and Suicide. Which is a fine pedigree, but probably underestimates the degree to which they’re rooted in noise. To misquote Alan Bennett, they are not a smooth but a hairy band. There are vocals, but distorted and relatively low in the mix, clearly not the point of the thing.

In these high-tech days pedals can transform a guitar sound, something the band have clearly embraced. The guitarist seems to spend as much time stamping on pedals as strumming strings, indeed at times he squats down and pedals become his primary instrument. But those effects are never used as bells and whistles, instead they’re incorporated into the overall sound.

The guitar sometimes acts as a sonic drag, an immovable object cutting against the irresistible force of the rhythm section. Then, just when you’ve got used to that, flipping over to unite with them in a sonic Blitzkrieg. Noise, space and garage rock, all in one pulsing package.

This was another Drone Rock records showcase, like the Carlton Melton gig from around eighteen months ago. And like last time they crammed in five bands, of which I managed to catch the main four. I think I may have liked Psychic Lemon more this time than last, perhaps something to do with their newfound My Bloody Valentine influence. They may even be aligned with the Cosmic Dead as a band so good they only consider it fair to saddle themselves with a bad name.

Gnob also impressed me more than last time, and I was also taken by new (to me) outfit Yeti. Drone Rock records look to the at the centre of a thriving scene.

From Manchester, a couple of nights later…

Saturday, 16 November 2019


First broadcast: April/May 1964
Written by Terry Nation (allegedly)
Plot spoilers? Honestly, I wouldn't worry much

“[It] feels like it should have several options at the end of each scene. 'To go to the city of Millennium, go to episode 3, part 1. To turn left, press play.'”
Gnaeus (see comments section)

The Plot The Scriptwriters Forgot

Put two typical 'Who' fans together, and pretty soon they'll be discussing which of the lost episodes they would like to be found. Yet with the folk I'm more likely to hang around with, they're more likely making the case for which survivor they'd like to see wiped.

At which point ’Keys of Marinus’ often crops up. It exists intact, which only raises the question – should it? It even won this poll for worst First Doctor outing! The general consensus is that, after the triumph of ’The Daleks’, lightning did not strike twice for writer Terry Nation and provide him with another living, walking Creature. Blame is mostly placed on the episodic ‘quest’ nature of the storyline, leading to something resembling 'The Crystal Maze' without the budget. Or for that matter the drama.

It is indeed one of the clunkier episodes of the first series, with some commentators gleefully listing each wooden set, wobbly piece of acting or (that ’Who’ perennial) inadequate act of hiding. (Helpful hint! Try somewhere where the other person can’t see you.) It’s especially odd the way central incidents frequently go unfilmed for no readily apparent reason.

Now, on a good day I can find that sort of thing endearing. This is of course because my brain plays a trick on me concerning ’Doctor Who’. I look beyond the people and objects on the screen because I imagine they’re merely external markers of some core concept that has been perfectly worked out. Like the way chess played with stones on squares drawn in the dirt is still chess, still employs its elegant rules.

Yet when we try to dream human voices wake us and we drown. In reality the same forces which demanded rushed recording also led to rushed scripting. ’Marinus’ was cobbled together hurriedly when other storylines fell through. Shannon Sullivan suggests that the episodic structure was consciously adopted as a time-saver (allowing a bunch of incidents to be stitched together and called a story), and that Script Editor David Whitaker may have co-written much of it. (Further weakening any chance of a through-line.) Have we ended up with ’Crystal Maze’ without the budget, the drama or even the script?

A classic outcome of this formlessness is the nature of the villainous Voord. Men in rubber suits masquerading as monsters are not exactly unknown in this show. But here they seem unsure whether they are masquerading as monsters, or just men wearing rubber suits for the sheer hell of it.

This does perhaps exemplify a necessity in watching old ’Who’, or perhaps all shows from this era. Yartek’s attempts to disguise himself are not...ahem!... entirely convincing. But TV of this era took up stage conventions out of sheer necessity. The audience needs to see it’s Yartek at the same time as see he’s disguised as someone else. This is no different to the rules of Shakespearean drama, where a woman can pass herself off as a man simply by changing her hat. The transforming logic of the stage is transferred to the screen. Your choices are to go with that or else give up on the whole thing. Personally, I favour the first. But the fact that we never know whether Yartek’s a native of Marinus, an alien invader or what... that’s just plain crap!

However, overall I shall not be attempting to list the plot-holes or logic-lapses in this story. I once had some old jeans which a friend refused to refer to as such, on the grounds they were “more hole than jean”. I hope my point here is made.

An Ascetic Pilgrimage

But for all that I did find a through-line in at least the first half, or enough of one to mount a partial defence. Moreover, like the (otherwise far superior) ’Aztecs’ which followed it, it provides themes refreshingly unique to this early era which did not subsequently become foraged for the ’Doctor Who’ formula.

Providing you can look beyond the objects on display to the imagery, the opening episode is actually quite vivid - a lone white-clad Monk defends a pyramid against an onslaught of creeping, black-clad devils. It has a mystical, almost archetypal sense to it, enhanced by the fact that neither side seems to speak. When the Monk finally does open his mouth (once he realises the Tardis crew are not allied to the villainous Voord), we learn his name is Arbitan. This is but the first of a series of allegorical names, among them Morphoton and Millennius. (Even the Voord’s name would seem to suggest ‘horde’.)

It’s possible then to see ’Marinus’ not as ’The Crystal Maze’ but as a parable, a science-fictionised version of ’The Pilgrim’s Progress’, perhaps akin to Lindsay’s ’A Voyage to Arcturus’. Arbitan explains that the Conscience Machine once kept everyone on the straight and narrow. But Yartek, one of the Voord, found a way to beat the machine and misbehave. For various reasons, more hole than jean, Arbitan then had to shut down the machine and hide the five keys. But now, for equally hole-related reasons, if he now gets them back again everything will be okay.

Yartek is of course Lucifer, the angel who rebelled against Heaven and unleashed sin. He’s to be defeated not so much by being fought as by restoring cosmic order. The story so frequently called a ‘quest’ is actually a pilgrimage.

And allegories would seem to make a lot of sense for a show on this sort of a back-envelope budget. There’s no way that cardboard set is going to convince you it’s an actual alien planet. So it needs to be made into a marker, it needs to stand for something else.

Moreover, like the parables above, the guiding light in this story is asceticism. Marinus looks calm and even inviting from the outset but turns out to have beaches of glass and seas of acid. (Or, as we find in the third episode, screaming jungles.) It represents a vision of the reality we inhabit as a vale of tears. The dematerialising Tardis represents the route to heaven. (Unusually, in the opening the Tardis materialises first and only then do we cut to the crew inside.)

But you can only escape by taking the trials and following the pilgrimage. At first the crew refuse to collect the keys, so Marinus throws a force field around the Tardis. (Making for one of the strangest flight vs. flight dilemmas of the first season – the crew are essentially blackmailed into action by the good guys!)

However, as said, this storyline is highly episodic. Can this theme really carry through? In the second episode, ‘The Velvet Web’, they arrive in Morphoton. While they believe they're in some abundant paradise where every desire may be sated, they've in fact fallen under the hypnotic spell of some brains in jars. 

It's Barbara who breaks the spell, and with her we suddenly see their world as it is – their silks really rags, their fine food actually bought from Subway. While the jarred brains are about as convincing as anything else (clue - not), there’s some nice distorted shots through the jars' curving glass which serves to underline their dominance.

Fortunately for Barbara the spendthrifts have scrimped on guards so she can save the day just by smashing those jars. Somewhat reminiscent of ’The Simpsons’ aliens - “our massive intellects are no match for their puny weapons.”

Jack Graham who frequently takes a class struggle approach to the show from the perspective of the Gallifreyan proletariat (no, really) makes an anti-capitalist analysis out of this:

“It's extremely tempting to connect Morphoton to Western capitalism, given that, when this story was made, the long post-war boom was just starting to decline, the struggles of what would come to be called 'the 60s' were just beginning.”

My general reaction to his posts is “I wish I'd said that”. But on this occasion I think he's looking in the wrong direction. For 'Doctor Who' doesn’t start to map those changin' times until much later. Throughout their tenure, Ian and Barbara lock the format to an honorary family unit and an RP worldview. And Morphoton most resembles the Lady of the Green Kirtle from CS Lewis’ 1953 Narnia novel 'The Silver Chair'. 

Barbara takes over Puddleglum’s role of choosing dour reality over enchanting illusions. (As he puts it “suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all of those things… Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones.") Its parable of the falsity of all earthly things chimes well with the asceticism of the first episode.

Asceticism might seem a strange fit for science fiction, which tends to utopian fantasies of productivist abundance. If we were inclined to Marxist terminology (which we are) we might say it conceives of an imagined future where capitalism has overcome its contradictions. And even in 'Who' we already had, in 'The Daleks', the key signifier of this – the replicator. (In the future we won't even need production, stuff will just appear.) So we might well ask what asceticism is doing here.

In fact it was a common tendency among the post-war generation to regard hedonism as vulgar and deprivation as somehow virtuous. (The Wicked Witch in the afore-mentioned Lewis books lures children with Turkish Delight. While Miss Beeton's 'Book of Household Management' advised its readers “frugality and economy are virtues.”) The Roman-style feast which kicks off ‘Velvet Web’ definitely feels like the work of someone who grew up during rationing - the pornography of abundance, fantasy laced with phobia.

Let's remember, the Tardis may house a replicator but its not the indestructible home base of later. It's virtually home-made. (It is home-made in the spin-off matinee movies.) Parts (at least ostensibly) need replacing in 'The Daleks', or even break dangerously in 'Edge of Destruction'. This is a finite universe with definite physical limits, which demands of its inhabitants lives of sensible moderation and personal responsibility.

In this way, even though it's a below-par story, 'Marinus' does to some degree epitomise the paradox of early Hartnell. Its universe is a place of wonder, its alien planets exotically foreign and fantastical. They don't concern themselves with explicability, let alone scientific credibility. At yet at the same time its universe is like the back garden to the semi of post-war Britain, not just parochial, not just limited but in many ways self-limiting. Its images are innately strange, but at the same time its symbols are entirely explicable. Villains are petty, heroism largely based around sacrifice and most likely to go unrewarded.

(Whether things stayed like that even to the end of the Hartnell era... well stay tuned.)

Yet for all that there's something that sticks with Graham’s slant. It’s notable how in later stories Nation would emphasise the Daleks’ insistence on enslaving everyone. Of course the Daleks are little else than brains in jars, just stuck on castors. Is there something almost classically Workerist about this opposition of bad mental to good manual labour?

But ultimately, “tempting” is too much the right word. The 'brain-in-jar' image is a frequent SF trope and it usually stands for a frequent SF concern - the liberal capitalist phobia of too rigid a division emerging between mental and manual labour, the violation of the body politic, the natural harmoniousness of society rent asunder and the various parts falling into war with each other. (Think of the 1927 SF classic 'Metropolis' and its tagline “there can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator”. The trope goes back at least as far as Wells' 1895 novel 'The Time Machine'.)

Another Press On the Travel Dials

Perhaps the theme even ends here, for (despite my earlier claims) it soon starts to peter out from hereon in. It is then replaced by what is sometimes referred to as ‘nothing very much at all.’ Those only interested in posts about interesting subjects (or for that matter interesting posts) may want to stop reading now....

...okay, that’s just me and you then.

When it veers away from the opening schema, you’re reminded just how arbitrary and stitched-together all this is. But at the same time, when it sticks with that schema (such as in the third episode) it just comes over as second helpings. Overall, the former dominates. The ‘travel dials’ (teleporters) they wear come to define events - pressing them, they disappear from one place and reappear in another without much in the way of connection.

Take for example the fourth episode, ‘The Snows of Terror’, which introduces a decently malevolent villain in the trapper Vasor. But while everything up to now has been set in a world of allegory, the menace now rests upon quite real and tangible fears – the cold, the wolves, Vasor's ignoble lust over Barbara… all things which could have appeared in a historical episode. (Which then switches again when we reach the Ice Knights. The only advantage to which is reaching rock bottom, so things from them on have to get better.

Worst of all, things don’t even get back into gear when we return to the Conscience Machine. Vartek has killed Arbitan, who he then impersonates to get the key from Ian. (Needless to say, it isn’t explained why he didn’t just overpower Ian as he already did with the others.) Ian slips him a dud key which causes the Machine to blow him and itself up, while the crew escape.

Though this has left me afeared I might one day inadvertently put the wrong key in my front door and explode my flat, it does have a symbolic value. The Conscience Machine won’t work for Yartek, it’s not a user-neutral mechanism like a gun but a Grail, a cosmological object - inherently a force for good. Similarly Yartek is undone by his own lies. (He bullies Altos into admitting his hots for Sabetha then drops the info to give his disguise some credibility – but inadvertently gets the details wrong.)

But alas, even this vies with something else! As soon as we hear the term ‘Conscience Machine’ we’re waiting for someone (Doctor or Ian) to insist it should be turned off, that we must have free will whatever the consequences and all the rest of it. (The Doctor and doctrine don’t get on, after all.) You also can’t help but associate the Conscience Machine with the Mesmeron of Morphoton, even if it is more limited in application. As it is the Machine gets destroyed anyway and the Doctor merely says in passing “maybe that’s for the best” as he leaves. It’s a bit like a World War Two film ending with someone saying “you know, I never did like those Nazis much. I’m actually quitely pleased they decided to poison themselves in that bunker of theirs.”

But worst of all this fails the most basic tenet of ’Pilgrim’s Progress’ stories - the pilgrim has to… um… progress! The outer journey is just an allegory for the inner one, as the act of pilgrimage brings the traveller to enlightenment. Without this element a pilgrimage is just a meander. It’s cool that Barbara gets to save the day twice here (and even poor Susan once), while complaining that Ian treats her like “Dresden china”. But no-one from the crew, and certainly neither of the tedious extras who accompany them, changes in any way as a result of their endeavors. In this way the disappearing Tardis in the final scene isn’t a stairway to heaven but merely the biggest travel dial of all.

When fans defend this story it’s usually on the grounds that it shows us different aspects of life on one planet. Let’s not tar all fans with the brush of their most myopic members. But this does display fan’s tendency to find connections worthy of any conspiracy theorist. You could, if you wanted, sew enough patches to link ’Keys of Marinus’ into one garment, inventing a back-story for Vasor being exiled and the like. These long Winter evenings have to be got through somehow. But you'd be joining the patches, not the cloth. The parts don’t click together in one picture like a jigsaw. We’re looking at a bunch of stock sets thrown up in a hurry, that’s all.

All in all, this is ultimately a story which loses it’s key. The first two episodes (on a generous day, three) create some intriguing themes and strong images, which then get progressively forgotten the more things go on. The opening becomes like one of those splash panels in mystery comics, which enticed you in but only to come up with the most perfunctory story.

So, beyond provocations and wind-ups, should ’Marinus’ really be wiped? It would be a challenge to list the ways in which it’s no good at all. But it also brings up the question of what we want from ’Who’.

There’s the fans for who it’s an article of faith to suspend critical judgement of the show. Unsurprisingly, it’s often the same people who entertain their own fannish recollections. The temptation becomes to reject the second with the first. But that’s mistaken. True, such stuff can be nostalgist and self-indulgent. But arguably those are just the rocks you need to navigate past if you want to truly access those recollections, to get back to being that child sitting before a TV set. Michael Grasso’s, for example, hit on something important:

“As a kid, I never had an immediate fight-or-flight response to the chills of Doctor Who; instead, these stories had a much more cumulative effect, their uniquely weird atmosphere building up in the visual centers of my brain, resulting in imagery that lingered half-remembered for months and years afterward. These scares reside in my mind in a series of near-surrealist images, seemingly utterly disconnected from plot.”

And me too. The essence of ‘Who’ lies neither in its plots, whose failings and lapses are rivalled only by British public transport, nor its sub-'Scooby Doo’ scares. It was more a kind of weird fiction, which brought other-worldly sights into our family living room. Rather than reduce to incidents within a plotline, their very appeal lay in their unparseability.

It may be true that, as a kid, I was more prone to react in this moment-to-moment fashion, watching a TV show like flipping through an art book. And even when older, there were so many episodes I knew only from stills that I retained this perception of a slideshow of strangeness.

But, now initiated, I still respond to the show in this way. Seen in terms of its silly non-plot ‘Keys of Marinus’ is a shoddy drama, hurriedly made and as soon to be discarded. But memory remembers the memorable, and wipes the rest. So the required task is already in progress. Long after I’ve forgotten all the chaff I will remember images, such as a lone monk silently defending a holy place against a deluge of devils.

Coming Soon! Something a bit more interesting. (Honest.)

Saturday, 9 November 2019


Barbican, London, Wednesday 30th Oct

Glass’s Ensemble were in town to perform the classic Minimalist work ’Music With Changing Parts’, from 1970. (You can tell it’s an early work from the flatly descriptive title. I’m expecting to hit upon ’Music For Musicians’ any day now.) In an appealing anecdote it was through attending an early British performance of this that Bowie and Eno discovered Glass.

Glass himself, now in his Eighties, proved too ill to participate. Which was a disappointment, but not a deal-breaker. For one thing, I’d seen him perform the epic ’Music In Twelve Parts’ in the Brighton Festival nine years ago. For another, it was hearing his own Ensemble which was the key thing. Minimalist music is often taken up by musicians the way Brechtian drama is by actors, which is to say badly. It works against all their basic assumptions, such as their desire to stamp their own personality on the work. The Philip Glass Ensemble is more likely to get Glass right.

In the programme Glass admitted the Ensemble hadn’t played the piece since ’81, and he regarded it as a “transitional work” supplanted by later works pieces as ’Music In Twelve Parts’, until newer groups picked up on it and caused him to reassess. He added “I found that by enlarging on the original score with a brass and a vocal ensemble, I was able to bring the music to a fuller and more definite expression…. A more satisfying completing of the original idea.”

A sentence which did give me pause. (Perhaps still smarting from the debacle that was ‘Lodger’.) In their early days, both Glass and Reich worked with small groups. The original recording of this had eight musicians, the first performance possibly less. This was out of economic necessity, but was virtuous. It generated a discipline, you couldn’t go ornate with it if you wanted to.

A larger Ensemble (seventeen players, not counting the chorus) presents opportunity to tinker with the original, to throw in bells and whistles. Doing things because you can. It even necessitated two conductors, one a demonstrating keyboard player who stood facing the others and the other a more traditional gesticulating type for the brass and choir.

As things turned out, the lengthy opening confined itself entirely to the keyboards. They struck up a rhythmic pulse, to which the smallest and most subtle modulations soon became enthralling. Only gradually and incrementally did the brass and chorus work their way in, and mostly they served to amplify rather than add. It was more like blowing a sketch up to wall size, and less like dumping extra detail lines upon it.

Not being there in ’81 I didn’t know the original piece. But it seemed to me Glass went on to do something smarter still. At first rarely used together, the brass and chorus became more and more powerful as the piece went on. By the end it had built up to a mighty crescendo, hardly what you expect from a Minimalist work but made into a welcome surprise. It became like a ship powered by steam and by sail simultaneously, the rhythmic pulses still driving below decks as the chorus became the bright and open wind.

The original un-expanded version, albeit not by the Ensemble themselves…

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Sun 3rd Nov

This marked the return of the festival “dedicated to mediative listening and deep concentration”. As before, this non-Metropolitan type could only make one of the days. Which had relocated from St. Johns in Smith Square to the South Bank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Not of an elitist disposition, I love the way Reich and Glass have moved from the fringes to win popular appeal. But it was also good to know that as well as blossoming branches this music has tough, sinewy roots, and see those roots are getting watered. So as the record shows I was a big fan of Deep Minimalism 1.0, commenting how it felt “like a living, breathing scene. There was a laid-back, by-fans-for-fans atmosphere to the day which made it involving, made it more than the mere sum of its parts…. it simply felt like someone had said ‘back to mine to listen to cool music’ to a few hundred people.”

Laura Cannell played “medieval violin” and “double pipes”, which turned out to mean blowing two recorders at once. She used the raw, open-tuned sound of traditional instruments to collapse the distinction between folk and minimalist music. For this isn’t some strange artsy-fartsy style at all, in fact in many ways Minimalism is music coming home. However, while all the pieces she played were effective they were perhaps a little samey. She seemed to need to alternate between violin and pipes to find variety.

Morton Feldman’s solo piano work ’Triadic Memories’ proved the centrepiece around which the rest of the day had to arrange itself. The blurb promised “the flow of piano tones becomes an unspoken mantra to infinity.” Deep Minimalism has notably made the infinity symbol into a motif, an alternative to the otherwise ubiquitous time signature, a sign we’re passing beyond standard notions of musical time. And never more appropriately than here. At an hour and a half of very slow piano music, sometimes going down to single finger playing, it could feel like we were being taken to infinity and beyond.

By comparison, my previous live experience of Feldman was a jaunt. But if challenges exist to such a work they’re there for a reason. As the man himself said of his penchant for duration: “Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it's scale. Form is easy: just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter.” If something is too vast to take in all at once, you give up trying and instead listen from moment to moment.

True, the word ‘Memories’ is there in the title. Yet this, I’m guessing, refers to the way elements recur, but without any overall structure in which to place them. So they transpire as a hazy half-recollection, something akin to a folk memory. It’s “somehow I know this” rather than “this recalls a motif from the second movement, now transferred to the strings”. And despite its sombre mood the piece is in its own way melodic, in the way a Puritan church might not contain a lot to look at but still has its own sense of simple harmoniousness. There is something hymnal about Feldman.

So the challenges dissolve once you get to hear the pieces from the inside. Though admittedly that’s easier said than done. As the piece went on (you couldn’t say progressed) I kept going back and forth between the two senses of interminable. One where I was in an eternal present and time something that just happened to other people. And the other, more… um, familiar use of the term. The piece notably had an attrition rate among the audience.

The second half seemed almost the opposite to the first. While every earlier piece had been by a soloist, suddenly sixteen celloists were on-stage and playing along to Malibu’s electronics. And how do you spoil the sound of sixteen cellos? As it turns out, by smothering them in crashing wave sounds, la-la vocals and general New Age mush. It’s the musical equivalent of platitudes, of being told “there, there, never mind” on an an endless loop.

I had resolved to only mention the memorable works, but truth to tell Malibu had such a high processed sugar content that it became memorable - just for the wrong reasons.

John Luther Adams then used the same sixteen cellos, for ’Canticles of the Sky’,, though to distinctly better effect. I might have preferred the other Adams piece I’ve seen live, ‘Become Ocean’, but only on points - this was still an effective and affecting work.

There is perhaps a link between Adams and Feldman, even though they don’t sound remotely alike. The most common weakness of Romanticism was to anthropomorphise its interest in nature, and in so doing diminish it. A mountain range become merely a looking glass for the artist. Adams and Feldman are more able to channel nature’s mighty strangeness, in both senses of the term.

Last time I was quite successfully seduced. This time, at least judging by the day I saw, Deep Minimalism just didn’t seem to be getting as deep. Just as the other venue had a more informal feel, this was closer to a standard business-as-usual concert.

Moreover, there seemed a polarisation at work, as if Feldman and Malibu were battling for the event’s identity. With the majority seeming to favour Malibu. John Lewis’ Guardian review found her “groundbreaking but physically compelling” whereas Feldman was dismissed as “rambling and interminable”. Perhaps we now need our alternative to the alternative, Still Deeper Minimalism 1.0. We could even form rival gangs and get into very slow knife fights.

Rather than a YouTube clip, which doesn’t sound exactly conducive to deep concentration, let’s link to the playlist the curators provided…

St. Bartholomews Church,Brighton, Mon 4th Nov

There’s music which is too complex to get your head round, but that’s just befuddled aggravation. Then there’s much that’s too simple to get your head round, a far more potent force. Which is what Moon Duo trade in. It’s the sensory derangement of psychedelia combined with the hypnotic force and ecstatic states of dance music, which soon convinces you that you must have drunk the Kool-Aid. And though there’s the intensity of garage rock at the heart of the storm there’s a kind of serenity.

The keyboards are the engine here, like a Terminator whose mission is to lead the dance, often with pulses so pared down they’re a short step away from drones. And it’s the guitar which fills the normal keyboard rolls, providing fills and flourishes like a kind of punctuation, or solos which glide over the top of the sound.

Last time I caught them, some four years ago, I commented:“Moon Duo sound like… well, moonlight, silver-cold and slightly spectral. Hairy West Coast hippies they may be, but the ideal gig for them wouldn’t be on some sun-baked beach, but in a forest clearing with the glowing white orb at its fullest.”

In the intervening four years their sound has filled out somewhat, even developed from black-and-white into splashes of bright colour. It might not sound a good idea on paper, when audacious sparseness was always part of their trance-out appeal. But they make it work.

And the fullness is emphasised by the new light show. The band are surrounded by screens on which projections appear. The visuals aren’t the standard shifting lava lamp forms of psychedelia but geometric patterns. Which meshes perfectly with the sound. But perhaps the best thing is the way the display includes silhouettes of the three players, so the visuals never come to override the music. (It helps that each has such a distinct silhouette. Keyboardist Sanae Yamada should definitely not grow herself a beard.)

And it all works quite splendidly in the salubrious expanse of St. Bartholomews Church. (The highest-roofed Church in Britain, I would have you know.) Combine all of this and everything is lifted beyond a regular gig, into special event territory. People who weren’t here will later be claiming they were.

Alas all this doesn’t make it onto record. A sticker on the latest CD, ‘Stars Are The Light’, promises “their most melodic and hooks-driven album yet” Suggesting the idea is for a cross-over album, which lets newbies in gently. Everything sounds back where it should be, the vocals up top on the mix and the keyboards relegated to accompanying them. Many album tracks sound like the regular standards which the live versions stretch and distort beyond recognition. It’s like it was recorded in captivity, whereas live is where they can go wild. True it does break free more the more it goes on, though it never really reaches their live sound.

From London, light show a-go-go…

Saturday, 2 November 2019


First with the Dark Knight series and now this, there’s something about Bat-family films which not just polarises audience responses but across political lines. (See my comments about’Dark Knight Rises’.) Except if anything, with political events being raised to a still shriller note in the intervening years, the debate has become even more acute.

The accusation it’s some kind of Incel manifesto is frankly bizarre, as that’s quite explicitly knocked down by the film. When Fleck finally acts on his crush over his neighbour, knocking on her door than immediately taking her in his arms, we groan at the cliché but we don’t question. After all, such scenes are so common in mainstream films we’re inured to them. So we’re wrongfooted when we later discover this unlikely tale was just a fiction he told himself.

And when she finds him in her apartment, confused between fact and fantasy, she finds him fearful but also pathetic. She asks if he needs her to call his Mother, as if he’s a child. Which is pretty much the way the film asks us to find him. He’s not a hero, some breaking-the-rules anti-hero or even an anti-villain but the Woobie.

So is Michah Uetricht right to claim that instead it’s a “warning against austerity”? There’s arguments for this. The path out of poverty doesn’t seem to be solidarity with those around you, but the carrot of celebrityhood. And this is clearly shown to be nothing but wish fulfilment. Fleck’s plans to be a comedian are doomed to fail, his mother asking him outright if that wouldn’t involve being funny, and his belief he’s Wayne’s son (a fairy-tale story of a lost prince) gets scuppered.

Yet there’s an obvious rejoinder. If you were attempting a timely critique of austerity you’d hardly set it in early Eighties New York. (Ostensibly it’s Gotham but every frame says New York and the three yuppies work in Wall Street.) It doesn’t just swipe from movies from that era it does so self-referentially, such as reprising the ‘shoots self’ mime from ‘Taxi Driver’. Yet when made ‘Taxi Driver’ was contemporary set, Times Square really looked like that. Here even the Warners logo is retro.

And we’re so used to seeing this on screen that it’s become Past As Foreign Country. Seventies/Eighties New York may even have become our default example of the Big Bad City – corrupt and crumbling yet compelling. Similarly the general prejudices exhibited, such as the mental illness stigma, can too easily be filed under Bad Old Days.

So it’s neither option? Yes, and deliberately so. The neighbour scene is one of many where something gets wrongfooted, so many the device must surely be intentional. We’re cued to expect some Jekyll-into-Hyde moment of transformation, but it doesn’t really come. Joker dances carefree on the same steps Fleck used to slog up, a striking image which made it onto both the trailer and the poster. But at what seems his greasepaint apotheosis the two investigating cops suddenly appear. For no good narrative reason. But they do get to chase him, taking you back to Fleck clumping after the kids in the opening scene.

Even in his TV studio appearance, there’s still signs of Fleck. (His audience engaging skills include thumbing through his notebook, then saying “here’s one”.) Arguably in the very final scene in Arkham the Joker persona is fully loaded. But that in itself suggests that Joker can’t appear in a film like this, that we’ve hit the point where we need to cut. Which is shrewd. Despite what some seem to think super-villains and real world settings don’t mix.

We have a central character who finds things inappropriately funny, exacerbated further by a condition which induces nervous laughter in him at inopportune times. And the film then projects all this onto us. Rather than press an agenda, it’s more interested in inviting responses then forcing us to question them.

Take the use of the dwarf character. When others make easy digs about his height, we figure they’re being outed as jerks. But when Fleck decides to spare him from a killing spree, he finds he can’t reach the latch on the door to escape. At which point the film manufactures a joke against him, and we’re forced to reassess our earlier responses. In a film where people are keen to find some kind of manifesto, it seems more interested in getting us to reassess ourselves.

But for all that Tony Keen is right to call it right wing. We’re being told “that grassroots anti-capitalist movements are far worse than capitalist rotten apples.” it’s just that this is the more common route of Hollywood films, less manifesto and more unconscious bias. Look at the way Fleck’s lack of a father figure leads to an imbalanced, unhealthy mother fixation and a consequent inability to socialise or respect authority. To ensure we don’t miss this point he’s given two potential surrogate Dads, Wayne Senior and Murray the chat show host. Penguin in ‘Gotham’ was similar, if played more as a gag.

And the view of the crowd is typical for Hollywood, scarcely different to the Nolan films. Pleasingly, Joker is their totem not leader. Even when freed, he parades for rather than directs them. Which dispels a major problem with Bane in ’Dark Knight Rises’. And the way they deliberately play into Wayne’s dismissal of them as “clowns” is appealing, and something I’ve seen done on actual demos. (For example banners reading ‘Rent-a-mob on Tour’.)

But we’re still talking the traditional cod-Freudian fear of “the mob”, where the mask of anonymity removes all sense of social obligation and makes men animals. (And they do seem to be all men.) They, as Frick describes it, “werewolf and go wild”. Separate workers from instruction and all they can do is destroy. Protest is at best a symptom of the failings of the system rather than a step towards a solution, and at worst the fire arriving after the frying pan gets upturned. And this of course allows us our cake-and –eat-it response, where we can exult in the fiery drama of a riot while getting to piously condemn it.

For a Batman film, it would be surprisingly easy to write out all the references to him. Arguably, you could do it just by removing the iconic parent shooting scene, Bruce becoming Batman is really just a byproduct of events here. We’ve seen before how emblematic heroes, who make themselves into a symbol of the struggle for justice, precede super-powers, the Scarlet Pimpernel before Superman.

And in recent years how that has been reversed out, the super powers kept but the symbol of goodness gone. Superheroes engage more and more in personal quests, which easily elide into grudge matches. To the point that, when a film such as ‘Wonder Woman’ didn’t do that, it seemed unusual. ’Joker’, even more than ’Gotham’, is the logical terminus of this. This is neoliberalism’s version of “cometh the hour, cometh the man”.

Of course writing Batman out entirely wouldn’t have happened, it would never have been green-lit by Accounts. And director Todd Phillips has been completely open about that being the deal. But if we were to indulge the Fleck-like fantasy this film would be improved.

Fleck and his workmates are, by and large, carnie folk. ‘Freaks’ forced to sell their own freakishness in order to survive. And if there’s something folk horror about that, it should be played up. Imagine if our story starts in legend even then. There’s been some intra-universe folk bogeyman, a variant of the Demon Clown trope. Whose reception has over time travelled from credulous belief into entertaining comic strips and other popular media, much in the way of Spring-heeled Jack.

In the comics he has been given some heroic antagonist who keeps him in check. Yet after the Subway murders people start to wonder if the legends are true after all, and their world now has Joker without Batman. Reading and internalising sensationalised newspaper reports, the fantasist Fleck starts to imagine he has been the Evil Clown all along - so may as well start acting like it. Which would make the ending less a foregone conclusion and more creatively ambiguous.

Saturday, 26 October 2019


Attenborough Centre For Creative Arts, Falmer, Brighton, Tues 15th Oct

Canadian artist Tim Hecker started out as a techno producer before, more happily for us, dumping those repeat beats to embrace electronica and sound art.

Sounds aren’t played off against one another, like the lines of musicians making up a band, but more stirred in together. It’s almost impossible to trace the set back to its constituent sounds, let alone figure how they were generated. And besides it doesn’t seem the point.

From yonder internet, it seems Hecker likes to work from traditional instruments, however much he then treats and manipulates the sounds. His most recent album, ’Anoyo’, was based on traditional a Japanese orchestra, who he’s sometimes played with live. Tonight, despite that featuring in the publicity, he’s playing solo and there seems little of that. A reliable source of gossip also states that he has a penchant for organ sounds, which seems more similar to this set.

It sounds churchy, if you could imagine that term somehow divorced from any sense of ostentation or doctrine. The music doesn’t develop or or advance so much as amass. It seems in a continual state of ascending, sometimes literally as it builds and swells until it becomes a liturgical version of a launch sequence. But that feeling seems ever-present.

It’s hard to describe without making it sound awfully New Agey. The distinction is that this music can sound simultaneously serene and ecstatic. While New Age pap might be calming but it’s just calming, the sonic equivalent of a pack of frozen peas held to a throbbing head.

Another appealing element was the way he played in almost total darkness, many audience members absorbing it sprawled on the floor rather that fixing their eyes on the stage. I’m not opposed to accompanying visuals, providing they’re neither there just to fill what’s perceived as a gap, nor give too literal an interpretation - which boxes in your responses. But the dark seems to create a deliberate space, born of the willingness to trust your audience to get there by themselves without pointers.

Hecker himself has said “It’s always been my way to not connect the dots for people, because I feel I don’t like prescriptive art; I don’t like fully triangulated meaning systems; I don’t like, you know, pure calligraph of intent. I like things that make you confused and bewildered or could splay off into 15 different meanings depending on who the person is and what their background is.”

My only possible criticism would be that the set was perhaps a little over-long. The mood it induces may be sublime, but it is at the end of the day still one mood.

This clip, from Arizona, features those traditional Japanese players so isn’t much like the gig I saw. Still worth a listen…

The Cowley Club, Brighton, Sat 20th Oct

When the band dedicate a song to “anyone who ever lived in a squat”, two things become obvious. First, that the song’s going to be ’Dirty Squatters’. Second, they’ve effectively dedicated it to the whole audience.

Zounds were formed in punk’s year zero, 1977, with Steve Lake as vocalist, chief songwriter and only constant member. They were so connected to the Anarcho-punk scene their first EP came out on Crass records. And of course here they are playing in Brighton’s premiere Anarchist Theme Pub.

But in many way’s that’s misleading. Most Anarcho music is unlistenable now, and frankly was pretty unlistenable then. You can only hear so many Mockney rants about overthrowing the system when half of the audience didn’t even look toilet trained.

Blyth Power’s Joseph Porter, who played in the band during their founding days, later said the shrewdest thing ever uttered of Steve Lake’s songs: “Zounds’ ultimate failure to win over the anarchist punks was partially as a result of Steve’s lyrics, which refused to pander to cliché, and consisted of strange narrative tales of normal people being confounded by their environment. You can’t sell normal people to anarcho-punks. They assume they’re all nazis.”

On that first EP, they were rather production-lined into Anarcho style. But rather than Crass’s mini-me, Zounds soon became effectively punk’s version of the Smiths. Lake himself later commented: “We were complete outsiders. I don't mean in the sense of some Hollywood Rock 'n' Roll leather jacket version of outsider. More in the sense that we had become social cripples, barely able to function and interact with anyone outside of our particular bohemian cesspit.”

They were outsiders who made music about outsiders, for themselves and for other outsiders. They were even outsiders in the Anarcho scene which they inhabited. So ’Dirty Squatters’ was written from the perspective of a bewildered neighbour, peering at them through his net curtains. While the band’s anti-anthem remains ’Did He Jump’, with its chorus “All the world cannot be wrong/ It must be me, I don’t belong.”

Notably, no-one in the band is remotely adhering to any hackneyed kind of punk look. And, in his inter-song chat, Lake is more sardonic than righteous. The one time he starts to go into a state-of-the-nation rant he breaks off, deciding he’d rather eat a crisp.

Also their music (yeah, let’s get to that) was more openly Sixties influenced and… well, musical than those of their peers who thought guitar tuning was somehow counter-revolutionary. For their second ever gig, they supported Daevid Allen. Which meant their music, often incendiary but more agitated than angry, expressed their themes as effectively as their words. Live, the songs do tend to blur together in sound and lose some of their individual character. But you can’t have everything.

’Demystification, from Athens…

Concorde 2, Brighton, Fri 25th Oct

Faulkner famously said that the only thing worth writing about was the human heart in conflict with itself. Tricky later added to the mix one human heart in conflict with another, then effectively blurred the distinction between the two. In his two-decade career, much of his output has consisted of trade-off vocals between himself and a female singer, where you’re never really sure whether they’re on the same side or not.

Somewhat oddly, though very much like his last Brighton appearance, he effectively plays the role of the foil at his own gig. It’s the female singer who effectively dominates. (In the characteristic low lighting, I couldn’t tell you whether it’s the same person as last time.) Unlike the last album, ’Ununiform’, from which the set seems to mostly draw. Typically tracks would start with her singing over melodic if quite tense beats, then segue into him ranting madness mantras. The music under which was so stripped down it was like boiling stew down into sludge.

At one point the band followed him off, leaving a bare stage for a full five minutes. And after their return he appeared not for the next two numbers. (So much weight falling on the co-singer did remind me of those temp jobs where you’d just do the work no-one else wanted to.) And when onstage he was a literally erratic performer, gesticulating so wildly a roadie would patiently reassemble the stage after each number.

It felt something like the latter-day Fall gigs, where you were never really sure whether things were going to plan or not. Giving things an edge which could spark off against the edginess of the music. But at other times just feeling… well, sort of off.

And it’s hard to decide how to feel about that. Music has become too professionalised, too much a branch of showbiz, when it should teeter between genius and chaos. Naturally, you want more of the first one. But sometimes you’re stuck with taking the odd with the smooth.

(This was a two-gig tour, the second not happening till tonight, so none of the normally obligatory YouTube footage.)

Saturday, 19 October 2019


First broadcast: Feb/Apr 1964
Written by John Lucarotti
Plot spoilers: Medium To High

“I have taken charge of the travellers' unusual caravan, and set out into the Gobi Desert. The journey across this vast ocean of sand is slow and hazardous.”
- Marco Polo

Travel On A Budget

‘Tribe of Gum’ being so dire, arguably this is the first proper 'Who' historical. And historicals and hindsight, when they come in combination irony may well have to become involved. So let’s go with it. For a long while, hindsight held sway and the historicals were dissed by fans. After all, they were themselves consigned to the show’s history, a failing branch of evolution. It was only because of the fusty BBC’s ‘educational’ remit they lasted as long as they did.

More recently, hindsight’s glare has dimmed and people have looked more at their time. Contemporary viewing figures remained consistent between historical and SF stories. There’s even evidence that ‘Marco Polo’ was planned as a prestige story, which could do much to sell the show. Just as ‘The Daleks’ was shunted up the production order as other plans fell through, this was shunted down. (It was planned to go out before ‘Edge of Destruction’.) Colour stills were released of the cast looking resplendent in exotic finery and it was this, not ‘The Daleks’, which was granted the first ‘Radio Times’ cover (below). 

Overall, it gained higher viewing figures than ‘The Daleks’. (Though as ‘The Daleks’ served to establish the series, its numbers grew rapidly from episode to episode, arguably a greater feat.) It was even the story first considered for the spin-off films.

There’s many a story where the travellers actually do very little travelling at all, beyond the Tardis landing them at the start and picking them up again at the end. (‘Tribe of Gum’ would be an example.) Nobody even notices the Tardis’ presence, as if the chameleon circuit was working on the locals the same time it wasn’t on the viewers. The standard set-up is to then hang around a handful of stock locations till they start to look worn out.

Whereas, built around a caravan, ‘Marco Polo’ foregrounds travel. It was as near as the first season went to epic, with dialogue like “did you see those beautiful pavilions?”, “Some of them are made of solid gold.” It both spans a long time period and roves over a wide geographical area. A line extending across a map became a storytelling motif, just like an actual epic film. (To the point where it’s bizarre to think the show would soon be characterised by base-under-seige stories.)

Which may well be determined by the title. The story of Marco Polo is all about experiencing Eastern exoticism through a fellow Westerner’s eyes. Marco without gold pavilions would be like a pirate story without black ships or buried treasure.

Inevitably enough, then, fans of the historical seize on all this and pronounce the story a lost classic. There’s an added balefulness to this claim, as this is the first ‘Who’ storyline to be wiped. We can only read the script and watch the tantalising glimpses of the telesnaps, fragments of what’s now itself a lost past. “If ever discovered at any point [it] may very well be the best-looking Doctor Who story of the 60's,” insists ametaphysicalshark.

Which is completely wrongheaded. Not because it’s bad, but precisely because of what make it good. Were the missing episodes ever to show up they’d reveal that 60s BBC epic differed from the standard definition, that Cathy was three foot square and held together by sticky back plastic, the bamboo forest resembles a regional garden centre and the cave of five hundred eyes was actually more ocularly challenged than Horatio Nelson.

Being left free to imagine all those gold pavilions, unencumbered by the limitations of what they were actually able to knock together, is the way to do it. (When episodes are missing, fans are wont to stage reconstructions. I believe versions of this story already exist. But I shan’t bother watching any of them unless they’re done’Dogville’ style, with Cathay and other locations written on the floor of a sound stage and everything else evoked in dialogue.)

Channel Hopping

’Who’ has a many-hands history and portmanteau structure which led it to be – to use the technical phrase – all over the bloody place. You can find ‘arcs’ if you’ve a mind to, but only in wide frame, never in close-up. In the previous story, ‘The Edge of Destruction’, the Tardis had been established as a sentient object. Which is pretty much the way the future show would take it. Yet here it’s immediately reduced again to a mere mechanism, with creaking gears and brass buttons. And what clearer way to establish that than to break the mechanism? Essentially the battery goes flat, though they try to dress it up a bit more than that.

On the other hand, we’ve become too used to the Tardis being a microcosm of the story’s transforming logic, permitting the fantastical. (At its worst making the ship a repository of magic pixie dust.) Here the reverse happens, that magic rescuing portal is snatched away and leaves in its stead a clunking metal box to be carried about.

Which signifies the way this is quite a grounded story, jumping between epic scale and minutiae. Where these days the show is stuffed with magic wands and deus est machina devices, crucial plot elements here become how much water they have left or where a key might be. It frequently stops for digressions, to explain how fire burns less at higher altitudes or how Kubla Khan’s messenger system worked. It’s the nearest historical to ‘educational’ by some margin. At times, to a fault. (Ironically, that fleet-footed messenger holds things up somewhat.) But overall, a refreshing change.

And yet there remains a strange kind of double vision to it all. There’s the Shakespearian conceit of dividing your scenes between nobles and commoners. Except the commoners typically respond to the nobles, comment on what they’ve just said or attempt to carry out their orders. Whereas with this it’s more like two parallel tales are being broadcast at once, a heightened historical drama made for BBC2 and a cliffhanger-providing melodrama for BBC1 - superimposed over each other. (And in fact BBC2 wasn’t launched until about three weeks after this story was concluded.)

One has proper actors proclaim clearly scripted lines from inside period clothes. It would be sheer hyperbole to call such a thing ‘Shakespearian’. (Though that doesn’t always seem to stop people.) But there’s a seriousness of purpose to it, an assumption it’s not enough to serve up a mere adventure story, that does make it some junior, early-evening sibling to such Sixties history films as ‘Beckett’ (1964) and ‘The Lion in Winter’ (1968). While the other has scheming moustachioed bandits who laugh cruelly, one complete with eye patch and monkey on shoulder.

Let’s tune into BBC2 first. First, we should note the oddity of naming a story after a character, when they’re almost always after monsters or places monsters are likely to hang out in. In 1955, while still in Canada, Lucarotti had written a radio series about Marco, presumably without time travelling schoolteachers. And much of that Marco seems to survive.

He’s often presented as a kind of romantic hero, placing the less fortunate under his protection. When Barbara fears to hear a howling sandstorm coming, he replies: “Sometimes, it sounds like musical instruments being played. The clashing of drums and cymbals. I've heard it sound like a great many people talking as they trekked across the desert. It can also be like a familiar voice calling your name.”

Unusually enough, there’s a narration. Still more unusually, rather than one of the regular characters this is given to Marco himself. And this inner voice is used to give him a measure of psychological depth, the scenes swappingbetween plot summaries and soliloquies. “Have I made the right decision?” he asks at one point, having sounded certain of it earlier on.

‘Tribe Of Gum’ also had the locals wanting something from the travellers, fire. But that worked around an essential interchangeability between Ug and Zug (I think that was their names), both willing to capture the travellers for their own ends. Here Marco is distinguished by being unlike the Mongol Tegana. Tegana first takes the travellers for “evil spirits”, best bumped off. Marco rebuffs him, (“Why? Because their clothes are different to ours? Because their tongues are unfamiliar to our ears? No… I think the sun’s rays will dispel the shadows from your mind, Tegana.”), and takes them under his protection. Later, Tegana cannot comprehend why Marco keeps his journal, as if he lacks such interiority.

This quasi-Enlightenment reference to the sun feeds into a general theme of rational thought vying with superstition. (The eyes in the supposed haunted cave turning out not to be animate ghosts but sparkling quartz, and so on.) Which also maps onto the distinction between Marco’s dutiful nobility and Tegana’s treacherous schemes.

But there’s another character to be compared and contrasted against Marco, which is done in a more interesting way…

Back To Being a Box

Normally there’s a general problem the travels would be required to resolve before they could move on. Here, Polo has his own resolution to his own personal problem, and it’s not allowing them to leave. He wants the Tardis, to present to Kubla Khan as a gift so he might then be granted permission to go home.

So the hook of the story becomes both the tension in and the ambiguity of the time traveller’s relation to him. Obviously, they’re at odds. Not just over the Tardis. At times Marco seems to be ousting Ian from his protagonist role. He not only gets the inevitable final, decisive sword fight, it’s also him on that ’Radio Times’ cover.

But, both in a strange land, they have a natural affinity. And if he engages most with Ian then, like Ian, Marco has been travelling with a wise old wizard and has seen fantastical sights, but his heart yearns only to go home. His actions are reminiscent of the classic Jean Renoir quote “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” He and Ian respect one another even as they find themselves in opposition. (The orthodox complaint about this story is the emphasis on the crew’s desire to escape prevents them getting embroiled in events. But that’s only there to fuel this central tension between Marco and Ian.)

While Tegana sees witchcraft in the Tardis, for Marco it’s something similar to a helicopter - a mechanism beyond his ken, but which could in time be replaced. Taking it from its crew is injurious to them, but not terminally so. Eventually, they will be able to rebuild it. So the primary antagonism with him isn’t borne of conflict so much as misunderstanding. Finally, in desperation, Ian tries to convince him it’s a time ship. “No, Ian, that I cannot believe,” he replies, “If I did, I would give you the key.” (Though even if the Tardis isn’t working, it’s a little absurd they don’t show Marco its patented bigger-on-the-inside trick. Despite Tegana already pointing out it’s too small to hold the four of them.)

The later history stories are only joined to the science fiction stories at the edge. The science fiction element is used to port the crew into the setting, then it's job is done. The Tardis must then be stepped away from, whisked away or covered up by a handy rockfall or the like. The crew are only permitted to come back to it once the past is all wrapped up. And once in the past they are obliged to do as the natives do. If swords are in currency they must take up swords rather than use guns, and so on.

Whereas here there’s one science fiction concept but it’s central – even if it can’t function in itself , the Tardis drives the story. It is not a historical sharing scheduling time with an otherwise unrelated science fiction show because of Reithean broadcast standards. In its very marrow, it's a time travel story.

And ironically it's this rubbing up of the past against the present which serves to make the past more real – we're constantly reminded how unlike our world it is. Whereas later historicals degenerate into genre adventure stories, revisits to places we're familiar with from so many other films and TV shows. Given which it is perhaps significant that the time travel stories are where the journey into history goes furthest, through time ('Tribe of Gum') or through geography ('Marco Polo' or 'The Aztecs'). Beyond the crew, 'Marco Polo' features one European face. 'The Aztecs' has none.

Similarly to Ian and Marco, Susan and the Doctor are given equivalents. Susan’s is the young Ping-Cho, which gives her more to do than usual. (Even if she starts using Sixties yoof slang such as “fab”, when strangely she didn’t while living in the Sixties.) And the Doctor’s is the great Kubla Khan himself (below), as they bond over back pain and backgammon.

Fan lore has it we see a great transformation in him, described by David Callaham as “from the pre-Marco grouch to the post-Marco magician”. But if ’Edge’s journey back to the start of time was a reset button for their relationships, there’s little sign of it here. Just like the Tardis, the Doctor effectively goes back to who he was before all that. He’s the least sympathetic to Polo, openly calling him a “poor, pathetic, stupid savage”. Polo complains that the Doctor’s “both difficult and bad-tempered… I have had to endure his insults.” Unfortunately in a voice-over so Ian isn’t there to say “you should have seen him last week, mate.” He only really engages with Khan. And as Khan only shows up in the final two episodes, for the most part he’s as inactive as the Tardis. He spends a whole episode sulking. (Yes, really.)

Melo Without Drama

Meanwhile on BBC1 there’s just a melodrama on. And the truth of it is, it’s not even a very good melodrama. Lucarotti is much more successful at the high-falutin’ dramatics than what might seem the basics. Barbara, Susan and Ping-Cho obligingly take it in turns to get captured, which would we should probably take as par for the course. But cliffhangers are mostly resolved swiftly and perfunctorily, without lasting effect, as if things need to revert to stasis as soon as they can. Infamously, the solution to one is condensation. (I’ve never read the Target novelisation, but really hope it contains a chapter called ‘Saved By Condensation’.) Perhaps there should have been a cap-it-all cliffhanger where they escape heavy rain by coming in out of it

And like a bad magic trick, without flourishes to distract us our eyes inevitably fall on the cliches of melodrama. Tegana(above) is swarthy in his villainousness from his first black-of-beard appearance. His role is to not be what Marco is, which doesn’t make him much of a character in his own right. His only real development is to go from fearing the Tardis because it’s magic to wanting to possess it because it’s magic. None of which is helped by Polobeing a white European and the villain a swarthy foreigner. Henchmen demand payment in gold, “not Khan’s paper money.” Barbara first perceives the Mongols as animals. And so on.

And at (another) seven episode stretch, this soon becomes repetitive. New location – new plot for their doom – which inevitably fails but with Tegana surviving undiscovered to try again – and so on. He might as well end each episode crying “I'll get you next week, Barbara and Susan”. When Polo narrates “I fear the end is not far off”, you come to fear the very opposite.

While the blatancy of Tegana’s machinations grates. Marco is supposed to be a shrewd judge of character, for example guessing that Ping-Cho stole the Tardis key with Ian lying to cover for her. Yet he remains gormless over Tegana, who’s sussed by Susan in the second episode. A better ending would have been if the wily Khan had double-guessed him all along, despite being at such a distance. So when the finally clued-up Marco rushes to rescue only to find Khan standing casually over Tegana’s prone body. (“Yes, was there something?”)

Given all this, the initial temptation is to use the fast-forwarding powers granted us by modern technology to skip the BBC1 bits. Yet when you try to picture that, you realise it can’t be done. The BBC2 drama sections are like the consonants in a sentence, a series of formal encounters which impart information. But the BBC1 melodrama is like the vowels, of little meaning in themselves but necessary to link those consonants together. Without them those speechifying encounters would start to seem set-piece and stodgy. The bad here goes with the good. Like Marco and Tegana in the desert, they’re stuck with one another.

Fans’ talking-up of this story is perhaps understandable, but it leaves them blind to its faults. (One insists it would be “post-modern” to have criticisms.) Perhaps the historicals were an evolutionary branch that ultimately didn’t make it. So were the dinosaurs, and they were mighty and impressive. (Please just go for the poetry of that analogy.) This, however, is too much of a Triassic-era dinosaur, an awkward prototype of what only later became classic. Its production team may well have rated it, but that doesn’t mean we have to. You could call it an improvement on ‘Tribe Of Gum’, but that would be fairlyfaint praise. There are good historicals, including by John Lucarotti. But for us they all lie in the future.

Coming soon! From one over-long episodic travelogue to… oh, hang on, wait…