Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Classic SF: Walter M Miller Jr 'A Canticle For Leibowitz'


 The history, analysis and 
 retrospective significance of: 

Humans are meaning-seeking creatures. The space where there is no meaning they fill with fancies. Where there are no explanations they create elaborate myths. Six-hundred years after the near-extinction event of total nuclear war, how will those terrors be interpreted into new mythologies by the surviving, slowly re-emerging cultures? In the 1970 movie-sequel ‘Beneath The Planet Of The Apes’, astronaut Brent (James Franciscus) hunts for the missing Taylor (Charlton Heston) in post-apocalypse Earth, only to discover that the missing spacer is being held by a religious sect who worship the ‘Divine Bomb’, which results in the film’s closing statement, that this ‘green and insignificant planet, is now dead.’ ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ is far cleverer and much more nuanced.

David Pringle’s ‘The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’ calls it ‘one of the genre’s most distinguished works’ (Carlton Books, 1997). To John Clute ‘it is one of the two or three finest single achievements of modern SF’ (‘Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia’, Dorling Kindersley, 1995). While Brian Stableford calls it ‘the most impressive single work to come out of the post-war SF boom’ and ‘one of the most thoughtful speculative exercises produced within genre SF’ (in ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’, edited by Peter Nicholls, Granada 1981).

The only novel Miller published during his lifetime – ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ (US, 1960), is what genre academics call a fix-up, of three novelettes, the first of which appeared in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’ dated March 1955 (no.47). Edited by Anthony Boucher, the title worked to higher literary standards than many of its competitors, and the issue is an odd compilation of strangeness. With Miller denied cover-art in favour of a beautiful Chesley Bonestell illustration titled ‘Surveying Mars’, it also includes a poem by Winona McClintic (“1980 Overtures”) and Lord Dunsany’s extravagant “The Ghosts Of The Heaviside Layer”. By the time the second self-contained installment appeared in the same magazine, “And The Light Is Risen” – July 1956 (no.63) Miller’s ‘short novel’ is granted cover-billing. As is what Boucher introduces as ‘here is the final story in the trilogy’ – “The Last Canticle” (January 1957, no.69). Taken together, considerably revised and rewritten for its JB Lippincott hardback book debut, the novel forms a sobering corrective for those who dismiss 1950s SF as spaceships and tentacled green aliens. This is a cerebrally slow-paced narrative with detailed theological arguments set in monastic austerity, more akin to – say, Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name Of The Rose’ (1980) than it is to the star-smashers of Space Opera.

Miller envisages an American future resembling the centuries that followed the collapse of Roman civilisation, where literacy in Northern Europe was retained by the Christian church, by monks endlessly recopying ancient Latin texts in scriptoriums set apart from an illiterate and uncaring populace. They ‘kept the spark burning while the world slept.’ The church also forms a sanctuary where the dissatisfied lowly-born could acquire some degree of learning, by joining the monastic order, accepting its pitilessly austere regime and bowing to its rigid disciplines. In the same way, his future-church exists in ‘a world smug in its illiteracy,’ were it ‘had become, quite coincidentally and without meaning to be, the only means whereby news was transmitted from place to place across the continent. If plague came to the north-east, the southwest would soon hear of it, as a coincidental effect of tales told and retold by messengers of the Church coming and going from New Rome.’

Brother Francis Gerard of Utah is one such timid aspirant, enduring a lonely desert Lenten-fast imposed by the abbey of the Albertine Order Of Leibowitz. Alongside what had been the route from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso, the novice attempts to construct a shelter of interlocking stones sourced from eroded ruins, when he encounters what he assumes to be a cantankerous old lone pilgrim. With Francis unable to eat or converse, the pilgrim is by turn tauntingly playful and antagonistic, but before they part he indicates the keystone Gerard needs to complete his shelter, by marking it with what turns out to be mystic Hebrew symbols. Removing the stone causes an implosion revealing the antechamber to a previously unsuspected Fallout Survival Shelter, in which Brother Francis discovers a box of relics, including a Memo notebook with shopping list for bagels, pastrami and kraut. And a Circuit Design blueprint. Although ‘it appeared to be no more than a network of lines connecting a patchwork of doohickii, squiggles, quids, laminulae, and thingumbob’ it is signed ‘Leibowitz, IE’, suggesting this memorabilia once belonged to the founder of the order. Yet rather than this find being celebrated, the unfortunate Francis is subject to a series of punitive misfortunes.

In an age of rationalism it’s impossible for us to see the world as a realm rifted with secret meanings, in which all actions are metaphors of some divine plan with every hint of meaning and message there to be teased out and deciphered, subject to dangerous heresy, accusations of blasphemy and open to schisms. The simple series of opening incidents that Brother Francis experiences are subject to minutely detailed scrutiny. The nature of the pilgrim and his message dissected and analysed in rich prose shot through with theological argument and lit by Latin phrases. The characters and dialogue lift the tone with bright humour too. Francis is beaten on the buttocks by Abbot Arkos with a hickory ruler, and his promotion into the order deferred as the chamber is sealed and deliberately forgotten.

The affair costs Brother Francis seven Lenten vigils. Time passes slowly, crawling, filled with the detailed tedium of work, wood-carving and text-copying. Until a delegation arrives to consider evidence for the canonization of the Beatus Leibowitz, and Francis is cross-questioned anew by both a postulator and an advocatus diaboli. Then, in answer to a summons, he packs his bindlestiff and his illuminated lambskin copy of the blueprint, and heads towards New Rome on his ass, for the canonization. Brother Francis is interviewed by the twenty-first Pope Leo – who is ‘less ferocious than Dom Arkos’, only for him to be then randomly killed and cannibalized on his return journey by the same ‘Pope’s Children’ mutant bandits who earlier stole his ass and illuminated lambskin. His remains buried by the same wanderer who’d initiated the sequence of events that both skewed, and cursed his life.

‘The complexity of the work as a whole is quite extraordinary’ points out John Clute, ‘there is humour, pathos, tragedy, myth, speculation, irony, and hope’ while ‘each section of the book both prefigures and echoes the other sections, giving the effect of a mosaic.’ He points out that, in one thread, Miller simultaneously balances the countervailing beliefs that secular history is both cyclic – ‘it never was any better, it never will be any better. It will only be richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day,’ yet also a linear pathway moving upwards towards a possible state of grace. With Thon Taddeo acting as Devil’s Advocate. ‘If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.’

Six-hundred years after total nuclear war, how will such a catastrophe be interpreted into new mythologies by the slowly re-emerging cultures? A lengthy gospel account of what they refer to as the Flame Deluge (Diluvium Ignis) is read to Thon Taddeo, in an expertly-contrived text with ‘a liking for scriptural mimicry.’ The previous civilization was felled ‘to test mankind which had become swelled with pride as in the time of Noah…’, it caused ‘the wise men of the age, among them the Blessed Leibowitz, to devise great engines of war such as had never before been upon the Earth, weapons of such might that they contained the very fires of Hell.’ Placed in the hands of rival ‘princes’ who conspire a First Strike strategy, and a war of weeks – some say days, that leaves cities melted to puddles of glass while entire nations vanish.

‘So it was that, after the Deluge, the Fallout, the plagues, the madness, the confusion of tongues, the rage, there began the bloodletting of the Simplification.’ Survivors vent their rage on all people of learning, who they hold responsible for the armageddon weaponry, by destroying literacy and burning books. Yet the monk’s task ‘was to preserve what was worthwhile in the old world, and at the same time to shape a new world that would not just re-enact the old tragedy’ according to John Clute’s encyclopedia entry. And this is where Isaac Edward Leibowitz attempts to bend the Cistercians role as sanctuary to preserve what can be saved by ‘bookleggers’ who smuggle books, and ‘memorizers’ who – as in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1953), memorise entire texts.

From the first section – ‘Fiat Homo’, a leap across a further six-hundred years of the ‘black millennium’ to 3174 into part two, ‘Fiat Lux’, with new rumours of war. ‘Time seeps slowly in the desert and there is little change to mark its passing.’ Yet there’s the rise of the secular power of Texarkana, and the emergence of the precociously talented ‘Sage of Sages’ Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott, bastard outcast of its ruling family, who seeks to test the truths – or falsehoods of the memorabilia in the abbey archives. Testing ‘the esoteric gulf between Christian monk and secular investigator of Nature.’ While within a vaulted basement of the abbey itself the spark of renaissance is ignited. Dom Paulo must arbitrate between the rival factions as Brother Kornhoer reinvents a treadle-driven dynamo to power an electrical lamp, ‘a brilliance that had not been seen in twelve centuries.’ A lesser writer than Miller would have him simply refer to a copy of Brother Francis Gerard’s blueprint. Inevitably the process is more complex than that, and fiercely opposed as blasphemy by traditionalist factions.

If the novel’s first section is slow interiors, the second extends out to the tribal clans of the plains, all the way to Laredo, which is threatened from the south by the State of Chihuahua. And it has a rich new cast of characters, with the mischievous ‘versifying vagrant’ the Poet-Sirrah – later ‘Saint Poet of the Miraculous Eyeball’, while the pilgrim reappears as Benjamin Eleazar bar Joshua in his role as the eternally Wandering Jew – ‘older than Methuselah,’ and later as Lazarus ‘whom not even the Bomb can relieve of his eternal penance’ (John Clute). Political manipulation and intrigue multiply, there’s death, brutality and torture. The buzzards eat well. Dom Paulo ‘felt forebodings. Some nameless threat lurked just around the corner of the world for the sun to rise again. The feeling had been gnawing at him, as annoying as a swarm of hungry insects that buzzed about one’s face in the desert sun. There was the sense of the imminent, the remorseless, the mindless, it coiled like a heat-maddened rattler, ready to strike at rolling tumbleweed.’

The surviving memorabilia in the Abbey archive is by its nature fragmentary, incomplete, and only ever partially understood. Miller employs playful typographic games, Latin phrases, Hebrew script, dialogue on the soul of Artificial Intelligence, and a wealth of allusion. He refers to Earth as ‘Mother Gaia’ almost a decade before James Lovelock developed the term into his hypothesis. And he suggests a possible bioengineering evolutionary detour. Where did he draw that from? As a fragment of a lost text, did he maybe have a specific novel in mind? The obvious candidate would be ‘R.U.R.’, the Karel Čapek SF play of 1920 in which artificial humans replace real people, and from which the word ‘robot’ is derived. Did a page survive beyond the Flame Deluge, to be confusingly drawn into the monk’s fractured mythology?

I bought my copy of the Corgi Science Fiction paperback edition of ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ as a teenager at the ‘Motherby Bookstall’ on Hull’s Open Market – then located in the square behind Holy Trinity Church. Drawn by the cover-art, strikingly highlighted by a dark cowled figure against a pure red background, I found it well worth paying its trade-in 1/6d price. The blurb quotes the ‘Chicago Tribune’ to the effect that ‘in the great tradition of ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’, this is ‘an extraordinary novel, terrifyingly grim, prodigiously imaginative, richly comic.’ The reference to Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, and George Orwell’s 1949 novel is not really helpful, but it indicates the status the publishers are targeting. This, they’re saying, is not cheap SF, this is literary fiction too, albeit with science fictional premises. As Brian Aldiss points out, ‘it was immediately greeted with the warmest praise by reviewers – ie, they said it was so good it couldn’t possibly be SF.’

The advent of nuclear weaponry at the close of World War II, and the escalation of superpower confrontation through the subsequent Cold War, legitimized a raft of shock-horror pulp excess glowing with radioactive mutants and thrilling new barbarities. With just the scary frisson of credibility provided by each new H-Bomb test and political crisis, maintaining a precarious Mutually Assured Destruction balance of terror. ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ is uniquely a product of this 1950s nuclear paranoia. Rather than hunting links in mainstream literature, a more appropriate parallel would be with John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’ (1955), in which a fundamentalist Christian community in post-apocalypse Labrador have survived what they term ‘the Tribulation’. Miller’s ‘dark robes’ inhabit the same essential wasteland future, but with a considerably more thought-through intelligence. Yet here the comparison also falters.

An enigmatic genre-figure, Walter M Miller was born in New Smyrna Beach, Florida 23 January 1923, and grew up in the American south. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps a month after Pearl Harbour, and served as tail-gunner and radioman, participating in fifty-five combat sorties over the Balkans and Italy, where he was involved in the Allies notorious destruction of the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy. Brian Aldiss compares the resulting trauma to that experienced by Kurt Vonnegut Jr, who was caught up in the fire-bombing of Dresden, and went on to create ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ (1969) from it. ‘We digest our own experience and offer them as nourishment for others’ Aldiss suggests (in ‘Billion Year Spree’, 1973).

Miller converted to Catholicism at twenty-five. And Kingsley Amis – who creates his own Catholic alternative history with ‘The Alteration’ (1976), recognizes ‘religion described – in full and affectionate detail’ in ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’. In a ‘Riverside Quarterly’ (Vol.8 no.4) essay, critic Marilyn House chases up a baffling density of biblical references easily overlooked by a reader of a more secular persuasion (‘Miller’s Anti-Utopian Vision’). To Amis, ‘although containing some amusing satire on monastic self-dedication’ Miller’s novel ‘has passages of what seems to me to be genuine religious conviction not devoid of impressiveness’ (in his ‘New Maps Of Hell’, 1961).

After the war Miller studied engineering, until his first SF story, “Secret Of The Death Dome” – a shoot-out with invading Martians hovering over the southwestern desert, appeared in ‘Amazing Stories’ (Vol.25 no.1, January1951), after which he contributed a slew of gradually-sophisticating tales to many genre magazines.

When dealing regular quirky robotics, such as “Dumb Waiter” (‘Astounding SF’ April 1952), Miller adds the twist of a robotic war being fought in the skies when there are no longer munitions, and the automated city functioning without human inhabitants, with the bizarrely convoluted code-cracking methods used by Mitch Laskell to access and reprogramme Central ‘when the machine age cracks up’. And “Blood Bank” (‘Astounding SF’ June 1952) with disgraced Cophian spacer Eli Roki uncovering the cannibalistic secret of forgotten backwater planet Earth, with a cigar-chewing Dalethian Talewa aboard her battered starship ‘The Idiot’. If these are experiments in form, trying out different styles of fiction as a learning curve, there’s still a difference that sets them apart from the other tales sharing the magazine issues. Something suggestive of a potential, finding its own voice.

“The Big Hunger” (‘Astounding SF’ October 1952) is an elegiac prose-poem of meaning-seeking human expansion across the stars in cycles of regression and resurgence, with no protagonist other than the starships which carry them. No characters, but the abstract principle of interstellar flight, and the whole future of the galaxy. According to the blurb, ‘there was a Race, and its life-drive was Curiosity, and only Space was limited.’ Until there’s nowhere else for them to go, but home. ‘I have seen the pride in their faces. They walk like kings.’ Written at a time of strong plot-driven narratives, it’s a bold experiment that can sometimes seem naïve… yet when I first read it, as an impressionable adolescent, I found its time-spanning philosophy compelling. I was even inspired to attempt my own galaxy-wide variant. Brian Aldiss select it for his anthology ‘Space Odysseys’ (Orbit, 1974) as ‘it sums up much of the content of this book, and says a great deal about aspiration in general.’

If SF is frequently accused of neglecting characterization in favour of gimmick-ideas, Miller’s finely-tuned subtlety can also provide the exception. His “You Triflin Skunk” (aka “The Triflin Man” in ‘Fantastic Universe’ January 1955), based on a similar premise to John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ (1957), is almost entirely character-driven. Attentively responsible for Doodie, a disabled son subject to violent fits following a drunken one-night stand with a stranger, dirt-poor white-trash Lucey, inadvertently saves the world from alien invasion by blasting Doodie’s errant airborne-jellyfish father with a shotgun. ‘Ain’t nothing worse than a triflin’ man’ she concludes, ‘if he’s human, or if he’s not’.

And “Anybody Else Like Me” (published as “Command Performance” in ‘Galaxy’ November 1952) opens with the sensual eroticism of Mrs Lisa Waverly dancing naked in the rain as ‘the drops took impersonal liberties with her body.’ With effortless eloquence the prose eases into stranger-threat as she picks up telepathic emanation, afraid of the unsettling implications of her own powers, she manipulates the only other telepath to death into a final desolation that leaves her even more alone in ‘the silence of the voiceless void’.

While, as an innovator, his “I, Dreamer” – which debuted in the June/July 1953 issue of ‘Amazing Stories’, anticipates Anne McCaffrey’s ‘The Ship Who Sang’ (1969) in featuring not only the confused emotional responses of what is clearly a ‘brainship’, with ‘Clicker’, the human child-brain grafted into the e-Eradani VII starship weaponry in its strike-back against the two-legs of Earth, but also its desire to sing. McCaffrey’s first tale in her cycle followed in the April 1961 issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And SF’.

Yet my personal favourite of his short stories, one I’ve returned to with pleasure over and over again – “Big Joe And The Nth Generation” (in ‘If’ as “It Takes A Thief”, May 1952), is an affectionate contribution to the ER Burroughs tradition. As in ‘A Princess Of Mars’ (1912) the red planet is a dying world which requires the periodic reactivation of an Atmosphere Plant to renew its thinning air. In a fatalistically devolved Mars, only the picaresque Asir of Franic – as a young thief ‘of his tenth Marsyear’, is capable of linking ‘ritual phrase’ snippets of stolen data leading him to the Vaults to rekindle The Blaze Of The Great Wind. The story has everything that makes this sub-genre appealing, an attractively outsider protagonist, a spirited girl companion, the romantic desolation of a doomed world with wonderfully bizarre fauna (the hüffen, ‘nature’s experiment in jet propulsion’), and the puzzle Asir must solve to outwit Joe, the guardian robot. The twist is that this Cimerian plain is on a far-future Mars populated by Ancient Fathers exiled from an Earth reduced by war to a new asteroid belt.

The first collection of Miller’s work was ‘Conditionally Human’ (US, 1962), which consists of three novellas, the title story where the concept of what defines humanity is explored – as well as what it means to be human, his Hugo-winning “The Darfsteller” (‘Astounding SF’ Vol.54 no.5, January 1955) – a poignant drama of human actors losing out against computer-directed robotic doll replicas (selected by editor Isaac Asimov for ‘The Hugo Winners’ 1963 anthology), and “Dark Benediction” in which micro-organisms from meteorites loose a ‘dermie’ plague on the world (from ‘Fantastic Adventures’ September 1951). A second collection, ‘The View From The Stars’ (US, 1965), gathers his touching tale “The Will” (‘Fantastic’, January-February 1954) which features ‘Captain Chronos, Custodian Of Time’, a thinly disguised reference to the popular ‘Captain Video’ TV show, to which Miller also contributed scripts charting the futuristic exploits of the Video Rangers. In the tale, fourteen-year-old Kenny Westmore, who is dying of leukemia, builds a tree-house time-ship to reach a future cure, yet, despite his foster-parents caring protections, he’s nevertheless snatched into tomorrow for healing treatment.

Cherry-picking from both volumes, ‘The Best Of Walter M Miller Jr’ (Gollancz, 1980) presents a comprehensive overview of his short fiction, leading ‘New Worlds’ reviewer Leslie Flood to concede that, whatever else Walter M Miller produced, these tales ‘can stand on their own.’

The final sequence of the novel – ‘Fiat Voluntas Tua’ (‘Thy Will Be Done’), takes events forward into the space-faring year of our lord 3781. And if ‘a Dark Age seemed to be passing,’ an even darker one was dawning. The nearby village of Sanly Bowitts has become a small city. There are aluminium and glass-wall additions to the ancient abbey, and a six-lane highway adjacent to it. As a result of Brother Kornhoer’s innovation, Leibowitz has also become patron saint of electronics. There are Nuns in the abbey from the Sister’s Chapel, necessitating a degree of decorum, and the Atlantic Confederacy is in superpower confrontation with the Asian coalition due to atmospheric radiation from the Itu Wan nuclear incident.

Reverend Father Jethrah Zerchi argues against the morality of euthanasia after Texarkana in nuked, and the abbey is inundated by radiation-blasted refugee victims, in a dialogue passage unlike any other in SF. As though Miller is working out each step of the equation himself, balancing issues eloquently one against the other. Until Zerchi is terminally trapped beneath the abbey’s falling masonry – forcing him to directly endure the unalleviated agony of death he was intellectually extolling as spiritual virtue. While the symbolism posed by Mrs Grales – a mutant with a sleeping second head she calls Rachel, also transcends the genre, into realms of wonder. After the final nuclear exchange, Mrs Grales is left comatose, but Rachel awakens. A new spirit unsullied by the world’s tarnishing. Whatever she represents to Miller must remain open to speculation. Except that humans fill with fancies the space where they find no meaning. While, escaping the new annihilating deluge – and more in hope than futility, Brother Joshua’s starship seeks ‘the continuity of the Order’ on ‘Alpha Centauri’s planet maybe, Beta Hydri, or one of the sickly straggling colonies on that planet of What’s-its-name in Scorpius.’

As Leslie Flood points out, ‘anything else Walter M Miller Jr writes must suffer comparison with his ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’’ (‘New Worlds’ no.137). Similarly, to Brian Aldiss, ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ is ‘the rocky summit of Miller’s brief writing career.’ For he virtually stopped writing at the age of thirty-six, and took his own life, aged 72 in Daytona Beach, Florida, 9 January 1996. A second novel – ‘Saint Leibowitz And The Wild Horse Woman’ (1997), was published posthumously (trailored by “God In Thus” in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’ no.556, October-November 1997). A sequel had been contractually agreed, begun and continued sporadically over the years, until Miller’s plotlines and notes were eventually drawn together by Terry Bisson. Taking up the future-history some eight decades after the original novel, to pit the exiled Papacy against the Empire of Texarkana, and while filled with incident and engaging characters, it’s a less than essential addition. Yet humans are meaning-seeking creatures, and in Miller’s fictional future, they’re still fumbling towards some kind of understanding.

Michael Moorcock – in his ‘James Colvin’ guise, suggests that Miller’s ‘stories have a slightly dated flavour. Things have moved on since they were written,’ before adding a new significance, in that ‘Miller is one of the people who has helped in the move’ (in ‘New Worlds’ no.162, May 1966). And ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ remains in print. It is still being read. It’s tempting to speculate how future archivists – discovering an intact copy in the ruins of our civilization, will interpret its story into new mythologies.

Command Performance” was selected by Brian Aldiss for ‘Penguin Science Fiction’ (Penguin, 1961), with Aldiss commenting that here ‘you have a portrait of a woman as actual as any in science fiction’ and ‘there is evidence of that force and vision which Walter Miller has lately brought to bear on his incomparable novel ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’.

I Made You”, for the sequel – ‘Yet More Penguin Science Fiction’ (Penguin, 1964) Aldiss chose a tale first published in ‘Astounding SF’ (vol.53 no.1, March 1954) ‘for a decade now I’ve been haunted by the vision of an immense and wounded machine lumbering over the surface of the moon, spitting out its anger at anything or anyone who dares to come within range. Only recently did I track down the story that contained this device and found it was written by Walter Miller… Miller skilfully portrays the frustration and rage felt by both man and machine in the story; by the end of it, like so many of the better science fiction stories, it seems to have taken on a wider meaning than its limited context would lead one to expect, possible because tales of the future are like shadows of our present, thrown upon and enlarged against some great platonic cave wall, so that the machine and the man become – in the anonymity granted by futurity – Machine and Man.’

Memento Homo” (originally published as “Death Of A Spaceman” in ‘Amazing Stories’ (Vol.28 no.1, March 1954) collected into ‘The Worlds Of Science Fiction’ (Victor Gollancz 1964, Panther SF, 1966) edited by Robert P Mills who says ‘each story is a favourite, on one count or another, of its author, and the author in each instance has attached a note explaining why’, with a preface by Miller himself ‘I knew and loved Old Donegal, who used a different name, and whose mistress was not a thundering rocket, but a thundering steam locomotive and who died long ago, I suppose it is that love that makes this story a favourite, in spite of its flaws, its corn, and its obvious obsolescence as science fiction’

The Darfsteller” was anthologised in ‘The Hugo Winners’ (Penguin, 1964) edited by Isaac Asimov, who recalls that Walter Miller was not at the Thirteenth SF Convention (Cleveland, 1955) where his Hugo was accepted by proxy Judith Merril, but adds an anecdote about a meal shared by Miller and Asimov with Robert P Mills – then editor of ‘Venture SF, in a New York French restaurant where Asimov attempts to impress by ordering in French. Writing later for permission to include the story in this anthology Miller responds ‘of course, I remember you. You ordered chitlins in French’

Friday, 29 December 2017


(by Kieran and Andrew Darlington,
with art by Tamsin Darlington

Herne is the boy who lives next door,
he told me of the things he saw
as he climbed the stairs to the upper floor,
he found the alien who lived in his loft
which collects all the things you think you’ve lost,
it has three heads, warm and blobby and soft,
each head has ten eyes that glow at night
they wink like bugs to give x-ray sight
it chews holes in the wall like a big termite
to watch the pigeons who nest in the eaves
to see the squirrels who dart through the leaves
and the mice who thieve its alien cheese,
Herne says each head has ten hands
to work with springs, screws and elastic bands
which it gathered while travelling distant lands,
but now it was hiding in strange disguise,
as a book or a box or a pile of dead flies,
it eats fish-fingers and custard and booger-pies,
has scales and feathers, and a coiled lizard tongue
that uncoils forever its unbelievably long
to suck up spaghetti and sometimes meringue,
each hand has ten fingers that wriggle like eels
to collect smelly socks and bicycle wheels,
and can fix broken clocks whenever it feels,
Herne is the boy who lives next door,
he told me of all the things that he saw
even though its not living there any more
it was hiding in his attic-loft
with three heads, warm and slimy and soft,
but it’s now flown back to its home aloft,
to a moon the wrong side of the alien skies,
and I’m sure it comes as no surprise
that sometimes… I think that Herne tells lies

Thursday, 28 December 2017



Looking back on these pieces from the perspective 
of almost-2018. This is what I was doing in 1985. 
I liked Long Ryders. Sid Griffin was an easy guy 
to talk with. But a C60, or even one thirty-minute 
side of a C60 yields far more dialogue than is required 
for one interview piece. So I split it into two full features, 
for two publications, mixing and sometimes overlapping 
elements. The unedited bits left over – including the 
interesting false starts and bloopers are then used for a fanzine. 
There are plenty of fanzines around. No problem apportioning 
them somewhere. Each interview I do, and there are plenty 
of them, operates on this principle. The other thing that strikes me 
now – reading the pieces back, is that rather than go for a 
straight question-answer format, I prefer to set up some kind of 
dialogue. Here, it is predicated on the idea of a kind of musical 
evolution. After Punk, New Wave, and the emergence of electronic 
groups such as Human League… where do Long Ryders revivalist 
tendencies fit into that evolutionary process?

With 2018 hindsight, it’s obvious that this is a false premise. 
There was no evolution. Just as Jazz was the dominant music of 
the first half of he twentieth-century, so Rock was the dominant 
music-form of its second half. The 1990s, in the UK at least, 
was Brit-Pop, when Indie went overground, a gorgeous final 
flowering of everything from Beat Groups, Mod, Psychedelic whimsy, 
Freak-beat, and Garage-Band, tightened and edited by Punk sharpness. 
Maybe Long Ryders were an advance tremor or that? 
Maybe not. But its fun to speculate… 

An interview with the Long Ryders 

Sid Griffin takes a long pull on his whiskey sour. ‘“Sweet Jane”?’ He lounges across the counter picking critically at his burger and chips.

Tom Stevens slopes his ‘Daily Mirror’ down, cocks his head to the ponderous riffs of support-band New Age sound-checking on the Club stage beneath, and nods. ‘“Sweet Jane”.’

Griffin turns to me. ‘Won’t be long now,’ he indicates my cassette machine, ‘when they finish the sound-check we’ll do the interview.’ The riffs start up, stop, then start again interminably.

Meanwhile, Tom Stevens points out the ‘Daily Mirror’ topless page.5 pin-up, ‘see this? – WOW! – if this were a paper in the States, they’d have a picture of a shooting or something instead!’ We get into a disquisition on censorship, the hypocrisy of f*** and c*** in the text, to which every reader automatically supplies their own –uck and –unt. The Whitehousian euphemism that confuses the word with the deed. The fear of catching AIDS from newsprint. ‘If I had kids’ opines Tom earnestly, ‘I’d sooner they watch videos of people fucking than snuff splatter movies.’

Sid Griffin cuts in. ‘“1970”? They’re doing “1970” off the Stooges ‘Funhouse’ album, aren’t they?’ A tactile pause… then Tom nods, ‘yeah, “1970”.’

This is Long Ryders, prior to their gig at the Leeds ‘Warehouse’ Club, on Somers Street. A band named for the 1980 Walter Hill Western movie ‘The Long Riders’, with Stacy Keach as outlaw Frank James. The ‘y’ is a nod at the Byrds. After years of Techno-Pop and Electro-Dance, this is the revenge of the American guitar. The sound of the ‘Paisley Underground’ from Los Angles… now run riot clear across Europe on its debut pioneering tour. The Long Ryders are: Sid Griffin (sideburns, guitar, harmonica, vocals), Tom Stevens (basin-cut hair, bass, vocals), Greg Sowders (drums, percussion), and Stephen McCarthy (guitar, steel guitar, vocals, autoharp).

You might’ve seen them on the ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ special on the American renaissance – or live at ‘Dingwalls’ or the Harlesden ‘Mean Fiddler’ – where they encore with Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge A Book”. You’ll have heard – or heard of, their ‘Native Sons’ (1984, Diablo/ Zippo Records) album featuring their near-charting single “I Had A Dream”, plus first-line ground-breakers such as “Wreck Of The 809”, and “Ivory Towers”. It was preceded by a USA-only EP “10-5-6” produced by Earle Mankey, for Indie Frontier label, which subsequently makes the UK charts on import-strength alone!

The Long Ryders made the cover of ‘New Musical Express’, and ‘recall Buffalo Springfield’s buckskin hippie visions and the country-rock fusions of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, cranked up for the eighties’ quoth ‘Melody Maker’. Although Robyn Hitchcock told me they were ‘just a Pub-Rock band’. Whatever, evolved out of the Sid Griffin-Shelley Ganz band the Unclaimed – the Long Ryders are HOT!!!

But now the New Age sound-check is complete. Griffin indicates we should begin – ‘let’s DO it!’ I switch the tape machine to ‘record’…

SID GRIFFIN: Make sure it works, you might want to use this. I think for an interview you should have one, maybe two members of the band, and that’s it. I find that whenever three or four of us show up we all tend to talk at the same time and you don’t get anywhere. Also you say ‘did you like so-and-so?’ and one guy says ‘yes’, one guy says ‘no’, and another guy says ‘oh, I thought it was marvellous’. So it’s like… what sort of answer is that?

ANDREW DARLINGTON: You founded the Long Ryders?

SG: Yes, that’s true.

AD: Prior to that you wrote a biography of former Byrds-Flying Burrito Brothers member Gram Parsons, who influenced the growth of Country-Rock significantly prior to his sudden death in September 1973.

SG: Yeah, the book’ll be out in the UK in about two months time (‘Gram Parsons: A Music Biography’, Sierra Books, 1985), a biography of Gram Parsons, and it looks REAL good. It’s got unpublished interviews with him and a lot of photos no-one’s ever seen. Gram talking to Emmylou Harris, Chris Hillman, Peter Fonda, and all those other guys. It looks real good, I’m real proud of it.

AD: Is it true that you resent Long Ryders being tagged a ‘revivalist’ band?

SG: Yes I do. If you wanna talk about influences – which you invariably do in an interview (is this taping pretty well, d’ya think? There’s not gonna be too much noise in the background…?), speaking of influence, it’s like, Gram Parsons and all that, OK, that’s fair, but I’m as heavily influenced by that first Clash album and the Sex Pistols album as any record ever made! I love Gene Clark (of the Byrds, who adds guest-vocals on the “Ivory Towers” track on ‘Native Sons’), but Gene Clark is no more an influence than John Lydon is, you know? Johnny Rotten. So there you go.

AD: I’ve heard a lot of the so-called Psychedelic revival bands, and not been too impressed.

SG: I’m not either, frankly.

AD: But “I Had A Dream” has an original power that transcends the genre.

SG: Yeah, that’s the type of stuff we like.

AD: But there’s the odd situation in the States now where John Fogerty comes back after a ten-year absence with an album pretty-much identical to his Creedence Clearwater Revival stuff (‘Centerfield’, January 1985)…

SG: Yeah, it’s done real well. Is it doing well over here?

AD: Not as well as it is in the States where it’s no.1, and where it still seems to be contemporary.

SG: Which I like.

AD: But doesn’t that mean that nothing significant has changed over there in that ten-year period?

SG: It’s a good point you’re making. In England people always say ‘you’re bringing the guitar back’. Well, we’re not bringing the guitar back from anywhere – ‘cos it didn’t GO anywhere in my country! And there’s this attitude sometimes in Britain to throw out the baby with the bathwater. And it’s like – the guitar never went anywhere. The people I listen to are Muddy Waters and Hank Williams, stuff like that, and Howlin’ Wolf. The heroes I had as a little boy, and still have now. The Byrds or whatever. The guitar never went anywhere, you know? There’s NOTHING wrong with the guitar – THAT’S what I’m saying. I’m not saying it’s gonna feed the Ethiopians. And I’m not saying that by people in the Pop charts playing or not playing the guitar, it’s gonna help the British Miners. I’m not naïve. I’m just saying there’s nothing wrong with it – it’s a great instrument as it is.

AD: I once interviewed Country Joe McDonald (of sixties psychedelic group Country Joe And The Fish)…

SG: Ha! He’s got a good heart.

AD: But he said that when they made their albums in 1967 they were using what was then state-of-the-art technology. If synths and Fairlights had been available then, they’d have used them.

SG: I see his point. I’m on Country Joe’s side. I admit we don’t use synthesisers, we put ‘em on one track – and took ‘em off. To me it just sounded stupid. It was not our bag. We put them on “Too Close To The Light” – which is on the ‘Native Sons’ album. It was just like an American coming over to England and he wants to fit in so he uses an English accent. Do you know what I mean? It was a complete affectation.

AD: You must be very happy with the response you’ve had to the album.

SG: It’s opened up a lot of doors for us. It’s enabled us to come to England and Europe. The gigs in the States are getting a lot better, y’know – we used to play some REAL DIVES, I’m not complaining… I’m not saying… I know. It’s like Gene Clark said, if you don’t think you’re gonna play dives when you start out then you’re a DOPE. Y’know, you’re pretty naïve. And me and the fellers, we knew we were going to play some rough spots, and now, thank g-o-d, we can play places where we don’t look like we’re going to get the shit beat out of us on the way out the door. You know what I’m saying? We used to play some places full of… like, drunk Americans looking for a fight ‘cos they couldn’t pick up a woman that night! So, y’know, we’re playing better places now, and that’s good. We owe all that to ‘Native Sons’, and I’m very proud of that. It looks like when we get back to the States we’ll be on a ‘quote-unquote’ major label. So… y’know, ‘Native Sons’ may be rereleased, they’re talking about it – on a major label, with a new mix.

AD: How does the song-writing quota break down within Long Ryders?

SG: Sometimes Stephen and I write together. It’s usually Stephen or I who bring a song in, then we all work on it. Both Tom Stevens and Greg Sowders contribute to songs on ‘Native Sons’, but by and large it’s McCarthy and myself who do the lion’s share of the song-writing. I find it hard to collaborate with people, so when I bring in a song it’s – like, eighty-percent complete, and then I let them have a whack at it. But I find it hard to sit down with someone else and do a fifty-fifty job on a song. It’s worse the more people you involve. It’s not so bad maybe with one other person, but when you start getting three or four guys in there, then all you have is three or four guys who want the line to read three or four different ways. It doesn’t make any sense.

AD: Bands are increasingly using the studio as a compositional tool, to ‘layer’ songs and evolve them in that way.

SG: We can’t afford that type of experimentation. I’m not saying it’s right or it’s wrong. I have a tendency to shy away from it. I don’t think that’s our bag. When you do that, you know – Andy, the band tend to get up on stage and have a lot of tunes that are STUDIO tunes, and they’re kinda difficult to play live.

AD: The Revox backing-tape syndrome?

SG: Exactly. You know what I was saying about one of our gigs, where some Punk fellows jumped on stage and started shouting into the microphone? Well, I really believe live performance IS a LIVE performance, and the studio is something COMPLETELY different. And I like – like that night in, er – (you got any tape left in this thing…?) – last night in Manchester a guy took his pants off on the balcony and hung his moon – his fanny, over the balcony. And it was just a great moment. It was just – I admit, I admit it was childish, it was juvenile, it was infantile, but on the other hand, in terms of Rock ‘n’ Roll, it was a funny moment. Even women were laughing. It was just a funny moment. That type of warmth is so hard to find in life. How could you put THAT on tape!!!

THE LONG RYDERS, the great American renaissance, the Revenge of the American Guitar – or just a reassertion of traditional Rock values? Draw your own conclusions… but hear them first…


1980 – ‘The Unclaimed’ by The Unclaimed (US EP, Moxie Records M1036), pre-Long Ryders band, with two Sid Griffin songs, ‘Time To Time’ and ‘Deposition Central (The Acid Song)’ and two by Shelley Ganz, ‘Run From Home’ and ‘The Sorrow’

1983 – ‘10-5-60’ (EP, PVC Records PVCM 501) with ‘Join My Gang’ (Griffin), ‘I Don’t Care What’s Right, I Don’t Care What’s Wrong’ (Des Brewer and Steve McCarthy), ’10-5-60’ (Barry Shank and Griffin), ‘And She Rides’ (Sowders and Griffin), ‘Born To Believe In You’ (Griffin). Features bass-player Des Brewer. These five tracks later added to expanded 2011 edition of ‘Native Sons’ (Prima SID 024)

1984 – ‘Native Sons’ (US Frontier, UK Zippo ZONG 003) with side one: ‘Final Wild Son’ (Griffin and McCarthy), ‘Still Get By’ (McCarthy), ‘Ivory Tower’ (Barry Shank, guest backing vocals by Gene Clark), ‘Run Dusty Run’ (Sowders and Griffin), ‘(Sweet) Mental Revenge’ (Mel Tillis, steel guitar by Dave Pearlman), ‘Fair Game’ (Griffin and McCarthy). Side two: ‘Tell It To The Judge On Sunday’ (Griffin, saxophone by Phil Kenzi), ‘Wreck Of The 809’ (McCarthy and Stevens), ‘Too Close To The Light’ (Sowders, Griffin, McCarthy, Stevens), ‘Never Got To Meet The Mom’ (Griffin), ‘I Had A Dream’ (McCarthy). Reviewed as ‘a modern American classic’ (Melody Maker)

1985 – ‘I Had A Dream’ c/w ‘Too Close To The Light (Buckskin Mix)’ (Zippo 45-2)

1985 – ‘The Lost Weekend’ by Danny & Dusty (1985, Zippo ZONG007) guest session on a duo album by Dan Stuart of Green On Red, and Steve Wynn of Dream Syndicate

1985 – ‘State Of Our Union’ (Island ILPS 9802) with side one: ‘Looking For Lewis And Clark’ (Griffin), ‘Lights Of Downtown’ (McCarthy), ‘WDIA’ (Griffin and McCarthy, with Pedal Steel by Vic Collins, plus Snake Davis And His Longhorns), ‘Mason-Dixon Line’ (McCarthy), ‘Here Comes That Train Again’ (McCarthy), ‘Years Long Ago’ (Stevens). Side two: ‘Good Times Tomorrow, Hard Times Today’ (Griffin), ‘Two Kinds Of Love’ (Griffin), ‘You Just Can’t Ride The Boxcars Anymore’ (Stevens), ‘Capturing The Flag’ (Sowders, Griffin, McCarthy, Stevens, Birch), ‘State Of My Union’ (Sowders and Griffin)

5 October 1985 - ‘Looking For Lewis And Clark’ c/w ‘Child Bride’ (Sowders and McCarthy) (Island IS 237) UK no.59, also as 10” EP with ‘Southside Of The Story’ and ‘If I Were A Bramble And You Were A Rose’

1987 – ‘Two Fisted Tales’ (Island ILPS 9869) with side one: ‘Gunslinger Man’, ‘I Want You Bad’, ‘A Stitch In Time’, ‘The Light Gets In The Way’, ‘Prairie Fire’, ‘Baby’s In Toyland’. Side two: ‘Long Story Short’, ‘Man Of Misery’, ‘Harriet Tubman’s Gonna Carry Me Home’, ‘For The Rest Of My Days’, ‘Spectacular Fall’

1987 – ‘I Want You Bad’ (Terry Adams) c/w ‘Ring Bells’ (Griffin) (Island IS 330)

1989 – ‘Metallic BO’ (Overground OVER16) edited from 89-minute bootleg C90 tape with radio dialogue, covers ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ (Thirteenth Floor Elevators), ‘Route 66’, ‘Brand New Heartache’ (Everly Brothers song covered by Gram Parsons on his ‘Sleepless Nights’ LP), ‘Prisoners Of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (Neil Young), ‘Dirty Old Town’ (Ewan McColl), ‘Billy Jean’ (Michael Jackson), ‘Circle ‘Round The Sun’, ‘Six Days On The Road’ (country song with multiple covers, including the Flying Burrito Brothers), ‘Anarchy In The UK’ (Sex Pistols), ‘Masters Of War’ (Bob Dylan), ‘Sandwich Man’ (Stephen McCarthy), ‘Blues Theme’ (Davie Allan And The Arrows), ‘PIL Theme’ (Public Image Ltd), ‘I Shall Be Released’ (Dylan)

1994 – ‘BBC Radio One Live In Concert’ (Windsong WINCD 058) with, recorded live at Mayfair Club, Newcastle 1987-06-03, ‘Prairie Fire’, ‘A Stitch In Time’, ‘Harriet Tubman’s Going To Carry Me Home’, ‘I Want You Bad’, ‘I Had A Dream’, ‘You Just Can’t Ride The Boxcars Anymore’, ‘Gunslinger Man’, ‘Looking For Lewis And Clark’ and recorded live at Rendezvous Club, Chester 1985-10-15, ‘Ivory Tower’, ‘Final Wild Son’, ‘State Of My Union’, ‘Lights Of My Downtown’

Sid Griffin (born 18 September 1955) went on to record
solo, and as part of the Coal Porters

Long Ryders: Live In Leeds


A gig review/ interview 
at the ‘Warehouse Club’, Leeds 

The Long Ryders play a four-dimensional music for both ears. Sid Griffin sound-checks on stage with tall dark Stephen McCarthy while their guitars are balanced out at the control desk. The mike-stand judders, sways and wavers precariously between them, nodding in sympathetic vibrations as they move – Griffin notices the action and tests it, shaking first one leg, noting the answering degree of mike-quivers closely, then both legs. ‘Hey’ he announces, ‘I can’t do my Elvis, but I CAN do a Gene Vincent with the bad leg!’ Bass-player Tom Stevens, in Brian Jones floppy fringe and red-patch lumberjack jacket, grins contagiously.

‘Both of you together’ instructs the guy at the sound-mixer. ‘E-chord’ suggests Sid. And they break into an impromptu rag-out around the instrumental break of Stephen’s “I Had A Dream”, guitar-lines cutting like a flame-thrower through butter, clean and pure as full-strength adrenalin. Then, joined by drummer Greg Sowders, the band work through into “Time Is Tight” which sounds oddly lobotomised without the Booker T organ, then John Fogerty’s rip-roaring “Almost Saturday Night”, guitars running like brittle quicksilver across the stage, sharp, exciting, exhilarating – add your own adjectives, the UK music-press have already had a field-day with theirs, clichés flying faster’n the angry buzz of Rickenbacker’s on heat. Paisley Underground, Byrds revivalists, psychedelicatessens, the revenge of the American guitar. And at the centre of it all, four wastrels from LA, the Long Ryders, an album called ‘Native Sons’ (Diablo, 1984), and a USA-only EP called “10:5:60” (PVC, 1983) that’s made the charts here on import-strength alone! The prestigious Bob Harris BBC2 TV-show ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ gave the video for their near-charting single “I Had A Dream” screen-time an unprecedented two weeks running – and, in justice, it IS just about the best guitar-trafficking Rock anthem since the Flamin’ Groovies ‘Shook Some Action’.

While behind them, oblivious to the sound-around audials, a Punky girl-roadie positions stage furniture, an Elvis poster – a late-seventies Hawaiian oddity rather than a more appropriate early rocker, and two amp-draping ads for ‘RED-MAN CHEWING TOBACCO – IN FOIL POUCHES’. Some defiant Amerikana in a foreign land.

Perhaps the Long Ryders have a sponsorship deal with ‘Red-Man’ tobacco?

Later, Griffin’s sat on stage, carefully gaffa-taping the back of his guitar for some musicianly esoteric reason. He’s tall – rangy I think’s the word, with l-o-n-g white denim pants, pointed-toe boots and a ‘Sin City’ jacket-top, shaggy shoulder-length hair, sideburns down to… here, and jet-lagged rings under his eyes.

So, what kind of reaction have you been getting on this tour, Sid? ‘In the United Kingdom it’s been amazing, in fact really – in Europe, it’s been amazing’ he comments laconically. ‘We’ve sold out Clubs, and I MEAN we’ve sold them out. In the States they have a Gentleman that walks around, called the Fire Marshal. And he inspects rooms to make sure there’s enough fire exits and that only a certain amount of people can go in so if a fire breaks out, or a bomb goes off, they aren’t all killed because there aren’t enough exits. We’ve played places in the UK that have been so crowded that if the Building Inspector or the Fire Marshal had been there there’d be no way the show would go on. He’d have stopped it right there. And – that’s good, in a way. I’m very proud we can pack it, and I MEAN pack it. I mean sardine-pack some joints! I’m very pleased with that. This is what we wanted. In Nottingham in particular, it got to frightening proportions. I mean, it was so crowded. I’d NEVER been claustrophobic in my life till that night. It was almost frightening. It was just like – I think, the joint holded five-hundred people and we had seven-fifty or eight-hundred in there. But that’s a lot better than ten people showing up!’

We do have Fire Marshals over here, I point out. He laughs, ‘hey, if they’d have seen it last night, and in Nottingham three nights ago – or was it two nights ago? They would not have allowed the show to continue.’ Further – not only do we have Fire Inspectors, but Leeds Council attempted to impose a legal decibel-limit on the volume Club-bands could play. ‘I didn’t know that’ he muses. ‘I don’t know how loud we are at all. I’ve never understood how loud we are at all. Usually on stage it’s not that loud. Tom Winston does our sound, he’s a Welshman, so the sound’s usually under control. I don’t really know about that, I certainly have no interest in being like Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin. A lot of kids in the States – young boys fourteen and fifteen, seem to think the louder the band is, the more macho or more ballsy they are. It means they’re LOUD, it doesn’t mean they’re BETTER. When you get that loud it’s like a Concorde plane taking off. There’s no real subtlety to it. It’s just one big fist coming at you.’

By now, the support band – New Age, are tuning in with the familiar ponderous “Sweet Jane” riff. They’re a depressingly regulation line-up of disparate black leather, porcupine hair and ear-studs. The punky girl-Roadie says they come from – she thinks, Middlesbrough. She likes them a lot, gives me a New Age button-badge, which I promptly lose. Their orthodox post-punk image of what constitutes a ‘new age’ contrasts pretty neatly with the Long Ryders. The Ryders are musicians rooted in longer Rock traditions. So I ask Griffin about HIS policy on cover-versions.

He grins. ‘We JAM – as most crummy American bands do, on a buncha songs during sound-checks, like you heard “Almost Saturday Night”. If we’re really bored and sick of our own material we might throw one into the set or use it as an encore, but that’s pretty rare y’know. I mean, we’ve got some damn good songs in the set, songs that I’m very very proud of that aren’t even on a record yet. And I want you all to hear them. Because I need to know if they’re any good. So if we play them and no-one at Nottingham, Durham, Leeds or Manchester applauds, we know they’re not any good, don’t we? So we don’t put them on the next record. We do three cover versions as part of the set, but apart from that, playing cover versions is NOT where it’s at for me…’

Later, the Long Ryders turn in a dazzling set that fully justifies Press expectations. They synthesise all the diverse energies of Rock’s various phases, its actions and reactions, progressions and regressions, licks and predilections, laundering them all clean and new. Tommy’s fringe even gets to look more Dee Dee Ramone than Brian Jones. As the gig develops, they do a clutch of covers – Flamin’ Groovies “I Can’t Hide”, Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War” and “Highway 61 Revisited”, offset by a whole range of new unrecorded songs – “State Of My Union”, “South Side Of The Story”, buttressed by high-octane stand-outs from ‘Native Sons’ that already sound like classics to these ears, Stephen and Tom’s “Wreck Of The 809”, Stephen’s “Still Get By”, and “I Had A Dream”. Their onstage kineticism ties in all the loose ends and resolves all the contradictions. They draw on the past, but deliver it up revitalised into what can only be 1985.

Four-dimensional music for both ears.

Interview: LONG RYDERS


An interview with the Long Ryders

It all gets confusing…

I mean, John Fogerty goes away for ten years, comes back with basically the same sound, and slots into 1985 as seamlessly as he did into 1975. You can read that reassuring continuity – talent will out, Old Fart’s revenge. Or you can read it that nothing significant’s happened through the intervening decade. All that spit ‘n’ vomit New Wave warring, Year Zero Manifestos, Fairlight state-of-the-art fantasias, digital/synth/Linndrum hi-tech progression’s come to… what? The Old Man Down The Road? Rock ‘n’ Roll Girls?

All this heavy introspection is prompted by the Long Ryders sound-check play-in of Fogerty’s rip-roaring “Almost Saturday Night” (from his 1975 ‘John Fogerty’ album), guitars running like glittering shrapnel across the stage, sharp, exciting, exhilarating – add your own adjectives, the UK music-press have already had a field-day with theirs, clichés flying faster’n the angry buzz of Rickenbacker’s on heat. Paisley Underground, Byrds revivalists, psychedelicatessens, new-Rockism. ‘AllMusic’ even calls them ‘cowpunk’. And at the centre of it all, four wastrels from LA, the Long Ryders, an album called ‘Native Sons’ (Diablo, 1984), and a near-charting single called “I Had A Dream” that’s just about the best guitar-trafficking Rock anthem since the Flamin’ Groovies ‘Shook Some Action’. It’s about time someone took a semi-detached look at the images, and reality behind them.

Sid Griffin’s sat on stage now, carefully gaffa-taping the back of his guitar for some musicianly esoteric reason. He’s tall – rangy I think’s the word, with l-o-n-g white denim pants, pointed-toe boots and a ‘Sin City’ jacket-top, shaggy shoulder-length hair, sideburns down to… here, and jet-lagged rings under his eyes.

The Long Ryders – ‘we’re young men, you gotta understand. We may LOOK old – ‘cos I haven’t been home in two months, you know what I mean? I got bags under my eyes and all that. But I’m the oldest guy, and I’m twenty-six. Just six months ago people thought we were an up-and-coming band. Now they think we’re ready to – I don’t know what, storm the Bastille or something. We’re getting a lot of contracts waved in our faces. Suppose we’re at the point in time where people, in twenty years time, will complain that we made the wrong decisions.’ He grins good-naturedly. Adopts a stoned-dumb accent protesting ‘HEY, I NEVER GOT ANY MONEY!’ Then pauses for a moment, readjusting back to straight-man role. ‘That’s where we are now. It’s frightening in a way, but I’m glad, it’s what we wanted. But I will say this – we’re only confused because things are happening quickly to us in a positive manner. We’re NOT confused because we’re STOOOPID! Just that suddenly, it’s HERE WE GO…!’

--- 0 --- 

Sid Griffin, from St Matthews, Kentucky, tries out on stage with tall dark Virginian Stephen McCarthy while their guitars are balanced out at the control-desk. The mike-stand wavers precariously between them, nodding and swaying in sympathetic vibrations as they move. Griffin notices the action, and tests it, shaking first one leg, noting the answering degree of mike-quiver closely, then both legs. ‘Hey’ he announces, ‘I can’t do my Elvis, but I CAN do a Gene Vincent with the bad leg!’

Bass-player Tom Stevens, in Brian Jones fringe and red-patch lumberjack jacket, grins contagiously. He claims some seventy-eighty parts Irish ancestry, talks excitedly of seeing Europe flash by ‘from the back of a van, Castles and things, looks REAL nice.’ Of a twenty-four-hour break in Paris spent catching up on sleep, and a projected detour to Berlin – ‘to see the wall, and just to… like, talk to the people,’ which fell through due to schedule restrictions. He expresses concern about ‘Irish Jokes’ in the UK. I counter his concern with ‘but aren’t there Polish jokes in the States?’ ‘Oh sure, but they’re just a bit of fun, they don’t mean anything against Polish people.’ Same with Irish jokes in England. The best Irish Jokes are told by Irish comedians. He looks relieved.

Simultaneously, ‘both of you together’ says the guy at the sound-mixer. ‘E-chord’ says Sid. And they break into an impromptu rag-out of “I Had A Dream” cutting like a laser through body-tissue, as clean and pure as morning sunshine over the desert…

While behind them, oblivious to the aurals, a Punky girl-Roadie positions stage furniture, an Elvis Presley poster – a late-seventies Hawaiian oddity rather than a more insurrectionary early Rocker, and two amp-draping ads for ‘RED-MAN CHEWING TOBACCO – IN FOIL POUCHES’. Perhaps the Long Ryders have a sponsorship deal with ‘Red-Man’, I suggest? Tom grins indulgently, ‘naw, it’s just the picture of the Indian Chief we like. I’ll tell you – what we really want is a regular Wooden Indian, you know? Like you used to get outside storefronts. This is just our Bargain Basement version of the Wooden Indian…’

--- 0 --- 

The Los Angeles-based Long Ryders were ‘formed by a guy named Barry Shank, that’s S-H-A-N-K, and me,’ as Sid Griffin tells the tale. ‘We left a band called the Unclaimed and we did this. We found Greg first (drummer Greg Sowders, ex-Box Boys), and then Stephen (McCarthy). Then – er, Barry left to get married and all this other stuff, and we got Tom Stevens on bass guitar.’ He neglects to list now-Dream Syndicate Steve Wynn’s brief Ryder-hood crammed in between Barry and Tom. And that the band-name is a corruption of the 1980 Walter Hill Western movie ‘The Long Riders’. ‘So we’ve been going about two-and-a-half – I guess nearer three years now.’ Griffin has a background in writing – ‘I went to journalism school, and even have a degree in it. A fat lot of good THAT does me! – sitting in a Night Club playing Rock ‘n’ Roll,’ and he even authored a definitive life of the late ‘Grievous Angel’ Gram Parsons (‘Gram Parsons: A Music Biography’, Sierra Books, 1985).

I offer to buy him a drink. He asks for Whisky Sour.

Picking up on that Gram Parsons angle, reinforced by former-Byrd Gene Clark guesting on the “Ivory Towers” cut on ‘Native Sons’, ignited by that magic Rickenbacker jingle-jangle, it all fuels the ‘revivalist’ tag he claims to resent. ‘You’ve got to understand that WE don’t consider ourselves reviving ANYTHING,’ he delivers with some considerable vehemence, ‘and I think when people see the show it’ll make a bit more sense. I mean, by god – we’re as influenced by that first Clash album and the Sex Pistols album as any records ever made. We don’t have spiky hair and all that, we just take their energy and their attitude, and put it on Country-Rockish music. A straight Country musician would probably be appalled – he’d say ‘ah, the songs are too fast, there’s too much energy, blah blah blah,’ and the Punk would think ‘ah well, they do all these Merle Haggard-George Jones licks.’ And they’re both right. That’s the secret of our formula, a sort of souped-up Country Rock. We don’t play any Gram Parsons songs because people would expect us to – and when you do what people expect, you’re DEAD. I love Gene Clark, but he’s no more an influence than John Lydon is, you know? I don’t really dig most of the revivalist acts. There’s been one or two in the States I like – the Chesterfield Kings in New York. Other than that it seems pointless. I mean – it’s 1985. We’ve got our own problems in 1985. I don’t need to sing about the problems of 1966.’

It’s getting less confusing already, with New Wave spit ‘n’ vomit neatly catalysed into the formula. But the nagging doubt about the John Fogerty equation remains. ‘It’s a good point you’re making’ muses Sid. ‘I really like that point.’ Then sets out to dismember the point in a well-argued blue-streak fast-accented sales spiel. He can talk that talk, and then some.

‘I can’t speak for the Irish, but in England they always go ‘you’re bringing the guitar back’. Well, we’re not bringing the guitar back from anywhere, ‘cos it didn’t GO anywhere in my country. We like keyboards and synthesisers ‘n’ all that. Technology SHOULD move forward. Music SHOULD move forward. I’m all for the twenty-first century, but on the other hand, that doesn’t mean the guitar’s obsolete. It’s like, if a new style of woman’s hair or dress comes in, that doesn’t make a 1961 photograph of Marilyn Monroe any less attractive to me. She’s still pretty. That photograph will be of a beautiful woman in the year 2010, I don’t care what women dress like in that year. I’ve listened to the guitar probably every day of my life, so I don’t consider we’re reviving anything, ‘cos where did it go? It didn’t go anywhere. In England and Ireland you just get to see REO Speedwagon, Journey, stuff like that, and they ARE horrible, I admit it. I admit they’re horrible – so no wonder you guys think the guitar’s obsolete and it’s terrible, those bands PLAY it terrible. But it’s like, what do you know of American food? Most people know McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Well, I’m from Kentucky, and the worst thing we’ve got is Kentucky Fried Chicken. So, I mean, you know what I’m saying? Of course people think the guitar went away – all they know is McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken! THAT’S what I’m saying.’

Two down. One to go. Hi-Tech, Sid? ‘There’s a lot of revivalist bands that you and I could name that would never use state-of-the-art stuff – ‘cos they wanna get the sound of yesteryear’ he argues carefully. ‘But we’re not like that. We recorded our album in A&M’s Los Angeles studios. State-of-the-art studios – where they did the charity single “We Are The World”, not a very good record, actually, but it’s got its heart in the right place! We recorded ‘Native Sons’ there last year during the Los Angeles Olympics (July-August 1984), we got it for cost ‘cos no-one wanted to be in the studios during the Olympics. It was recorded very quickly too’ he laughs. ‘‘Cos we didn’t have any money! So we’d rehearse a batch of songs like fiends, go in and record them, come back, rehearse some more, record them and get to hell out! And I think it’s a good record. I don’t think it’s the greatest record ever made, but it’s a damn good record. You SHOULD use state-of-the-art equipment. I don’t see any advantages in using BROKEN-DOWN equipment. I admit we didn’t use synthesisers. We put ‘em on one track – on the band-composition “Too Close To The Light” which is on the ‘Native Sons’ album, but to me it just sounded stooopid. It was a complete affectation. It was not our bag. It was bullshit. So we took them off. It was wrong, it was wrong…,’ a pause.

‘The Human League have put out a couple of good songs. I read some Phil Oakey interviews, he’s a talented guy, but he’s now using a guitar isn’t he? Four or five years ago he was keyboards-keyboards. Now he’s using Sly Stone riffs, lots of bass guitar, and some funky soul rhythms like chunka chunka chunka chunka. The guy’s eating his own words. There’s NOTHING wrong with guitar.’

--- 0 --- 

The Long Ryders on stage turn in a dazzling set that fully justifies the verbals. They synthesise – no pun, all the diverse energies of Rock’s various phases, its action and reactions, progressions and regressions, licks and predilections, launders them all clean and shiny-new. Suddenly it’s not confusing at all. They draw on the past, sure, but deliver it up revitalised into what can only be 1985.

‘Last night in Manchester’ confides Griffin before we close, ‘a guy took his pants off on the balcony and hung his moon – his fanny, over the balcony. And it was just a great moment. I admit, I admit it was childish, it was juvenile, it was infantile, but on the other hand – in terms of Rock ‘n’ Roll, it was a funny moment. That type of warmth is so hard to find. How could you put THAT on a Revox tape? You can have a guy do that live and it’s a scream. I don’t want people to think we’re some stoopid show that they have to stare at, and applaud politely at the end of each number. I LIKE people shouting, I LIKE people grabbing the mike, I LIKE people applauding and throwing their coats in the air, and all that. I think human expression is… well, there’s not enough of it for one! Society doesn’t WANT you to take your pants off!!!’

Nothing confusing about THAT…

As I’m walking towards the out-door afterwards, Sid Griffin yells across the dance-floor ‘thanks for the Whisky Sour.’ No problem. The Long Ryders deliver good value.

Thursday, 21 December 2017



 Was this David Baddiel and Rob Newman tour the moment 
 when Stand-Up Comedy became the New Rock ‘n’ Roll? 
This duo tour culminates in a sold-out Wembley Arena gig 
 in which they play to a 12,000 capacity audience. 
 The two part company immediately after… 

 Gig Review of: 
at ‘Sheffield City Hall’ (1993)

 You know that ‘Mary Whitehouse Experience’? You liked that, you did. That was your favourite TV programme, that was… 

‘Do you ever feel you want to shag an actress?’ yells a female voice from the audience.

‘Can I see your Equity Card?’ retaliates Rob Newman quicker than I can write it.

If Benny Elton is passé, and Benny Hill is passed on, then this is where nineties comedy is happening. The first ‘Hairy Whitemouse Experience’ goes out on BBC Radio One 10 March 1989 as a sound-only half-hour of Stanley Knife satire and amphetamine stand-up psychodramas. Four series later, it transfers to BBC2-TV – 3 October 1990, in time for a Gulf War censorship wrangle and slickly sick gags so well targeted that the Scuds don’t stand a chance. With Steve Punt and Hugh ‘Milky Milky’ Dennis (former Jasper Carrott/ Phil Cool scriptwriters), the second series ditches the radio ‘scars’ to better crack the televisual medium. But, while it’s still dangerously venom-tipped, with dark eruptions of the hard sharp and fast, it shoves scatterings of the scatological at the expense of the topical, and seems to have moved a few stalls downmarket.

So, Say Kids, what time is it?

It’s time for… it’s time for… David Baddiel and Rob Newman’s forty-date national tour.

And any doubts about quality-slippage get well-stomped. Anarchic and spontaneous, they also achieve some depth, some pain, and an oblique intelligence with the advantage of the richer, more fulsome vocabulary the idiot box denies them. The stage is largely bare, but – when it’s down to strict verbals, they’re well up to it. In separate sequences, Mrs Whitehouse’s bastard sons assemble distinct personal identities, united only by their black neuroses and exploitation of post-adolescent uncertainty. Rob Newman draws from – what he quotes Anthony Hopkins as calling, ‘debts of rage’, aiming his ‘irrational anger’ with sniper’s accuracy at anything and everything he despises, from the charity Fred-Aid to Heathcote Williams’ epic eco-poem ‘Whale Nation’, interrupting it only long enough to do a spot-on Cure send-up – Robert Smith with lipstick applied by Stevie Wonder whining ‘riding along on the crest of a wave’, followed by a burst of strobes to ‘flush out the epileptics’.

Meanwhile, David Baddiel develops his manic-depressive ‘anxiety’ which can be existential, sexual or racial – at school, he was beaten up twice, first for being a Jew, then for being a ‘Paki’. He slouches, like a dog’s beanbag, while unravelling uncomfortably articulate mockery well beyond TVs event horizon, sometimes so close to the taste fragmentation point that the laughter comes nervously premature. He begins with a serious point, ‘we recently had our first drive-by shooting…’ which gets a huge laugh before he’s even begun the related comic observations. Something even he protests! But he’s educational too. Did you know that ‘felching’ is ‘sucking your own semen from your lover’s anus’? No, I didn’t either, but he develops a routine around just that. A routine that’s not aimed at the faint of heart, and one that’s delivered with the fixed downbeat expression of a man who has to pay a forfeit by fucking Veronica Dribblethwaite.

Together, the Whitehouse boys extend their TV characters and situations – the two musty old debating Professors, Edward Colander-hands, and Newman’s ‘Ray’ who is cursed so his every utterance sounds like an ironic put-down. ‘Oh Boo-Hoo-Hoo, wasn’t it sad about Benny Hill… and Frankie Howerd.’ And, already, the first slight hint of each sketch provokes the kind of instant audience recognition factor that, previously, could only be claimed by the latter-day Pythons. While, in the foyer, a Rock Star-cum-Sex Object turn-over of ‘Barely Gobshite Experience’ videos, books and tour T-shirts feed the post-Smiths Indie generation that Rob and David seem to have inherited. 

As the two debating Professors might say, ‘this was your favourite gig, this was. You liked this one, you did…’