Tuesday, 26 July 2016

From Mod To Brit-Psych: THE ALAN BOWN!


Cult Mod singles, Cult Brit-Psych albums, 
The Alan Bown had everything
… except a hit record 


First they were the brass-heavy Mod-cult Alan Bown Set, then they caught the psychedelic wave as The Alan Bown! until eventually they were just Alan Bown, evolving from cool jazzy blues through blue-eyed soul and R&B to end up a progressive rock combo. Yet, although the chart visibility of their finest records was minimal, they’re respected for developing and launching the careers of numerous musicians from the mighty Robert Palmer and Jess Roden, to Supertramp and King Crimson via Mel Collins, John Helliwell and Dougie Thomson.

Rock trumpet-players are fairly thin on the ground. Herb Alpert doesn’t really qualify. Alan James Bown was born 21 July 1942 in his parent’s front room in Slough, Berkshire. Heavily influenced by modern jazz, he got to see Miles Davis play Newcastle, saw the Joe Harriott Quintet play at Slough’s Dolphin Hotel – while still too young for the licensing laws, and took regular trips the Marquee to catch sets by the Tubby Hayes Quintet and Phil Seamen Band. Following his compulsory National Service RAF stint he joined The Embers as trumpet player in 1963. They were a hard-working live group, with a repertoire based around jazzy R&B, who play venues as far away as the Reeperbahn ‘Star Club’, around the time the Beatles were also in Hamburg.

Then the Young Man With The Horn up-gears to join The John Barry Seven in September 1963 – this is after the JB7’s peak as an ingredient of Adam Faith’s chart-topping Pop-formula, and after hits in their own right with their cover of the Ventures “Walk Don’t Run”, TVs ‘Juke Box Jury’ theme “Hit And Miss”, then the Barry-penned “James Bond Theme”. By November 1964 Bown was part of the line-up playing back-up for Brenda Lee, on the French and German legs of her European tour. Marty Wilde was part of the same show, and they back him too. With Barry himself spending more time composing, Bown soon escalates to become leader of the touring band, and seizes the opportunity of cutting his first record with them – the Mod-danceable horns-punching “Twenty-Four Hours Ago” c/w “Seven Faces” (1964, Columbia DB 7414), with vocals by Mike O’Neil, and a slinky Hammond-led instrumental flip. Annoyingly, it’s right then that John Barry imposes three months notice that he’s breaking the band up in 1965, in order to free up more time for his film commitments.

Decisively, Alan took three former members of Barry’s Seven along with him as the basis for the first Alan Bown Set around May 1965 – Jeff Bannister (born 7 January 1943, lead vocals and organ), Dave Green (sax, clarinet and flute) and Stan Haldane (bass), reinforced by Pete Burgess (guitar) and Vic Sweeney (drums). Sounding very much like the bluesy groove they’d achieved on their John Barry single, they build a solid reputation playing R&B and Soul on the same burgeoning Club circuit as Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames and Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band. Soon spotted by Tony Hatch, he signs them to Pye Records, and produces their debut single “Can’t Let Her Go” c/w “I’m The One”. Its jazzy tempo softened by vocal harmonies, it attracts attention, but fails to chart.

Alan himself was always the Man With The Golden Trumpet, never front-man vocalist. Like, say, Manfred Mann or Dave Clark, he preferred to influence the group’s direction indirectly. ‘A bright-shirted trumpeter who loves waiting like he loves toothache and kissing his mother goodbye, wanders onto the stage and plays three notes, unaware that it’s now quiet and all eyes are on him…’ according to sleeve-notes. In January 1966 Dave Green was replaced by John ‘John Anthony’ Helliwell, then – a month later, Jess Roden comes in as joint vocalist (from Kidderminster’s Shakedown Sound), allowing Jeff Bannister to concentrate more on keyboards. Together they guest on ‘Ready Steady Go!’ (July), while headlining at Soho’s ‘Marquee’ where Alan had once paid to see top-line bands. On a rainy Sunday bill (31 July) they play ‘The Sixth National Jazz & Blues Festival’ – the first at its Windsor site, alongside The Action, Georgie Fame, Bluesology and one of Cream’s first-ever live sets – with an all-day ticket priced at a modest ten shillings!

Their heavy clubbing tour-schedule was boosted into overdrive by the first intimations of just how strong they could be on record, with their tight cover of Edwin Starr’s “Headline News”. Like a street-corner newsvendor announcing to the world’s media about the new Baby he’s found, and – ‘oh what a change in me’, Roden’s raw pleading ‘Extra! Extra!’ is set against high falsetto ‘Read all about it’ call-and-response backing. Roden’s wailing voice can also be heard on the Who’s “Magic Bus”, so it’s not impossible that Pete Townshend picked up and adapted the ‘Extra Extra, Read All About It, Pinball Wizard In A Miracle Cure’ line for ‘Tommy’ from this record. 

Although I was living in the north-eastern Humberside wastes of Hull I pick up on the Alan Bown Set name from ‘Record Mirror’ club-listings, record reviews and panel-ads, and – of course, the records are on unmissably high rotation at Mod clubs like ‘The Gondola’ and ‘The Kon-Tiki’. The venues are sweaty and loud. The buzz is electric. Mod is an elitist subculture in which chart placings are seen as commercial sell-out, and purism rules. Some Mods just want to dance, and be seen dancing, all that matters is the beat. For other more trainspottery members of the in-crowd, the original is still the greatest. For them, as with Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band, when it comes to hipness, we know the American singles always retain the legitimising sheen of authenticity. But those Motown or Stax artist are elsewhere, Alan Bown is here and now… 

Building on the strengths of “Headline News”, there’s “Emergency 999” – written by folkie Paul Korda but structured around a similarly compulsive groove, with the kind of slightly off-kilter klaxon-horn riff later to be replicated by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. His girl has left him, stop that thief, she stole his heart. ‘Hear my song, move along…’

Again, its club popularity fails to yield chart returns, although later it gets rediscovered by Northern Soul devotees as a lost anthem. Meanwhile, the Bown Set are recorded live ‘invitation-only’ with Jimmy James & The Vagabonds, and released as a joint album together as ‘London Swings: Live At The Marquee Club’. I guess half an album is better than none, and the seven tracks captured on side two – including “Headline News” and “Emergency 999” catches something of the live excitement they generate onstage. ‘Dedicated to those who couldn’t get in, and those who are hooked enough to want to hear it all again’, it’s the only extended recorded evidence left by this phase of the Set’s evolution. 

In November 1966 guitarist Pete Burgess is replaced by Tony Catchpole in time for “Gonna Fix You Good (Everytime You’re Bad)” c/w “I Really, Really Care” – although again, it’s a cover, this time of a Little Anthony & The Imperials original, it’s the third of a trilogy of classic club singles that define that era of intense Mod cultdom. Smoother, with keyboard play-in, and an even more forcefully percussive flip, it’s very near the last of the ‘set’. But first they get to contribute to the soundtrack of ‘Jeu De Massacre’ (aka ‘The Killing Game’) a French spy-spoof film scored by Jacques Loussier. Impressively, their kiss-kiss-bang-bang track comes with horn-driven tempo-changes from frantic gunshot ‘you’re dead’ vocal-effects, down to slow interludes. 

While they’re recording sessions for the BBCs ‘Rhythm and Blues’ programme in 1966 and ‘Saturday Club’ in 1967, Pete Stringfellow promotes the Set at his ‘King Mojo’ club, recalling that ‘in Sheffield we had never seen anything like the Alan Bown Set… Alan’s trumpet was bent at the end, and when I first saw this I thought he had stood on it and broken it’… not so, ‘it was one of the things that helps us remember how talented the band was during this period’ (the introduction to the book ‘The Alan Bown Set Before And Beyond’). They were already fluent musicians, technically accomplished and jazz-literate. 


The expiry of the band’s contract with Pye in 1967, offers the opportunity to reform the band as ‘The Alan Bown!’ a more psychedelic concoction for Verve Records. Dropping the ‘set’ and adding the exclamation mark is to denote a career punctuation, because the vibe is shifting, moving away from slavishly replicating cult American R&B, and more about the credibility of originating new material. Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band had metamorphosed into Dantalion’s Chariot. Simon Dupree’s Big Sound were in the Top Ten with “Kites”. ‘We were still mimicking the Americans yet things coming across from the States were moving in different direction – Pop music was growing up’ as Jess explained it. 

And there’s already a shifting pool of writers within the group, who finally get to release their first full-length album ‘Outward Bown’ in 1967. A charming artefact of Brit-psych, both sides start with strong singles – “Toyland” opening with school playground sounds and “Storybook” opening with manic echoplexed laughter, which both capture the gently innovative whimsy and lyrical nursery-rhyme escapism that’s close enough to suggest a hallucinogenic input, yet vague enough to escape censor. Although there’s none of the unsettling darkness of a Syd Barrett, or the hard Freak-beat edge of Creation, the twelve tracks present stronger songs than many of their high-charting contemporaries. 

They’re tight and cleanly-produced – ‘things down there aren’t quite so square in Toyland’, decorated with strummed acoustic guitar, woodwind and pizzicato strings, while retaining muted horns on tracks such as “Sally Green” and the more high-energy “Penny For Your Thoughts” which builds to a staccato climax. The slow bass lead-in to the “Storybook” break would later be replicated by 10cc for their “I’m Not In Love”. The only two non-originals on the album are a complex tempo-change cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” – the stage version of which reportedly ‘directly inspired the Jimi Hendrix arrangement of the song’, and a summery ba-ba-ba close-harmony arrangement of Dion DiMucci’s “My Girl Of The Month”. Promoted by appearances on John Peel’s ‘Top Gear’, it was a well-regarded underground LP at the time, which remains highly collectable vinyl now.

It also marks the start of a second run of perfect little singles, the third of which – “We Can Help You” rises all the way to no.26 in the UK chart – but only in the ‘New Musical Express’, so no use looking for it in your ‘Guinness Book Of Hit Singles’. Rejigged from a track on the original Nirvana’s ‘The Story Of Simon Simopath’ (1967) album, with the lyrical addition of an anthemic ‘Happiness Society’ chorus enhanced by baroque twiddly string breaks, it enters at no.29, 24 August 1968, to peak the following week in a chart oddly headed by Tom Jones’ “Help Yourself”, with trumpet-playing Herb Alpert at no.3 with “This Guy’s In Love With You”. It earns them a ‘Top Of The Pops’ slot (8 August), but a strike at the pressing plant determines they’re unable to capitalise on the exposure. 

In 1969 they label-switch again, to Deram Records yielding a minor hit with “Still as Stone”, swirling a ‘test-tube of life’ fronted by effervescing-strong guitar and Jess Roden’s most roaring vocal. ‘The Alan Bown! are without a doubt one of the most exciting live acts ever to raise screams from a delirious audience’ enthuses the press-ad, and ‘this is about as alive as a record can get without actually leaping off the record-player!’ It was backed up by lucrative radio dates. As the BBC was subject to restricted needle time – requiring ‘live’ performances between the records, the Bown were among a select roster of bands who record cover sessions for the BBC, appearing on the ‘Jimmy Young Show’, ‘The David Symonds Show’ and others. They could be seen on Alan Freeman’s fast-moving TV ‘All Systems Freeman’, as well as spots on the Simon Dee and Eamonn Andrews chat-shows.

There’s a continuing confusion concerning their next album ‘The Alan Bown!’. Roden told journalist Chris Charlesworth ‘I just couldn’t get into what Alan was doing. I was writing my own songs all the time and getting too involved in that.’ So ‘I left Alan Bown because I wanted to do something of my own’ (‘Melody Maker’, August 1970). So snappily-dressed Robert Palmer is hastily drafted in from the Scarborough-based Mandrakes. With tracks initially recorded before Roden left, Palmer’s voice is promptly over-dubbed (save those tracks Roden had co-composed), in time for the album's UK release. But not before the Roden vocals had escaped, to be issued as the American LP. Hence, two overlapping versions continue to coexist. Nevertheless, the ambition is seldom in doubt. “The Prisoner” is a ten-minute segmented narrative track fading in like the primal detonation of the cosmos, moving through a soft ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’ sequence into screeching vocals, choral passages and rocking guitar, until the narrative ends with the Prisoner’s release into freedom. The new line-up is boosted by an appearance on BBC TVs ‘Disco Two’ (an early version of ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’). 

1970 brought fresh changes, the seven-piece band jump labels yet again, this time to Island. And Palmer quits just as they’re recording the album ‘Listen’. Recalling Jess Roden’s treatment, Fred Deller points out with some satisfaction that ‘later Palmer was to suffer the same indignity when tracks HE recorded with Bown were scrapped and replaced by those made by his vocal successor’ (‘NME’ 20 February 1988). And yes, new singer Gordon Neville re-records the vocal tracks before the album’s eventually release. Then the spin-off single “Pyramid” is released just before bassist Andy Brown replaces long-term member Stan Haldane, and Mel Collins is drafted in on sax. ‘The introduction reminds me a little of ‘Wheels Of Fire’’, enthuses ‘Melody Maker’, ‘but the feeling is the old brass bite of Bown and co, and MAYBE their hit – at last.’ For the album, there’s a punchier more prominent horn presence, contemporary with the complex Blood Sweat & Tears or Chicago arrangements, the steaming largely-instrumental “Make Up Your Mind” opens and continues with torrid free blowing throughout, while “Crash Landing” slots easily into new smooth jazz-literate proggy improvisations, with meticulous horn section fills around the keyboards and long meandering soloing passages.

They’d come a long way, influenced by fashion-shifts, but always retaining a smart distinction. And there would be one final album, ‘Stretching Out’ (1971), promoted by a re-appeared on ‘Disco Two’. As the title suggests – ‘stretching out in a new direction’, it’s a looser more jazz-rock approach, with more slick soloing. Not a new development, obviously those elements have always been there, but given free reign in a more progressive context. Both the title track and “The Messenger” extend to a full eight-minutes, tightly arranged with duelling brass and Bown’s most prominent horn solo ever, recalling Ian Carr’s work with Nucleus. While “Find A Melody” is built around a noodling jazz-riff worthy of – say, Steely Dan. “Build Me A Stage” has a similarly appealing wistfulness, ‘build me a stage and I’ll sing for you…’ adding ‘if you want me to.’ There’s a sense of summing-up, of end-statement here. ‘Build it right here and I’ll play for you’ adding ‘the best I can do.’ Well – they’d done all that. 

But it was a period of rapid line-up changes. Jeff Bannister – who’d been there since the JB7, left, but was not replaced, then Dougie Thomson replaces Andy Brown and Derek Griffiths – formerly with The Artwoods, replaces Catchpole. This line-up remained more-or-less stable until February 1972, when Bown presses reset, and forms a new band with Dave Lawson (keyboards) Tony Dangerfield (bass) Frank White (guitar), replaced by Pete Goodall – formerly with Thunderclap Newman, Nick Payn (tenor sax/ flute) and Alan Coulter (drums). It was to be the last hurrah, after a major tour, Bown finally disbands the group in July 1972.

Yet the musical strengths and potential were evident in future developments. Alan himself – playing flugelhorn or Miles-like on his Super Olds trumpet with Gardinelli mouthpiece, joins Jonesy, with Fred Deller reviewing the five-piece’s third album – ‘Growing’ (February 1974, Dawn) with ‘Alan Bown has at last found the right niche.’ Yet an unobtrusive line hidden away in ‘NME’ in July 1974 notes that he’d graduated from performer to become CBS A&R manager. A position that nevertheless affords him the opportunity of producing a 1977 LP for Gold, formed by ex-Jonesy keyboard-player Jimmy Kaleth and drummer Richard ‘Plug’ Thomas. 

Melvyn ‘Mel’ Collins become sax-of-choice for King Crimson (from ‘Lizard’, 1970), Camel and numerous other bands. He even plays the sax solo on the Rolling Stone “Miss You”. John Helliwell and Dougie Thomson join Supertramp in time for their breakthrough ‘Crime Of The Century’ (1974) album. Gordon Neville later joins Elton John's band, and works with Rick Wakeman. Vic Sweeney works with Kevin Coyne. Pete Goodall works with Percy Sledge, Viola Wills, Carl Douglas and many more. Nick Payn plays in Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. 

While the two vocalists both make significant marks. Trailered by a track on the ‘Bumpers’ low-price double-album sampler, Jess Roden with Jeff Bannister form highly-rated country-rockers Bronco, reuniting Jess with ex-Shakedown Sound members, before Jeff moved on to A Band Called O. After recording two albums for Island records (‘Country Home’, 1970 mixed by Paul Samwell-Smith, and ‘Ace Of Sunlight’, 1971), Bronco get derailed by a serious US West Coast autowreck, after which Jess joined ex-Doors Robby Krieger and John Densmore for the Butts Band, then records a fine New Orleans album with Allen Toussaint. Never playing to his obvious strengths, through subsequent ventures he remains a respected vocalist with a strong fan-base, while never quite on the scale of Robert Palmer. Palmer joins Dada alongside Elkie Brooks, shortly before they evolve into Vinegar Joe, which became a springboard to his own transatlantic solo success. 

Alan Bown died 16 December 2014, in Slough, by which time the various incarnations of the bands bearing his name were reaching new audiences through a series of fine CD reissues. 



September 1965 – “Can’t Let Her Go” c/w “I’m the One" (Pye 7N 15934), the more punchy ‘B’-side is a Curtis Mayfield song 

April 1966 – “Baby Don’t Push Me” c/w “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” (Pye 7N 17084), Roden’s hoarse driving vocals more in keeping with their Club set, the ‘B’-side seems to reference Junior Walker’s ‘Shotgun’ 

July 1966 – “Headline News” c/w “Mister Pleasure” (Pye 7N 17148), cover of Edwin Starr produced under Tony Hatch’s Pye house-producer Tony Reeves (later of Colosseum), ‘my name is Mr Pleasure, I’m looking for leisure…’ 

October 1966 – “Emergency 999” c/w “Settle Down” (Pye 7N 17192), ‘B’-side by Bown and Bannister 

March 1967 – “Gonna Fix You Good (Everytime You’re Bad)” c/w “I Really, Really Care” (Pye 7N 17256), ‘A’-side a cover of Little Anthony & The Imperials single by Pike-Randazzo, ironically re-issued in 1972 by UA to catch its Northern Soul underground revival, flip by Bannister-Bown

1967 – “Jeu De Massacre” (Disques Vogue EPL 8537), French four-track soundtrack EP by Jacques Loussier, with Alan Bown Set’s “Killing Game” 

1967 – “Sunny” c/w “Down In The Valley” (Pye GP 3239) Greece-only single cover of Bobby Hebb flipped with Solomon Burke, also “The Boomerang” c/w “It’s Growing” (Pye GP 3240), with Don Covay cover flipped with Sam & Dave cover

October 1967 - “Toyland” c/w “Technicolour Dream” (MGM 1355), ‘A’-side by Roden-Catchpole, flip by Bown-Bannister. Produced by Mike Hurst. Opens and closes with school-playground sounds, ‘let’s go down and blow our minds’ 

March 1968 - “Story Book” c/w “Little Lesley” (MGM 1387), ‘A’-side by Bown-Bannister, flipped with Rhoden (Roden)-Catchpole. Produced by Mike Hurst. Opens with manic laughter effect, ‘there’s magic in each page’

July 1968 – “We Can Help You” c/w “Magic Handkerchief” (Music Factory CUB1), a Patrick Campbell-Lyons-Alex Spyropoulos song from Nirvana’s ‘Story Of Simon Simopath’ album, flip by Bannister-Bown-Catchpole-Rhoden (Roden) about his Mother’s solution. Mike Hurst production. Reaches no.26 in ‘New Musical Express’ chart 31 August 

June 1969 - “Still As Stone” c/w “Wrong Idea” (Deram DM 259), ‘A’-side by Roden-Catchpole, flipped with Bown-Bannister-Roden-Catchpole. ‘Mike Hurst has really captured all their excitement and explosive atmosphere on their new single’ 

October 1969 - “Gypsy Girl” c/w “All I Can” (Deram DM 278), Robert Palmer vocals, Mike Hurst production. ‘A’-side by Bown-Bannister, flip by Catchpole. A pleasant sing-along tune ‘gypsy girl she came into my life, gypsy girl I wanted her to be my wife…’ 

December 1970 - “Pyramid” c/w “Crash Landing” (Island WIP 6091), ‘good vocals and a nice sequence’ says Melody Maker 

1970 – “Loosen Up” c/w “Wanted Man” (Island Série Parade 6014.043) France-only single 

June 1975 – “Moanin’” c/w “Time To Change” (CBS 3366) Alan Bown solo single 

October 1975 - “Rockford Files” c/w “I Don’t Know” (CBS 3721) Alan Bown solo single 


Autumn 1966 - ‘LONDON SWINGS: LIVE AT THE MARQUEE CLUB’ (Pye NPL 18156, reissued in 1993 by Sequel NEB CD 652, and 1994 by Castle CD) side one by Jimmy James And The Vagabonds, side two by the Alan Bown Set: ‘It’s Growing’, ‘Emergency 999’, ‘I Need You’, ‘Sunny’, ‘Headline News’, ‘Down In The Valley’, ‘The Boomerang’ 

September 1967 - ‘OUTWARD BOWN’ (Music Factory MF 12000), Produced by Mike Hurst. Side one: ‘Toyland’, ‘Magic Handkerchief’, ‘Little Lesley’, ‘All Along The Watchtower’ (Dylan), ‘Sally Green’, ‘Penny For Your Thoughts’. Side two: ‘Story Book’, ‘Technicolour Dream’, ‘Love Is A Beautiful Thing’, ‘Violin Shop’, ‘You’re Not In My Class’, ‘My Girl In The Month Of May’ (Dion) reissued February 2012 by Grapefruit with both mono and stereo editions of the LP plus bonus tracks ‘Toyland’ and ‘Story Book’ single edits, ‘We Can Help You’ and ‘Little Lesley’ 

1969 - ‘THE ALAN BOWN’ (Decca SML/DML 1049), Mike Hurst production, Robert Palmer vocals. Side one: ‘My Friend’ (only non-original, a Steve Miller ‘Sailor’ track by Boz Scaggs), ‘Strange Little Friend’ (Bown-Bannister), ‘Elope’ (Roden-Catchpole), ‘Perfect Day’ (Bown-Bannister), ‘All I Can’ (Catchpole), ‘Friends In St Louis’ (Bown-Bannister). Side two: ‘The Prisoner’ (group), ‘Kick Me Out’ (Anthony-Catchpole), ‘Tarnished’ (Bown-Bannister), ‘Memorial’ (Bown-Bannister) 

1969 - ‘THE ALAN BOWN’ (US Deram DES18032) The US edition of ‘The Alan Bown’ featuring ‘Jeremy’ Jess Roden vocals, except for ‘All I Can’ which has Tony and Vic, also sections of ‘The Prisoner’ with Jeff and Tony vocals. ‘Friends In St Louis’ is omitted while ‘My Friend’, ‘Tarnished’ and ‘Memorial’ are replaced with ‘Still As Stone’, ‘Children Of The Night’ and ‘Gypsy Girl’. Reissued in 2010 as Esoteric CD ECLEC2190, reintegrating tracks from both versions, plus bonus track ‘Wrong Idea’

1970 - ‘LISTEN’ (Island ILPS 9131), produced by Mel Collins. Side one: ‘Wanted Man’, ‘Crash Landing’, ‘Loosen Up’, ‘Pyramid’, ‘Forever’. Side two: ‘Curfew’, ‘Make Us All Believe’, ‘Make Up Your Mind’, ‘Get Myself Straight’, all tracks written within the group by Bown, Bannister, Palmer and Catchpole in various combinations, reissued in April 2010 as Esoteric CD 

August 1971 – ‘STRETCHING OUT’ (Island ILPS 9163), Hipgnosis cover-art, with ‘The Messenger’, ‘Find A Melody’, ‘Up Above My Hobby Horse’s Head’, ‘Turning Point’ (a 9-min blow with John Anthony’s tenor sax), ‘Build Me A Stage’ (‘pretty song with country overtones, and nice piano from Jeff Bannister’), ‘Stretching Out’ (‘Alan tries his hand at free trumpet in the title track, but while he has a certain facility, loses out on tone and control’). Chris Welch writes ‘from all their years of playing, they have obtained much relaxed professionalism’ ‘Melody Maker’. Reissued in April 2010 by Esoteric CD with bonus track ‘Thru The Night’, previously only on Island Records 1971 sampler ‘El Pea’ 


January 1985 - ‘KICK ME OUT’ (See for Miles SEECD 393), the Robert Palmer version of ‘The Alan Bown’, reissued in July 1987 as ‘ROBERT PALMER: THE EARLY YEARS’ (C-Five C5 501), with ‘My Friend’, ‘Strange Friend’, ‘Elope’, ‘Perfect Day’, ‘All I Can Do’, ‘Friends In St Louis’, ‘Still As Stone’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Kick Me Out’, ‘Children Of The Night’, ‘Gypsy Girl’, ‘Wrong Idea’ 

2002 - ‘EMERGENCY 999’ (Sequel NEMCD483) collects all the material featuring Jess Roden, with ‘Can’t Let Her Go’, ‘I’m The One’, ‘Baby Don’t Push Me’, ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’, ‘Headline News’, ‘Mr Pleasure’, ‘Emergency 999’, ‘Settle Down’, ‘Gonna Fix You Good’, ‘I Really Really Care’, ‘Jue De Massacre (The Killing Game)’, ‘Love Me’ (previously unissued), ‘Mr Job’ (previously unissued), ‘Gonna Fix You Good’ (demo version), ‘It’s Growing’ (live), ‘Emergency 999’ (live), ‘I Need You’ (live), ‘Sunny’ (live), ‘Headline News’ (live), ‘Down In The Valley’ (live), ‘The Boomerang’ (live) 

THE ALAN BOWN SET BEFORE AND BEYOND’ by Jeff Bannister and Alan Bown (2007, Banland Publishing, 240pp, ISBN-10: 0955151325, ISBN-13: 978-0955151323) 

Thursday, 30 June 2016



this poem is expendable,
this poem is not the kind of thing
any right-thinking person
would ever admit to reading,
must we keep flinging this blasphemy
at our rock ‘n’ roll children?
I despise you and everything you stand for,
this poem has outlived its usefulness
this poem is obsolete and
should be humanely put down
in its own sad tawdry squalor,
this poem deserves the merciful
kiss of euthanasia by Dignitas,
to be mourned by widows in black lace
and argued over by outraged tabloids,
please do not read this poem
it will only offend you,
you may be driven to pluck out
your own eyeballs afterwards
in disgust and degradation

this poem is the missing child
found murdered in the canal,
this poem is the squaddie mutilated
by roadside ordnance in Afghanistan,
this poem seeks its own
exit from the eurozone
and dances on its own grave,
I don’t like this poem
or anyone who reads it,
this poem is just a stream of meaningless
images with no literary merit,
don’t waste your time reading it,
you’ve got better things to do
with your life than reading it,
this poem is expendable

this poem is a cartoon of the prophet,
this poem is the winning ticket
in the lottery of the damned,
this poem has downloaded
obscene images from dubious websites
and stored them on its hard-drive,
this poem uses cookies
and knows your most secret passwords,
this poem spits on politicians
and ridicules bishops,
this poem celebrates perverse sexuality
and seeks commercial sponsorship
from human-traffickers, drug cartels
high-street banks and other criminal networks,
this poem votes Republican and is then
discovered with a pre-op transsexual
prostitute in a Midwest motel,
this poem will not reclaim thousands of ££££s
of miss-sold PPI on your behalf,
this poem contains permitted contaminants
including cadmium, MSG, histamine,
rat faeces, trans-fats and insect-parts,
it may cause projectile vomiting
and allergic toxic-shock reactions,
this poem is being investigated for historic
abuse offences by operation yew tree,
this poem includes offensive language
and inappropriate images of
nudity, violence and drug-taking
please don’t ‘Like’ this poem on Facebook
or stream it on your iPad,
forgive me father, for this poem has sinned…

My new poetry book – ‘The Poet’s Deliberation On The State Of The Nation’ (Penniless Press) is now up there on Amazon. From the cover, specially-commissioned from Californian artist Karen Smithey who incorporates my gas-mask image into the art, it’s ninety+ pages of uncollected or unseen stuff, a lot of it previously only glimpsed on websites or Facebook pages such as Ron Androla’s ‘Pressure Press’ or Belinda Subraman’s ‘Gypsy Art Show’. One of the oldest – “Manifesto”, goes back to my 1983 Faber ‘Hard Lines’ flirtation, but dug out anew for the Wakefield Unity Hall ‘100 Poems By 100 Poets’ night from A Firm Of Poets, and with amends, is now uploaded to YouTube. “If The Pump Don’t Work, Don’t Vandalise The Handle” was on the ‘IT (International Times)’ site, while “The Old Man Who Falls Down” is unpublished, a weird-humour tale inflated from a real-life incident walking the towpath in Mirfield last year. I’ve tried for a vague tight-but-loose time-arc around the title-thematic, with hard-edges jostling squelchy chaotic-sex…. because it’s impossible to escape this planetary absurdism.



Tuesday, 28 June 2016



An interview and overview of 
 William Burroughs and Psychic TV 
at the ‘Hacienda Club’, Manchester

This can be no neutral tract of reportage.

We’re crammed in on wraparound concrete stairwell. A bodyguard like a Mormon salesman, smart suit, laser-set hair. William Seward Burroughs shakes my hand, but avoids eye-contact. Is courteous and pleased to talk, but – distant, amputated, disconnected. Jeff Nuttall’s ‘nervous hypnotic man.’ Not quite registering anything. L’Homme Invisible stood like a dead ancestor. Philosopher-King designate of a private fantasy zone. Adrift like a muttered trance on a killing floor…

A single bronze-wood table, solid, lathe-turned legs. A ‘v’ of angled silver mikes zigzag in. Burroughs wasted, thin and expressionless, in green shirt, brown patterned tie, brown jacket, C&A white-‘n’-grey sectioned jumper, grey sox, an air of bored grey resignation. It’s unreal. A mid-Manchester Club vaulted tram-shed high, cat’s eyes and M-way bollards fencing the dance area into a traffic island, industrial severe and austere. Twin huge screens slurred with Factory Records direct relay video slicing in at table, mikes, aged Beat relic, heroin novelist, subversive fag nihilist. A humourless humourist. Slightly unhinged. Freeze-dried in a cerebral slum of spiritual numbness.

The camera is the eye of a cruising vulture at a slaughterhouse carnival.

There’s much ratty satin-‘n’-tat. Dressing down in Oxfam chic. Much movement and bored ritual display. It’s frayed at the edges and veered off into wrongness. Sure, there’s a token infiltration of Lit-freaks and word-junkies, but I’d guesstimate most here know Old Bull Lee largely from cryptic notes dropped obliquely in Bowie interviews. Item: ‘Cracked Actor’ (BBC2, 26 January 1975), film with cut-up lyrics in the backseat of a speeding Chevvy. And who here among this throng of pathetic, repressed, sexless, repressive, cultural beggars knows that Burroughs’ jaded influence has spread way beyond that point, like a nerveless discomforting disease to so irradiate Rock culture it goes undetected? The lead exhaust in the air you breathe? How does THAT stand cold and old, frail, vulnerable and antique, here in the epicentre of Now? What’s been did is history, and what is yet to do still indeterminate. Their attention drifts, a lethal dissection of metal and flesh without discrimination.

 I’m here with pirate publisher/fantasist Michael Butterworth, and his Japanese Lady. She speaks fractured English, so our describing Burroughs in ‘Ladybird Books’ keyword-manual vocabulary and elaborate semaphore mime isn’t easy. CP Lee hangs on from his ‘Lord Buckley’ review, while clusters of self-nominated celebs hang out beneath the screens. The Burroughs-(An)tony Balch cinema verité movie ‘Towers Open Fire’ (1964) swivels few heads, there’s spasmic jerky monochrome movement, panning across Tangiers Harbour 1962, syringes in wooden flesh, firearms, narcotics, retributive atrocity exhibitions of the several senses, flashes from the archives of Beat Hotel oblivion, Rue Git-Le-Coeur in Paris, the orgasm gun. The lens blurs in ferocious hand-held distortion, an iron brain spewing out random codes and scrambled components that escape into the two-dimensional auto-suggestion of flat celluloid. 

Released from film. He coughs. Sips some what-looks-like water. Shuffles fleshless legs and shuffles A4 typescripts. No introduction. No warmth. Just straight into ‘Place Of Dead Roads’ (1983) recited in a dead language void of inflection or emphasis. Autobiography? ‘he has a dark side to his character – and he loves it.’ Paranoia? ‘dead people are less frightening than live ones.’ Scripts and dark dark spliced sentence fragments that hit like knee-cappings from blurry speakers, soaking like acid corrosion, like Virus B-23. Malcolm Whitehead’s video bounces and out-focuses from green haze to alarming razor-cut clarity. Germ warfare with smallpox-impregnated Bibles. Equestrian telepathy, tales of Junkie cannibalism. A statement from the Immortality Control Board, ‘immortality is the only goal worth striving for… immortality is something you have to work and fight for, like everything else in this life and another. We want the whole tamalé! It’s ours and we’re going to take it.’

These are head dramas dense with narrative threads running vertiginously. Like the ghosts of unwritten novels. Blueprints to wrest control from the ‘Boards, Syndicates and Governments of the Earth’. From the conspiratorial systems of social, cultural, genetic and sexual coercion. “Shoot-Out At Dead-Ass Saloon” with the Wild Fruits. You must ‘identify with death’ he instructs, to rapt attention, providing open cranium image trax from ‘Ah Pook Is Here’ (1979) and ‘Port Of Saints’ (1973). New codes. New as in ‘Nova’. There’s laughter and jumpy applause at the more grotesquely blood-spattered gross-outs of the ‘Dr Benway’ tract (‘performing cut-rate abortions in subway toilets, operating with one hand, beating the rats offa my patient with the other’), the ‘Do-Rights’, and the ‘No Nukes Is Good Nukes’ punchline.

His words are a disease that attacks cell-by-cell. Already I’m jet-lagged from going nowhere. A zone of drones. But there’s no doubt he’s closing all kinds of synaptic connections in unprepared brain-centres with the mere black opacity of his presence, underscored by his understated delivery. He ends his Final Academy some twenty minutes later with “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” from ‘Nova Express’ (1964) – ‘cross the wounded galaxies we intersect, poison of dead sun in your brain slowly fading’, and he’s gone. Doubtful if he saw the audience, if their presence even registered. But against the odds he’s spun the weight of a four-decade mythology and come off with it intact. What’s been did, and what’s yet to be done.

New York poet John Giorno slots on. By contrast with Burroughs’ minimalist starkness, Giorno’s pugilistic projection tags loud Disco-mix tapes onto his powerful “We Got Here Yesterday, We’re Here Now, And I Can’t Wait To Leave Tomorrow”. It’s a massively charged incantation, and he’s a pioneer of this Rap delivery. It’s eager and aggressively anxious to please. Then Genesis P Orridge’s Psychic TV videos flash up. A skull test-card. A print-out reading ‘THOSE WHO DO NOT REMEMBER THE PAST ARE CONDEMNED TO REPEAT IT’. And a twenty-three minute chromatic montage running a repeating image-chain of technological violence, castration, napalm, ritual torture, fellatio and military chic. Burroughs’ lateral implications and junk-games ripped off the page onto naked celluloid. Words falling. Photo falling. Breakthru in grey rooms. Then and now. Then into now.

But I’m already worming backstage over cables and power-lines, crammed in on wraparound concrete stairwell, shaking Burroughs’ cool, smooth, pressureless hand. A guy who tokes so much impedimenta of legend that what do you say he hasn’t already been fed seventy-two times? He looks bored, humourless, sad, a look of borrowed flesh. And there’s something else, something vaguely unnervingly absurd about a tall angular sixty-eight-year-old St Louis gentleman hung out behind the soundstage of a Manchester Disco. He seems amiable, accessible, mellow even. It’s a peak experience for me, cool gone beyond boiling point, syllables cracking open and clogging in the back of my throat like a stuttering fan. Just two people I’ve encountered REALLY scared me. Bo Diddley was one. WSB is the other. Both times the barriers are on my side.

I insert an opening wedge gradually, suggest it must be gratifying to get such reactions from this charnel-house assembly. ‘Absolutely. They are a good audience’ he replies. His voice dry, a monotonous desiccation to it. His eyes avert, to pace across the copy of my magazine which I’ve passed to him.

The biggest responses came to the more obvious obscenities and the more visceral passages in the ‘routines’ I offer guardedly. Do you think you’re always appreciated for the right reasons?

‘I’m not prepared to say what makes people react. Or whether their reasons for reacting are right or wrong.’ But do YOU respond to their reactions when you’re performing? ‘I may make changes as I go along, according to how I feel an audience is reacting.’ He speaks of his ‘routines’ as ‘almost like a stand-up Comic act, when you analyse it. Short pieces. Usually comic. Very pointed.’ The humour of Lenny Bruce reconfigured by the Marquis De Sade and ghosted by Dr Goebbels. Everything viewed through anal-tinted spectacles and fed through that Burroughs Adding Machine computer brain, tapes shredded and spliced.

How do these audiences compare with… ‘with the last time I was here?’ Alright, sure. Let’s relate past to present. What’s been did and what’s yet to be done.

‘They are more alive this time,’ spake without conviction. But also – perhaps, on this trip – as distinct from his six-year London period, there IS less vehemence. Less perversity. On this trip he DOES seem to enjoy his fame-notoriety. And if what he says is anything more than platitude then that could be interesting. They once tagged him ‘Guru for the Flower-Power set’. An inaccuracy. Allen Ginsberg, yes. Jack Kerouac even, yes. Their vision has an optimistic naïveté segueing neatly onto that movement. His friends/lovers – yes, but William Burroughs was always too cynical and cold, too evil to catch that role. He’s more at home here with the dead 1980’s generation. He catches, but also challenges the cult of defeat, of disillusion. What he laid down in the past comes truer now than then.

There are elements of ‘Happening’ at the Hacienda, I suggest, but the atmosphere, the garb is wrong. ‘The way of dressing is a demonstration, and it is useful as such,’ delivered in a scabrous drawl.

‘I wasn’t involved in the sixties at all’ he concurs unbidden. ‘I was out of the country (out of the USA) most of the time. I really led a very secluded life. Apart from the Democratic Convention in Chicago, which I wrote about.’ He speaks low, now side-face, and in a rush so’s I miss some of it. He paces up and down in the confined concrete cell talking. Yes but I’ve read the ‘Exterminator!’ (1973) account of those trendy riots, mace, night sticks, busted heads, shattered glass, truncheons, ‘youths washing teargas out of their eyes in the fountain’ (“The Coming Of The Purple Better One” originally for ‘Esquire’, November 1968).

But before I get chance to cut in and get to specifics, he switches tack. ‘Do you live here?’

And I explain how I’ve travelled some sixty miles, and a literary lifetime, across the Pennines to reach this place. But a small price. I wouldn’t be writing the style I’m writing now were in not for ‘Naked Lunch’ (1959), ‘Soft Machine’ (1961, revised 1966), ‘Junky’ (aka ‘Junkie’, 1953), ‘The Ticket That Exploded’ (1962, revised 1967) et al. This CAN be no neutral tract of reportage.

He’s politely interested, but amputated. Restless with a nervy edge. The Mormon salesman smiles beatifically and benignly while glancing at his watch. A single frame in ‘Towers Open Fire’ shows a right hand with index finger missing. The hand – I’d been assured, was Burroughs’. The missing digit a self-inflicted mutilation, severed as token of a mild homosexual crush. I note his finger-count is complete, and the story collapses. But Burroughs attracts myth, and – aware of their potency, refuses to confirm or deny any of them.

Pity tour organiser Genesis P Orridge couldn’t make it tonight, I suggest. ‘No. He couldn’t be here. He’s ill with some skin infection or something. But there are the films…’

…And it’s a fascinating exercise to compare the films. The contrasts between – say, ‘Towers Open Fire’ and ‘Psychic TV’, the then and the now. The ‘sex magic’ that’s also present in Burroughs’ then-current novel ‘Cities Of The Red Night’ (1981). The shift in perception that occurs when Burroughs’ textual sex and death preoccupations get naked visualisation in – um, less subtle mediums. The differences…

‘But there are similarities. I feel there are common points too. They are statements of a kind.’ In Burroughs’ fiction the medium of print, celluloid, and vinyl get intermeshed. He experiments at length with tape-effects both in the ‘Ticket That Exploded’ novel, and on his Industrial-records LP ‘Nothing Here Now But The Recordings’ (1981, with Brion Gysin, Industrial IR0016) with P Orridge’s sleeve-scrawl, while his character Agent-23 gets literally sucked through the film barrier. ‘Most parts of a film are left in the cutting room, as in music or recording as well. But because a written text is visual does not necessarily mean that it’s cinematic.’

‘Naked Lunch’ itself was compiled in this cutting-room tape-editing fashion. ‘For every ten published pages there are fifty pages of notes to be edited, some on tape, and some filed.’ And the guy who once quoted ‘writing techniques are at least fifty years behind those of painting’ now deals in frames-per-second, enthuses about Malcolm Whitehead’s video from tonight, and encapsulates his words as often on vinyl as in print. Main soundtrack source for much of the Hacienda texts tends to be the new Burroughs-Laurie Anderson-John Giorno live ‘Red Night’ double album ‘You’re The Guy I Want To Share My Money With’ (1981, GPS, Giorno Poetry Systems), on which WSB sprawls and drawls across all of the third side. While vintage-1965 ESP-Disk ‘Call Me Burroughs’ has been reissued in cassette form by S Press of West Germany (and then by Rhino Word Beat in 1995). Each edition adds new dimensions and emphasis to his work, indicating new directions and consolidations for future explorations.

But aren’t there also dangers? He comments aside that the authorities ‘use sex as an addiction for control, just like alcohol and drugs.’ But extracted from the context of Burroughs’ dense prose and projected up stripped down into video visualisation, or marketed through the vinyl circus, isn’t there a danger that the images get subsumed into that control? He provides his own pre-emptive answer. ‘That’s true. Absolutely. It’s a very old tactic. The English are particularly good at that, at absorbing dissident elements. The authorities always try to put dissent into a category where they can deal with it more easily.’

Burroughs’ form of dissidence is more difficult to categorise. But before I can get down to analysis, at a signal, he turns to go. ‘Desolate thin blue overcoat, far to go, a sweet sadness in his eyes looking for a name.’ He hesitates and comes back again. Re-offers that same bone-ridged hand, but still not his eyes. Then he’s gone.

The smiling Mormon (James Grauerholz) blocks me. ‘Was that alright?’ voiced like a post-coital ritual. And even though circumstances fall far below optimum levels I can only confess that yes, it was way more than alright.

William Seward Burroughs was born 5 February 1914. His contribution to the Rock-Lit infrastructure is second to no other writer, although he claims no great love for it, preferring older music forms. He near-invented the literature of verbal assault, and now that some claim the power of language is exhausted and debased by repetition, he returns to show it not only stunningly alive, but more essential than ever before. Immortality now his only goal worth striving for. An earlier interviewer flung a line at him – ‘I am bound to the past’, from ‘Cities Of The Red Night’, and asked how it applies to William Burroughs in 1982.

He dismisses it. ‘It’s the statement of a character. Obviously I intend to continue…’


In a subsequent correspondence, James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ business manager and eventual literary executor, chides me in an amused way for characterizing him as a Mormon salesman



Original Review of: 
 ‘William Burroughs: 
The Final Academy Documents’ 
with Anthony Balch, Brion Gysin, John Giorno 
‘IKON FCL’, 86 Palatine Road, 
West Didsbury, Manchester 20 
1982, VHS & Betamax format – £25 + £1.50p&p 

Do not adjust your VCR. There’s a fault with reality… or something very much like it.

Video labels have gone indie. According to ‘Double-Vision’ supremo Paul Smith, funding a group’s first video-release can be cheaper than investing in its vinyl equivalent. ‘We expected a flood of independent videos in the wake of our ‘TV Wipeout’ compilation, like the independent record scene. But so far, it’s not materialised.’ Nevertheless – labels like Sheffield’s Double-Vision and Manchester’s Ikon now have catalogues expanding in both depth and quality. They trade in product that stands on technology’s leading edge, but with all their essential functions controlled from the comfort of your own chaise longue.

William Burroughs, for example, he’s now available in affordable consumer video. A name synonymous with the subterranean, in the advance guard of the avant-garde, can now be cued into your grey TV-eye for a mere £25. ‘The Final Academy Documents’ come in two neat cassettes box-jacketed in plush red vinyl. The picture quality is (deliberately) variable, going up through several warp-factors, but the picture-search time-shifting ability of rewind-FF just adds to the archival elements of this vintage sleezorama.

The first, and most riveting tape documents 1962-1963, from the earliest transcribed sixteen-mm film – “Ghosts At No.9”, through random footage and a ‘cut-up’ by Psychic TV, to the legendary Tony Balch collaboration “Towers Open Fire”. Once minority-appeal cult films, they can now come down through the medium of the ever-multiplying domestic screen, and they stand up well. The eerie sense of unreality transfers from big spools to compact video-cassette stunningly, with often cornea-peeling effect.

Viewing “Towers Open Fire” is akin to dipping your fingers in a piranha pool of itchy camerawork and smeary colours that has you jabbing the remote-control rewind stud to see each section twice, and then again. Even the street scenes – with Brion Gysin and others, are cut with trick-frame repetitions or focal overlays that reduce Burroughs’ face to cubist abstractions. But sometimes it’s just down to sheer alienness of perception that reinvents New York or Tangiers to a narcotic-frozen SF surrealism. From 1982 there’s live footage from the actual ‘Final Academy’ event itself, with Burroughs and John Giorno reading from the stage of the ‘Hacienda Club’, caught by the nifty lens of video-scratching pioneer Malcolm Whitehead.

Together, the package forms an un-putdownable reference work to the root of everything now considered (Some) Bizarre and experimental. Every right-thinking trendy, industrial-art poseur, every squat, bohemian pad and Beat cell should have one.

We now return control of your VCR…

Now issued by Cherry Red DVD in January 2009, this is my original 1982 review. I’ve made no attempt to amend or update the text

Saturday, 25 June 2016



Album Review of: 
(May 2016, Rhino) www.monkees.com

Hey Hey… it really is the Monkees! There have been a number of partial reunions across the years, with varying line-ups, some less convincing than others. This Fiftieth Anniversary project is not only the first to feature all four original members – the late Davy Jones present in the form of a salvaged tape of him singing Neil Diamond’s “Love To Love”, but the first full team effort with all the original writing partnerships too. Harry Nilsson, who wrote “Cuddly Toy” for the Monkees fourth album, writes the title song. Goffin-King, who wrote the “Pleasant Valley Sunday” single from the same ‘Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd’ (November 1967) album, are represented by a banjo-strewn “Wasn’t Born To Follow”, already done by the Byrds and Lemon Pipers but overdue for a retread. Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who wrote most of the platinum-selling ‘The Monkees’ (October 1966) debut LP – including ‘The Monkees Theme’ itself, contribute “Whatever’s Right” with its familiar “Last Train To Clarksville” rush. Peter, Michael and Micky add one new song each. But is it possible to recapture all that stupidly-dumb fun which made them huge way back then? 

In 1966, with America’s complacent Pop-domination stunned by the British invasion, the Monkees were the ‘imaginary band’ concocted to be the industry’s high-profile fight-back. Today, assembling a Boy Band is part of the reality-TV machine. Back then, Screen Gems fortuitously formula mix-matched The Monkees following Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider’s September 1965 adverts in ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ and ‘Daily Variety’. Urban legend has it Paul Williams, Danny Hutton, Stephen Stills (true) and Charles Manson (untrue) failed audition, so – in some alternate universe, “For What It’s Worth” was a Monkees hit, before the group degenerated into a satanic death-cult.

Of course, in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (July 1964), John, Paul, George and Ringo play augmented docu-versions of themselves, escaping fan-mania, having comic encounters on the train journey, doing the TV show, but with written-in guests (Wilfred Brambell as Paul’s clean grandfather) and prepared repartee. Liverpudlian writer Alun Owen takes and amplifies their quip-heavy humour, even their speech-patterns, when George says ‘I’m quite prepared for that eventuality’ it’s perfectly pitched to his drawling pronunciation, while the visual-grammar of the “Can’t Buy Me Love” speeded-up Running Jumping Standing Still sequence borrows from Richard Lester’s earlier Peter Sellers project. The film is what they now term Scripted Reality. The Monkees sit-com takes the ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ template one step beyond.

Brian Epstein was scandalised when Joe Orton submitted a proposed Beatles script in which all four Fabs slept together in the same bed. The Monkees play an aspirant Pop group who live together in the same crazy pad, albeit in separate beds. And they drive the Monkeemobile – a modified Pontiac GTO pun on the Batmobile from Adam West and Burt Ward’s Dynamic Duo ‘Batmobile’ that was simultaneously ratings-chasing on ABC. We all knew that singing-drummer Micky Dolenz had been cocky orphan ‘Corky’, getting into scrapes as NBC’s ‘Circus Boy’. But his vocals give “Last Train To Clarksville” and “I’m A Believer” the bite of authenticity. We knew that beneath his trademark woolly hat, Michael Nesmith wrote “Different Drum” for the Stone Poneys – which is Linda Ronstadt, and hence pretty cool. And he would later contrive “Listen To The Band”, one of the Monkees underappreciated gems. We knew that beneath bassist Pete Tork’s gnomic utterances, was a proficient Greenwich Village Folkie.

And because they’re replicating the Mop-Top Beat Group format, the token English addition of Davy Jones makes logistical sense, despite his former TV role as Ena Sharples grandson on ‘Coronation Street’, as a kind of jazz-hands media-brat with an affection for Vaudeville dance-steps. Although Dolenz is always the best front-voice, Davy was nudged to the microphone because teenyboppers think he’s cute. He shakes tambourine and shakes his hair, so his fan-mag approval-rating determines he must sing on Neil Diamond’s “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You” – in fact, he’s the only Monkee present on this, the group’s third consecutive American no.1 single. While the jokey dialogue play-in to their fourth and last US no.1, “Daydream Believer” – with Davy asking producer Chip Douglas ‘what number is this, Chip?’, the other Monkees chiming ‘seven-A’, and Davy protesting ‘alright, alright, there’s no need to get excited, man, just ‘cause I’m short, I know’ plays shamelessly to fans protective sympathy. Although later on Davy also sings “Valeri” – another of my favourite Monkees singles.

And though the half-hour TV-episodes are now unwatchably bad, the singles were perfect. With some justification it’s pointed out that “Last Train To Clarksville” charted before the TV shows first screened, but from session-player Louie Shelton’s opening ‘Paperback Writer’ Rickenbacker-jangly guitar-figures it was exquisitely-crafted by writers Boyce-and-Hart to do precisely that. This is where Power-Pop began for every Busted, McFly or Vamps. But seldom done better. And as mega-hit album followed album – ‘More Of The Monkees’ (January 1967), ‘Headquarters’ (May 1967) and ‘The Birds, The Bees And The Monkees’ (April 1968), they fight for greater control over their own careers.

I remember watching ‘The Monkees On Tour’, the closing episode of series one which documents the Phoenix stop-over on the group’s first live tour, Nesmith eulogising-to-camera ‘we’d like to thank everybody, for making it a great stay. We’d like to thank The Rolling Stones for being a great group. We’d like to thank The Mama’s and Papa’s for making it good. We’d like to thank Lovin’ Spoonful for making it happy, but most of all we’d like to thank the Beatles for starting it all up for us.’ By making this humble yet sincere tribute, he’s also deliberately tying the Monkees into the same continuity. Because – like Leonard Nimoy becoming a real Vulcan, it might have been this moment they’d outgrown the session musicians and Don Kirshner’s contractual cuteness to become a pretty good little band in their own right.

There were a number of partial reunions across the years, with varying line-ups, some less convincing than others. Now, opener “Good Times” immediately announces the intention of ‘dancing in the street again and music everywhere’, with Dolenz duetting with the original 1968 demo guide-vocal that Nilsson did with Mike Nesmith. ‘Instrumental’ quips Micky as the vocals break. Then, ‘with one bound’ XTC’s Andy Partridge’s “You Bring The Summer” incarnates the classic airy sixties-Pop ‘chips and dips and root-beer beach volley-ball ‘dum-diddly-dum-diddy-dum’ song-structure, the fade ornamented with reverse guitar and novelty vocal effects. The third bite by Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, “She Makes Me Laugh” has the appealing jangle-guitar riff and harmonies that lend themselves to images of the silly video-style antics that were the speciality of their TV-shows.

Mike ‘Nes’ takes vocals for “Me And Magdalena”, changing the pace into a more reflective mood while ‘driving south through Monterey’, before Boyce & Hart’s guitar riff for “Whatever’s Right” pitches it straight back up again. Nesmith’s own “I Know What I Know” is a slow typically “Rio” wordy vagueness with mellotron strings. Adding diversity, or maybe losing focus, Peter Tork’s “Little Girl’ is both as sunny side-up and ‘shining and soft’ as his songs. Davy’s vocal “Love To Love” takes an unmistakably Neil Diamond melody, ‘revisited and completed in New Monkees sessions’. Then original Monkees producer-activist Jeff Barry uses a ‘Hi Heeled Sneakers’ spine for “Gotta Give It Time”. And if Noel Gallagher never got to write for the Fabs, he catches this last train to write “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster” for the Faux Four instead, edging into ‘Head’ (the 1968 movie) territory with Paul Weller and some phased-swoosh effects, tempo-change inserts and false ending.

Micky’s writing contribution – with producer Adam Schlesinger, the party-atmosphere album closer “I Was There (And I’m Told I Had A Good Time)” has that ‘if you can remember the sixties you weren’t there’ vibe, with Dolenz protesting ‘I dropped my sticks’ in the fade-out groove. If Micky does sound occasionally patchy here, and maybe the album total doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts, of course it’s not possible to recapture all the stupidly-dumb fun which made them huge way back then, but they get about as close as we could reasonably hope for. As on the spin-off single, receiving heavy Radio Two airplay, when ‘you come around, you bring the summer.’ Hey Hey… they’re no longer the Young Generation, but they still got something to say.

Friday, 24 June 2016



Book Review of: 
(Granada paperback – 1978 - ISBN 0-586-05211-9) 

Pohl and Kornbluth are the Simon & Garfunkel of science fiction. Except that they’re not, for unlike Paul and Art, writers Frederik and Cyril were much more an equal-opportunities act. According to the introduction of ‘Wolfbane’ ‘each one wrote sections, starting where the other left off, and through long experience they developed an almost telepathic awareness of each other’s intention.’ If that is so, it’s impossible to find the joins, their collaboration is so seamless.

Wolfsbane is the common name for the genus aconitum, a highly poisonous plant also known as Devil’s helmet or Monkshood. As well as being used for euthanasia in ancient Greece, it has long-attributed supernatural powers related to lycanthropy, right through to its walk-on appearance in Harry Potter. It’s difficult to ascertain exactly the relevance of this to that, plant to fiction.

‘Wolfbane’ itself is a strange novel. It first appeared as a two-part serial in ‘Galaxy Science Fiction’ magazine, with a Wallace ‘Wally’ Wood illustration of the story taking the cover of the October 1957 issue (Vol.14 no.6). It then emerged as a 140-page novel from Ballantine in September 1959, with jacket by Richard Powers. Although considerably revised and rewritten by Pohl for a June 1986 edition from Baen, my own copy is the 1967 Penguin edition, which is the version I’m using.

It consists of eighteen short bite-size chapters that take the reader deep into the year 2203, two-hundred years after a rogue wandering world – a ‘runaway planet’, has ripped the Earth from its orbit and dragged it beyond the outer rim of the solar system, out past Pluto into interstellar space. Leaving a ‘decimated, fractionated, reduced to what is in comparison a bare handful of chilled, stunned survivors’ beneath the loom of the ‘terrifying sky’. Earth’s new binary ignites the Moon into a series of Suns on a five-year re-creation cycle to illuminate the worlds. It has also set an impenetrable slaggy midnight-blue tetrahedron squatting on the planed-off peak of Everest, for no obvious purpose. And there are insubstantial ‘eyes’ that condense out of the air, and watch people…

Unlike co-writer Pohl, Cyril M Kornbluth is probably best remembered now for their collaborations, rather than for his own extensive body of work. Which is unfortunate. Born 23 July 1923 in the Inwood neighbourhood of Manhattan he was still in his teens, and a member of the ‘Futurians’ fan-group, when his stories began appearing in the likes of Pohl’s ‘Super Science Stories’ (“King Cole Of Pluto” as by ‘SD Gottesman’, May 1940), and ‘Stirring Science Stories’ (“The Rocket Of 1955” in April 1941). The latter, reprinted from an even earlier fanzine appearance, takes a characteristically clear-eyed unromantic view of the Space Race as an opportunity for Confidence tricksters to milk a gullible public, with sideswipes at Einstein and jingoistic patriotism. ‘Quicksilver bright… he was also a sardonic soul’ recalls Pohl (in his introduction to ‘The Best Of CM Kornbluth’, Ballantine Book, 1976). ‘The comedy present in almost everything he wrote relates to the essential hypocrisies and foolishnesses of mankind.’

Interrupted by war service as an infantryman – commended for his actions during the Battle of the Bulge, he returned to the SF field while acting as bureau chief for a Chicago news-wire service, contributing more maturely-crafted description-dodging stories across a spread of magazines, using such aliases as ‘Cecil Corwin’, ‘Kenneth Falconer’ or ‘Cyril Judd’ (for his collaborations with Judith Merril). Among his finest are “The Little Black Bag” (‘Astounding SF’ July 1950) – later adapted by Rod Serling for his TV ‘Night Gallery’, and its converse “The Marching Morons” (‘Galaxy SF’ April 1951). His perfectly-polished tales are seldom of the straightforward starships and BEM’s variety, ‘he seldom gave us an alien being as a character’ muses Pohl. His tales frequently work on a number of levels, suggesting artful satire and social observation, showing what Charles Platt calls ‘a sophisticated awareness of the dark undercurrents in life and society.’ A sensibility that makes his work seem just as relevant now as it was then. Maybe it was he who devised ‘Wolfbane’s calories-to-population equation, as a satiric poke at the then-contemporary consumer-culture in which ‘they manufacture an enormous automobile to carry one housewife half-a-mile for the purchase of one lipstick.’

In “Shark Ship” (aka “Reap The Dark Tide”, ‘Vanguard SF no.1’, June 1958) an ocean-going culture is forced to return to land, finding an America depopulated as a result of a fetishistic mass racial suicide orgy of violence. Yet, although it’s framed as a group-jeopardy adventure, there’s a deliberately exaggerated unreality about it, an arch suggestion that it’s also an ironic playful game. His “Two Dooms” (‘Venture SF’ July 1958) references Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos project and peyote ‘God Food’, while anticipating Philip K Dick as his protagonist Edward Royland inadvertently visits an alternate USA controlled by Nazi and Japanese regimes. Yet he uses the theme to pose a powerful argument in favour of using the atomic bomb to end World War II. As Pohl recalls, ‘just before his death, Cyril finished two major pieces of work. One was the final revision of our last novel in collaboration, ‘Wolfbane’. The other was this. Cyril’s name for the story was “The Doomsman”.

The opening chapter of ‘Wolfbane’ is deliberately stilted and formal, reflecting highly ritualised social codes designed to conserve energy and minimise heat-loss in the frigid conditions of the marooned Earth – ‘the ancient gait of fifteen-hundred calories per day, not one of which could be squandered,’ as they hesitantly await the forty-sixth ‘re-creation of the Sun’. In the tight community of Wheeling in what was once West Virginia, the narrative contrasts Citizen Roget Germyn’s ‘necessary calm’ of prescribed gestures and thought disciplines – the sheep who accept, with Glenn Tropile’s more anarchic behaviour as a ‘Son of the Wolf’, who is ‘reckless of grace’.

By chapter two Tropile takes advantage of Citizen Boyne running ‘Amuck’, to raid the bakers. But is seen, captured, and sentenced to Death by Lumbar Puncture, a highly unpleasant spinal-tap from which his fluids will contribute to the community’s nutritional intake. Whereas Boyne accepts his execution with a citizen’s calm resignation, Tropile uses his devious Wolf-nature to contrive escape from the ‘House Of The Five Regulations’. There’s no violence or contrived Pulp-heroics, no-one gets shot. Although Tropile reaches Princetown, a community of Wolves, and Boyne is ‘harvested’, their destinies remain entwined.

SF has conjured up a wealth of alien species. Few as enigmatic as the pyramids of Earth’s binary. In a perfectly-turned phrase that describes their attitude to their captured and confused human culture, the narrator asks ‘who bothers to take a census of the cells in a hang-nail?’ The Earth is merely a ‘wrist-watch’ components-mine, from which individuals are ‘translated’ through a form of meditative self-hypnosis, to be spliced by neurosurgery into a machine, as part of a huger machine. Tropile’s citizen-part tendency allows his ‘translation’. After which he wakes to finds he has sixteen hands. He’s become part of a circuit, an eightfold mind in an octopule unit, a sort of eight-branched snowflake, each branch a joined human body. A shared consciousness ‘in eight-part counterpoint rather than in human melodic lines,’ operating on Rashevsky’s Number principle. ‘The Pyramids were not interested in him as an entity capable of will and conception. They used only the raw capacity of the human brain and its preceptors.’ Again, in the perfectly-turned analogy, to them, ‘it is not desirable that your bedroom wall switch have a mind of its own; if you turn the lights on, you want them on.’

But Tropile’s Wolf-nature overcomes his passive acceptance and allows him awareness, makes the snowflake – of which he’s become a part, to become the virus in the program, corrupting and multiplying the sequences and functions in marvellously detailed ways. As the poison in the machine. The Wolfbane. ‘They had done the binary planet a century’s worth of damage in a matter of hours; they were being excellent mice.’ As the perambulating snowflake explores the limits of the planet, and its history in the derelict Polar Library, learning that the Pyramids – or ‘Omniverters’, are machine-intelligences or A.I.’s who destroyed their own creators, the Pyramids themselves become aware of the threat in their midst and begin their retaliation in scenes that anticipate the machine-assault on the subterranean city in the later ‘Matrix’ films.

As the Simon & Garfunkel of SF, Pohl and Kornbluth’s relationship was not always harmonious, not always flawless. ‘Cyril and I were good friends, but there was too much ego in both of our cosmoses for the relationship to be always tranquil. We had our differences.’ They ‘often borrowed from each other’s heads, both for collaboration and once in a while for our own individual work,’ but there were fall-outs too. Kornbluth’s own first solo novel ‘Takeoff’ (1952, and later serialised in ‘New Worlds’) was written in one long seventy-two sleepless hour session, but only after joint discussions, comments and replotting ‘late night in my kitchen’. It was followed by ‘The Syndic’ (1953) – in which mobsters have taken over America, and ‘Not This August’ (1955, later revised by Pohl) a ‘Red Dawn’ telling of a 1950s Soviet invasion and the underground American fight-back.

But it was to be his collaborations with Frederik Pohl that were to become his most celebrated books, ‘The Space Merchants’ (1953, aka ‘Gravy Planet’) – the classic satire on multinational corporations, consumerism and advertising, and ‘Gladiator-At-Law’ (1955) – which extends the field into corporate law and legal machinations, plus ‘Search The Sky’ (1954). ‘Working with Cyril… was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life’ Pohl relates in his autobiography ‘The Way The Future Was’ (Gollancz, 1979). ‘I always did all the dealing with editors and publishers… Cyril and I had a working treaty. After the rough draft of the book was done, he was out of it. I always did the final revisions (except on the last novel we did together, ‘Wolfbane’).

Kornbluth’s war service – ‘lugging a .50-calibre machine gun around the Ardennes Forest, had left him with a ‘constant ringing in the ears’ plus what Pohl terms a ‘strained heart’, hypertension which contributes to his premature death on 21 March 1958, aged just 34. He shovelled snow from his driveway, ran to catch a train, had a heart attack on the station platform, and died on the spot. This means that their unique ‘Wolfbane’ was published posthumously. Although there’s occasional satiric humour, it is a novel unlike any other. With a detailed structural density defying most of the usual rules of fiction, it nevertheless becomes an absorbing trip into genuine strangeness. Typically, there’s no neat resolution to the novel either, with the Pyramids deactivated, and the characters settling back into their familiar life-tracks, Tropile – the ‘sick crazy-sounding messiah’, finds no solace in his triumph. Instead, he yearns for more than the worlds can offer him, for the expanded consciousness of the Snowflake, and the glimpses of eternity he’d seen through alien eyes.

Pohl loyally nurtured their legacy, completing a number of unfinished stories, including “The Meeting” which earned a Hugo Award, and of course continued as an innovative writer-activist until his own death in 2 September 2013, aged 93. What Kornbluth could have achieved remains open to conjecture, although Pohl suggests his accelerating genre-dissolving momentum would have taken him out of SF restrictions entirely into mainstream work. He’d already written historical fiction, and a curious exploitational lesbian pulp novel as ‘Jordan Park’ with Pohl (‘Sorority House’ in 1956).

Meanwhile, we have ‘Wolfbane’.