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Saturday, 15 May 2021

‘THE HIGHLANDERS’ (PATRICK TROUGHTON’S DOCTOR WHO)

Written by Elwyn Jones & Gerry Davis
First broadcast Dec 1966/ Jan 1967


”How do I look?"
- The Doctor

The Wild West Goes North

As we saw with ‘The Tenth Planet’, the Troughton era essentially started before the main man was aboard. But then, because nothing makes sense in this show’s history, his second outing was the show’s last historical. (Though in fact, because nothing in this show makes sense, there was then a late entry, appearing in 1982.)

And it happened in a characteristically cockeyed way. Production team Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis had considered the historical to be retired, but Elwyn Jones then pitched a Jacobite story. He having connections at the Beeb, they found themselves reluctantly demurring. Jones then announced he didn’t have the time to write the thing after all, lumbering Davis with it.

The scenario, and numerous plot elements, are unashamedly similar to ‘Reign of Terror’. A breed of inherently noble types have been overrun, by invaders placing vengeance above any kind of natural justice.

As we saw with ’Reign’, adventure stories set in post-revolutionary France have a mother. While Highland Romances have both a grandfather and a father. Walter Scott’s career-founding ’Waverley’ was published in 1814 while Robert Louis Stevenson’s ’Kidnapped’ followed in 1886. The tone of both is best summed up by Stevenson’s dedication:

“This is no furniture for the scholar’s library, but a book for the winter-evening schoolroom when the tasks are over and the hour for bed draws near… to steal some young gentleman’s attention from his Ovid, carry him awhile into the Highlands and the last century, and pack him to bed with some engaging images to mingle with his dreams.”



Indeed, both are populated by characters drawn so broadly you’d need the open Highlands just to frame them. Yet at the same time ’Kidnapped’ doesn’t just find plot-related reasons to traverse the Highland landscape, it puts great emphasis on real place names - at one point even suggesting the reader consult a map.

Two things square this paradox. Both books made their protagonist a stranger to the region; Scott’s titular hero is English, and Stevenson’s Scottish but a southerner - venturing from his home town for the first time and speaking no Gaelic.

And note Stevenson’s reference to the last century. In fact despite the seventy-year gap between them both were set in the same period, the Jacobite rebellion. Something both foregrounded, with ’Waverley’ even subtitled ’Tis Sixty Years Since’. To us these novels cannot but seem historical in themselves, but even in their day they were presenting a Highlands already gone. 

In his introduction to ’Waverley’, Andrew Hook comments that Scott’s method was “to present the modern world with a series of images from the past that were at once actual, in that they had a historical basis, and simultaneously by contrast… marvellously romantic.” In short, they handily lie at our margins in both time and space.

They’re effectively geographically relocated Westerns, an untamed North to match the Wild West, the post-rebellion Highland clearances playing the same board-clearing role as the American Indian wars. Scott explicitly compares Highlanders to “African Negroes and Esquimax Indians”, and calls them “gentleman savages”. In what is sometimes called imperialist nostalgia it’s the currently cowed nature of the savages which permits their former wildness to be framed as thrilling, and perhaps even worthy of respect. Like the cavaliers of ’1066 And All That’ the rebel Jacobins are romantic but wrong.

For that reason their inner nobility is often presented as something of a twist. Scott writes: “Yet the physiognomy of the people, when more closely examined, was far from exhibiting the indifference of stupidity: their features were rough, but remarkably intelligent; grave, but the very reverse of stupid; and from among the young women, an artist might have chosen more than one model…. It seemed on the whole as if poverty were combining to depress the natural genius… of a hardy, intelligent and reflecting peasantry.” Someone else might have missed these inner features. Not you or me, of course.

But for all the similarities between the books there’s an important difference. Hook concedes that ’Waverley’ “may not be the best novel of the nineteenth century; but it may well be the most significant… The historical novel properly speaking did not exist before [it]. After, it quickly became one of the most common and popular modes of the novel.” And this is because it found a way to convey the fixations of Romanticism in a narrative format.

But if it paved the way, it did so for others to ride over it. Truth be told it is little read today. It took ’Kidnapped’ to put the Highland Romance into mass production, unlike its ponderous predecessor a short punchy work. (Anyone thinking of attempting ’Waverley’ should be warned there’s a hundred-plus page slog before anything actually happens.) While ’Waverley’ has seen more train stations named after it than had adaptations Wikipedia lists no less than nine film and TV versions of ‘Kidnapped’. In this era alone a film in 1960 was followed by another in ’71. And inevitably it’s ’Kidnapped’ which has its plot elements repeatedly and shamelessly filched here.

”Between Highlanders and Redcoats”

Yet every adaptation inevitably reinterprets. And, at increasing distance from the source events, they felt freer to amend them. ’The Highlanders’ is typical of this. Both books semi-acknowledged Jacobism came from a schism between royal families. (Scott assuming the reader to be familiar with the overall events.) But this became crudely reduced to a nationalist opposition between Scotland and England, which is if anything more romanticised than these great Romantic novels. The Scottish are on the Scottish side because they are Scottish, just as the English are on the English. A telling subtitle in the Loose Cannon reconstruction is “between Highlanders and Redcoats.”

But interestingly, this is combined with a growing cynicism. Bonnie Prince Charlie is presented in ’Waverley’ as the very epitome of the regal. (The title character effectively converts to his cause after being swayed by his radiant presence.) Here we’re told sourly by Jamie “he was the first to leave the field” of Cullodden. Which makes him a microcosm of a whole era run by bribery and corruption, by bullying and domination, where superior officers are ineffectual fops called things like Algernon-Ffinch and their subordinates petty and grasping.

Which leaves the Highlanders as the exception which proves the rule. The Doctor has very soon told us “a Highlander’s word is his bond,” and not much later that an English solider would “sell his Grandmother for tuppence halfpenny”.

The plot contrivance of them having to be tricked into signing themselves away for slavery seems designed to convey this combination of noble-hearted with simple-minded. Certainly it makes no intra-story sense. They’re already prisoners aboard the boat that will take them, so in little position to argue, and it’s not a nicety that slavers normally bothered with. It’s another borrow from ’Kidnapped’, but David is enlisted via a more traditional knock on the head and waking up to a receding shoreline.

Peter Watkin’s award-winning drama documentary ’Culloden’, appearing four years earlier, is perhaps the last word in this cynicism. Generally, this is a comparison people make too much of. Yes it’s cultural impact was huge, to the degree I was first shown it at school. Yet the facts it was award-winning and I was shown it at school tells us it sailed in higher waters than an early evening adventure show. An overlap is not necessarily an influence. Both are riffing on similar cultural currents, not one lending to the other.

Doctor In Disguise

 

We’ve already seen how, despite being based on the Scarlet Pimpernel’s adventures, ’Reign’ is a dour story with little of it’s derring-do spirit. And aspects of ‘The Highlanders’ are equally bleak, not least a a bound man being thrown in the sea as a lesson to the other prisoners. (Framed as a cliffhanger, despite his clear inability to escape.) They’re soon locked in jail and threatened with hanging.

In the early historicals the past was nothing more than a constraint which you needed to escape from, like the animal trap Polly falls into. And this is heightened here, where to Ben’s befuddlement the arrival of English troops means not rescue but imprisonment. In ’Reign’ you needed to flee from France, this time the Highlanders are escaping to it.

At which point the Doctor cheerfully proclaims “I’m just beginning to enjoy myself”. Such levity is a world away from ’Kidnapped’. But it’s a big step towards the Pimpernel, who Troughton resembles so much more than Hartnell. The Pimpernel’s chief weapon is his mastery of disguise, which allows him not just to outwit his foes but make them appear fools. He’s hero less as adventurer than trickster. A trick Troughton repeats… well, repeatedly.


Hartnell dons just one disguise in ’Reign’, and carries on behaving much like himself. Troughton manages three in four episodes, including one in drag. And this is because he impersonates, gleefully taking on his roles. And, a cat in a world of wolves, in his games he cheerily plays friend and foe alike. When for example he acts as a German doctor, he delights in making mugs of his captors, convincing one he must close his eyes to rest them as he handily escapes. And his serving wench is straight out of Terry Jones. Even in ‘The Romans’, where Hartnell’s at his most mercurial, there’s nothing like this.

In short it’s a bleak story set in a callous world, except for when the Doctor shows up. Troughton is already proving so different a Doctor that he’s warping the stories he appears in to fit around him, like the sun distorting gravity waves. And this approach seems infectious. Polly’s soon picked up on it, delighting in playing the Lieutenant who she mockingly dubs ‘Algie’.

And that becomes the motor. Proceedings start to resemble a bleak historical all over again, only for the Doctor to reappears and re-establish the comedy. And, particularly when you consider this was rush-written by someone who never wanted to write it to begin with, it works fairly well. It is more fun to see authoritarian bullies wrongfooted and humiliated than defeated in a sword-fight, their power not stayed but dispelled.

But there’s two problems. Other characters, given their brief screen time, inevitably come to be cut from whole cloth. So they’re scarcely any less stereotyped than the Doctor’s impersonations. Trask, for example, clearly comes from Sea Captain’s Finishing School and is often to be found saying “you scurvy swarb” or “arr.” Which is perhaps why he’s given so few scenes with the Doctor.

And if only the Doctor’s presence can right this wrong world, inevitably he’s going to take off. So how can there be any kind of satisfactory ending? The solution is to give Algie a last-minute volte-face so he can do the right thing to some wrong ‘uns and a modicum of order can be restored. But it’s unseeded and unconvincing.

The New Boy


For the longest time, this story seemed to have just one claim to fame - it marked the introduction of Jamie. This being another wiped episode, all we now have is the soundtrack and a few stills. The most reproduced of which came to be the one up top, where the new boy holds the Doctor at dagger-point.

Yet if the four stills we have of this scene are representative, that’s the only one in which he’s prominent. He has no dialogue and two of the other stills don’t even feature him. (See example below.) It might seem a strange start for someone who’d go on to become the longest-serving companion.


Moreover, in the opening scene it’s not Jamie but his clan compatriot Alexander who gets rid of a troublesome redcoat. His only real task in the story is offing Trask, an event that’s presented as a twist. (It’s another character who's after the usurper for stealing his boat, but Jamie has to step in.) The return to the Tardis could be easily rewritten without him.

One thing everyone now knows about ‘The Highlanders’ is that everyone used to know Jamie’s inclusion was a last-minute decision, then found out that wasn’t true. Nevertheless, you can see how such an urban myth gained credence.

All this may partly be explained by Ben getting the escapology stunt in episode three. There’s essentially now two contenders for the ‘doing’ male role, an overstaffing issue which won’t be resolved until Ben packs his kit bag two stories hence.

But there is… or at least will be, a crucial difference between Jamie and the previous holders of his role. As his actor Frazer Hines once told Troughton: 

“Patrick, you’re paid a fortune as the Doctor to do all that speaking. I'm paid to get the girls from going out to the disco. And Padders [Wendy Padbury, who’ll show up soon enough] is paid to get the dads in from the garden.”

The sexy girl companion, which now seems such a show staple, only really came in about now. (Polly is probably its start.) As Hines alludes to, this was often tellingly described as “something for the Dads”. They were sometimes even referred to as “assistants”, like the girl hired to point at the magician while sporting stockings. He was a rare offering for the Mums. Of course this scarcely compensates for decades of imbalance (even if we factor in his length of tenure), but it’s still interesting the first eye candy for girls arrived so soon.

(Let’s recall… William Russell’s Ian was more the leading man, in his early days seen as the heroic protagonist to the Doctor’s Grand Wizard, with his relationship to Barbara an unspoken understanding. Jamie’s the eye candy companion who just happens to be a boy.)

So prevalent is this theme, TV Tropes even has a Man in a Kilt section. The thinking is partly just “how can we get a male character to show some leg… oh wait!” But there’s more. Unlike Africans or Native Americans, Highlanders were just foreign enough for this purpose, rugged and exotic without the risk of fantasies straying to the inter-racial. For example, the ‘white-man-gets-to-hang-out-with-noble-savages’ exploits of ‘Dances With Wolves’ had to concoct a safe all-white squaw for Kevin Costner to get with, even at the absurdly late date of 1990.

Coming soon! ‘The Underwater Menace’ looks somewhat soggy underfoot, so instead let’s shoot for the moon…

Saturday, 8 May 2021

'POWER OF THE DALEKS' (PATRICK TROUGHTON'S DOCTOR WHO)

First broadcast: November/December 1966
Written by David Whitaker and (uncredited) Dennis Spooner
More plot spoilers!


Rebels Without Much of a Cause 

”This lot's too busy arguing amongst themselves to do much about anything.”
– Ben (summarising the storyline while also predicting the internet) 


The new Doctor in an exciting adventure with the Daleks? Troughton would only come up against the pepperpots once more, later this same season. About half Hartnell's number. Nevertheless, it reinforces the primacy of the antagonism to his enemies. (A primacy which gets foregrounded still more clearly a couple of stories down the line.) He knows what the Daleks truly are, knowledge he shares only with us in the audience. Even Ben and Polly haven't seen them before. But equally the Daleks are able to recognise him. At the same time as Ben doubts him, the Daleks know this is the Doctor straight off.

The scenario, should anyone not know, is that a human colony on Vulcan has dug up a Dalek capsule. The Daleks affect at being dutiful servants, while nicking the power supply in order to surreptitiously make more of themselves and generally await their chance to start exterminating.

In short, the whole thing rests on the eternal evil of the Daleks having being established. The idea they might have turned Boy Scout, that isn't even worth considering. The general problem with recurrent enemies is of course repetition. You know what they will do, and pretty much how they will go about it. Laws of return diminish. And this leads to the most common criticism of the Troughton era, that after the manifold eccentricities of Hartnell things become merely formulaic.

But here that foreknowledge, that predictability, the very limitations which should lose our interest the story, are turned into the source of all the tension. Like the Doctor, we know full well where this is going. And that knowledge doesn't help us in any way. Because no matter how much he waves that Examiner's badge of his, no-one else is listening. It's like the excruciating experience of watching an accident while powerless to stop it. It's like an anxiety dream where nothing works the way it should.

(In this way the New Who episodes which most resembles this isn't the direct copycat 'Victory of the Daleks', but the far superior 'Midnight'. As with 'Power' the Doctor needs to get what he knows over to everyone else to ensure their multiple survival. But don't count on it...)

So, why won't the humans listen? Apart from that powering the story. (No pun intended... oh alright, I only ever say that when the pun is intended.) Asking that question tells us a lot about what sort of story this is.

'Tenth Planet’ had approximately two-and-a-bit locations. But it's predicated on the idea we see the diversity of the Antarctic base not just as a microcosm of the Earth, but with actual connections all over the world. It's a global story, even if it looks suspiciously like a featureless cupboard. It has intra-story 'real life' devices, such as newsreaders announcing things.

'Power' isn't like that at all. There's no attempt to evoke the sense of Vulcan as a real place. It's not like one of those scenic landscape pictures, where you can imagine the contours extending past the frame. When the Governor goes off to inspect the perimeter, you don't picture a perimeter - full of perimeter people doing perimeter stuff. You just assume the actor's standing patiently in the wings, trying not to get jostled by stagehands, waiting his cue to come back on. It's even called “the perimeter”, like there's nothing to gain by giving it a place name. Things aren't there to be somewhere. They're there to stand for something. Asking further questions would be like asking where the Good Samaritan was headed for in Jesus' parable. It would miss the point of the thing.

In the argument the show has an allegorical nature, this may seem like Exhibit A. What we have is a morality play. Or what passes for one given the complete absence of anything resembling morality. The enclosed space is to tell us we're focusing on particular features, like the base is a kind of petri dish in a human experiment.

But there's a twist to this. As already seen, aliens in 'Who' are actually monsters – they're shadows cast by us, enlarged and dehumanised to demonstrate human foibles writ large. This idea is toyed with via the Pandora-like opening of the Dalek capsule. (Another echo of Quatermass, this time 'Pit'.) Yet it's toyed with only to visibly discard it.

The Daleks cleverly find and then utilise weaknesses among the humans, be that thirst for scientific knowledge, desire to improve production and impress bosses back on Earth, or plain old lust for power. And with this last example they catalyse the coup at the centre of the story. Yet they clearly don't cause it. It was set to happen anyway, sooner or later, capsule or not. (The Examiner was called for, before the story even began, to try to quell it.)

In the story's most quotable line, a Dalek is told by one character to exterminate another. He complies, but then asks “why do human beings kill human beings?” This isn't part of their scheming, he's virtually breaking cover by asking but feels compelled to. It's both bookend and corollary to the Cyberman in 'Tenth Planet' asking Polly why humans care about human life. It's alien to him. We're alien to him.

Rather than any previous Dalek story, this most resembles 'The Ark' with the internecine power wars amongst the Monoids. Except they were monsters given allegorical number names (Number 1, Number 4 and so on), devices in a cautionary story.

In other words, what's problematic about humanity isn’t projected on the Daleks. It belongs to the humans. Who are a shopping list our of foibles - ruthlessly power mad, blindly arrogant or recklessly curious. And they're us without the distancing devices of rubber suits or antennae stuck on heads. They aren't even handed distancing science fiction tags, like Mondor or Zerk, but regular names like Bragan and Quinn.

It's true it's not at all clear what the rebels are rebelling over. Donald Trump had a more coherent programme than them. Ostensibly a political story, crammed with plots and machinations, it has no real interest in this line of enquiry. As far as we can tell, it's a military coup against military rule. But the criticism that the story is about politics while having none misses the point.

And the point’s up there in the title. More than anything since ‘The Aztecs’, perhaps even including ‘The Aztecs’, ‘Power’ is a parable about… well, power. Say it out loud and it can sound hackneyed. The Daleks need power, like electrical power, but it's also a metaphor, geddit? But spelling it out is like explaining a joke. Within the story, it's extremely effective. People need to be fighting over power and power alone, for the allegory to work.

Bragan might be masterminding the whole thing just to get a bigger office. Certainly his first act is to get a smarter uniform. And on taking power he cries “from now on I will have complete obedience – from everyone!” Power here is like pirate treasure, there to be owned, stuff you want just to run your gloating hands through.

In fact the problems stem from the places real-world politics do intrude, like water seeping into seemingly solid rock. Both Governor Hensell and his deputy Quinn have educated RP accents, while Quinn disparagingly calls Bragan's guards “muscle boys” and an “army of layabouts”. The Governor's described in the script as “old fashioned, single minded” and “autocratic, a man used to making decisions”. Polly even says of Quinn “there are some people you know are all right. You can tell just by looking at them”, which events conspire to prove true.

The result is a rather reactionary story where the whole problem reduces to Bragan having ideas above his station. Rebellions don't change anything, but at the same time they disrupt the existing order so they'll turn out badly. It's the doublethink of British conservatism – power = bad, yet status quo = good.

And the petty-minded, rule-book-waving Deputy and his more flexible-minded Superior is a ’Who’ commonplace. It even gets satirised in the Golgafrincham spaceship in ’Hitch-Hiker’s Guide’. ’Power’ just takes this further.

And that's even before we get onto Janley.


Janley and Polly are the only women with speaking roles. And significantly they have no scenes together, they function like opposing poles. Polly doesn't do much, but she senses things. She senses – not works out – that the Doctor is the Doctor or that Quinn is “all right”, through 'women's intuition'. Much like Susan in ‘The Sensorites’. Against which Janley is cold, calculating and scheming, but worst of all active. As much as she does anything womanly it's to use her wiles to manipulate men. (There does seem to be something suspiciously Freudian in the image above.) While the workers, inasmuch as they appear at all (perhaps via the rebels), are the speechless equivalent of cannon fodder.

The Daleks Take Over the Asylum

”We are not rea-dy yett to teach these hu-man be-ings the law of the Da-leks.” 
- A Dalek (You may have guessed that)

One way to look at this story is that the Daleks are being rebooted as much as the Doctor. Originally intended as a one-off foe, 'Dalek Invasion Earth' had made a reasonable stab at reworking them for general use while not entirely losing track of what made them special. But with both 'The Chase' and 'Daleks Master Plan', they'd degenerated into a general menace, running round the universe doing the sort of stuff you'd expect bad guys to do. Their coinage was fast becoming debased.

And just as 'Alien 3' worked as an alternate sequel to 'Alien', effectively bypassing the first attempt, so this goes back to 'The Daleks'. They're not just antagonistic but treacherous. They're even back to being powered by static electricity.

As El Sandifer points out, “previously they had to be in bigger and bigger adventures to satisfy us. Now, suddenly, they are in a much smaller adventure, and scarier than ever.” Look, now more Daleks and with flying saucers! Look, now they have a time machine! Look, now they have a time destructor! And so on... Whereas this story shows us things up close. (And wasn't it ever thus? What's your favourite Dalek story from New Who? One of those where armies of Daleks drag planets around for the sake of it, or the one with just a single Dalek in it?)

And it's a story which would only work with the Daleks. Comparing them to the Cybermen of the previous story really establishes the distinction. The Cybermen set themselves tasks and try to carry them out with maximum efficiency. Here the Daleks, deprived of their exterminators and low on numbers, resort to their killer app - malevolent cunning.

This YouTube vid, sequencing all the times the Daleks chant ““ex-ter-mi-nate”, shows a sharp increase with this story. Yet that's kind of misleading. For they're not ceaselessly shouting it like a comedian with a catchphrase. In fact they take up an escalating series of chants (such as “we will get our po-wer”), which between them make up four out of the five cliffhangers. And they only start with ““ex-ter-mi-nate” once they're able to come out into the open. (The Doctor has used the term twice before they get to it.)


Their chanting punctuates the story, underlining their unity as the antithesis to human self-serving factionalism. When the now-crazed scientist Lesterson babbles that the humans don't stand a chance against them (“Man's had his day. Finished now... all we can do is marvel at the creatures who are taking our place”) you can't help but feel he has a point.

And that variation is important. For the story never falls into the trap of depersonalising the Daleks, even as it counterposes them. A recurring element is the way they can barely bear to play dumb and kow-tow to the pathetic humans, a necessity which really sticks in their imperious craw. (Or whatever they have for a craw.) You sense they might slip up at any point.


And that leads into one of the key images of the story – the army of Daleks being built inside the capsule. Previous stories had lost sight of the green globby creatures that lived inside the Dalek casings, which seems indicative of losing track of their characterisation overall. Yet the point isn't so much that the tentacles are back, but that we see them as part of a production line.

It's the combination which counts. The horror isn't that they're organised around a production line, animate non-life. The horror is that they're living things, which are organised around a production line anyway. To quote El Sandifer again, Whitaker “takes care to repeatedly stress the contrast between their robotic exterior and their fleshy interior, playing up the essential strangeness of the concept to make the Daleks seem unusual.”

The assumption that the Daleks are just robots, so widespread even some scriptwriters seemed to start to take it in, was possibly the inspiration for this story. Certainly the colonists make this very mistake, blithely assuming the Daleks are “machines”, and hence can be controlled. There's even talk of setting them to work in the mines, the neat inverse of the Dalek task reserved for humans in 'Invasion Earth'. (And just about every subsequent story.)

Doctor Who in an Exciting New Adventure With the Daleks 

”I think we'd better get out of here, before they send us the bill.” 
- The Doctor

Throughout the story, the Doctor deflects rather than answers questions. And his reaction to power is similar. In an ending remarkably similar to the just-gone 'Tenth Planet', his solution is to destroy the Daleks by giving them the power they seek – and plenty of it. But, on top of the pile of dead bodies, this shorts the Colony's entire power supply. “There's a lot of clearing up to be done”, says one of the few surviving rebels, with some of that English understatement you hear about.

When you put this into not just the first Troughton story but the first reincarnation story, with it’s inevitable theme of change... well, change and order are almost made into antonyms. There’s really four sides at play; the Governor (described by the Doctor as “jealous of his own position”) who wants to retain power, Bragan who plots to usurp it, the Daleks who scheme to “control and destroy” and the Doctor who wants nothing except to thwart all of that. Quinn's left nominally in charge, but by that point there isn’t much to be in charge of. The theme would seem to be, if we want change we must also expect disorder.

El Sandifer describes this new Doctor as “a force of pure chaos, willing to bring the world down around people's ears.” And this is true to a degree that's even troubling. In fact what's really troubling is that it’s hard to work out whether this is good troubling or bad troubling. There’s story-gets-edgy-in-getting-you-to-question-your-assumptions troubling. And in a series which can too often be sentimental in its indulgence of ‘human values’, in its easy assumption we must be the good guys, that's kind of welcome.

But it's simultaneously troubling in a way where it doesn't seem to understand that it might be, that troubling sort of troubling. The Doctor's plan is essentially to thrown Bragan's guards at the Daleks’ exterminators as a distraction, to give him time to work. Which seems barely distinguishable in means from Bragan's plot to stir up a revolt in order to suppress it. Ironically, Bragan's initial response to this is his nearest moment to morality in the story - “I refuse to allow my guards to be sacrificed”.

But sacrificed they are. Given the already-mentioned authoritarian underpinnings to this story, its hard to escape the notion it doesn’t matter much if a bunch of people die when they're just extras and hired help. Their corpses become a character tic to notice in the new Doctor. Someone in the Whoniverse should really start a Guard Lives Matter campaign.

But then again the lack of power has as much of a symbolic value as the power did. Remember what sort of story this is. The Daleks are not our shadows, and the humans don't overcome their differences to unite against their greater threat, holding them back while the Doctor gets all Doctorish. Both Bragan and the Daleks are now out of the picture. But as the bodies are swept away and the power put back on, another Bragan could easily rise through the ranks to try and depose Quinn. Nothing has been solved or healed.

If regeneration was to prove popular, regeneration stories didn't necessarily follow suit. (At least in the classic show.) If Pertwee and Davison had reasonably popular initiation stories, it also led to two of the show's direst clangers - 'Twin Dilemma' and 'Time and the Rani'. But that might be in part due to the first ever regeneration story setting the bar so high. Despite the impediment of all the episodes being missing, 'Power' proved a classic. The best Dalek story at least since their first appearance, and possibly of all.

Further writing: This time a suggestion that someone writes something - ‘Compare and Contrast the Examiner’s Pass to Barbara’s Necklace.’ There are so many thematic parallels between this and ’The Aztecs’, both critiques of power unable to escape the perspective of power, that someone should really write a comparison between the two. Go on, why not give it a go? Your time starts now...

Saturday, 1 May 2021

PATRICK TROUGHTON'S DOCTOR WHO: THE CHANGED FACE OF DR WHO



”It's not only his face that's changed. He doesn't even act like him.”
- Ben

Not Himself Today 

So… the first Troughton story. The first ever new Doctor story. All resorted to out of necessity, of course. Hartnell's ailing health meant he had to go. But it didn't just ensure the show's longevity. It became one of those vintage 'Who' concepts, a thing that everyone knows whether they watch the show or not, almost as classic as calling a Police Box a time machine. “The changing face of Doctor Who”, the line used on all those Target novelisations, becomes a core component of the character – that he doesn't have just one character.

And if the character can regenerate, then so can the show. It becomes not just futuristic but future-proof. It's a concept equal thirds deranged, ingenious and audacious. And like the Police Box, it's hard to think back to a time where it needed dreaming up.

It’s true that leads had been replaced on shows before. In 'Quatermass', such a forerunner for 'Who', it had changed with every series. But each actor played pretty much the same role, as if hoping you wouldn’t notice the join. Yet this inevitably opened the door to changing the character. Tarzan is both the Johnny Weissmuller noble savage and the Ron Ely gentleman-in-trunks, without anyone worrying about it too much.

Nevertheless, to make that diegetic – to change the character within the show and have other characters comment on it - was a bold step. It has a kind of double virtue – the ‘always on’ sense of a continuing show, with the advantages of a continually reset one, such as… well, Tarzan would be a good example.


So bold in fact, they nearly didn't do it. The Uncyclopedia deadpans “when the first actor to play the Doctor finally left the show... the casting director took the brave decision of replacing him with a look-alike in the hope that the audience wouldn't notice. Unfortunately the casting director was blind.”

In further evidence that 'Who' is beyond satire, this is very nearly true. They'd already used Edmund Warwick to stand in for Hartnell when the ageing actor was ill, or with whatever was going on in 'The Chase'. Which did indeed suggest a blind casting director. And their first idea for replacement was for him to return from invisibility in 'The Celestial Toymaker', but sporting a new face. Which suggests just a new face, rather than a new personality to go with it.

And some of that thinking does survive to the screen. Regeneration as a term hasn't been invented yet. Instead we have 'renewal', which suggests something more like resetting. Remember last time that Hartnell had commented his “old body” was “wearing a bit thin”. And Troughton is often demonstrated as something of a younger model. Two of his immediate acts are to find he no longer needs specs and leap over a boulder.

This bold step wasn't taken without nervousness. While New Who would announce a new Doctor as a media event, reserving the 'Radio Times' cover, Hartnell segued into Troughton mid-season. And it was accompanied by the nearest thing the show then had to a ratings grabber. (We’ll come onto that. But you’ve already guessed...)

A Time For Change

So why did they go bold not play safe? Of course Hartnell's character, devised largely on the hoof, had morphed considerably during his run. But what had really instigated change in the show was the companions' role. At first, with Vicki for Susan, replacement had been essentially like-for-like. Both of who, as soon as they started to act at all independently, headed off-stage. But that hadn't lasted, with Ben and Polly – now the sole remnants of the previous era – as living proof. Though new arrivals, they seemed strong enough to hold the join.

But now they went further than that. The show didn’t just change when it had to, it flagged change. The lead character didn’t just get replaced, he was shown to be replaced. And so, as paradoxically as it sounds, change became part of its tradition. The central character came to represent change.

I once wrote about the fan conviction that every enduring character starts with a genius creator and how that so often isn’t true, with particular reference to Superman. But the good Doctor’s possibly a better example. As noted ‘Who’ sage Andrew Rilstone has said “you can't say that 'Doctor Who' was created by Sydney Newman: he's the product of every writer who has ever worked on the series.”

And he’s not just right, he has to be right. It’s ancillary to the show having longevity. If it had tried to maintain absolute faithfulness to its original concept, it would have gone the way of most TV shows, which don't carry on for decades and which tend to stop when they're cancelled.

Rob Young once summed up the attitude of celebrated folksong collector Cecil Sharp: “Don’t seek the ‘original copy’; focus on the transformations themselves – for they are the substance of the song… the ‘original’ is not the authentic prototype; instead, it should be thought of as the equivalent of a composer’s first draft - ‘the source from which it is sprung’. Every subsequent iteration becomes more ‘real’, more ‘definitive’.” (’Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music’, Faber & Faber.)

So folk song isn’t like finding the source of the Nile, disregarding all tributaries as irrelevant. It’s more like trying to map and re-map an ever-morphing delta. And, effectively another product of popular culture, ’Doctor Who’ is in this way like a folk song. It’s title character can change considerably, but all Doctors are the Doctor.

Except it’s wider than that. Wikipedia states, without citation needed that “the BBC takes no position on the canonicity of [the show], and producers of the show have expressed distaste for the idea of canonicity.” Some characters seem born for fanfic, to be taken up by folk culture. And the Doctor must be pre-eminent among them.

And this is a further demonstration, as if we needed one, of the Doctor as a shamanic figure. The Doctor likens his new look to the metamorphosis of a butterfly, commenting “life depends on change... and renewal”. The shamanic ritual may be buried deep in our culture, like an ur-melody we’ve forgotten we know but still find ourselves humming.

But this also suggests something of its own era. For the production notes called renewal a “metaphysical change”, and likened it to an acid trip. If regeneration made ’Who’ timeless, it simultaneously fitted its times.

When did the changed self become a fixture of popular culture? When in doubt, people usually look to 'Sergeant Pepper'. And the iconic cover to that album featured not only the bright, psychedelic new-look Beatles but juxtaposed them against the neatly suited old Fab Four. (A metaphysical change brought on by similar means to the show's production notes, if interpreted slightly more literally.)

Though not released until June 1967, six months after 'Power' was broadcast, it was another symptom. Change was in the air. And one of the key things to be changing was attitudes to change. It had, needless to say, always happened. But no longer were things the way they were, which sometimes changed. Now there was change which sometimes took a break. And us, we were no longer beings made in moulds, we were now plastic and ever-morphing.




Look how Bowie, a few years later, took that concept and ran with it, even calling his compilation albums 'Changes'. In his Glam rock history ’Shock and Awe’ Simon Reynolds recounts how Bowie came to be seen as “a shapeshifter”; that musical dilettantism, once a sign of inauthenticity, in his hands became a virtue.

Gent Into Hobo

In some ways, the changes they didn't choose to make are as significant as the ones they did. Hartnell has not originally been seen as the protagonist of the show, but an instigator, in personality alien and remote. His taking up the starring role had happened by accident. But now it had they could reboot the character into someone more humanised, more explicable, more reassuringly familiar.

In fact they do the very opposite. This is where the Doctor's alien-ness really kicks in. Troughton's mystery doesn't just surround him, it becomes part of his nature. He's hard-wired to act inscrutably. The emphasis on Ben and Polly, reluctantly following a new-found stranger they don't necessarily trust, commenting on what he's doing, is actually very similar to Ian and Barbara in the early days. (See Ben's quote up top.)

I have now lost track of however many times I have said “this is the start of the show as we know it”. Nevertheless, the first Troughton story is the start of the show as we know it. It's the first to use the patented 'The... of the...' title formulation, as used in every 'Doctor Who' parody ever. (While the next, inevitably enough, would be the next Dalek story.)

Look how in his first story there's prototype versions of two things which become totemic to later 'Who'. The Doctor breaking out of a cell with a sonic lock presages the soon-to-arrive sonic screwdriver. But more important is the speedy way the story thrusts the badge of the murdered Examiner into his hand. As this becomes a free pass for him to investigate stuff, it becomes the sort of thing that's likely to happen in 'Doctor Who'. The psychic paper wasn't named until New Who. Yet here it is born.

Hartnell had taken up disguises in his time. But whatever disguise he took on he always looked the part, hitching his thumbs into his waistcoat and imposing his authority. (In 'Reign' he comments “my voice seems to carry some weight.”) Troughton’s endlessly brandishing the badge, sometimes even proclaiming “I have a badge!”, like a clown with a crown. If he's the Lord of anything it's Misrule. And, in something we'll come onto, no-one actually listens to him very much – badge or not.

Because in a sense Troughton's Doctor is a disguise. In Sydney Newman's famous phrase, he was a “cosmic hobo”. Ironically, Hartnell - at least early Hartnell - was something of a hobo, amblingly bumping into schoolteachers one week, cavemen the next and aliens with funny feet the month after. But Troughton can look like a hobo precisely because that's what he isn't. He's less wanderer, more freelance detective.




His habit of searching out clues with a magnifying glass soon established, it's common to assume his nearest cousin is Sherlock Holmes. In fact it's quite a different kind of detective, and not even an English one. Columbo wasn't to appear for another two years. Yet, like Troughton's Doctor he's a crumpled little man, devoid of gravitas or natural authority. With both, it's their adversaries who are the important people, with the big plans. And, while distracting them through displays of clownishness, both quietly demolish those plans, bring down the mighty.

”It’s Like a Promise”

Troughton’s defining quote, even if he didn’t make it until his fourth appearance, was: “There is evil here and we must stay. There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.

Andrew Rilstone goes so far as to assert that Troughton's little speech “defined what 'Doctor Who' was about for ever after. I think that … Hartnell was a gentleman scientist who travelled the universe and got involved in quarrels… but that wasn't his prime motivation… the Troughton era established him as a crusader who fought evil.” (NB He says this in his comments section.)

Hartnell's equivalent speech comes at the end of 'Reign of Terror' - “our destiny is in the stars, so let's go and search for it”. Notably it shows up without any real narrative context, he just ups and says it. And the show often resembled its lead character, exploring hither and thither, as it grew up through happenstance and extemporisation, making mistakes but somehow surviving them. It’s lack of a formula made the highs higher, but also the lows lower. It ran without a safety net.

And Troughton defines his stories equally. There no longer any need to be a conveniently inconvenient rockfall or mislaid parking ticket to keep him from the Tardis. To Hartnell's “among the stars” he counters flatly “we must stay”.

Hartnell's Doctor was created, accurately or not, to represent a generation – part of a family unit for a family show. The docu-drama 'Adventure In Space and Time' made great play of the actor watching the show with his own grand-daughter. The time traveller was less beyond than out of time, his clothing and mannerisms chosen to represent an era.

Here, the changed scenario goes hand-in-hand with a changed central character. It’s like the two sides of an equation. Because there is the shadow of evil, cast darkly over our no-longer-impregnable walls, there must also be the hero. Troughton's Doctor is not just eccentric but idiosyncratic, irreducibly otherly.

They come from one corner of out-there to assail us, he from another in our defence. In short, he becomes an emblematic hero. Think of his quote from the much later 'Name of the Doctor', “My real name… that is not the point. The name I chose was the Doctor. It’s like a promise you make.” All that is seeded here.

So, to misquote Bagpuss when the Doctor changes the Whoniverse cannot help but change with him. The... to use a word I have just made up... Hartnellverse was for the most part strange, exotic and wondrous. Troughton stories are closer to Sixties spy fiction - strewn with clues, surveillance and deception, stirred with a sense of pop Surrealism. And they take place less in the grand span of the cosmos than in drably locked rooms. In something you don't get points for noticing, besieged bases were soon to be common.

And, before we wax too lyrical, these were already an SF staple, in Hollywood films we'll shortly be hearing a whole lot about. Not to mention a means to turn cost-effective limited sets to your advantage. But as soon as the Doctor's given the role of the Joker, we need a pretty straight pack to deal him into. Cryptic, playful and inventive, he's the very antithesis of the closed bureaucratic mind. And what better visual correlative for that closed mind than the besieged base?

But, I hear you ask, what adventures did this brave new Doctor get up to..?


Saturday, 24 April 2021

“KRAUTROCK IST NICHT TOT”: AN INTRODUCTION TO KRAUTROCK PLAYLIST



Have you heard of the classic music scene known as Krautrock more than you’ve actually heard it? Wondering if the actual thing could match the legend? Then this could be your ideal jumping-on point! In fact if this is you hearing this music for the first time, I kind of envy you!

Diversity always plays well in a playlist, so I went for the widest-possible definition of the term. The only real restraint was to keep it to the classic era, roughly ’68 to ’75. Kicking off in style with Faust’s scene-titled classic, then… well, just listen for yourself!

Faust: Krautrock
Neu!: Hero
Can: Peperhouse
Amon Duul II: Eye Shaking King
Tangerine Dream: Ultima Thule (Part 2)
Cluster: Georgel
Popol Vuh: Oh Wie Weit Ist Der Weg Hinauf
Harmonia: Arabesque
Cosmic Couriers: Anabolica
Brainticket: Brainticket (Part 1)

Click here for cosmic goodness…

Saturday, 17 April 2021

KRAFTWERK’S ’AUTOBAHN’ (OR HOW THE FUTURE GOT ITS HAIR CUT)



If you were to read ’Future Days: Krautrock and the Rebuilding of Modern Germany’ (as we just were), you’d find David Stubbs is scrupulous in dealing with his subject. So much so, he’ll magnanimously dole out page counts to each significant band, sometimes over-riding his own taste. And at times this shows. 

The problem is of course not different preferences. He’s welcome to his claim the earlier Moog-based Popol Vuh outclassed the later years, even if I think the opposite. The problem is when he gets to those later albums, and is inevitably less interesting when he is less interested.

But the half-full side of this is when he gets to the stuff he does like. I am one of those too much of a Krautrock fan to really rate Kraftwerk, and inevitably prefer the three albums before ‘Autobahn’. (The ones the band themselves would seem to want erased from history.) Whereas he runs through them only looking for early glimmerings of future highways, wondering aloud when they’ll get their hair cut. It’s like listening to ‘A Hard Days Night’, but only for portents of ‘Sergeant Pepper’. You miss what’s there looking for what isn’t.

At its worst it’s like the guy in the next seat who loudly grumbles about the music you’d like to just listen to. Yet when he (finally) reaches ’Autobahn’ he writes one of the best pieces on it I’ve read, worth the wait and quite possibly worth the price of admission itself.

If you want a more traditional version of a road number, Bruce Springsteen’s ’Born To Run’ was released the same year. With overblown trying-too-hard lyrics (“at night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines”), and an insistence road travel can be made into some sort of hero’s journey, the combination of cliche and self-importance is tiresome to take.

Whereas Kraftwerk don’t drive to celebrate their freedom or escape conformity. They start up the car and just go for a drive, to see the view as it stretches away from you, to hear the swish of the vehicles passing the other way. An experience millions of West Germans must have had every day. The transcendent doesn’t need adding to the banal, its already to be found there.

Better than Springsteen, look to the contemporary Berlin school to see electronic music being used to become metaphysical, to transcend human scale. ’Autobahn’, conversely, is wilfully literal. “As figurative and indisputable,” Stubbs points out, “as Emil Schult’s eerily bright deceptively banal and depthless cover artwork”. Which includes the dashboard of a car in the lower section, making clear what we see is a driver’s eye view.


Flip it and there’s the band in the back seats, as if a reverse image. In a splendid anecdote, he tells of how the press launch got journalists to ride the autobahn listening to… yeah, you guessed. It’s like music was thrown in reverse gear, and it was no longer the epic but the quotidian which needed capturing.

The straightforward lyrics, once translated, sometimes seem to be reciting what’s on that cover art more than conveying any actual journey. (“We drive, drive, drive on the Autobahn/ Road surface is a grey band/ White stripes, green border”.) Stubbs correctly sees this straighforwardness as an artistic statement in itself, as something to champion. Smart people are not afraid to do simple things.

But they did pick up on and run with an underlying feature of road songs - the song is about the road. Roads aren’t there to take you somewhere, the road itself is the escape, motion is not means but end. Stubbs calls it “a lengthly journey that takes you no place but deeper into Germany itself”. Ironically it’s an American term, “interstate”, which best conveys this liminal state.

There’s a naive primary-coloured celebration of immediate things. And it seems similar to the joy of a child endlessly pushing a toy truck back and forth across the carpet, immersed yet straight-faced. As if the world was some giant child’s toy, built from bricks. But the accelerator-pedal exuberance of a three-minute road song is measured, spread across the twenty-two minutes. ’Autobahn’ doesn’t race, it glides. Even Neu!, the other great travelling band of Krautrock, have their moments of touching the accelerator. Kraftwerk are all cruise control. (An edited version became a hit single. But it’s really the equivalent of a trailer for a film.) If Krautrock had a penchant for combining the euphoric with the robotic, ’Autobahn’ is almost the definitive expression.

What could have inspired this? We’re used to reading histories of British music about kids growing up with bomb sites for playgrounds. Yet of course Germany’s war damage was far greater, in some estimates covering four-fifths of infrastructure. And then, in a bizarre twist, their post-war recovery was much faster than ours. And two seemingly contradictory descriptions of West Germany thereby recur in Stubbs’ book. One in which it’s a literal and cultural ruin, the ravaged residue of a diseased ideology. And another where it’s a consumerist Mecca, all shining and new. Both these things shouldn’t be true at the same time. In fact, they probably are.

Stubbs quotes Faust’s Jean-Herve Peron: “There was indeed a vacuum in Germany - not only a physical vacuum, with all these areas being bombed, all these anti-spaces - there was also an intellectual and emotional emptiness which had to be filled.” The end of everything that had gone before, that was already underway. The Germany outside Kraftwerk’s studio could be seen as a canvas scraped back to blank, to be rebuilt according to your liking. The panning of the synth lines suggests the open spaces spied from the car windscreen, but also the broad crenellation-free facades of modern architecture.

It’s a much-commented irony that Krautrock bands, though so concerned with creating a new German identity for themselves, had to get out of Germany to get noticed. This was normally Britain and France. But Stubbs point out Kraftwerk first got followers in America - the home of the road song suddenly took to imports! Perhaps partly because they had convinced the New World that post-war Germany was itself a new world.

Look again at that cover. Kraftwerk were openly indebted to the Bauhaus, but perhaps owed more to Pop Art. Jonathan Richman had sung, on his road song, “I’m in love with the modern world”. But he’s a romantic adventurer encountering the modern world and drawing inspiration from it, the way his predecessors might have from the great American wilderness. Kraftwerk’s vocodered vocals make them sound like a product of the modern world. Though Stubbs compares it to Hockney it reminds me more of Ed Ruscha’s paintings of Gas Stations. (See ‘Standard Station’, 1966, below.)


In an old post on Pop Art I quoted Eric M Stryker: “Two technologies embodied this new media ideology: the CinemaScope screen, with its dramatic expansion of the field of vision, and the windshield of an American car, which provided a panoramic view of the city. Both the windscreen and the movie screen were… communication devices through which images of the city are formed and transmitted. The popular audience who receives these images is locked in an interactive loop with the realities constructed both in the movies and in the city itself.”

And while we’re on Pop Art, there’s another comparison…

The first Kraftwerk song I heard was ‘Pocket Calculator’, on the radio in 1981. At the time I found it annoying, largely because my young mind couldn’t figure it. Were these references to consumer electronics intended as celebration or parody? The band have offered contradictory responses to that over the years, but have mostly had the wisdom to stay schtum. And it’s very much in the spirit of Pop Art to raise such questions while refusing to answer them. Indeed, if the artists themselves knew the answer, they could probably stop asking and just retire.

Again Stubbs is on this: “Kraftwerk were new reduced to pure function. Total memory wipe, blood replaced with oil… However, there remained a sheen to them, a strangely romantic auratic resonance that amounted to way above the sum of their electronic parts.”

But the most Pop Art and the most prevailing feature of Kraftwerk would be their personal image. A decade earlier the Beatles had been celebrated for casting off those smart suits, a sign they were no longer fitting in with the poptastic world of showbiz but instead embracing self-expression. With Kraftwerk’s anonymised corporate look, it was like the suits had cast off the artists and gone solo.


To the point where they should probably be considered either a piece of conceptual art (where Kraftwerk existed only as a hook on which to hang the idea of Kraftwerk) or a Pop Art phenomenon, an image printed in order to be disseminated as widely as possible. Not for two albums after Autobahn was this new look first sported on the front cover of their own album, and it was the album after that, ‘The Man-Machine’ (1978), where they nailed it. It’s hard to recall the time where long-haired bands provided a shocking image. Now, just as people had got used to them, Kraftwerk’s short back and sides sit well above their shirt collars.

Despite all its baggage (and Stubbs confesses he avoided using it when approaching all his interviewees) Krautrock stuck as a term partly because it took head-on the question of the German stereotype. And who is ‘the German’? What comes to the British mind? A sober-minded engineer who drives his well-made car safely down well-maintained roads, arriving at work precisely on time. Is he going to rock out? Try and get him to throw a TV out a hotel window and he’d probably worry about voiding the extended warranty.

Can and Faust responded to that with indignant glee: “You think we can’t rock? Hold our schnapps!”

Kraftwerk’s reply was “danke fur die idee”.

Their deliberate playing into the German stereotype is more the stance you’d expect from a comedian. And indeed deadpan humour is a much overlooked aspect of Kraftwerk, somehow still overlooked after they titled a track ’Ohm Sweet Ohm’. And as ever deadpan jokes are all the funnier when someone else isn’t getting them.

I don’t think Kraftwerk really knew what to do after ’Autobahn’. A driving song that went nowhere didn’t really lend itself to follow-ups. It was a great change in direction, but at the same time the last of something. True it hadn’t yet gone fully electric, so is sometimes presented as a job incomplete. Yet some of us find that combination of flute and electronics appealing! (See also, early Tangerine Dream.)

Stubbs finds a good comparison in Marcel Duchamp, whose biggest art statement was his decision to give up art. Yet the point he chooses for their “logical creative terminus” is the one the band chose themselves, which is years too late. Ideally the ‘Man Machine’ cover would have been somehow associated with ’Autobahn’, after which they could have gone into splendid quietude. Their subsequent career has been less less Duchamp and more music’s George Lucas, tinkering and re-tinkering with your earlier work as technology hands you more toys. The original moment of insight gone, all you have left is your redoubled adherence to the things it used to inhabit.

And let’s remember what happened to Krautrock in general. Just as in America it was incubated in a counter-culture which was slowly but surely diminishing. Faust’s last album, in their first incarnation, ‘Faust IV’, was in 1973. As was Agitation Free. Harmonia’s last, ’Deluxe’, was ’75. And Manuel Gottsching’s ‘Invention for the Electric Guitar’, considered by some the last Ash Ra Tempel album, was the same year. Brainticket, if we’re counting them, closed with ‘Celestial Ocean’ in ’74.

But then bands don’t always have the wherewithal to break up when they should. Can carried on after ‘Soon Over Babaluma’ (yep, 1974), but returns diminished. Tangerine Dream made over a hundred albums after ’Atem’ (you guessed it, 1974) but really shouldn’t have bothered.

Exceptions admittedly apply. Cluster lasted to 1979 with ’Grosse Wasser.’ But the great exception, the band who most broke free of the Krautrock scene, were not Kraftwerk but Popol Vuh. In perfect time with Kraftwerk going uber-Modernist, they became the last great cry of German Romanticism, with tracks titles such as ’They Danced, they Laughed, As of Old.’ Yet I digress. Let’s get back to the point. Which is - ’Autobahn’ came out in 1974.

That’s often thing about music, the importance of the music gets over-rated. It’s often simply a means to create cultural icons. In different versions of the Fall song ‘Mere Pseud Mag Ed’ the no-hope protagonist would swap between vainly copying Kraftwerk and the Ramones. Two bands which will immediately create an image in most people’s minds, even those who’ve never heard them. And the Kraftwerk look now seems the more established, their anti-image one of the greatest images.

And, weirdly given its specifically German origins, it was widely taken up. Post-punks often affected its stiff and straight-laced look, as part of their ‘anti-rockist’ opposition to punk’s “mean-it-man” theatrics. David Byrne’s ‘twitch rock’ stage persona is impossible to imagine without Kraftwerk. Public Image’s first album rejected ransom letter text to sport a magazine-in-business-class look. For an early NME interview the Mekons wouldn’t permit a publicity photo of themselves, only of a puppet sporting a guitar, as “we don’t want to push ourselves as INDIVIDUAL PERSONALITIES”. And there lies the true lineage of Kraftwerk, not with posers pressing synthesisers to launch their pop career.

Those icons appear to us as commodified signs, record sleeves or posters to purchase. Visually Kraftwerk have pushed in that direction, re-releasing their albums with literal signs for covers. (‘Autobahn’, inevitably, being a road sign.) Yet they’re not always reducible to those signs. Bands were often about an aesthetic which, once hit on, they’d devote their lives to with near-monastic devotion. Just to make music in that spirit wasn’t enough, everything - down to your daily life - should be in thrall to it. Had Kraftwerk stopped sooner would they still be as ubiquitous and influential? The question’s foolish and misguided. They’d be more so. No-one actually makes biros or hoovers any more, but they don’t have to - they became something bigger.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

‘FUTURE DAYS: KRAUTROCK AND THE BUILDING OF MODERN GERMANY’ BY DAVID STUBBS



Keep Thinking Forward

Let's start with the summing up… this book’s a labour of love by a genuine afficionado. It’s approach has its problems, but it’s still very much something you need to read.

So, having nailed up our colours, let’s start on one of those problems - Stubbs sometimes Does Writerly Research. Which of course just gets in the way. In ’68 Can recorded a whole album, with a sound quite different to their debut, which at the time they couldn’t get released. The chapter on them skips the whole of that, yet starts with a three-page potted history of their home town Cologne.

But at other times research has its half-full side, even when it might seem most tangential to the music. As Stubbs rightly says “Krautrock was a cultural and historical phenomenon, rather than a mode of playing”. And few in Britain realise just how big the extra-parliamentary opposition was, contravening our easy stereotype of the sober-minded German. It’s summarised by Geronimo in 'Fire and Flames: A History of the German Autonomist Movement’ (PM Press):

“The revolt brought a new, uncompromising political morality. Its proponents rebelled against a generation that portrayed itself as an unaware victim of history while carrying the responsibility for Auschwitz. The new generation intended to make history as conscious subjects, thereby changing everyday life… a radical opposition to the existing order of West Berlin and West Germany.”

As the name suggests, the extra-parliamentary opposition was in part a reaction to the narrow, stratified notion of politics as ticks in boxes for rivalling bureaucrats. It effectively rejected the whole of western society as moribund. So its influence was both big and broad. Even Can, a band primarily composed of thirty-something ex-music tutors, performed their early gigs before footage of Parisian riots.

It’s true that overtly political lyrics are rare. But the bands were playing to already politicised times. Why call in song for people to come out on the streets when they’re already out on the streets? Instead they concentrated on making music as culturally radical as the times were politically.

On the front line of the Cold War, Germany had more American troops stationed than anywhere outside America itself, save Japan. Which helped disseminate rock music, while paradoxically heightening its association with dominant American culture. AFN was a radio station designed for US servicemen, eagerly listened to by German youth - yet a continual reminder of that enticing music’s origins. Stubbs puts it pithily: “What had once been the soundtrack of young rebellion now itself needed to be rebelled against”.

For years I’ve been saying a line from Wenders’ film ‘King of the Road’ (1976) states a foundational premise of Krautrock: “The Yanks have colonised our subconscious”. (Of course in a film stuffed with a rocking American soundtrack, even named after one number.) Now Stubbs has put it in print I feel a familiar mixture of vindication and envy.

Similar things happened in Britain, of course. But here the solution was to look back to our own history. If Can’s ‘Monster Movie’ was arguably the first Krautrock and Fairport Convention’s ’Unhalfbringing’ the first electric folk album, then the respective dates (August and July 1969) almost completely coincide. Yet the past was not an option for post-war German youth. Stubbs quotes Can’s Irmin Schmidt:

“The headmasters, judges were ex-Nazis, who quite astonishingly had become ‘denazified’ overnight. You weren’t allowed to question your father about what he had done in the war, nor your grandfather. Naturally we wanted to be free from this waste, this violent legacy.”

So the only direction left was ahead. The book’s name, after a Can album, is well chosen. But there’s another German term, Stunde Null (ironically, not one Stubbs uses). Literally Hour Zero, it means something more like Year Zero. As the official end of the war in Europe had been midnight, it carried both the specific meaning of “no more Nazi shit” and the general sense of a radical break with the past. If the sound of the bands varied massively, to the point where they never saw themselves as part of a scene, they were united by this desire to make music that was entirely new. The blank staves that made up the cover of ’Faust IV’ epitomise this.


And, as we live in a time when rock music is little more than a heritage industry with bands formed like re-enactment societies, it’s precisely this forward thinking which makes Krautrock feel so invigorating.

Kraftwerk, Can, Faust and many others had their own home studios, which in Faust’s case was literally their home. They banned TVs, even radios and record players, the better to instil in themselves that self-reliant mentality. Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hutter recalled “We were in our studio, with the doors closed and there was silence. Now what is our music, what is our language, what is our sound? We realised we had to start from zero…, We didn’t have to reject anything. It was an empty space. And that same feeling was everywhere.”

This might help explain how bands worked in such isolation from one another, quite unlike the contemporary electric folk scene in Britain. Conny Viet, Conrad Schnitzler and Michael Rother moved between bands, but they were very much exception not rule. In the booklet accompanying Faust’s ’Wumme Years’, CD, Jean-Herve Peron recalled “we knew there were other groups riding the same waves. But we didn’t bother once to try and contact them. It was stupid, it was arrogant, we just ignored the rest of the world.”

Modernism Was the Tradition

Yet influences come in different forms. Hutter insisted “music didn’t exist and we had to make it up.” Jon Savage wrote in the Guardian “their history had been erased. They had nothing. But that meant freedom.” Yet too much freedom, an absolutely blank slate, is less liberating than daunting. Like floating in space, you need something to push against to move.


So Hutter also said “our roots were in the culture that was stopped by Hitler, the school of Bauhaus, of German expressionism”. First this leapfrogs you past your parents and their dodgy associations. You go back to where things had left off, before the Nazi clampdown crushed anything creative. And Germany had a rich Modernist history, its value surely proven by the efforts the Nazis went to in suppressing it.

So, ironically, looking back to Modernism helped them to look forward. The future had already been started, it just needed picking up again. As the Russian Constructivist Lyubov Popova had said: “We break with the past because we don’t believe in it any more, because its premises are not acceptable to us, and we will create new ones.”

You would struggle to find much of an expressionist influence on Kraftwerk, despite what Hutter says, but Bauhaus there certainly is. Down to calling themselves ‘music workers’, after ‘cultural workers’. (Though the imprint of Dada on Faust, which might seem the most obvious link of the lot, is played down. Peron, the member who gets interviewed, claims he was unaware of it at the time, though other more “educated” band members may have been.)

And there was another influence, less felt in Britain. The ‘New Music’, which sought to supplant the outmoded classical world, was heavily supported by Westdeutscher Rundfunk (the German BBC) and often released by the German label Deutsche Grammophon. And one of its key figures was German, Karlheinz Stockhausen. Two members of Can had studied under him.

So, much like the American music, this now had to be rejected wholesale. Neu! titled a track ’E-Musik’, a contraction of ‘Ernste Musik’ (‘serious music’, but meaning something more like ‘proper music’ a a definite snub. ) Their chosen band name was partly a parody of advertising, but could equally be taken as a riposte to all this - an insistence we’re the real new music.

At this time when much rock music was trying to bust out of the simple beat, de-emphasising rhythm in praise of musical dexterity, Krautrock intensified it. Can in particular were crossing the other way, taking to repetitive beats with the zeal of the converted. Holger Czukay recalls “Stockhausen denied repetition. He thought it was a weak point… For me, by repeating something, you create something new in it.” And this was a common feature. If not universal it’s true of the big four bands (Can, Kraftwerk, Faust and Neu!), who make up four out of the first five sections here.

And, similarly but more generally, despite having such a clear mission statement Krautrock retained rock’s faith in the instinctual and spontaneous. This was quite at odds with the screeds of theory, manifesting in the form of copious sleeve notes, which the New Music generated. An early member of Faust was kicked out for a list of ‘bourgeois’ crimes, including being neat and tidy, but starting with “he discussed things”.

And they took this even further than standard rock music, which was (for the most part) composed and choreographed while trying not to sound like it. Songs were almost never written then taken to the studio to be recorded, like transcribing notes into neat handwriting. Instead bands would show up at the studio and then see what happened. (When they weren’t living there already.) “We did not care about compositional rules that imprint a predictable order on the music” commented Wolfgang Seidel of Eruption. (Kraftwerk are the exception to the rule here. But then they often were.)

These two influences (Modernism and New Music) might not seem so unusual now. But that’s in itself part of Krautrock’s wide-ranging influence. Back then they simply weren’t considered part of popular music’s source code, but beamed in from outside. And so they enabled Krautrock to fulfil its Stunde Null promise. Or at least get closer to it than might seem possible.

Space Travel Broadens The Mind

But then generalise about Krautrock at your peril. For a whole bunch of groups broke that cardinal rule of back to the beat. The Berlin School, as Stubbs tags them (Tangerine Dream and Kluster/Cluster, among others) saw rhythm as yet another encumbrance which had to be cast off. They wanted a freer, less constrained sound than beats to the bar allowed.

Much of this music’s appeal is its sense of boundlessness, temporal or spatial. ’Electronic Meditation’, the title of the first Tangerine Dream album is a good tag for it. Stubbs comments: “This is not so much music as the artful, purposeful interplay of sounds, liberated from scale, metre, melody, mobile sculptures floating in a zone somewhere between free rock and music concrete.”

At this stage synthesisers were unknown, unaffordable or both. Instead conventional instruments were treated, or more often mistreated, and combined with other sound sources. Particularly with Kluster, this had more in common with today’s free impro scene than punk, dance, psychedelia or any of the usual subjects. If it was to later become associated with ambient music, this was not particularly serene scene. A track on ’Electronic Meditation’ was titled ‘Journey Through a Burning Brain’. Stubbs describes it as “vast and indifferent to human concerns”.

How did any of this come from Berlin, Germany’s largest city, now often thought of as a party destination? “It’s not hard” says Stubbs, but when talking about the later and far more aggressively nihilistic Einsturzende Neubaten. Of this scene he concludes “it did not seem to have the imprint of the city running through it.”

But even as he pronounces it a mystery, he hands you the set of keys you need to unlock it. Surrounded by greyness of East Germany, Berlin is often seen as something between a ghetto and an oasis. (Political and artistic radicals were drawn there to get out of the draft.) Yet, squeezed in space, it expanded in time. This Berlin was liminal. “It is harsh, brusque in its modernity and its juxtapositions… perpetually half-built, crumbling on the brink of bankruptcy…. Redolent of a hundred years of history.” (He even mentions the Wenders film ‘Wings of Desire’, which most depicts it in that light.) A very different terrain to the stretching autobahn which Kraftwerk rode.

Where Opposites Collide

So were these two separate scenes we clueless auslanders try to stitch together, just because they happened in the same country? Like some know-nothing looking at the Stooges and the Grateful Dead and helpfully pointing out they’re both American. The Berlin bands were sometimes described as kosmische (comsic) music, a term popularised by a 1972 compilation and a 1975 manifesto (‘Discover the Galaxy Sound of Cosmic Music’) designed to promote the Ohr label.

And it’s true that when things later degenerated (as they inevitably did) Krautrock fell back into regular rock music, as if ultimately unable to break out of America’s orbit, while Kosmische lost its tang and turned into tasteless New Age slush.

It’s also true that, in the long period where Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream were the only well-known West German bands, no-one thought to associate them much. To this day Tangerine Dream’s Wikipedia page calls them “a German electronic music band”, without mention of the K word.

But that can be countered with one name - Neu!


Ask anyone about Krautrock and they’ll come back with a name - Kraftwerk. But ask a Krautrock fan and they’ll give you the holy trinity - Can, Faust and Neu! For Neu! are no marginal case, but one of the most important outfits the scene produced.

And as Stubbs says, there’s “a duality about Neu!” As captured in the contrasting personalities of the two members, Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, fire and water. Rother has said “I feel comfortable near water - it has an effect I can’t explain. It has to do with the passage of time, it also moves along like music itself”. There’s tracks called ‘Weissensee’ (White Sea) and ’Seeland’ (Sea Land), there’s water sounds on ’Leb Wohl’.

In another interview he recalled childhood years spent in Asia: “I do remember being completely fascinated by the strange sounds of Pakistani music as a child… this music that seemed to go on and on, with no structure that I could make out, - just an endless stream of melody and rhythm, like a river.” (Nor was he the only Krautrocker to be influenced by the rhythms of what we’d now call world music.)

While Dinger’s great contribution was the motorik beat, now so associated with Krautrock that Stubbs needs to explain a track doesn’t need to use it to count. (Ever the contrarian, Dinger then abandoned drums before the band had even split.) It’s hard to explain the effect of this beat without hearing it.

Writing in the Quietus, Stubbs said: it “just breathes out - a single line, a constant process. Not circular, but driving from A to wherever.” And Dinger’s favoured term for it was “long straight”. Unaccented, without stress on any one strike, it becomes all about forward motion - each iteration there just to take us to the next one.

And if all that makes it sound like Neu! were a collision of opposites whose “opposing constituents” could only temporarily be reconciled, their third album was effectively a contractual obligation which they only coped with by allocating themselves a side each. After the band split, Rother set up a studio in rural seclusion (from where I believe he works to this day) while Dinger remained in industrial Dusseldorf. Dinger always claimed Neu! had to come not just from West Germany but specifically from Dusseldorf, as Stubbs puts it “emerging from the unique friction between that town’s fine art scene and plethora of advertising agencies.”

But the music simply doesn’t sound like that! As Stubbs points out “Rother’s sense of limpid, ambient beauty lies perfectly atop Dinger’s undercurrents of emotional turbulence and sublimated rage.” There’s never the friction between the driving numbers and the pastoral pieces there theoretically should. And the heart of it all is the motorik beat, which doesn’t just epitomise Krautrock but runs straight through any barriers you might want to build between it and the Kosmsiche.

In rock music, power is venerated. Power chords are a positive thing by definition. The Stooges made an album called ‘Raw Power’. In the celebrated ‘Spinal Tap’ gag, the amp goes all the way up to 11. Yet motorik is driving without any sense of power. ’Hallogallo’ means “wild party”, but the track’s not at all raucous. It’s spirited but disciplined and measured, seeming to advance effortlessly. To use a water metaphor, which should really belong to Rother, it flows.

Motorik translates literally into “motor skill”. It evokes that feeling of getting into the rhythm of something, be it dancing or chopping wood. Rather than the task tire that rhythm seems to grant you energy, for as long as you’re in it. Stubbs sums it up well: “Motorik equals the liberation of rigidity”. It's reminiscent of when as a child you wanted not to drive a fast car but be one. (As evoked by so many children’s toys and cartoon characters.)

But most of all… there’s been invented a solar-powered gilder where, the more it flies, the more the sun heats its panels, allowing it to fly still more. Which could have been designed as the absolute best place from which to listen to Neu!

And you can play Neu! over either urban or rural scenes, over Rother’s rivers and forests or Dinger’s Dusseldorf, over stretching highways or cascading streams. Overall, comparisons of Krautrock to Minimalism seem overstated. Reich and Glass (if less Riley) were composers, in the conventional sense of writing scores for musicians to follow. Even their more aleatory pieces worked by following precise instructions, not decisions left to the musicians. Renditions of Minimalist works can stumble if the players assume their role is to bring something of themselves to the piece. Whereas Krautrock was, and had to be, created in the moment.

But this combination of the pulsing withe the serene is a genuine overlap. I’ve written before of how Reich’s music evokes “a city yet to be built… a harmony of gliding electric cars dancing round grid blocks… exuberant and free flowing”. Yet also “the workings of nature… where simple cellular forms can multiply into astonishing variety”.

Neu! contain these contradictory elements, in such a way as to make them seem no longer contradictions. Krautrock is less trying to find a line between the Stooges and the Grateful Dead, and more like the then-contemporary American punk scene, which could incorporate both Television and the Ramones.

Planetary Romanticism 

Yet however wide-ranging all of this is, more a set of enablers than a proscriptive description of a genre, some things do still lie outside of it. And though it goes against tradition to say, though they don’t just appear in but kick off this book, Amon Duul 2 were at most a transitional band.

Stubbs gives you all the evidence you need for this, even if he doesn’t join the pieces together. As any fule no, you can’t judge a book by its cover but you can with an album. And just compare the sleeve of ‘Dance of The Lemmings’ to the first Neu!, Harmonia or Tangerine Dream albums. They’re effectively talking different languages, the uniqueness of the sound reflected in the uniqueness of the images.




Whereas you could have stuck ‘Dance of The Lemmings’ in any British record rack of the day and it would have slid neatly in between those psychedelic rock sleeves. The others are a different thing entirely. Even when Krautrock went in for SF imagery it tended to be in a vectorised, Pop Art form - as with the first Cosmic Jokers album. The cover of the book itself, with its neat angle and bitmapped fonts, aligns with this.


Or check out their free-flowing surrealistic song titles - ‘Flesh Coloured Anti Aircraft Alarm’, ‘Stumbling Over Melted Moonlight’, ‘Dehypnotised Toothpaste’. Krautrock titles were short and punchy or affected a deliberately prosaic air, like Faust’s ’Why Don’t They Eat Carrots?’. Or, perhaps most at the opposite extreme, Neu!’s advertising-copy monickers like ’Special Offer’ and ’Top Quality’.

While bands often took to living communally, Amon Duul 2 came out of a commune. True, a commune they left in order to become a band, to escape the obligation to hand every spliff-holding sofa-surfer a maraca, but that was still the world they came from.

And their sound remained linked to the psychedelic underground. They not only shared a member with Hawkwind (Dave Alexander) but a trajectory, starting out with long spacey jams which over the years took on more of a song structure, before the final degeneration into regular rockism. (All of which is intended entirely as description of their sound, not criticism. I wouldn’t compare a band to the awesome Hawkwind lightly!)

And in those heady days, the dividing line wasn’t nation but generation. Flights then becoming affordable to regular folk, the underground saw itself as something inherently internationalist. London’s radical paper of the day was ‘International Times’. A common chant on demos was “Paris, London, Rome, Berlin”. Guitarist John Weinzierl has said: “We felt international. You have to learn English in German schools, and that’s a good thing.” Similar bands had international line-ups, such as Gong or Brainticket.


And yet with the strong dynamics in their music, the other tradition they’ve inherited would be German Romanticism. The original cover to ’Phallus Dei’ (1969) was a tree, not something Faust or Kraftwerk would have contemplated. Their love of grandiose Science Fiction imagery (in tracks such as ‘Surrounded by the Stars’), like much science fiction, is the Romantic awe of nature scaled up - overpowering mountains and waterfalls made planet size. Ironically this is something German. And yet from quite a different lineage to the Bauhaus and Dada of Krautrock.

Anyway, to finish by summing up… this book’s a labour of love by a genuine afficionado. It’s approach brings problems at times, but it’s still very much something you need to read.