But are they just smooth Retro plagiarists? And would
they smash their guitars in a remake of ‘Blow-Up’?
You out there, reading this webpage, come closer. Closer. Now prepare yourself for a shock. When Sarah Cracknell swears, you tend to notice.
‘I’m really into the film ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979). That’s one of my favourite films, and it’s based on Joseph Conrad’s book’ she explains brightly. ‘The funny thing is, when I opted to read it on Radio One I didn’t realise how difficult it is to actually read out loud. It’s just m-a-s-s-i-v-e sentences with loads of commas. And you’re trying to find out what the point of the sentence is, in the sentence-structure, while you’re reading it. You end up just going BLUUUURGH. It ended up with me going ‘yes, and blah blah blah – SHIT! BOLLOCKS!!!,’ and they had to edit it out.’
She giggles delightfully. Sarah has a fractured innocence you last encountered in a Swinging London movie, where ‘bad language’ still tests out the boundaries of what is daring and what is permissible. She’s explaining how she got to read Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Heart Of Darkness’ (1899) on Mark Radcliffe’s radio culture-vulture slot.
So why choose Conrad? Why not John Braine’s ‘Room At The Top’ (1957) or Shelagh Delaney’s ‘A Taste Of Honey’ (1958), or at least Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ (1957)? Something more evocative of the image Saint Etienne tend to evoke.
‘We’re deeper than we seem’ says Pete Wiggs darkly. Then ‘if I’d done it I would have chosen the ‘Mr Men’ books. I could just about manage those.’
It’s almost like the lyrics of “Pale Movies” – ‘he’s so dark and moody, she’s a sunshine girl.’
We’re in the dressing room. Leeds Metropolitan University. The gig was a breathtaking movie of sequenced chart contenders, with Sarah in the lead role. The focal point. She’s still wearing the silver-grey mini-skirt and black leather boots she wore on stage. At her throat is a pink heart choker.
Saint Etienne are named after a French football team. Sarah’s co-conspirators are Bob Stanley, and the aforesaid Pete Wiggs. Together they write knowing and affectionate, engaging and clever love-notes to Pop’s back-catalogue. They are English Popstrels with Euro-kitsch embellishments. Tone, pace, style, and dance-friendly bass-lines.
She jokes lightly about getting psyched up for the gig. But seems effortlessly at ease on stage. As though it’s her natural environment.
‘It is’ says Pete.
‘It is my natural environment’ agrees Sarah with another throwaway giggle. ‘I love live gigs. No, I don’t get nervous. I wasn’t nervous tonight. But I was worried because my voice has been really hoarse. I thought it was – like, going, and I was worried it was just going to pack up altogether.’ A smile of secret intimacy. ‘And I made the fatal mistake of apologising for not having my voice – two songs in, and then thought ‘why did I do that?’’
A little gruffness adds a sexy edge to the voice.
‘Ye-eh’ she concedes. ‘Yeah, when it’s sort-of s-l-o-w.’ Like she’s imagining Barry White doing it. ‘But some of the songs we do are very high and very intricate. Like “Avenue” (a seven-minute track from ‘So Tough’). That’s really one of the difficult ones. But then, I’ve got Debsey and Siobahn to help me out on that.’ Debsey and Siobahn Brookes nod enthusiastically. They wear, by turn – a Sonic the Hedgehog T-shirt, and a sequinned ‘Miss America’ tank-top. But glitter ye not…
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Sarah on the rigours of touring:
‘Actually we’ve got quite a plush
tour coach. With a video’
‘Call me old-fashioned, but I’m a little nervous about the future’ sez Carter USM. ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ agree Blur. What’s the answer? A retreat into the past?
Saint Etienne’s show leads in on tapes of Kathy Kirby and Dusty Springfield. Their first album – ‘Fox-Base Alpha’ (1991) opens out into a booklet of liner pin-ups of Marianne Faithful, Monkee Micky Dolenz, and Billy Fury. A year later they sample the film soundtrack from ‘Billy Liar’ (1963) on their second LP ‘So Tough’ (February 1993), ‘…a man could lose himself in London…’ Then they quote Brian Clough as a ‘Folk Hero’ on the sleeve of their compilation ‘You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone’ (November 1993). Meanwhile, the B-side of their no.1 Indie single duet with Charlatan’s Tim Burgess is a cover of Billy Fury’s “My Christmas Prayer”.
And someone mentions noticing the Small Faces in their set tonight.
‘The Small Faces were in HERE tonight?’ goggles Pete.
No. Not in HERE! In one of the slides used in the stage backdrop.
‘Yes. They were on the slides’ confirms Sarah. ‘There’s a few of those slides which I’ve forgotten about. That’s why I’m sometimes standing with my back to the audience – I’m watching our slides. I was a bit worried tonight though when I was watching the slides. They’d put the word ‘EASY’ above my head. It’s a slide from the ‘Easy Rider’ (1969) movie, but I turned round and, there it was. ‘EASY’ written above my head! That’s not very nice, is it?’
‘It’s awful when the truth comes out’ gags Pete.
Pete initially pacted with Bob Stanley in 1988. Bob was a music journalist whose review of the Lightning Seeds ‘Cloud Cuckooland’ once graced the pages of a leading music paper with the initials ‘MM’. Their first single together, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, was a cover of a Neil Young song, with Moira Lambert contributing guest vocals. It was followed by “Kiss And Make Up”, again a cover version – this time from obscure Indie band Field Mice. The vocalist is Donna Savage. It’s not until the third single – in May 1991, that the Ett’s third vital ingredient falls into place. “Nothing Can Stop Us” c/w “Speedwell” is an original Stanley-Wiggs song, even though it samples Dusty Springfield (“I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face”). Sarah Cracknell is the voice, breathy, fragile and pure.
How many French bands are there named after English football teams?
‘About twenty’ deadpans Pete.
Wolverhampton Wanderers? Leeds United? …Chelsea?
‘Ah – yeah’ joins in Sarah. ‘Don’t dare mention Chelsea. Not in this vicinity.’ She nods at Debsey and Siobahn. ‘I’ll get my scarf out,’
‘She’s their no.1 fan!’
‘There IS a band called Chelsea’ chips in one of the posse.
But I know that. It was a joke.
‘Tiger Bay’ (February 1994), issued in CD, vinyl LP, cassette and digital formats, is Saint Etienne’s best-received album to date. Haunting melodies. Opulent orchestral embellishments. Less scope for the usual press swipes about assorted pastiches and the suspicion of tongues not entirely dislodged from stylish cheeks. The album spin-offs also include a David Holmes dance-floor mix of their Disco-friendly “Like A Motorway”, and a Kris Needs Techno remastering of the “Pale Movie” single – quintessential La-La-La Pop with Spanish guitars and tactile-to-the-touch lyrics about a girl with ‘the softness of cinema seats.’
But Saint Etienne are still a ‘concept’ band.
‘In a way. But that’s because we were all Pop fans. Because we were all into the musical heritage, as it were. We like things that are good from certain periods. And we incorporate them into our music. We don’t go all the way. We don’t want to be a seventies group. Or a sixties group. But there’s certain things about those periods that were really cool. And we can adapt them to modern usage. I think most bands are probably the same to different degrees. Everyone always has. The Rolling Stones – they were using Blues. You use things you like. You try to get elements of what you like into it. We get criticised a bit more than others for that. Just ‘cos we’re not a traditional four-piece group. In the old days it was just guitars and drums. But now – with the technology, it’s more easy to replicate things. Now you can ape things really easily. Rather than just incorporating ideas you can end up copying things totally, perfectly. But we’re never going to do that. We’re just taking certain elements from each particular style.’
‘In a way it makes me laugh that the Press has had a bit of a ‘pop’ about how we’re retro and how we’re post-this and post-that’ smiles Sarah. ‘Yet now they’re heralding the New Wave Of The New Wave, and that’s the best thing since sliced bread. I mean – you can’t get more retro than that. But that’s what they’re into at the moment. The Music Papers today. They love all that.’
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Pete Wiggs on why Saint Etienne have yet to
tour America: ‘Lack of support from our American
record company. They’re a bit crap.’
Sarah: ‘They’re very crap.’
Live, Saint Etienne do “Nothing Can Stop Us Now”. An anthemic declaration of intent. Think Positive – ‘there’s gonna be a storm soon, get ready, ‘cos we’re coming through.’ Then there’s material from ‘Tiger Bay’ – Sarah’s compositions “Marble Lions” and the Poppy seventies-flavoured “Hug My Soul”. She says ‘thank you, you are too kind.’
It’s a smooth, flawlessly textured set, opening with the scene-setting instrumental “Urban Clearway”, a track that ‘Q’ magazine describes as ‘wordless sub-techno soundscapes (of) mythical late-nite London’ (April 1994). There’s “Cool Kids Of Death”, a title that’s allegedly a typing error for ‘Cool Kinds Of Death’. But one of the most fascinating titles – “Western Wind”, is a kind of medieval poetry set to (what ‘Select’ calls) an ‘ambient trance Folk ballad.’ Stephen Duffy – of Lilac Time, shares the vocals with Sarah. Then there’s orchestral follies of oboes and cellos chiming with electric guitars of “Former Lover”, a Paul Simon-esque ballad with intriguingly oblique lyrics about ‘Milan, when I was a kitten.’ And there’s more. “On The Shore” has Shara Nelson returning a favour; the Ett’s collaborated on her hit “One Goodbye In Ten”, she sings back-up on ‘Tiger Bay’.
Coming off stage Sarah confesses ‘I tried to mention everyone in the band tonight. But I didn’t get everybody.’ As we settle into the dressing room, the omission seems to bother her. Because ‘everybody in the band are friends, ultimately. They begin as friends. And then they end up playing guitar or keyboards.’
We talk more movies. Antonioni’s surreal ‘England Swings’ classic ‘Blow-Up’ (1966). ‘It’s kind of pretentious towards the end’ judges Pete. ‘Though it’s still very good. I like the Yardbirds sequence, where Jeff Beck is smashing the guitar in that Club scene.’
Could you see Saint Etienne doing that? ‘What? Smashing our guitars?’
No, playing in a film sequence of that nature? ‘It’d be great. If there was a movie sequence in a film in the same vein, I’d love for us to do it. But smashing your guitar is a bit corny in a way now, isn’t it? Although back then, in ‘Blow-Up’, it was still a curiosity. Paul did smash his guitar after one of our gigs. And regretted it ever since.’
‘Yes’ enthuses Sarah. ‘Instead of being all Rock ‘n’ Roll about it, he was ‘EEEEK, look what I’ve done!!!’
‘He burst into tears, ‘WAAAAAAH, what have I done? WHY?’
But talking futures, some Saint Etienne pieces sound exactly like music for unmade movies. “Highgate Road Incident” would not sound out of place on the ‘Blow-Up’ soundtrack. Would they like to work in that direction? ‘Yeh’ from Sarah, ‘We’re just waiting for somebody to ask us.’
So does she see Saint Etienne as a long-term project? ‘Until we run out ideas. Until we become boring old buggers.’
When Sarah Cracknell swears, she does it delightfully…
Pete Wiggs on Kim & Kelley Deal’s band, the Breeders:
‘They’re a bit more of a traditional Rock band, aren’t they?
I think we’re a bit more like accountants.’
RETURN TO ‘FOXBASE ALPHA’
To mark its eighteenth anniversary on September 2009, Heavenly Records issued a ‘Deluxe Edition’ of the ‘Foxbase Alpha’ album, proving that it remains one of the most dewy-fresh debut albums ever made. Back then, newly located from suburban Croydon to Tufnell Park, north London, school-friends Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs set about making what Stanley has since described as ‘a time capsule of our lives in that year’. ‘Foxbase Alpha’ was named after a childhood in-joke about a place filled with gorgeous people, via an esoteric reference to TV’s ‘Space 1999’. And it is both retro and modern, a love letter and a scrapbook, a compendium of private passions from Dusty Springfield to King Tubby, David Mamet to footfall, C86 to ambient house, and London, always London. The packaging, from its cover placard-carrying gentle-protester with the album name carried as its declaration, to its Jon Savage sleevenotes and Smiths-inspired gallery of sixties icons, is gorgeous. An eclectic bonus CD of singles, ‘B’-sides and offcuts enhances the sense of joyous adventure. The effect is to invite the listener into a world slightly warmer, brighter and more exciting than the real one. And despite its many American influences, its Swinging London romanticism anticipated Britpop. The Balearic reinvention of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” may be its most celebrated moment but “London Belongs To Me” – a NW1 fantasia, is the album’s awestruck heart. To Dorian Lynskey, reviewing the package in the ‘Observer Music Monthly (May 2009)’ ‘Sarah Cracknell coos the opening line ‘took a tube to Camden Town’ like she’s Alice passing through the looking glass.’
THE SAINT ETIENNE HIT-FILE
18 May 1991 – ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ c/w ‘Speedwell’ (Heavenly HVN009) reaches no.54
7 September 1991 – ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ c/w ‘Filthy’ (Heavenly HVN12) reaches no.39
16 September 1991 – ‘Foxbase Alpha’ (Heavenly HVNLP1CD)
(1) ‘This Is Radio Etienne’ (0:43, Bob Stanley-Pete Wiggs)
(2) ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ (4:29, Neil Young) Moira Lambert vocals
(3) ‘Wilson’ (1:59, Stanley-Wiggs) based on a Wilson Pickett ‘Hey Jude’ sample
(4) ‘Carn’t Sleep’ (4:43, Stanley-Wiggs)
(5) ‘Girl VII’ (3:46, Stanley-Wiggs)
(6) ‘Spring’ (3:44, Stanley-Wiggs)
(7) ‘She’s The One’ (3:07, Stanley-Wiggs)
(8) ‘Stoned To Say The Least’ (7:42, Stanley-Wiggs)
(9) ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ (4:21, Stanley-Wiggs) includes Dusty Springfield sample from ‘I Can’t Wait To See My Baby’s Face’
(10) ‘Etienne Gonna Die’ (1:32, Stanley-Wiggs) sampled dialogue from ‘House Of Games’
(7) ‘Parliament Hill’ (2:38, Stanley-Wiggs) guitar by Harvey Williams
(8) ‘People Get Real’ (4:45, Stanley-Wiggs)
(9) ‘Sweet Pea’ (4:49, Stanley-Wiggs)
(10) ‘Winter In America’ (5:53) Gil Scott-Heron song sung by Donna Savage
(11) ‘Fake 88’ (5:03, Stanley-Wiggs) spoken vocals by Stephen Duffy
(12) ‘Studio Kinda Filthy’ (4:58, Stanley-Wiggs-Mais) vocals by Q-Tee
(13) ‘Kiss And Make Up (USA version’ (5:16) Sarah Cracknell version
(14) ‘Sky’s Dead’ (7:26, Stanley-Wiggs)
16 May 1992 – ‘Join Our Club’ c/w ‘People Get Real’ (Heavenly HVN15) reaches no.21
17 October 1992 – ‘Avenue’ (Heavenly HVN2312) reaches no.40
13 February 1993 – ‘You’re In A Bad Way’ (Heavenly HVN25CD) reaches no.12
18 December 1993 – ‘I Was Born On Christmas Day’ (Heavenly HVN36CD) reaches no.37
19 February 1994 – ‘Pale Movie’ (Heavenly HVN37CD) reaches no.28
28 May 1994 – ‘Like A Motorway’ (Heavenly HVN40CD) reaches no.47
1 October 1994 – ‘Hug My Soul’ (Heavenly HVN42CD) reaches no.32
11 November 1995 – ‘He’s On The Phone’ (Heavenly HVN50CD) reaches no.11
7 February 1998 – ‘Sylvie’ (Creation CRESCD279) reaches no.12
2 May 1998 – ‘The Bad Photographer’ (Creation CRESCD290) reaches no.27
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Gig Review of:
At ‘Leeds Metropolitan University’, Yorkshire
Jane Fonda in ‘Barbarella’. And the Smallfaces.
Hayley Mills in ‘Whistle Down The Wind’. And the Jam.
But Sarah Cracknell, in white feather-boa, silver-grey mini-skirt, pink heart choker, and kinky boots, is tonight’s REAL Starlet. Watch her ooze ‘we think you’re gorgeous. You really are,’ blowing sweet kiss-ettes to the assembled glitterati and fashion victims. And you know that Sarah is Venus In New Genes.
Saint Etienne are a timeless party. Of the Sixties. But not Sixties. Of Seventies Disco. But not Seventies either. More a Soda-Pop Dance Inferno fine-tuned for the Nineties. Sharply dark Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley are the wizards of twiddly as the Bridget Riley ‘Time Tunnel’ spiral revolves on the backdrop behind them. Siobahn Brooke and Debsey Wykes stand stage-right in leather Hot-Pants, ‘Miss America’ sequinned top, and ‘Sonic’ T-shirt, doing a neat Supremes dance routine – ‘STOP, in the name of love’ to 1993 mini-hit “Who Do You Think You Are?” (it reached no.23). Five males and three girls on stage at any given time, plus the style-referencing slides – Sonny Bono to Jean Luc Godard and beyond.
There’s a smooth opening instrumental Movie soundtrack punctuated with melodica, ‘Hawaii Five-O’ quotes hinting at the diversity to come. And Saint Etienne shift across a wider range of sounds than I’ve seen on stage for a long time. Irresistibly straight La-La-La Pop like “Pale Movie” (no.24 in February 1994), the acoustic strum of “Former Lover” (from their ‘Tiger Bay’ 1994 album, with lyrics that go ‘Milan, when I was a kitten…’), and then into a Kraftwerk autobahn detour for “Like A Motorway” – by way of trad-Folk anthem ‘Silver Dagger’ but decked out with authentic synth-drums… and Presley’s electro-redesigned “We’re Coming In Loaded” (from his 1962 ‘Girls Girls Girls’ movie). ‘Do you like Elvis Presley? – good’ purrs Sarah, twirling her party frock.
She’s most impressive on “Don’t Forget To Catch Me”, laced with touchingly slow keyboards and a lethally incisive guitar solo. ‘You are tooooo kind’ she drools in appreciation.
Visually it’s a trip. Sonically it’s a complete edition of ‘Top Of The Pops’ when it was good. “People Get Real” is rousing Girlie-Pop to tear your face off. “You’re In A Bad Way” is a chart single to die for (their biggest hit, no.12 in February 1993). ‘We don’t normally do this’ oozes Sarah through shimmers of blonde hair, ‘encores are a big no-no. But just for you…’
And they close with “No No No”. A cover of Nancy Nova.
But me, I ran out of goose-bumps long before that.
If Punk meant anything, it was do your own thing, on your own terms. Robert John Godfrey might have launched the Enid’s unlikely Prog-on-stilts symphonic-Rock during the 1976 turmoil, but his intense persistence of vision guided the seven-piece group beyond its lapsed big-label period into admirably self-sufficient fan-funding as radical as anything in Mohawk and ripped leather. ‘Dust’, the third part of an album-trilogy, fades in through murmurations that tingle like ghosts gliding up and down the spine, into a masterclass in guilty pleasures, high-end pomp and rich cinematic orchestration. Bohemian rhapsodies ricochet around your headphones, terrific textures where Stravinsky strings swoon and Jason Ducker’s lead guitar glistens appealingly while Joe Payne’s smooth rangy five-octave voice effortlessly dives into mind-tunnelling tunes and arrangements of labyrinthine classicism. Bitingly beautiful gauzy melodies, both brittle and complex, are spliced and diced into crescendos and jittery choral choruses you need Google-Earth to navigate. And if the libretto of the seven tracks spread across forty-three lavish minutes tend to bland emotive platitudes about illusion and love born of fire, then that’s exactly what the Enid audience needs. For they do their own very unique thing, on their own terms.
Symphonic-Rock was always something of an unwieldy concept. Rapid-run keyboard cascades, unexpected tempo switches, thoughts that tick like a watch mechanism, both tastefully gifted yet problematic. This CD is the Enid’s full Loughborough Hall concert – admission £1.95, recorded for Radio Trent transmission, but previously unreleased. They open with “665 The Great Bean”, a cheeky pun on Aleister Crowley, as a ‘monstrosity about monsters’, saved from the brink of pomposity by the ‘redoubtable’ and ferociously-bearded Robert John Godfrey’s manic vocals, both effete and ‘a little bit eccentric’. “The Dreamer” takes the seven-piece band through a soothing pastoral mid-point instrumental break leavened with shovelful of sunshine.
Another alleged Pop Song – “Golden Earrings”, opens with Aaron Copland’s ‘Fanfare’ that we know from ELP, then throws in a clever-clever muso-literate quote from ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’. There are two sequences from their third album – ‘Touch Me’ (1979), the elaborate “Humouresque” and “Cortege”, immaculately arranged, intelligently performed to studio-standard perfection, plus “The Dreamer” and “Hall Of Mirrors” from ‘Six Pieces’ (1980). Then the full 18-minute centrepiece “The Fand” from ‘Aerie Faerie Nonsense’ (1977) with Francis Lickerish’s soaring guitar and expansive rising and falling waves of intricately-scored light and epic deftness that bizarrely leaves the ‘absolutely splendid’ audience foot-stomping for more. This album predates the release, but not the recording of their ‘Live At Hammersmith’ (1983) set which also includes “The Song Of Fand”. Now they close – in the tradition of their ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’, with a tongue-in-cheek “Wild Thing”, emoting a camply exaggerated ‘I’m going to smack your bottom you naughty girl!’ (catch the YouTube clip of this from the 1984 Stonehenge Free Festival). Bucking trends through often unsympathetic years, the Enid nevertheless established an awkward but fiercely defiant Prog presence that gifts them a loyal and enduring fandom.
This is a self-contained stand-alone novel. But – running to 523-pages, excluding ‘Afterword’ and ‘Credits’, it’s still only a dozen or so pages short of Isaac Asimov’s entire ‘Foundation’ trilogy, which collectively adds up to 548pp. So, still a hefty tome, although a strangely static one. There are jaunts to the Moon, and a character who freezes to death on a return trip from Mars in the Al-miriykh, but there’s also much high-level conferencing, symposia and presentations, dialogue and discussions from which clues are eked, conjectures considered and radical conclusions arrived at. It might have been an advantage to have at least one ordinary protagonist, buffeted and baffled by events, struggling to comprehend the massive changes through rumour and fake news. Instead, the In-Jokes are a Yale clique of academic nerds who map out the protagonist constellation, they talk, they separate, and are drawn inexorably back together again in various configurations. But they are less than action figures.
Stephen Baxter is nothing if he’s not SF-literate. After all, he’s the man who wrote the authorised HG Wells sequels, the head-spinning ‘The Time Ships’ (1995) and ‘The Massacre Of Mankind’ (2017). But the obvious nudge here is Arthur C Clarke, with an alien ‘Lurker’ assemblage located on the Moon’s Sinus Medii – a region that ‘Jules Verne’s lunar travellers saw,’ which fires off a signal projectile in the direction of the newly-revealed worlds of Ophiuchus, Barnard’s Star which is six light years away. And the American Pioneer 10 probe which – as the first human-made artefact to leave the solar system, in doing so, alerts a galactic consciousness to not only human presence, but our expansive potential. Baxter collaborated with Clarke on the ‘A Time Odyssey’ trilogy.
This novel opens in 2057, which is a century since Sputnik 1 became Earth’s first artificial satellite. And a century since Elvis Presley appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, actually it was 9 September 1956, although the New Diaspora 1957-themed summer party in secessionist California obviously ain’t counting! The world Baxter imagines has endured climate change trauma, and emerged in some ways stronger, in other ways more fragmented. Britain is fractured into independent states, with the English Federal government relocated north to Gateshead. After the DC floods the rump of the dis-United States of America is governed from the Alaskan Winter White House in New Anchorage. Melting ice-caps and the ‘Greenland Melt’ have resulted in flooding land-loss, and the erection of huge barriers to contain and channel floodwater. There were ‘massive technological fixes’ including carbon-munching trees in every public place, ‘but, you know what? We adapted and survived.’
There are drones and everything is smart, from smart-walls to smart-cars, smart-planes, smart-wood, a smart bus, smart-doorways, smart-materials and smart-tables. And the prose is so politically correct it creaks, all the power-figures are female, including American President Cox and Space entrepreneur Serena Jones – a kind of hyper Elon Musk figure, and the only couple allowed to express love – and then grief, are two Gay men engaged to be married. The In-Jokes are Natasha ‘Tash’ Brand – who has a Nigerian-born mother, and is adviser to Science Minister Fred Bowles. With strawberry-blonde Melissa ‘Mel’ Kapur who rides the vacuum-dirigible Skythrust, ‘a human-made island in the sky’, and has an activist daughter called Jane. And there is Wu Zhi on Lodestone a million kilometres from Earth, whose estranged mother – Wu Yan, a senior space scientist in her own right, is central to the Chinese Replicator project on the planet Mercury. Even Astronomer Royal Charlie Marlowe resembles ‘Judi Dench as M’.
The novel’s central idea is that the sun vanishes at a point timed to coincide with a total eclipse, the reflected light from the visible planets going out in light-speed order. Facing a potential new Dark Age and rapid extinction, the sun is first relocated twelve-light-minutes out beyond the Kuiper Belt, but then reappears back in its original position. This is interpreted as a warning message from a galaxy-scale extra-terrestrial intelligence they name Galaxias. But what the warning means, and how to react to it, remains moot. As a response to Pioneer 10 it could be the imposing of limits, a quarantine that says so far, and no further. Faced with a power capable of shifting suns, is it wise to challenge that warning… if that is indeed the warning? Or can humanity forever cower, bottled up within the inner solar system by this Sinister Barrier for fear of provoking that seemingly limitless power further? And yet, Galaxias is less than omnipotent, the sequence timing of events suggests that it is limited by the speed of light.
Why Galaxias? It was the ‘Greek or Roman name for the Milky Way, as visible in the sky. Named for the spilled milk of a goddess. Root of our word ‘galaxy’… so, a singular name – yes. It. Not they. Monstrously powerful, but one entity.’ There’s later speculation of its aquatic evolution on a water-world radiocarbon dated to ten billion years ago, with resonances back to Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel ‘Solaris’, filmed twice, by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1968, and then by Steven Soderbergh, with George Clooney in 2002.
‘Another conference, Tash thought. Another all-nighter to prepare.’ And yes, it does seem that way at times. Like the characters, the reader gets conference-fatigue, conferenced out, until Naples disappears in a massive volcanic eruption that precipitates a nuclear winter. And on mission-day 513 the three-person crew of Pioneer 14 – including Wu Zhi with Texan Sara West and Russian Marina Petko, reach the Kuiper Belt ‘Blink-point’. A negative-matter anti-Sun. ‘The enigmatic artefacts of Galaxias.’ Yet there is no meeting. No first-contact communication. Galaxias remains an off-stage presence. All is inference and guesswork.
Baxter’s detailing of, first the strategies employed to combat the climate threat, the global plagues and pandemics, then the resounding aftershocks of the Sun’s disappearance are exhaustively pursued. Brainstormed fully as if it’s some rigorous intellectual exercise, what ‘Starburst’ magazine calls ‘big thinking and ‘New Scientist’-flavoured techspeak.’ The orbits of the worlds have been slightly altered due to the abrupt gravitational loss, with resulting extreme weather events, shifted seasons, tidal patterns and a new calendar. Electromagnetic ozone-layer irregularities cause communication problems, and there is seismic magma instability as the Earth’s interior adjusts. Hurricanes become hypercanes, as formerly dormant volcanoes erupt, and massive submarine quakes cause major land slippage. Halley’s comet fails to reappear. The Fermi Paradox is resolved. Elections result take a lurch to the right as the world becomes a more introverted paranoid place.
All of which is happening as governments struggle to formulate their response to ‘Blink-day’. America plans to defy Galaxias by deliberately confronting its ultimatum with a crewed dark-energy-powered spaceship following Pioneer 10 out of the solar system. Lodestone is part-cannibalised in order to construct Pioneer 14, powered by solar sail and a dark-energy ramscoop as the notoriously secretive Chinese scheme their own more nuanced response. Replicators devour Mercury just as they had devoured Mars in Baxter’s earlier work ‘Evolution’ (2002). Theoretical technologies are meticulously explained, with credits correctly assigned in the Afterword, including the Lodestone station located in the Earth-umbra, the Skylon spaceplane, self-replicating machinery and the Kardashev classification of hypothetical alien civilisations. As well as Negative matter and Dark Energy. Stephen Baxter does his research with unstinting thoroughness, while his well-earned status as hard science fictioneer in the Arthur C Clarke lineage commands the respect of helpful academics. The final sequences in which the sun and the entire planetary system are shifted out of Galaxias’ reach to the M-12 globular star cluster might just reference back to Clarke rearranging constellations in ‘The City And The Stars’ (1956).
This may be a self-contained stand-alone novel, but it does span millions.
‘In the beginning there was chaos and eternal night’ runs the portentous pseudo-Biblical voice-over, with credits superimposed over cave-paintings set to Albert Glassner’s epic soaring score. Roger Corman can conjure something worth watching out of zero-budget and nil-resources. It looks easy. But watch the films of Ed Wood to see how vaguely similar ingredients will end up when handled with more enthusiasm than competency. Of course this movie is Drive-In trash. Even the title is a trifle of irresistibly playful mischief. Yet you have to admit that, even though Corman himself irritably protested ‘I never directed a film called ‘Teenage Caveman’’, it’s a marked improvement on his original ‘Prehistoric World’ title, or the critic’s suggestion ‘Rubble Without A Cause’!
The tribesmen, wearing loincloths and brandishing ‘throwing stick’ spears, carry the body of a freshly-killed deer into ‘the clan’ cave village. They’re remarkably well-fed healthy primitives. Only the lone ‘Son of the Symbol-Maker’ stands apart, staring wistfully over the forbidden river. He sports a stylish cross-the-shoulder tunic, neat dark hair, and a knife thrust under his belt. He questions and demands to know answers. His discontent mirrors teenage rebellion. In ‘The Wild Ones’ (1953) Mildred asks Marlon Brando ‘Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?’ He shrugs back ‘whadda you got?’ That’s the Symbol-Maker’s Son’s attitude. He’s warned off questioning ‘the signs and gifts and mysteries’. Why can’t the Clan cross the forbidden river? Because the law says so. Because there’s superstitious fear that beyond the river there are shadows ‘deep and cold’ where men ‘sicken and die, red and dried out’. Because of the burning plain with ‘dirt that eats men’, and ‘the god that gives death with its touch’. These warnings come dramatised with insert-clips of savage jungle and dinosaurian lizardoids. His grey-bearded father (Leslie Bradley) advises him ‘wonder no more.’ ‘I wonder still’ he muses.
The young rebel is Robert Vaughn, decidedly no teenager. He’d already done TV parts in hardboiled cop-drama ‘Dragnet’ (with its much-imitated intro ‘the story you are about to see is true, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent’) and gritty Western ‘Gunsmoke’ – with James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon, as well as popular sitcom ‘Father Knows Best’. He had successes, but it wasn’t until he was cast as ‘Napoleon Solo’ – a name suggested by Ian Fleming, in the hugely tongue-in-cheek ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E’ from September 1964, that he ascended to household name status. Intended to be the suave James Bond in the agents’ fight against the evil ‘T.H.R.U.S.H’, he was ironically overtaken in the sexy pin-up stakes by enigmatic sidekick David McCallum as ‘Illya Kuryakin’, who had the advantage of a comb-forward Beatles fringe.
‘Teenage Caveman’ may well be trash, but they play it admirably straight-faced. They may have no names beyond Blonde Maiden (Darah Marshall), the Black-Bearded one (Frank DeKova), or the Curly-Haired boy, but they yield nothing of R Wright Campbell’s dialogue to dramatic theatricality. When Vaughn challenges ‘The law is old, but age is not always truth’ he might as well be adding ‘whadda you got?’ in stirring up generational confrontation. The following day the clan hunts again, and although they kill a ‘fur-beast’ bear, his father is wounded. As he recuperates, four prehistoric rebels – ‘The Young And The Brave’ according to the trailer, set out in defiance of the law, wade through waist-high swamp, and swim a jungle-river to reach the forbidden far shore of ‘A Wonderful And Strange World!’. Once there one of them admits ‘there’s meat here, we kill and go back.’ Vaughn is not so easily satisfied, ‘no, I came to find the truth or lie of the old stories, the ancient Law.’ He’s not about to go back, yet.
Filmed on a tight two-week schedule in Griffin Park, Arcadia, the Californian landscape is suitably primeval. The Symbol Maker’s Son blows into a hollow-twig flute, which attracts two dueling dino-lizards. As usual in this kind of movie the monsters attack each other, allowing the tribesmen time to flee. As they penetrate deeper, one of them drowns in the ‘sinking earth’. Two get scared and head for home. Only the Symbol Maker’s Son goes on. When he builds a campfire for the night it attracts a monster-mutation, unafraid of his flames. In a matter of moments he invents, and masters the bow-and-arrow. Only to be attacked by a pack of wild dogs.
Meanwhile, his father recovers, follows his son and intervenes. Once they’re safely back in the village Vaughn is sentenced to die. He fights back, and his punishment is commuted to isolation. No-one talks to him. Even his Blonde Maiden girlfriend shuns him, at first. Until he plays his flute as she coyly skinny-dips. He’s now reached the age of ‘Manhood’, and takes an oath to renounce his questioning. Will he settle down with the blonde girl in their ‘sleeping place’? ‘Wonder no more’ she urges him. ‘I will always wonder’ he affirms. Yet he bides his time, for now.
Corman’s tyro producer/director quickies – ‘Highway Dragnet’ and ‘Monster From The Ocean Floor’, had come in January and May 1954. He made five rapid turn-around films the following year, three in 1956, and no less than nine in 1957, running the gamut of titillating exploitation from tacky horror, westerns, Beatnik and noir-crime as well as opportunistically settling on what could loosely be termed SF. Of course, the movies are Drive-In trash that look laughably easy. ‘Teenage Caveman’ is one of five movies directed in 1958, with cheapo effects patched together from archive stock-footage. The dinosaur sequences were originally contrived by Roy Seawright for Hal Roach’s ‘One Million BC’ (1940), while a clip from Edward L Cahn’s ‘The She Creature’ (1956) is also filched and inserted to illustrate radiation mutation. But this seamless zero-budget nil-resources collage technique catches something of the jittery angst of its time. Something a 2002 ‘Teenage Caveman’ remake, directed by Larry Clark, fails to do, despite its gore and nudity.
The film’s final section opens with a horse-riding stranger approaching the cave village. Fearfully they hurl spears. Only Vaughn tries to stop them. The stranger manages to utter the single word ‘Peace’, before they spear him to death. In a Clan debate his Symbol-Maker father now argues for seeking out other tribes. His scheming black-bearded rival seizes on this blasphemy as an opportunity to strip him of his symbol-making powers. ‘There is no more to say’ declares Vaughn defiantly, ‘it is time to act.’ He has his bow, and a quiver for his arrows. His blonde woman watches him set out alone. But first his father follows him. Then the vengeful tribe pursue them both intent on killing them – only to be attacked by the wild dog-pack.
In the forbidden zone the duo are menaced by a crawling slithering mutation. A curious Vaughn approaches it in a gesture of conciliation, just as Black-Beard hurls a rock at the monster. The Symbol Maker’s Son turns and shoots him with a well-aimed arrow, but it’s too late. Beneath the mask is a wizened old man, the last of the long-lived ancients. ‘A man, another kind of man.’ They find a book within his corroded radiation-suit covering, turning the pages in uncomprehending awe. Cities. Skyscrapers. The UN building. ‘The Atomic Era’.
‘What symbols are these?’ they wonder. We know. This is the shock revelation. The punchline. Theirs is not some long ago sometime in the distant past. The Clan are not only the remote survivors of atomic war, but of a historical eternal recurrence. Will the tribe now be wiser? ‘Perhaps man will dare to try again?’ The stern voice-over resumes to ram home the warning message, ‘this happened a long time ago. How many times will it happen again? And if it does, will any at all survive the next time?’ A sobering closing question in a time of Cold War brinkmanship, ‘or will it be… THE END?’
‘TEENAGE CAVEMAN: PREHISTORIC REBELS
AGAINST PREHISTORIC MONSTERS!’
‘TEENAGE CAVEMAN’ (American International Pictures, July 1958, black-&-white) Producer & Director: Roger Corman. Executive Producers: Samuel Z Arkoff & James H Nicholson. Screenplay: R Wright Campbell. With Robert Vaughn (Teenage Caveman), Darah Marshall (Blonde Woman), Leslie Bradley (The Symbol Maker), Frank DeKova (Black-Bearded Usurper), June Jocelyn (Symbol-Maker’s wife), Beach Dickerson (Bear, Man from the Burning Plains) and tribe-members Charles P Thompson, Ed Nelson Robert Shayne, Marshall Bradford, Joseph H Hamilton. Music: Albert Glassner. Cinematography: Floyd Crosby. Film Editor: Irene Morra. 65-minutes. DVD April 2012, The Arkoff Film Library. DVD extras include trailers and Samuel Z Arkoff NFT audio interview.
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