Wednesday, 27 February 2013




when I woke friday morning
the world had not ended

there are still grease-rings on the stove,
biscuit-crumbs in the folds of the bed,
formations of dust beneath the furniture,
the curtains still move lethargically
stirring disinterested currents of air,
shadows still move dumbly beyond the window
living lives of desperation both quiet
and loud, in rage and deceptive calm,
litter still silts the pavement around them,
as smoke crawls sleepily over the city,
where snow still glows in bitter wind, and
tobacco smells and factory girls in torn jeans
still fill the café to drink the same acrid coffee

when I woke friday morning
the world had not ended,
but you were gone…

This poem is published in the excellent new 120-page
edited by Tracy Patrick (February 2013) - £6 including P&P
To order, go to this website, click on 'anthology-2013'
then click to donate via Paypal - all proceeds to
environmental charities. Fully illustrated, other contributors
include Cardinal Cox, Pete Faulkner, Peter Asher,
Belinda Cooke, Jane Seabourne, Geoff Stevens and
many other very fine poets. Highly Recommended...!




An interview with Ralf Hütter of the
legendary prophets of modernism and
all things digital-sterile. In which Kraftwerk
travel all the way from the Last John Cleese-oid
Skirmish of WW2, to cyborg Wet-Ware
Science Fiction futures...

“We play the machines, but the machines also play us.
They should not do only slave work, we try to treat
them as colleagues so they exchange energies with us...”
                            (Ralf Hütter in ‘Mojo’, April 1997)

Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier...

Kraftwerk means ‘Power Station’ – regardless of what you read elsewhere. They are also the Teutonic fourpiece responsible for soundtracks for science like “Trans-Europe Express” and “Computer World”. They are the musicians who first encrypted the transcript from the handbook of neuro-electronic tomorrows, the fountainhead of all things digital-sterile, and took it into the minimalist technological zeitgeist. Their sound, from its early-1970’s beginnings, was already aerodynamically styled for the next millennium. Now they here in London for a brief tour promoting their album ‘The Mix’ (June 1991), playing selected concerts – including the cult Dance Festival ‘Tribal Gathering’ (at Luton Hoo 24th May 1997), and doing a limited number of meet-and-greet press interviews. I corner Ralf Hütter (electronics and voice) in a cluttered backwater of EMI House, and poke theories at him through the language barrier.

It seems to me there are two distinct phases to Krautwerk’s career. Or perhaps even three. The first five years devoted purely to experimental forays into synchromeshed avant-electronics, producing the batch of albums issued in Britain through Vertigo – ‘Kraftwerk’ in 1972, ‘Ralf Und Florian’ the following year, the seminal ‘Autobahn’ in 1974, and the compilation ‘Exceller 8’ in 1975. Then they switch to EMI, settle on a more durable line-up and the subsequent move into more image-conscious material, a zone between song and tactile atmospherics feeding into areas dangerously close to Euro-Disco. The third – and current phase, involves a long and lengthening silence.

‘No, it wasn’t like that’ says Hütter, all neat and in black. ‘It was...’ his hand indicates a level plane. ‘There was never a break. It was a continual evolution. We had our studios since 1970, so we always worked on the next album, and the next album, and just so on. I think Dusseldorf therefore was very good because we brought in other people, painters, poets, so that we associated ourselves with...’ his sometimes faulty English – interfacing with my even more faulty German, breaks down. The words don’t come. So he switches direction. ‘Also we had some classical training before that (Ralf and Florian met at the Dusseldorf Conservatory), so we were very disciplined’. The other Crafty-Workers in this original extended family of neo-Expressionist electro-subversives included Conny Plank (who was to produce later stuff for Annie Lennox’ The Tourists, and Ultravox), Klaus Dinger and Thomas Homann (later of Neu), artist Karl Klefisch (responsible for the highly effective 1978 ‘Man-Machine’ sleeve), Emil Schult (who co-composed “Trans-Europe Express”) and others. In the subsequent personnel file – as well as Hütter, there is Florian Schneider who also operates electronics and sometimes robotic vocals. While across the years of their classic recordings they are set against Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flur who both manipulate electronic percussion.

I ask if they always operated as equal partners. ‘Everybody has their special function within the group, one which he is good at and likes to do the most.’ It was never just Ralf und Florian plus a beatbox rhythm section? ‘No. It’s just that we started historically all that time ago and worked for four years with about twenty percussionists, and they would never go into electronics, so we had to step over, banging away and things like that. And then Wolfgang came in...’

You find the phrasing strange? I’ll tell you... when the possibility of doing this interview first cropped up I ransacked my archives and dug out everything on Kfartwerk I could find. Now it occurs to me that each previous press chat-piece from ‘Creem’ to ‘Melody Maker’ have transposed Herr Hütter’s every utterance into perfect English. Which is not the case. His eloquence is daunting, but it inevitably has very pronounced Germanic cadences. Sometimes he skates around searching for the correct word, other times he uses the right word in the wrong context. When her says ‘we worked on the next album and the next album, and just so on’ it really emerges as ‘ve vork on ze next album und ze next, und just zo on’. It might be interesting to write up the whole interview-tape with that phonetic accuracy, but it would be difficult to compose and impossible to read. Nevertheless, I’m not going to bland out his individuality by disinfecting his speech peculiarities, or ethnically cleansing his phrases entirely...

“I think our music has to do with emotions.
Technology and emotion can join hands...”
                                   (Ralf Hütter, 1991)

With that sorted out I ask if he enjoyed touring. ‘Yes, basically, because we don’t do it so often. But we also enjoy working in our studios in Dusseldorf, we shouldn’t tour too much otherwise... we get lost somewhere, maybe! We get too immunised. When you have too much you must shut down because you get too many sounds and visions from that tour. For the first five years we toured always in Germany on the Autobahns – that’s where that album came from. Since 1975 we do other countries as well.’ They first toured the USA in March 1975, topping the bill over British Prog-Rockers Greenslade, then – leaving an American Top Thirty hit, they went on to play eight British dates in June set up for them by manager Ira Blacker.

How much of that early music was improvised? Was the earlier material ‘freer’? Kraftwerk numbered Karl Klaus Roeder on violin and guitar back then, so are the newer compositions more structured? ‘No. We are going more... now that we play longer, work longer than ten years, we know more and every afternoon when we are in the Concert Hall or somewhere in the studio we just start the machines playing and listen to this and that. Just yesterday we composed new things. Once in Edinburgh we composed a new piece which we even included in that evening’s show. New versions on old ideas. So we are always working because otherwise we should get bored just repeating. And it’s not correct what he (a hostile gig reviewer) was saying – that we play on stage exactly like we sound on the record. That’s complete rubbish. It means people don’t even notice and they don’t listen. They go instead over to the Bar for a drink! We, our music is very basic, the compositions are never complex or never complicated. More sounds – KLINK! KLUNK!! Metallic sound. We go for this sound composition more than music composition. Only now they are thematically more precise than they were before.’

After so long within the genre don’t they find electronics restricting? ‘No, just the opposite.’ Words precise with the sharp edge of Teutonic resonance. ‘We can play anything. The only restrictions we do find are, like in writing, as soon as you have a paper and pen – or a computer or a cassette recorder and a microphone, and you bring ideas, you find the limitation is in what you program rather than what is in the microphone or the cassette. You – as a writer, writing this interview, can’t say that the piece you are writing is not good because the word processor did not pick out the right words for you. It’s the same with us. If we make a bad record it’s because we are not in a good state of mind.’

When they started out they recorded in German-language. ‘We always record in German’ he corrects emphatically. ‘Then we do – like in films, synchronised versions for English. The original records are all German, but we also do French, and now Japanese versions. We are very into the internationalist part.’ Continuing this trans-Europe theme he suddenly suggests ‘Britain in a very historical society. The Establishment. The hierarchy. We come here and we feel that immediately. On the one hand you have this very modern...’ he tails off. Starts again, ‘it’s a schizophrenic country, a modern people, new music and everything, but on the other hand the... how can I say it, a theatrical establishment.’ I retaliate, yes – but surely it could equally be argued that all Europe forms a common cultural unit attempting to survive between the historic power-block forces of the USA and the old Soviet Union? Indeed, to journalist Andy Gill, Kraftwerk’s music is ‘promoting the virtues of cybernetic cleanliness and European culture against the more sensual, body-orientated nature of most Afro-American derived music’ (‘Mojo’, August 1987). Europe shares a common heritage uniting Britain, Germany and France, which are all being subtly subverted by a friendly invasion of American Economic and McCultural influences, movies, records, clothes? Hütter himself once said ‘in Germany, Pop music is a cultural import’. ‘Yes, I know. Certainly when we came to Birmingham (England) we thought it was similar to Dusseldorf. There’s no question. But in Germany it happens even more though, because here in England at least you notice, you know the language and everything. In Germany they don’t notice, it was just taken over.’

I’d always considered the German language to be a defence against foreign influence. It was far easier for mainstream British culture to be accessed, and infiltrated because of a common American-English language. In France, for example, the Government is actively resisting the ‘Anglicisation’ of their language through ‘Franglaise’, because they rightly see its corruption as the thin end of the wedge. ‘Maybe. That should be checked. But you, together with the Americans had another situation to start with. After the war, Germany was finished. I’m not saying why or whatever, that’s OK. But when I grew up we used to play around the bomb-fields and the destroyed houses. This was just part of our heritage, part of our software. It was our education and cultural background...’ The spectre of Basil Fawlty springs unbidden. Earlier an entirely innocent question about Kraftwerk’s origins had dislodged similar sentiments. He’d spoken of Germany’s Fascist years – ‘in Germany especially, that’s what I mostly knew about, then all the (artistic / creative) people emigrated, Einstein had to leave, and everybody knows the reasons. And then only after the war – he came back. But I think Germany went through a period, with our parents, who had never had anything. They went through two wars...’

Now personally, the dinosaur struggles of mindless European Empires doesn’t bother me. Creativity and human individuality does. And massive giga-jolts of respect are due here. Long before the world had heard of Bill Gates, Y2K or William Gibson, when Silicon Valley was still just a valley and mail had yet to acquire its ‘e’ prefix, Kraftwerk were literally inventing and assembling their own instruments, expanding the technosphere by rewiring the sonic neural net, and defining the luminous futures of what we now know as global electronica. But suddenly I get visions of our dialogue devolving into the last skirmish of Ward War 2. ‘Don’t mention the WAR!!!’ Giant imaginary replicas of John Cleese goose-step across the room...

“We feel that the synthesizer is an acoustic mirror, a brain
analyser that is super-sensitive to the human element in ways
previous instruments were not, so it is really better suited to
expose the human psychology than the piano or guitar...”
                                 (Ralf Hütter in ‘Mojo’, April 1997)

Change of tack. There’s a lot of Kraftwerkian influence around. Much of current electro-Dance seems to be plugged directly into the vaguely ‘industrial’ neuro-system that Hütter initially delineated, while dedicated eighties survivalist cults Depeche Mode and Human League also have Kraftwerk DNA in their gene-code. He nods sagely. ‘There’s a very good feeling in England now. It was all getting so... historical.’ Is the same thing happening in Germany now? Is there a good Rock scene there? ‘No. But New Music (Neu Musik).’

Hütter’s opinions on machine technology have been known to inspire hacks of lesser literary integrity to sprees of wild Thesaurus-ransacking adjectival overkill, their vocabularies straining for greater bleakness, more clone-content, ‘Bladerunner’ imagery grown bloated and boring through inept repetition. And sure, Kr-art-werk is all geometrical composition, diagonal emphasis, precision honed etc, but their imagery is not entirely without precedent. Deliberately so. Their ‘Man-Machine’ album track “Metropolis” obviously references German Fritz Lang’s 1926 proto-SF Expressionist movie. The album sleeve also acknowledges the ‘inspiration’ of Bauhaus Constructivist El Lissitzky. I go on to hazard a connection with German modern classical music bizarro Karlhienz Stockhausen – particularly on Kraftwerk’s ‘Radio-Activity’ (1975) album, where they use the ‘musique concrete’ technique of surgical-splicing different sounds together from random areas. “Radioland” uses drop-in short-wave blips, bursts and static twitterings, “Transistor” has sharp pre-sample edits, alongside the pure found-sound audio-collage “The News”. A technique that resurfaces as late as ‘Electric Café (1986), where “The Telephone Song” is made up of ‘phone bleeps and telecommunication bloopery. He’s familiar with the input. Immediately snaps back the exact location of the ideas – ‘Kurzwellen’, from Stockhausen’s back-catalogue. And what about the aural applications of Brion Gysin / William Burroughs’ literary cut-up experiments? Is there any interaction there? ‘Maybe’ he concedes. ‘‘Soft Machine’, contact with machines. But we are more Germanic.’ He pauses, then suggests ‘we take from everywhere. That’s how we find most of our music. Out of what we find in the street. The “Pocket Calculator” in the Department Stores.’

The music is the message – ‘the perfect Pop song for the tribes of the global village’ as Hütter once described it. The medium and the form? ‘If the music can’t speak for itself then why make music? Then we can be writers directly. If I could speak really everything I want with words then I should be working in literature, in words. But I can’t, I never can say anything really, I can’t even hardly talk to the audience. I don’t know what to say. But when we make music, everything keeps going, it’s just the field we are working in, or if we make videos we are more productive there.’

I quote back from an interview he did with ‘Q’ magazine in July 1991 where he suggests that traditional musical skills are becoming increasingly redundant, ‘with our computers, this is already taken care of’ he explains. ‘So we can now spend more time structuring the music. I can play faster than Rubenstein with the computer, so it (instrumental virtuosity) is no longer relevant – it’s getting closer to what music is all about, thinking and hearing.’ So what’s new in electronics, Ralf? ‘What we find now is like, a revolution in machines. They are bringing back all the garbage now that has been put into them for the last hundred years and we are facing a second, third and fourth Industrial Revolution. Computers. Nano-electronics. Maybe then we come back into Science Fiction? I don’t know.’ Then, on inspiration, ‘there’s another thing coming out. ‘Wet-Ware’, and we function also – in a way, as Wet-Ware.’

I’m hit by a sudden techno-blur of off-the-wall ideas, imperfectly understood concepts of some electro-erotic wet ‘T’-shirt ritual in the pale blue wash of sterile monitors. What is ‘Wet-Ware’, Ralf? Spoken with bated breath. And he explains. Like hardware is machines. Software is the data that is fed into them. ‘Wet-Ware is anything biochemical. The biological element in the machine!’

The programmer? I see. Fade into intimations of cybernetic ubermensch conspiracies.

Eins, Zwei, Drei, Vier...

*Although deliberately angled to imply that this interview occurred at a later date, in fact it consists of material taped at the time of my Kraftwerk interview which appears in the book ‘I Was Elvis Presley’s Bastard Love-Child’ (Headpress Books)



1970 – ‘TONE FLOAT’ by ORGANISATION. Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider-Esleben with others (Basil Hammoudi, Butch Hauf and Alfred Monicks), produced by Konrad ‘Conny’ Plank and recorded in a studio in Dusseldorf’s Oil Refinery. Includes “Milk Rock”, “Silver Forest” and “Rhythm Salad”, “Noitasinagro” and 20:46-minute “Tone Float”

1971 – ‘HIGHRAIL’ by KRAFTWERK. Hütter and Schneider with Klaus Dinger and Thomas Homann, who later form Neu. Issued on German Philips label

1972 – ‘VAR’. Includes first-ever recorded use of a drum-machine

1972 – ‘KRAFTWERK’ (Vertigo 6641-077 2LP) UK edited compilation of earlier Germany-only LPs released as ‘Kraftwerk’ (November 1970) with “Ruckzuck”, “Stratovarius”, “Megaherz” and “Von Himmel Hoch” and ‘Kraftwerk 2’ (1972) with “Klingklang”, “Atem”, “Strom”, “Spule 4”, “Wellenlänge” and “Harmonika”

1973 – ‘RALF UND FLORIAN’ (Vertigo) Duo album including strings and woodwind, “Elektrisches Roulette”, “Tongebeinge”, “Kristallo”, “Heimatklänge”, “Tanzmusik” and “Ananas Symphonie”

Nov 1974 – ‘AUTOBAHN’ (Vertigo 6360-620/ EMI CD 46153-2) with Wolfgang Flur and Klaus Roeder, “Komet Melody 2”, “Kristallo” and 22-minute title (‘W’ir fahn fahn fahn auf der autobahn’ – ‘we’re driving driving driving down the Motorway’) edited down to a three-minute single which reaches no.11 (UK) 10th May 1975 (Vertigo 6147-012) and no.25 (USA) 12th April 1975 (Vertigo 203)

Oct 1975 – ‘EXCELLER 8’ (Vertigo 6360-629) compilation, “Ruckzack”, “Kristallo” etc

Nov 1975 (Ger)/ Jan 1976 (UK) – ‘RADIO-ACTIVITY’ (Ger: ‘RADIO AKTIVITAET’) (Capitol EST 11457 CDP 7-464742 / US Cleopatra CLE CD 58752) First album with Karl Bartos replacing Roeder, now fully electronic and issued on their own ‘Kling Klang’ label in Germany. “Geiger Counter”. “Antenna”, “Ohm Sweet Ohm”

May 1977 – ‘TRANS-EUROPE EXPRESS’ (Capitol EST 11603 CD 7-46473-2) An album of ‘eerie empty beauty’ (‘MOJO’). With “Franz Schubert”, “Europe Endless” and “Showroom Dummies” – a UK no.25 chart single 20th February 1982 (EMI 5272). Title track later sampled by Africa Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock”, and includes the lyric ‘from station to station / back to Dusseldorf city / meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie’. Bowie returns the reference on his “V2 Schneider”

May 1978 – ‘MAN-MACHINE’ (Ger: ‘MENSCH MASCHINE’) (Capitol EST 11728 CD 7-46039-2) ‘It is the only completely successful visual / aural fusion Rock has produced so far’ (‘NME’). With “The Robots”, “Spacelab” and “The Model” – a UK no.1 chart single 6th February 1982 (EMI 5207)

May 1981 – ‘COMPUTER WORLD’ (EMI EMC 3370 / US Elektra CD 9-3549-2) ‘Interpol and Deutsche Bank, FBI and Scotland Yard’. With “Pocket Calculator”, “Numbers”, “Computer Love”

1981 – ‘ELEKTRO KINETIK’ (Vertigo) compilation

1981 – ‘VIRTU EX MACHINA’ (Klon 1992001) quality bootleg recorded live from mixing desk in Tokyo with ad-libbed “Autobahn” lyrics

July 1983 – ‘Tour De France’ (12” single EMI 5413) + mixes. A UK no.22 single later featured on ‘BREAKDANCE’ movie soundtrack

November 1986 – ‘ELECTRIC CAFE’ (EMI CDP 7-46416-2) With “Techno-Pop”, “Musique Non-Stop”, “Boing Boom Tschak”, “The Telephon Call” etc. A sequel to projected, then cancelled album, to be called ‘TECHNO-POP’ – scheduled for August 1983 release and designated EMC 3407. Album reissued as ‘TECHNO POP’ in October 2009. Following the original release of ‘ELECTRIC CAFE’ Bartos and Flur are replaced by Franz Hijbert and some robots, while Karl Bartos forms ELEKTRIC MUSIC who release the album ‘ESPERANTO’ in August 1993

June 1991 – ‘THE MIX’ (‘DIE KLASSIC WERKS’) (EMI CDP 79-6671-12/ CDEM 1408) With new digital mixes of “The Robot”, “Computer Love”, “Autobahn” (9-min mix), “Musique Non-Stop” etc

1991 – ‘HEUTE ABEND’ (Deep Records 021) Low-fi live bootleg including 20-min “Musique Non-Stop”

1993 – ‘THE REMIX’ (On It CD 049) Bootleg including studio remixes of “Tour De France” and early demos of “Sex Object” and “Technopop” from aborted album sessions

August 2003 – ‘TOUR DE FRANCE SOUNDTRACKS’ (Kling Klang / EMI / Astralwerks)

June 2005 – ‘MINIMUM-MAXIMUM’ (Kling Klang / EMI / Astralwerks) live album

2006 – ‘K4: BREMEN RADIO 1971’ live recordings of the Schneider, Dinger, Rother line-up recorded 25 June 1971 for ‘Radio Bremen’

October 2009 – ‘THE CATALOGUE’ (‘DER KATALOG’) (Kling Klang / EMI / Mute / Astralwerks) remastered box-set of albums 1974-2003

Published in:
‘AURAL INNOVATIONS no.7: July’ (USA - August 1999)
‘FATWAH no.4’ (UK - June 2002)




Album Review of:
COLLECTION 1967-1968’
(2006, Bam Caruso RPM BC317)

        ‘We don’t know about the H-bomb
we don’t know about drugs
              we don’t know what is going on…’
                                      (“We Don’t Know”)

It’s one of those heavy conundrums that have teased the minds of thinkers across decades. One of the moral dilemmas that defy satisfactory resolution, despite thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Well… perhaps not quite that. But the question why some records sell their way into the upper reaches of the charts, while others – in every way better crafted, better played, more cleverly constructed, more hip and cutting-edge, fail. Attack were sulphate-propelled, witty and flirtatious. They were also capable of cutting slices of perfect Pop. But that defining hit to write them into Rock history consistently evaded them.

January 1967 opened with the drum-snap and brittle-sharp guitar of debut single “Try It”, a catchy piece of Mod-Pop predicated on a softer version of the Who/Small Faces model, claiming ‘by the way you look, I can tell that you want some action – action is my middle name’. A manifesto, an invitation to try what Attack had to offer. ‘Record Mirror’ introduced them to its readers as ‘the Attack are one of the new wave of beat groups who say they have something more to offer than the usual group format.’ And yes, it’s an attractive seven-inches of vinyl marked out by powerful vocals, Pop-art guitar, the swelling Mod-Soul underbelly of warm Hammond-organ, punctuated by sharp bass and tight drum figures. It nevertheless lacked the essential standout magic to give it sales-legs. Lyrically, the ‘B’-side – “We Don’t Know”, is even better, with Richard Shirman’s words chomping on the controversial issues of the day, but rather than taking a protest-stance, he disclaims it all. ‘We don’t know about marriage, we don’t know about sex, we don’t know what is going on, ‘cos we’re in a mess’. As the Kaiser Chiefs would much later point out, ‘it’s cool to know nothing’. A witty freak-beat reversal of all the contemporary rebel-poses, so that when it gets to the ‘bring it on down, all the way down’, and the ‘sock it to me one time’, ‘keep on keeping on’, ‘hold on to what you’ve got’ and ‘got to, got to, got to’ exhortations in the play-out fade there’s just a suspicious that it’s cheerfully tongue-in-cheek. Taking the vocabulary of Mod-Soul into newer post-Mod realms.

While ‘Record Mirror’ predicted that ‘the five-strong group looks as though they have quite a career in front of them, especially with confident Mr Shirman leading them’, what’s necessary is to achieve that breakthrough hit. The one that establishes the group-brand. And that presents an ethical dilemma. For there were a number of ways of jumping that barrier. The astute cover of the current American hit, grabbing media-space and immediacy before the original has a chance of registering. Matthew’s Southern Comfort scored a UK no.1 by opportunistically grabbing Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, effectively stopping the fiercer Crosby Stills And Nash American hit-version. But it didn’t lead Ian Matthews to any further chart action. And in fact, “Try It” had originally been done by Ohio Express and the Standells, whose bratty versions exemplify the sneering Punk-garage sound, although ‘New Musical Express’ concede that Attack ‘were every bit as authentic-sounding as the originals’ (23 January 1993). Another route was to ransack the latest Beatles LP for potential covers. Despite serious opposition from a group called Bedrock, Marmalade (with post-Attack Alan Whitehead) lifted “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” from the ‘White Album’ and took it all the way to no.1. Against the odds they were able to follow it with further hits, and even a modicum of musicianly credibility. Another passport into the chart is the Poppy confection of the novelty hit. Mugging a convenient fad or hopping a passing trend much as the Flowerpot Men had done all the way into brief celebrity with “Let’s Go To San Francisco”.

Manager Don Arden brought the group a demo of “Hi Ho Silver Lining” from its American composer, Scott English. Is “Hi Ho Silver Lining” a novelty hit? It has many of the distinguishing characteristics, which over-familiarity tends to disguise. It’s very much riddled with sixties crazy wackiness, the ‘open up your peach umbrella, while you’re watching TV’ could have come directly from a trendy sit-com. Not to mention ‘the hippie hat’. And who now connects the song-title with its TV-origins? Clayton Moore’s masked-avenger ‘The Lone Ranger’ with his trademark cry ‘Hi Ho Silver, away!’ Of course, Arden was absolutely correct. It was a sure-fire hit. Only not for Attack. The problem is that producer Mickie Most had also got his hands on a songwriter demo, cut it with the Jeff Beck Group, and both versions emerged near-simultaneously. Although Beck’s came a week later, he had the edge. He was already a ‘name’ from his stint following Eric Clapton into the Yardbirds. Attack take the song altogether lighter, with Richard’s exaggeratedly clear enunciation and vocal delivery, ‘although it’s obvi-yars’. But, let’s be honest, the litmus test between the two versions is that Attack’s polite instrumental break, a rising whine in the background with Gerry Henderson’s little honking clarinet giving it a jaunty New Vaudeville Band quality, can’t match the brief burn of the Jeff Beck guitar solo.

So Attack watch as the Jeff Beck group single enters the ‘Record Mirror’ chart at no.36 (13th April), rising through no.28, no.24, and no.17, to peak for three weeks at no.14 (from 11th May), before sliding down through no.19, and no.27 to exit at no.37 (15th June). And they watch as Jeff Beck bags the ‘Top Of The Pops’ tele-spot. There must be only one thing worse than sacrificing your self-respect to achieve the step-up career-elevation of a hit, and that’s to sacrifice your self-respect and still fail to make that vital chart-connection.

To add to the irony, Davy O’List’s savage haywire guitar-break on the flip makes up for the ‘A’-side’s passivity. Written and recorded within half-an-hour, “Any More Than I Do” claims ‘we want something uncomplicated, we want something clean and free, this I the way it’s got to be’. While its two opening lines take a last nod at their debt to the seminal Soul music they were rapidly accelerating away from – ‘standing in the shadows’ (Four Tops), ‘sitting in the park’ (Billy Stewart), carried on a frugging dance-beat.

Richard Shirman has the louché Jagger slouch and a corkscrew mind. To ‘Melody Maker’ writer Chris Welch, he was ‘a star with an ego to match, and the cheek to achieve miracles’. A rare combination of gifts. Born 26 April 1949 in London, Richard was the Attack founder-member who would also remain the only consistent part of the group throughout its many line-up changes. ‘I was inspired by the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds’ he told the website, ‘I saw both when I was fourteen, over the objections of my parents, and was hooked.’ By the time he was fifteen he was cutting his teeth fronting the Soul System, an unstable lineup of musicians all older than he was. In early 1966, its remnants were strengthened by the addition of new faces. Shirman encountered the tousle-haired innocence of seventeen-year-old guitarist ‘David John’ (an alias used by Davy O’List), they shared a taste for rare-groove R&B imports, so Davy joined and adds back-up vocals to “Try It”. At the time, Davy confided to ‘Melody Maker’ that ‘I’ve been playing guitar for two-and-a-half year and started as a Rock guitarist. My first idol was George Harrison and I copied his solo on “Roll Over Beethoven” note for note. I want to be able to play Blues without anybody going ‘ugh!’ (11 March 1967). Which seems a fairly modest ambition. Then bassist Gerry Henderson arrived. Until, in response to a small-ad placed in ‘Melody Maker’, there was bespectacled Bob Hodges on organ, the group’s token geek. And work-study trainee drummer Alan ‘Noddy’ Whitehead, who stays with Attack long enough to play on the debut single (he was then replaced by Barney ‘Rubble’ Barnfield).

Hammering out a repertoire of bluesy riffs, Don Covay’s “See Saw”, Wilson Pickett’s “In The Midnight Hour” and Sam And Dave’s “You Don’t Know Like I Know” at the Marquee, Soul System came to the attention of entrepreneur Don Arden, who already managed the Small Faces, Ron Wood’s The Birds, and Creation. He signed them to Decca for first try-out sessions with top A&R-man Dick Rowe (with Rolling Stones, Small Faces, and Marmalade on his CV) at IPC Studios in Regent Street on 31st December 1966. It was around this time they changed their name to Attack, a short one-word name, like the Who, Creation or Action. ‘Now the Pop scene seems ready for us’ proclaimed Richard, ‘we shall take it by storm in six months.’ Some overconfidence perhaps? asks ‘Record Mirror’, while conceding their riveting presence, ‘their stage act is exciting and different, and involves quite a bit of audience participation (if you’re inclined that way).’ But shortly after their “Hi Ho Silver Lining” single was released, O’List quit Attack. In late February he was headhunted by Andrew Loog Oldham into join the Nice, initially a vehicle providing backup for Oldham’s newly-acquired soul singer PP Arnold. Meanwhile, Shirman, given to hanging out at the trendiest London clubs – ‘Tiles’ and ‘Blaises’ as well as the ‘Marquee’, had been keeping a watchful eye on a young guitarist he’d witnessed jamming with Jimmy Page. No mean feat. So John DuCann – future mainstay, and songwriter, later of Andromeda and Atomic Rooster, was lured into the group.

The third 45rpm, “Created By Clive” is a foppishly effete sub-Kinks-style number. When they appear in front of the BBC microphones on the Light Programme’s ‘Saturday Club’ (1st July 1967) presenter Brian Matthew enthusiastically introduces Attack as ‘this group with a difference’, and “Created By Clive” as ‘a sad story of a modern Miss’. And, yes – given the preeminence of “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion”, it’s the perfect soundbite for trendy Carnaby Street film-clips. ‘Your face is bony ‘cos you don’t eat, your hair’s too short and your clothes are chic’ conjures all the right fashion-fix Twiggy and Mary Quant images. If you think ‘somebody’s taught you how to walk’ is taking it a little too far, just check out Victoria Beckham or Naomi Campbell. And ‘now you dress for the magazines’ is carried effortlessly by Richard’s slightly camp vocals – he’s ‘got this fancy talk’, catching all the right fashion-dummy weirdo traits. Her ‘heart is plastic’ and her ‘mind’s gone weak’, all she needs is a ‘mirror and a powder-puff’, then stylist Clive can ‘put you in the window of Ellen’s Boutique’. Was there ever an ‘Ellen’s Boutique’? If there wasn’t, there should have been. And you should have seen it in a tracking-shot from the ‘Blow Up’ movie. Produced by their regular knob-twiddler Mark Wildey, the song was written by Johannesburg-born Hubert Pattison, who’d also penned “The Hand Don’t Fit The Glove” for Terry Reid And The Jaywalkers, “Don’t Let Her Go Away” for John Leyton, “Here Come The Bees” for the Barron Knights, and cut a single of his own with “My Home’s In My Pocket” (August 1969 for Fontana). And if an Attack single was ever to catch fire, surely this was the moment?

Wrong. Again their finest efforts were sabotaged by cruel circumstance. Or rather, by inept label politics. Again, there was another version of the same song, this time by a group called the Syn – formerly the Syndicats, with a line-up including Chris Squire and Pete Banks who would later figure in mega-selling Prog-Rockers Yes. They also needed a hit. But it wasn’t happening for them either. Although both groups, Syn and Attack, were operating beneath the sprawling canopy of the same Decca organisation, the Syn version was ‘A’-sided through the ‘progressive’ subsidiary Deram, leaving the two to fight it out. Which is the better version? It’s a toss-up. Both are pretty good. Where the Attack simply repeat the chorus-title ‘created by Clive, created by Clive’ with just a hint of xylophone, the Syn’s more close-harmony treatment amends the lyric to ‘created by Clive’s publicity drive’. Does that improve it? In the end, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Both were fairly well received by the music-press. The Pirate Radio stations were generally evenly divided in their allegiances, for every seasick DJ who gave high-rotation support to Syn there was another shoving Attack. The inevitable result was that sales were evenly divided, and neither got to nibble the chart.

The irony, again, is that the Attack’s ‘B’-side, Shirman’s “Colour Of My Mind”, is a fairly groovy Mod-psych tune which has since been strongly supported on psychedelic compilations, and – if the sides had been flipped, would have been quite capable of making it on its own. Winding-in with a distorted sitar sound, then guitar and organ braided into the texture of the sound, the surreal chain-of-thought hazy shading lyric inhales freely of the lysergic atmosphere with pseudo-profound ‘living is a habit, thrust upon mankind’. ‘My eyes are green and yellow’ he insists, ‘‘cos they’re the roving kind’, before fading into a pleasing cacophony.

This second high-profile failure could have been, and almost was, a major extinction event for Attack. Failure…? Well yes, in the sense that it did not crack the Top Ten, the Top Thirty, or even make it onto the lower rungs of the Top Fifty. Hence it didn’t reap the benefit of a ‘Top Of The Pops’ tie-in appearance to project them into the familiarity of every British front-room. But failure…? They were a name, even if only among the in-crowd. Up in Hull, far away from the hip action, I was well into the Attack. I read about them in the music press. I bought the records, and played them over and over again. Surely I could hardly have been exceptional in that? And such a level of familiarity hardly equates with failure. The Attack would remain a cult legend, as compilations of their back-catalogue were issued and reissued on LP and CD across decades.

So yes, it could have been a major extinction event for Attack, but instead it led to a frantic explosion of creativity. Over-caffeinated, fiercely energetic, led by a self-confessed ‘precocious little bugger telling them what to do’, there was a merry-go-round of line-up changes. Recently recruited bassist Kenny Harold and guitarist Geoff Richardson quit shortly after the disappointment of ‘Clive’, leaving John as lead guitarist. For Attack version-four Jim Avery – who later went on to the proto-Punk Third World War, was drafted in on bass, with Plug Davies – destined to join Welsh acid-rockers Man, still on drums. They came up with a projected next single – “Magic in the Air”, which Decca inexplicably turned down. Maybe they were losing confidence in their signing? Unwisely so as it turns out, because it could have been the one. It opens ear-catchingly with TV’s ‘Watch With Mother’ theme – an evocative cert for radio attention, before the effortlessly contagious nagging riff breaks in, in fits and starts, its harmonies shot with light, but deep, forming a cohesive whole. As he walks wide-eyed ‘the flowers turn their heads and bow as I pass by.’ What is causing this magical transfiguration – love, or chemicals? There’s a fade-out, then it fades back in again, almost painfully of the moment. Sixties Beat-Pop seldom came better. Whatever the Attack’s commercial omissions of the past, such sweet freakbeat more than compensates.

Yet this only led to further changes. Plug and Jim Avery left, replaced by Roger Deane (bass) and Keith Hodge (drums). The final single, released in early 1968, combines “Lady Orange Peel”, with its high ascending ‘Strange Brew’ ethereal refrain, heavy guitar solo, and tempo-change into the ‘come into my garden’ fast mid-section, with “Neville Thumbcatch”, a fruity Mod-pop tune with spoken narration, not dissimilar in places to the ‘atonal apples and amplified heat’ of Cream’s “Pressed Rat And Warthog”. Delivered tongue-in-cheek straight, it’s the cautionary tale of ‘a man of nature who forgot his birds and bees’, who spends so much time in his allotment, leaving his wife alone – ‘her only comfort was an alabaster gnome’, that she leaves him for George the milkman. She even takes their budgie called Mabel. Now Neville has no wife. But at least he has his window-box. As quirky as this précis suggests, with harpsichord-like keyboards and guitar-strum giving it something of an ‘Excerpt From A Teenage Opera’ quality, it inevitably flew under the chart radar.

And Decca’s deal with Attack expired, with a projected fifth 45rpm languished unreleased, “Freedom for You” c/w “Feel Like Flying” – with throbbing rhythm-track and stinging guitar break moving closer to the Move, and a flip driving full-on into tightly focused velvet dreams. Decca expressed an interest in retaining Attack as a Pop act. How about trying something lighter? Another novelty along the lines in ‘Clive’? But music was changing. Rock was being recalibrated. And Shirman and DuCann were more interested in furthering the heavier direction of their newer material. And now, freed of label and management interference, they did some of their best work. They’d already sweated out studio-time on an intended album project to be called ‘Roman Gods Of War’. But with both artwork and a clutch of tracks completed, in the confused circumstances of Attack’s uncertain status, the label fucked-up and recorded over the tapes even as the two parties, group and Decca were going through the process of divorce.

During the group’s final days, with DuCann becoming the dominant creative force, they produce the likes of the unreleased “Mr. Pinnodmy’s Dilemma” – pronounced ‘Pin-odd-me’, about a deaf-dumb-and-mute boy. Although he predates ‘Tommy’, this time there’s no pinball happy ending, ‘he felt just like a freak, when all the world is dead he would sit alone and cry’, with a guitar-break shaking the restraining walls of the very space-time continuum, and a neo-classical ‘ba-ba-baba’ chorus. Bad taste...? Maybe, but it’s a Who-powerful track. And the strongly percussive “Strange House” which shows the Attack foraging further into absurdist shots at acid-surrealism with ‘I was riding in the sky, and I saw this strange-looking land’. ‘Perhaps it’s just a funny dream’ he queries, ‘but to me it seemed so real’ as he sits in ‘a bed suspended in mid-air’ and the sinister flanging around ‘it was strange’ betrays a very English sense of mod-psych whimsy. ‘There wasn’t any chairs so I sat on the edge of a sink, I had tea in a clock and I ate a piece of green rock’ he insists, shoving the hallucinogenic weirdness-quotient over the brink. ‘I went up the stairs to the cellar, I went down the stairs to the attic’ until its inspired mélange of sounds fades like flickering stars pulsing in the impenetrable depths of some distant galaxy, or vice versa.

Yet, battered by the events that had happened to them, and the events that should have happened, but hadn’t, Attack finally admit defeat in late-1968, and go their own ways. By then, answering the regulation ‘Melody Maker’ classified ad, Alan Whitehead had joined Marmalade who successfully employed two of the tried-and-tested routes to making hits. In June 1968 their bland cover of the Grassroots US hit “Lovin’ Things” reached no.6, then they topped the charts in January 1969 with the Beatles’ cover “Ob La Di Ob La Da”. Meanwhile, Davy O’List’s career was also progressing alongside Keith Emerson in Nice – who scored a Top Thirty hit with “America” in July 1968. He subsequently went on into Roxy Music and Jet. And DuCann continued exploring a guitar-heavier direction with his subsequent group Andromeda – put together with the nucleus of Five Day Week Straw People musicians, from 1968 to 1970. And in truth, Andromeda deserve their own separate feature. Then he joined Atomic Rooster in the seventies.

While Richard Shirman, who’d been invited to sing with Andromeda, but declined, instead recorded a one-off Emidisc acetate of Jagger-Richard’s “Sympathy For The Devil”, which although he acquits himself well, seems like a fairly pointless exercise, but for the fact that the Stones’ original was only available on their ‘Beggars Banquet’ (1968) album. Perhaps there was a chance for a single’s cover? The ‘B’-side – Shirman’s own “Anything”, works even better, about living through time from childhood when ‘all that dying meant to me, was somewhere else to go’, into the future, when ‘there’ll be a man on the moon by 1975, will I read it in the news? Will I still be alive?’ As with his quote about the Attack taking ‘the Pop scene by storm in six months’, this prediction was also way out, Neil Armstrong alighted on the lunar Sea of Tranquility 20th July 1969. Not that it matters. The tracks would remain under wraps for a decade, and longer.

But what Attack had achieved would not be easily forgotten. As the archivist-collector’s obsession with all things sixties Mod and freak-beat grew, the Attack reputation came into the up-tick. Swinging London had become kitsch, and what could be more Swinging London than “Created By Clive”? There were ripples of vinyl bootlegs, compounded by the group’s inclusions on ‘Rubble’-style compilations. Then, among a raft of Attack CD’s, John DuCann’s 1990 association with Angel Air label’s John McCoy initiated a reissue programme, remastering and compiling the carefully-hoarded tapes of supposedly-lost final Attack sessions from John’s own collection. Both sides of Attack’s projected last single were salvaged, as well as seven group demos recorded around the same time. These were included as a bonus disc with a CD reissue of the rare 1968 album by Five Day Week Straw People. Opportunistically initiated by the budget Saga label, this was a spin-off studio-only outfit involving DuCann, and cut on a cheap Revox machine. The revival process also resulted in an Angel Air compilation of Attack’s post-Decca sides titled ‘Final Daze’, featuring more unreleased material. As well as the neat group career-summary that is ‘About Time’ (RPM, 2006), with sleeve-notes by Chris Welch, and track-by-track comments from Richard himself.

Richard inaugurated a new Attack in 1979, with Mickey Jones and Steve Waller (guitars), Al MacLean (bass) and Glen Le Fleur (drums). Then, two years after that, he founded another band Hershey and the Twelve Bars who released an album ironically titled ‘Greatest Hits Volume II’ (2000, A New Day Records, AND CD43). Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1991, he enjoyed the renewed musical activity, and the revival of interest in Attack. To him, the story of Attack ‘is not a unique tale, but it does demonstrate the real power of music. After all, but for the music you wouldn’t have read a word of this, would you?’ Although it might not be one of those heavy conundrums that have teased the minds of thinkers across decades, that defining hit had consistently evaded them, but Attack got written into Rock history anyway. Reviewing their 1993 ‘Magic In The Air’ compilation LP, ‘New Musical Express’ said ‘the Attack were one of Britain’s finest garage bands and this salute to their memory is a must’. No argument there… Try it, yeah…




27th January 1967 – “Try It” (Joey Levine and Bellack) c/w “We Don’t Know” (Davy O’List and Richard Shirman) (Decca F12550) Original Attack line-up, Richard Shirman (vocals), Davy O’List (guitar and back-up vocals), Bob Hodges (organ), Gerry Henderson (bass), Alan ‘Noddy’ Whitehead (drums)

3rd March 1967 – “Hi Ho Silver Lining” (Scott English, Larry Weiss) c/w “Any More Than I Do” (O’List melody and Shirman lyrics) (Decca F12578) Produced by Mark Wildey for Withit Records. Second Attack line-up, with Barney Barnfield replacing Alan Whitehead (drums)

23rd June 1967 – “Created By Clive” (Hubert Pattison) c/w “Colour Of My Mind” (Geoff Richardon and Richard Shirman) (Decca F12631) with Geoff Richardson (guitar), Kenny Harold (bass), Plug Davies (drums)

late 1967 – “Magic In The Air” (aka ‘Watch With Mother’) (John DuCann) – unissued single with Richard Shirman (vocals), John DuCann (guitar), Geoff Richardson (guitar), Chris Allen (drums) and George Watt (organ)

12th January 1968 – “Lady Orange Peel” (Shirman) c/w “Neville Thumbcatch” (Vic Smith and Bain) (Decca F12575) Features Attack’s final line-up with Richard Shirman, John DuCann, Roger ‘Pincott’ Deane (bass) and Keith Hodge (drums)

March 1968 – “Freedom For You” (John DuCann) c/w “Feel Like Flying” (aka “Making It”) (John DuCann) – unissued single

Other Sessions:

June 1967 – Collectors Beware, a single “Washington Square” c/w “Please Phil Spector” (Philips BF 1585) issued as by the Attack USA was an American same-name group with no connection to the UK Attack

1st July 1967 ‘Saturday Club’ BBC Radio Session broadcast “Come On Up” (Felix Cavaliere) and “Created By Clive”

1969 – “Sympathy For The Devil” (Jagger and Richard) c/w “Anything” (Shirman) (acetate only recorded at RG Jones studio in Wimbledon, financed by Elektra) Len Tuckey plays guitar. He later joins the Suzie Quatro group, and marries her

21st November 2005 – “Created By Clive” c/w “Colour Of My Mind” (Acme ACF1019)

previously unreleased sessions January-March 1968: includes “Too Old” (John Du Cann), “Mr Pinnodmy’s Dilemma” (John DuCann), “Go Your Way” (John DuCann), “Strange House” (John DuCann)

Compilation Albums:

1990 ‘Magic In The Air’ (Reflection MM08, reissued in January 1993 as Aftermath AFT1001) with “Magic In The Air”, “Colour Of My Mind”, “Mr Pinnodmy’s Dilemma”, “Hi Ho Silver Lining”, “Freedom For You”, “Any More Than I Do”, “Strange House”, “Neville Thumbcatch”, “Feel Like Flying”, “Lady Orange Peel”, “Too Old”, “Go Your Way”, “Try It” (reviewed in ‘New Musical Express’ as ‘pure Carnaby Street Popadelic on a grand scale’)

1999 ‘Attack: Complete Recordings 1967-68’ (Acme ADLP1026, reissued 2005, Acme ACLN1005CD) with “Magic In The Air”, “Try It”, “Colour Of My Mind”, “Feel Like Flying”, “Lady Orange Peel”, “Freedom For You”, “Mr Pinnodmy’s Dilemma”, “Strange House”, “Any More Than I Do”, “Created By Clive”. “We Don’t Know”, “Hi Ho Silver Lining”, “Neville Thumbcatch”, “Too Old”, “Go Your Way”

2001 ‘Final Daze’ (Angel Air SJPCD080, and Get Back GET602 in Italy) with “Magic In The Air”, “Mr Pinnodmy’s Dilemma”, “Freedom For You”, “Strange House”, “Feel Like Flying”, “Too Old”, “Go Your Way”, plus previously unissued titled drawn from John DuCann’s personal collection of acetates, “You Know He Did” (sparse Beat-group sound), “The Rock Door” (‘Lucile’-based Rocker), “Now The Sun Shines” (slow Folky-style, ‘I was lower than the ground, feeling lonely, now I’ve found…’), “Sleep Like A Child” (tempo-change, ‘close your eyes, tomorrow when you rise…’), “Roll On” (catchy fast-harmony), “My Letters” (Beat-Boom style harmonies), “Earth Tremor” and “Spaced Out” (Heavy Rock instrumentals) plus “Magic In The Air” (unplugged), “Go Your Way” (Demo)

2002 ‘Five Day Week Straw People’ (Akarma AK218/2) 2-Disc set, first disc ‘Five Day Week Straw People’ (Saga FID2123 from 1968, Angel Air SJPCD059 in 2000) with “Does It Rain”, “Gold Digger”, “Sunday Morning” etc coordinated by Guy Mascalo and David Montague, with Mick Hawksworth (bass, vocals), Jack ‘McCulloch’ Collins (drums), John DuCann (guitar, vocals). The second disc is made up of Attack tracks “Magic In The Air”, “Mr Pinnodmy’s Dilemma”, “Freedom For You”, “Strange House”, “Feel Like Flying”, “Too Old”, “Go Your Way”, “Now The Sun Shines”, “Sleep Like A Child”

2006 ‘About Time’ (RPM BC317) also Bam Caruso KIRI121, with “Any More Than I Do”, “Feel Like Flying” aka “Making It’, “Created By Clive”, “Try It”, “Go Your Way” (lyrics by John DuCann), “Too Old”, “Colour Of My Mind”, “Lade Orange Peel’, “Sympathy For The Devil”, “Neville Thumbcatch”, “Strange House” (John DuCann, with Roger Deane and Keith Hodge), “Mr Pinnodny’s Dilemma”, “Freedom For You”, “Hi Ho Silver Lining”, “Magic In The Air” aka “Watch With Mother”, “Anything” (Shirman), “We Don’t Know”, plus two tracks from BBC Light Programme’s ‘Saturday Club’ “Created By Clive” and a cover of the US Young Rascal’s “Come On Up”. The radio show also featured the Bee Gees and Swinging Blue Jeans, with Lulu headlining

The Attack are also featured on compilations ‘The Clouds Have Groovy Faces’ (FORLP2906) with “Created By Clive” and “Neville Thumcatch”: ‘The Great British Psychedelic Box Volume 4’ (Acme ACMEBOX4) with “Created By Clive” and “Colour Of My Mind”: ‘The British Psychedelic Trip 1966-1969’ (SEELP66, 1992) with “Created By Clive”: ‘British Psychedelic Trip Volume 3’ (SEE86) with “Neville Thumbcatch’

Brooklyn-born Scott English who wrote “Hi Ho Silver Lining” (with Larry Weiss) had a UK no.12 hit with his own song “Brandy” (October 1971), which – as “Mandy”, topped the US charts for Barry Manilow. Scott also wrote “Bend Me, Shape Me”, a US hit for American Breed which was a UK hit for Amen Corner, and “Help Me Girl” for Eric Burdon And The Animals, also done by the Outsiders

Hubert Pattison – who wrote “Created By Clive”, also wrote’ “Move It Baby” recorded by Cliff Richard-alike Simon Scott and was revived in 1999 by Roy Loney And The Longshots (ex-Flamin’ Groovies), while “Hand Don’t Fit The Glove” was recorded by Terry Reid (on the 2000 expanded CD edition of ‘Bang Bang, You’re Terry Reid’). He also wrote “Everybody Knows” for Billie Davis (1964). Hubert Pattison’s own singles include “Bare-Back Ride” c/w “The Baby” (Pye 7N17207, November 1966) and “My Home’s In My Pocket” c/w “Saturday Morning Bride” (Fontana TF859, August 1967)

Attack’s producer Vic Smith, who was Decca engineer for their version of “Hi Ho Silver Lining”, wrote “Neville Thumbcatch” – later recorded by actor Peter Wyngarde. He also worked on Jam’s first album



(1958, Avalon Books, then paperback Ace Double, 1959)

‘They Had Created A Miniature Universe.
But Could They Control It?’

‘David Grinnell’ was Donald A Wollheim, the all-round SF-activist who donated his initials to found ‘DAW Books’. That he was also an inventively useful novelist is evident from this weird and unusual tale. And it explodes up from the opening line – ‘William Bassett had just returned to his tractor when the dinosaurs appeared’, before hurtling pell-mell into the breathless narrative. Bassett is a dirt-farmer ploughing his field in upstate New York. The dinosaurs, complete with their own slice of primeval jungle, have appeared in his back forty. Terrified, he races his tractor back towards the house with his plough gouging an untidy zigzag furrow all the way. But turning, the prehistoric vista has vanished. This is the latest in a series of bizarre visions seen in this remote rural area.

Very much like a fifties version of Mulder and Scully, Warren Alton and Marge McElroy are despatched to investigate these strange occurrences. Except that they’re a news team from national picture weekly ‘People’. And he’s a writer who’s at first shocked to discover that his designated photographer is female, after all ‘it was embarrassing to send a girl unescorted with him’. With his objections firmly slapped down he sullenly sets out with her in his three-year-old Dodge, on their way to the back of the beyond. And a strangeness that would tax even the comprehension of the two ‘X-Files’ agents.

Although largely known as a pioneering editor, anthologist, essayist and critic, New Yorker Donald Allen Wollheim (born 1 October 1914) sporadically contributed short fiction to the pulps following his early debut with “The Man From Ariel” in ‘Wonder Stories’ (January 1934). By the early fifties he’d already published a handful of series-novels as ‘Martin Pearson’, and a couple of others under his own name. There is also one earlier ‘David Grinnell’ novel – ‘Across Time’ (1957), about jealousy and revenge between two brothers, hook-lined ‘a quest in the year one-million’, a year earlier. Then came ‘Edge Of Time’ which was largely well-received by reviewers at the time, but has been subsequently overlooked, and largely forgotten. Its extravagantly wide-eyed sense-of-wonder scarcely accords with the more dour experimental trends that reconfigured the genre over the following years. But it still makes for a hugely enjoyable read, leaving a residue of teasing speculation.

Alton and McElroy chart a map of strange visions across the Appalachian Coningo County – flights of pterodactyls, mysterious cities in disappearing valleys, even sudden soundless eruptions where previously – and afterwards, there was no volcano. Plotting the hub of the events, they calculate their point of emanation to isolated Thunderhook, where, after a hair-raising pursuit up unmade mountain tracks they are captured and led into a secure installation. There are threats and bluffing, but eventually it is decided that their writerly credentials make the duo ideal for recruitment to the secret ‘Project Microcosm’, and they are given responsibility for documenting its progress. In this capacity, the scientific activity causing the region’s mysterious appearances is revealed to them.

Donald Wollheim called his exhaustive academic study of the SF-genre ‘The Universe Makers’ (1971), and that’s precisely what the scientists at Thunderhook have become. In a domed building adjacent to the main complex they have created a pocket galaxy, held in place by powerful atomic stabilisers. Using a cyclotron – a kind of progenitor of the Large Hadron Collider, beginning with the detonation of a primordial super-atom, ‘the achievement of bringing a particle of matter to infinite mass and infinite length at absolute zero was the creation of a thing which could not exist in our universe’, the resulting miniature bubble-cosmos has evolved through gravitational whorls into star systems and planets on which life-forms are in the process of evolving. Due to its relative size, time is accelerated within the contained realm, enabling the scientists to observe and analyse the entire sequence through an array of telescopes. It is sympathetic vibrations from here that have accidentally thrown up the odd visions seen by the baffled people of the surrounding countryside. Although, once Alton and McElroy are embedded within the establishment, all reference to these mirages ceases. Perhaps Dr Steiner’s attempts at ‘using additional magnetic blocks to channel them’ succeeds, or maybe they continue, in increasingly complex and scary ways. Either way, the reader is no longer privy to them.

And it’s not as though the microverse was exactly a new concept in SF. The discovery of the atomic structure, and the fact that its nucleus plus orbiting protons and neutrons resemble a miniature solar system, irresistibly enabled writers to take that similarity literally. With fiction involving various heroes shrunk down to visit the worlds within the elemental sub-particles of matter, experiencing the usual array of extravagant adventures, frequently involving beautiful princesses. Tales such as Ray Cummings’ enchanting “The Girl in The Golden Atom” (in ‘All-Story’ magazine, March 1919), Peyton Wertenbaker’s “The Man In The Atom” (‘Science And Invention’, August 1923), RF Starzl’s “Out Of The Sub-Universe” (‘Amazing Stories Quarterly’, Summer 1928) meeting inhabitants of the miniature worldlet Elektron, and Captain SP Meek’s “Submicroscopic” (‘Amazing Stories’, August 1931) adventuring in the sub-world of Ulm. Wollheim was an original ‘Futurian’, and as an avid student of SF history he was obviously aware of these fantastic tales. But his concept is significantly different in a number of ways. Not least as an early-adapter to the ‘Big Bang’ which was a theory by no means firmly established, and still fiercely contested within the astrophysics community (although he dates it to a mere ‘four-and-half billion years ago’, whereas modern science prefers 13.77-billion). His closely scrutinised contained experimental galaxy constitutes an original slant on the idea. And it is a single galaxy, a subjective hundred-thousand light-years across, not a universe.

Alton soon finds the history of the project fascinating, researching the formation of planetary systems, then the emergence of early life-forms that stumble through their various stages towards sentience. That, in itself, forms a masterclass in evolutionary biology. But what is even more intriguing is the potential for the miniaturised future within the pocket worlds. To enable closer scrutiny a means of hypnotically projecting members of the team down into the bodies of people within the microverse is devised. Relativistic time effects determine that subjective months can pass within the experiment as a matter of moments occur within the external world. Gaps of days between projections span thousands of years in the historical development of the tiny planets they visit.

As a teenager I first encountered this book as a second-hand 1966 Ace paperback, with the haunted green Kelly Freas jacket illuminating an eerie alien planetscape, and the sky-maid ‘Oracle’ reaching out to envelop the White Star. I was impressed. It had trace-elements of that vast mind-blowing immensity which acted as my litmus of good SF. And yes, my mind was blown. But this is a 1950’s novel. As such, it betrays 1950’s attitudes. Although in many ways Marge McElroy is an aspirational career-woman, full of ingenuity and respected for his skills as a photographer, she still insists on her hair and lipstick being right before she goes into a ‘projection’. Warren Alton has many of the hard-bitten attributes of a pulp hero, who also finds time to puff contemplatively on his pipe as he reflects on aspects of his mission. And, maybe as a hidden literary reference, one of the scientists is called ‘Dr Weidekind’. These characters gaze up at the night sky over Thunderhook with maturing respect, while never taking it that next logical step – is all of this, our universe, merely a bubble-microcosm in someone else’s yet vaster experiment? Even RF Starzl got there in 1928 speculating about ‘the constituents of the infra-universe beneath us and the super-universe above us are only links of a chain that stretches into infinity’.

Instead, there are Cold War elements too. One of the anticipated benefits of the project, justifying its funding, is that as the contained worlds achieve, and then ‘when these micro-civilisations surpass us’ by evolving beyond contemporary levels of science and technology, its advances and ‘super-inventions’ can be filched. ‘Not merely space flight, but star flight, the secrets of tapping cosmic energy, the secrets of harnessing sun-power direct, the architectural plans for redesigning planets, blueprints for manipulating gravity and the forces beyond gravity.’ The weaponisation applications will give the global power-balance a decisive kick. Hence there’s an espionage sub-plot with suspected infiltrations by a double-agent spy of a foreign nation. But beyond such contemporary preoccupations, there’s also the kind of consensus that earlier SF writers had painfully worked out about the pattern the future will assume. So far the Thunderhook crew have watched history unfold, across an array of basically humanoid species, through essentially similar stages, ‘savagery, nomadic society, agricultural communities, slave-keeping societies, medievalism, the rise of industry, electric and atomic energy’, war and revolution. Various competing confederations then merge into a single global unity. Projected into the future, the pattern continues. Planets seed colonies that grow into star-empires. Inevitably they encroach into each other’s spheres of influence, leading to space warfare, then reconciliation, and larger unified federations. Isaac Asimov and his ilk had already charted out such a future. As though there is a deterministic manifest destiny for the human race out among the stars. Wollheim generally accepts the rough contours of this future.

Much of the groundbreaking head-spinning novelty of all this has long since been ‘Star Trek’ked into a dull kind of Xbox conformity. Until such future-history has become merely another stock galactic-empire scenario for war-gaming and wedge-thick dynastic fantasy trilogies. For Wollheim it was still a little more than that. It was speculation about the nature of time and destiny. Albeit in a cheap fast-turnaround pulp-fictional sense. ‘Edge Of Time’ is not a great novel. Even among its genre contemporaries. But there is a real questioning at work. Although only days are passing in Thunderhook, like a time-traveller the projectionists dip in and out of time across centuries and thousands of years in short sharp vignettes – precise short stories that take place through the ages of galactic expansion. From the first Komarian space-shot to the Ice Moon where two astronauts from competing powers must cooperate, cannibalising each others wrecked crafts so that they can return home together. Then the first star-drive voyage, utilising cosmic-sails, to reach the savagely hostile neighbouring SSW19 system. The evacuation of extra-solar colony Morlna threatened by its sun going nova. Through to first contact with another expanding star-empire from another sector of the galaxy. Into the advanced utopian Galactic Congress and all-embrasive League of Planets. So what lies yet further ahead? Events, and expectations accelerate…

Wollheim knew nothing about the interaction of dark matter and dark energy. But he knew that the universe must end. And when his microverse reaches the limit of its expansion, it goes into its contraction phase. It’s hereabouts that things get a little blurry. As the galaxy within its artificial enclosure had gone through all the evolutionary stages of existence from cooling planets with the primal spores of igniting life, all the way up to sentience – ‘three-hundred million year compressed into one of our years’, so logically it would devolve over a further span of subjective billions of years before condensing down to its eventual entropic heat-death. In that way ‘we shall see what will happen when our own system grows old, when our own sun cools, and when our own galaxy comes eventually to old age and to some sort of cosmic death’. We, in the real universe, all live quite comfortably with that knowledge. While Science Fiction writers, from HG Wells’ ‘Time Traveller’ on, through Olaf Stapledon, William Hope Hodgson, John Campbell (as ‘Don A Stuart’ with “Twilight”, in ‘Astounding’, November 1934), to contemporary writers such as Stephen Baxter, have all strained at the limits of imagination to envisage that strange and distant end. But it could be argued that Wollheim ducks that mind-stretching challenge. As soon as the inhabitants of his miniature galaxy detect evidence of its tilt into contraction, they panic. With the personnel of Thunderhook, intermittently visiting the realm across centuries, documenting the process.

Although initially glimpsed only as the eternal ‘Oracle Of The White Star’, Marge now asserts her presence in a very positive way, using her time within projections to influence events. As things move towards a climax both internally and externally, the mysterious agents of the foreign power launch their attack on Thunderhook. And taking advantage of the ensuing confusion Marge releases the dampening field around the micro-galaxy, enabling its micronaut exodus-fleet of world-ships, constructed over generations by stripping entire planets for materials and consuming stars as energy-sources, to burst free and escape into the infinite real universe. Our universe. Perhaps this is a cop-out? A way of resolving the plot’s internal conflicts and bringing it all to a satisfactory close? It’s only a genre novel, after all. Perhaps to ask more would be unreasonable? There’s even a romantic resolution as Warren Alton looks at Marge McElroy with new respect, and growing love. Not only ‘an eternal priestess with miraculous insight’ but ‘the sweet smiling face of a young girl, vibrant with youth, whose eyes had witnessed glory even as had his’. They kiss in the closing line.

Wollheim died 2 November 1990. By then ‘Edge Of Time’ was overlooked and largely forgotten. Or perhaps not, not completely. In ‘The Simpsons Treehouse Of Horror VII’ (Season: 8 Episode: 1, October 1996) there’s a quaint little sequence called ‘The Genesis Tub’ in which Lisa’s school science project accidentally produces a rapidly-evolving miniature civilisation in a glass retort, in which through shrinking herself down she’s able to participate as a god-figure. Whether that’s coincidence, or if creator Matt Groening or writer Dan Greaney drew directly from this novel, is open to conjecture. Meanwhile Wollheim’s legacy was being reactivated elsewhere. His story “Mimic” (from ‘Astonishing Stories’ December 1942) was transfigured into a high-grossing shock-horror cockroach-crawling movie by director Guillermo del Toro around the same time (1997).

As it is, ‘Edge Of Time’ still makes for a hugely enjoyable read, leaving a residue of teasing speculation.