Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Poem: SOFT WIRES


SOFT WIRES / 
IN THIS BEST OF ALL 
IMPOSSIBLE WORLDS 


and the last memory
has to be this…

pulling into
tower-block shadow,
through the security lock
and into the echo-cave,
rehearsing it all slow
with dignity and sadness
because after tonight,
there’ll be no more
me and you…

and of all the nights
of memories,
the last memory
has to be this…

after promising words
and no more,
you have to look so good,
and I have to act so dumb
that I can’t wait
to hold you…

and the last memory
has to be this,
when it should have
been so right,
the last time
we make love
I do it with
just my
socks
on



Published in the collection:
‘POWER LINES’ (Unibird Publications - UK – October 1988)
Also published in:
‘HEADLOCK: NEW POETRY no.2 (Autumn)’ (UK – November 1994)
‘MINOTAUR no.50’ (USA – July 2008)

Monday, 29 June 2015

Interview: DONOVAN On The Beat Route




DONOVAN: 
 ON THE BEAT ROUTE WITH 
 THE HURDY-GURDY MAN 


All of a sudden – Donovan Leitch is everywhere. 
His long-promised long-awaited autobiography
‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’ is published May 2006, 
in the meantime EMI are issuing four digitally-remastered 
extended editions of previously-USA-only albums, 
while he’s launching a new series of ‘Beat Café’-themed 
gigs, with Rat Scabies on drums! 
 Andrew Darlington is there to get the details


“His universe glowed like the first morning of the world. 
Objects appeared and disappeared. 
Metamorphosis became commonplace …” 
 George Melly writes about Donovan in ‘Revolt Into Style’


A wild-eyed black-and-white mongrel pursues a buckled crushed-down Evian bottle bounce-bouncing across the ‘Bar Pacific’ courtyard cobbles, snarling it up in eager readiness for the next throw. We watch its relentless energy, sat hunched back into the friendly shade around the table, the sun above us busy being a very magic fellow. Donovan Leitch is scuffed and taggle-haired, but effortlessly cool. A writer in the sun. A poet cornered.

Then there’s a woman, brandishing a concert-flier. “It’s against my principles” she gushes, “but I’ve been a gigantic fan of yours for years.”

He crinkle-grins, squinting up into the sun. “Come up here and I’ll sign it. Are you coming in for the show? What’s your name? Diane? – Diana, the goddess. The huntress.” He felt-tip scribes across the leaflet. “You haven’t got a bow at home, have you, Diana? Do you bathe in a mountain pool with all your maidens around you? Until the hunter comes, and he has a sneaky-peek at you. And he’s not supposed to see you, rising out of the water, so you turn him into a stag. And his own brothers, not knowing it’s him, pursue him, hunt him down and kill him, and…”

“That’s the old romantic in you, isn’t it, Donovan?” she blusters, part-embarrassed, mostly flattered. Lost in some gulf between faded hippie-chic, and Desperate Housewife deep-cleavage.

“Oh, I’m a mythologist as well. There’s goddess in all women.” If he’s done this effusive honey-dripping spiel-routine before, and surely he must have done something very similar, it doesn’t come out that way. “Anyway, I’ve got to do an interview. Look out for me…”

As she walks away looking down gloatingly at the autograph, he comments “I’m getting chilly, but she must be freezing” adding ‘nice style’, approvingly… ‘Yeah, she’s sure fine-looking man’, I agree, ‘she’s something else…!’, quoting Eddie Cochran (for reasons that may become evident later).

While the black-and-white mongrel’s still rampaging. She has to side-step around it. And I swear it’s grinning, wild-eyed…


“Happiness runs in a circular motion 
thought is like a little boat upon the stream …” 
(Donovan, ‘Happiness Runs’) 

Donovan. He’s been in fashion. And out of it. Now he’s beyond it all, into his own parallel universe. It’s a good place to be. There’s no commercial pressures. When he wants to tour, he can sell-out mid-size venues like this with ease. When he puts out an album he knows it will sell enough to make the exercise artistically satisfying and economically viable. His most recent is ‘Beat Café’ (2004, Appleseed Records), which includes the traditional “The Cuckoo”. “It’s an old tune” he agrees. “And a favourite of mine. It’s probably an Irish song that went over with the migrants. ‘Ah-diddlie, Ah-diddlie, A diddile-diddle-dah’.” As he sings, he’s emphasising its lilting melancholy. “It’s an old way of singing – ‘keening’, you know? Which means it’s Celtic. Probably even pre-Celtic.”

Folk Songs have a way of diversifying. “Folk Songs are amazing. A Folk Song can last just as long as an archaeological find. They are actually the repositories of the history of human-kind, the human spirit. There are certain tunes that carry a ritual, or a circular dance that goes back millennia. And I know them. I feel them in my heart.” He clutches his hand over his chest. “There are five vowel-sounds” – he sings “‘a-eee-ah-owe-you’, and these root-sounds are in every language, no matter where or when. So you don’t have to understand the language to understand its particular soulful sound. ‘Cos when a local singer, whether Flamenco, or East Indian, or Native American, or an Eskimo... or a troubadour from Scotland – me!, what do you hear? When you hear the music, and it touches you – listen to the vowel-sounds…” He sings “‘ah-ah-ah-ah-o-luuuuve-yu-o-oo’. It’s the vowel-sounds that are creating the emotional contact with people. Yes. They’re actually playing the universal language, it’s amazing isn’t it?”

From anyone else it would sound insufferably like affectation, pretension. But to Donovan it’s a continuity he’s lived and believed in forever. When he does the raggle-taggle ‘minstrel-me’, it’s impossible to deny. Look at the life…


One of the posters in the foyer – the one listing forthcoming events, Twisted Folk, Kathryn Williams, Devendra Banhart, short-hands ‘Donovan: Britain’s Answer to Dylan’, which must be rather irksome. After all, he fought that brand-war so long ago surely it’s no longer even vaguely an issue? When the Folk-Rock scene was an infant, with CBS promoting Dylan as the ‘new cult leader’, and Donovan emerging on ‘Ready Steady Go’ with harmonica-harness, Woody Guthrie complex, Breton cap, guitar stickered ‘This Machine Kills’, and a fistful of anti-war songs, admittedly some comparison-confusion was admissible. Even though Donovan’s protest songs tended to be borrowed from Mick Softley (“The War Drags On”), Bert Jansch (“Do You Hear Me Now”), or Buffy Sainte-Marie’s articulate tirade “Universal Soldier” – an American single’s hit for Donovan which charts here as an EP title-track, something only the Beatles or Stones had previously done.

But soon the Dylan/Donovan differences became more apparent than these fleeting similarities. Watch the sequence in DA Pennebaker’s April 1965 tour-doc ‘Don’t Look Back’ where they meet up in the hotel room. Donovan offers his simple little tune “To Sing For You”. ‘Hey, that’s a good song, man’ sneers Dylan with immaculate under-statement, before replying with a devastatingly surreal “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue”, clearly marking out his territory in the food-chain. No competition. Literally.


Donovan was born in the Maryhill area of Glasgow 5th May 1946. ‘Twas there ‘I dreamt my dreams, and there I hung my jeans’. A poetry-reading father – Donald Kerr Leitch, ‘smelling of machine-oil’ and ‘Marxist Worker’s wisdom’. And a ‘tight-knot’ of a Mother – Winnifred Philips Leitch, a second-generation Irish Catholic, ‘bound up with false guilt’, an independent girl in ‘a dark and cruel world’. “In the beginning there was Folk music, even though they didn’t call it Folk music. I lived in Glasgow, although there was more Irish in my family than Scots. So I just heard nothing but songs all the time. Somebody would put a chair in the middle of the room, and sing their song. That happened at parties, birthdays, funerals, weddings, births – somebody would go into the middle of the room, and there would always be songs.” But after a childhood bout with polio the family relocated south. “When I was ten my father moved us down to (230 Bishop’s Rise, New) Hatfield, as part of the mid-‘50’s migrations. People were leaving the industrial cities and coming down to the New Towns around London, when I moved there from the grey streets of Glasgow it was a shock, the greenery, the birds and the bees, and all those beautiful things.” ‘Birds and Bees’? – a euphemism for sexual awakening, or just a mystical connection with nature?


But this was the late-50’s, what about Elvis, Eddie Cochran? “I had a phase of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I was an adolescent boy. Buddy Holly was my idol when I was twelve. I heard Buddy Holly and I went – ‘aaah, this is incredible!’ But it didn’t make me want to form a Rock ‘n’ Roll band. Buddy Holly breathed his lyrics, y’know – (he sings) ‘Listen to me-ee, hear what I sa-ay… listen closely to me-ee-hee’ and so – ‘ah-ah-ah’.” He emotes the tremulous Donovan intonation in a Buddy Holly-style. “So when you hear Donovan going (breathily) ‘aah-haa-haaa’, it’s a Buddy Holly influence.” Whatever, he ‘flunked my way to college’, ‘reading Kerouac and Ginsberg well-juiced’. Yeah, Rave On, John Donne… before his own first gig at ‘The Cock’ in St Albans. A poet in denims. “I went into (Welwyn Garden City College of) Further Education, and that’s where I met Bohemia, beatnik girls, long hair, rollneck sweaters, social discussions on the campus green. I said ‘this is where I belong. The girls look better. The guys dress better. There’s art, there’s poetry, and the music is better.’ In the Secondary Modern School I’d been to, they had a recorder and a tambourine. And once a month, they had us bang the tambourine and try to blow the whistle. They called it a music lesson! So when I went to College the world of art lay before me. That’s when I first heard Woody Guthrie and Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger…”

Later, in 1964, prior to his first official release, he records some publisher’s demos with producer Terry Kennedy. Subsequently rediscovered the tracks include Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Codine”, and the Tim Hardin-derived “London Town”. He’d just turned eighteen in May of that year. Already poised for a dayglo career at a time when colour-TV was still science fiction.


“your friends they are making a Pop Star or two 
every evening, you know that scene backwards, 
they can’t see the patterns they’re weaving…” 
 (Donovan, ‘Young Girl Blues’) 

The “Sunshine Superman” single was recorded between 2-and-5pm Sunday 19th December 1965 at EMI’s Abbey Road Studio 3, at a time when he was caught up in a contractual imbroglio, a limbo of wrangling High Court writs and litiginous distractions. It was Donovan’s first Mickie Most session, with a song initially announced to the press as “For John And Paul”. It opens with double-bass and electric bass providing depth and texture. “I made the ‘Sunshine Superman’ album in late-’65 and early-’66. Which, by the way, was a year-and-a-half before ‘Sergeant Pepper’ – and ‘Sunshine Superman’ was just sat there. My book tells all about it. Mickie Most said ‘don’t play advance copies of this to Paul (McCartney)’, but of course I played it to Paul, because we make our records for our peers – did you know that? We don’t really make them for the audience. First, we make them for us, then for our peers.” Is there a sub-text here? What’s he implying? That if he’d not played Paul the demo of his album, that ‘Sergeant Pepper’ would have turned out a different beast? That there’s a causal connection between – say, “Young Girl Blues” and “She’s Leaving Home”? Of course, he doesn’t go that far. But draw your own conclusions. It’s not impossible…

The cascade of albums that follow come in supernaturally rapid sequence, so much so that quality-control lapses into occasional throw-away tweeness and whimsy – yet never so throw-away as, for example, Dylan’s ‘Self-Portrait’. And, with the tight musical palette provided by producer Mickie Most, arranger John Cameron, and the cream of session musicians to complement his lyrical dexterity and gifted melodic flair, the results – at their best, can be extraordinary. And, of course, this was all happening for the first time. Such fusions and daring forays had never been attempted before. They were making it up.


Now, when singer-songwriters, Damien Rice or James Blunt, drench their diary-agonies in strings, they have no excuse. Such errors have been inflicted so frequently by earlier practitioners that the dire warnings should not be ignored. But Donovan – and a few others, Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin, John Phillips, Ray Davies, Roger McGuinn, Syd Barrett, and yes, Paul McCartney, were charting unknown terrain. There were innovative excursions into jazz-freedoms and world music too. “Tangiers” (with Bert Jansch on guitar) – a previously US-only track now available here, looks beyond the druggy hippie exoticism of, say, Crosby Stills & Nash’s “Marrakesh Express”, to see the ‘starving kids with staring eyes’. Sure, ‘Moroccans with their elephantitus feet’ may be a clumsy rhyme, but his capacity to see those ‘who life and death treat so cheap’ suggests a timely reality-check. Just as he’s capable of mocking the superficiality of the girl now ‘dragged as any hippie should be / in old hippie town’ (“Hi, It’s Been A Long Time”).

A softer Rock. “Yeah, I brought in the ‘feminised male’… in my songs. In the songs which I sang, I used words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘lovely’ and ‘kind’ – and they were usually attributed to the feminine part of our race. As if only women had those emotions. And men don’t. Why is that?, I account that to two world wars and the Depression. When men were put in uniform, had their hair cut off, were de-humanised, demoralised, given weapons to kill, until all softness and all humanity was sort-of squeezed out of them. And I brought that back in the ‘60’s into songs. So these female… aspects, in my songs, are what I brought in. They would print in the music papers ‘Donovan Thinks The World Is Beautiful’ in two-inch-high letters and – of course, it was really a put-down. They’d say, ‘so you think that kindness and brotherhood, peace, family and humanity are coming back into the world?’ And I said ‘no, they’ve just temporarily gone missing’ and ‘I’m going to sing about them’.”


The lavishly-boxed double-set ‘Gift From A Flower To A Garden’ comes at sixties’ end after the gatefold two-disc ‘Blonde On Blonde’ has already stretched the record-buyer’s budget, worse, it’s competing that same year with Cream’s ‘Wheels Of Fire’ (August) and Hendrix’ ‘Electric Ladyland’ (October). Even its florid cover-art and over-ornate title, the photo-shoot at Bodiam Castle, the kaftan and peacock-fan, are just a little too unworldly, even for 1968, seemingly glancing back to the already decomposing ‘Summer of Love’ idealism. All of which means that his last UK chart album of the decade (no.13 in May 1968), fails to receive the recognition it deserves.

Which is ironic, because it’s a very much simplified Donovan stripped of Mickie Most’s Pop-production affectations, scraped to the acoustic bone, containing some of his most perfectly realised songs spun in soft patinas of subtly pastoral guitars. Written during a refuge-seeking flight from London complications, “Isle Of Islay” – in particular, sees himself reduced down to ‘a seed on your land’. Here, he’s a hide-away lane-haunter, birds-nester, field-farer, shore-walker, his precarious voice as fragile as stained glass. And yes, it’s strangely luring. Elsewhere he writes twinkle-toed tunes of a tinker’s encounter with a crab, and of enchanted gipsy caravans. ‘Travellers’ tend to be reviled in today’s tabloids, but Donovan attunes to older longer Romany traditions of Manouche as symbols of enticing freedom. A Diddycoy romance of the open road that blurs the line between fantasy and reality, or even the fiction that facts can become. There are songs that fall on either side of that arbitrary horizon, others that dissolve it to a mental state, a mode of perception, rather than an absolute firewall. But these portraits and landscapes are less a sweeping vision, than an awareness of the particular moment, in which tactile glimpses provide the interface. The tide of seasons, gulls and rock-pools. Astrologically-shaped starfish, charcoal clouds and pebble-drifts. Songs of innocence and experience. Tales for aging children. Beautiful – if problematically undisturbing. All violence, angst, and pain long exorcised from his colour-spectrum, leaving only a wistful melancholy. Yet – as the decade closes, on his ‘Barabajagal’ album, he returns to addressing the war, through an ‘epistle’ from a soldier in Vietnam fighting, to “Susan On The West Coast Waiting” for his return…


“lemon circles swim in the tea, 
fishing for time with a witching line 
and throwing it back in the sea …” 
 (Donovan, ‘Writer In The Sun’) 

He arrives tonight in the ‘City Varieties’ foyer, dressed in rumpled black with a ‘Donegal Cruise’ blue plastic bag. And he’s complaining about the traffic system. Adding, quite unnecessarily, “Donovan’s the name…” His comfortably shabby roll-neck and black jeans betray their travels, yet he’ll wear the same for the concert. He can also look as worn as his years suggest, until the moments when his face lights up in a spontaneous smile. He has white false-nails on his right hand, all the better to plectrum with. The suggestion of liver-spots too. And his hair – thinner, yet reassuringly tousled, up close, betrays a subtle blue tint that makes it appear darker than it is when viewed from audience-seating. He listens attentively to my questions, variants of which he must have been asked very many times before. Then his answers come in unbroken, yet carefully considered streams, addressing each point carefully and thoroughly. Both affected and compelling, relaxed and intense.

But it’s obvious that an interview – to Donovan, is an extension of the performance. He is at all times the guru dispensing esoteric wisdoms, just as he, in his turn, had absorbed secret bohemian magics from those who came before him, most obviously the three Beat Poets beneath whose images he’ll perform tonight – Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac, but beyond them through mystic and bohemian traditions stretching back, virtually to the misty Celtic dawn of time. ‘And so the journey begins…’ he’ll travelogue on-stage… Unlikely as it seems, Shadows bassist Brian ‘Liquorice’ Locking is there on his first two albums. Equally unlikely, tonight, his band is underscored by Rat Scabies’ sharp disciplined drumming. ‘The guy from the Stranglers!’ says an enthusiast in the row behind us. And I remember Robyn Hitchcock confiding to me some years ago, ‘The Damned? They’re just a bunch of old Hippies’.


Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’ are threaded with previously unsuspected shades of self-doubt, uncertainty, mixed-up confusions. For Donovan, there seems little of that. Apart from the phase-shifting post-60’s come-down when the hits stop. He’s endured a lot of vindictive bad-press. He’s been kicked around more than most. As though, because he once most embodied his audience’s aspirations, he’s held responsible for their excesses. So how do you impose new musical ideas onto people’s old associations? You can’t. Yet even though his vision may be narrower than Dylan’s, it’s more focussed, surer of itself. He’s no longer leading. But he’s not particularly concerned about catching up either. After playing a free impromptu set at the July 1970 Bath Festival he told ‘Melody Maker’ ‘the Pop Star I was has died, and now I am still a beatnik sleeping all over the place like I used to. I am happy doing this’. He is his own brand, his own self-contained eco-system, a unique taste. Perhaps it’s his father’s deeply instilled belief in the enduring worth of words, poetry, and vision? (‘my father he liked poetry, a scholar he might have made / had he not been born a poor boy, bare-foot and underpaid..’)

And for Donovan there have been periodic resurgences. “It was the eighties. I hung out with the Happy Mondays and went on six of their performances with them” he narrates easily. “And I was sitting in a pub with Shaun (Ryder) in Manchester once, and a young man came up and he said ‘Shaun, I’m going to do exactly what you do. I’m going to do what you’re doing’. And Shaun looked at him, and didn’t say a word. And the guy walked off. He was tall and good-looking, had long hair, he was in jeans and T-shirt. I said ‘who’s that?’ He said ‘oh, it’s just a singer, a fucking singer in a band’. I said ‘I think he means it Shaun. I recognise that look. I had that same look in my eyes when I was eighteen. I knew what I was going to do’. He said ‘naw, they’re rubbish, you know?’ Next Friday I turned on the television, and it was Oasis. It was Liam who’d come up and spoken to us…”


An anecdote conjuring a beguiling snapshot of an eighteen-years-young Donovan seen through a Gallagher’s lens, ‘in my mind my dreams are real, tonight I’m a Folk ‘n’ Roll Star’ – could it really have been like that? “Of course, there was all this inter-band rivalry between the Manchester bands, and now – over the ten years since, Manchester has continued to produce extraordinary bands. In a way, just like Liverpool has done. Black Grape was also incredible. You got Stone Roses, and the Charlatans – who recorded my “Season Of The Witch”, and another incredible band that really took me by storm – Starsailor. I was on stage with Starsailor at Glastonbury a couple of years ago. And so, I have this relationship with bands. And songs of mine become standard warm-ups for bands. “Season Of The Witch” is a standard warm-up song for thousands of bands around the world. That’s a kind of fame and appreciation that is real. It doesn’t depend on record sales. It means that your songs become a part of their life. I think that’s great.”

By now that very magic fellow, the sun, is waning. The wild-eyed black-and-white mongrel is gone, hunting new prey. And Diana, the goddess, is inside the venue impatient for the show to begin. So is there anything left un-asked to ask him…? The book? “Yes – I’ve written my autobiography over the years, and now it’s ready. I just came back from Greece last year where I was completing it with my pal. So now I’m ready, ready to present my book – which is called ‘The Hurdy Gurdy Man’, it’s coming out in October on the Century imprint. Look out for me.” And he’s gone…

“My songs are merely dreams, visiting my mind, 
we talk a while, by a crooked style, 
you’re lucky to catch a few…” 
 (Donovan, ‘Celeste’)



 Published in:
‘SONGBOOK no.8’ 
(UK – July 2006)

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Cult Albums: DONOVAN CDs


‘DONOVAN RISING…’ 

CD reviews of: 
‘DONOVAN RISING’ 
(Permanent Records, November 1990) 
‘DONOVAN IN CONCERT’ 
(Beat Goes On Records LP/CD 90, February 2002) 
‘DONOVAN: THE COLLECTION’ 
(Castle Communications, December 1990) 
by DONOVAN 

I originally bought the Pye red-label single of “Catch The Wind” as a love-token for Val, a girl I fancied but was too tongue-tied to tell. She subsequently proved hardly worth the 6s 9p, and I’ve since regretted not keeping the record myself. But here it comes again, in a variety of versions and formats. Donovan Leitch was a tousle-haired mistrelsy wisp of wistful myth with would-be poetics that rhymed ‘when the rain has hung the leaves with tears, I want you near, to kill my fears.’ No awkward Dylan hard edges of reality. Donovan is for dreamers, with stars in his eyes and his eyes on the stars. When he needs politics – as in “Universal Soldier”, he borrows them from Buffy St Marie or Bert Jansch.

‘Good Morning Mr Leitch, have you had a busy day?’ taunts Paul Simon from the mid-break of “Fakin’ It”, I still don’t exactly understand what that means, but yes – just lately Mr Leitch’s back-catalogue has enjoyed some very busy days indeed. Of course, he rose and fell across the 1965-1974 stretch covered selectively by the 22-track ‘The Collection’, but rises again into the new ‘Donovan Rising’ double live set caught 1982-’86. Naturally there’s some duplication, from the aforesaid “Catch The Wind” on through.


Then there’s ‘In Concert’ – a souvenir from a 1968 Anaheim Convention Center gig with ‘the very debonair’ Harold McNair on flute, and drummer Tony Carr. A Donovan for dreamers. Here, it’s recounted how the sheer magical intensity of audience applause exorcises even the rain and makes the sun shine through freshly-spun fleecy clouds, a ‘Sunshine Superman’ indeed. It’s a moment matched on the later concert album, with Pentangling Danny Thompson on resonant double-bass, when Don interrupts perhaps his finest song – “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, to tell tales of extraordinary madness with Gurus John and Paul, visiting the Maharishi. And the period celebrity-count remains high – “Fat Angel” on ‘The Collection’ is about Mama Cass, with more flower-age reference-points dropped into “Sunny South Kensington” – Allen Ginsberg and Mary Quant, plus Dylan and Joan Baez in “The Trip”, while ‘In Concert’ takes us further and deeper into hipness as he urges us to ‘fly Jefferson Airplane’.


Pared back to acoustic, Donovan comes on frail, sensitive and elemental, a proto-Bolan sprite of nature, excelling on the Folk-pure Celtic simplicity of “Isle Of Islay” or the Movie theme “Poor Cow”. While electric – with a Mickie Most production, Led Zep’s John Paul Jones in the mix and Jimmy Page soloing (on “Sunshine Superman”), while Paul McCartney adds whispered vocals to “Mellow Yellow”, he could be inspired and yes, sometimes even COSMIC. Silly? Sure – he’s that too, but even at his most psychedelically excessive he never loses the ability to weave skipping reels of rhyme into semi-precious confections of pretty wisps of tune.

On “Mellow Yellow” live 1968 he reminds us that there were other, more fleshy pleasures around at the time too – ‘I’m just mad about fourteen-year-old girls’ – sure, tell THAT to ‘Childline’ Don! But the 1970’s were hard on dreamers, it all swallows itself up into “Cosmic Wheels” (on ‘The Collection’ and ‘Donovan Rising’), and “There Is An Ocean” from the Andrew Loog Oldham-produced ‘Essence To Essence’ album in 1974, by which time Don was well into eclipse and had temporarily run out of celebrity. Until now. Me – I’ll still stick awhile with these original statements – ‘histories of ages past, unenlightened shadows cast’, though he does manage to look passably tousle-haired and minstrelsy even now, surrounded as he is by seven stars on the new gatefold sleeve. And I can’t help but wonder if Val still plays that Pye red-label “Catch The Wind” once in a while, and thinks of me…?




CD review of: 
WELCOME TO 
THE BEAT CAFÉ’ 
by DONOVAN 
 (Appleseed Recordings APR CD 1081) 

Donovan’s major contributions to the across-the-counter culture occurred within that magic circle of the 1960’s. Since then he’s maintained a lower profile. Some prefer to view their romantic poet-troubadours from a safely posthumous perspective. But in a career move that fails to meet those expectations, Donovan’s still very much around. Here he’s drawing on the ‘Beat’ routes that were already evident in the stoned melancholy “Sunny Goodge Street” (1965), a track from his second album in which he’s ‘listening to sounds of Mingus mellow fantastic’ with Terry Kennedy’s sparse arrangement using double-bass, cello, brushed drums, and flute. And didn’t Allen Ginsberg cameo in his “Sunny South Kensington” (with virtuoso Danny Thompson already there on double-bass) a couple of years later? Sure he did. Not to mention those ‘Beatniks out to make it rich’ from “Season Of The Witch”.

Right, so now he’s off with the Dharma Bums in a virtual Beat Generation café with a ‘poet in a beret, as the sax he blew, and the bongo boy – go man go,’ to a finger-clicking ‘Fever’ groove that just oozes hipster cool. These are rhythms that pour ‘out of my head, and onto the page.’ Into a liquid vibe on “Yin My Yang” that blacks some whites, days some nights, and where she even wears flowers in her hair. Who else could get away with that in 2004? There’s an effortless tight-but-looseness here where “Love Floats” on Danny Thompson’s pulse as Don urges ‘let me come in,’ his voice spaced in tasteful echo dual-tracking and chanted incantation. Then “Whirlwind” with his vibrato quaver sliding over a teasingly repetitive guitar figure and Danny’s eerily resonant ‘into the mystic’ bowing. While the traditional “The Cuckoo” may have already been recorded by Kristin Hirsh, and by Danny himself in his Pentangling ‘Basket Of Light’ incarnation, but Don throws it a new spin. For these are tracks that stack up strongly against the new acoustic whimsy of, say, Belle & Sebastian or Kings Of Convenience. Dylan – Thomas not Bob, advises ‘old age should burn and rave.’ He does that here too. Poetry? – remember “Atlantis”? So – hey man, here are some intriguing variations for a well-cool Mr Leitch, while staying well-within his already-defined continuum.

 Published in:
‘SONGBOOK no.5 (Autumn)’
(UK – December 2004)

DONOVAN live in Manchester



SEASONS OF DONOVAN 

DONOVAN 
at ‘The Bridgewater Hall’, Manchester 

‘Of all the Pop and Rock Stars of the 1960’s, I was the first to be busted’ Donovan confides tonight. Telling how, one 4am ‘on a cold London dawn’ they came to raid a naked and ‘skinny little me’, wrecking his Beatnik pad in their search for two-ounces of grass, before the arresting officer takes him aside… and asks for his autograph. ‘Everybody knew me that day’ he adds wryly, as the story hits the press. George Harrison phones supportively, suggesting he can make much money from this uninvited notoriety. Instead, Donovan flees London for the remote calm of Scotland where he writes the hauntingly beautiful “Isle Of Islay” about feeling ‘like a seed on your land’, as if ‘a tide left me here’. 

All the elements of the Donovan mythology come together in this story. The magic decade. Few of the songs tonight will date from outside of it, although he updates the Vietnam references in “To Susan On The West Coast Waiting” to include Afghanistan and the Gulf. Same situation, new wars. Name-dropping the Beatles too. And why not? He was there. He tells of being in India with four Beatles, one Beach-Boy, and Mia Farrow, of John Lennon patting the Maharishi’s head saying ‘there’s a good Guru’. And later that night, sitting on the bungalow roof with their guitars, George leans over and suggests ‘I could write a verse for that…’, the song that becomes “Hurdy Gurdy Man”. Of course, back then, singles don’t extend beyond 2:57mins, and Jimmy Page’s incandescent guitar leaves no space for it, but he sings George’s verse tonight (‘when the truth gets buried deep, beneath a thousand years of sleep…’). These stories are true. Flower-Power photographs record it all.

Now, Donovan Leitch, with only two guitar’s, harmonica and kazoo, relives them with “Catch The Wind” and “Colours”, then sits cross-legged on a (mock)-tiger skin between sprays of Michaelmas Daisies, to do “Jennifer Juniper” and “Guinevere”. Songs rich with rural idyll, the bejewelled weave of Celtic myth, Gipsy minstrel wanderings, the escape to simplicity, seagulls, and the ragged tousle-haired bohemia that his songs so uniquely inhabit. These few concerts landmark 1964, across forty years of time – in fact a CD of ’64 demos predating his first official recordings, are on sale in the theatre foyer. Those are years, and these are songs worth celebrating. 

But whereas Dylan purposefully confounds audience expectations, Donovan delivers exactly what you expect. You suspect that when he urges you to sing along with “Sunshine Superman”, then gets the words wrong, it’s more due to memory-glitch than any conscious awkwardness. Yet unlike other, perhaps more cultishly celebrated icons, those who romantically suicided or chemically frazzled their brain-cells to psychedelic mush, he’s in intimidatingly rude health, here in his mauve blouse-top, black pants and waistcoat. The silver pipes of a huge concert-organ rearing behind the curtain backdrop as he relates how Irish Druids used guile to outwit marauding Vikings, then introduces a guitar he had made in the exact Celtic green, rowanberry red and lapis blue of the ‘Book of Kells’ which he’d seen in Trinity College, Dublin. So that when he first took possession of ‘Kelly’ ‘it would only play Irish tunes’. He wrote his most recent song, “The Promise,” to beguile it into his own spell. It stands up well, yet he hurriedly retreats back into the sixties to encore with a shimmering “Atlantis”, “Season Of The Witch”, and “There Is A Mountain”.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

SF Pioneer: ARTHUR SELLINGS



ARTHUR SELLINGS: 
POTENTIAL REALISED… 
AND UNREALISED 

 Arthur Sellings was a writer who died in 1968 at the age of just 
forty-seven. To David Pringle he was ‘a talented minor writer, but 
is remembered with respect by some’. To John Clute, his ‘body of 
work is modest in size and scope, but its literacy and firmness of 
execution have been underrated’. Would there have been more, 
and greater work to come, had he lived…? 
Andrew Darlington examines the evidence…




THE HOAX SCHOLASTIC: 
PHYSIOGNOMY OF THE STRAIGHT FACE 

There are layers of confusion. Editor Peter Hamilton has lined up a novelette – “Categorical Imperative”, as the core text for his upcoming ‘Nebula no.17’, ‘it had already been paid for and set up ready for printing,’ then author Arthur Sellings pre-empts its publication by including it in his hardback collection – ‘Time Transfer And Other Stories’ (1956) bare months before the issue’s appearance. ‘I know how infuriating it can be to buy a magazine only to find that a considerable portion of its contents consist of stories you have read before’ bewails Hamilton. So he chases the writer up, who duly supplies a short-story alternative called “Cry Wolf”. The fact that the story concerns a serial practical-joker, a crazy-hobbyist, is maybe just a coincidence. Or perhaps not.

The fictional hoaxer is called Sammy Legg – as in ‘pull your leg’. The skeptical cop assigned to investigate his reported shape-shifting alien visitation is Lieutenant Yardley, as in ‘Scotland Yard’. But as Legg points out, in the original ‘Boy Who Called Wolf’ fable ‘there was a wolf in the end’. Another layer is added when the so-called practical-joke is used as a weapon directed against authority. It can be a subversive device intent on ‘broadening men’s minds… de-mechanising their attitude towards the universe.’ The implication is that Legg’s stunts are what we’d now term prankster agit-prop – agitational propaganda of the ‘V For Vendetta’ variety. Yet, although he quotes from Thomas De Quincey’s 1827 essay ‘On Murder Considered As One Of The Fine Arts’, there’s nothing to suggest that Sellings’ politics lay in such radical directions. Instead, the playful theme is more the hook for a Police Procedural in which Legg’s murdered body indicates that maybe there really is a shape-shifting alien loose in the city.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that one of his pet aversions is quoted as ‘critics who complain of a dearth of humour in science fiction.’ He refutes the charge by pointing out the example of Henry Kuttner, Fredric Brown, Robert Sheckley and John Wyndham.

Sellings’ second contribution to the magazine – “Armistice”, in the following issue, seems superficially to be a more conventional Space Opera romp. A grim Pyle is representing the shattered remnants of defeated humanity by negotiating surrender terms with their supremely-rational conquerors, the Thunians. Yet when the aliens’ offer to relocate the five-hundred-plus Earthling survivors to a planet of the Procyon system because ‘two intelligent species cannot occupy the same world,’ Pyle realises their ‘rational’ solution is flawed in failing to factor in the irrational human drive that will dictate they use their new world to foment lethal revenge, and that – even if it takes generations, vindictive militarily tooled-up humans will be back to reclaim Earth. It will not be the age of reason, but sheer pig-headed obstinacy in refusing to accept the inevitable that will win through. Unreason, not logic and rationalism are the motivating forces that drive human success. A curious sentiment for a writer involved in scientific research to express!


‘The subconscious might be a dark waste-pit 
but from its compost the seed of inspiration flowered…’ 
                                   (“Armistice” in ‘Nebula No.18’

By the time of this debacle Sellings was already a ‘well-known author’ as Hamilton grudgingly concedes. But in fact ‘Arthur Sellings’ was just one of the pseudonyms employed by Robert Arthur Gordon Ley – an alias drawn from his mother’s maiden name. He also wrote under the pseudonyms ‘Ray Luther’ and ‘Martin Luther’. He was born on 31 May 1921 in Tunbridge Wells, the son of Kent and Stella Grace Ley. As Mike Ashley notes ‘he moved early to London (W10) where he had a vivid recollection of seeing both ‘Metropolis’ (Fritz Lang, 1927) and ‘The Girl In The Moon’ (Fritz Lang, 1929) – two early and influential German SF films.’ Soon after, he ‘discovered HG Wells and the US SF magazines’ too – attracted by the extravagant cover-art of Frank R Paul. Meanwhile, following the war, he married Gladys Pamela née Judge on 18 August 1945, while working first as a customs officer.

But it was while employed as a government scientific researcher from 1955, that his work inspired his original forays into science fiction. His first published tale – “The Haunting”, appeared in the October 1953 issue of the curious British magazine ‘Authentic SF’. A hazy blue apparition seen at the Project Forward base is not a ghost, but a projected messenger from the future warning Controller Barlow of the disastrous consequences of their work, in time for him to curtail it. In doing so, altering the apparition itself. At just seven pages it’s a brief and promisingly effective tale of the unexpected.


Soon his work was also appearing in the US, something most of his contemporaries attempted, but few achieved. Trans-Atlantic sales involved airmail expense and time-delays that many with short-term financial needs found too problematic. Yet his second, third, fourth and sixth pro sales went to ‘Galaxy Science Fiction’, then to ‘Imagination: Stories Of Science And Fantasy’, followed by ‘Fantastic Universe’, and ‘The Magazine of Fantasy And Science Fiction’. The tipping point back was provided by the ‘Observer’ literary contest. In competition with the likes of Brian Aldiss’ “Not For An Age”, Sellings story – “The Mission” was commended by judge Angus Wilson into the top eighteen places, and anthologised. Such high-profile attention persuaded Michael Joseph to publish his ‘Time Transfer And Other Stories’, announced by EC Tubb as ‘a collection of stories which will do much to gain the medium greater literary merit.’ And enabling ‘New Worlds’ reviewer Leslie Flood to refer to Sellings as ‘now being among the top three British writers of short science fiction stories,’ alongside Arthur C Clarke and Eric Frank Russell – despite having only three stories published in the UK!

He set about redressing the situation with a spread of tales in ‘New Worlds’, the ‘New Writings in SF’ anthology-series… and his two appearances in Peter Hamilton’s ‘Nebula’. As he muses ‘the science fiction writer – well, he dreams anyway – lives dreams, writes dreams, sometimes, alas, has to eat dreams’ (in “The Tycoons”).


By the magazine standards of the time, his prose is fluent, his characters and dialogue well-defined. “Starting Course” in ‘New Worlds’ – later selected by Mike Ashley for inclusion in his ‘The Best Of British SF2’ anthology, is essentially a dialogue chamber-piece constructed around a nuclear-family unsettled by the intrusion of a well-mannered inoffensive android. It’s explained that, as in ‘Bladerunner’ (1982), androids are vat-grown to colonise planets humans have become too insular and complacent to visit. Although that turns out to be not exactly the case. Anyway, that’s largely background to the freighted interplay of family dynamics, which it is the android’s role to destabelise. ‘You see, Eddie, your job wasn’t really to adjust to people – it was to disadjust them. Not so much your finishing course as their starting course.’ There’s considerable pathos to the character’s final unexpected parting.

 It’s a good example of what John Clute calls the way Sellings ‘integrated literate investigations of character into SF storylines of some conventionality’ (in ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’ edited by Peter Nicholls, Granada, 1979). Best known for his well-crafted portraits of adaptability under stress, Sellings’ stories are noted for their humor, suspense and attention to plot and character. Each separate and complete in itself. His use of ruptured prose in “Birthright” (‘New Worlds’, no.53, November 1956) anticipates both Anthony Burgess’ ‘Nadsat’ and Russell Hoban’s ‘Riddley Walker’ (1990) as an experimental device that attempts to capture the mental evolution of a genetically-engineered human designed to colonise a heavy-gravity ammonia-atmosphere planet.

Published some years before the SF ‘New Wave’ it clearly indicates that Sellings was more than capable of literary innovation when such extremism is required by the demands of the plot. So much so that Langdon Jones, a writer closely associated with the New Wave, could claim ‘I have always considered Arthur Sellings to be a greatly underestimated and neglected writer’ (reviewing the novel ‘The Uncensored Man’, 1964). More specifically, he notes that ‘this novel, I think, tends to illustrate the direction in which SF is going. The book is concerned with the mind. There are no rockets, no galactic strife, nothing save two men and a drug, but the resultant story is exciting, readable, and science fiction. Sellings extrapolates on ideas of Freud and Jung, incidentally producing about the first SF book I have ever seen which does not completely misrepresent Freud’s ideas… this book is what SF should be, and all too often, is not.’


‘Obviously Science Fiction, like any other genuine literary form, must evolve’ Sellings himself argues in a ‘New Worlds’ profile (no.49, July 1956). ‘It was easier in the old days – easier to find ideas, to stop in the middle of everything for a dissertation on Jupiter’s moons. The modern way, starting a story in the middle of a future- or other-world environment and taking it from there is a challenge to the writer. It isn’t always easy, but it is fun.’ ‘Science Fiction is a literature of ideas’ he persists in the ‘New Worlds’ ‘Postmortem’ letter column (no.81, March 1959), ‘I don’t mean pseudo-scientific gimmicks, but new viewpoints, new probings into the unknown – even new experiments in style. Because if the style is fresh it can’t help but invigorate even an old idea… I am convinced that science fiction has a great deal more to say than it has already.’

Yet he was not always attuned to the social and literary changes happening around him. He wrote another long and detailed letter to ‘New Worlds’ (no.118, May 1962) decrying the new openness. ‘While it would be stupid to deny the importance of sex both in life and literature, there is currently far too much emphasis on it – a decadent, almost morbid, preoccupation with sexual functions. I’m no prude, I hope; one of the best novels I have read in recent years is ‘The Ginger Man’ (by JP Donleavy, 1955). But sex is dragged in by the short hairs so often in so many books as to cause revulsion, a nausea at a continual imbalance. It is an imbalance found in much of the best contemporary serious literature.’

Nevertheless, when his story “The Proxies” was broadcast as a radio play on the BBC Home Service in June 1960, the adaptation changed the main character from a man to a woman, a scientist at that. ‘Writers are supposed to be annoyed with such tampering with their work’ he comments. ‘I was only annoyed that I hadn’t recognized myself that the character’s reactions in my own story were basically feminine. I was guilty of a blind plot.’ Going on to generously concede that ‘I think we SF writers are guilty of under-estimating both the place of women in SF and their potential in the world… I think that too many of us are similarly guilty too often.’


But he probably reached his widest audience when his satirical short story “The Tycoons” was adapted by screenwriter Bruce Stewart into an episode of ABC-TV’s groundbreaking ‘Out Of This World’ series. With each of thirteen black-and-white tales introduced by the macabre presence of Boris Karloff, I was certainly one who enthusiastically watched the teleplay, directed by Charles Jarrott, when it was broadcast at 10pm on the Saturday night of 22 September 1962. There’s humour and pathos ‘when zealous taxman Oscar Raebone (Ronald Fraser) calls unexpectedly on the Project Research Company, a firm making novelty dolls, and encounters the Tycoons, mysterious strangers led by Abel Jones (Charles Gray), he turns up a situation that can only be described as out of this world…’ As the magazine blurb had earlier explained, ‘their business was to produce dancing dolls, but behind the scenes they were an alien organisation waiting to take over Earth.’ But while the Dinkum Doll was a cover for their subversive activities, Raebone’s enthusiastic championing of the product makes it so successful that the aliens abandon their plans, and decide to stay and enjoy the benefits of their new world.

By the time “The Tycoons” was first published in ‘Science Fiction Adventures’ (no.6, January 1959), editor John Carnell was describing Sellings as an ‘antiquarian art-dealer, bookseller bibliophile, and short story writer’ and something of a ‘minor tycoon’ in his own right because ‘he owns several shops.’ After its TV adaptation he could probably extend that job-definition further.


The magazines of the period were a breeding ground for emerging writers to perfect their skills and hone their craft, before up-gearing into novels and the more rarified lit-celebrity they bring. And unlike many writers of his generation, Sellings was able to vault the event horizon into the post-New Wave titles. Although he was never destined to follow the path of Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest or JG Ballard. He produced four novels, plus one as ‘Ray Luther’ (a near anagram of his real name!), and another published after his untimely death. Some consider this posthumous ‘Junk Day’ to be his best work, as indication of his escalating potential. But to David Pringle he remains ‘a talented minor writer, but is remembered with respect by some’ (in ‘The Ultimate Encyclopaedia Of Science Fiction’ (Carlton Books, 1997), and to John Clute, his ‘body of work is modest in size and scope, but its literacy and firmness of execution have been underrated.’

But we’ll never know if there were greater things to come. ‘Arthur Sellings’ Ley died early of a heart attack on September 24, 1968 in Worthing, aged just forty-seven. He left a widow and many friends. ‘A fine craftsman’ said ‘New Worlds Quarterly no.2’, ‘his work was admired greatly by his fellow writers.’ In the circumstances, what he leaves is more than enough.


ARTHUR SELLINGS: 
POTENTIAL REALISED… 
AND UNREALISED 

1953 – The Haunting (‘Authentic Science Fiction Monthly no.38’ October 1953 illustrated by Gerald, collected into ‘Time Transfer And Other Stories’, Michael Joseph 1956, Compact paperback 1966) ‘Was it a ghost, the apparition that knew so much of Barlow’s new project?’ editor HJ Campell writes ‘Arthur Sellings is another new science fiction writer we have discovered. His ‘Haunting’ gives us a fresh slant on apparitions. Maybe after you’ve read this story you won’t be afraid of them any more. Or maybe you’ll just start believing in them?’

1954 – The Boys from Vespis (‘Galaxy Science Fiction Vol.7 No.5-A’ February 1954) ‘It was all just a frightful mistake, but try convincing the Earthgirls that it was!’ illustrated by Kossin

1954 – The Departed (‘Galaxy Science Fiction Vol.8 No.5’ August 1954) ‘Let the dead past bury its dead? No… leave the dirty work to the unborn future!’ illustrated by Fleminger

1954 – A Start in Life (‘Galaxy Science Fiction Vo.8 No.6’ September 1954, novelette collected into ‘Time Transfer And Other Stories’, Michael Joseph 1956) ‘What a problem for a robot… having all of the answers, but not knowing when to give them!’ illustrated by Sentz

1954 – The Cautious Invaders (‘Imagination: Stories Of Science And Fantasy’ October 1954) cover-art illustrates ‘The Laughter Of Toffee’ by Charles F Myers

1954 – The Age of Kindness (‘Galaxy Science Fiction Vol.9 No.2’ November 1954, collected into ‘Time Transfer And Other Stories’, Michael Joseph 1956) ‘There was only one way for Bruno to be like everybody… get rid of all of them!’ illustrated by Dick Francis

1955 – The Mission (‘AD 2500: The Observer Prize Stories 1954’, William Heinemann) anthology made up of the twenty-one best entries submitted to the ‘Observer’s Short Story competition, chosen by Angus Wilson

1955 – The Figment (‘Fantastic Universe’ February 1955, collected into ‘Time Transfer And Other Stories’, Michael Joseph 1956)

1955 – Escape Mechanism (‘Fantastic Universe’ vol.4 no.1, August 1955, collected into ‘Time Transfer And Other Stories’, Michael Joseph 1956)

1955 – The Proxies (‘If’ October 1955, collected into ‘Time Transfer And Other Stories’, Michael Joseph 1956) Adapted by Anthony Juan Skene as a radio play broadcast on BBC Home Service, 14:30, 18 June 1960. ‘Radio Times’ comments ‘Even today there are many jobs that machines can do better and faster than their creators, and some people are tempted to look ahead with trepidation. Just suppose that machines could really think, suppose one day they had it in their power to take control. This play suggests it might not be altogether disastrous,’ produced by Michael Bakewell

1955 – Jukebox (‘Fantastic Universe’ December 1955, collected into ‘Time Transfer And Other Stories’, Michael Joseph 1956, ‘More Tales Of Unease’ edited by John Burke, Pan Books 1969)


1956 – ‘TIME TRANSFER AND OTHER STORIES’ (Michael Joseph 1956 as 12s 6d, reviewed in ‘New Worlds no.47’ May 1956) collects ‘The Haunting’ from ‘Authentic’ plus new stories ‘From Up There’, ‘The Wordless Ones’, ‘Control Room’, ‘Soliloquy’ and ‘The Awakening’ plus previously USA-only titles ‘The Proxies’ from ‘If’, ‘A Start In Life’ from ‘Galaxy’, ‘Pentagram’ from ‘Satellite SF’, ‘The Figment’ and ‘Escape Mechanism’ from ‘Fantastic Universe’. The UK paperback edition eliminates five stories at the author’s discretion. Also reviewed – presumably by editor EC Tubb, in ‘Authentic SF no.70’ (15 June 1956) as ‘a collection of sixteen short stories all well-written and all highly entertaining. They range from the thought-provoking moral in ‘The Age Of Kindness’ to the delightful humour in ‘Categorical Imperative’ and ‘The Boy Friends’ (aka ‘The Transfer’), with a peculiar touch of horror in ‘Jukebox’ and ‘Time Transfer’ (1966 Roberts & Vintner Compact SF paperback)

1956 – Pentagram (‘Satellite Science Fiction’ October 1958) collected into ‘Time Transfer And Other Stories’, Michael Joseph


1956 – The Masters (‘New Worlds no.49’ July 1956), plus ‘Writers Profile’, Hedley and estranged wife Elsa stranded on planet in a city of robots. Despite the robots catering to their every need, he kills her with an H-E gun when she adapts a robot to resemble her lover George Manders, then kills himself. The robots inter their remains in a tomb alongside the ‘three hundred and seventy nine million, five hundred and twenty thousand, eight hundred and sixty seven’ others they’d failed to bring happiness to!

1956 – The Warriors (‘New Worlds no.50’ August 1956) ‘Contact between differing races can never entirely be a one-way affair where the dissemination of knowledge is concerned. Each side will always learn something from the other, but it will depend to a large extent upon the interpretation of the knowledge exchanged which side will ultimately benefit the most,’ peaceful vegetarian humanoid aliens learn hostility from bickering couple Linda and Mike

1956 – Birthright (‘New Worlds no.53’ November 1956), illustrated by ‘Eddie’, John Carnell writes ‘every once in a while we publish a story whereby it is not possible to give any indication of the plot in the caption without completely spoiling it for the reader. Arthur Selling’s latest story is one such and once again shows his versatility as a writer’. Collected into ‘The Long Eureka’ Dennis Dobson 1968

1956 – The Category Inventors (‘Galaxy Science Fiction Vol.11 No.4’ February 1956) novelette ‘There was security for all in this well-run world – but what happened to a man who tried to get ahead could never happen to a robot!’ illustrated by Emsh

1956 – One Across (‘Galaxy Vol.12 No.1’ May 1956, collected into ‘The Long Eureka’ Dennis Dobson 1968) ‘Doing puzzles is an escape, eh? Then how was it Norman found himself so boxed in?’ illustrated by Cal

1956 – Cry Wolf (‘Nebula no.17, July 1956) ‘He had made a hobby of practical joking in a world of un-amused officialdom. Was he to get the last laugh also?’ illustrated by D McKeown

1956 – Verbal Agreement (‘Galaxy Vol.12 No.5’ September 1956, novelette collected into ‘The Long Eureka’ Dennis Dobson 1968) ‘Some problem to give an unsuccessful poet – what would the Vernans want one-half so precious as the skins they wouldn’t sell?’ illustrated by Dick Francis

1956 – Armistice (‘Nebula no.18’, November 1956) ‘Assured of their own supremacy, the Thunians were ready to sign their own death-warrant’

1957 – Brink of Madness (‘Super-Science Fiction no.3’ April 1957) cover-art by Kelly Freas, issue also includes Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison

1957 – Fresh Start (‘New Worlds no.61’, July 1957) ‘Rehabilitation for a person suffering from amnesia is a difficult task at the best of times, but somewhere during the course of therapy the patient begins to help himself’, he is not amputee Sam Bishop in Greenville, it’s all an elaborate construct by sympathetic aliens

1958 – Blank Form (‘Galaxy Vol.16 No.3’ July 1958, collected into ‘The Long Eureka’ Dennis Dobson 1968) ‘They knew there was an answer somewhere… now all they had to do was find the question’ illustrated by Martinez

1958 – The Shadow People (‘New Worlds no.73’ July 1958) failed artist Paul Nash – ‘Davy’s my brush-name. There’s already been one Paul Nash’, leases his spare room to mysteriously pale Mr & Mrs Smith, who turn out to be from future-time 2149, escaping ‘the end of the world’. She’s already seen his painting ‘Study By Snowlight’ which she inspires, which ‘in our time hangs in a museum’

1958 – Flatiron (‘New Worlds no.77’ November 1958) when Shand assists an inter-dimensional being ‘piteously rampant and radiating distress’ it repays him by gifting humans with uniformity, everyone becomes him and his wife Jean

1958 – Limits (‘Science Fantasy no.32’, December 1958) an affectionate reverie about run-down provincial theatre ‘The Regency’ and supernatural French Mime artist, Jean Victoire, as a metaphor for creativity itself, ‘an artist sets limits on his work – because his art is the struggle against them. Without them there would be no art’

1959 – For The Colour Of His Hair (‘New Worlds no.79, January 1959) in no.81 he writes ‘in my recent ‘For The Colour Of his Hair’ I raised an objection to a theory which 99.99% of science fiction readers (and writers) seem to accept unquestioningly – that of evolution by gradual mutation and natural selection. It is not my own objection; the quotation I made in the story is from an actual book published over fifty years ago, but it has been stated before and since then. The story ‘explained’ it away in science fiction terms, but there seems to be a vested interest against admitting this objection; see, for example the way JBS Haldane ‘answered’ it in his ‘Possible Worlds’. I have yet to see it answered satisfactorily…’

1959 – The Tycoons (‘Science Fiction Adventures no.6’ January 1959) art by Brian Lewis. Adapted by Bruce Stewart for ABC-TV’s ‘Out Of This World’ anthology series broadcast 22 September 1962 ‘When zealous taxman Oscar Raebone (Ronald Fraser) calls unexpectedly on the Project Research Company, a firm making novelty dolls, and encounters the Tycoons, mysterious strangers led by Abel Jones (Charles Gray), he turns up a situation that can only be described as out of this world…’

1959 – ‘New Worlds’ no.81, March 1959. Detailed three-page letter in the ‘Postmortem’ section

1959 – The Scene Shifter (‘Star Science Fiction Stories no.5’ May 1959, collected into ‘The Long Eureka’ Dennis Dobson 1968)

1959 – The Outstretched Hand (‘New Worlds’ no.83, May 1959) ‘if we were given the opportunity of living part of our life over again – picking out some turning point where the probability lines diverge – how much difference would it make in the long run? How much Free Will are we allowed during a lifetime?’ an intriguingly brief tale, psychiatrist Dr Meyer uses narcosis to allow Grant to visit his child-self and encourage his lost art-ambitions, only to find that nothing changes – was he always destined to a safely prosperous business career despite his creative yearnings?, collected into ‘The Best Of New Worlds’ edited by Michael Moorcock, Compact Books 1965)


1959 – The Long Eureka (‘Science Fantasy no.36’ August 1959), collected into ‘The Long Eureka’ Dennis Dobson 1968. Unusual structure, Isaac Reeves invents the Elixir Of life in 1820, but fails to convince anyone as plot leap years from 1822 to 1827, 1830, 1832, 1838, 1842, 1843, until 2103 with first starship to Proxima Centauri, he arrives 2307 to gift a new race with his serum, only to learn they are already immortal


1960 – ‘Film Review: The Time Machine’ (‘New Worlds no.100’ November 1960) ‘surely this should be a very good film. Unhappily it isn’t, though it is not easy to say just why’

1961 – Starting Course (‘New Worlds no.102’ January 1961, ‘The Best Of British SF2’ edited by Mike Ashley, Orbit 1977) android Eddie A-Smith has an unsettling effect on the Trendall family during his integrating-period with them, with racist overtones Dad accuses the ‘damn android’ of an inappropriate relationship with 16-year-old daughter Kathy – except android’s are neuters who ‘don’t breed’. And 12-year-old son Steve is motivated to nudge the family out of complacency to sign up for the Procyon Three colonisation project – which is the android’s real purpose. This story would be ideal for a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode

1961 – ‘Essay: Where Now?’ (‘New Worlds no.111’ October 1961)

1962 –‘Letter: On William F Temple’ (‘New World no.118’, May 1962)

1962 – ‘TELEPATH’ (novel, US Ballantine Books with Richard Powers cover-art, alternate title ‘The Silent Speakers’ Dennis Dobson 1963), ‘Was He Unique, Or A Forerunner Of The Next Development In Man?’, it ‘builds a gradual and convincing picture of a man’s discovery of limited telepathic ability’ (John Clute). ‘Powerful’ according to Mike Ashley

1964 – ‘THE UNCENSORED MAN’ (novel, Dennis Dobson 1964, reviewed by Langdon Jones in ‘New Worlds no.146’), ‘Mark Anders, the hero, works in a secret weapons establishment. At the opening, we find his marriage on the point of breaking up, and his mind filled with doubts about his work. Then an epileptic boy and a computer give the clues that lead him on the trail to his eventual discovery, a discovery of universe-encompassing implications,’ it ‘transfers its protagonist by drugs into another dimension where he develops his previously masked psi powers and meets dubiously superior forms of life’ (John Clute)

1964 – The Well-Trained Heroes (‘Galaxy’ June 1964, novelette collected into ‘The Long Eureka’ Dennis Dobson 1968)


1965 – ‘The Power Of Y Parts 1 and 2’ (‘New Worlds no.146 and no.147’ serial in January and February 1965, ‘SF Reprise 2’ edited by Michael Moorcock, Compact Books 1966) ‘Plying – or Transdimensional Multiplying to give it its full name – wasn’t such a revolutionary invention after all. There were limits to what the machine could do – or so it seemed. When art-dealer Max Afford discovered he had a mild psi-power he discounted it a useless. But was it?’ no.146 also includes Langdon Jones review of ‘The Uncensored Man’

1965 – The Tinplate Teleologist (‘Worlds Of Tomorrow’ Vol.3 no.3 (15), September 1965) with art by Brock, edited by Frederik Pohl

1966 – Gifts Of The Gods (‘New Writings In SF 9’ edited by John Carnell, Dennis Dobson) a touch of whimsical humour when Bryan Dudley and his wife Gwen find eight alloy cylinders in their New town garden, then a glut of other multi-coloured inexplicable ‘gifts’. Interdimensional beings are using Earth as a landfill, but what happens when they begin to dump their surplus population too?

1966 – That Evening Sun Go Down (‘New Worlds no.166’ September 1966) challenging experiment in which the first two pages are in fractured language – ‘yet more black he sing. Painsong, that one note We shiver at. Rotate or one, painsong touch balmtackle, two meet like great holy oneinmany of universe. But this rotate I feel only pain.’ It is a fragment of a contested script found by a human tribe who mistake the insectoid alien conqueror Great Ones of the text with their own ancestors, but no, they are ‘the Puny’. This issue also includes editor Michael Moorcock’s ‘Behold The Man’, plus New Wave JG Ballard, Barrington J Bayley, Aldiss, Brunner and Thomas M Disch

1966 – ‘THE QUY EFFECT’ (novel, Dennis Dobson, December 1966, US Berkley Medallion 1967) 144-pages, cover-blurbed ‘A New SF Novel About A Shocking Discovery That Changed All Of The Physical Laws Of The Universe’, it ‘combines the invention of a new form of power with a love story involving its struggling inventor’ (John Clute), ‘…it was so powerful that in one instant it obliterated an entire building. Only the concrete floor and stumps of walls remained… its implications were so revolutionary as to render all past scientific concepts obsolete... which only served to alienate the entire scientific community against its inventor, Aldophe Quy’

1967 – The Key Of The Door (‘New Worlds no.172’ April 1967 aka ‘New Worlds Quarterly no.2’ edited by Michael Moorcock, Sphere Books 1971) a clever and amusing HG Wells pastiche in which Cyril suspects that his son Godfrey has been using his secret time machine invention for assignations with Melinda in 1985, whose granddaughter is his own mistress in 2035!

1967 – ‘INTERMIND’ (novel as by ‘Ray Luther’, Banner October 1967, Dennis Dobson October 1969) cover-blurbed ‘An Extraordinary Spy Novel Of Tomorrow’, in which a secret agent is injected with another person’s memory to pursue a complex case

1968 – The Last Time Around (‘New Writings In SF 12’ edited by John Carnell, Corgi 1968) reprinted in ‘If’ November-December 1970. Carnell writes ‘there have been many fascinating stories concerning the apparent paradox of subjective and objective time, but none quite so poignant or explanatory as the one Arthur Sellings presents here.’ Grant ‘spans centuries’ piloting DCP ships (Direct Continuum Propulsion) returning to Earth as ‘a stranger in a foreign country’, until he and Etta Waring fall in love. To bridge the time-difference for his next trip she clones herself so they’ll still be age-compatible

1968 – ‘THE LONG EUREKA’ (collection, Dennis Dobson, March 1968) first UK publication for American material – ‘Blank Form’, ‘The Well-Trained Heroes’, ‘Verbal Agreement’ and ‘One Across’ from ‘Galaxy’, ‘The Scene Shifter’ from ‘Star Science Fiction Stories’, plus ‘The Long Eureka’ from ‘Science Fantasy’ and ‘Birthright’ from ‘New Worlds’, also includes previously unpublished novelettes Homecoming and Trade-In

1968 – Crack In The Shield (‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’ Vol.34 no.1, January 1968) ‘Special 200th Issue’ with Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber and Isaac Asimov

1968 – ‘THE POWER OF X’ (novel, Dennis Dobson December 1968) ‘a neat variation on the matter-duplicator theme’ according to Brian Ash in ‘Who’s Who In Science Fiction’, Pan 1976. ‘Fascinating’ according to Mike Ashley. A short novel that takes place in 2018 when ‘transdimensional multiplying’ or ‘Plying’, a highly guarded government monopoly, can make perfect copies of items. Max Afford, owner of the ‘Gallery O’ art gallery, realises he can tell an original Matisse from the copy just by touching it. At an auction he buys a portrait of the grandfather of the current President of the European Federation of States. His Aunt takes him to a reception at the renamed Buckingham Palace, now called the Europa Palace where he intends giving the painting to the President (an infant in the painting). But when Max shakes hands he realises the President is also a copy. Kidnapped and put into an asylum Max wakes to find out his kidnapper is his Aunt along with former Senator Guy Burroughs. They must break into the Palace to bring the conspiracy to light.’ Serialised in ‘New Worlds’ nos 146 and 147

1969 – The Legend And The Chemistry (‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’, Vol.36 no.1 (212), January 1969) issue also includes Samuel R Delany, Harlan Ellison, Barry N Malzberg (as KM O’Donnell)

1969 – The Dodgers (‘Fantastic’ Vol.18 no.4. April 1969) issue also includes John Sladek, Walter M Miller, John Jakes and two by Barry N Malzberg (as by KM O’Donnell and Robin Schaefer)

1969 – The Trial (‘New Writings In SF 15’ edited by John Carnell, Dennis Dobson 1969) reviewing the collection in ‘Vision Of Tomorrow no.5’ Kathryn Buckley writes ‘it would be impossible to talk about ‘The Trial’ without feeling very saddened by the premature death of Arthur Sellings, which has thinned the ranks of British science fiction writers. By the ‘In Memoriam’ box at the front it is obvious that the collection had gone to the printers at the time of his death so that this story is probably amongst the last he wrote. Characteristically, it is deftly and skillfully handled. Communication, or the lack of it investigated in a very well-told story that question’s man’s arrogant missionary obsession, however well-intentioned, and once again we have aliens portrayed sympathetically’

1970 – ‘JUNK DAY’ (novel, Dennis Dobson April 1970, Leonaur paperback 2007) ‘his finest novel was his last, Junk Day, a post-holocaust tale set in the ruins of his native London and peopled with engrossing character types… perhaps grimmer than his previous work but pointedly more energetic’ (‘The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’), cover-blurbed ‘After The Day Of The Apocalypse’, an unspecified catastrophe has left civilisation in ruins, bands of survivors pick over the detritus, as a new order is emerging, with the nascent society brutally guided by superior force – the threat of violence and the barrel of a gun. Into this world comes Bryan – a loner, an artist with a vision all his own and a belief that a new world can only emerge from co-operation and culture. With Vee, the last survivor of her Convent, and self-styled autocrat Barney (a near-anagram of Bryan), will belief in the essential goodness of mankind win the day? Or will brutality rule?


Sunday, 31 May 2015





STORIES FROM 
THE PUBLIC DOMAIN/ 
STORIES WITHOUT PROVENANCE 


I must tell you before I forget
how the city never looked
lovelier than it does now,
vapourising in incandescent light,
its frantic plea for help unanswered,
I know it was less than a fair trial,
when first I heard those rumors
I’d not taken them seriously,
but he was the web-foot man
who could never dance, with
restlessness his true companion,
these words from the man
who is nobody

I must tell it all before memory goes,
as the voyage ends, all I can see is
that if only the priests had been of the
same denomination, it might be different,
how they sleep savagely in gold leaf and fire
instead of preaching and dancing
their total abstinence, remorse is
a slow disemboweling and the need
to dance the sickness out of myself,
before the fetters of literacy
fall forever from the world
this from the man who is now nobody
nobody at all


Published in:
‘MINOTAUR No.73’ (USA – May 2015)
this wonderful current print-issue includes other work
by Edward Mycue, Eleanor Watson-Gove, Peter Asher,
Barbara Bowen, Claire Partridge & many others,
just 5 dollars from Jim Watson-Gove at
2019 Summit Way, Port Townsend, WA, USA

Thursday, 28 May 2015

1998 Music Interview: MAN OR ASTROMAN?



MAN OR ASTROMAN: 
RETURN OF THE 
 ROCK ‘N’ ROLL ALIENS 


The Men in Black can’t stop ‘em. Mulder and Scully can’t find ‘em. 
But Andrew Darlington tracks down and interviews 
Man or Astroman, the weirdest and grooviest alien infiltrators 
on this, or any other world... 


‘We’re Man or Astroman, like it or not. And we’re here, like it or not.’

It’s maximum compression at the Leeds’ ‘Duchess Of York’. Man or Astroman are on-stage playing mutated cosmic Drag-Strip Surf-Punk, and playing it at scrotum-crunching volume. Sometimes they play it so fast it’s almost like the sound can’t keep up, and it comes along ten nano-seconds later. My ears are surging with monstrous ebbs and flows of radiation static and I’m watching so intently my eye-balls are clicking in my head. There’s a sweat vapour hung as low and toxic as Venusian atmospheric poison. A guitarist with a blazing TV impaled on his head. Galaxies like grains of sand on video back-screens. Neutrons zapping through microverses in jet-propelled sperm ejaculations. Saturn’s shimmering rings seen from Titan ice-fields…

It seems that Man or Astroman are light-years ahead of what passes for intelligence in the rest of the lower echelons of Indie. Why? ‘Cos they’re Aliens that’s why. This is the scam. They’re zipping through space in the galactic equivalent of an interplanetary Skoda with go-faster stripes, just grabbing some cosmic drag-strip action, right? ‘Right. And what happened was, we CRASH-LANDED here – and the ship scattered into a squillion pieces when we hit the atmosphere. You’ve got a pretty unique atmosphere on this planet. Our ship wasn’t designed to handle anything like that, especially at the velocity we were coming in at. We are lucky to even still be functioning in the way that we are. Anyway, we crashed in Alabama in the United States and ended up stuck in this small little College town. We sort-of got our heads together – so to speak! – and we took on human form.’ ‘Human’, that is, as distinct from their naturally vaporous gas-ball state. Allegedly.


This is Coco. He’s got cropped black hair, red jeans, a track-top, and a fibre-optic gleam in his eye which could be suppressed humour, or possibly faulty wiring. He’s the bass and sample-king. He also plays bizarre home-made Cocotronic theremins and instruments that defy rational explanation. On stage he wears a NASA uniforms. As does Star Crunch, who looks a little like ‘E’ from the Eels, with dark streaks in his blonde fringe and his cardigan low-slung over his slacker T-shirt. He probably imagines his name conjures images of fiery Solar Collisions in the silent immensity of intergalactic space. To me it sounds more like the name of a novelty-shaped breakfast cereal. He plays twangy guitar and provides occasional low-intensity vocals. And then there’s Bird Stuff on drums and Dexter X (about whom, more later). They’re all here supposedly to promote their latest CD ‘Made From Technetium’ (1997). 

But that’s all a cover, because – lemme get this straight, you’re aliens stranded far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western spiral arm of the Galaxy? But if you’re really superior alien beings with Shape-Shifter capability, and you’ve merely assumed covert human exteriors during your enforced stay on Earth, why choose such nerdily unimpressive forms to inhabit? ‘Because you can get away with a lot in Alabama, but not not not exactly what we had going on when we landed here. So we knew we had to blend in. We’re thinking ‘man, we’ve got to get our ship put back together so we can get out of here and get back home’... ”

With Man or Astroman it’s less an interview, more a Wind-’em Up, Let ‘em go situation. So OK – C’mon Barbie, let’s go party. He continues, ‘...at that time we assumed the rest of the surface of the Earth was going to be pretty much similar to Alabama. Like that was pretty much typical. Luckily we found out that wasn’t the case. And we soon noticed that periodically there’d be... like, a vehicle would come into town and it would be full of what seemed to be pretty technologically advanced equipment. People would get out. They’d unload a bunch of equipment. They’d do some sort of something-or-other for a couple of hours. They’d load it all back in. And then they’d take off. Nobody would really question it. We thought ‘that’s pretty similar to what we need to do. We need to drive around in some sort of vehicle, pick up a bunch of technological equipment, stay in a town for maybe a day or so...’ We tried to figure out what exactly they were. And we found out that what they were was ‘bands’. They were touring bands that were coming in, playing one night, and leaving. So we said ‘Hmmm, maybe we can disguise ourselves as a band and it’ll help us get around on the planet, pick up the parts that we need, repair the ship, and then we can leave’. So we disguise ourselves as a band. That’s how it started. And that fits in pretty good.’


Coco punctuates his discourses with phrases like ‘of course’ and ‘obviously’. That’s part of a conscious strategy to normalise the fantastic elements of the story he’s telling. But in truth the ‘we are aliens from Outer Space’ hype is as old as Rock ‘n’ Roll itself. Ask the Spotnicks. They were Sweden’s finest pre-Abba Popsters who once posed for album-sleeve photos in Trafalgar Square tarted up in six-armed bend-holdy spacesuits. Nevertheless, during their enforced sojourn on Earth, Man or Astroman? (the ‘?’ is an important part of the band iconography) have been far from idle. Beginning with a single called “Possession By Remote Control” in 1993 they’ve been fully occupied contriving a pretty convincing identity as a highly innovative and audacious band. Previous career highlights include startling albums like ‘Your Weight On The Moon’ (1994) and the seventeen-track ‘Intravenous Television Continuum’ (1995) on which they come on like Dick Dale’s Surf Guitar spliced with tacky Ed Wood-style samples from 1950’s B (C and D) Sci-Fi Movies. Link Wray through a Wormhole. Hank B Marvin breathing iron oxide through playful voice-overs from what sounds like Professor Stephen Hawking.

So – OK, I’ll buy it, how did you manage to get Prof. Stephen Hawking to do guest voice-overs on the current album? ‘Well... HaHaHaHaHa!’ For the first time the carefully contrived veneer slips and momentarily Coco actually cracks up. Until at last, with concerted shape-shifting effort he gets back on track. ‘We tend to watch Earth science very closely. We understand what it is you’re trying to do. But at the same time – sometimes it’s so frustrating for us because we want to help out. Just a little bit. But we know just how dangerous that can be. If we were to give you too much information too fast it could be too advanced for your stage of evolution – you know? Access to such dangerous knowledge has to be tempered with wisdom, which is only going to come through time. But we have sort-of, palled around with a few of the notable physicists on the planet and given them a few hints. We’ve left them scraps of paper with some equations, pieces of information, stuff like that to push them in the right direction. So, y’know, it’s one of those ‘you scratch our back, we’ll scratch yours’ deals which we have with a lot of Earth-based scientists.’

But let’s face it – even outside of the Rock Music ghetto, Man or Astroman’s situation is far from unique. There are any number of extraterrestrial species already here on Earth. TV’s galactically-challenged sitcom ‘Third Rock From The Sun’ depicts a family of aliens infiltrators. ‘Sure, sure’ Coco concedes carefully. Then there’s Mork from Ork. Tharg the alien editor of ‘2000 AD’ magazine. Not to mention the Greys and illegal Nasties hunted down by Mulder and Scully and the Men in Black. ‘Right. Yeah – the thing is, there are a number of us here. More than you probably realise. And most of them, for the most part, find themselves to be in pretty good situations. But equally there are situations... like, I’m sure you’re familiar with the Roswell UFO crash of 1947? Well – they were some friends of ours. It’s a shame what happened out there. So, there are some cases where things just don’t work out. A lot of it has to do with where you land, when you land, and who you first run into. Then there are the show-offs. You get Crop Circles, Cow mutilations, these kind of things. Some folks from space just think they can get away with whatever... you know?’

So we can safely assume that all these different alien groups aren’t working together on a sinister co-ordinated programme? ‘No, no, no. There’s a lot of different agendas going on on this planet from Outer Space. But I’m pretty confident ours is one of the most... one of the most thought out. One of the most feasible. It will work out. We’ll see. You’ll see. I’m pretty confident, y’know – ‘cos we can travel into the future. And in the future we sell billions and billions of records.’


What is Rock music like in the Twenty-Fifth Century, then? ‘Oh, it’s great. The current records that we’re putting out, the records that you’re hearing now, they are simply a transition stage towards this new music that’ll sell squillions for Man or Astroman in the future. The problem is – we could probably go down there and get it ready and play it live tonight, but if we were to play that music now it wouldn’t have the desired effect. It’s not the proper location in time for it to happen. Yet. So the thing is we have to actually, sort-of relocate ourselves in time. We have to build through this whole transitional phase. If you follow the course of Man or Astroman records there’s definitely a pattern. It’s one that’s not necessarily fully linear, but there is a path that’s leading us up to this next phase…’

In the meantime, do you have any favourite alien species? Klingons, Minbari, Cybermen, Treens, Ferengi? ‘I haven’t really. I’m pretty much impartial. As far as I’m concerned the human species fits right in there too in the grand scope of things. But I’m a pretty friendly spaceman. I get along with pretty-much anybody. But that’s just me personally. If you ask some of the other members of the band, because of their experiences with other species and stuff like that, they might have different opinions. I don’t want to speak on their behalf. ‘Cos y’know, I just don’t wanna do that....’

OK. So I’ll ask elsewhere…


--- 2 --- 

They’re Man or Astroman, like it or not. And they’re here, like it or not…

Then there’s Dexter X. He’s here now.

‘You’ve already spoken with Coco? He definitely represents the more scientific side of the band. Technology and stuff’ he explains encouragingly. ‘I guess I represent the more emotional and psychological side.’ He’s quieter, less excitable that Coco. And he’s wearing an expression of amused abstraction as he sips from what looks to be a glass of water, but could just as easily be liquid methane. (‘Are you vegetarian?’ ‘No, we eat human beings. We just don’t eat animals. Animals never directly want to hurt anybody. Benji. Old Yeller...’) He’s a sort of cooler more confident version of Brains from ‘Thunderbirds’, his reactions more considered than Coco’s, but just as entertaining.

So let’s try this angle on him. One of my all-time favourite bands – the Ramones, were supposedly brothers. But then the drummer left. They got a new drummer. And he became a brother. Does the same principle operate with Man or Astroman line-up changes? Do new members become alien? ‘No, no. Well – actually the line-up has changed a bit’ he admits cautiously. ‘Bird Stuff, Coco and Star Crunch are actually all from a similar region of outer space called Grid Sector B6/23. I myself am from a different planet. In fact I’m from various places but most faminously – ‘fame-(in)-ously’ is that a word...?’ It is now! ‘It is now – OK, that’s another thing I’m trying to do, I’m trying to re-write the English Dictionary while I’m here. But I’m actually from planet ‘Q’…’

Is that the Q-Continuum, as in ‘Star Trek: Next Generation’?

‘No. That’s Science Fiction. That’s made up’ scolds Dexter firmly.


‘And it’s not ‘Planet Q’ like the letter, or even the word ‘cue’’ adds Coco. ‘The whole system of your Earth alpha-numerics is kind of silly. It’s more like the idea Q, and the easiest way we can represent that here on Earth is by the letter ‘Q’, but there’s no real correlation.’

‘And Q is the most famous – or ‘faminous’ planet that I’ve conquered. I come from a different region. I’m also kind-of working on my own somewhat different agenda. So... no, I have not become a Ramone!’

Does that answer my question? I’m not sure. Behind and all around us jagged lurches of rhythm corrugate the air as support band Toenut, from Atlanta Georgia, go through the soundcheck ritual. It’s difficult to concentrate. And Toenut – what the hell is that about? An obscure pun on ‘Doughnut’. A reference to Foot Fetishism, Body Piercing... or none of the above? So I try Dexter X again from a different slant. I’d assumed that, as a superior alien species, you could perhaps enlighten us mere humans on matters pertaining to the ULTIMATE QUESTION – you know – Life, the Universe, and Everything? ‘No, only Douglas Adams know that’ he smirks, detecting and expertly fielding my ‘Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy’ quote.

‘And I wish I could help you with that’ he resumes. ‘But everybody wants the real story. Everybody’s after the facts. And I don’t know if there are any. Because we are also searching for the truth. I’m actually on my own journey to discover Ultimate Meaning. But so far all I’ve found is that the only thing that motivates me is apathy. I get bored with planets. I just seem to travel from planet to planet... conquering them! I do that as a hobby. And until I can find something more useful to do with my time I’m just gonna stick with the one I know. Which is – of course, World Domination and Planetary Overthrow. It remains my favourite pastime.’


So if we can’t crack the facade of inscrutable changeling alienness, let’s talk music. Do you create the music first, then fit the samples on afterwards, or do you select samples and then build tracks around them? ‘There’s not a specific schematic for the design of a Man or Astroman song’ admits Coco. ‘There have been some where it’s been ‘we’ve got these great samples, we can use them in songs’ or there have been songs that have been like ‘oh, this part of the song really sucks, can we – like, cover it up with something?’ So we put a sample there. But for most of the songs it’s been sort-of parallel. There’ll be an idea for a song and while the songwriting is going on we’ll be experimenting with different samples that we like. ‘Cos usually it’s a mood kind of thing we’re trying to convey there, so it’s kind-of a parallel process. But it definitely has gone either way. I get into the audio portions of old films. That’s where a lot of the samples obviously come from. The bulk of the samples actually. So when it comes to that, and that, and that – sure, we pop one of those Ed Wood or those Toho films on, and let ‘em roll. It’ll be running the lines out, and from that we get direction and inputs that we can plug directly into. We still have back-up batches of samples that we just haven’t used yet, which I’m sure we’ll be using in the future. Samples that I really really like and I want to use but we just haven’t done anything with them. Yet.’

‘Made From Technetium’ is an album definitely worth your attention. It has powerful bursts of manic cybernetic decibels capable of bending Space-Time into fractels as complex as a Martian Boy Scout’s Super-String knots. And it’s part of a continuum of albums that together forms the soundtrack for the Saturday Matinee serial that Flash Gordon never got around to making. ‘The group’s sine and square-wave generators emit a weird loud hum, similar to the type of music played in the Milky Way back in the second millennium’ observed ‘Melody Maker’s Everett True as long ago as October 1994. Creating ‘music guaranteed to bring a smile to the face of anyone under the age of five centuries.’


Are Man or Astroman hooked on 1950’s Sci-Fi films? Would they like to soundtrack an Ed Wood Movie? ‘That would be fantastic’ enthuses Dexter X. ‘Something along those lines would be great. It’s too bad Ed Wood’s no longer with us. But I don’t think even he could save the Sci-Fi Movies they’re putting out now. These days the imagination and a lot of the psychological overtones get completely overlooked by the latest technology and laser-blasting computer-generated things. Which is unfortunate. Unfortunate for the genre. I’m disenchanted. ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997)? Yes. That is a perfect example right there. I’ll go see it. But for reference only.’

‘Bird Stuff (our drummer) is into old Movies the most’ begins Coco quite rationally. Then ‘but personally I can’t perceive three dimensions when they’re displayed on a two-dimensional surface. It’s a shame, but it has to do with the way I’m set up. It’s in my wiring. I’ve been excluded to an extent from that whole TV and Film and Still-Image photography thing – ‘cos like, these posters...’ he indicates the ‘Duchess’ walls which are rich with the accumulation of a decade’s visiting bands, ‘I’m sure that a lot of these posters have really good three-dimensional representations in them, but – it’s basically just flat imagery to me.’ A pause, then Wind-’em Up, Let ‘em Go ‘...I can really relate to cats and dogs when they watch TV, because I can see the motion, I can see what’s going on, but I don’t necessarily perceive the implied depth. Similar deal with a mirror, because that’s the same type of thing. There’s a three-dimensional representation, but on a two-dimensional surface....’

They’re Man or Astroman – Multi-Dimensional Star-Trippers, like it or not. And they’re here, like it or not. Actually I like it. And as I leave ‘The Duchess’ I chance a glance back just in case... what if, I mean, it’s almost possible that, what if it’s not a pose and they’re really really for real...? Then naw, the moment of uncertainty is gone. I turn my back and go. Stepping out into knife-cold Leeds, my ears still abuzz with intergalactic vibrations.


Published in: 
‘ROCK ‘N’ REEL no.31: Late Summer’ (UK - Oct 1998) 
‘AURAL INNOVATIONS no.6: April’ (USA - May 1999)