Wednesday 29 June 2011



‘there is no ‘what should be’
there is only what is’ – Lenny Bruce

&, finally washed ashore,
playing that same Prez solo
a litany in eerie phrasing,
a skylight room, eaves crazy with birds,
tenor-breath patterns of light
cobweb the window, reflecting
salt-white breakers, & beyond,
sky oozing, dawn gull-flecked &
ghosted melancholy with ‘40’s jazz.
autumn month rates are low, but there’s work,
Bars, Clubs and Music Lounges by the harbour,
thru promenade gardens drift sad snapshots
smiling silences at each other, and
a boy crooked into the wind, leper-pale
black hair misting, like John’s used to…
& he watches, fingering a sax on time’s curve
holding wistful chords that can xerox 1956
& a Ford Pop south from a cellar residency
that curls up and dies with september, John saying
‘Hey, Stockholm, a guy, a club, promise of work’
kerbcrawling down the dissonant A1 with the
rot-stink of tyres, stitching notes at the
traffic-flow, finger-sweat printing the bell,
aftertasting John’s saliva on its mouthpiece
and on his body…

&, finally washed ashore here, he
quits the horn in elegant slouch,
out thru 2 sets of Rooming House doors
into a frosty knife-edge of wind,
crouching deep inside faded anorak
in a numbing void of sensation
following the boy for no real reason,
poignant jazz soundtracking glimpses in his head…
awaiting a ship with Band vacancies that never come
strung out in low-rent Bars, stoned on Espresso and
fewer coins, Hard Bop on Frith St, kissing his nipple
through shadows, ‘Lester Leaps In’ with last few £’s,
huge envious eyes yearning Prez-tones, as options
decay, until John ships out for Tangiers, leaving
only a chord sequence biro’d into the liner notes
& a Bebop man cut loose in the now,
crazy with memories,
watching a boy, and
the wash of ocean thru
the vague discontent of
midday’s frost-white waves…

Published in:
‘SLOW DANCER No.21’ (UK – October 1988)
‘OSTINATO No.2’ (UK – April 1990)
(USA – June 1992)
and personal collection:
‘POWER LINES’ (Unibird Publications) (UK – October 1988)



Album Review of:
(Edsel EDCD699, 2001) &
(React-CD-001, 2002)

‘What a day I have seen,
what a scene I’ve been in…’
(“In My Dreams”)

Reg King died of cancer 8th October 2010. Predictably, there were well-intentioned obituary tributes proclaiming the loss of a great English Soul voice on par with Stevie Winwood or Steve Marriott, which is the kind of hyperbole writers tend to reach for on such occasions. But it’s misleading. There was nothing of the raw power or anguished emotional depth of the two Steve’s about Reg King. In fact Zoot Money, Graham Bond, Eric Burdon, or Chris Farlowe are all more deserving of that ‘great English Soul’ tag above and beyond Reg King. That was neither the point of his music, or that of The Action, the career-trajectory with whom he’s most closely associated. The group he fronted roughly between 1963 and 1969. As part of the Mod subculture, the Action were a class act, they looked good, with youth and style on their side. But, as the obituaries fail to point out, rather than mere back-up for some super-charged front-man the Action were a genuine group. They worked together, as a tight unit. And it pays off.

Drop the stylus into the black vinyl play-in groove of “Land Of 1,000 Dances”, the ‘A’-side of their debut single released in October 1965. From the opening low jumpy bass-pulse and tambourine rim-shot finger-pops, the Action take the song closer to, say, the precise Temptations vocal arrangements as they move through the familiar silly litany of dance-craze names such as the Jerk, the Watusi, and the Mashed Potato. As a cover of the Chris Kenner song they retain the ‘na-na-na-na-na’ hook introduced by Cannibal & The Headhunters on their version of the song. But there’s a more easy relaxed groove as King counts in the ‘na-na-na’s before inviting the group-voices into a more call-&-response style with an ‘alright children’, and ‘Pony like Bonie Moronie’, all the while insisting ‘do it real bluesy’ and ‘I like it like that’ until the oozingly smooth vocal fade. It’s nice, restrained, controlled Blue-Eyed Soul, but what self-respecting Mod would choose this UK sound over Wilson Pickett’s frantically kinetic work-out? Not one. Although the Action single actually preceded Pickett’s, every Mod Club I frequented throughout this period favoured the wicked-wicked Pickett as a way to galvanize the dancers. The easy-on-the-ear Action might be good, but in different ways.

While, although produced by the mighty George Martin, the ‘B’-side merely lifts Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “In My Lonely Room” from the Martha & The Vandellas original. It gender-transposes Martha Reeve’s tears-of-a-clown misery so that now it’s his girl’s flirty ways that depress him so all he can do is hide in his ‘lonely room and cry’. Again, it’s a fair dancey shot at the song, but how can it hope to recapture all that Motown chartbusting magic, never mind the elitist rarity value of the label itself? After all, to the self-appointed In-crowd, the original is always the greatest. Sure, all the great UK bands, the Who and the Small Faces, never mind the Kinks and the Stones, started out with debut albums crammed to the sleeve with Blues and R&B covers, but it’s by graduating into their own material that they achieve credibility. After all, there were highly successful home-grown bands such as Jimmy James & The Vagabonds or Geno Washington & The Ram-Jam Band (and Geno himself was an exiled American) who built solid reputations and packed venues, but even at their best they were still stand-ins for the real Stax, Volt, Chess, or Motown originals.

While they were together Action released no LP’s, just five UK singles. Which is bizarre considering that now, check out Amazon, and there’s a bunch of albums, kicking off with the Edsel compilation ‘The Ultimate Action’ (Demon ED101, 1980). First available on vinyl it sports no less a Mod icon than Paul Weller scripting the sleeve-notes to the effect that ‘the Action had it in their soul’. It fleshed out their sparse back-catalogue roster by adding a German-only 1968 single consisting of “The Harlem Shuffle” c/w Goffin & King’s “Wasn’t It You”. For its 1990 CD format only there are also the previously unissued ‘B’-sides of late Edsel singles “Wasn’t It You” (Edsel E5001, 1981), group-composition “Come On, Come On With Me” (Edsel E5008, 1984), plus their take of the Righteous Brothers’ “Just Once It My Life”. The track-listing was later still rejigged and updated into ‘Action Packed’ (Edsel EDCD 699). Then there’s ‘Rolled Gold’, made up of raw demos recorded in 1967 and 1968, but not issued until 1995. Plus ‘Uptight And Outasight’ (Circle Records) drawing together live radio sessions from BBC’s ‘Saturday Club’ and ‘Pop North’ from 1966 and 1967, interspersed with little interview-clips of Reg talking to formal buttoned-up presenter Brian Matthews. It seems there’s cult here that goes way beyond mere nostalgia!

From Kentish Town in north London the Action grew up together, sharing a passion for music, clothes, and football. They started out as The Boys as early as 1963. Alongside vocalist Reginald King was lead guitarist Alan ‘Bam’ King (no relation), Mike ‘Ace’ Evans on bass and Reg’s school-friend Roger Powell on drums. In this incarnation, not only were there early records for Decca and Pye but there are also group originals too. Reg and Evans co-wrote both sides of “It Ain’t Fair” c/w “I Want You” for a November 1964 single, then Reg wrote “When I Get Married” for the flip of “You Really Gonna Shake” – a Decca single from March 1964 issued as by Sandra Barry & The Boys, while they were temporarily backing that popular girl-singer. But with the addition of second guitarist Peter Watson they re-signed to Parlophone as Action. Peter already had a track record. As part of Jack Martin & The Jets he’d toured US army bases in Spain and Morocco supporting the Tony Meehan Combo, where he was exposed to rare American singles.

Following "Land Of 1,000 Dances" the Action hung in there with Motown for the second single (February 1966), re-tooling “I’ll Keep On Holding On” from the Marvelettes back-catalogue. Written by Ivy Jo Hunter (no, not Ivory Joe) with Mickey Stevenson, backed up with ‘a song in my mind I been singing it all day’ called “Hey Sah-Lo-Ney” which hit a catchy groove, the single was critically well-received and became the closest they ever got to a chart hit. It’s fair to say most radio listeners were unfamiliar with the Marvelettes American hit, and the Action have a Power-Pop drive that shifts it into alternate gears anyway, the lyric urging the purposeful pursuit of the elusive object of his desire – ‘waiting, watching, waiting, watching, looking for a chance’. The record was well-familiar and highly-rated around the clubs. It came tantalisingly close. Their window of opportunity was definitely ajar, yet it failed to actually chart. Perhaps it was the high-point, the main chance, the moment at which – if they were going to break through big, this was their time.

Because instead they switched their imported repertoire to Chess for the third single – Maurice & The Radiants “Baby, You’ve Got It” (July 1966), with authentic dancefloor drums and heavy keyboards drawing it into the Northern Soul spectrum, while sticking with the familiar Motown template for the flip – Smokey Robinson’s “Since I Lost My Baby”. And while no-one does Smokey like Smokey, it’s worth teasing out that second side first, because it’s a stand-out performance, one of their finest. Reg is at his most yearning and affecting as he sings of how ‘the sun is cold and the new day seems old’, and while there’s ‘plenty of work and the bosses are paying’ without his lover ‘with money I’m poor’. It comes closest to Paul Weller’s perceptive insight that Action ‘not only capture the Tamla / Soul sounds, but actually shape it into their own style’. A fusion that Reg himself termed ‘Rhythm ‘n’ Soul’. The promo art-work for the single consists of an atmospheric ‘Blow-Up’-themed Nigel Dickson street-photo of Reg brandishing a pistol, moments after shooting down a trendy Mod girl who has just graffiti’d ‘I Hate The Action’ on a brick wall. The paint still dribbles from the final ‘n’ as the bullet took her. The rest of the group stand around in posed casual stances. Like a still from an unmade cult movie, or an incident from a teen-novel never written. I remember it standing out from the monochrome pages of the music press like a burst of energy.

What’s bad for the heart is good for the art. Both sides are strong songs, delivered well. Their artful taste selection is impeccable, with fine-tuned instincts about their chosen field of endeavour. Their love of – and respect for, black American Dance Music is self-evident, propelled by a tight British beat-group curve on those hard driving R&B originals. Yet the group’s singles languish as more useful stand-bys than essential purchases. Live, the Action were always a big deal. With a drive and excitement they’re seldom able to transfer to vinyl. They headline all the sharpest Soho clubs, from ‘The Scene’ and ‘The Marquee’, to Manchester’s ‘Twisted Wheel’, and on down. And their club dates were rammed to capacity. Occasions where every Ace Face had to be seen to be Scene. Hordes of Lambrettas and Vestas flock outside every venue they play.

Yet despite this, and despite being signed to George Martin’s consistently-supportive AIR-productions, their considerable talent remained insufficiently recognised and rewarded outside the strict Mod ranking. Ideal for TV’s ‘Ready Steady Go’ – which was all about hip credibility, they never crossed over to play ‘Top Of The Pops’. Not that it mattered. The Mod combos who did breakthrough big – the Who and Small Faces, were bursting with anger, aggression and impatience, with a desperate urgency to make it. By contrast, the Action, largely, sound pleased with themselves and quite content to be making well-crafted club dance-floor records for a small but devoted cognoscenti. More in an evolutionary line with smooth sartorially-sharp Mod revivalists Secret Affair. Rather than an internal thing, the pressure to succeed commercially was largely applied from outside the group. From the label, and from producer George Martin. It could be argued that Hits can be extinction events for underground cultdom. According to that mindset, the Action never sold out. Action were one of those cliquey names attractive precisely because they were cult, because they were not seen on ‘Top Of The Pops’.

And anyway, from mid-1966 hip was already changing, with Mod going the way of all flesh. There was something in the air that sniffed of new, more esoteric influences. In some ways it was a smooth transition, into a more questioning and conflicted period. A different breed of sharp hipness. A new definition. What had been fairly straight-up in its intentions, with its Soul-heart worn unashamedly on its tailored sleeve, was to be not quite as in-your-ear. In a 1966 ‘Melody Maker’ interview Reg could be found praising, not obscure imported R&B, but the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’. There were ruptures too. A scheduled US tour for August 1966 was pulled, Pete quit the line-up, ill at ease with the band’s shifting taste in chemical stimulants, and in April 1967 they parted company with manager Ricky Farr. Below the radar there were pharmaceutical changes, from Mod Purple Hearts, to LSD, with all the attendant shifts in perception that implies. The two final official singles both emerged within the first six months of 1967. Conveniently re-grouped together for a French EP, to better define a precise career-phase. In February – “Never Ever” c/w “Twenty Fourth Hour” were both group compositions. All four members get credits. A propulsive twelve-string acoustic strum play-in leads into a ba-ba-ba tunefulness, oddly reminiscent of Tony Hatch’s “Call Me” (for Petula Clark), and a forward-thinking lyric about ‘never ever think of bad times, just remember the glad times’. The equally strong flip recalls a kind of 365-days-a-year lyrical take on the Beatles’ “Eight Days A Week”. Then in June there was “Shadows and Reflections” c/w “Something Has Hit Me”. Out-sourcing composer-credits this time, with harpsichord and bouncing rhythms delineating one of Attack’s most attractive sides, Reg sings of returning to the ‘old vacant apartment above the shop in the square’ where the lovers shared their final moments. While the West-Coast vocal bell-chimes of the flip are punched out by strong Rickenbacker lines. The complex middle-eight harmonies are a clear development in one of the best-constructed tracks in their catalogue.

But it was also a time of frantic recording activity. Studio sessions resulted in a one-off German single, where they had a big following, and other material that would periodically emerge over the coming years. Including a highly-unlikely Dance-Craze shot penned by Reg called “The Cissy” – maybe a memory flashback to the Dance-menu listed on “Land Of 1,000 Dances”? which finally emerged in 1980, and “The Place” about being ashamed to show his face in the Mod Club since breaking up with his girl. Yet time was running out. Major labels were more patient then than they are now, but parent-company EMI was becoming anxious to recoup its investment in the Action. They pressured for a more ‘commercial’ approach. If either of those final singles had clicked with the wider audience, chances are, an album would have been issued. As it is, the singles misfired, and so they were denied the opportunity of completing the LP they’d already trailered in the press (in interview to ‘Rave’). Recorded at IBC studios at Portland Place, under the working title ‘Brain’ (tape-spools dated 3 May 1968), the intended album-tracks existed in varying stages of completion, some little more than demos. Georgio Gomelsky stepped in when the Action were finally dropped by Parlophone. Further work was done at Advision and ‘in a tiny demo studio beneath a shop on Old Compton Street’ in preparation for a stalled new deal with Polydor. And when that fell through, the tapes remained safely stockpiled in the archives waiting to be rediscovered and issued some decades later. They ultimately arrived, restored and re-mastered, in 1995, as ‘Rolled Gold’.

Yet the album stands up well as tuneful mildly-psychedelic late-sixties underground Rock. In the spirit, and the chemically-enhanced spirituality of the time there’s a melodic mayhem of ‘new awareness’ about the tracks. Opening with a studio count-in the rousing first track “Come Around” urges ‘let us walk in angel’s footsteps’, until “Look At The View” with its tempo-change nursery-rhyme coda sounds very much like a paean to a newly-stoned perception, as the title is repeated with escalating amazement, as though viewed through suddenly LSD-cleansed eyes. Laced with Ian Whiteman’s flute, “Love Is All” is a regulation love-and-peace message about living ‘in a world of dreams’. Further in, Alan King’s more muscular angular guitar figures on “Something To Say” frames a vaguely Beatles-esque ‘I’ve got something to say that might cause you pain’, while “Icarus” more ambitiously delves into the mythology of flying too close to the sun. All of the songs are group originals, the bizarre title-track “Brain” allegedly ‘made up on the spot’ with Reg spontaneously singing ‘take your brain it’s time to go’. More reflectively thought-through “Climbing Up The Wall” muses with a world-weary wistfulness of loss, ‘sometimes I wish that I was young’. There’s more trendy references to ‘wash my mind, I can see’, in the two takes of “In My Dream” – with its lyric about ‘try to reach tomorrow, but it’s not in sight’, the first take remaindered from a George Martin-produced session, the second a simpler Demo allowing Reg’s lead vocals to shine powerfully. Another highlight, “Really Doesn’t Matter” advocates a laid-back ‘whatever you’ve got to do, do it tomorrow’ attitude. Although ending in a loose percussive jam with what Alan King calls ‘off-the-planet’ backing vocals, there’s few indulgences, with the emphasis on West Coast-inflected harmonies and nice little concise instrumental fills, Alan’s tight ‘Revolver’-era curves and high keening guitar (on “Strange Roads”), plus moments of strangeness – the galloping horse effects on “Little Boy”, but nothing to excess. So, is it the ‘Great Lost Sixties Album’? Well, it certainly has moments as strong as anything from the ‘Nuggets’ or ‘Pebbles’ continuum. Some critics equate the album with the Zombies’ ‘Odyssey And Oracle’ – so, maybe. Potentially, yes. With the final edits and mix-downs it was denied, and a little sonic manicuring it’s not inconceivable.

During their remaining time together, although the original group-nucleus stayed intact, other musicians came and went. Multi-instrumentalist Ian Whiteman joined, quit, then rejoined. Martin Stone was recruited on guitar. There was even a temporary name-change to Azoth, before reverting to Action. Until the musical terrain had shifted too far to encompass the changes, exasperated by the frustrating recording impasse. Reg finally quit after a disastrous gig in Newquay’s ‘Blue Lagoon’ club which resulted in him footing the bill for the damage he’d caused. He went on to become briefly part of BB Blunder. There was also a solo album – ‘Reg King’ (United Artists UAS29157, 1971) with a roster of studio guests including Steve Winwood, Brian Auger and some-time Rolling Stone Mick Taylor. As the ‘Rolled Gold’ tapes were still locked up in the vault, he took the opportunity of salvaging two of the songs. “In My Dream” with its lyric about being ‘stoned all day, night time too’, and the driving “Little Boy” which advocates rediscovering and hanging onto a state of innocence, ‘take your time, learn how to play, and gradually the rules will fade away’. Despite the heavy guest-names, the solid back-up relies more heavily on the other members of Action, now trading as counter-culture band Mighty Baby. Under this new identity Alan King, Roger Powell and Mike Evans with Martin Stone and Ian Whiteman played the ‘Prog-Rock’ circuit and issued a series of fluid improvisational albums. When Mighty Baby ceased Alan King found himself part of Pub-Rock band Ace alongside eternal all-rounder Paul Carrack, ironically finally tasting chart success with the easy-on-the-ear global hit “How Long” in November 1974.

But there was to be a second life for Action. When the post-Punk Mod resurgence washed in on the ‘Quadrophenia’-wave, there was revived interest. The Action became the lost heroes, the name to drop, the code that signified an awareness of credibility. In 1998 the original Action line-up reconvened for the Isle of Wight festival, and played well-received on-&-off gigs for the next six years, a rejuvenation that resulted in a celebratory video – ‘In The Lap Of Mods’ (2000), capturing their history and bringing their story full circle. The Paul Weller connection extended to Reg contributing guest voice – a sweet reworking of “Since I Lost My Baby”, plus “Til I Lost You” to Weller’s bassist, and record-producer Andy Lewis’ solo ‘Billion Pound Project’ album (Acid Jazz Records, September 2005). Proving he was still in top vocal form. Action played a final set as part of the 2004 ‘Modstock’ Festival, but further possibilities ended when Mike ‘Ace’ Evans died 15 January 2010, followed by Reg himself as the same year closed. When journalist Pat Long penned his obituary in ‘The Guardian’ (7 November 2010) lauding the loss of a vocalist ‘the equal of Steve Marriott, Steve Winwood or Rod Stewart’ with a voice that was ‘smooth, unhurried and deeply soulful’ – yes, those who were there across the years know exactly what those words meant.


(March 1964) “You Really Gonna Shake” c /w “When I Get Married” (R King) (Decca)

Issued as by THE BOYS
(November 1964) “It Ain’t Fair” (R King / Evans) c/w “I Want You” (R King / Evans)
(Pye 7N 15726) Produced by Kenny Lynch

Issued as by THE ACTION
(October 1965) “Land Of 1,000 Dances” c/w “In My Lonely Room” (Parlophone R 5354)

(July 1966) “I’ll Keep On Holding On” c/w “Hey Sah-Lo-Ney” (Parlophone R 5410)

(July 1966) “Baby, You’ve Got It” (McAllister &Vail) c/w “Since I Lost My Baby” (Robinson & Moore) (Parlophone R5474)

(February 1967) “Never Ever” (King / King / Evans / Powell) c/w “Twenty Fourth Hour” (King / King / Evans / Powell) (Parlophone R 5572)

(June 1967) “Shadows and Reflections” (Marks & Almer) c/w “Something Has Hit Me” (King & Jones) (Parlophone R 5610)

(1967) France-Only EP “Shadows and Reflections” / “Something Has Hit Me” / “Never Ever” / “Twenty Fourth Hour” (Odeon MOE 149)

(1968) “The Harlem Shuffle” c/w “Wasn’t It You” (Goffin / King) (Hansa, Germany-Only)

EP ‘ACTION SPEAKS LOUDER THAN’ (tracks recorded circa 1968, released by Castle Music in 1985) “Only Dreaming”, “Dustbin Full of Rubbish”, “An Understanding Love”, “My Favourite Day”, “A Saying For Today” (all tracks written by Whiteman)


‘BRAIN / ROLLED GOLD’ (Tracks recorded in late 1967 and 1968, but released only in 1995) “Come Around”, “Something to Say”, “Love is All”, “Icarus”, “Strange Roads”, “Things You Cannot See”, “Brain”, “Look at the View”, “Climbing Up the Wall”, “Really Doesn’t Matter”, “I’m A Stranger”, “Little Boy”, “Follow Me”, “In My Dream”, “In My Dream (Demo)”

‘UPTIGHT AND OUTASIGHT’ (Circle Records) CD1 – BBC Radio and Television recordings 1966-1967: “I’ll Keep Holding On”, “Land Of 1,000 Dances / Uptight”, “Mine Exclusively” (BBC Radio’s ‘Saturday Club’, 1966), Reg King Interview (‘Saturday Club’, 1966), “Baby You’ve Got It “ (‘Saturday Club’ 1966), “Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me A While)” (‘Saturday Club’ 1966), “Going To A Go-Go” (BBC Radio’s ‘Pop North’, 1966), “Never Ever” (‘Pop North’, 1966), “Love Is All” (‘Saturday Club’, 1967), “I See You” (‘Saturday Club’, 1967), “India” (‘Saturday Club’, 1967), “Shadows and Reflections” (‘Saturday Club’, 1967) CD2 – Live recordings from ‘The Boston Arms’, London 1998: “Meeting Over Yonder”, “The Monkey Time”, “Baby Don’t You Do It”, “In My Lonely Room”, “I Love You (Yeah!)”, “Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)”, “Ooo Baby Baby”, “Crazy About You Baby”, “Heatwave”, “People Get Ready”, “The Memphis Train”, “Since I Lost My Baby”, “Harlem Shuffle”, “Baby You’ve Got It”, “I’ll Keep Holding On”, “Land Of 1,000 Dances”

‘THE ULTIMATE ACTION’ (Edsel Demon LP-ED + CD-EDCD 101, 1980) a compilation vinyl LP made up of The Action’s original UK singles, produced by George Martin: “I’ll Keep On Holding On”, “Harlem Shuffle”, “Never Ever”, “Twenty Fourth Hour”, “Since I Lost My Baby”, “In My Lonely Room”, “Hey Sah-Lo-Ney”, “Shadows And Reflections”, “Something Has Hit Me”, “The Place”, “The Cissy”, “Baby You’ve Got It”, “I Love You (Yeah!)”, “Land Of 1,000 Dances”. Reissued as ‘ACTION PACKED’, CD (ED-CD 699) with extra tracks “Wasn’t It You”, “Come On, Come With Me”, “Just Once In My Life”. There were also four spin-off singles issued using the same material:
“I’ll Keep on Holding On” c/w “Wasn’t It You?” (E5001, 1981)
“Since I Lost My Baby” c/w “Never Ever” + “Wasn’t It You?” (E5002, 1981)
“Shadows and Reflections” c/w “Something Has Hit Me” (E5003, May 1982) a ‘Melody Maker’ review says ‘as the press handout states, a lesson for all Sixties psychedelic revivalists’
“Hey Sah-Lo-Ney” c/w “Come On, Come With Me” (E5008, July 1984) a ‘Melody Maker’ review commends its ‘more timeless, poppy sound’

‘REG KING’ solo album (UAS29157, 1971. CD 2006) All songs by King & Dale: “Must Be Something Else Around”, “You Go Have Yourself A Good Time”, “That Ain’t Living”, “In My Dreams”, “Little Boy”, “10,000 Miles”, “Down The Drain”, “Savannah”, “Gone Away”

Tuesday 28 June 2011



29th August 1929 – 25th April 2004
Andrew Darlington pursues the essence
of a life, through the sniff of the real…

‘Walker within this circle, pause
although they all died of one cause,
remember how their lives were dense
with fine compacted differences…’
(from ‘Boss Cupid’, 2000)

Be warned. This poetry affects lives. It just does. ‘The sniff of the real, that’s what I’d like to get’ (1). This is the mythology Thom Gunn charts in a restless pursuit that begins with ‘A Sense Of Movement’ (Faber), a collection published in 1957. Some decades later he’d concede ‘although the narrow corridor appears / so short the journey took me twenty years’ (2). A journey magicing him from Hampstead Heath where he watched ‘long convoys of Army lorries coiling down Frognal’, to a Gay parade in New York strolling ‘forty blocks in full leather, freaked out on acid’ (3). From Paris where he worked on the Metros, to the promiscuous hedonism of the San Francisco bath-house scene. To eventually, ‘directed by the compass of my heart’, to a teaching post in California, recognised as the most convincing interpretive thematic link to the ‘Beat Generation’ to emerge from outside America.

Inside that first pivotal volume are powerful pieces such as “Allegory of the Wolf Boy”, “The Nature Of Action”, but especially “Elvis Presley” – about a battered forty-five rpm record on a sleazy café juke-box. A quote from it – ‘he turns revolt into style’, later provided George Melly with the title for his provocative book on music culture. But Gunn’s book also features the much-published genesis of his own future persona, “The Unsettled Motor-Cyclist’s Vision Of His Death”. This, alongside “On The Move”, and the title poem anticipate his best-known piece “Black Jackets”, about the ‘Wild One’ with ‘Born to Lose’ tattooed on his shoulder. The biker seen as symbol of speed, change, escape, and the sub-culture built around it. A transient escapology, an illusory lure into a shoddy and often violently knife-edged life-style.

Later Gunn returned, to conspire the poem “Blackie The Electric Rembrandt” about the tattooist’s cult. Universal now, back then the tattoo implied relevance to working-class culture – the body-art’s ritual barbarity, the masculine assertiveness that also gave it meaning to both Rocker and Hell’s Angel. In that otherwise safe 1950’s consumer society, the tattoo shared the same initiation-into-manhood symbolism as the high-powered chrome-gleaming motorcycle. ‘Youth is power’ (4) is indicative. James Dean’s shadow falling across post-war British austerity, poems from the same fountainhead as Stan Barstow’s ‘juvenile delinquent’ short story “The Desperadoes”. The exaggerated bravado reflected by Presley’s sensual posturing, ‘whether he poses or is real, no cat / bothers to say’ – a quote that extends its relevance to Gunn’s “Carnal Knowledge”, ‘even in bed I pose… / I wonder if you know, or knowing care’.

He explains, lucid about his selected continuum, ‘by movement I mean the sort of actions one is involved in, whether voluntarily or not, all through one’s life – unpacking in a new apartment, riding a motorcycle, writing a poem, murdering one’s Landlady. By sense I mean sensation and meaning. This is the only pun in the book’ (5). Anticipating ‘A Sense Of Movement’ had come the more embryonically formative ‘Fighting Terms’, originally published by Fantasy Press in 1954. Five years later a slightly altered version appeared through the New York-based Hawks Well press, before being eventually issued by Faber in 1962. This collection includes “The Wound”, “A Mirror For Poets”, and – looking back to classicism, “Helen’s Rape”. But, like the Wolf Boy’s lycanthropy – hidden, but genetically imprinted, the balance between staid academicism, and the ‘sniff of the real’ world of the intuitive Black Jacket cowboy is an uneasy one.

His writing is always technically competent, maintaining – more often than not, structure, style and rhyme (‘the hands explore tentatively / two small live entities’ (6)). A way of phrasing certain things in a particularly satisfying way, placed just the correct side of the line beyond which lies literary impenetrability. He avoids the more bizarre manifestations of experimentalism, yet, in the best of his pieces, retains a sense of the tactile, the real, as powerful as the revving of a 600cc Harley-Davidson. His sympathies lie not with academics, but outsiders. The experience and the evaluation are fused precariously. He quotes Baudelaire as the writer who best embodies the fusion – ‘although his ennui has now become democratic – it is no longer the poet’s prerogative’ (5). As though the ill-defined malaise of Sartre’s ‘La Nausee’ has become James Dean’s ‘Rebel Without A Cause’, or Presley’s Danny Fisher in ‘King Creole’. And, just as relevant, the British Angry Young Man movement of working class literary orientation. Infused with a Gay sensibility as natural as sweat.

Be warned. Gunn’s poetry affects lives. It just does. The writing is not always immediately obvious. Not always gettable. Although sometimes it is. Either way, you have to work at it. Think about it. Consider it this way, then that. Half-revelation, and half-confusion. After which, just possibly, the conclusions you arrive at are still off. It’s challenging for those who prefer words to be comfortable. But it’s a worthwhile exercise, a thrill of disorientation. He captures moments of light. But sometimes they are reflections of light, at other times, opaque. He puts an altered spin on the everyday, but without the prissy chin-stroking pretensions of other poets of his time. That’s another reason for reading him. He’s not art-elitist. He doesn’t try on that ‘I’m an artist’ stuff. He takes the reader into account.

Thomson William Gunn was born in Gravesend in 1929, educated at University College School in London. And although he claims to have spent an unhazardous youth in Hampstead, in the north-west of London while ‘my family stealthily crept up from middle-middle-class to upper-middle-class’ (5), in fact his mother suicided soon after his parents divorce. When he was just a ‘skinny’ fourteen. During the Blitz he was evacuated to a school in the country ‘where an enlightened English Teacher taught from the ‘Poet’s Tongue’, a remarkable anthology edited by W.H. Auden & John Garrett’. It’s this book that provides his working definition of poetry as ‘memorable speech’. Gunn’s first real influence was Keats, followed later by Marlowe, Beddoes and Meredith. Another influence from this period re-emerges when Gunn edited the 1975 Penguin Books’ ‘Ben Jonson’ collection (he also edited ‘Selected Poems Of Greville Fulke’ for the University of Chicago Press in 1969). But, although he’d begun writing his own poetry at Cambridge University, laying down his first collection there, he was ‘part of the National Service Generation’, and it was military conscription that shifted his focus from classicism. Following his stint in uniform he found himself retaining its characteristics – ‘lack of concern with religion, lack of class, a rather undirected impatience’.

It was also at Trinity College that he met his long-term partner, Mike Kitay (‘that summer I was twenty-three, / you about twenty-one, / we hoped to live together, as we / (not to be smug) have done’). Mike was American, so there’s perhaps an additional attraction to the San Francisco and New York-based American Poetry Renaissance with its concrete city mythologies and hipster neon-mystic visions of apocalypse. But in the best of his writing such excess gets filtered through a British post-war perception of shoddy bombsite austerity and industrial working class stoicism. Indeed, Robert Conquest selected examples of his work for ‘New Lines’ (1956), the defining anthology of what was termed ‘The Movement’, alongside Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, John Wain, Donald Davie and Conquest himself. Not obvious company. But an indication of his status. Meanwhile, he travelled. Living in Rome for six months, San Antonio Texas for a year, before winding up – with Mike, in Berkeley, teaching in Stanford, California (‘England is my parent and San Francisco is my lover’). Always at ease with his sexuality, even within the claustrophobic illegality he’d left behind him, there – it came as natural as breathing.

The third collection – ‘My Sad Captains’, lifts its title from Shakespeare’s ‘Anthony & Cleopatra’, and appeared through Faber in 1961. It includes “In Santa Maria Del Popolo” observed from his travelling, the powerful “From The Highest Camp”, “Flying Above California”, and the reflective sensuality of the title poem about his peers and influences – ‘the past lapping them like a cloak of chaos, / they were men who, I thought, lived only to / renew the wasteful force they spent with each hot convulsion’. His journey to California, in a sense a pilgrimage to the germination-point of the City Lights mythology, and his subsequent disillusionment with its heroes is perhaps also in that poem. Dark-haired and bearded, Gunn could be seen as the first British intimation of the Beat Poet charisma, most effectively translating its euphoric spirit into a tactile Fifties British context. Despite the contrast between his form – and its content. With the traditional poetic structures he uses, and its keyhole-voyeuristic subject-matter. The mind’s discipline – and the body’s hedonism? Indeed, his contribution to this evolutionary liberation and democratisation of words would not to be equalled until the emergence of Michael Horovitz, Pete Brown, Dave Cunliffe, and other beatific ‘Children Of Albion’ (Horovitz later anthologised Gunn’s compulsive poem “The Bath-House” in the 1975 ‘New Departures Double Issue’).

More publications follow – cannibalising, and taking Gunn’s poems to a wider audience. ‘The New Poetry’, an anthology published by Penguin in 1962 through A. Alvarez (of ‘The Savage God’) includes Gunn’s “The Secret Sharer” and “Lofty In The Palais De Dance”. The latter is another well-observed eulogy to cheap Fifties life-style – the Mecca Dance-hall pick-up, while embodying greater character complexity than such an encapsulation suggests. There’s also the ‘Faber Book Of Modern Verse’ (1965) edited by Michael Roberts with Gunn’s “Innocence”, a poem dedicated to Tony White (‘he ran the course, and as he ran he grew’), and “Consider The Snail” (‘I would never had imagined the slow passion / to that deliberate progress’). Again, the sensual movement, the restlessness – ‘reaching no absolute, in which to rest / one is always nearer by not keeping still’ (7).

Jeff Nuttall described Gunn as ‘a conscious existentialist, Cambridge graduate, poet of action (who) found in the American Midwestern black-leather cowboy a naïve whose method of living provided a way out of the spiritual cul-de-sac in which intellectual life seemed caught… his most well-known poem on the subject… amplifies the pragmatic merits of the earlier hipster with an additional dynamism, the hard edge of will applied to the crucial moment, an aggressive masculinity of principle expressed in the barbaric decorations and the atmosphere of oil and petrol’ (‘Bomb Culture’, Paladin, 1970). Yet, while igniting areas of Gunn’s poetry, this fails to highlight the reason why he was infinitely more than merely an American by proxy. ‘Positives’ (Faber, 1966) has poetry matched to Ander Gunn’s photographs chronicling a working-class life through the terraces, the pubs, the adolescent lure of Rock images, through wrinkled maturity into old age. The drab monochrome illustrations exactly complement and interpret Gunn’s most precise and effective observations. Yet by contrast – and to support Nuttall’s assertion, the sleeve-art of Gunn’s record album ‘On The Move’ captures the poet in black-jacketed sub-Kerouac pose thumbing a ride from the street-corner of an anonymous mid-western town, beneath American road signs.

This duality can easily be traced further back, into the fact that so much of Fifties ‘trash-culture’ – Coca-Cola, movies, bubble-gum, Rock ‘n’ Roll – was either American or an American imitation. The album was recorded on 20th January 1959 in Oakland, and movement is its liet-motif. Predictably there’s “Black Jackets”, followed by “Market At Turk” (Market & Turk are two streets in San Francisco). He reads without exaggerated emphasis or theatrical intonation. Through “A Plan Of Self-Subjection”, “Waking In A Newly-Built House” and “Lazarus Not Raised” so the words are allowed to be naked, delivered in clear and unaffected tone. They stand the test. Hypnotise the listener. Still. ‘It seems to me a specifically contemporary subject’ he comments dismissively, ‘seeking to understand one’s deliberate aimlessness, having the courage of one’s lack of convictions, reaching a purpose only by making the right rejections’ (5).

‘Poems 1950-1966’ (Faber, 1969) anthologises Gunn’s best work from that period including “Flying Above California”. Further collections include ‘Selected Poems Of Thom Gunn And Ted Hughes’ (including the former’s “Wound”, “In Praise Of Cities”, and the tense vignette “Claus Von Staffenburg” about the attempted assassination of Hitler) and ‘To The Air’ (Godine) an anthology edited by Jan Schreibed. It’s obvious that by now America had freed up his style, with the sixties providing ‘the fullest years of my life, crowded with discovery both inner and outer’. There are attempts at free verse, although he soon returned to more formal metre. And fuller expressions of his sexuality, ‘I like loud music, bars and boisterous men’, things that help – ‘if not lose’, then at least leave behind, the self (in ‘The Passages Of Joy’). He sees the period as ‘a Dionysian experiment / to build a city, never dared before’, in which ‘I really wanted to devote myself to going to concerts in Golden Gate Park and to taking drugs’.

‘Touch’, Gunn’s next original work was produced for Faber in 1967, and includes “Berlin In Ruins”, “Confessions Of A Life Artist”, plus an ambitious poem-sequence – “Misanthropos”, which takes up one third of the book and had already been broadcast by BBC Radio’s Third Programme to enthusiastic critical reception (on 8th March 1965, read by Alan Dobie). It was followed by ‘Moly’ (Faber), which even carries references to locations where LSD ‘trips’ have ignited the poems. Critic Julian Webb finds it ‘a journey into light ending with what is perhaps the finest poem he has yet written – “Sunlight”’. He also contributes a section to ‘Worlds – Seven Modern Poets’ (Penguin Education, 1974) edited by Geoffrey Summerfield. With Gunn’s slice of the book illuminated by Abramowitsch’s photography spanning scenes from Hampstead Heath, a flight above California, Gunn in San Fransisco, and a picture of a ‘Berkeley Barb’ street-seller for sub-cultural reference. Its publication happens in conjunction with the screening of a special film shot on the Californian coast for BBC2-TV’s ‘Second House’. While bringing the imagery full circle into the post-hippie culture with brief eulogies of a Jefferson Airplane concert in the Golden Gate Park – ‘the music comes and goes on the wind, comes and goes on the brain’, and a street corner drug pusher – ‘my methadrine, my double-sun will give you two lives in your one’ (8). The Black Jacket mythology had now become the ‘Easy Rider’ cult to which Gunn could have become a minor Guru, in justification of his earlier sympathies. After all, Ginsberg was up in the hills with Ken Kesey choking back massive amounts of LSD and ritual Peyote in a ‘foolish magic’ of midnight Hell’s Angel ceremonies attempting to establish the ‘fellow-traveller’ status that had been Gunn’s preserve since 1957! Talking to Ginsberg at a City Lights reception Gunn was once even mistaken for Jack Kerouac. ‘Thom loves that story’.

Yet subsequent work would be less-well received, with sixties hedonism decaying into the ‘hot convulsions’ of Gay Bath-House culture, to which he became an equally enthusiastic participant (‘power / as beauty, beauty / power, that / is all my cock knew or / cared to know…’ ‘Boss Cupid’). Although the precision is always there, more free, but never entirely free of the self-imposed considerations of strict form, yet tilting across what he calls the ‘luminous intersection’ from intellect towards the senses, towards ‘the disobedient / who keep a culture alive by subverting it’ (‘The Passages Of Joy’). Towards the attritions of sexual love. Such incidents lead to the darker more openly Gay ‘Jack Straw’s Castle’ taking its title from a notorious Hampstead Heath cruising location, to the mixed and often confused reviews that greeted ‘The Passages Of Joy’… until the heart-breaking elegies for the plague years’ AIDS victims in ‘The Man With Night Sweats’ returned him to mainstream critical favour. Here, America is a place of loss and elegy. But his lovers aren’t seen as on their way to some kind of epiphany. They’re just trapped in the sexiness of being alive. Gunn just observes what he sees, and then renders it visible. ‘Like Catullus, a poet whom in some ways he resembles’ opines critic Helen Dunmore, ‘Gunn is engaged in an erotic, undercover war against time and death’ (‘Observer’ 28th May 2000).

Be warned. This poetry affects lives. It just does. Thom Gunn lived to be 74, yet the controversialist element remains, it’s still there alongside the ‘sniff of the real’. A poem in his final collection is written through the persona of cannibal necrophile Jeffrey Dahmer. Poems are ‘actions of a sort’ he once declared (5), ‘and by actions I may attempt to define the direction which is not mystical, or political, or necessarily one that has ever been taken before…’


‘POSITIVES’ (1967) with photos by brother Ander
‘TOUCH’ (1967)
‘MOLY’ (1971) ‘Guruish’ says Martin Amis, ‘in which Gunn seemed to have wandered into the jaws of cryptography’ (‘Sunday Times’ 12th December 1976)
‘JACK STRAW’S CASTLE’ (1976) ‘People behave or misbehave in these places. Intuition and intelligence conspire to describe and judge’ (‘Sunday Times’ 12th December 1976)
‘THE MISSED BEAT’ (Janus Press 1976)
‘UNDESIRABLES’ (Pig Press, 1988)
‘THE MAN WITH NIGHT SWEATS’ (1992) ‘The poems are fierce keepsakes, written under the pressure of emotion’ (‘Observer’ 13th December 1992), ‘Beautiful and demanding, they remind us of art’s heroism as well as its uselessness’ (Andrew Motion in ‘Observer’ 9th February 1992)
‘SHELF LIFE’ (1993) Essays
‘BOSS CUPID’ (2000) 115 pages from Faber. ‘He seemed all body, such / as normally you couldn’t touch,/ reckless and rough,/ one of Boss Cupid’s red-haired errand boys / who couldn’t get there fast enough’ (‘The Problem’)

(3) ‘MY SUBURBAN MUSE’ – autobiographical prose in ‘WORLDS’
(5) Album Sleeve notes issued through ‘LISTEN’, Marvel Press, 253 Hull Road, Hessle,
East Yorkshire. 1962

An extended and much revised version of an original profile published in:
‘ARNOLD BOCKLIN MAGAZINE no.5’ (UK – December 1975)
‘STABLE no.3’ (UK – February 1977)
‘GARGOYLE no.8’ (USA – January 1978)

Wednesday 8 June 2011

ANNE CLARK does my poem "PSALM" Live

When I did my poem “PSALM” on-stage at Preston I said it wasn’t available on MP3 - apparently I was wrong! It seems that the very lovely and uniquely talented ANNE CLARK has done a version of it as lyrics on this track from her CD ‘THE SMALLEST ACTS OF KINDNESS’. She’s even done a live version, which you can watch here:

original album version here: