Sunday, 23 November 2014

ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: His Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror



The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy of 

 ‘It is imperative that now, at once, while these 
stupendous events are still clear in my mind, 
I should set them down with that 
exactness of detail which time may blur…’ 
                                   (“The Poison Belt”)

The original lure of Science Fiction was the fantastic journey, which grew out of the traveller’s tale. The voyage into uncharted here-there-be-dragons. Exotic lands. Bizarre fauna. Unknown civilisations. Homer could populate the Aegean with mythic phantasmagoria and retain the suggestion of credibility. Marco Polo and Hernán Cortéz could penetrate alienness as fully awesome as any fictional terra incognita. Gulliver could sail to fantasias when there were still islands to discover as unsuspected as the moons of Mars. But world globalisation meant the fantasy option had to be marginalised to greater and greater remoteness if it intended to carry some shred of plausibility, its realms shoved into, and secreted in crevices and niches of increasing inaccessibility – until aerial reconnaissance and geo-sats filled in even those gaps, and fantasists had to nudge their Dragon Isles out beyond the stratosphere, racing the reach of telescopes to other worlds, stars, galaxies. And further…

But therein lies the sub-genre ‘Lost World’. Between Lemuel Gulliver and Yuri Gagarin it was just conceivable that the world held secrets of fabulous mystery. H Rider Haggard found his lost worlds in Africa. Arthur Conan Doyle discovered his – what Arthur C Clarke calls ‘my candidate for the perfect specimen of its genre’, with an expedition to an inaccessible South American plateau. And his adventure stands, even though whatever vestige of what-if has gone with much of the Amazon basin rainforest.

‘The big blank spaces on the map are all filled in’ he has Mr McArdle – news editor of ‘The Daily Gazette’, say at one point, ‘there’s no room for romance anymore.’ He’s wrong. By dispatching reporter Edward D Malone to interview Professor Challenger, he initiates the process of its disproof. ‘The Lost World’ was originally serialised in ‘The Strand’ magazine from April-November 1912, with spot-art by Harry Rountree. Then collected into book form by Hodder & Stoughton. Conan Doyle was fifty-three, and Science Fiction as a genre did not exist. Yet this amazing book contains all the traits that most identify the attractions of big-screen SF.

Malone joins Challenger’s expedition in its hazardous ascent leading to them becoming stranded in the strange domain, they discover living dinosaurs, and are taken prisoner by primitive ape-like Doda tribesmen. Here lies all the ‘Ripping Yarns’ urgency of wide-eyed breathless heroics welded to a near-sublime sense of wonder and limitless possibility. ‘Apparently the age of romance was not dead’ Doyle writes, ‘and there was common ground upon which the wildest imaginings of the novelist could meet the actual scientific investigations of the searcher for truth.’ Later, with the help of the expedition’s fire-arms a human tribe living on the plateau’s far side – the Accala, defeat the Doda, and the team are shown a tunnel-system that returns them to the world below.

In the novel’s Professor George Edward Challenger, Doyle creates the most gigantically memorable character of his long writing career – even if the monumental ubiquity of Sherlock Holmes DOES dominate his literary and popular reputation in a way that eclipses all else. Remove Holmes from the equation and Doyle’s fame would still be secure. ‘The Lost World’ was an immediate bestseller that rapidly graduated onto celluloid – first into a 1925 silent film, and again in 1960 in colour by Irwin Allen. A 1992 remake with John Rhys-Davies as Challenger and David Warner as Summerlee adds photographer Jenny to the team and transposes the Lost World to Africa. Then yet another film – in 1998, transposes the Lost World to a Mongolian plateau! And all the while, the book remain in print and continues to sell, while Challenger himself survived into further exploits which regularly see reprint – ‘The Complete Professor Challenger Stories’ in 1976, ‘The Poison Belt’ (1982), ‘The Adventures Of Professor Challenger’ (1985), and in 1990 ‘When The World Screamed And Other Stories’.

They alone would ensure Doyle’s high profile. Then there’s his other ‘Scientific Romances’, Horror and Fantasy…

In “When The World Screamed” (‘Liberty’ magazine, 1928) Challenger sinks an eight-mile-deep shaft into Hengist Down to pierce the glutinous living core of the planet itself. Here, he’s described as a monstrous egoist, ‘a primitive caveman in a lounge suit… some people are born out of their proper century, but he is born out of his millennium.’ ‘The Lost World’ is more explicit. Professor Challenger, born 1863, educated at Edinburgh University, is ‘a stunted Hercules whose tremendous vitality had all run to depth, breadth and brain.’ He’s a genius, but one characterised by ‘insufferable rudeness and impossible behavior, a full-charged battery of force and vitality.’ Through this pugilistic and challenging persona, Doyle out-Hoyle’s gratuitously contentious astrophysicist Fred Hoyle. He even anticipates him by suggesting ‘had the germ of it (life) arrived from outside upon a meteor? It was hardly conceivable.’ Challenger is ‘a frontiersman from the extreme edge of the knowable,’ but it’s on the South American expedition with Malone, Lord John Roxton, and Professor Summerlee that the fiction REALLY ignites. The bickering professors are drawn larger than life into huge caricatures, which gives them their contagiously infectious life.

But while Challenger may be Doyle’s most complete creation it’s the power of the tale that gives him fascination. Doyle’s style is unobtrusive, there’s carefully described flora and geology sufficiently detailed to suspend disbelief in the most sceptical reader, there’s magical evocations of the lake and its inhabitants during Malone’s solo nocturnal venture into the centre of the strange isolated plateau, the swamp of the pterodactyls, the glade of the iguanodons, yet there’s no phrase wasted on unnecessary introspection or artful artifice. The narrative is related through Ed Malone’s bulletins, ‘what I am writing is destined to immortality as a classic of true adventure.’

He’s not wrong… from bulletin one, through to the final scene of a pterodactyl loosed from Queens Hall over the roofs of London, it never lets up. Conan Doyle used what he termed ‘the universal pass-key of imagination,’ and with it he unlocked realms of wonder.

--- 0 --- 
‘…a dreadful thing has happened to us. 
Who could have forseen it? I cannot forsee any 
end to our troubles. It may be that we are condemned
 to spend our whole lives in this strange, inaccessible place. 
I am still so confused that I can hardly think clearly 
of the facts of the present or of the chances of the future. 
To my astounded senses the one seems most
terrible and the other as black as night…’ 
                                   (‘The Lost World’

Echoing Ed Malone – Celtic temperament, Irish ancestry, Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, born 22 May 1859, was Scots by place of birth – Edinburgh, but Irish by parentage. He had a strong-willed Catholic mother, and an artistic father with a history of epilepsy complicated by alcoholism, who was eventually confined to a Yorkshire asylum. Five years after Doyle’s birth Jules Verne was finding his own prehistoric ‘Lost World’ in ‘A Journey To The Centre Of The Earth’ (1864), a book popular at a time when the young Doyle was enduring education at the bleak Jesuit Stonyhurst Academy, while finding after-hours escape in Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’ novels. It was followed by a more agreeable – but equally Jesuit spell at Feldkirch in Austria, where the young Doyle’s reading taste graduated to Edgar Allan Poe.

Resembling his creation, Professor Challenger, Conan Doyle served time at Edinburgh University, studying medicine. It’s speculated that ‘Sherlock Holmes’ was there too! Doyle met a Professor Joseph Bell at Edinburgh Infirmary, whose precise analytical methods supposedly provided the germ of the Great Detective’s technique. Doyle may also have found early models for the combative Challenger in a fusion of stentorian lecturer Professor Rutherford, and a fellow student George Turnavine Budd. The volatile and extravagantly eccentric Budd is also fictionally recreated in the epistolary novel ‘The Stark Munro Letters’ (1895), which semi-autobiographically relates details of their eventful shared medical practice in Plymouth. Budd was, to Doyle’s biographer Ivor Brown, ‘both physically and temperamentally freakish… a gift to the future novelist.’ He ‘did not live very long and a post-mortem revealed an abnormality of the brain’ which Brown infers was both source of his alarming genius, and of his outrageously unpredictable social behaviour. Both were traits to be transferred to Challenger.

As academic adventurer, Professor Challenger can be seen as the direct link between H Rider Haggard’s ‘Allen Quatermain’, and George Lucas-Steven Spielberg’s ‘Indiana Jones’, and hence becomes a timeless creation. Conversely, there remain many of Doyle’s sensibilities that are difficult for the modern reader to reconcile. After a brief medical apprenticeship in Birmingham, Doyle sailed as medical officer on an Arctic whaler, instinctively disliking the April seal-cull for the fur-trade he witnessed there. Whereas Lord John Roxton is presented as a wholly heroic figure largely on his prowess as hunter, ‘his eager hunter’s soul shining from his fierce eyes.’ On first sighting fresh iguanodon dinosaur prints in the mud of the Lost World, instead of fear or scientific curiosity ‘Lord John looked eagerly round him and slipped two cartridges into his elephant gun’!

By August 1885 Doyle had split acrimoniously with Budd – ripping his brass nameplate from the door with his bare hands. He sailed from Liverpool to Sierra Leone, then – while scrimping a medical practice in Portsmouth, he married, and began writing in earnest. This is the period of his first flirtations with ‘fantastic’ fictions. He had serious literary ambitions that manifested themselves in his novels. ‘Micah Clarke’ came first from Longmans in February 1889, after a number of rejections. An historical tale it sides with the West Country commoners in their insurrection against James II. It was followed by ‘The White Company’ (1891), a chivalrous mediaeval romance, written during his last unprofitable years as a general practitioner.

But all the while he was producing ‘less respectable’ material for a wide variety of periodicals to supplement his income. His first published short stories appeared anonymously, which means that such tales have subsequently been frequently misattributed, incorrectly pirated, suppressed or simply lost in ephemeral journals long extinct. But “The Mystery Of Sasassa Valley” graced the ‘mustard-coloured’ pages of the 6 September 1879 issue of the Edinburgh-based ‘Chambers Journal’, uncredited. It was his second fiction submission, but first acceptance. The story is set in South Africa – ‘this abominable country’, and has its fantasy appeal invested in a ‘haunted valley’ avoided by ‘Kaffirs’. His character sees ‘what the niggers talk about’, a ‘frightful fiend’ with ‘a strange lurid glare, flickering and oscillating.’ However – after a false start or so, a diversion or two, the Sasassa Demon is discovered to be merely a huge diamond reflecting light! Doyle was paid three-guineas for the tale, conditional on his use of the expletive ‘damn’ being deleted by the editor.

It’s more likely that his use of other words would offend the sensitivities of modern readers, although there’s no evidence to suggest that ‘nigger’ and ‘kaffir’ betray anything more than the vocabulary of his time. Doyle considered himself to be socially liberal, and even stood as Liberal-Unionist and Tariff Reform candidate in the 1900 and 1906 elections. Although the use of the word ‘nigger’ occurs in as late a story as “The Poison Belt” (1913) – ‘a sick nigger in Sumatra’, there’s no evidence of any genuine feelings of racism.

In ‘The Lost World’ itself, the expedition’s mighty porter Zambo is ‘a black Hercules, as willing as any horse,’ and even though the qualities we are expected to admire in him – extreme loyalty and tenacious obedience, are just as applicable to a large and friendly dog, the character is respectfully drawn. Doyle’s vehemence is reserved for Gomez, a ‘villainous’ and ‘notorious’ half-breed. While in life Doyle vindicates himself of all such accusations by vigorously campaigning against Belgian racial atrocity in the Congo, and by opposing the pervasive xenophobia of the time by later staking his time, wealth and reputation in the defence of two men he felt to be unjustly imprisoned – a German Jew, and George Edalji, a Parsee. He also displayed unwavering support for the personal integrity of Irish Nationalist Roger Casement, loyal even through a period of Gay-smear stories deliberately disseminated by British authorities.

Conan Doyle’s biographer Owen Dudley Edwards claims to find traces of Roger Casement in the personality of Lord John Roxton…

--- 0 --- 
‘…had Caesar remained faithful as a General 
of the Republic and refused to cross the Rubicon, 
would not the whole story of Imperial Rome 
have been different? Had Washington persuaded 
his fellow-countrymen to wait patiently 
until a Liberal majority in the British Parliament 
righted their wrongs – would not Britain 
and all her Dominions now be an annexe of 
the great central power of America? If Napoleon 
had made peace before entering upon the 
Russian campaign… and so on’ 
                     (“The Death Voyage”) 

But meanwhile, his fiction continued to be ‘scattered around amid the pages of ‘London Society’, ‘All The Year Round’, ‘Temple Bar’, ‘The Boy’s Own Paper’ and other journals’, as he confides to his autobiography ‘Memories And Adventures’ (1924). The extremely odd “An American’s Tale” in the 1879 Xmas ‘London Society’ is a Western in which are ‘heard the fearfulest screams in the stillness of the night,’ and a would-be ambusher is consumed by a giant Venus Fly-Trap with ‘leaves eight and ten feet long and thorns or teeth a foot or more… for all the world like some great sea squid with its beak.’ The victim of this proto-Triffid is ‘torn and crushed into pulp by the great jagged teeth of the man-eating plant.’

Conan Doyle also wrote about the occult (“Selecting A Ghost” in ‘London Society’), the perverse – involving the macabre destruction of a singer’s vocal chords (“The Retirement Of Signor Lambert” in ‘Pearson’s Magazine’, 1898), and the scientific curio (“The Voice Of Science” in ‘The Strand’, 1891). The latter involves the new technology of the phonograph as a comic romantic device, while taking side-swipes at the then-raging Darwin vs Creationist dispute. But there’s little here that would genuinely qualify as proto-science fiction. There IS a form of telepathic vampirism in an 1894 novelette ‘The Parasite’ – in which crippled psychic Miss Penclosa toys with sceptical young physiologist Austin Gilroy. In “The Los Amigos Fiasco” (1892) there’s an electric chair overdose, and a dust-to-gold and back again alchemy in “The Doings Of Raffles Haw” (1891). While Conan Doyle’s 1883 ‘Temple Bar’ short story “The Captain Of ‘The Pole Star’” draws on his Arctic experience as well as – perhaps, on Poe’s “The Narrative Of A Gordon Pym”, so successfully that it ‘struck a powerfully spectral note’ according to no less an authority than HP Lovecraft in his essay ‘Supernatural Horror In Literature’ (1927).

In “A Pastoral Horror” (‘People’, 21 December 1890) a series of murders in the Tyrolese Alps allows Doyle to employ fantastic phrases such as ‘ghastly pallor’, this ‘awful demon who haunts us’, and later ‘the vampire who haunts us… something almost supernatural in the malignity of this unknown fiend.’ But he defuses such horrific expectations when the villain turns out to be merely a homicidal mania possessing the eloquent priest Father Verhagen. With some irony, the priest is identified when he raises his hand to bless the congregation – thus revealing wrist-wounds inflicted by the near-victim of the previous night’s attack! While “Our Midnight Visitor” (‘Temple Bar’, February 1891) is Scottish Gothic set amid the vividly documented bleakness of Uffa, which just might be a conflation of real Scots islands Ulva and Staffa. The tale is awash with dialect conversation postulating ghostly visitation – ‘a wraith or bogle’, who turns out to be merely a French diamond thief. But the narrator strikes a genuinely macabre note as he describes Achille Wolff and his father drowning – ‘revolving in each other’s embrace until they were nothing but a dark loom.’ The fictional Uffa crops up later in the Sherlock Holmes exploit “The Five Orange Pips” (‘The Strand’, November 1891).

In his biography ‘Conan Doyle: A Biographical Solution’ (1977), Ronald Pearsall suggests that Doyle is an unconvincing writer of Horror stories because he doesn’t understand the psychology of fear. A large, physically active man, Doyle could understand adventure and heroism – he boxed, a pupil of Scottish champion Charlie Ball, and he was also an enthusiastic cricketer who once ‘bowled out’ the great WG Grace. He even played as goalkeeper for Portsmouth FA in 1887. He volunteered for active service during the Boer War despite already being in his forties, and ran a frontline hospital after being turned down. But he was a man who had little empathy with either passive introspection or fear.

Instead, he ‘learned’ the techniques of the genre from others, from EA Poe in particular. A later story – “The Leather Funnel” (1902), is a dream of a torture chamber vault that recaptures Poe’s morbid fascinations exactly. Another story, “The Ring Of Thoth” (1890), recalls Poe’s “Some Words With A Mummy” (April 1845). There are more overt cross-over’s. The creation of Sherlock Holmes himself was to some extent based on Poe’s sleuth C Auguste Dupin of “Murders In The Rue Morgue” (in ‘Graham’s Magazine’, April 1841). Doyle seems to admit as much in “The Fate Of The Evangeline” (from the Xmas 1885 ‘Boy’s Own Paper’), a bizarrely convoluted tale of maritime romance, a lover’s self-imposed exile on the Scottish island Ardvoe, and the lost and haunted ship of the title. In the story Conan Doyle uses the device of reproducing spoof newspaper reports – as he would later do in ‘The Lost World’, and goes so far as to quote his mentor – Poe, directly, to the effect that ‘those simple rules as to the analysis of evidence laid down by Auguste Dupin. ‘Eliminate the impossible’ he remarks in one of Poe’s immortal stories, ‘and what is left, however improbable, must be the truth’.’ Holmes himself discusses Dupin’s shortcomings in “A Study In Scarlet” (1887), while Doyle continued to champion Poe over his own creation as late as his American lecture tour of 1894, and in his book of literary criticism ‘Through The Magic Door’ (1907).

In the meantime, among the plethora of hackwork from Conan Doyle’s dog-days was one that would prove singularly significant. The copyright to “A Study In Scarlet” was sold to the 1887 ‘Beeton’s Christmas Annual’ for £25, when Doyle was just twenty-eight. It was the first of four long stories and fifty shorts to feature Sherlock Holmes. The character was soon enjoying serialisation in Greenhough Smith’s ‘The Strand’ with classic illustrations by Sidney Paget. And Holmes was to guarantee Doyle’s financial independence for the years to come.

--- 0 --- 
‘My copy of ‘The Lost World’ (John Murray, 1914) 
has as its frontpiece a photograph showing 
Challenger and the other members of the party to 
that great adventure. The Professor himself, with 
his huge beard and bushy eyebrows, looks very much 
like one of our distant ancestors… The model is 
Doyle himself, heavily disguised, and I 
suspect that the irascible scientist was 
much nearer to his heart than his more 
famous creation, Sherlock Holmes’ 
      (Arthur C Clarke in ‘Astounding Days’, 1990) 

Conan Doyle was dismissive of academic attempts to ‘prove’ Holmes was based on the real-life character of Dr Joseph Bell. According to a newsreel interview Doyle considered such a connection ‘a monstrous growth from a comparatively small seed.’ No doubt he’d show equal contempt for efforts to reduce Professor Challenger down to a similar combination of personal memories. Like Holmes, Challenger – with his ‘Assyrian luxuriance of beard’, is the hugely accomplished product of a rare and prolific imagination. And if he rapidly tires of Holmes – ‘that pale, clear-cut face and loose-limbed figure was taking up an undue share of my imagination’ (‘The Casebook Of Sherlock Holmes’, 1927), Challenger’s roots were a mature and developing enthusiasm.

More specifically, Doyle’s enthusiasm for archaeology came late in his life, after he’d moved to Crowborough on the Sussex Downs. By now he was wealthy and famous, an avuncular paunchy figure, faintly benign and moustachioed in the HG Wells style. He began collecting flints and axe-heads, acquired a large plaster-cast of a prehistoric footprint, and was drawn into the Piltdown Man controversy. ‘The Lost World’ was a direct result of this interest, the first draft of which he scribbled onto the cover of an archaeological journal. And although it was preceded by a series of impressions and tales ranging over the spectrum of antiquity – Greece, Byzantium, and Rome (collected into ‘The Last Galley’, 1911), ‘The Lost World’ was by far its most incandescent manifestation.

A chapter heading – ‘Tomorrow We Disappear Into The Unknown’, sets the tone as the ill-matched expedition follow clues found in a notebook left by American artist-explorer Maple White. What they discover as ‘Maple White Land’ – the Lost World, is meticulously detailed. As large as an English county, they are able to circumnavigate the entire plateau in just six days. It is ‘an oval contour, with a breadth of about thirty miles and a width of twenty.’ Its general shape is that of a ‘shallow funnel, all the sides sloping down to a considerable lake at the centre.’ The geology is described in a convincing fashion, and there’s even speculation concerning the natural balance of fauna – why the carnivores haven’t multiplied unchecked so wiping out their prey.

Subsequent Lost Worlds – and there were still plenty to come, would seldom seem as plausible. Hyatt Verrill’s 1926 ‘Bridge Of Light’ ran in ‘Amazing Stories’ magazine, and also located its Lost World in South America. In 1940 Abraham Merritt’s hero of ‘The Snake Mother’ (published in ‘Fantastic Novels’ magazine) discovers another lost civilisation in an isolated valley in the Peruvian mountains, while LP Sherman’s ‘The Throwback’ (in ‘Fantastic Novels’, 1949) takes place in a forbidden Sierra Madre valley inhabited by monsters from the ‘Secondary Era’.

Victor Rousseau’s ‘The Beetle Horde’ (in ‘Astounding Tales’ no.1, January 1930) posits a ‘Submundia’, a hidden world beneath the South Pole where the titular beetles rule a race of degenerated troglodyte humans. James Hilton’s ‘Lost Horizon’ (1933) and Dennis Wheatley’s ‘The Man Who Missed The War’ (1945) also qualify for inclusion, but the greatest uncoverer of Lost Worlds must surely be Edgar Rice Burroughs. His stories set in Pellucidar ‘at the Earth’s core’ rival his two ‘The Land That Time Forgot’ novels as probably the finest examples of his work, while in his Tarzan sagas his protagonists continue to stumble across forgotten African civilisations with predictable regularity long after such possibilities had become absurd. Even the original ‘King Kong’ (1933) movie has more than a passing similarity to Conan Doyle’s novel – and shares Willis O’Brian, its special effects designer from the 1925 ‘The Lost World’ movie. Yet the most deliberate attempt to recast the theme into an acceptably contemporary way must be Michael Crichton’s techno-thriller ‘Jurassic Park’ (1990) in which an island of dinosaurs are recreated from DNA. As if to make the debt even more obvious, it’s Steven Spielberg-directed movie sequel is even called ‘The Lost World: Jurassic Park’ (1997).

Even Conan Doyle himself would make one more foray into the Lost World sub-genre…

Ivor Brown calls this late phase of Conan Doyle’s career proof of his ‘man-boyishness’, a kind of wilful refusal to age gracefully. More likely, he saw himself denied the literary respectability he’d earlier craved and attempted to achieve through his historical novels. The vast and continuing cult popularity of Sherlock Holmes restricted his reputation to what he considered ‘the lower stratum of literary achievement’. So he decided instead to enjoy that celebrity through a series of playful fantasies. 

Easily the most impressive of these shorts is “The Horror Of The Heights” (1913), an almost Lovecraftian title which opens with the chilling line ‘there are jungles of the upper air, and there are worse things than tigers which inhabit them.’ The narrative purports to include the incomplete ‘manuscript known as the Joyce-Armstrong fragment’, detailing the experiences of an aeronaut who ascends to 41,000-feet to discover this weird aerial realm. ‘Conceive a jellyfish such as sails in our summer seas, bell-shaped and of enormous size – far larger, I should judge, than the dome of St Pauls. It was a light pink colour veined with a delicate green, but the whole huge fabric so tenuous that it was but a fairy outline against the dark blue sky. It pulsed with a delicate and regular rhythm. From it there depended two long, drooping, green tentacles which swayed slowly backwards and forwards. This gorgeous vision passed gently with noiseless dignity over my head, as light and fragile as a soap-bubble.’ Soon, the aeronaut is attacked by less attractive denizens of the sky – ‘threatening and loathsome’ with ‘goggling eyes… cold and merciless in their viscid hatred.’ The details of the ascent, the technical descriptions of the biplane’s operation and the problems encountered in its manoeuvre are authentically described, as the biology and appearance of his unearthly creatures are both stunningly imaginative and of an order of literacy only occasionally achieved by SF-to-come for many decades.

It, too, spawned its imitators. Arthur C Clarke comments on the similarities – too close to be coincidence, between it and SP Meek’s “Beyond The Heaviside Layer”, a short story in ‘Astounding’ dated July 1930. Not only did Conan Doyle do it first, declares Clarke, but his story was written ‘only ten years after the first heavier-than-air machine had staggered off the ground.’

A second story – “The Terror Of Blue John Gap” (‘The Strand’, September 1910) tells of a ‘monstrous inchoate creature’ living beneath the ‘hollow’ countryside of Derbyshire – a beast not dissimilar to Bram Stoker’s ‘White Worm’. Doyle conjures up ‘a creature as no nightmare had ever brought to my imagination.’ He even hints at a full subterranean realm of such beings from which the monster originated. These tales, and some further Challenger exploits, show Conan Doyle’s SF at its most sophisticated, competing directly with HG Wells.

“The Poison Belt” bears the distinction of republication in Britain’s first-ever SF periodical – ‘Scoops’ in 5 May 1934, a weekly billed as ‘Stories Of The Wonder-World Of Tomorrow’, although the story had originally seen print just one year after ‘The Lost World’. Brian Aldiss dismisses “The Poison Belt” as ‘a tepid performance, much under Wells influence’, or – to David Kyle, it was an ‘almost the-end-of-the-world story again reflecting Poe.’ The Earth drifts through a ‘poison belt’ of cosmic gas that at first appears to destroy all terrestrial animal life. Challenger, Malone, and the rest of the ‘Lost World’ crew escape its toxic influence by using air canisters, only to emerge into an aftermath of vast desolation. This is fictional territory to be revisited later by ‘School Of Cosy Disaster’ novelists such as John Wyndham and John Christopher. To Aldiss it’s ‘a picturesque deserted London that we shall meet again in ‘The Day Of The Triffids’ (1951).’ Although the dreadful power of the story is somewhat mitigated when people begin to revive from what is not death, but merely a comatose state. Then – following “When The World Screamed” (1928), there’s “The Disintegration Machine” (‘The Strand’, January 1929), a light comic squib concerning Theodore Nemor, a Latvian scientist, and his odd invention. After both Malone and Challenger are disintegrated and reassembled, they dupe Nemor himself into the device and – fearing its use as a weapon of war, fail to restore him…

It might be kinder to leave Arthur Conan Doyle there. For what follows is a slow decline. The horrific scale of World War I casualties – including the death of his own son, brother and two nephews, affected his vision. A younger Doyle – after seeing military action against the Boers in Bloemfontein, had eulogised ‘wonderful is the atmosphere of war’, lamenting a pacified future ‘when the millennium comes the world will gain much, but it will lose its greatest thrill.’ While his swaggering Napoleonic comic ‘swashbucklers’ featuring Brigadier Gerard, delight in bloodshed. Now there’s a change in tone – ‘look how everything has been turned to evil. We got the knowledge of airships. We bomb cities with them. We learn how to sail under the sea. We murder seamen with our new knowledge. We gain command over chemicals. We turn them into explosives or poison gas. It goes from worse to worse…’ (‘The Land Of Mist’, 1926).

Bookending the war, his short story “Danger” (‘The Strand’, 1914) had predicted submarine warfare in a fictional siege of England by ‘Norland’, just one month before European hostilities broke out. Until his “The Death Voyage” (‘The Strand’, 1929) is a speculative ‘alternative history’ postulating an imperial melodrama around the events during the war’s final hours. As the German war machine disintegrates the Kaiser is carried across Europe in the refrigerator car of a sealed train to lead his fleet into a ‘death voyage’ against overwhelming odds. Doyle’s attitude is respectful to this ‘great adventure of the supreme sacrifice,’ this ‘armageddon of the sea.’

But the key story of this late phase is the fantasy novel ‘The Land Of Mist’ (1926), a hideously inept propaganda text for Doyle’s new-found interest in Spiritualism, thinly disguised as fiction. ‘Post-war conditions and new world problems had left their mark’ says Edward Malone, and perhaps – charitably, the same can be said for Conan Doyle. He’d long since abandoned Catholicism in favour of a healthy agnosticism, but now dabbled in Buddhism and Theosophy, hypnotism and Oriental mysticism. He also delved into FWH Myers’ study of psychic research ‘Human Personality And Its Survival Of Bodily Death’ (1903) in an attempt to give meaning to, and find some explanation for the Great War’s carnage.

It was a thread of interest that could be traced back as far as a séance he’d sceptically sat in on in Southsea, accompanying the eccentric astronomer Alfred Wilkes Drayson. A 1900 short story – “Playing With Fire” (‘The Strand’) also deals playfully with psychic chicanery, one which conjures up a unicorn! But certainly after 1920 he devoted his time, cash, and still not-inconsiderable energies to promoting the pseudo-sciences. He wrote books on the suspect topic, including a well-researched two-volume ‘History Of Spiritualism’ (1926), and even ‘The Coming Of The Fairies’ (1921) in which he credulously affirms faked evidence for the existence of the ‘Cottingley Fairies’. 

‘The Land Of Mist’ uses the ‘Lost World’ personnel to give voice to Doyle’s own experiences of seeing and smelling ectoplasmic manifestations. An annotated index of sources follows the story, intended to strengthen its ‘authenticity’. Lord Roxton is seduced by the concept following a spirit visitation by the then-deceased Professor Summerlee, ‘having exhausted the sporting adventures of this terrestrial globe, he is now turning to those of the dim, dark and dubious regions of psychic research.’ Challenger is initially fiercely hostile, snorting ‘like an angry buffalo’ at the very mention of visiting a Spiritualist – ‘next week the lunatic asylum, I presume?’ Perhaps Conan Doyle should have taken heed of Challenger’s commendable contempt – ‘there seems to me to be absolutely no limit to the inanity and credulity of the human race.’ Instead, he contrives the Professor’s unlikely conversion, and then abandons him as a new apostle of the pseudoscience. 

It’s a sad and undignified end to the career of such a contagiously powerful creation. 

Certainly, whatever rationalist bias energised his earlier flights of imagination completely desert this later Conan Doyle. His last book, and final ‘Lost World’ is ‘The Maracot Deep’ (1929), published the year before his death. To Ivor Brown this is ‘a descent into nonsense as well as into the Atlantic.’ Maracot himself – a kind of fusion of Doyle’s two most successful characters, Challenger and Holmes, discovers Atlantis, battles the forces of evil on the ocean bed, and utilises psychic forces to destroy the monstrous ‘Lord Of The Dark Face’ who menaces the subaquatic civilisation in a totally unconvincing denouement. 

But at his best, during his finest years, Conan Doyle’s forays into Science Fiction stand up well to comparison with those of his contemporaries – including HG Wells. “The Horror Of The Height” in particular, while ‘The Lost World’ rightly remains a classic of the genre. It’s a fantasy as rich as ‘the wild dream of an opium smoker, a vision of delirium…’ 

‘Evolution’ writes Doyle through the mouthpiece of Challenger’s colleague Mr Waldron, ‘was not a spent force, but one still working, and even greater achievements were in store.’ In that phrase lies all the promised wonder and anticipation of the most visionary Science Fiction. 

Research texts used for this article include: 

‘CONAN DOYLE: A BIOGRAPHICAL SOLUTION’ by Ronald Pearsall (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1977) 

‘MEMORIES AND ADVENTURES’ by Arthur Conan Doyle (Oxford Press, 1989) 

‘CONAN DOYLE: A BIOGRAPHY’ by Ivor Brown (Hamish Hamilton, 1972) 

‘THE UNKNOWN CONAN DOYLE: UNCOLLECTED STORIES’ edited by John Michael Gibson and Richard Lancelyn Green (Secker and Warburg, 1982) 


‘THE QUEST FOR SHERLOCK HOLMES’ by Owen Dudley Edwards (Mainstream Publications, 1983) 

‘BILLION YEAR SPREE’ by Brian Aldiss (Corgi, 1973)

Friday, 21 November 2014

NEIL SEDAKA Live in Bradford in 1995


1950’s Teen Idol NEIL SEDAKA is back in the charts with his 
 heavily TV-advertised new album ‘Classically Sedaka’ (1995), 
 new settings of Classical Themes. And his promotional tour – 
 with full orchestra, opens at Bradford’s St George’s Hall. 
 before, during and after the event… 

‘I hang around the gold-painted pillars, watching the Dodgem Cars weave 
 and impact, their tall poles sparking as they thrip across the grid. 
 Watching the attendant ride the cars with easy loping leaps from 
 one to the other, the girls shrieking as he leans over them. 
 Talking at them. The words lost by the slightly out-of-phase 
 treble-drenched records, Neil Sedaka’s “Oh Carol”, Del Shannon’s 
 “Runaway”, Connie Francis’ “Stupid Cupid”. I love those singles, 
 but they come vividly alive in new more raucous ways, the 
 bass-lines thrumming up through buckboards with the 
 reverberation of the cars…’    (memories of ‘Hull Fair’)

Mid-point in the second half there’s a serio-comic interlude. Neil Sedaka, son of a New York Taxi Driver, plays “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” in the manner of various classical composers. It’s the kind of routine Victor Borge might once have done, instantly striking responsive sparks off his audience, while also betraying a knowing familiarity with technique and style. He does Beethoven. And if Ludwig Van had known his way around his ‘come-a come-a come dooby-doo down-downs’ he might just have written this way. Then Mozart. Yeah – Rock Me Amadeus. And Claude Debussy, with the liquid lines of the 1962 hit single still detectable there inside its smoky impressionistic swirls.

‘My father worked so hard to put me through Music School’ he confides. ‘I’m so grateful for that.’

Neil wears a burgundy suit with scrupulously shiny patent leather shoes. A quietly striped tie. And his hair, oddly peaked at the front, fringes away raggedly over his collar at the back. An almost impossibly dapper Bank Manager. Even as a 195’s Pop Star he was never actually the stuff of teen-dream pin-ups despite promo attempts at drastic monochrome profiles in ‘Mirabelle’ and ‘Roxy’ – the ‘Smash Hits’ of their day. The album sleeve of his ‘The Tra-La Days Are Over’ (1973) cleverly juxtaposes the two, with his mature self leaning against a huge blow-up of an old publicity mug-shot of himself. And tonight we get both.

He does a ludicrously dumpy little shuffling dance, then jokes about his lack of stature as he screws his piano stool furiously higher. ‘I’m getting shorter and shorter. The people in the front row can’t even see me,’ But when he opens with ‘come and get your memories, you’re not too far from yesterday’ (“Tin Pan Alley”) none of that matters. “Oh Carol”, “I Go Ape”, “Calendar Girl” or “Little Devil” magic up enough memories and yesterdays for this audience without any other visible means of support.

Yet his current album, and the motivation for this high-profile tour – is ‘Classically Sedaka’, a set of songs built around the kind of tunes you hum along with to ‘Classic FM’, two Tchaikovsky’s, Chopin, Verdi, two Beethoven’s, and more of the like. To this end he’s accompanied by enough strings to rot your teeth in a full orchestra conducted by the reassuringly solid figure of Dick Palombi. The live stand-out is “Turning Back The Hands Of Time”, a tribute to his father written around Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma”. And it all ties in. The ‘Music School’ his father drove Brooklyn Cabs to put him through – with the bonus of a recommendation from Arthur Rubenstein, was New York’s prestigious Julliard School of Music. And ‘when I thought of doing a new album I asked myself ‘what can I do that takes me back to my Classical Music roots?’’ he explains in the CD insert. ‘My passion has always been Classical Music’ he adds now. ‘Many people are intimidated by it. Particularly by Opera when it’s sung in a language that they don’t understand.’

The answer – for Neil, was to wrap Pop lyrics around Classical themes. ‘This was a difficult task’ he insists. ‘These pieces were my favourites as a music student. So it was a difficult task. I had a great responsibility, having to marry those marvellous pieces with lyrics that would match the artistic level of the melodies…’

Neil Sedaka’s is an odd story. He is primarily a songwriter. His first hit came with a song called “Stupid Cupid” recorded by Connie Francis. He’d met his collaborator Howie Greenfield on 11 October 1952, a date he considers sufficiently significant to mention tonight. In fact it marks this concert as practically his forty-third anniversary as a songwriter! And between 1958 and 1963 – he tells us smugly, he sold forty-million records. ‘I was lucky to be in at the very beginning of Rock ‘n’ Roll. With Roy Orbison. Buddy Holly. And the great Elvis.’ He briefly illustrates the point by pounding the keyboard with one scrupulously shiny patent leather shoe. But unlike other writers-turned-stars who neglected the former for the glittering lure of the latter, to their eventual detriment – like Gene Pitney, who began by writing “He’s A Rebel” for the Crystals, or Leo Sayer writing “Giving It All Away” for Roger Daltrey, Sedaka never lost his ability to craft perfect Pop. “Calendar Girl” hit no.8 in February 1961, a catchy piece of ephemeral chart fluff with its soaring falsetto carrying the simplest of lyrical ideas – the months of the year, each one tagged to a fairly obvious pay-off line. January ‘you start the year off fine.’ February ‘you’re my little Valentine.’ Yet its irresistibly contagious progression transforms it into a formula that even Stevie Wonder considered worthy of resurrecting twenty-five years later for “I Just Called To Say I Love You”.

And when Sedaka’s first run of hits stopped abruptly with the arrival of Beatlemania, he was able to resume writing hits for other artists such as Andy Williams, Tom Jones, the Fifth Dimension, Tony Christie, ‘the great Elvis’, and… Mae West! Faded Teen Idols seldom get a second chance. For which we should perhaps be grateful. But Neil Sedaka was different. ‘Songs are like my children in many ways’ he claims. ‘They live and breathe. And some of them are neglected children. Ideas come from Movies. Plays. Books you read. People you meet. It’s a very great fortunate gift.’ And he was able to use his ‘neglected’ ‘ten years out of work’ to mature his gift and write himself through the bad times in personal terms he’d never before attempted.

 Superficially a love song of gentle regret “Our Last Song Together” actually marks an affectionate but decisive break with long-time writing partner Howie Greenfield, ‘nostalgia just gets in the way… it’s time to turn the page.’ “I’m A Song, Sing Me”, on first hearing a celebration of the power of music, is also a deeply anguished cry of loss and confusion, ‘let me fill the air, the way I used to do… tell me, what did I do wrong?’ Until “Standing On The Inside” documents his triumphant return to chartdom – ‘every waking moment I just wanna sing the news… I’ve kicked away them Blues.’ More, and bigger hits were to follow. “Laughter In The Rain”, with a sax solo from Earl Seymour that’s just about the bee’s knees, gets one of the biggest receptions of the concert’s first half.

But now he’s ‘reinventing the Neil Sedaka career’ yet again. Maturing, as his audience matures, yet carrying a unifying continuity with him to validate and give it all meaning.

‘Classically Sedaka’ takes its starting point from an earlier pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll example of the Pop-over into Classics project, when lyricist Joseph McCarthy put words to Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu”, and thus created the Great American Songbook standard “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”. Sedaka’s neat precise piano interprets its wistful mood carefully. Then Neil’s words to Verdi’s exuberant “Sempre Libera” makes it “Santiago”, a bustling upbeat number, even if the thematic connection between Italian Opera and this fluent South American travelogue escapes me. On the album he also does Debussy’s “Clair De Lune” as a straight but beautifully reflective instrumental, before moving on to Beethoven’s delicate “Für Elise” which becomes “Honey Of My Life” done with only touching piano accompaniment.

Sometimes he has the look of a wealthy Bistro owner greeting valued diners. And nostalgia remains an important element in his show. He packs those superior Juke-Box Oldies in early. They provide the momentum that carries the audience through his newer adventures. But he works with unrelenting energy, and never undersells. That’s an essential part of his continuing appeal. Of course, it’s easy to snipe. The quasi-Classical hybrid has been done before, and seldom with credible results. ELP inflicted their preposterous electro-pomp on Mussorgsky. Argentine composer Waldo de los Rios charted with a speeded-up dance-beat “Mozart 40” (no.5 in April 1971). While, once he’d discovered the sales power of Classics with “O Solo Mio” (“It’s Now Or Never”) ‘the great Elvis’ followed it with a series of Operatic re-treads of diminishing artistic and commercial returns.

But seldom has it been done with such a knowing familiarity of style and technique as it is tonight.

‘I do hope Chopin, Beethoven, and the rest would be pleased with my work’ Neil Sedaka adds.

They might. They just might.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Poem: 'Bourbon Street Blues'


‘Out of luck, stuck in a rut,
I’m in need, of someone’s good deed’
sat sidewalk-hunched, eyes downcast
beneath Bourbon street-sign
with her poem on carton-cardboard,
the craziness cascading by her

I feel a momentary pang

but steal her poem anyway…

Featured on web-page:

Thursday, 30 October 2014

ELVIS PRESLEY: 'Sailing To Graceland'



There’s a squirrel on the Graceland lawn. The squirrel doesn’t know it’s on the Graceland lawn. The squirrel knows nothing about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, his amazing life and stupid death. The squirrel just enjoys the shade the trees cast across the lawn. Graceland is a pleasant place to live. It’s easy to see why Elvis valued this place. Why he returned here from the madness of the world whenever he got the chance.

On the way here we talk about Justin Bieber and Britney Spears. They went into overnight fame and wealth, and couldn’t deal with it. They lost the plot. Elvis Presley came from dirt-poor country-boy to become more globally famous and vastly wealthy than just about anyone else. He bought ‘Graceland’ in early 1957 and it’s reassuring evidence that, despite career blips and the kind of excess we’re all familiar with, he never quite blew it. There’s no massive 1950’s tasteless splurges of bling or monumental ostentation. Even what later became known as the Jungle Room – where ‘there’s a pretty little thing, waiting for the King’, is more cool and elegant. Graceland is the kind of place you’d move into, if you had the budget.

When he bought the place, it was pretty-much an empty shell. It was decorated and redesigned according to his dictates. Later, no doubt, Priscilla had a say in its décor too. Yet it reflects his taste. Although originally in a wooded area outside the city, the Memphis sprawl has extended to surround it, with the renamed ‘Elvis Presley Boulevard’ lined with souvenir shops and malls. Shuttle coaches take visitors ‘poor boys and pilgrims’ from one side of the boulevard, where the booking, frisking and queuing takes place, across to and up the drive to Graceland itself. It feels hot and irritable standing in line. There’s no opportunity to grab a photo at the famous music-notes gates. Instead they will snap you in front of mock-up gates, and sell you the photo in a presentation folder as you leave. They are not cheap. Nothing here is cheap. But as you queue for the next shuttle in the sullen Tennessee heat with the endless Elvis soundtrack playing from speakers around you, they issue you with iPads that will talk you through each room, with click-on video-clips, audio-grabs and fact-sidebars. iPads don’t come cheap either.

Never quite understood the line in the Marc Cohn song about ‘do I really feel the way I feel’, now I’m here, now I’m “Walking In Memphis” myself, I know exactly what he means.

Pop isn’t rational. There’s no verifiable reason for liking or not liking. Perhaps it’s just that, like sex, the first cut is the deepest? Some great writer-producer teams have attempted to reduce the formula down to an equation. Some have created Hit Machines as a result. But there’s always going to be that inexplicable quality about music which is more mystical than it is logical. There are immensely talented artists you can respect, and yet not love. Neil Young is a creative giant. The intensity of some of his songs – “A Man Needs A Maid”, can near reduce me to tears. Yet listen to a full Neil Young album, and the high whine starts to grate before the wind-down groove.

When it comes to creative intelligence Elvis Presley was never in the same league. But he has the voice. Even working with the most appallingly inept material, he could midas it into gold. At his very worst – and I’m thinking the 1964 ‘Kissin’ Cousins’ LP, the soundtrack album of the embarrassingly inept movie, side one track six, “Tender Feeling” is a barrel-scraping exercise in songwriting, tacking on hasty new lyrics to the old “Shenandoah” tune, yet the vocal interpretation salvages it with some dignity, so it’s a delight to listen. Was Elvis smart? He was what we’d now call trailer-trash sharp, dirt-po’white, he couldn’t articulate what he did, or why it proved so seismic. His was animal-intuition. He worked the song, until it felt ‘right’. There’s a TV-clip of Richard Madeley interviewing Shakin’ Stevens. When he’s asked a question he clearly doesn’t understand, Shakin’ playfully pounces on Madeley and gets him in a headlock. I suspect that in this sense, Shakin’ is a fairly accurate Elvis impersonator. When Elvis does a press-conference, and is asked if beneath the fame and celebrity he’s still the same ole country boy, he simply stands up and indicates his massive blingy jewelled belt, which says it all.

The first vinyl 45rpm record I ever owned was Elvis’ “The Girl Of My Best Friend”, on the black RCA label, with its silver lettering. I’d just turned thirteen, and I was entranced. Even when I hear that song now – shuffled unexpectedly on my iPod between the Ramones and Prodigy, I still love it, from the Jordanaires opening ‘aah-aah aah-aah-aah’ into the honeyed-smooth first line. As a track (side one, track three) on his first post-Army LP ‘Elvis Is Back’ (April 1960) – what many consider to be his greatest album, it wasn’t even intended to be a single. In the USA it wasn’t. The American follow-up to his lubriciously suggestive hit “Stuck On You” was “It’s Now Or Never” c/w “A Mess Of Blues”, but when copyright complications due to its “O Solo Mio” origins held up the song’s UK release, there was a commercial vacuum that needed filling. Hence “A Mess Of Blues” was promoted from ‘B’-side status while “The Girl Of My Best Friend” was lifted from the album to accompany it. Marketed as a double-‘A’ (RCA 1194) it hit no.2 in September 1960 (beneath the Shadows “Apache”) – appropriately close to my birthday. I’d heard it on the BBC Light Programme, the ‘bumper-bundle’ most-requested record of the week on Brian Matthew’s ‘Saturday Club’.

So I bought it. I still have it, although I also have subsequent CD and mp3 versions too. It was what critics of the time termed a rocka-ballad, written by Sam Bobrick and Beverly Ross, first recorded in 1959 for Warner Bros by Charlie Blackwell. But listen to Blackwell’s original vinyl, and it’s an awkward charmless thing. Then check out the various Elvis outtakes on YouTube as he fumbles through different takes, moulding the contours of the simple song into an irresistible Pop gem. How did he work the alchemy? By intuition? Until it sounds somehow right? A thing of instinct?

Elvis sound-alike Ral Donner took the song into the US charts, to no.19 as an ‘Elvis Is Back’ cover. Johnny Burnette, and much later Bryan Ferry also reworked it. But at a concise 2:27-minutes, Elvis’ assured vocal control takes it up several notches. It consists of fairly routine love-triangle subject-matter, recycling ‘the way she walks’, with ‘the way she talks’ – a rhyme used so frequently in Pop it’s almost a joke. Elvis gives its triteness an achingly empathic sincerity. He’s caught up in a romantic dilemma, ‘I want to tell her how I love her so’, but he’s wary that ‘what if she got real mad and told him so?’, then he ‘could never face either one again.’ So he watches ‘the way they kiss’ and ‘their happiness’, with a jealously-pained secret that can never speak its name. Will his aching heart ever end? Even its title is a little grammatically clunky, cut-up and reshuffled more efficiently by Cars into “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend”. Whoever said Pop was rational?

Many years later, reissued as an ‘A’-side in its own right, in a chart full of Abba, Demis Roussos and Tina Charles, it reached no.9 in October 1976. Odd to think it might also have been the first vinyl 45rpm purchase for fans of that generation too.

RCA Victor Studio B in Nashville is where Elvis recorded it. Although signed to other labels Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers also booked studio time here. While Gentleman Jim Reeves did most of his recordings here. Floyd Cramer’s original piano is there, in the corner of the studio. The one he played on Presley sessions for “Mess Of Blues” and ‘Elvis Is Back’. Elvis installed his own mood-lighting. It’s still in place. He would use red lighting for up-tempo sessions. Blue lighting for slow ballads. But neither worked when he was trying out for the first takes of “Are You Lonesome Tonight”. Until he decides to fade the lighting way down, and record the song in intimate darkness. Here, now, they fade the lights down to darkness, and fade the track in, Elvis’ voice resonates spookily, here, where he stood to record it. It’s impossible not feel a chill of frisson. This is a moment of extreme dislocating weirdness. I’m not afraid to admit it had me choking up.

We pass Chet Atkins Place on the way here, but when I want to re-find it for a photo I lose my way. There’s Roy Acuff Place too in a tight ‘Music City’ block off the long Broadway which eventually counts down to the music bars and country stores sloping towards the Cumberland Riverfront. Studio B was constructed as a result of Chet’s urging, in 1957, partly to facilitate the demands of Elvis’ burgeoning career. It wasn’t called Studio B then, not until a larger studio complex was built on 17th Street, which became Studio A. It’s Studio B that remains legendary.

It started with Elvis. It must end with Elvis.

He drove golf-carts across these Graceland lawns where squirrels now enjoy the shade of the trees. He rode horses around the paddocks outside the back. And stroll around the side, by the surprisingly modest swimming pool, there’s the meditation garden where Elvis would come when he wanted peace and quiet. So pause, deliberately, take it all in, condense this moment down for future reference. The formation of Presley graves are here. Four of them. Parents Vernon and Gladys. Elvis himself. And grandmother Minnie Mae Presley, who outlived them all, and died in May 1980. There’s also a plaque for Elvis’ stillborn twin, Jessie Garon.

Standing here now, about as close to Elvis Presley as I’m ever likely to get, is an undeniably disquieting experience. I didn’t expect to feel this way. I couldn’t quite anticipate how I’d feel. But yes, he reaches out and touches me…

The ‘Girl Of My Best Friend’ section published in:
‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL’ (Vol.2 Issue 41 – September 2013)

Live In Nashville: VINCE GILL at the 'Grand Ole Opry'

Gig Review of: 
at ‘The Grand Ole Opry’, Nashville 

It’s Vince Gill they aspire to. Those scuffing on the street-corners of Nashville’s Broadway, setting up their equipment and hefting their battered guitars, busking their new songs at folks checking out the bars and the boot stores. It’s Vince Gill in his big Stetson and his confident stage presence here at the Opry that they want to be. Since he first surfaced with Pure Prairie League in the 1970’s he’s done everything that Alt. Americana is supposed to do, done the collaborations, the albums, the divorce. He’s a big solid guy who reaches out and fills the venue with his easy personality, the regular strengths that also contain the vulnerable sensitivities that the genre wallows in. He opens with “Take Your Memory With You When You Go”, the hit from his 1991 ‘Pocket Of Gold’ album. With its sighing steel guitars and an irresistibly sing-along chorus tinged with regret, it’s made up of just about every classic ingredient a country song should have. Then, slowing it down with “Look At Us” – from the same album, she’s still pretty as a picture, he’s still crazy over her, it gets an immediate roar of recognition. He talks about anniversaries and ‘the miracle of long-term love.’ Who could resist? Here is all the narrative, the reassuring certainty, the confirmation of traditional values the audience craves. In times of uncertainty and shifting definitions, in a hundred years from now, he asserts without a doubt, heterosexual monogamy will still stand. He dedicates the song to Charlie Daniels. Tommy White, a legend in his own right, plays steel guitar. Tommy was one of the Band Of Brothers who played on Vince’s “Whenever You Come Around” when Willie Nelson recorded it. Then Vince talks about George Hamilton IV, who recently passed. The ‘Grand Ole Opry’ respects its precedents, its traditions, its heroes. He closes with “Go To Him”. While on the street-corners of Nashville’s Broadway, they all aspire to be Vince Gill.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Elvis Presley "That's All Right" at 'Sun Studios'



My feet hit the sidewalk. Outside 706 Union Avenue, Memphis.

It was here – ‘Memphis Recording Service’, on the evening of Monday, 5 July 1954 that time began. This was the primal big-bang moment when everything came together, and the second half of the twentieth century was ignited. Before this, there was nothing. This was a day without a yesterday. There was no such thing as a Golden Oldie, a Revive Forty-Five or a Blast From The Past. So gather round all ye Trendies, Groovers, Popstrels, Homies, With-It Birds and Turned-On Guys, ye Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger-Poppin Daddy-O’s, or whatever this week’s buzz-word is for the young and stylish. Because this tale’s been told and retold so many multiple times detracts nothing. Greasy young Elvis, just nineteen, fooling around with an Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup song he’d memorised from black radio station WDIA – “That’s All Right”, Bill Black catching it and adding slap-slap thump-thump upright bass, then Scotty Moore strumming in on guitar. No drums. No overdubs. No edits. Elvis is more raw, tighter, less smooth than the original. He omits a verse, elides other lines together. Alters the dynamics, steps up the tempo. Of the song, and of the temporal continuum itself…

There’s a couple of rejected takes with false starts that emerge years later. A live version done on the ‘Louisiana Hayride’. ‘Momma she dun tole me, Poppa dun tole me too, son that gal you’re foolin’ with she ain’t no good for you.’ It’s still spine-tingling. It’s still alien. Like nothing else, before or since. Caught live in one-take on one-track machine it became Sun 209, a record that changed history. It didn’t invent Rock ‘n’ Roll. Academic debate goes on about that. Most nods go to Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” under the guise of Jackie Brenston. Also cut here. But Elvis brought all the elements together into the most perfect fusion, and he took it global. Everything that followed, led on from this singular 1:58-minute primordial atom moment. This is the moment that time began…

Freeze that day. Slip it under the chronoscope for close analysis. It was a strangely different planet, barely recognisable from the one we inhabit today. But some of us were part of it. Some of us were there. I was six years old, in short trousers, living with my mother and half-brother in Dunswell in the East Riding of Yorkshire, off the main road between Beverley and Hull. More concerned about starting the village school, having transferred from North Hull Infants, fleeing domestic violence from a Seventh Avenue council house. Naturally, at the time, I knew nothing about Sun Studios. No-one did.

The ‘New Musical Express’ record chart for that week (3 July 1954) was made up of big clunky easily-breakable 78rpm singles. The Hit Parade best-sellers were headed by the quasi-operatic warbling of Hull-born David Whitfield’s “Cara Mia”, recorded with Mantovani’s cascading strings. It made him the first UK male vocalist to qualify for Gold Disc status. Doris Day was no.2 with “Secret Love” – from her comic-Western musical ‘Calamity Jane’, followed by Johnny Ray’s “Such A Night”, which Elvis himself would later revive for his 1960 ‘Elvis Is Back’ LP. Crooner Perry Como had two titles in the ten – “Idle Gossip” at no.4 and “Wanted” at no.7. While Kitty Kallen’s “Little Things Mean A Lot” was not only the highest entry at no.5, but simultaneously topped the American record sales, radio plays and jukebox charts across the Atlantic. Mellow, sentimental, unthreatening, radio stars were also prominently featured, with both Max Bygraves and the Billy Cotton Band present. It was a staid somnambulistic chart.

For it was a soporific time. Barely nine years after the cessation of global war, with the visible reminder there in every city bombsite. Those who’d lived through the war-years – our parents, had had enough of excitement, uncertainty, anger. It was as though the world was tired, emotionally drained, retreating into itself to lick its wounds. Rationing finally ended only this month. Following the revolutionary post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee, a seriously ailing Winston Churchill was returned as Prime Minister. This month his government published plans for civil defence in the event of H-bomb attack, as they simultaneously announce British troops are to be pulled out of their Suez Canal base. Germany won the World Cup in a final against Hungary. And Jaroslav Drobny, a thirty-two year-old Czech with Egyptian nationality, won the singles title at Wimbledon against Australia’s Ken Rosewall.

The day’s BBC radio Light Programme broadcasts began with Bob Danvers Walker introducing ‘Housewives Choice’, followed – after the religious ‘Five To Ten’ hymn and prayer slot, by Andrew Fenner at the BBC theatre organ, then ‘Music While You Work’ with the Hugh James Orchestra. In the evening there was twenty-minutes of ‘British Jazz’ by the Tony Kinsey Trio, which was about as hip as it got. The fourth series of ‘The Goon Show’ had ended a month earlier – 11 June, with a ‘Special’ “Archie In Goonland” in which the regular crew were joined by radio ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy ‘Archie Andrews’, plus Hattie Jacques, all scripted by Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan. The second series of ‘Meet The Huggetts’ – a cosy radio sit-com with Jack Warner, Kathleen Harrison and Kenneth Connor, had begun in May, overshadowed by the real-life suicide of daughter Joan Dowling, replaced on air by Vera Day.

There was one monochrome TV channel, the day’s programming dominated by the second Test Match from Trent Bridge with England v Pakistan. At 5pm Children’s Television featured ‘Little Ig’ the adventures of a prehistoric boy, followed by the evening’s highlight – ‘The Royal’, a visit to the Great Park at Windsor for a preview of the ‘world’s greatest agricultural show’. This day Richard Baker also fronted Britain’s first TV ‘illustrated summary of the news’ – at 7:30pm, a bulletin broadcast live from the faded Victorian Alexandra Palace on the heights of Muswell Hill. There are tales of housewives refusing to sit down and watch him before primping their hair and make-up first.

Other forms of fantasy escapism could be found crammed onto the overflowing newsagent’s counter. ‘Dan Dare: Prisoners Of Space’ was splashed in vivid colour across the front of ‘Eagle’ – with Steve Valiant, Flamer Spry and Groupie investigating the radio silence of Space Station XQY. This week’s cover sensationally reveals that Flamer – seen on Dare’s screen, is imprisoned by ‘Red Gauntlets Over Green Hands! They Can Mean Only One Thing!’ Yes – ‘The Mekon’s Shock Troops! But How…?’ Read on to discover that the Space Station has fallen foul of the Mekon and his loyal Treen followers. The issue – priced at just fourpence-halfpenny, also includes a photo-spread of Racing Driver Stirling Moss, who had just driven to victory in the first motor race to be held at the new Liverpool Aintree track. While rival space-hero ‘Captain Condor & The Spaceship Spy’ – striking back at the Dictator tyrant of Earth in the year 3000AD, was on the front of ‘Lion’. I was still too young for both. ‘Mickey The Monkey’ was ‘The Topper’ cover-star, ‘Biffo The Bear’ on ‘The Beano’, and ‘Korky The Cat’ over at ‘The Dandy’.

For more adult futures, the dramatic and eye-catching Gerard Quinn cover of ‘New Worlds’ (no.25, July 1954), features a space-suited figure scrabbling among moon rocks with the full splendour of ringed Saturn above. Back then, even the solar system was different. Check out the astronomy books in the local library and it tells you Saturn has just nine moons. They are faint vastly distant objects about which little is known. Following by-pass and orbital probes we now count sixty-two moons, and have dazzling psychedelic photo-mosaics of their exotic surfaces. The magazine issue features fiction by Robert Sheckley, plus British writers ER James, Francis G Rayer and a James White novelette “Starvation Orbit”. From the same Nova Publications stable ‘Science Fantasy’ (no.9, July 1954) features Brian W Aldiss (“Criminal Record”) and EC Tubb (“Occupational Hazard”) plus tales by A Bertram Chandler and JT McIntosh. Elsewhere ‘Authentic Science Fiction Monthly’ (no.47, July 1954) features fiction by Kenneth Bulmer – under the alias ‘Peter Green’, while the Book column reviews Arthur C Clarke’s ‘Childhood’s End’, Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and Robert Heinlein’s ‘The Green Hills Of Earth’. Surely a classic batch of new titles? But Science Fiction wouldn’t hit me for a number of years yet.

Elvis also hit me a few years later, although I quickly rewound backwards to his Sun Records catalogue, collected onto his March 1959 RCA LP ‘Elvis’ (RD 27120). For me, this now became the moment the universe sprang spontaneously into being. Nothing before it was of any consequence. Despite its incoherence, it made sense of my confusions, and articulated my dumb insolence. If he’d been a weird misfit of a kid, that was fine, because so was I. Once I grew into my late-teens and began reading up on jazz and listening to early Blues my perception expanded somewhat. But for now, this black vinyl, this is all that matters…

Sixty years later. My feet hit the sidewalk. It’s sultry-hot outside 706 Union Avenue, Memphis. The street-sign outside now says ‘Sam Philips Avenue’, on the corner of Marshall. There’s a huge white guitar suspended above the green awnings. ‘706’ picked out in black-on-red coloured glass, with a yellow fan around it, above the entrance door. It’s difficult to believe I’m actually here. Here, tell yourself – HERE, is where it happened. This small studio. This very space. You step off the street, through the door, into the hit of coffee. What was once the front office is now given over to merchandising. Yellow ‘Sun’-logo T-shirts, key-fobs and mugs. But this was where Marion Keisker sat, greeting potential artists who walk in seeking recording opportunities.

‘WE RECORD ANYTHING, ANYWHERE, ANYTIME’. This was where she joshed with a nervous awkward teen-Elvis. What kind of singer are you? ‘I sing all kinds.’ Who do you sound like? ‘I don’t sound like nobody.’ It’s only a year since his photo was plastered into the June 1953 ‘LC Humes High School’ Yearbook. But by then he’d quit school for hauling as a truck-driver with ‘Crown Electric Company’, 655 Marshall Avenue, within walking distance of here. Hear the echo-voices trapped into the soundproofing. There are posters and concert-bills of Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Roy Orbison. Someone points at a black-and-white photo of Rufus Thomas and asks ‘who’s that…?’

Step up into the small white box-studio. A big photo of the ‘Million-Dollar Quartet’ on the wall, from a few years later. Elvis was signed to RCA Victor by then, but he was always loyal to those who’d helped him. He called in at the studio, where Carl Perkins happened to be cutting “Matchbox” (later picked up by the Beatles for a Ringo feature-item). Jerry Lee Lewis was pumping piano as session-player. Johnny Cash also called round. They jam together. Engineer Jack Clement keeps the tape running. A ‘Memphis Press-Scimitar’ photographer takes this photo. Elvis sits at the piano, looking up over his shoulder at Carl Perkins. As the bright tour-guide in tattoos, green hair and 1950’s-style flared miniskirt narrates, Elvis’ girlfriend Marilyn Evans was sitting on the piano. She was cropped off the photo, but follow Jerry Lee’s eyes to indicate her points of anatomical interest. The guide plays a clip of studio banter from the session, Elvis is telling them how he caught a Jackie Wilson set at Las Vegas, and how Jackie’s version of “Don’t Be Cruel” ‘got much better, boy, much better than that record of mine… I went back four nights straight and heard that guy do that…’ When you see Elvis doing “Return To Sender” in the ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ (1962) movie, rumour has it he’s doing Jackie Wilson’s dance moves. Here, now, Elvis’ voice sounds hauntingly natural, conversational. Turn your back, he might be there.

There’s a big 1950’s microphone we’re invited to pose for photos with. There’s also a photo of U2, also in atmospheric monochrome. They were here to record “Angel Of Harlem” and “When Love Comes To Town” for ‘Rattle And Hum’ (1988), as a respectful homage to their Rock ‘n’ Roll roots. Stand on this spot, marked on the floor with a black ‘X’. This is where Elvis stood. How can they know…? How can they be sure? Well, he certainly spent some considerable time here. He cut twenty-four tracks here. Both sides of his first five singles. “Mystery Train”, “I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine”, “I Forgot To Remember To Forget”. And “Milkcow Blues Boogie” where he stops in mid-verse, to slur ‘hold it fellahs, that don’ MOVE me, let’s get real real gone for a change.’ Sleepy John Estes wrote it. Robert Johnson, a Rockabilly Ricky Nelson and a sinuous Eddie Cochran do versions. But it never ever sounds like it does when Elvis ups the tempo and gets real real GONE! There’s also “Baby Let’s Play House” – ‘you may go to college, you may go to school, you may have a pink Cadillac, but don’t you be nobody’s fool.’ And yes, Elvis would get his pink Cadillac. More tracks filtered out over the subsequent years. So chances are that yes, he did step here, at one time or another. Feel the frisson? Feel the magic? Sense the drip of sweat.

There’s a mock-up of the WHBQ radio studio from where DJ Dewey Phillips gave that debut Elvis single its first-ever pre-release radio-play on his ‘Red Hot And Blue’ show, 7 July. There’s one big turntable, and the sharp-shard pieces of a shattered 78rpm record on the desk-side floor. If he didn’t like a record, Dewey’d smash it on air. But response was so good he plays “That’s All Right” fourteen times, while Elvis hides out in the local movie theatre, scared and uncertain, fearing the reaction radio-play would bring. He was tracked down, and dragged into the studio. Answered some fairly bland questions in his usual respectful self-effacing manner, unaware that he was being interviewed live. The style? He’d just ‘stumbled upon it’ as he later divulged to the ‘Louisiana Hayride’ host Frank Page. He was always loyal to those who’d helped him. During the filming of his third movie, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ (1957), Elvis flies Dewey Phillips out to Hollywood for a couple of days to spend time on the MGM set.

Some time – and an eternity later, Elvis announces “That’s All Right Little Mama” in the sit-down section of his 1968 NBC-TV special, with Scotty Moore’s guitar, and still rips it up convincingly.

Stepping back outside onto the Memphis sidewalk, directly across the street, above a Domino’s Pizza take-away, there’s a big billboard announcing ‘Visit Graceland, Only 10 Minutes Away’… For Elvis it was still a little more than ten minutes. But he was on his way.