Thursday, 30 April 2015

Poem: 'Red Sky At Midnight'




RED SKY AT MIDNIGHT: 
HOW TO DISEMBOWEL A CLOSE FRIEND 


it’s 4:30 am

i’ve just been
woken by a strange
marmalade-striped cat
i’ve never seen before

it came in over the roof and 
through the dormer window
left slightly ajar for
air-conditioning purposes

we watch each other

I get up, it slithers purring
around my bare legs,
so I make coffee, too
awake now to sleep

perhaps it’s a feline muse
a succubus, a witchy familiar,
Jerry Garcia’s wandering ghost,
or an alien shape-shifter

it’s 4:30 am,
i’m 49 years old, i’ve been
reading Henry Miller again
in his centennial year, sex
in Paris will never be
that good again

so I write this poem
to you, while it dictates


Published in:
‘INTERNATIONAL MAG no.7 (July)’ (Italy - June 1999)
‘OUTLAW MAGAZINE no.1’ (Dec 2002 - UK)
and E-anthology:
‘WORDPLAY: edited by Samie Sands’ (UK – 17 April 2015, Smashwords) https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/535964

'The Divine Marquis: The Marquis De Sade'



‘THE DIVINE MARQUIS’: 
THE MARQUIS DE SADE 

 Is the ‘Divine Marquis’ more sinned against than sinning? 
 Does De Sade deserve his evil reputation? 
Andrew Darlington weighs the evidence… 

The Marquis de Sade was caught up at the storm-centre of social convulsions. As an aristocrat born into the despotism of the corrupt, cruel and venal Ancien Régime of pre-revolutionary France, he yet later became a magistrate under the founding father of state terror, Maximilien Robespierre. And as a writer, his legacy remains muddled. His biographer Donald Thomas points out ‘for the few who regard him as a materialist philosopher using the literary devices of pornography to embody his views,’ there are as many who see him as ‘a pornographer self-justified by philosophical pretensions.’

Those who make claims for his work as a philosophy at the roots of Existentialism, can be explained largely through his antagonism to the hypocrisy of organised religion. He aims his blasphemously satiric attacks at priests and the religious establishment to the extent that Thomas claims ‘his greatest mania was religious rather than sexual.’ But the Church was also the revolution’s primary target. It was the bastion of irrational belief and superstition. It insisted on blind, unquestioning obedience to apparently absurd dogmas while obstructing by censorship and persecution the spread or even the holding of other opinions.


The problem is that de Sade frames his justifiable rejection of theology in a way determined by the religious binary of good and evil. Without god there’s only the laws of nature, red in tooth and claw, but by denying the existence of a deity, he moves not to a sensible middle ground of rationalism, but to its farthest opposite pole. In a calculated act of defiance, he shakes his fist at an absent god, by purposefully embracing every aspect of a mirror morality. Without religion, there can be no moral absolutes, and no behavioural restraint. In a valueless cosmos, acts of goodness are as essentially meaningless as acts of evil. As Dostoevsky says, ‘if god does not exist, everything is permitted.’ But no, it isn’t.

William Blake’s ‘Orc’ – the spirit of revolutionary energy, proclaims ‘sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.’ As a literary gesture or artistic pose that works just fine. But no further. Such an argument admits no possibility of social self-interest or co-operation through mutual need in ways that are not enforced by conformity to religious belief. In this extreme reductionism, human beings are ‘miserable creatures thrown for a moment on the surface of this little muck-heap.’ We are ‘matter in motion’ with no spark of divinity and no eternal soul. We are what we are, until death extinguishes us, and we become nothing. Our only duty is to the enlivenment of the senses, to what de Sade calls ‘the divine laws of pleasure.’ In this way, yes, he anticipates elements of Existentialism.

His name may have become shorthand for a kind of moral poison, but the extent to which he lived the philosophy he claims is debatable. It’s more likely that his writing is predominantly fantasy. Donatien-Alphonse François, the Comte de Sade was born 2 June 1740 into one of Provencal’s premier aristocratic families, he died in the Charenton asylum 2 December 1814 after having spent more than twenty-seven of those years in various kinds of incarceration under both royal and revolutionary regimes, including confinement in the Bastille, where much of his writing was done. There are early behavioural clues in tales of abusive behaviour inflicted on his domestic staff. Young de Sade certainly had a Parisian mistress, as well as engaging prostitutes for more extravagant sexual experiments. Although that was hardly unusual for his time or social class. He was unwillingly married to Renée-Pélagie Cordier in May 1763, but promptly ran off with her sister Anne-Prospére, which earned him the eternal enmity of his influential mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil, who was responsible for many of his subsequent travails. It has been suggested that his wife, and her sister, were the source of his ‘Juliette’ and ‘Justine’ characters.


His documented, but subsequently embellished offences include stripping and whipping a woman called Rose Keller. Inevitably, their accounts of the event differ. He claims she consented. She says otherwise. She claims he cut her buttocks with a knife, then poured melted wax into the incisions. He says there was no knife, and the ‘wax’ was ointment for her abrasions. An examining surgeon confirmed beatings had occurred, but the skin was not broken. Regardless of the degree of consensuality, she seems not to have suffered unduly and was well-recompensed by the fine imposed on de Sade. So, no angel, but hardly the monster of myth either. And despite such ghoulish exaggerations, both of his wives continued to be loyal and affectionate to him.

They were violent times, ferocious beatings were routinely administered as disciplinary measures in the Army and Navy. Corporal, as well as capital punishments were accepted aspects of the judicial system. Not that that exonerates Sade. The other authenticated case is when he administered the supposed aphrodisiac cantharides – ‘Spanish Fly’, to three willing Marseille brothel-girls who accepted his gift while exceeding the stated dosage. One of them – Marguerita Coste, became violently ill as a result. Although she speedily recovered with no long-term effects, Sade – accused of sodomy and poisoning, was forced to flee the country to escape legal retribution.

By the autumn of 1772 he had set up a refuge in Savoy as the ‘Colonel Le Comte de Mazan’ alongside his loyal Anne Prospére. He was briefly imprisoned, escaped, and returned to France. Again there was outrage, the so-called ‘Scandal Of The Little Girls’ during the winter 1774-5 in La Coste – a six-week debauch involving a fifteen-year-old male secretary, five servant girls of a similar age and a twenty-four-year-old nanny, after which he was again forced to flee to Italy. Strangely he declared himself shocked by the degenerate sexual dissolution he encountered in Florence and Naples.

He was tricked into returning to Paris where he was finally arrested in 1777 under a Royal ‘lettre de cachet’, and imprisoned in the Château de Vincennes, then the Bastille. It was during this long period of incarceration that his frequent letters developed into florid fiction. Days before the revolutionary masses tore the Bastille down, de Sade – as one of the agitators who helped incite it, had been transferred to the Charenton asylum. He was freed as part of a revolutionary amnesty, but penniless, moved in with a new mistress, former actress Marie-Constance Quesnet. As a magistrate under Robespierre’s Committee Of Public Safety, he actively opposed the guillotine, saved enemies from prison, campaigned fearlessly against state terror and injustice, and as an exemplary democrat supported the direct vote. Unlike other philosophical fathers of the revolution, he didn’t anticipate instant utopia, but believed that with economic and sexual equality, the human lot could be greatly improved. Hardly the actions of the monster portrayed by his legend.


His novels ‘Justine: The Misfortunes Of Virtue’ and ‘Juliette: The Prosperities Of Vice’ contrast the diverse fortunes of two sisters, the former who attempts to retain her virtue but is systematically debauched, and the latter who embraces vice, only to thrive and prosper. With Juliette just fifteen, and Justine twelve, their father is made bankrupt and flees to England, and with their mother dead they’re thrown back on their own resources. ‘Juliette’ has early experience of lesbian attentions and those of diabolic priests in a convent, so goes on to spend two years in a brothel, selling her virginity eighty times in four months while perfecting her erotic skills. Relying on her own ruthless energies she climbs from one man to another, from Noirceuil to Saint-Fond ascending the corrupt social ladder. She marries a nobleman, poisons him, runs her own brothels and gambling dens, organises a ‘Theatre of Cruelties’ for the King and Queen of Naples, attends a Papal Black Mass, and ends up the Countess de Lorsange.

  
The first draft of ‘Justine’ was penned in just fifteen days in the Bastille, and completed 8 July 1787, although four extended revisions followed. Justine – who confusingly conceals her identity as ‘Sophie’ throughout, and ‘Therese’ in a later revision, falls hopelessly in love with a profligate gay libertine who tries to persuade her to collude in the murder of his mother, Madame de Bressac by poisoning her morning chocolate, in order to get his hands on his inheritance. When Justine attempts to warn the proposed victim, Monsieur does the poisoning herself, ties Justine to a tree, strips and beats her, then blames her for the murder.

As a fugitive she stays with Rodin, a surgeon who at first offers her asylum, until she observes him abusing children in his care. Attempting to save Rodin’s daughter, Rosalie from abuse, Justine is captured and tortured. A toe is severed from each foot, teeth are torn out, she’s branded and then abandoned in the forest. While Rodin prospers, appointed as surgeon to the King of Sweden at a considerable salary, she seeks sanctuary with Father Clément at the monastery of Saint-Marie-des-Bois where she is systematically debauched by four monks – the first takes her anally (he ‘satisfied himself outrageously, without my ceasing to be a virgin’), the next orally (‘in a place which prevented me, during the sacrifice, from expressing any complaint as to its irregularity’), only then does she finally lose ‘the treasure of my virginity, for which I would have sacrificed my life a hundred times.’

She becomes one of four prisoners held in their seraglio, although there are suggestions of other girls held in other towers. The inconvenient pregnancies that result are treated with a ‘tisane’. But Justine is fearful of what happens to the girls they tire of, the first – Omphale, disappears after just six weeks. Presumably they are killed. After two years, with Justine the only survivor of the original four, they are liberated only when the monks themselves move up the church hierarchy, and are to be replaced.

 
Justine’s generosity and goodness is further betrayed. She is mugged by an old woman beggar she’s about to aid, and, helping a man named Dalville after he’s trampled by horses, she’s tricked into enslavement by him. Forced to join two chained naked women in a deep pit she must continually turn the wheel that draws water for a counterfeiter’s stronghold. Inevitably she is raped and flagellated too. A year later evil is again rewarded as Dalville’s criminality brings him wealth, he leaves for Venice after brutally shooting one of his manacled ex-mistresses in the head. Soon after, the fortress is stormed, the counterfeiter’s tried and executed, and Justine, as a prisoner of the villains, is released. But her troubles are far from over. She falls in with the devious Madame la Dubois for further torment before being reunited with her estranged sister, Juliette.

Even then, what would seem to be a promising conclusion is frustrated when Justine is killed in a meaningless way by a random lightning strike. Even when I first read these books as a sexually highly-suggestible teenage apprentice it was impossible to see them as anything other than horror-comic cartoons. In their grotesque absurdity the two novels can be read as tales of amusing excess in the strangely Gothic fashion of Matthew Lewis’ ‘The Monk’ (1796) or Ann Radcliffe (‘The Mysteries Of Udolpho’, 1994). Everyone – except Justine, are corrupt and vile. Juliette’s career forms an argument that women have as much right to cheat and scheme, and to be as sexually devious as men. Both Simone de Beauvoir (‘Must We Burn Sade?’, 1955, Grove Press) and Angela Carter (‘The Sadeian Woman’, 1979, Virago) have portrayed de Sade as an advocate of individual liberty above gender, or gender orientation. Absolutely free. Parallels can be drawn between him and ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ written around the same time, in Aix between 1780-’81 and published in Amsterdam a year later. Choderlos de Laclos’ theme is also sex and malice – with playful flourishes such as Valmont lying in bed writing a letter, using the naked body of a girl as his writing desk. Although malice and viciousness triumph, de Sade’s bleaker perspective contrasts its more frivolous cruelties.


But if literature is to be more than just escapism, if it is to explore and accurately mirror aspects of human experience, it has a duty not to neglect these forbidden realms of darkness. There are periodic debates over the restriction of what can and cannot be said in fictional form, arguments that resurface from Flaubert’s trial over the immorality of ‘Madame Bovary’, to the 1960 trial of DH Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, from John Cleland’s ‘Fanny Hill’ – published in 1748 in London but put on trial in the USA in 1966, to the paedophile yearnings of Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’. There’s an obvious interface between the art-for-art’s-sake notion that fiction exists in some rarefied realm above and beyond conventional morality, or the dirt-for-dirt’s-sake idea that literature has an absolute imperative to represent all aspects of experience, including the most unpleasant and the sordid. That the archives of literature must be broad enough to encompass the full spectrum of the imagination. If there’s a test to be made, de Sade provides the litmus.

‘La Philosophie Dans Le Boudoir (The Philosophy Of The Bedroom)’ (1793) is more philosophy than it is bed. In the preface – ‘Aux Libertins’, de Sade declares, in a very 1960’s way, of a youth ‘for too long restrained by the dangerous fantasies of grotesque and absurd virtue, by the chains of a disgusting religion,’ and urges them to ‘destroy and trample on those ridiculous precepts inculcated in you by imbecile parents.’ Right On! Yet there’s unbridled nastiness as fifteen-year-old Eugénie is given a moral and sexual education by three older libertines at the request of her father. When her mother, Madame de Mistival, attempts to intervene she’s hideously punished by having her vagina symbolically sewn up, and expelled from the ongoing activities. 


There’s also a shower of bawdy de Sade short stories, farces and sketches collected into ‘Les Crimes L’Amour (The Crimes Of Love)’ (1800), with “The Self-Made Cuckold”, translated by Margaret Crosland, still considered racy enough to qualify for inclusion in ‘Penthouse’ (August 1965, Vol.1 no.6). But ‘Les 120 Journées De Sodome (120 Days Of Sodom)’, although fragmentary, flawed and incomplete, is a more conscientiously offensive work detailing the inexcusable torture and murder of children. But again, the purpose is less pornographic in the sense of inducing arousal, and more a deliberate exploration of the most transgressive, the most forbidden, the most morally repugnant outer limits of unfettered human appetites. What he proclaimed as ‘the most impure tale that has ever been written since the world exists.’ Both the ultimate in morbid gothic excess, and a precursor to the torture-porn of twenty-first-century CGI-effect splatter- horror movies. 


Four nobles – the Duc de Blangis, Président de Curval, a Bishop, and banker Durcet, travel to the gloomy gothic Château de Silling in the depths of trackless forests and surrounded by mountains, to indulge in their systematic orgy. In a later study Havelock Ellis numbers six-hundred distinct deviational activities, calculated from the narratives of four procuresses who preside over the fetishistic debauch, each describing 150 perversions to be acted out on the retinue, which includes entrapped boys and girls chosen for their beauty. It’s an almost mathematical exercise in configurations after which, at the end of the 120-days of continual incarceration and depravities, the survivors are massacred. 

How is it possible to defend a man who advocates such unmitigated horrors? In fact, there’s never a suggestion of approval, on the contrary, the protagonists are never portrayed as being anything less than repugnant. And why a Bishop? Because, to de Sade, such status equates with the greatest hypocrisy. He had no illusions about human ‘natural goodness’. While – let’s be absolutely clear about it, this in no way constitutes child-abuse. Unlike online kiddie-porn, no child is involved. Everything happens inside the confines of de Sade’s head. These are wild fantasies written by a man in the Bastille during the thirty-seven days following 22 October 1785, charting the very extremes of human vileness. And if it’s masturbatory in nature, then it’s on an exhaustively epic scale. De Sade initially believed the forty-foot manuscript-scroll lost, but it was retrieved and first printed in 1877. In fact, the first fully unexpurgated version was only published in New York as late as 1989. Yet the scenario portrayed is sufficiently timeless for director Pier Paolo Pasolini to recast it as ‘Salò – The 120 Days Of Sodom’ (1975), setting its coprophiliac excesses within the last outpost of Italian Second World War fascism. 


De Sade academic Alan Hull Walton emphasises, ‘there is nothing aphrodisiac in Sade.’ The Marquis treats sex with brevity and a ‘cold and cynical objectivity.’ Aldous Huxley agrees that, although sex permeates de Sade’s writing, there is ‘more philosophy than pornography.’ Walton points out that there were sadists long before de Sade’s name was first grafted onto the psychopathic condition as a clinical term of description by Richard Freiherr Von Krafft-Ebing. He lists the likes of ‘Bluebeard’ Gilles de Rais, the lives of the Caesars as recorded by Suetonius and Tacitus, and Ivan the Terrible. 

But to state the obvious, characters on paper feel no pain. As fictional characters in misery-memoirs, Justine and Juliette feel no more real pain than the eternally tormented souls in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting ‘The Garden Of Earthly Delights’. Certainly de Sade witnessed acts of unbridled vileness and immorality during the ‘Reign of Terror’ to equal anything in his writing. And, although monstrously exaggerated, the acts he portrays can in no way be equated to the real inhumanities inflicted on the real victims of – say, the Catholic Inquisition, the Moors Murderers, or the cruelties perpetrated by Irish Catholic clerics of the Christian Brothers upon their charges into the mid-twentieth century. 

Yet for the Marquis there was worse to come. With the revolutionary ‘Reign Of Terror’ fervour extinguished by Napoleon’s return to moral normality, he was re-arrested. In a timely intervention by his family he was declared insane and returned to Charenton. This is the period envisaged by director Philip Kaufman in the film ‘Quills’ (2000), with de Sade (played by Geoffrey Rush) subject to the strange asylum regime where he’s initially able to direct plays involving the inmates. This has also been dramatised by Peter Weiss as ‘The Persecution And Assassination Of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed By The Inmates Of The Asylum Of Charenton Under The Direction Of The Marquis De Sade’ (1963). Ironically it was due to the enlightened François Simonet de Coulmier – a Catholic priest, that de Sade was able to continue writing, and was permitted to have his wife live with him. Although Coulmier was later replaced and de Sade endured fresh periods of solitary confinements, he developed a relationship with fourteen-year-old Madeleine LeClerc, the daughter of a Charenton employee, which lasted for the four remaining years of his life. De Sade shared the same time period as another destined to give his name to a branch of sexuality. Giacomo Casanova died in 1798, de Sade 2 December 1814, aged 74.


Ever the subject of fascination as well as repulsion, his skull was removed for analysis, providing Robert Bloch with the theme for his short story “The Skull Of The Marquis De Sade”, inevitably filmed as ‘The Skull’ (1965), with both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, by Amicus. While the advent of Freudian analysis and Surrealism shone new light on the legacy of the ‘Divine Marquis’. Poet Guillaume Apollinaire not only rediscovered ‘Justine’, but helped rehabilitate de Sade’s reputation with his hefty ‘L’Oevre De Marquis de Sade’ in 1909. While in the fictional subworld of Gothic pornography, and the highly ritualised S&M subculture, dungeons, manacles, flagellation and total slave-control maintain their online currency in ways that de Sade would surely recognise, in new media-forms he might not.


De Sade remains on the very bleeding-edge of what should, and should not be expressed. Cicero suggests that ‘if we are not ashamed to think it, we should not be ashamed to say it.’ Correct, irrefutably so. Until we get to Somerset Maugham who puts such open idealism into some kind of social context by pointing out that if thoughts were subject to the law, he – Maugham, would spend most of his life in prison! Or unthinkably worse, to poet/artist Jeff Nuttall ‘to Ian Brady, de Sade was a licence to kill children’ (in ‘Bomb Culture’, 1968) – which is also true, but it’s surely impossible to police the media to eliminate everything deemed likely to corrupt the vulnerably impressionable? 

And as recently as October 2011, the fiftieth anniversary Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of the ‘Marat/ Sade’ provoked eighty walk-outs at the preview show. Jeanie O’Hara who curated the programme justifies the play’s inclusion by stating the obvious, that the de Sade ‘philosophy is alive and well and streaming into our teenagers’ phones in the form of pornography. He is the ghost text behind every pornographic film ever made. He is alive and well in our culture…’ 

Yet in crime fiction, serial killers leave a grisly trail of mutilated corpses. But no-one actually dies. In Science Fiction civilisations fall, worlds explode and entire species are exterminated. But the ecological balance of the cosmos remains serenely undisturbed. It’s worth remembering that in pornographic fiction there’s lots of sex, but no-one actually gets fucked. It all happens on the page, and in the mind of the reader. As the tagline for ‘Quills’ phrases it, ‘there are no bad words… only bad deeds.’


Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Album: 'TOMMY STEELE - The Rock 'n' Roll Years'


‘ROCK WITH THE CAVEMAN: 
TOMMY STEELE & THE BRITISH 
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL NEOLITHIC’ 

 Album Review of: 
‘THE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL YEARS’ 
by TOMMY STEELE & THE STEELEMEN 
(See For Miles SEECD 203) 

If Tommy Steele was the answer, we’d got the question wrong. America had Elvis. And Thomas William Hicks, a nineteen-year-old merchant seaman from Bermondsey, had a toothy grin as wide and bland as Tony Blair, he could pose a shiny Gibson guitar around his neck in the splay-leg stance the teenagers ‘dug’ on ‘hep’ TV shows like ‘Off The Record’, and he put words like ‘Rock’ into his song titles. Obvious really. “Doomsday Rock”, “Elevator Rock”, “Rebel Rock”, they’re all here. Rockney. It was a put-up job. No competition, literally. In 1956 there was no Rock ‘n’ Roll outside America. 


Listening to the sixty-two tracks on ‘Great British Rock ‘n’ Roll 1948-1956’ (2CD, As Good As It Gets, 2007) it becomes obvious that they just don’t get it. The Deep River Boys were an American Coasters-style vocal four-piece, resident in Britain, but their take on Bill Haley’s “Rock A Beatin’ Boogie” is domesticated into radio-acceptable neutrality. Ray Ellington does a cartoon-sharp version of “Stranded In The Jungle”, but embeds it in big band swing arrangements, suitable for touring variety shows and end-of-the-pier theatres. Tony Crombie & His Rockets were slick jazz turn-coats quick to jump the new fad with “We’re Gonna Teach You To Rock”, but their ‘get in the groove’ is seldom convincing. These were Brit-pop’s baby-steps, taken by people who sensed something was going on but weren’t quite sure what it was.


Tommy had picked up clues while working a Cunard cruiser to Norfolk, Virginia. He’d even played back-up with Bluesman Josh White. He did basement floor-sets at Soho’s ‘The 2i’s’ coffee bar and dabbled in skiffle with Wally Whyton’s group. Talent-spotted by entrepeneur John Kennedy he was astutely signed by Larry Parnes. So it took him exactly a month from his first recording test to crash the Top Twenty. This album covers his brief quasi-Rock 78rpm hits and ‘B’-sides, starting with that first studio venture – “Rock With The Caveman”, pieced together by Steele himself with jobbing songwriter Lionel Bart, and recorded with a bunch of session musicians including jazzer Ronnie Scott. When he sings ‘out of sight, dynamite, hold your baby very tight’, you can almost believe that the cats are really jumping. His only no.1, the upbeat “Singing The Blues” with its whistle-while-you-work tunefulness swiftly followed, here it appears in two versions, one of them performed live alongside “Teenage Party” and a coffee-bar skiffle cover of “Rock Around The Clock”. All chirpy lively wholesome stuff, appealingly crude, a handful of hits recorded on two-track machines, which oddly made the Steeleman Britain’s first ever home-grown Teenage sensation. His arc of Teen-celebrity lasted through to both sides of “Tallahassee Lassie” c/w “Give Give Give” – a no.17 in August 1959, a steal from Freddy Cannon’s American chart-topper which effectively provided Tommy with his last shot at the Rock ‘n’ Roll beast.

But he was never too convincing at it anyway. Tommy Steele had no dark side. And authentic Rock stars need a bite of surliness. He was more the acceptable go-between. Kids bought into him… until the real thing came along a couple of years later. And parents could never really dislike him, and quickly inherited him into mainstream showbiz. You can trace the cheeky cockney Tommy Steele template through Joe Brown to the terminal knees-up of Chas ‘n’ Dave. But there is an alternative legacy that could just as easily fork off through the Smallfaces into Damon Blur. Depends which question you ask. The answer is probably here.



‘THE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL YEARS’
by TOMMY STEELE & THE STEELEMEN
(See For Miles SEECD 203)

‘GREAT BRITISH ROCK ‘N’ ROLL: AS GOOD AS IT GETS
(THE ORIGINAL ROCK ‘N’ ROLL RECORDINGS 1948-1956)’
by various artists, including Tommy Steele. (Smith & Co SCCD 1124 - www.smithco.nl)

Adapted & extended from a feature first published in:
‘ROCK ‘N’ REEL Vol.2 No.4 (July/August)’ (UK – June 2007)

Monday, 27 April 2015

British SF Pioneer: ROBERT PRESSLIE



ROBERT PRESSLIE: 
AN ENIGMA WRAPPED IN A MYSTERY 

 The name Robert Presslie cropped up with persistent regularity,
 in all the best British SF magazines of the 1950’s and 1960’s. 
Over thirty well-crafted tales by a writer now virtually forgotten. 
And little is known about the details of his life. 
Andrew Darlington examines the evidence… 

Espresso is a planet of the Polaris system, its single moon so close it skirts Roche’s Limit, dragging the water-saturated atmosphere around with it in great bulging tidal storms. ‘Whit’ Whitmore, a hen-pecked former-teacher who joined the Federated Space Security is one of nineteen men lost on the surface of this mushroom-infested planet, separated from the main Expeditionary Force and fearing attack by unseen enemies. Except, it turns out there is no enemy. In a neat plot twist, under the hallucinogenic influence of homicidal parasitic fungus the humans have been exterminating each other. But an odd aspect of this tale – “Suicide Squad” (‘Nebula no.39’, February 1959) is that all the protagonists are naked throughout, in a kind of homoerotic bonding exercise, as tactfully illustrated by Eddie Jones’ spot-art. No real explanation is provided, although one could be easily suggested, the fungus-rich toxic atmospheric properties could rot fabrics, for example. But whatever, it adds a uniquely unsettling quality to this tale.


There were undeniable advantages to being called Robert Presslie in the mid-fifties and early-sixties. There was name-recognition value there. After all, Elvis Presley was transfiguring Pop in ways that would change music forever. The changes Robert Presslie would inflict within his own chosen genre – science fiction short stories, were less far-reaching. But, in their own way, modestly satisfying.

His first contribution to ‘Nebula SF’ – “Flesh And Blood” (in no.19, December 1956) is a brief, stark, almost symbolist take on the post-apocalypse extinction-event at which most writers of the time tried their hands. From a quasi-biblical opening, ‘on the fourth day, the wind dropped and darkness came early,’ a Priest and a Thief meet in the wind-sculptured drifts of post-atomic dust. Their dialogue sketches their existential dilemma. The thief was caught in a second-wave thermonuclear blast while looting homes devastated by the first. And the Priest has ‘a head full of theology, but his heart empty and aching because all his wisdom could not supply the answer to the doubts assailing his faith.’ The radiation-poisoned rain falls, both will die. There will be no survivors. It’s not a great story, more a kind of polemical sketch. But the cold chill of political relevance retains something of its charge, one that must have carried an even greater urgency for its original meaning-seeking teenage readers attuned to its doomy anti-war finger-pointing.

Presslie was a super-active part of a generation of underrated British writers, mocked by later SF academics such as Brian Aldiss for their clunky naiveté and formulaic plots, who nevertheless formed the essential bedrock of a spread of iconic British magazines ‘Authentic’, ‘Nebula’, the Carnell-era ‘New Worlds’, and the ‘New Writings in SF’ book series. Along with EC Tubb, Sydney J Bounds, Philip E High, FG Rayer and ER James, his fiction flared across issue after issue of each of those major titles, extending into ‘Science Fantasy’ and ‘SF Adventures’.


Like many of those contemporaries Presslie wrote part-time. His primary income came from his career as a pharmacy manager, his modest cheques from magazine-sales providing a welcome bonus, but insufficient to hazard the step of turning pro. Yet such circumstances dictated that he wrote because he enjoyed writing, rather than for mercenary motives. So is he a great lost writer deserving wholesale reappraisal? To hail him as such would be an exaggeration. But, as enthusiastic archivists David Redd and Greg Pickersgill suggest on their web-page tribute ‘he does have a certain something, perhaps an air of potential, perhaps just a slightly different take on SF ideas that makes him stand out a little.’ He remains ‘memorable to many of those who have read his fiction.’

Even within the enclosed world of 1950’s British SF there were evolutions taking place, in a gradual way. To editor John Carnell ‘in the changing world of science fiction writing, the cardboard character is beginning to breathe and the focus is on characterisation rather than the grandiose sweep of galactic backgrounds. In this respect, (Presslie) has been just as great a pioneer as most of his contemporaries. In a quiet but solidly satisfying manner, Mr. Presslie has been doing this sort of thing almost since he first commenced writing SF’ while ‘his stories produce many fresh approaches to ideas which are often commonplace.’

And yes, the stories may use familiar themes, but they’re seldom straightforward. There’s frequently a sting in the tail. A hanging uncertainty. More questions raised than answered. In “Lest We Forget” (‘Authentic’ no.74, November 1956) Niven Boyd is on trial for murdering the adoptive father – Owen Michaels, who has downloaded the sum knowledge of his memories into his head. Presslie doesn’t use the term ‘download’, obviously, instead he constructs a detailed memory-transfer ‘chip’ technique. And the accused man faces an electronic Juriac. Or so it seems. The final paragraphs reveal that the case has been exaggerated as a test for the experimental computer-jury, but just how much of it is true? The suggestions are left to effectively hang.

Truth to tell, there’s little biographical information available about Presslie other than that supplied by ‘New Worlds’ profiles. The fact that he never had a book published, neither novel nor short-story collection, disqualifies him from an entry in either the first or second editions of the ‘Science Fiction Encyclopedia’. Although that omission may be remedied in the third, more broad-based online edition. However he does receive a brief note in Donald H Tuck’s ‘Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction & Fantasy’ (Advent Publishers 1978), which records him as ‘a native of Aberdeen’, like fellow fantasist JT McIntosh.


His story “Next Of Kin” (‘New Worlds’ no.69, March 1958) uses Scots dialect in paternal conversations that might draw on memories. Nevertheless, ‘at age twenty-three he qualified as a pharmacy manager’, and migrated to London around 1954, where, as an alien ‘touching down’ he admits ‘no allergies to the local beverages’ (to John Carnell). From the accompanying photos he seems sleepy-eyed, craggy with a penetrating inquisitive gaze, hair combed back into a low quiff, neat suit and tie. A purposeful professional, soon ‘gainfully employed as a pharmacy manager for a firm of multiple chemists.’ With a degree of speculation it’s possible to surmise that maybe his move south followed demob, and that his employer might well have been Boots, or Timothy Whites – people were more circumspect about product placement back then!

‘I believe the scientific education which went before is probably the reason for a long-standing love affair with science fiction’ he self-analysed to ‘New Worlds’, ‘on the other hand, it could well be that boyhood reading of science fiction had something to do with the choice of career. This is an egg-and-chicken type problem which I have never been able to solve.’ He usefully employs pharmacy psychology in his novelette “Plague” (‘Science Fantasy’ no.24, August 1957) with the Narcotics Bureau facing a global addiction pandemic, ‘as infectious as measles.’ Carnell prefaces the story by observing ‘in these days of advanced medical science it is seldom that a disease reaches the pandemic stage.’ Perhaps back then, with international travel restricted to an elite minority, that was true. It’s a qualification less true now, adding gravity to Presslie’s conjecture. Although it’s a Venusian cyst carried in the bloodstream discovered to be responsible.


Then, in his “Trojan Horse” (‘Authentic SF’, no.80. May 1957), the placebo-effect of aspirin is talked-up, and the plot hinges around a kind of advanced holistic faith-healing. It’s also worth pausing for a moment here, to consider how remarkably the attitudes and expectations the story betrays have shifted over the decades since. An alien ship is tracked approaching Earth. When it’s found, invitingly open, but without its pilot, it bears a message ‘The Ship Is Yours. Take It And Learn’. Imagine this story remade now as a TV-movie. Is it instantly shipped off highest-security to some Area 51 for retro-engineering? Is it fought over by rival corporations greedy for its marketable technology?

No, wary of alien intentions, after two month’s deliberation the world committee decides to leave it well alone until the missing pilot can be located. So is there a swamp-operation security clamp-down with a razor-wire exclusion zone patrolled by drones and helicopter gunships? No, one low-rent private eye is hired to tramp the mean streets hunting the missing alien. He does so by the regular hard-boiled Pulp-Crime process of first checking the registers of hotels and boarding houses, then by reading recent back-issues of the local newspaper for unusual stories. The plot-twist, if it even rates as such, is that the alien is not grumpy David Knox with the healing hands, but the girl Amethyst who invests in his powers. The moral seems to be that increasing reliance on the miracles of medical science are leading to a dependency-culture losing sight of the body’s natural curative potential. ‘A lizard can grow a new tail. We can’t even develop a new attitude.’


There’s also something of his medical background coming into play in his second ‘Nebula’ story “Chip On My Shoulder” (no.25, October 1957), where Clyde develops a shoulder-growth following exposure to cosmic radiation five-hundred miles up. A growth which then begins to squirm. The experimental space flight is a public-private partnership part-sponsored by a cosmetic barrier cream company for which he is product-trialing. So is his affliction compensatable? You can bet your magnetic boots it isn’t. The company denies liability. Presslie manages to fuse equal amounts of David Cronenberg-style visceral body-horror with a defusing black-humour that anticipates ‘How To Get Ahead In Advertising’ (1989) in which Richard E Grant’s character grows a second head. When the Doctor slices the tumour open, it turns out to be an activated dormant twin, ‘the lips of the incision parted. Out of the mouth came a tongue.’ Clyde gets his compensation. But will not survive to enjoy its benefits, as other growths begin erupting across his body, and his head…

There are enough casually-inserted references to medical procedures across the spectrum of his tales to betray a knowing familiarity, and frequent direct references too. In a footnote to “Lucky Dog” (‘New Worlds’ no.124, November 1962) ‘the author acknowledges borrowing Ditran (or JB329) for literary purposes and begs forgiveness for its extrapolation to Propytran and the effects of the latter as herein described.’ As well as the occasional ironic aside – as in “Another Word For Man” (‘New Worlds’ no.78, December 1958) in which ‘Young’ Doc Chablis vents his feelings with some vehemence, ‘God, when I think of the money they spend on weapon research compared to the pennies they grudgingly allocate for cancer!’ Carnell commends this ‘different analytical approach.’

Elvis Presley debuted on the ‘New Musical Express’ chart with “Heartbreak Hotel” 12 May 1956, just as Robert Presslie was hitting his uncertain stride, following his first appearance with “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” in ‘Authentic SF’ no.58 (June 1955) about ‘Andy’ the experimental android facing explorative dissection after just twelve months of life. With macabre surgical precision ‘three times they let him die. Three times they started his heart again, each time testing a new technique.’ The shock turnaround is that Andy is an android-chimp, his replacement will be humanoid.

There were more appearances in ‘Authentic SF’, including the two-part “The Creep” (in January and February 1956), while editor EC Tubb selects yet another of his tales for the cover-story of the magazine’s final issue (no.85, October 1957). ‘Robert Presslie, who has been appearing in ‘Authentic’ for a long time now, has reached a new high with his “Star Tober”’ comments Tubb, ‘what could be more familiar than a circus? And yet, as he point out, a circus is really a civilization in miniature.’ It was for this reason that the Arcturan Stoneman ‘had picked the circus as being a compact sample of Earth’s human and animal life’, and teleports it complete to the alien planet. Although the idea might conjur images of ‘The Shipwrecked Circus’ strip in 1950’s ‘Beano’ – Ringmaster, Strongman, Fire-Eater, High-Wire Acrobat, clown – the bizarre mix of circus performers proceed to puzzle and bedazzle their intellectually-superior alien abductors with a series of mystifying stunts. To Tubb ‘his story, then, while not letting the symbolism intrude, does point a moral. I like his new style of presentation and if he keeps it up he’ll be way up among the top authors of today.’

From there, in just over a decade of writing – until 1966, Robert Presslie stacked up an impressive total of some thirty published stories. His style is wide-ranging. Which makes it difficult to define a unique Presslie trait, or condense his writing down into a series of recognisable ticks or signifiers. There’s sly humour. There’s an anti-war bias. There’s an understanding of molecular biosciences above and beyond other writers of his time. But “The Savage One” (in ‘Science Fiction Adventures’ no.11, November 1959) is a hardboiled generic romp, as though he’s deliberately targeting the specifications of the magazine title. A gangster called Kramer is executed – only to discover himself reassembled as a ‘Soldier of Mirfak’, his body restructured into a Robocop-style war-machine, as depicted by Brian Lewis. In a humorous aside, it seems Adolf Hitler had suffered a similar fate! Bug-like aliens intend using him for their invasion of Algol Four, a world of flat-headed super-intelligent sandworms. He allows himself to be captured, is retro-engineered back to human, with a gift of planetary destruction. In a willed act of revenge he destroys Mirfak in his own suicidal detonation. As the magazine title suggests, this is Science Fiction, and Adventure at its most fast-paced and garish.


Some bibliographies list his “Old Macdonald” as a novel – which is the way it was announced for its inclusion in ‘Nebula’ (no.29, April 1958). But at fourteen-thousand words it more qualifies as novelette. Editor Peter Hamilton describes it as ‘an ingenious and original’ tale ‘in which he takes the facts of biological farming as they are already known to science and, extrapolating them into the future,’ he ‘skillfully creates with them the cornerstone of an enthralling ‘situation’-type yarn’. It also comes decked out in the full space-hardware of an interplanetary war between the colonists of Mars and the impoverished seven islands of oceanic Venus. With war-devastated radioactive Earth abandoned, Venus seeks aid from extra-solar Ruthan, a world terraformed by brilliant but spurned biochemist Hamish Macdonald, only to find the Asiatic Martians got there first. Venusians Drake & Flett must persuade the amphibious native Ruthanians onto their side. There are false clues, a lot of moralising, and an intended shock plot-turnaround snap ending with a second exodus in which all Venusians relocate to Ruthan, leaving Mars as overlords of a dead solar system. It’s not a great story. Indeed, it’s the kind of nuts-and-bolts theory-heavy space-exploit that Brian Aldiss was so condescending about. Presslie could, and did write better.

“The Verdict” (‘Nebula’ no.28, March 1958) is just such a better story. In this future, Justice-computers run a series of parallel virtual-reality simulations to the fifth dimension to determine, not guilt or innocence, but the most socially-beneficial consequence of each offence. And there’s a ‘Minority Report’ (2002) Philip K Dick-style contra-logic element to the scenario in which a Vegan is obviously the murderer, but it’s the victim’s husband – Kelly, who is guilty for seeking vengeance, and psychiatrist Marnier’s department at fault for not originally detecting the personality-instability prompting Kelly’s need. There’s a potential movie here, or at least a ‘Dark Mirror’ tele-play. The protagonists run through a series of possible murder-scenarios in mental stasis, a kind of ‘virtual helmet’, although Presslie doesn’t say ‘virtual reality’ – in fact his Personnel Department still operates on ticker-tape print-outs, but that’s the word we’d now understand. Of course there’s the accoutrements of the time. ‘Ships and travelers from more planets than had been dreamed inhabitable a century earlier’ interact in a massive ‘Babylon 5’ style interplanetary skyscraper-terminal in central Australia, with Sirians and Rigellians mingling with humans and aliens from the multiple worlds of the Vega system. Eventually, Marnier is convinced the final probability-permutation has resolved the situation. But Kelly is still intent on his revenge, whatever the consequences.

There are ideas here that stand today. Yet the writer behind the ideas remains an enigma. Sifting for more trace-elements of his life, Ron Bennett’s long-running and informative fanzine the ‘Skyrack Newsletter’ references him twice – once in no.45 (4th Sept 1962), where it’s noted how Presslie attended the monthly ‘Globe’ SF-writers meeting of 2nd August 1962. Whether the visit was a regular part of his life, or a one-off participation is not apparent. And again in issue no.50 (March 1963) where it records that ‘Robert Presslie, was one of the personalities at this year’s Peterborough Convention.’ So he had at least some involvement with the British SF fan community.

Returning to his profile in ‘New Worlds’ he admits that ‘like everyone who is in science fiction – I am a dreamer, and dreamers never had it so good. This must be the only age in which dreams come true while you wait.’ But while those SF dreams of his are still worth the effort of hunting down through issues of long-defunct magazines, he clearly foresees the ‘state of flux’ affecting the genre.

He had his own incisive take on the apparently lost ‘Sense of Wonder’ in the genre, demanding ‘nobody leaves this room till we find it!’ In a guest editorial (‘New Worlds’ no.133, August 1963) he notes wryly how the popular newspapers devote detailed cover-story status to cricketer Freddie Trueman’s vertebrae spinal X-ray problems, while relegating America’s launch of com-sat ‘Relay’ to six lines in the bottom left corner of the back page of ‘The Daily Mirror’, and not at all in ‘The Daily Sketch’. He wonders if ‘maybe we live in an age of too many miracles and our senses are numbed.’ He speculates that ‘the sense of wonder has not gone from SF-writing. It has gone from its readers.’ While also predicting that ‘the next few years will see a drastic and dramatic change in science fiction. Who wants to read a make-believe yarn about the first man on the Moon when his photograph could well be on the front page of tomorrow’s newspapers?’ He was, of course, correct. ‘Modern SF is different because it is developing and it will go on developing as writers strive for new ways to express what they have to say and wider boundaries in which to say them.’

‘The change is going to call for a vast unfolding of the imagination by readers and writers alike. I hope to be able to contribute to that change.’ Only the final sentiment was to prove inaccurate, as the fiction style he represents fell out of favour with the explosion of the innovative experimental New Wave that he anticipates. The bibliographies record his last published story as the novelette “The Night of the Seventh Finger” in ‘New Writings in SF 7’, in 1966. He was forty-six years old at the time.

Oddly, around the same time, Elvis Presley was also falling out of chart favour in the face of a new wave of Beatles-led Beat Groups. Times were a-changing. It’s true that ‘Nebula’ and ‘Authentic SF’ were gone, and ‘New Worlds’ was undergoing the Michael Moorcock palace-revolution making it inhospitable to Presslie’s kind of work. But writers such as EC Tubb and Philip E High migrated to other titles, such as ‘Vision Of Tomorrow’, and later there was ‘Science Fiction Monthly’. As well as various semi-pro and fan-magazines. So why did he stop? It’s highly unusual for a writer with a successful track record just to cease writing. Unless there are personal factors as yet unknown. Are there unpublished stories that never located a home?

And typically, even the precise date of his death is disputed. His sparse Wikipedia entry quotes Robert Presslie as 1920 – 2002. The same year is mentioned in several places on the web, however the web-version of trade-press ‘The Pharmaceutical Journal’ for December 2000 carries an obit recording the death – ‘on September 5’, of ‘Robert Presslie, MR PharmS, of 10 Kingham Close, Lower Gornal, Dudley, West Midlands DY3 2PH’, shunting the date back by two years. Robert Presslie remained a mystery to the end.



ROBERT PRESSLIE: 
MYSTERY WRAPPED IN AN ENIGMA 

1955 – “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” (‘Authentic no.58’, June 1955) debut story described in the text. ‘There may be fields of activity in which... (title)’

1955 – “A Star Called Tommy” (‘Authentic no.62’, October 1955) it opens impressively ‘My kid brother, Tommy, invented anti-gravity when he was seven’, then develops into a first-man-to-the-moon story. When the atomic motors cut out on the return trip, with the ship on collision course for London, Tommy risks his anti-gravity theory. Looking up the narrator ‘saw a new star twinkle. A star called Tommy’. Did he succeed, or just detonate?

1956 – “The Creep, parts 1 and 2” (‘Authentic no.65 and 66’ January and February 1956) two-part serial. Set in Harry’s Bar with newsman Sam Garnet, who defied the script to broadcast the truth, that the ‘Creep’ of Cold War nuclear-test radiation levels is near-lethal, that war is imminent, and the spheres spotted in orbit around Earth are space-vultures ‘circling in readiness to pick our bones’. Harry turns out to be a foreign-agent. Then, they assume the bombs strike, but what has demolished the Bar is an alien sphere with the ability to neutralise the Creep. Sam and feline Lena locate junkie Doctor Sullevan to operate and save the surviving humanoid alien within the sphere, pleading for them to save humanity from itself


1956 – “Post Mortem” (‘Authentic no.67’, March 1956) Duffy stands guard over Forde’s catafalque, to the mourners, a hero of the Wheel-to-Mars run, to his crew, a hated disciplinarian. Until it’s explained that to return to Earth would kill the Captain – as the crew’s mutiny over Kenwood’s suspected appendicitis, proved

1956 – “Pilgrims All” (‘Authentic no.70’, June 1956) reprinted in Sweden as “Alla är Pilgrimer” (‘Häpna’, Oct 1963) ‘Everyone’s Had That Odd I’ve-Been-Here-Before Feeling. Déjà Vu They Call It; A Trick Of The Memory. Or Is It?’, when Spicer experiences impossible Déjà vu visions on the Lunar surface of Mare Imbrium, it leads him to an ancient crashed alien spaceship, and its tenuous final survivor has a deceptive tale to tell

1956 – “Cat Up A Tree” (‘Authentic no.72’, August 1956) ‘A Lie Can Always Be Justified If It Is For The Common Good. But What If The Lie Is Not a Lie?’, colonists in the Martian ‘Beehive’ are getting stir-crazy, Drew Banner’s loving wife Janie attacks him with a pair of scissors. Ferguson ‘plants’ a fossil femur as distraction therapy, but ‘that fossil that was found – it isn’t the one we planted!’

1956 – “Lest We Forget” (‘Authentic no.74’, November 1956) ‘A machine works strictly on logic. A criminal, knowing that, could easily beat a mechanical jury’

1956 – “Flesh And Blood” (‘Nebula no.19’, December 1956) art by Martin Frew ‘Whichever way he went only pain and death would meet him – so had Humanity decreed’

1957 – “Trojan Horse” (‘Authentic no.80’, May 1957) novelette, art by PR Green. ‘It was a man-hunt with a difference – they weren’t sure that they were hunting a man. But whoever or whatever had arrived in the space ship had to be found. And found fast!’

1957 – “My Name Is Macnamara” (‘Authentic no.81’, June 1957) novelette, art by Adash. ‘Something was terribly wrong with Macnamara. He woke with a strange wife, stranger talents and no idea how he had come by either. Then he discovered that his name was really something.’ Three men independently devise new technologies which, together, form a matter-transmitter communicating to a distant star. They are aliens on an initiative test, but having passed it, they decide to stay on Earth with their new wives

1957 – “Copy Cat” (‘Authentic no.82’, July 1957) art by Adash. ‘Setting a thief to catch a thief is an old adage. So is fighting fire with fire. But those who play with fire sometimes get burned.’ A poor humorous tale set in the Martian Beehive, a robot-cat companion with a programmed survival-instinct proves deadly

1957 – “Plague” (‘Science Fantasy no.24’, August 1957) novelette with cover art by Jose Rubios, ‘Robert Presslie, in his first story in our pages, presupposes just such a catastrophe (pandemic) – the difference being that the disease is one that primarily affects the emotions. The physical breakdown which follows is such that few people are left unaffected’ ‘An unusual story concerning an unusual type of plague which hits mankind and affects the senses, bringing about a social and moral breakdown’

1957 – “Interrupted View” (‘Authentic no.84’, September 1957) ‘Everyone knows that a woman is utterly devoid of logic and that it’s a mystery how they ever get things done. Here’s one husband who had a quite illogical, but remarkably successful wife.’ Dubious tongue-in-cheek sexism when airhead wife Annabel invents a view-on-demand TV to view future chat-shows

1957 – “Star Tober” (‘Authentic no.85’, October 1957) novelette, cover-art by PR Green. ‘A tober is the place where a circus makes a stand. Sometimes the next tober is a few miles away; sometimes several hundred. But Considine’s Circus set a new, all-time record.’ The complete circus is teleported to a planet of the Arcturus system, where they use their performer-skills to outwit their more mentally-evolved kidnappers

1957 – “Chip On My Shoulder” (‘Nebula no.25’, October 1957) art by Gerard Quinn. ‘He was suffering from a complaint unknown to medical science… and alarming in its possibilities’

1957 – “Comeback” (‘Science Fantasy no.25’, October 1957) reprinted in Sweden (‘Häpna’, Dec 1962) ‘the stage illusionist whose disappearing acts could never be understood by the lay mind. There was a particularly unpleasant reason why’. But if ‘The Great Gustav’ Levant made nine girls disappear into a parallel space-time world fifty years ago, why was there no investigation…?

1958 – “Dial ‘O’ For Operator” (‘Science Fantasy no.27’, February 1958) reprinted in ‘Weird Shadows From Beyond’ – ‘an anthology of Strange Stories’ edited by John Carnell (Corgi Books, 1965). Carnell writes ‘Robert Presslie wrote most of his finest short stories during the middle 1950’s, of which “Dial ‘O’ For Operator” is among his best (many others have been anthologised elsewhere). Most of Mr Presslie’s themes have been simple ones – like this story located in a telephone exchange at night and the slowly creeping horror of a woman in distress.’ Despite her continued terrified phone-calls, the police are unable to find the woman, a dockside prostitute, trapped by a shapeless organism from the sea. The phone-booth she’s calling from is empty. Operator Charlie Groom concludes ‘couldn’t it be that when somebody is in agony or really terrified their minds are so desperate for help that they can jump right out of their own time into another?’ A fine tense story

1958 – “The Fortieth Of December” (‘New Worlds no.68’, February 1958) John Carnell writes ‘So far, Robert Presslie has been making a name for himself in our companion magazine ‘Science Fantasy’, but his main ambition has been to appear in ‘New Worlds’. He makes his debut here with a neat little story of the trials of a Martian colony’. Although he returns to his earlier ‘Beehive’ idea, this is a silly and very dated trifle about the arrival of the first women on Mars, hunting husbands

1958 – “Verdict” (‘Nebula no.28’, March 1958) ‘The situation had been carefully assessed and the machine pronounced its verdict with the logic of infinite consideration’

1958 – “Next Of Kin” (‘New Worlds no.69’, March 1958) ‘The following story is in the nature of a conversation piece and as such develops a rising tempo which is almost sure to catch the reader by surprise as the story unfolds.’ A bead of amber excavated from long-extinct Martian excavations, and a matching one found in Scotland, contain the crystallized souls of Martians intent on saving life on other worlds from nuclear annihilation. An effective fable


1958 – “Old Macdonald” (‘Nebula no.29’, April 1958) 14k word-novel, art by Gerard Quinn. ‘His genius had brought happiness and plenty to one world. Could he also permit it to bring death and destruction to another?’

1958 – “The Champ” (‘Science Fantasy no.29’, June 1958) a gritty tale in which future-Boxers are programmed with the techniques of earlier champions, but when Pop’s boy Danny faces Herb Galloway’s android Roy in the ring, he ends up ‘a son who does not know who he is. Except sometimes he thinks maybe he is Joe Louis’

1958 – “One For The Road” (‘New Worlds no.72’, June 1958) ‘This is a delightful conversation piece by Mr Presslie – five derelict specimens of humanity sitting under a bridge talking, mainly about alcohol. No action takes place, yet a momentous decision is reached which has far-reaching effects.’ One is an alien visitor, another an alien-watcher

1958 – “Take Your Partners” (‘Nebula no.34’, September 1958) reprinted in US edition Jan 1959. A kind of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ with the Sirian invaders as judges! ‘Bobby Roper was the best ballroom dancer on Earth; why, even the aliens from Sirius thought so’

1958 – “Sendoff” (‘New Worlds no.77’, November 1958), Willy lives fifty years in a small village as a failed experiment in android-assimilation, another by what John Carnell calls ‘a master of the conversation piece’, the issue also includes a Robert Presslie ‘Writer Profile’ with photograph

1958 – “Pariah” (‘Nebula no.37’, December 1958) an explosion at Longdene Nuclear plant, and an irradiated saboteur on the run. Some earnest discussion on the logics of the Cold War arms race, giving both opinions equal weight. Illustration by Kenneth Barr. ‘Through the misty night he wandered, bearing with him his load of hate and creeping death’

1958 – “Another Word For Man” (‘New Worlds no.78’, December 1958) ‘Alien stories make up a considerable proportion of science fiction themes these days – which is not surprising now that homo sapiens is on the threshold of space flight – but it is more with the exploitation of the alien in contact with Man that we are interested. As usual, Robert Presslie has the simple but extremely dynamic approach’. Pierre Medoc, a French-Canadian, pulls a bell-shaped alien from the sea on his lobster pot. H’rola, an untried doctor from planet Fronal, sacrifices itself to save Father St Emilion from a terminal tumor. Like Jean-Luc Picard in ‘Star Trek’, it allows Medoc to introduce ‘merde’ into ‘New Worlds’!

1958 – “Ladies’ Man” (‘Science Fantasy no.32’, December 1958) novelette. ‘Mr Presslie’s story this month deals with an android – but an android the like of which you have never known! This one not only eats (and who ever heard of a synthetic man eating?) but has a magnetic charm for the ladies. One might say, however, that there are wheels within wheels…’ Following android emancipation, Homer Adonis becomes involved in convoluted plot-twists with Nanthy and Leeba Goohan of feuding female-dominated planets Caph and Ruchbah. Narrated by his human secretary Miss Sharon Gold, he outwits them both


1959 – “Suicide Squad” (‘Nebula no.39’, February 1959) novelette, art by Eddie Jones, reprinted in US edition June 1959. ‘It was an ugly and hostile planet which promised only death to men – or a life fuller and more fruitful’

1959 – “Confession Is Good” (‘New Worlds no.82’, April 1959), an android named Ox struggles to interpret contradictory human intentions, and ends up protectively murdering his creators Griffin and Kate


1959 – “The Savage One” (‘SF Adventures no.11’, November 1959) novelette, art by Brian Lewis, ‘On Earth Kramer was a rogue, and as such due to die – but he was destined to become a Soldier of Mirfak and pit his wits against some of the greatest fighters in the galaxy’

1962 – “One Foot In The Door” (‘New Worlds no.121’, August 1962) reprinted in US edition Sep 1962. Carnell says ‘Several years have elapsed since Robert Presslie was writing regularly for us, during which time he produced some exceptionally fine short stories’, this return features salesman Ragg Dante outwitting, crafty devious psi Acamarians over a matter-transmitter relay-station to be sited on their planet, by trading psi-amplifying Schraeder coils which – when reversed, will give Earth an advantage in future dealing

1962 – “Remould” (‘New Worlds no.123’, October 1962) a large-sweep future-disaster novelette. Henneker’s 30,000 are ‘the last tribe in Europe’ migrating beyond the sterility zone between 60 and 20N created by twenty orbiting alien ships. They cross the Bosphorus by raft-flotilla, through Baghdad, to meet the aliens inadvertently responsible who are working to make amends. Revealing that Henneker himself is an alien

1962 – “Lucky Dog” (‘New Worlds no.124’, November 1962) novelette, ‘In a mind suffering from schizophrenia, the switch from ‘Jekyll’ to ‘Hyde’ can be savage in its intensity. Wagner volunteered for induced schizoid experiments and came up with something Man had lost long ago’ – his Propytran-induced animal senses enable him to contact miniaturized aliens on orbital satellite

1962 – “Stethoscope for Sale”, science/medical article – with no autobiographical or SF-related content (‘Vector no.18’, Winter 1962, BSFA publication)

1963 – “Ecdysiac” (‘New Worlds no.126’, January 1963) ‘When Pike, a newspaper correspondent, uncovered a strange chain of events, the only solution was murder. For reasons which Pike found out later, the victim refused to die.’ Cold War James Bond espionage overtones, showing familiarity with its Warsaw setting, but it’s rival forces in covert galactic conspiracy (which had controlled Hitler!) and Pike has already killed him three times

1963 – “Till Life Do Us Part” (‘New Worlds no.127’, February 1963) ‘The colony worlds were modern and progressive, while the remnants of mankind left behind on Earth became more and more decadent’ Deathmembers and Liferenters provide virtual immortality, but Charles van Beer from Venus is forced to change his opinion, they are not just hedonists, Spence Logan is part of an evolutionary project to reach the stars

1963 – “Dipso Facto” (‘New Worlds no.131’, June 1963) ‘It was the greatest contest of all time, with the dice loaded against the Earthman winning. Despite this, fair means produced a win for him in the end.’ Fringe-legal galactic profiteer Ragg Dante intends selling Scotch whisky, and – if Umba is a sewage-farm planet, neighboring Snox is ‘a shattering vision confected of sugar frosting’ a ‘world of detergent-ad whiteness.’ While war is employed ‘if the Federation decided that the drastic measure of deliberately inciting wholesale murder was the best means of catalysing scientific progress in a world gone stale through lack of adversity’, he wins through an eating competition

1963 – “Speaking For Myself” Guest Editorial, and ‘Robert Presslie Writer Profile’ (‘New Worlds no.133’, August 1963) ‘To make any accurate prediction on the form of future SF is impossible. But the fact that it is in a state of flux should be satisfaction enough for anyone. You won’t like all the changes. Nobody ever does… every time he (the writer) introduces the tiniest of innovations he runs the risk of mass unpopularity. But at least he isn’t scared to try. Why should you be scared to go along with him?’

1963 – “Sterilitetsbältet” (reprint of ‘Remould’ in Sweden in ‘Häpna’, November 1963)

1963 – “No Brother of Mine” (‘New Worlds no. 137’, December 1963) ‘a play on human characterization, the major event which occurs is lost in the welter of conflicting personalities’, no time specified but the cleverly-observed mother-son dialogue has an austerity 1950s feel, Davey finds a naked dying Troglodyte, presumably driven to the surface by the same emergency that’s called his mine-worker father back to the pit, reprinted in Sweden as “Icke Min Broder” (‘Häpna’, December 1964)

1964 – “Odödlighet” (reprint of ‘Immortality’ in Sweden in ‘Häpna’, February 1964)

1964 – “Försäljaren” (reprint of ‘The Vendor’ in Sweden in ‘Häpna’, May 1964)

1965 – “Experimentet” (reprint of ‘The Experiment’ in Sweden in ‘Häpna’, May 1965)


1965 – “The Day Before Never” (‘New Writings in SF 6’) London: Dennis Dobson hardback (London, 1965). Corgi paperback (London, 1966). Bantam paperback (New York, March 1971) crossing a devastated Europe subjugated by alien Barbarians, anticipating some elements of New Wave with its casual cruelty and sexual content. The first-person narrator is betrayed and fails in his attempt to set up chain-reaction nuclear explosions along fault-lines that would cause alien-destroying vibrations, but his defiant resistance becomes in itself his dying triumph


1966 – “The Night of the Seventh Finger” (‘New Writings in SF 7’) novelette, Dennis Dobson hardback (London, 1966), dust-jacket by Eric Ayres. Corgi paperback (London, 1966), cover Ken Randall. Bantam paperback (New York, August 1971) a clever temporal-conundrum in which the last diseased humans, returning from the stars, fall through a time-warp, and dolly-bird Sue Bradley is abducted by a seven-fingered Charles Laughton-alike, in Eastwood New Town. ‘Charlieboy’s attempt to change the future is thwarted by Sue’s groupie encounter with ‘Simon Legree & The Slaves’

With thanks to David Redd and Greg Pickersgill fan-site: 

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Poem: "Occasionally Paul Eluard"




OCCASIONALLY 
PAUL ELUARD


dawn cross-hatches sheets with cancer
you raise your antlered eyelids and
speak to me through bronze keyholes
as we empty our pockets in frozen ritual,
seventeen insects crawl within my stomach
seventy-four ashtrays scream in silent agony,
you raise your vacuum lips from the pubic fire
of my grateful thighs where you’ve spent the night

the world ceases to exist
beyond our field of perception,
you climb the austere liquid watches
somewhere beyond the monastic emptiness
of vision until canopus defies uranus
across a street clogged with
the silt of unattached retinas,
eventually, unseen conversation
extinguishes itself in
a spill of coins…



Published in: ‘CENTRE SEVENTEEN’ (UK)
‘SECOND COMING’ (USA)
‘GLOBAL TAPESTRY JOURNAL’ (UK)
‘FORERUNNER No.35’ (Australia – November 1975)
also collected into:
‘SECOND COMING ANTHOLOGY’ (USA – March 1984)
‘DEAF EYES’ (Fiasco Publications)

             Paul Eluard (14 December 1895 - 26 November 1952)

Friday, 27 March 2015

Music: BRENDA LEE - The Real Miss Dynamite



BRENDA LEE: 
 THE REAL MISS DYNAMITE


Album Review of: 
‘THE VERY BEST OF 
BRENDA LEE… WITH LOVE’ 
 by BRENDA LEE (Telstar, 1994)


 “The radio’s playing some forgotten song 
Brenda Lee’s ‘Coming On Strong’…” 
               (‘Radar Love’ by Golden Earrings, 1973) 


There’ve been other claimants to the title. Ms Dynamite, Double-Dynamite, Mr Dynamite. But let’s be honest, there’s only ever been one ‘Little Miss Dynamite’, and that most emphatically is Brenda Mae Tarpley – Brenda Lee. No argument about that. She may stand no more that 4’9” in her stocking feet, but she could fill a venue with her presence, and a voice that scarcely needs amplification to reach the back row of the theatre.

Born in Lithonia to dirt-poor parents near Atlanta, Georgia on 11 December 1944, and educated at Maplewood School, Brenda started out singing for dimes in the local candy store, and working talent contests, winning her first aged just six. ‘When I was a kid I used to play with the black kids on our street’ she told interviewer Martin Hawkins, ‘and I’d go to church with them and pick up elements of gospel music. I guess that’s why I sing so oddly, why I’ve never been quite Rock or quite Country or quite Pop.’

She had her own radio-spot and did WAGA-TV in Atlanta, where producer Sammy Barton suggested a more catchy audience-friendly name. So it was as Brenda Lee she was spotted by Country star Red Foley (Pat Boone’s father-in-law!), who arranged her large-scale TV debut on the ‘Ozark Jubilee’ 31 March 1955 broadcast from Springfield, Missouri, as a talented tot novelty. The slot nevertheless seems set to target her for an orthodox country music career, especially when her first record of a five-year contract for American Decca, her take on Hank Williams’ Cajun standard “Jambalaya”, scored a regional hit. The label quotes ‘Little Miss Brenda’ as being nine, knocking a few years off her age, although she was approaching twelve when the record was eventually released. Oddly, although Decca was an American subsidiary of a British label, it had offices in Nashville and a roster including country-boogie piano-player Roy Hall and early Rock ‘n’ Rollers Johnny Carroll, Webb Pierce, Jackie Lee Cochran and Eddie Fontaine, as well as Red Foley.

There’s a TV-clip preserved on YouTube of little Brenda in neat pinafore dress with ribbon tied at the back, ankle socks and strap shoes, belting out “Jambalaya” to backing from the Lubbock Texas Rhythm Machine. Porter Wagoner, presenter at the Cactus Theatre ‘Grand Ole Opry’ enthuses ‘I get tired just watching her!’ Then he jokes about quitting singing himself to become her manager, which might actually have been an astute move. Because soon she’s up-grading to national TV, doing “Doodle Bug Rag” on the Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall – closing with a cute courtsy, then doing Steve Allen, Dick Clark, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Ed Sullivan.

With jumpy handclaps and sighing steel-guitar “One Step At A Time” in 1957 graduated Brenda’s claim to be the youngest act to place a crossover record on both Pop – albeit at no.43, and ‘Billboard’ Country charts, at no.15. Meanwhile, higher up the Hit Parade, Connie Francis was established as the top female artist of the period, specialising in big dramatic Italianate weepies. But every now and then, when her MGM label thought it appropriate, she was allowed to Rock out to meet the new teen-wave. “Lipstick On Your Collar”, “Robot Man” and Neil Sedaka-Howie Greenfield’s “Stupid Cupid” hit those jive-dive requirements to perfection.

Needless to say, there were other contenders out there. Wanda Jackson could be amazing, tutored by touring with Elvis Presley, he advised her to down-pedal the sweet country schmaltz and to Rock out instead. But despite being billed as the ‘Queen of Rockabilly’, maybe she lucked out with her material? It’s interesting to compare and contrast. Wanda had a June 1960 US Top Forty hit with “Let’s Have A Party”, a song lifted from Elvis’s second movie soundtrack ‘Loving You’. Brenda had an April 1959 UK hit with handclap-driven “Let’s Jump The Broomstick”, a cover of the black original by Alvin Gaines & The Themes, dealing with an old folkloric common-law marriage custom. Hot to tie the knot Brenda doesn’t care if ‘my father don’t like it, my brother don’t like it, my sister don’t like it, my mother don’t like it’… to hell with them! The raucous flat-out Rocking vocal-lines of the two records are virtually interchangeable. Listening to them back-to-back even now it’s easy to confuse which is Brenda and which Wanda. Wanda Jackson still retains a cult following, clear through to her revival at the hands of fan Jack White. But she missed out on the mass commercial success enjoyed by Brenda Lee.

Brenda with a copy of "Jambalaya"

The switch occurs when Brenda cuts “Sweet Nothin’s” at Nashville’s Bradley Film & Recording Studio with producer Owen Bradley, as part of her second studio album. Written by Ronnie Self, it provided her breakthrough, following extensive promotion it became a huge Pop hit in both European and Stateside markets. Determining her future trajectory, she might still adopt the manner and appearance of a country Georgia Peach, and already ranked as a seasoned genre performer, but the song is strong – and her delivery even stronger. Today, its theme almost ranks it as paedo-Pop. From the opening suggestive male whispering to Brenda’s firmly decisive ‘Ah-ha Honey, well alright’ she’s teasingly sexually precocious in an innocent 1950s way. Sitting in classroom trying to read her book, her baby gives her that ‘special look’, her voice dropping to a tone of confidentiality. She knows and we know what she means, with a knowing wink. No fake either, unlike Connie Francis or Wanda Jackson, in keeping with the song’s persona, she was still aged just fifteen.

She’s a schoolgirl, yet flirtatious with a swaggering self-confident delivery. Described at the time as variously ‘part whisky, part negroid and all woman’ or an ‘explosive bundle of charm’ who can ‘transform herself from a comics-reading teenager into a tortured woman’ with a clap of her hands. This is a quality that journalist Bob Solly later calls ‘the novelty angle of having a tiny tot singing in an older woman’s stockings’ serving as ‘a promotion ploy that paid off’ (in ‘Record Collector: 100 Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Records’, 2005). But it’s no different to the Everly Brothers classroom scenario where Johnny kissed the Teacher, he tiptoes up to reach her. These early days of Pop were unerringly targeted at bobbysoxer disposable income in a way unique to its time. Boybands and Diva’s today – even when focused on juvenile audiences, deal knowingly with adult themes in a relatively mature way. Back then, Chuck Berry could drool over “Sweet Little Sixteen” who – come Monday morning, was back in class again, without any hint of impropriety. While even the Beach Boys complained that ‘after six hours of school I’ve had enough for today, I hit my radio dial and turn it up all the way.’

In 1959, kids hitting the radio dial caught Brenda’s “Sweet Nothin’s” and turned it up all the way into the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic. Much like Taylor Swift would later become, already she was too big to be contained by the limitations of Country. Many more, and bigger hits would follow, with package tours around the States with Duane Eddy and Fabian – who treated her like a kid sister, and around the world from Brazil to Europe, Paris hailing her as the ‘most dynamic American artist since Judy Garland.’ In England she was the first American artist to appear on Jack Good’s ABC-TV ‘Oh Boy’ (4 April 1959), returning to guest again the following week, toured through April 1962 with Gene Vincent, and starred on ITV’s high-status ‘The Royal Variety Performance’ (8 November 1964) with Tommy Cooper and Cilla Black. She regularly topped the ‘New Musical Express’ poll as ‘World no.1 Female Singer’ (1962-1964).

Yet such early show-biz success can seriously screw you up. The history of Pop is littered with the burnt-out casualties of once-cute prodigious bundles of talent consigned to the junkyard as soon as they hit puberty. Watch clips of cutie-pie toddler Shirley Temple singing and dancing and you’re immediately struck by her supernaturally precocious talent, just as you’re unsettled by the enthusiastic attentions of her male co-stars. Yet she seems to have emerged intact. Unlike movie-child Judy Garland, Teenagers-star Frankie Lymon, or the troubled Michael Jackson. Yet with Brenda Lee there are no Britney Spears-type public meltdown moments, or Justin Bieber spoilt brattishness. She never appears less than humanly accessible and grounded.

When she gets the chance to Rock out, she does it with rare relish and self-assurance. “Dum Dum”, a uniquely female-centred project penned by Jackie DeShannon with Sharon Sheeley, is a deliciously lubricious concoction that Brenda delivers with sensual delight. There’s the nonsense ‘dum-dum diddly-dum’ chorus, after which she sets the scene, ‘the music’s sweet and lights are low, playin’ a song on the radio, your Ma’s in the kitchen, your Pa’s next door’ then she positively coos ‘I wanna love you just a little bit more’ oozing with toe-curling invitation. Less a full-strength Rocker, but with a thrusting rhythm structure emphasized by a sinuously catchy organ riff, fruitily rasping sax-break and sharp drum figures, urged on by her ‘oh yeah’ and ‘sing it out’, so that when she suggests ‘there’s so many things that we could do, so say the words and make my dreams come true’ its collusion adds shapely contoured energy levels around her voice.

In these songs she anticipates 1960s liberation attitudes. She was never going to be the decorously passive 1950s songstrel, pale and vapidly formal – she knows what she wants, and if the guy don’t measure up to her expectations, he’s gone. She’s real in ways that her immediate predecessor and contemporaries are not.

Oddly, although “Speak To Me Pretty” is one of Brenda’s biggest British hits – climbing to no.3 (in April 1962), it was never more than an American track on her ‘All The Way’ (August 1961) album. In her first big-screen role it features on the soundtrack of the ‘Two Little Bears’ (1961) comic fantasy movie in which Brenda appears as ‘Tina Davis’ and sings two songs, “Honey Bear”, and the hit. In an open-top car snucked up down Lovers Lane a spirited Brenda reprimands dozy co-star Jimmy Bowen about his clumsy attempted-seduction, scolding him ‘you’re going about it the wrong way!’ The song develops into a less convincing duet when he replies with a verse of his own. But for the studio version again, it’s more jog-along rhythm powered by raw sax-break and the undeniable strength of her voice rather than a true Rock track. But her interpretation is spot-on, ‘speak to me pretty – ah! – speak to me nice’ with an intimacy emphasized by the ‘ah’, yet extolling the power of words as a weapon of love. ‘Quote me those wonderful phrases, once or twice’ she cajoles, ‘make like a fabulous poet each time we meet’ because ‘whoa, words can knock me off my feet.’


Then “Here Comes That Feeling” is perhaps the most perfect Pop-fusion of emoting and up-tempo vocals. Written by Dorsey (brother of Johnny) Burnette with Joe Osborne, it’s more rocka-beat or beat-ballad, a heartbreaker that she infuses with a totally-convincing vocal crack-up. ‘Here comes that feeling again’ she opens, adding ‘and it ain’t right’ charged with full petulant hurt and rage against the injustice of life and false love. She’d seen him in a ‘drive-in way downtown, locked in her arms, you didn’t know I’d be around’, then rising to the compelling middle-eight in which she protests how she’s ‘gotta get rid of this lonely feeling’ and fight back, until ‘you’re gonna want me back while I’m-a having fun.’ Immaculately constructed with every second made to count, even the fade carries a ‘oh, I’m so lonely, mmmm, I feel that feeling, and it’s a-hurting me’ with full power turned on the ‘hurting’ word. I bought it. I played it a lot on my old Dansette portable record player. I bought more Brenda Lee singles than any other female artist. More even than Dusty Springfield. She was a constant fixture on my turntable.

Later in the decade British songwriters Barry Mason and Les Reed cunningly reconfigure the lyric into “Here It Comes Again, That Feeling” for the Fortunes. While Brenda follows it – up to no.15 in the UK in June 1962, with “It Started All Over Again”. A similar theme, substituting clarinet for sax solo, to only marginally less impact. Written by Gerry Goffin and Jack Keller it was also cut by Carole King as the ‘B’-side of her hit “It Might As Well Rain Until September”, but Brenda’s is the object lesson in how to interpret a lyric to maximum devastating effect. At best, her hits are done in a danceably Rock-ballad style, with integrated pizzicato strings and an electric rhythm section buoying her voice. If the backings are sometimes formulaic, and the songs of variable quality, Brenda’s Rocker-in-a-party-dress vocals remain constant. In complete contrast to her schoolgirl image, her husky world-worn voice is capable of suggesting a mix of despair, dissipation and sexual torment.

It could be argued that her song-selection was ill-advised. Despite a heavy-weight session back-up crew involving Elvis regulars Floyd Cramer (piano) and Boots Randolph (sax), plus Hank Garland’s guitar and Anita Kerr’s background vocals, her debut album – ‘Grandma, What Great Songs You Sang!’ (August 1959), wallows in an embarrassment of oldies such as “Toot, Toot, Tootsie Goodbye” and “Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody”, as though her long-term producer Owen Bradley doesn’t know quite what to do with this alarmingly talented protégé, or what her intended target-market should be. Neither “St Louis Blues” nor “Baby Face” can salvage much of value. Her albums continue to include a quota of hackneyed standards, with her sixth – ‘Sincerely, Brenda Lee’ (1962) entirely devoted to them, mellowing out in an apparently misguided shot at broadening her appeal into the supposed adult market.

Yet there’s a story attesting to her own assured confidence during studio work – related in the book ‘Finding Her Voice: Women In Country Music 1800-2000’ (2003), where she points out a bum-note struck by one of the session-professionals, which is only confirmed during playback. She may have – sometimes mistakenly, taken career-advice on board, but she’d grown up in the studio, it was her natural environment, she was completely at ease and totally in control there.

Her second long-player – ‘Brenda Lee’ (August 1960), is better, despite being a catch-all recorded in four separate sessions wide-spaced between October 1958 and March 1960, revisiting “Jambalaya” in new stereo sound. She also revamps another early hit, “Dynamite” – the song that first suggested amending her brand-name (and not the Cliff Richard ‘B’-side Rocker of the same name!). Her first nine albums use the same studio, producer and nucleus of musicians. Owen Bradley, who also worked with Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, would remain her producer-of-choice until 1976. But as a product of Nashville – with Buddy Emmons steel guitar joining the studio team, her albums constitute an early example of what became known as ‘New Country’, with tastefully lush but nuanced orchestrations and legato choral backings.


It's her second album that also spawned “Sweet Nothin’s”, plus follow-up hits in John D Loudermilk’s “Weep No More My Baby”, “Let’s Jump The Broomstick”, and biggest of all – the classic deeply-felt “I’m Sorry”. The label was initially unsure about fifteen-year-old Brenda singing of the exquisite pain of mature unrequited love, but once issued as a single it takes off, to knock the Hollywood Argyle’s “Alley-Oop” off the US top slot to became her first ‘Billboard’ no.1, in June 1960, a gold disc and the defining song in her career. It was also – incidentally, the last record issued in 78rpm format in the UK. And who could resist its mournful lament? Certainly not me.

Country has always had a weakness for maudlin self-pity. And big heartbreak – what would today be termed power-ballads, were everywhere popular. Connie Francis’ biggest hits were Italianate love ballads, not her shots at Rock. And Brenda’s “Everybody Loves Me But You” is heartbreak on an epic scale, a song to rip the still-beating heart out of your chest with its anguished pain. A massive American hit in its own right – no.2 on the Adult Contemporary Chart and no.6 in the Pop Hundred, it was relegated to the ‘B’-side of “Here That Comes That Feeling” in the UK, making it a classic double-sided coupling. Again written by prolific country singer-songwriter Ronnie ‘Mr Frantic’ Self, it portrays Brenda resentful of the friends who’d advised her to dump her no-good boyfriend, but ‘I can’t tell them they were wrong, ‘cause I’m afraid they’ll leave me too’. Like Elvis’ “Are You Lonesome Tonight” or the Everly Brothers “Ebony Eyes” there’s even a spoken section, recited with the exquisite sensitivity of an actress. No, not an actress, when she confides, ‘my friends don’t know what they’ve done, well, they wouldn’t understand anyway,’ its hurt is so flinchingly real it’s impossible not to believe every word.

The success established a template for further dramatic smoothies, to the detriment of her potential for up-tempo numbers. And the cascading strings and harpsichord of “All Alone Am I” – UK no.7 in January 1963, and even more so “As Usual” – no.5 in January 1964, have the emotional power to melt the most cynical heart. When she part-talks the lyrics, as though in introspective self-dialogue, before breaking into the soaring ‘and as I stood there telling lies, the tears began to fill my eyes’ she’s manipulating an emotional response far beyond the range of most of her contemporaries.

She married her life-partner, Ronnie Shacklett in 1963. And the hits continued despite the eruption of the Beat Boom that transfigured global Pop the following year. In fact she headlined German shows with the unknown Beatles, and Terry Sheridan was the opening act for her March 1963 UK package tour. And she was sharp enough to switch around soon after and come to grab a slice of Swinging London for herself.

Safely ensconced in Decca’s no.2 West Hampstead studio complex she selected a couple of strong titles reflecting the urgencies of the new English Sound. Written by John Carter and Ken Lewis of the Ivy League, and produced by Mickie Most, “Is It True?” uses the cream of session musicians, Big Jim Sullivan and Jimmy Page on guitars, with Bobby Graham on drums. Promoted live on cult Mod show ‘Ready Steady Go’ (21 August 1964) with her strident voice confidently riding the rhythms, it’s a dramatic contrast from her previous hit, the old-fashioned saccharine-confected “Think” (no.26, April 1964). Flipped with her raunchy reworking of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?”, the single invests her career with renewed relevancy, and it climbs to no.17 in September 1964, in a chart consisting of the Kinks, the Zombies, Manfred Mann and topped by Herman’s Hermits! She was photographed alongside Long John Baldry, their contrasting stature used to comic effect. Unfortunately the London venture proves to be a one-off, not to be repeated. She did take Dave Berry’s “The Crying Game” back to the States with her – later a hit for Boy George, as the ‘B’-side for the up-tempo “Thanks A Lot”. But when she returned to Nashville, it was to pick up her career where she’d left off.

She’d started out in bouffant auburn hair and flared skirts, competing with Connie Francis and Wanda Jackson. By now she’d bridged the decade into the time of mini-skirts, Dusty Springfield and Cilla Black. A strong aspirational example of autonomy and control to a whole new wave of female artists, with none of the chill standoffishness of, say, Madonna – more a kind of worldly aunt. And there were still airplay hits to come, including “Coming On Strong” which Golden Earrings recall on their hit single “Radar Love”.

In fact, before gracefully exiting from the music business in 1967 at still only twenty-three, Brenda had racked-up twenty-nine American Top Forty hits, including a second no.1 with “I Want To Be Wanted” (September 1960), plus “Fool Number One” (no.3, October 1961), “Break It To Me Gently” (no.4, January 1962) and “The Grass Is Greener” (no.17, October 1963) which came from the pen of Barry Mann with Mike Anthony. A success-level reflected by a string of twenty-two UK hits – “Losing You” (no.10, March 1963) a French song threaded with full-bodied trumpet and English lyrics by Carl Sigman, the piano-ornamented “I Wonder” (no.14, July 1963) and the jaunty “Sweet Impossible You” (no.28, October 1963) with Brenda’s half-spoken accusation ‘you go on, and I’ll find someone’. There’s also the perennial “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” (no.6, November 1962) which reemerges every yuletide for renewed airplay.

According to her ghosted autobiography ‘Brenda Lee: Little Miss Dynamite’ (by Brenda Lee with daughter Julie Clay and Robert K Oermann, Hyperion, 2002) at the close of the decade she underwent a severe loss of confidence, doubting if there was still a place for her in the rapidly-changing music scene. Yet in 1971, married with two children, she returned to music and immediately gained country chart success with Kris Kristofferson’s “Nobody Wins”. Her first second-phase album – ‘Brenda’ (1973), was her biggest seller to date, and also includes her powerful version of “Always On My Mind”, which stands up well to other versions by Elvis Presley, the Pet Shop Boys and Willie Nelson. She soon established herself as a country singer in the Nashville mainstream, along with fellow Rock ‘n’ Rollers Conway Twitty and Jerry Lee Lewis. She charted duets with George Jones and an album (‘The Winning Hand’, 1982) with Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson. She was inducted into the ‘Country Music Hall of Fame’ in 1997, and even got to cameo in the 1980 Burt Reynolds movie ‘Smokey And The Bandit II’ listed as ‘Nice Lady’.

Sure, there’ve been other claimants to the title. Ms Dynamite, Double-Dynamite, Mr Dynamite. But let’s be honest, there’s only ever been one ‘Little Miss Dynamite’, and that most emphatically is Brenda Lee. No argument about that.



BRENDA LEE: HIT BY HIT 

September 1956 – “Jambalaya” c/w “Bigelow 6-200” (Decca 9-30050)

January 1957 – “One Step At A Time” c/w “Fairyland” (Decca 9-30198) reaches US no.43

May 1957 – “Dynamite” c/w “Love You Till I Die” (Decca 9-30333, UK Brunswick 05685) reaches US no.72

August 1957 – “One Teenager To Another” c/w “Ain’t That Love” (Decca 9-30411)

November 1957 – “Rock-A-Bye Baby Blues” c/w “Rock The Bop” (Decca 9-30535)

June 1958 – “Ring-A-My Phone” c/w “Little Jonah (Rock On Your Steel Guitar)” (Decca 9-30673, UK Brunswick 05755)

December 1958 – “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home” c/w “Hummin’ The Blues Over You” (Decca 9-30806)

17 March 1960 (re-enters 7 April) – “Sweet Nothin’s” c/w “Weep No More My Baby” (Brunswick 05819) reaches no.4. US no.4 (Decca 30967)


30 June 1960 – “I’m Sorry” (Brunswick 05833) reaches no.12. US no.1 (Decca 31093) where B-side “That’s All You Gotta Do” reaches no.6

20 October 1960 – “I Want To Be Wanted” (Brunswick 05839) reaches no.31. US no.1 (Decca 31149) where B-side “Just A Little” reaches no.40

19 January 1961 – “Let’s Jump The Broomstick” (Brunswick 05823) reaches no.12. 1959 US single c/w “Some Of These Days”

3 April 1961 – “You Can Depend On Me” US (Decca 31231) reaches US no.6

6 April 1961 – “Emotions” (Brunswick 05847) reaches no.45 US reaches no.7 (Decca 31195) where B-side “I’m Learning About Love” reaches no.33

20 July 1961 – “Dum Dum” (Brunswick 05854) reaches no.22. US reaches no.4 (Decca 31272) where B-side “Eventually” reaches no.56. Oddly ‘Dum Dum’ also reaches US R&B no.4

16 November 1961 – “Fool Number One” (Brunswick 05860) reaches no.38. US reaches no.3 (Decca 31309) where B-side “Anybody But Me” reaches no.31

8 February 1962 – “Break It To Me Gently” (Brunswick 05864) reaches no.46. US reaches no.4 (Decca 31348) where B-side “So Deep” reaches no.52

5 April 1962 – “Speak To Me Pretty” c/w “Lover, Come Back To Me” (Brunswick 05867) reaches no.3

21 June 1962 – “Here Comes That Feeling” (Brunswick 05871) reaches no.5. In US B-side “Everybody Loves Me But You” reaches no.6 (Decca 31379)

13 September 1962 – “It Started All Over Again” (Brunswick 05876) reaches no.15. US reaches no.29 (Decca 31407) where flip-side “Heart In Hand” reaches no.15


24 November 1962 – ‘ALL THE WAY’ (Brunswick LAT 8383) reaches no.20, twelve tracks including ‘Lover Come Back To Me’, ‘All The Way’, ‘On The Sunny Side Of The Street’, Ray Charles ‘Talkin’ ‘Bout You’ and Jerry Lordan’s ‘Do I Worry (Yes I Do)’

29 November 1962 – “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” (Brunswick 05880) reaches no.6. US reaches no.14 19 December 1960 (Decca 30776)

17 January 1963 – “All Alone Am I” (Brunswick 05882) reaches no.6. US reaches no.3 (Decca 31424) where B-side “Save All Your Lovin’ For Me” reaches no.53 (re-issued MCA MU1012)


16 February 1963 – ‘BRENDA: THAT’S ALL’ (Brunswick LAT8516) reaches no.13, her seventh studio album with twelve tracks including ‘I’m Sitting On Top Of The World’, Marvin Rainwater’s ‘Gonna Find Me A Bluebird’, Fats Domino-Dave Bartholomew’s ‘Valley Of Tears’, ‘White Silver Sands’ and ‘Just Out Of Reach’ 

16 February 1963 – “Your Used To Be” US (Decca 31454) reaches US no.32 and B-side “She’ll Never Know” reaches no.47

28 March 1963 – “Losing You” (Brunswick 05886) reaches no.10 US reaches no.6 (Decca 31478) where B-side “He’s So Heavenly” reaches no.93


13 April 1963 – ‘ALL ALONE AM I’ (Brunswick LAT 8530) reaches no.8, eighth studio album with twelve tracks including ‘Fly Me To The Moon’, ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco’, ‘My Colouring Book’, and ‘My Prayer’

18 July 1963 – “I Wonder” (Brunswick 05891) reaches no.14. US reaches no.25 (Decca 31510) where flip-side “My Whole World Is Falling Down” reaches no.24

31 October 1963 – “Sweet Impossible You” (Brunswick 05896) reaches no.28. US no.70, in US the flip-side “The Grass Is Greener” US (Decca 31539) reaches US no.17

9 January 1964 – “As Usual” c/w “Lonely Lonely Lonely Me” (Brunswick 05899) reaches no.5. US reaches no.12 (Decca 31570)

9 April 1964 – “Think” c/w “The Waiting Game” (Brunswick 05903) reaches no.26. US reaches no.25 (Decca 31599)

1964 – “Alone With You” (Brunswick 05911) ‘Record Mirror’ says ‘Newie from Brenda is currently riding high in the States, and the odds are it’ll do the same here’, reaches US no.48 where B-side “My Dreams” reaches no.85

1964 – “When You Loved Me” c/w “He’s Sure To Remember Me” reaches US no.47

10 September 1964 – “Is It True” c/w “What’d I Say” (Brunswick 05915) produced in London by Mickie Most, reaches no.17. US reaches no.17 (Decca 31690) US B-side is “Just Beyond The Rainbow”

10 December 1964 – “Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day” c/w “Winter Wonderland” (Brunswick 05921) reaches no.29

4 February 1965 – “Thanks A Lot” c/w “Just Beyond The Rainbow” (Brunswick 05927) reaches no.41. US reaches no.45, where B-side of Geoff Stephens “Crying Game” reaches no.87

1965 – “Truly Truly Truly” c/w “I Still Miss Someone” (Brunswick 05933) reaches US no.54 29 July

1965 – “Too Many Rivers” c/w “No-One” (Brunswick 05936) reaches no.22. US reaches no.13 (Decca 317920)

13 November 1965 – “Rusty Bells” c/w “If You Don’t” US (Decca 31849) reaches US no.33

March 1966 – “Too Little Time” c/w “Time And Time Again” (Decca 31917, UK Brunswick 05957)

1966 – “Ain’t Gonna Cry No More” c/w “It Takes One To Know One” (Brunswick 05963)


16 July 1966 – ‘BYE BYE BLUES’ (Brunswick LAT 8649) reaches no.21, twelve tracks including ‘A Taste Of Honey’, ‘The Good Life’, ‘Flowers On The Wall’ and Paul McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’

29 October 1966 – “Coming On Strong” c/w “You Keep Coming Back To Me” (Brunswick 05967) US (Decca 32018) reaches US no.11

2 November 1967 – “Ride Ride Ride” c/w “Lonely People Do Foolish Things” (Brunswick 05970) ‘Record Mirror’ says ‘sorry, Miss Lee. This won’t restore you to the charts. It’s a light-weight, rather dated, so-so sort of song. You sing well though’ US (Decca 32079) reaches US no.37

1967 – “Take Me” c/w “Born To Be By Your Side” (Decca 9-32119)

October 1967 – “Where’s The Melody” c/w “Born To Be By Your Side’ (Brunswick 05976) ‘Record Mirror’ Top 50 Tip, ‘neither s beater nor a ballad, but Brenda in good form’. US B-side is “Save Me For A Rainy Day”

1968 – “That’s All Right” c/w “Fantasy” (MCA MU1001)

June 1968 – “Let’s Jump The Broomstick” c/w “All Alone Am I” (MCA MU1021

1968 – “Johnny One Time” c/w “I Must Have Been Out Of My Mind” reaches US no.41. Issued in the UK March 1969 as MCA MU1063, reissued February 1970 as MCA MU1115

1971 – “If This Is Our Last Time” c/w “Everybody’s Reaching Out For Someone” (MCA MU1155) reaches US Country no.30

1972 – “Always On My Mind” c/w “That Ain’t Right” (Decca 32975) reaches US Country no.45

1973 – “Nobody Wins” c/w “We Had A Good Thing Going” (MCA 40003), both sides written by Kris Kristofferson, reaches US Country no.5

November 1973 – “Sunday Sunrise” c/w “Must I Believe” (MCA MU1219) reaches US Country no.6.

January 1975 – “Rock On Baby” c/w “More Than A Memory” (MCA 168) reaches US Country no.6. There are lots more Country hits which fall outside the remit of this feature…

1 November 1980 – ‘LITTLE MISS DYNAMITE’ (Warwick WW 5083) reaches no.15, Hits compilation

1994 – ‘THE VERY BEST OF BRENDA LEE… WITH LOVE’ (Telstar TCD2738) thirty Greatest Hits with liner notes by Mike Lancaster