Sunday 22 December 2013



winter-green and winter-grey
for all the things you never say,
winter-silver and winter-gold
for all the secrets left untold,
winter-snow and winter-frost
counting all the thing we’ve lost,
winter-love and winter-pain
washed away in freezing rain

from winter-love to winter-fears
from winter-kisses to winter-tears

winter-months and winter-days
as time together slips away,
winter-weeks and winter-hours
as love we share turns slowly sour,
winter-sun and winter-skies
as all our truth turns into lies,
winter-dark and winter-light,
will love return? you say, it might…

 This poem is featured in the excellent PDF-magazine:
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‘OH, MY SOUL…!’ 

 at ‘G-Mex Centre’, Manchester 

Looking straight up, you see the full Moon. Up through the immense grid of curving girders and glass of what used to be Manchester’s central rail terminus. And under this Moon of Love the station announcement is ‘ROCK ‘N’ ROLL IS HERE TO STAY…’. A ‘Piccadilly Radio’ MC rabble-rouser, ‘…IT WILL NEVER DIE!’ And – it’s a little paunchy, a bit unsteady on its feet perhaps, but he’s still not wrong.

‘I want you ALL to see that ahm STILL beautiful’ flirts Little Richard seductively, ‘and ah AIN’T conceited!’ Hell no. In 1955 Richard Penniman announced himself as the Atom Bomb. He’s sixty-years-old on Saturday (the 6th), and it’s still hard to tell whether Little Richard loves himself more than the audience loves him, or vice versa. With the stately grace of some dignified ritual he climbs atop the piano, lipstick-mauve jacket aglitter with cheap diamante – the spiders, lizards and geegaw stars that he hurls like crumbs from a banquet at the seething morass of pleading hands beneath him… but he needs some support from his sax-player to get down again.

Oh, Ma Soul! Balding Teds and Tedettes, Rockabilly Rebels with Confederate flags tattooed into their denims, ‘T’-shirts remembering the ‘Skegness Rock ‘n’ Roll Festival’ or yellow Sun Records from Nashville, there’s enough grease here to fuel McDonalds into the next millennium. But – chomping popcorn and hotdogs, slurping Coke, if this is a gathering of an endangered species, it’s in rude good health. I’ve seen yesterday, and it’s working its arse off.

Remember what the 1950’s sounded like? It sounded like this! From 7pm sharp through to midnight it’s an overblown overdose of nostalgia sweeter than a diabetics urine. New Orleans-born Lloyd Price, the dapper ‘Mr Personality’ cranks up the jukebox compilation of hits with “Stagger Lee”, from a cold start to gas-mark seven. A straight American no.2 in May 1959 his “Personality” ran into UK opposition from an opportunistic cover by unlikely Pop Star Anthony Newley, yet still scored a respectable no.9 (11th July 1959) a few chart places beneath Newley’s version. Around the time I should have been swotting for my 11+, I was listening to ‘Saturday Club’, BBC Light Programme’s premier Pop show, hoping that svelte DJ Brian Matthew would favour the Price original on his play-list. Tonight, it’d be worth the ticket-Price to see him alone.

The Hispanic-chic of Chris Montez takes it higher by hurling himself into the aisles and jiving with every hep chicklet he can grab. “Let’s Dance” is the kind of title that just can’t fail. David Bowie did one. Lady Gaga did another. Chris Montez did it first, and it’s a jumping gem of a 45rpm. A walloping rhythm like it’s being beaten out on an old packing case, and a squeaky-cheap organ sound that anticipates both Doug Sahm and ? & The Mysterians. The ‘oom-pah-pah’ patronage of high-flying Big Bopper netted Johnny Preston the first of three hits in 1960, for which he’s profusely grateful, but even the soft-core teen-corn of “Cradle Of Love” finds its audience tonight. Then the rather inappropriately-named ‘Little’ Eva, shimmering in lurex, gets the evening’s first ovation and does “Locomotion” twice, with the mob on its feet as if it’s their national anthem.

Bobby Vee was the pretty-boy of fragile pubescent dreams who benefitted from some of Goffin-and-King’s most lushly-upholstered love songs, with which he (allegedly) out-sold Elvis in 1961. But he started his career standing-in for Buddy Holly, went on to cut a credible Holly tribute LP with the Crickets (‘Bobby Vee Meets The Crickets’, Liberty 1962), and here maintains that connection with a storming and deservedly well-received “Someday”. Similarly Duane Eddy might have one of the era’s most instantly recognisable sounds, but his thick ribs of twang scarcely tax his not-inconsiderable guitar skills, so he insinuates a searing twelve-bar “3:30 Blues”, then serves up “Peter Gunn” via its 1986 Art Of Noise arrangement. Keyboardist Larry Knechtel’s shock-headed machine-gun explosions come at absurdly startling angles to the evening’s basking retro vibe.

Then Jerry Lee Lewis is jet-lagged, flu-wracked and fuming. Arriving at the airport just two short hours before setting foot on stage, and furious to find the ‘Georgia Peach’ billed higher than the ‘Killer’ in the press ads, he razors his set down to its bare bones. Fronting a simple four-piece group he condescends to none of Mr Penniman’s dry-ice, break-dancers, lighting effects, big band or theatrics. Strolling nonchalantly into the spots, his back to the audience as if he’s doing a sound-check, he strikes up a casual conversation with his guitarist. Then, in a powder-blue roll-neck that paunches just above his black strides, he slouches in behind a neat Yamaha electric piano, for a set biased towards his 1970’s Country come-back. And as raggedly great as “Middle-Aged Crazy”, “Rockin’ My Life Away” and “She Still Comes Around” are, it’s not really what the hep-cats have come to dig this night. Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” is a torchy heartbreak of cracked romance that smoulders like slow napalm, but a maudlin drag through Presley’s “Blue Christmas” is plain cranky. This is where the Bop that won’t stop almost does! He hauls back with a jumping “Sweet Little Sixteen”, slamming from one song into the next allowing no space for applause or comment. This is the Killer NOT speaking… apart from a brief nod at ChuckleBerry as ‘probably the best lyric writer in Rock ‘n’ Roll’ (only PROBABLY?). Then it’s “Great Balls Of Fire”/“Whole Lotta Skakin’ Goin’ On” compressed into one, words fused together in a thirty-year meltdown of repetition into a single long phonetic scramble. There’s a perfunctory kicking-away of the piano stool, and a derisory arse-on-keyboard moment – and he’s gone.

Storming on stage to find his piano unmiked Little Richard coyly adlibs ‘someone done stole mah pay-ano. Was it you-oo Jerry Lee?’ And he’s exquisite, milking every moment, soaking up adoration, Rocking like a man of fifty-nine has no right to. “Bony Moronie” is followed by “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music”, then a spine-chilling “Send Me Some Lovin’”, and the shattering keyboard intro to “Good Golly Miss Molly”… after which he stops dead. ‘You like that, don’t you? You REALLY like that don’t you’ he coos, hanging on expectations, ‘then I’ll do it again’ – and he does! Awopbopaloobop! Alopbamboom! Bamalama Bamaloo! Nonsense rhymes. A hidden code. Over the following decades, Rock would produce more poetic lyricists. But Little Richard said everything that really needs to be said. The boy can’t help it. Of course, the sniffy hi-brow critics were correct. It was a de-sophistication. It was a reversion to more primitive forms. What they couldn’t understand, what we intuitively, inarticulately knew, was that this was ground zero, level one, of a new music that would dominate the second-half of the century, and our lives.

No-one could ever touch Little Richard. No-one could even come close. Elvis covered a spread of black and white R&B and early-Rockers, and in most every case tore them to shreds with wilder, rawer more primally uninhibited versions. But he fails when he does “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”, he can’t match Little Richard’s originals. Paul McCartney based his Rocker-voice on Little Richard, but the Beatles “Long Tall Sally” can’t hold a match to Little Richard’s original.

To me, as a white adolescent with a bad acne problem and relationship issues, Little Richard reached out across the Atlantic, seized me by the balls, squeezed, and my life was never the same afterwards. I had the big heavy black-&-silver London-American label 78rpm disc of his “Baby Face” – with a brittle chunk bitten out of the outer grooves, so I could only drop the stylus into the saxophone mid-point break, and catch the last verse. But I played it obsessively over and over again. Hearing Little Richard was the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience, he is the closest thing to God I ever got. Not only the Quasar of Rock, but the camp Particle Accelerator of Pomp too. If this night is show-stealing then it’s in the Brink’s-MAT grand larceny league in which he loots the concession stands and mugs the usherette on the way out too, just for good measure.

At the exit, Mr Penniman’s god-squad of immaculately-suited Born-Again’s distribute free ‘Find The Lord’ volumes with a signed photo of Little Richard tucked within as inducement. I bin the book in the subway at the earliest opportunity, but hang onto the photo. That’s all the spiritual uplift I need under THIS Moon of love.



Book Review of: 
(Doubleday June 2012, then 
Corgi paperback 2013 ISBN: 978-0-552-16408-5) 

It’s that Lennon-McCartney thing. In any collaboration there’s the tendency to tease out the who wrote what conundrum. Using your skill and judgement. On the face of it there can hardly be two more dissimilar writers operating within the admittedly flexible confines of the same genre as Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett, almost. Pratchett with his whimsical humour, amusing witty satires and sometimes tedious jokiness. Baxter with his eternity-spanning quantum speculations, taking SF out into newer realms of wonder just when the it’s getting a bit stylistically predictable. Where is the common ground there? It’s difficult to see. Which makes it all the more amazing that this collaborative novel hangs together so well. Almost seamlessly. More serious than Pratchett. More playful than Baxter. An intriguingly episodic centre-ground combining the essential uniqueness of each.

Pratchett’s undeveloped manuscript ‘The High Meggas’ was the ignition event from which the ideas grew. The concept of multiple Earth’s stretching away east and west to an infinity of probability-space is hardly new to SF. It’s been frequently used as a vehicle to explore alternate histories in which events turned out slightly differently. Worlds where the Nazis won World War II, the Spanish Armada succeeded in invading England, Christianity failed to replace the pagan gods ensuring the Roman Empire survives to the present day. That kind of thing. Even the 1995-1999 TV-series ‘Sliders’ sets a group-jeopardy of characters lost in a blur of multiple alternate Earths. The fact that the endless sequence of adjacent Earth’s in the Baxter-Pratchett continuum are uninhabited, forest-worlds populated only by a variety of fauna, ‘both unfamiliar and familiar’, including some geologically-extinct species, provides ‘The Long Earth’s essential point of difference.

To me it seems to be making a similar point to the one Baxter makes in an earlier brilliant sequence, in which a multitude of primal ‘Big Bang’s misfire until our eventual stable cosmos stumbles into existence. The point being that there’s nothing inevitable or predetermined about the viable universe happening. Its existence is due to a one-in-several-million random chances in relativistic flux. The same with ‘the Long Earths’. There’s nothing inevitable, no manifest destiny about the evolution of homo sapiens, their civilisation and culture. Rather, that such an outcome is a freak one-in-several-million outcome of infinite other possibilities. This seems more to be a Baxter theme than a Pratchett one. But, once established, it allows a weave of separate tales to ramble across the never-ending new frontiers featuring a variety of characters, some of whom appear briefly and are then left to their own devices, others who interlink and reconnect into each other at a later point. Allowing both writers space to stretch out and follow their whims across the shared territory of ‘Earths, untold Earths. More Earths than could be counted.’

The ‘stepper’ device that initially allows people to reach the other Earths, powered by a potato, as the prefacing diagram illustrates, seems very much to be a Terry Pratchett invention. Credited to a reclusive ‘hippie born of generations of hippies’, Willis Linsay anonymously posts his invention on the internet as a kind of contra-corporate hippie-gesture, so that ‘Step Day’ happens simultaneously beyond government or entrepreneurial control. The idea that the ability to ‘step’ from world to world is also innate, and all that is required is the correct thought-signature – a mental state that tuning the device induces, is maybe a Baxter development. A kind of Zen discipline in which the device functions as a variety of techno-mandala. Although it’s as deceptive to attribute all humour-content to one writer and all seriousness to the other as it is to assign all the Beatles’ grit to John Lennon and their fluff to Paul McCartney. Collaborations are more complex organisms than that. Haggling over input-percentage is a pointless exercise.

There’s a tradition in, especially American SF, of pioneers opening up new frontiers. Not for nothing is space the ‘final frontier’. Nuclear apocalypse has been used as a convenient device to return the world to a kind a renewed revitalised pre-Columbian wilderness. The Long Earths are very much part of this. Our familiar Earth becomes Datum-Earth (as it was Earth-prime for ‘Sliders’). And just as global population-levels tip over into an unsustainable nine-billion, limitless new step-wise Earths become accessible. Enabling a whole new ‘go west young man’ flood of colonists opening up new continents. Worlds that unfold for steppers ‘like a Ray Harryhausen show-reel’ (for this book is very postmodern-aware of the Sc-Fi tradition in which it operates).

There’s a leisurely meandering pace to the novel, untypical of Baxter, taking diversions around aspects of this newly-revealed ‘multiverse’, meeting characters who sometimes recur, others who appear as one-offs. Private Percy Blakeney, the First World War soldier who is shocked into the company of what he mistakenly believes to be hairy Russians, is a natural accidental stepper. While the main thrust clarifies around ‘antisocial weirdo’ Joshua Valientè, brought up by Nuns, who has more conscious control of the same ability, and listens to its ‘silence’. He encounters Lobsang, who first appears as a Coca-Cola dispenser. He might be an AI or equally the downloaded soul of a Tibetan motorcycle-repairman mystic (his name recalling Lobsang Ludd of Pratchett’s 2001 novel ‘Thief Of Time’). Under the guise of the transEarth Institute, as a self-styled Jules Verne-ian ‘Robur The Conqueror’, he leads the unlikely pair in a phantasmagorical airship ‘The Mark Twain’, to step millions of Earths – counted off by an ‘Earthomenter’, in a bid to explore the farthest reaches of the Long Earth. Capable of downloading himself into ambulant units, Lobsang can also adopt the warm and amiable voice of David Kossoff, in a bid to humanise himself. Only to reappear as Indiana Jones to explore an extinct civilisation where ‘nothing had happened for a very long time, and went on not happening now’. Sally, daughter of the Stepper’s inventor joins the team, alongside an electro-cat called Shi-mi.

As they step they discover no other human worlds. But there are trolls, and elves who ride pig-mounts, who correspond to the Kromaggs of ‘Sliders’, humanoids on forked evolutionary paths. Some of them step worlds with ease, migrating across countless Earths to escape a terrible something encroaching across the gulf of worlds. But just as anticipations accelerate towards a climax-confrontation, there are new byways to distract the attention into new sub-themes. Speculations about, if every step-Earth has its own variant step-solar system, just possibly there’s an inhabited step-Mars out there? While governments extend their jurisdiction over their counterpart territories on adjacent Earths, to reap tax and material resources, as their claims become more tenuous and unenforceable the further they extend from Datum-Earth. But even the novel’s final resolution, meeting the mega-massive being called First Person Singular, is inconclusive. Without revealing any massive plot-secrets, there’s no real closure either. The open-ended inconclusive wanderings are obviously intended to travelogue on into the sequel – ‘The Long War’ (June 2013), and the series-novels beyond.

Terry Pratchett’s writing career had begun as a thirteen-year-old with a short story called “The Hades Business” in ‘The Technical Cygnet’, The High Wycombe Technical High School magazine. And there’s a clearly recognisable jokiness to this tale of Crucible who is recruited by Nicholas Lucifer as spin-doctor for his rebranded hell, installing Fun-Fair, Coffee Bar, Bowling Alley and a Jazz Band to make it a more attractive proposition. ‘Imagine the interior of a storm cloud’ he writes, ‘sprinkle liberally with ash and garnish with sulphur to taste.’ Pratchett’s ‘little satire’ was promptly reprinted in John Carnell’s ‘Science Fantasy no.60’ (August 1963), in the esteemed company of Mervyn Peake, Michael Moorcock and Thomas Burnett Swann. Carnell claiming this first as ‘one of those little touches an editor seldom gets the opportunity of doing’, adding that the precociously-talented schoolboy ‘shows great promise for the future.’ There was a second short fiction tale – “Night Dweller” in ‘New Worlds no.156’ (November 1965) which, according to editor Michael Moorcock ‘describes outer space in a new a somewhat poetic light.’ Very different, an impressionistic mood-piece about a dark ‘something that howled at the stars’, it indicates that the now-sixteen-year-old Pratchett had other gears, and possible other directions to follow. Instead, he advanced swiftly into establishing his own genre-defying ‘Discworld’ mythos, establishing a dedicated cult of followers.

While Baxter has other star-collaborations on his cv. ‘The Light Of Other Days’ (2000) is cover-credited to Baxter with Arthur C Clarke, but also carries a dedication to Bob Shaw, from whom the title is derived, as well as its concept of ‘slow glass’. The novel carries the same kind of wistful requiem for the discontinued Space Race as in ‘The Long Earth’ which laments how ‘we could have been out there, applying to join the galactic federation, not slashing and burning our way across endless copies of the same old planet.’ There’s also humour, but whether this comes from the plotline sketched out by Arthur C Clarke, or the solid textual fleshing-out of that plot by Baxter is uncertain. Britain exits the European Union, separates from Scotland, then ‘in 2019 England, with Wales, ceded Northern Ireland to Eire, packed the Royals off to Australia – where they were still welcome, and had become the fifty-second state of the United States of America.’ There are also holographic Beatles in a kind of overplayed retro-sixties nostalgia. Maybe this is the kind of teasingly provocative playfulness that might appeal to a Terry Pratchett readership?

At the novel’s focus there’s an investigative journalist called Kate Manzoni, and tele-evangelist Billybob Meeks taking advantage of an interactive virtual-reality heaven. There’s an extinction planet-sized Wormwood on collision course with Earth (Wormwood is a literal translation of the Russian Chernobyl), as global warming disrupts weather patterns. But it’s the OurWorld media corporation of Hiram Patterson (aka Hirdamani Patel) who sets up wormhole-technology as datapipe terminals. First their WormCam scanners abolish privacy in ways that Wikileaks could never envisage, then they extend out to glimpse the worlds of near star systems, and ultimately peek around the corners of time. History is revealed as a directionless patchwork of chance, opportunism, fabrication, confabulation and lie. ‘The human memory is not a passive recorder but a tool in the construction of the self, so history has never been a simple record of the past, but a means of shaping peoples.’

There’s a ‘depressing truth’ surrounding Elvis Presley, a revelation concerning Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality, Davy Crockett was a ‘self-manufactured myth’, and Betsy Ross did not design the Stars & Stripes flag. There were no Area 51 UFO’s. And despite stripping away the supernatural add-ons, Chapter 21 – ‘Behold The Man’, is kinder to the Jesus-myth than the 1969 Michael Moorcock novel (or the 1966 ‘New Worlds’ novella) from which it takes its name. The world adapts to constant surveillance either by using SmartShroud invisibility cloaks, or linking into an ‘internet of minds’. Those using worm-vision to reach the stars, as far as the Trifid Nebulae, or back down the DNA-trail to the very dawn of microbial life on Earth – and the bizarre revealed civilisation that preceded it, are named Stapledons, in a further SF reference to visionary writer Olaf Stapledon. It’s a sprawling, sometimes unsatisfying novel, alive with gimmicky techno-ideas that might belong to Clarke, and the long-range breadth of spectacle typical of both writers.

It’s not Baxter’s only collaboration with the SF master. In fact there’s a trilogy of novels dealing with the temporal ‘discontinuity’ – ‘Time’s Eye’ (2003), ‘Sunstorm’ (2005), and ‘Firstborn’ (2008) in which alien meddling has transfigured Earth into a patchwork of colliding history, with Alexander the Great facing off the Mongol hordes of Ghenghis Khan, and Rudyard Kipling on the NW Frontier startled by encounters with a primitive humanoid and 21st-century helicopter-gunships. Intended as a counterpart to the ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ project, this is very much ‘Time’s Odyssey’.

Meanwhile the Terry Pratchett joint project continues with ‘The Long War’ (2013), which is set a tumultuous decade after its progenitor. Joshua and Lobsang are now caught up in new crises as fleets of world-stepping airships travel the Long Earths, the trolls become restless with their human interactions, and a new America – renamed ‘Valhalla’ is emerging to challenge the hegemony of datum-Earth. While the authorship is still as debatable. It’s that Lennon-McCartney thing.

Friday 29 November 2013

Poem: 'Anthem For A Lost Cause'


No pennants trailing in the dusk, limp as leaden thoughts,
no setting sun prisming like tears on dust-burnished greaves,
just you and I, Victoria, looking out over Hull.
No valiant but thwarted crusades amid crenelated tombstone towers,
no knowing smile from the lips of weathered comrades,
just you with your stony gaze
on your pedestal of stone above the toilets.
White darkness negates all things positive
from the docks to the empty desolate warehouse,
purity violated by love and left distraught
outside pubs at ten thirty, while
here I sit like Zeus before Olympus,
with my ideals, books and poetry,
you with your potted shrubs, stone loins and toilet cleaners,
and which of us the wiser?
Retinal images of rods and cones, lost in fleeting wraiths,
dimly remembered, perhaps rediscovered when least expected,
then cherished momentarily before they dissolve again,
beyond recall.
Letters engraved on the sky
ask the leaders why. Defy. Decry.
But the vowels tarnish, the consonants crumble
as ivy encircled their x-height, filling in their eyes,
blinding them.
So we’re alike, Victoria.
Your stone gaze beholds your empire,
my mind embraces the pieces of my own.
For I fought side by side with Leonidas
at the pass at Thermopylae,
I the only survivor.
For I watched the maidens of Crete
flaunting before the bulls.
I stood beside Horatius on the bridge
saving the lays of ancient Rome.
I retied the Gordian knot.
I fought with John Carter, Warlord of Mars,
shoulder to shoulder beneath the twin moons.
It was I who wept for Atlantis,
but the tears dried
and Delphi became dumb.
Odysseus returned to Ithaca,
and I, the only survivor,
look out over Hull,
in elevated company…

This was not only the first poem I ever wrote, but the first thing I had published – in ‘Sad Traffic no.5’, May 1971. When poetry editor Pete Lancaster explained to me why he’d accepted the poem, he told me it was because he liked the line-lengths, which was a little deflating. Nevertheless, this acceptance can be held directly responsible for everything that has come along since…!

Thursday 28 November 2013

Jack London's SF: 'The Scarlet Plague'


Most frequently considered a writer of hard-hitting 
stories of daring-do on the high seas, or the snows of 
Alaska through the enduring ‘The Call Of The Wild’
Jack London also wrote some fine pioneering early 
Science Fiction… now collected in 
three volumes by Leonaur Press

‘It was in the summer of 2013 that the Plague came…’ 

Before Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jack London was the unschooled outsider writer. A man who wrote himself into literary history using only his creative energies, and the medium of the Pulp magazine explosion. London’s stories appeared in ‘The Black Cat’ magazine, ‘Overland Monthly’, ‘Colliers’ and ‘Pearson’s Magazine’ which all thrived, and were popular, before the term Science Fiction was even devised. There was no SF profession or career-structure to be initiated into, but many of the stories he contributed to those editions were proto-SF in all but name. “The Scarlet Plague” first appeared in the ‘London Magazine’ dated June 1912, a title owned by Cecil Harmsworth, and it was set exactly one-hundred years into the then-future. It was not the first story in which a rogue pandemic virus wipes out civilisation. It would not be the last.

Mary Shelley – creator of the Frankenstein myth, had written ‘The Last Man’ as early as 1826, in which her protagonist, Lionel Verney is the sole survivor of a global apocalypse, leaving him alone in the year 2100. The novel takes the form of manuscripts supposedly discovered aeons hence, describing the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries in archaic eighteenth-century terms. Another obvious precedent to Jack London’s tale is Edgar Allan Poe, even down to the chosen colour of his “The Mask Of The Red Death” (1842), in which a group of aristocrats hide within a sealed abbey in the hope of escaping a disease ravaging the countryside outside its confines. In London’s story Hare-Lip, one of the youths who have devolved to a simple tribal level, argues about his grandfather’s definition of ‘the Purple plague’ – arguing ‘why don’t you tell about the Red Death?’ Perhaps that’s a deliberate giveaway reference to Poe? Perhaps not.

But there have been many more treatments of the theme since, clear down to the TV adaptation of ‘The Walking Dead’ graphic novel in which a group of survivors flee across an America devastated by a zombie-plague. Cormac McCarthy’s bleak ‘The Road’ (2006) re-paces the same path. While midpoint in the century, not only does George R Stewart’s 1949 novel ‘Earth Abides’ expand the basic contours of London’s story, but even sets its location in the same San Francisco area. For his epic ‘The Stand’ (1978, revised 1990), in which germ-warfare virus ‘Project Blue’ escapes the lab to devastate the world, Stephen King openly acknowledges his debt to George R Stewart, which neatly loops the continuity all the way back to Jack London.

London’s story starts off with young Edwin and his Granser traipsing along the overgrown path of what was once a railway embankment. Previously James Howard Smith, Professor Of Literature at Berkeley, he is now ‘a dirty old man clad in goatskin’, joining his grandsons of the Santa Rosan tribe on the beach. The ‘filthy little skin-clad savages’ are mocking and sceptical, curious and doubting about the old man’s stories of a lost past. Before civilisation ‘lapsed like foam’ he claims there were eight-billion people alive on Earth in the 2010 census. For a fiction written in 1912, that’s a remarkably accurate guesstimate, but one that the innumerate Hoo-Hoo, Hare-Lip and Edwin can barely conceive. Patiently the old man relates his tale of how human hubris was brought low by the virus. How 400-survivors barricade themselves into the University Chemistry Building, imagining they are somehow safe, not unlike Poe’s aristos. But how only forty-seven escape from a city fragmenting into murderous riots and uncontrollable fires. He alone reaches Yosemite as the plague burns itself out. Re-emerging to become the nineteenth member of the Santa Rosan tribe. ‘I am the last man who was alive in the days of the plague and who knows the wonders of that far-off time’ he tells them. ‘We, who mastered the planet – its earth, and sea, and sky – and who were as very gods, now live in primitive savagery along the water courses of this California country.’

London wrote the story in the twentieth century’s first decade. The future he envisages is one in which airships once plied the skies, and the plague reverses a deeply polarised social order, so that a chauffeur now lords it over a Magnate’s daughter. There’s some philosophical musing about the cyclic nature of civilisation, rebuilding itself towards new wars and atrocity, only to collapse again into barbarity. The pride that comes before the fall. But there’s a poetic wistfulness too, as Granser and loyal Edwin watch a herd of wild horses prancing by the surf, perhaps driven down from the hills by mountain lions. A symbol of nature returning to reclaim what was fleetingly the human realm, returning America to its old pre-Columbian frontier state, a process repeating itself around the world. With a certain sense of the Earth renewed.

I first came across the story in a second-hand copy of ‘Strange Travels In Science Fiction’ (Grayson & Grayson, 1953), a hardback anthology edited by Groff Conklin, with luring cover-art showing a space-suited figure surveying a cratered lunar landscape. Inside, there was HP Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out Of Space”, Alan E Nourse, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, but it was London who left the greatest impression on my adolescent mind. Reviewing the book, ‘Authentic Science Fiction Monthly’ (no.44, April 1954) observes that ‘one very interesting point about it is that it contains a story by Jack London; few people outside the field of science fiction would have believed that this intensely sane lunatic and honoured writer had ever had anything to do with science fiction. Now they’ll know! This book should definitely be on your shelves.’

If science fiction is the genre that hauled itself up by its own disreputable bootstraps, these were its most representative pioneers. Edgar Rice Burroughs ‘A Princess Of Mars’ was published in 1917, a full decade after Jack London’s ‘Before Adam’ (1906) and ‘The Iron Heel’ (1907). Yet both were men who fought their way up to celebrity through the sheer power of their imaginations. Neither came from a literary or privileged background. Burroughs created ‘Tarzan’, one of great twentieth-century myth-figures, which made him wealthy. But Jack London was the better writer. And both wrote across a wide spectrum of themes, a necessary prerequisite of earning a living from the magazine scene of the time.

Jack’s single-parent mother – Flora Wellman, later married John London, and he took his stepfather’s name. He left school at fifteen to work in a cannery. At the time, acquisitive Corporations were laying legal claim to previously publically-owned oyster-beds, forcing those who lived off the Bay to become ‘pirates’. Jack joined them. Later, after a sealing expedition to the NW Pacific his socialist ideas were kindled by joining ‘Kelly’s Army’ – a kind of American Jarrow March, which resulted in him spending time in Eyrie County Penitentiary. As his earliest literary attempts were failing, he joined the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, among rogues, cheats and charlatans, and while he found no gold, he happened upon veins of fiction-themes worth infinitely more. He stumbled across his niche writing rugged tales of dogs, wolves and the Alaskan frontier. All of his life-experience combining to razor his story-telling skills, so that on his return to California he sold “An Odyssey Of The North” (1899) to ‘Atlantic Monthly’. This was subsequently expanded into a story-collection – ‘The Son Of The Wolf’ (1900), after which, although his picaresque adventures continued, writing would remain his main source of income.

The dignified proprietors of the periodicals he contributed to may have been initially disturbed by the popularity of the occasional proto-SF stories they published as novelties, but they were quick to swallow their dismay and capitalise on their success. London’s novel ‘Before Adam’ started out as a serial in the popular ‘Everybody’s Magazine’ (1906-1907). Like HG Wells’ “A Story Of The Stone Age” – serialised in ‘The Idler’ during 1897, it was a trip into prehistory. Using the Race-Memory device of a city-boy dreaming himself into the consciousness of a hominid member of the Cave People, the story powerfully evokes the primeval mid-Pleistocene atmosphere of this ‘Younger World’. The character names – Lop-Ear the Swift One, Cross-Eyes or Red-Eye, even anticipate those of his future Santa Rosan tribe in their new savagery. Allying his vision with his Klondike experience, in “A Relic Of The Pliocene” (‘Collier’s Magazine’, January 1901) a Yukon gold prospector discovers a live Mastodon. The story was rescued and reprinted – as “The Angry Mammoth”, in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’ as late as May 1959. While his earliest tale with SF elements – “A Thousand Deaths” (in ‘The Black Cat’, May 1899), had sufficient strengths to also be reprinted by the same magazine (September 1967). It concerns a cold-hearted lone scientist who uses his own son in torture-like revivification experiments, until the son invents a superweapon that dematerialises the scientist, ‘puff! It was like the wind sighing among the pines. He was gone.’

And there was other if-onlying. HG Wells’ novella “The Invisible Man” was first serialised in 1897 in ‘Pearson’s Magazine’. Picking up on the concept, London’s “The Shadow And The Flash” followed in ‘The Bookman’ (June 1903), in which two of the narrator’s friends – Lloyd Inwood and Paul Tichlorne, have been fierce rivals since childhood. Both compete in the task of achieving invisibility. Paul succeeds in making his dog invisible, through injecting it with transparency reagents. Lloyd makes his entire laboratory disappear from view by painting it with absolute light-absorbing black. Then, brush-stroke by brush-stroke, bodily-member by bodily-member, he is himself painted and gradually vanishes from sight. The two men are so enraged by each other’s success that they fight – both invisible, and kill each other.

While SF academic John Clute claims ‘The Iron Heel’ (1908) to be ‘the most vivid and important SF novel of the year’ it was ‘one of the many early-20th-century SF novels about conflict between Capital and Labour’, yet it is the only one of its time still to be read. The novel, in the form of the ‘Everhard Manuscript’ – discovered, and annotated, in the future, spans an arc of years. In 1912 (the story goes) the Socialists win the American elections, but are barred from taking office. ‘Revolution, chaos, and war ensue’ (in ‘Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia’, 1995). The future-history, telling how socialist revolutionaries struggle against a fascist-style ‘Oligarchy’ dictatorship, extends through until 2632.

London’s strangely-titled short story “The Dream Of Debs” – first published in the January 1909 edition of ‘The International Socialist Review’, covers similar terrain. Less a story – less a SF story even though it projects events into an alternative imagined future, it’s more a political tract charting the course of a working-class General Strike devised by a labour leader called Eugene V Debs, illustrating that real power lies with the supposedly powerless. An instructional warning showing the truth that in this labour-intensive era, social balance is precariously structured on inequality. As told by narrator Corf, at first the disruption caused by the Strike is a minor inconvenience for the ruling class – there are no olives for the cocktails, and the chauffeur is promptly dismissed for siding with the Chauffeurs Union. Oddly, Bertie Messener – who ‘had never done a tap of productive work in his life’, argues that there’s no real moral dimension to the Strike, that it’s simply a quid pro quo for the smashing of the American Federation of Labour and the various underhand manipulations that employers have used to break individual unions and union actions.

From a twenty-first century point of view – accustomed to instant global communications, it’s stranger that, without newspapers and with telegraph wires cut, there’s no awareness of conditions outside the immediate area. Isolated, as food shortages set in there’s a farcical trip into the countryside intent on killing a cow to obtain meat, which ends in a beating. Martial law is declared as the upper-classes flee beleaguered San Francisco, their servants deserting them on the way. Order collapses. The objective is nothing short of starving the ruling class into complete submission, as ‘millionaires and paupers fought side by side for the food’. With the total capitulation of the employers, order, of a kind, resumes. But now begins the tyranny of organised labour. The story closes with the first counter-revolutionary grumbles that ‘something must be done’.

“The Strength Of The Strong” (‘Hampton’s Magazine’, March 1911) is an even more thinly-disguised Socialist lesson, recycling the same narrative-structure London had used with “The Scarlet Plague”, in which an oldster – this time in prehistory, recites tales of past-times to sceptical youngsters. Long-Beard and Deer-Runner debate how the initially separate family groups of the valley discover their collective tribal strength only when faced by invasion, but how that unity is then corrupted by the growth of internal power-structures. Restoration of that initial clarity of vision remains a hope for the days to come. Almost a ludicrously simplified thumbnail social history, with its promise of a future should sanity prevail, it remains too message-heavy to be a convincing fiction.

Yet despite this vision, London is not entirely free of the prejudices of his time. It would be unrealistic to expect otherwise. His story “The Unparalleled Invasion” – which debuted in the July 1910 issue of ‘McClures’ magazine, is particularly disturbing. Regarding the Chinese, he writes ‘the fabric of their minds were woven from totally different stuffs. They were mental aliens.’ Yet ‘China was to be feared, not in war, but in commerce.’ According to the future history he plots, China is guided by Japan, until a 1922 war drives the Japanese home. In this strange alternate twentieth-century there is no Hiroshima, instead ‘exit Japan from the world drama. Thereafter she devoted herself to art, and her task became to please the world greatly with her creation of wonder and beauty.’ Well, there’s Honda, perhaps! There’s no Vietnam War either, instead – by 1970, with no Mao and no one-child-per-couple policy, China’s relentless population expansion under their Emperor takes them into French Indo-China, effortlessly brushing French resistance aside (although why French imperial power has any more moral right to be there is not questioned). The United Powers of The Great Truce are so concerned by China’s unchecked growth that they adopt a plan advanced by minor scientist Jacobus Laningdale in his Presidential audience of 19th September 1975. By the following May world fleets and armies converge to encircle China, which is bombed by tubes releasing ‘every virulent form of infectious death’ including smallpox, scarlet fever, Black Death plus the spontaneous hybridisation of new plague-germs. The obvious problem of containment is resolved by the naval and military blockade ensuring no-one escapes the continent-wide charnel-house that results.

It’s a nasty story, even though the 17 April 1987 Convention of Copenhagen subsequently bans the ‘laboratory methods of warfare they had employed in the invasion of China’. As a SF prediction of germ-warfare, it shows ‘old war was made a thing of laughter’, outmoded the by ultra-modern ‘war of the scientist and the laboratory.’ By London’s fictional 1982 the vast empty wastes of China are resettled by ‘a vast and happy intermingling of nationalities.’ Could that be possible following such appalling genocide? With the guilt-stain legacy of ethnic cleansing, Nazi exterminations, as well as Stalin and the Native American atrocities acting as scars on global conscience it’s difficult to see how ‘the splendid mechanical, intellectual and art output that followed’ could happen. But perhaps that’s to elevate the slight tale beyond its natural pulp origins.

And it’s not as if Jack London was alone in his warnings about the ‘Yellow Peril’. It was not an uncommon theme. MP Shiel’s popular ‘The Yellow Danger’ (1898) played upon the same racial fears. While Philip Francis Nowlan’s ‘Armageddon 2419AD’ (August 1928) – the story later adapted to introduce ‘Buck Rodgers’ into comic-strip legend, portrays a future-America conquered by the Chinese. London’s compensatory belief in a socialist future in which national and racial divisions cease to be as important as the global human family, serves to lift him above such accusations.

And there are at least two more mitigating examples. London’s “The Heathen” (‘Everybody’s Magazine’, August 1910) draws on his nautical experience – the narrator is a pearl buyer. He’s on board the over-laden ‘Petite Jeanne’, heavy with an excess of passengers, which runs foul of the advancing storm centre of a vividly described hurricane. For those in peril ‘they were not seas at all. They resembled no sea a man had ever seen.’ Then in a free conversational style, ‘no, it is beyond me’ he concedes, ‘it would have been better had I stuck to my original intention of not attempting a description.’ Shipwrecked, he’s thrown together with the only other survivor, Otoo, the Heathen, a native of Borabora. Becoming lifelong loyal friends, the two establish mutual respect to the extent of the ceremony of ‘exchanging names’. Tokenistic maybe, but Otoo is described in every way as an exceptionally admirable character. While London demonstrates command of the techniques and strategies of the thuggish fight-game, as Norman Mailer would, in “The Mexican” (‘Saturday Evening Post’, 19 August 1911). Danny Ward fights ‘for money and for the easy ways of life that money would bring,’ while plucky contender Rivera fought to raise finance for the socialist Mexican revolution, with all his ‘blazing and terrible visions’. London not only perfectly captures the calculated dialogue of the fight promoters, but the implacable mindset of the Mexican too, and the pure hatred of gringos – focused on his opponent in the ring, that powers his fight. Despite taking a terrible punishing beating, it is the heroic underdog who earns the reader’s sympathies. Both stories also demonstrate the range of Jack London’s fiction.

His third and last novel-length foray into Science-Fantasy, ‘The Star Rover’ (1915) is partly based on interviews with Ed Morrell, a real-life former Death Row convict in San Quentin whose pardon London actively campaigned for. Morrell claimed to have experienced a disassociation of mind from body in prison while enduring torture. In London’s version of the events it is Darrell Standing, a university professor, who is the victim of ‘the jacket’, a total sensory-deprivation device from which he escapes by entering a trance-state that allows him access to interstellar realms and partial incarnation into past lives. Through this fictional guise ‘I was bound on vast adventure, where, at the end, I would find all the cosmic formulae and have made clear to me the ultimate secret of the universe.’ It also allows him to inhabit a succession of separate sequences strung together along the common theme, including a French nobleman called Count Guillame de Sainte-Maure, Adam Strang – an Englishman in medieval Korea, and Ragnar Lodbrog, a Norseman journeying from Alexandria to Jerusalem at the time of Tiberius. It’s through the considerable power of these transmigrations through time that London achieves his elusive balance between fine fiction, and agitation for social justice. Morrell was released, and became an occasional guest at London’s ‘Beauty Ranch’ in Sonoma County. The place where John Griffith ‘Jack’ London died.

Although the imaginative writers of the time couldn’t have been aware of it, a new genre was coming into being all around them, taking a blowtorch to all the affectations and pretences of great literature, making the slippery divisions between genre and literary fiction ridiculous and arbitrary. During the new century’s first decade, Jules Verne died (1905) and Hugo Gernsback, recently emigrated from Luxembourg to America, launched ‘Modern Electrics’ magazine (in 1908), the pulp predecessor to ‘Amazing Stories’. The future was already being written. In a rapid succession of years HG Wells’ ‘When The Sleeper Wakes’ (1899), MP Shiel’s ‘The Purple Cloud’ (1901), Jules Verne’s ‘Master Of The World’ (1904), Edwin L Arnold’s ‘Gulliver Of Mars’ (1905), and EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909) were extending the themes of fiction into new worlds of the imagination. Jack London was part of this process. And if Orwell’s dystopias were anticipated by ‘The Iron Heel’, London’s freewheeling prose-travelogues also carry trace-elements to be picked up by Jack Kerouac’s Beat ‘On The Road’ (1957) style.

Jack London was the unschooled outsider writer. A man who wrote himself into literary history through only his creative and diverse energies. Yet his fiction is still being read. And it’s still worth reading.

(12 January 1876 – 22 November 1916) 


1895 – Who Believes In Ghosts! (‘The (Oakland) High School Aegis’ 21 October 1895), Damon and George trade tall tales

1899 – An Odyssey Of The North (‘Atlantic Monthly’, 1899), a man of mixed white and Aleut ancestry

1899 – The White Silence (‘Overland Monthly’, February 1899)

1899 – A Thousand Deaths (‘The Black Cat’, May 1899, then ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’, September 1967), his first story with SF elements, and his first sale for which he received $40

1899 – In A Far Country (‘Overland Monthly’, June 1899)

1899 – The Rejuvenation Of Major Rathbone (‘Conkey’s Home Journal’, November 1899), a story involving a ‘rejuvenator’ extracted from a ‘lymph compound’

1900 – Even Unto Death (‘The San Francisco Evening Post Magazine’, 28 July 1900)

1900 – The Man With The Gash (‘McClure’s Magazine’, September 1900)

1901 – The Law Of Life (‘McClure’s Magazine Vol.16’, March 1901), ageing Native American chief Kaskoosh is abandoned by his tribe, to die alone, he reflects on his life as predatory wolves circle

1901 – A Relic Of The Pliocene (‘Collier’s’, 12 January 1901), reprinted ‘The Angry Mammoth’ in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’, May 1959, and ‘Venture SF (UK)’ October 1964)

1901 – The God Of His Fathers (‘McClure’s’, May 1901)

1901 – The Minions Of Midas (‘Pearson’s Magazine’, May 1901)

1902 – The Death Of Ligoun (‘The Children Of The Frost’, Macmillan, 1902)

1902 – Bâtard (‘Cosmopolitan’, June 1902), also published as ‘Diable’, the story of a French-Canadian who brutalises his dog, which eventually retaliates and kills him

1902 – Moon-Face (‘The Argonaut’, 21 July 1902), the unnamed protagonist trains his dog to retrieve thrown sticks, then uses it to dynamite moon-faced John Claverhouse, the subject of his irrational hatred

1902 – In The Forests Of The North (‘Pearson’s Magazine’, September 1902)

1902 – Keesh, The Son Of Keesh (‘Ainslee’s Magazine’, September 1902, collected into Jack London’s ‘Thirteen Tales Of Terror’, Popular Library, July 1978)

1903 – The One Thousand Dozen (collected into ‘The Faith Of Men And Other Stories’ by Jack London, Macmillan and Co, 1904)

1903 – The Shadow And The Flash (‘The Bookman’, June 1903, reprinted in ‘Famous Fantastic Mysteries’, June 1948)

1903 – The Leopard Man’s Story (‘Leslie’s Magazine’, August 1903), the animal-trainer tells stories of death and jealousy in a tent-show

1905 – A Raid On The Oyster Pirates (‘The Youth’s Companion’, 16 March 1905 and ‘The Pall Mall Magazine’ Volume 35, 1905)

1906 – Planchette (‘Moon-Face And Other Stories’ by Jack London, The Macmillan Company)

1908 – To Build A Fire (‘The Century Magazine’, then ‘Some Things Weird And Wicked’ edited by Joan Kahn, Bantam Books), trailered by an earlier version published in ‘The Youth’s Companion’ in 1902, it is set in the Klondike where a newcomer ignores advice, travels alone, and falls into a frozen creek, so that his survival depends on his ability to light a warming fire

1908 – The Enemy Of All the World (‘The Red Book Magazine’, October1908), a lone genius invents a super-weapon and terrorises the world

1908 – Goliah (‘The Red Magazine’, December1908), a ‘scientific superman’ inaugurates a millennium of international socialism by mastering an ultimate energy-source called ‘energon’, which makes him master of the world’s fate

1908 – A Curious Fragment (‘Town Topics (New York)’ 10 December 1908), one of the ruling 28th-century oligarchs encounters a severed arm bearing a petition from his industrial slaves

1908 – Lost Face (‘New York Herald’ 13 December, reprinted in ‘A Treasury Of American Horror Stories’, Bonanza Books, 1985)

1909 – The Dream Of Debs (‘The International Socialist Review’, January 1909, then ‘The Strength Of The Strong’ Jack London collection, Mills & Boon 1917)

1909 – The Seed Of McCoy (‘Turning Point: Fourteen Great Tales of Daring and Decision’ edit by George Bennett, Dell Laurel-Leaf 1965)

1910 – The Unparalleled Invasion (‘McClures’ July 1910, then ‘Gamma no.11’ October 1966, and ‘The Science Fiction Stories Of Jack London’, Citadel Press 1993)

1910 – The Heathen (‘Everybody’s Magazine’, August 1910)

1910 – Winged Blackmail (in ‘The Night-Born’ by Jack London, Century Co, February 1913)

1910 – When The World Was Young (‘The Saturday Evening Post’, 10 September 1910), a ‘magnificent… yellow-haired’ savage shares the body of a successful California businessman

1911 – The “Francis Spaight” (‘When The God Laughs And Other Stories’ by Jack London, The Macmillan Company)

1911 – The Strength Of The Strong (‘Hampton’s Magazine’, March 1911)

1911 – The Eternity Of Forms (‘The Red Book Magazine’, March 1911)

1911 – The First Poet (‘Century Magazine’, June 1911)

1911 – War (‘The Nation’, 29 July 1911)

1911 – The Mexican (‘The Saturday Evening Post’, 19 August 1911)

1912 – The Scarlet Plague (‘London Magazine’ June 1912, reprinted in ‘Out Of This World’ May 1944, Penguin and elsewhere, including ‘The Science Fiction Of Jack London’ Gregg Press 1975, ‘Strange Travels In Science Fiction’ edited by Groff Conklin, Grayson & Grayson, 1953, and ‘Omnibus Of Science Fiction’ edited by Groff Conklin, Chatham River Press, 1984)

1918 – The Red One (‘Cosmopolitan’ October 1918), an isolated tribal society in Guadalcanal turns a mysterious outer space sphere into the centerpiece of a death cult, of which scientist Bassett falls victim. Based on London’s interest in the psychoanalytical ideas of Carl Gustav Jung

1959 – The Strange Love-Challenge Of Big-Girl Island (‘Man’s Conquest’ magazine, July 1959) cover-blurbed as ‘Never Before Published! Jack London's Lustiest True Adventure’

1967 – A Piece Of Steak (‘The Edge Of The Chair’ edit by Joan Kahn, Harper and Row), a boxing story

1983 – Im Jahre 33 (Published in German in ‘Der Feind Der Welt’ June 1983, extracted from a chapter of ‘The Star Rover’ as originally featured in ‘American Sunday Monthly Magazine’ July 1910)

1985 – Make Westing (‘Mysterious Sea Stories’, January 1985, edited by William Pattrick, WH Allen)

1998 – A Ghostly Duel (‘The Mammoth Book of 20th Century Ghost Stories’ edit by Peter Haining, Robinson Publ)

2003 – In Yeddo Bay (‘The National Review Treasury Of Classic Children’s Literature’ edit William F Buckley Jrn)

2003 – To Repel Boarders (‘The National Review Treasury Of Classic Children’s Literature’ edit William F Buckley Jrn)

 2005 – ‘The Collected Science Fiction And Fantasy Of Jack London 1: Before Adam And Other Stories’ (Leonaur, ISBN: 1846770084) with ‘The Scarlet Plague’, ‘A Relic Of The Pliocene’, ‘When The World Was Young’, ‘The Red One’, ‘Planchette’, ‘A Thousand Deaths, ‘Goliah’, ‘A Curious Fragment’, ‘The Rejuvenation Of Major Rathbone’

2005 – ‘The Collected Science Fiction And Fantasy Of Jack London 2: The Iron Heel And Other Stories’ (Leonaur, ISBN: 1846770041) with ‘The Enemy Of All The World’, ‘The Shadow And The Flash’, ‘The Strength Of The Strong’, ‘The Unparalleled Invasion’, ‘The Dream Of Debs’

2005 – ‘The Collected Science Fiction And Fantasy Of Jack London 3: The Star Rover And Other Stories’ (Leonaur, ISBN: 1846770067) with ‘The Minions Of Midas’, ‘The Eternity Of Forms’, ‘The Man With The Gash’

Wednesday 27 November 2013


Gig Review of: 
 at the ‘The Brudenell Social Club’, Leeds 
(29 June 2013)

 ‘I’m getting too old for this lark’ wheezes Ginger Baker. ‘No you’re not’ yells an audience voice. It’s the one time this night his stern visage cracks into a smile. His autobiography is on Amazon with a free-read section. In it, he explains how his pre-Rock roots lie in Bebop-drummer Max Roach and British jazzer Phil Seaman. How he’d nick jazz albums from local record shops. That’s before he joined Graham Bond, hooked up with Jack Bruce, went on into Cream and all the other stuff we know. Here in Leeds he’s spun it all back to where it began.

Openers Quack Quack are a powered-up Prog-improv Nice-style trio. Midpoint into a piece that might have been called “Phonehenge” or “Bird Parliament” Richard ‘Moz’ Morris, who runs a three-minute mile while playing keyboard, sets a single continuous drone-note, then joins drummer Neil Turpin in a furious percussive fusillade, while Stuart Bannister crouches against the amps coaxing controlled distortion from his tortured bass. Their ‘Slow As An Eyeball’ CD sells briskly at the merchandising desk where promoter John Keenan presides.

Ginger Baker. He might look like the kind of lag who once ran with the Krays and now sells his story to sleazy tabloids, his once-flaming hair now an ice-grey slickback, but his music-soul burns. Drums are the core of Jazz Confusion. Ginger in specs and open-neck shirt, and to his right, his Ghanaian percussionist right-hand man Abass Dodoo who alternates sticks with palms on congas in a unison drum clinic of startling intensity. Michael, dapper bassist in pork pie hat is fluent stand-in, depping for Alec Dankworth. And a seated Alfred ‘Pee Wee’ Ellis, former James Brown/Van Morrison saxist, his sweet-toned tenor expressively delineating Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints”. As fleshed as Ginger is fleshless, after solos Pee Wee sits, gazes inquisitively down into the audience, and breathes.

A buzz of distortion provokes a withering ‘thank you soundman. DON’T do it again!’ in Ginger’s whiplash wheeze. The second of two half-hour sets, after a twenty-minute break, opens with the second Pee Wee original. Then Ron Miles “Ginger Spice” – ‘he’d never heard of the Spice Girls’ rasps Ginger, his shirt off now. It’s been part of his set at least since the 1999 trio ‘Coward Of The County’ album, with busy drum dialogue and Pee Wee igniting oozing groans and sighs from his horn. There’s Thelonius Monk, and Sonny Rollins “St Thomas”, but the finest moment is Ginger’s own tribute to “Cyril Davies” with eloquently narrative sax underpinned by steady time-signature, emotive, but with swing. Ginger Baker throws a drumstick in the air. Catches it. But when he stands, he almost stumbles. Too old? Not yet!

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Dave Lee Travis & Radio One in the 1970's


There was a time when 
Radio One DJ’s were celebrity stars in their own right. 
Tony Blackburn and Dave Lee Travis were national figures. 
But back then, in radio terms, there was nowhere else to go.

The ‘Hairy Cornflake’. In Peter Kay’s catchphrase... what’s all that about? What IS it all about? Radio One DJ Dave Lee Travis used to broadcast to peak audience figures around the time listeners were enjoying their breakfast. He has a beard. We all know that ‘cos we’ve seen him on ‘Top Of The Pops’. Hence he was consumed alongside of, and as part of the daily national diet. Hairy DJ. Cornflakes. No? Not funny. Perhaps it wasn’t even particularly funny then. Quack-Quack Oops! Or maybe that needs explaining too…?

The 1970’s was less a decade, than a bridge between the sixties and the eighties. It opens with the overhang of the Harold Wilson-Edward Heath mixed-economy consensus that had navigated Britain from post-war austerity to the Swinging London boom. And endures long enough for the patchwork decade to close with the advent of Margaret Thatcher inaugurating a less compassionate more acquisitive future. When the nostalgia-industry seizes upon the seventies it fumbles for trashy Glam and Glitter. A distant planet on which the media was narrower, to the point of monolithic. There were three television channels, ITV, BBC1 and BBC2. There was no network of commercial radio. There was very little by way of regional BBC radio stations.

But if the 1960’s had evolved the global template for Pop Music, the 1970’s formatised and fine-tuned its delivery system. In the previous decade when time and cash was tight, shiny black vinyl constituted a considered and thought-out purchase. Suddenly, with more disposable teen-cash than ever before, singles were treated like Frisbees, bought on a whim, and dumped as quickly. In the 1960’s the writing-production team of Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley blueprinted a Pop production-line using the likes of Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky and Tich to front their songs. It guaranteed a string of hits. Now Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn took up the model and honed it into a Hit Factory that dominated the new decade, just as Stock-Aitken-Waterman would do for the eighties.

Dave Lee Travis – aka David Patrick Griffin (born 25 May 1945) had worked on Radio Caroline from September 1965 onwards. It was the biggest of the Pirate Radio stations that briefly challenged the BBC dominance of British airwaves, and showed up its output as dull, formal and old-fashioned. You catch a distorted glimpse of what it was like in Richard Curtis’ ‘The Ship That Rocked’ (2009). As a sop to the outlawing of off-shore stations the BBC rejigged its corporate structure, relabeling its old Light Programme as Radio One. Radio Two continued the old snooze for an ageing demographic that could safely be ignored. Radios Three and Four were for talk-radio and classical output. You want Pop, you listen to Radio One. There’s nowhere else to go.

Dave Lee Travis joined Radio One to present ‘Pop North’ and to do weekend spots. By 1971 he’d been promoted to the national weekday lunchtime slot. In 1976 he assumed the teatime show, rebranding it ‘It’s DLT OK!’ – 4:30 to 5:45, before finally unseating Noel Edmonds at the coveted Breakfast Show in May 1978. The ‘Hairy Cornflake’ phase. Needless to say, there was no Breakfast TV. DJ’s were pilots of the airwaves who might play your request. The bright good-morning voice, playing all the hits for you. Even John Peel comments about how, when you wake up in the morning and turn on the radio, the first song you hear stays with you all day. No matter how trite, you find yourself humming it inside your head.

DLT, for that is how he refers to himself, now talks with bitter pride of the massive audiences his shows reached, with an authenticated ten-million listeners. It’s hardly surprising. In the monoculture of the 1970’s they had a monopoly. He and Tony Blackburn had national star-profiles that dwarfed many of the so-called music star names on the 45rpm singles they spun. ‘Top Of The Pops’ had launched at the height of the Beat-Boom on New Year’s Day 1964. By the seventies it was a must-see fixture that not only reflected, but fashioned the charts it was based around. It was a neat conspiracy. The ‘heavy’ groups playing the various strands of underground music grown out of the counter-culture, the Blues-based experimental improvisational music, was catered for by the late-night John Peel shows. Day-time radio had its golden oldie spots, but it created and defined what the charts looked and sounded like.

Sweet are a good example. They’d enjoyed a modest run of catchy lightweight hits. But then Chinn-Chapman used them to hit overdrive. “Blockbuster” became the group’s first no.1 in January 1973, based around a commercialised variant of the Who’s high-energy attack. And for its ‘Top Of The Pops’ presentation they assumed a Glam guise, with the token gender-bending member (bassist Steve Priest) who would become obligatory for the others who followed. The tie-in was a perfect storm. Radio One would play the new Chinn-Chapman record. As the station became attuned to the brand, radio-plays became routine. Once a foothold in the lower region of the chart qualified the record for ‘Top Of The Pops’ inclusion, there was a 2.30-minute TV-slot there to ram that record further into national awareness. How could that most efficiently be achieved? By visual overload. Time was tight. They were miming to a set soundtrack. The flexible-element lay in garb. Hence the need to maximise its impact so kids talked excitedly about you in the schoolyard the following day, while effectively defining the necessary generational gulf by provoking ‘what the hell is THAT?!?!’ from Dad in the corner, with deliciously conflated outrage at every fluttering eye-linered eyelash and camp flourish (because there was still just one family TV, as the font-room focal-point).

Glam, as an element of the UK Pop machine, was fashioned by the immaculate elision of Radio One and ‘Top Of The Pops’. At first it was T Rex and Slade alternating at the top slot. Then Sweet and Gary Glitter. The irony being that although Paul Raven had been around, and recording since 1959, it was with Mike Leander that he devised the ‘Gary Glitter’ persona. Yet the breakthrough single happened with the throwaway instrumental B-side of “Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Resulting in him debuting on ‘Top Of The Pops’ without a singing role! Yet the monstrously camp bacofoil-vision he presented ensured the vocal follow-up charted, until his “I’m The Leader Of The Gang (I Am)” took him finally to no.1, roaring on-stage astride a Harley with an outrageously pantomime repertoire of shocked stares, raised eyebrows, and a huge laugh-out-loud false quiff. Alvin Stardust who’d already enjoyed a 1960’s career as Shane Fenton, returned as a gross 1950’s pastiche in black leather so tightly enveloping he was scarce able to move, merely weaving a ring-encrusted finger at the camera lens (in a manner reminiscent of Dave Berry). The appalling Bay City Rollers and bland Osmonds devolved and devalued Pop further, with their Pavlovian teen-audiences acting-out their learned function. Girls screamed at Sinatra and Elvis. They screamed at the Beatles and the Stones. This is what you do. So they scream. With no clear idea why.

Then there were the groups who didn’t actually exist. Those one-off singles that were studio-fabricated by professional writer-producer teams using a core of slick session-players. When such a single entered the lower region of the chart it became necessary to recruit a group of appropriately telegenic boys to become that group for promotional purposes. Although Tony Burrows sings lead on “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” (no.1 in January 1970) – and was also the voice on hits by the Pipkins, White Plains and First Class, he was never actually a member of Edison Lighthouse. While the startling falsetto on “Sugar Baby Love” (no.1 in May 1974) was performed by Paul da Vinci, although he was never a member of the Rubettes. If they were fortunate – like the Rubettes, the subsequently hastily-assembled group actually got to play on their own follow-up singles, unlike Edison Lighthouse for whom there was to be no future career. This practice was hardly unprecedented. For Phil Spector’s 1960’s hits the Crystals and the Ronettes heard on the vinyl was not necessarily the Crystals and Ronettes you saw on tour or on your TV. But the unique configuration of early-1970’s UK Pop made it ideally suited to such playful scams.

Alvin Stardust’s hits, incidentally, were released on the tiny Magnet label. Although there were a few pioneering Indie labels they were still a minority. The acceleration of the Indie sector would not gain momentum until post-Punk. The majors still controlled who made records, and who didn’t. The record shops stocked those records. Kids went into town to buy them. The marketing and in-house PR agents were targeting a music press and radio network in a closed-circuit cosy synergy.

Trash-Pop belonged to the Radio One DJ’s. Because there was nowhere else to go. Dave Lee Travis and cheery Tony Blackburn were radio-faces. There was also ‘Diddy’ David Hamilton, Simon Bates, Bruno Brookes, Emperor Rosko, and Annie Nightingale. Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman played his ‘Pick Of The Pops’, climbing his way up the Top Thirty every Sunday, Pop-Pickers. There was also Jimmy Savile, Kenny Everett, and the rest. Chances are that whoever’s backsides warmed those DJ-chairs would become established as names and faces. It just happened to be these names and faces. They were not yet self-styled as presenters, they were disc-jockeys who burbled between the hits. It was fun, it was silly. It was daft. But it was a frivolous decade.

They did listener phone-in’s and played jingles, an incorrect answer to the bizarre concept of ‘Give Us A Break’ – Davis Lee Travis’ ‘Snooker On The Radio’, earned the listener a Quack-Quack Oops! in novelty-synthesiser voice. Was it good? Not really. It was just… there. You turn on the radio, and it’s there. A background gibberish between snatched half-heard music. It seeps in like a sludge of tepid chip-fat to congeal around your brain. I heard it, almost without realising it, without conscious effort. You did too, don’t try to deny it. They were amiable buffoons. They were non-threatening jesters, friends at the turn of a dial. Programming was rigidly structured. With the breakfast slot catering to commuters, kids setting out for school, with regular time-checks to synchronise leaving for the bus. The morning show targets housewives – as they still were, or the factories where Radio One was relayed over speakers. “Blockbuster” itself was criticised because its siren-effect confused factory-workers who mistook it for the fire alarm.

Punk could be effectively ignored, or restricted to John Peel. Daytime radio waited until it became a safer New Wave, and more radio-friendly groups such as Jam or the Police came along. In the meantime it played its cosy diet of Carpenters, Abba and the New Seekers. And the latest Chinn-Chapman creation, from Mud to Smokie to Suzi Quatro. If the old Light Programme had wallowed in its self-satisfied complacency, its new Radio One-One-One-derful replacement soon eased itself into the same tired run-out groove. As insubstantial as tinsel, controversy not only discouraged, but ruthlessly eradicated. When DLT had the temerity to suggest listeners support a petition to outlaw the seal-cull clubbing, he was swiftly censured. When he later voiced his bitterness about the Smashie & Nicey caricature as perpetrated by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, it was largely because their sketches were so accurately barbed. When Elvis Costello voiced his frustrations about radio being ‘in the hands of such a lot of fools, tryin’ to anaesthetise the way that you feel’, they played that too because the catchy satirical chorus goes ‘wonderful radio, marvellous radio, wonderful radio, Radio Radio, Radio Radio’.

The ‘Radio One Roadshow’ was an annual exercise in populism, devised by controller Johnny Beerling, as a way of getting it out of studio-confines and taking it to the people. Alan Freeman hosted the first one, broadcast live from Newquay’s North Fistral Beach on 23 July 1973, then trundling on to perform from the drizzling car-parks and windy promenades of Britain’s other seaside resorts. Kid Jensen and Paul Burnett did it. DLT did Torquay in 1976 with guests, merchandising, games, and navigator ‘Smiley Miley’ (Tony Miles). It was grim fun in a cheerful ‘Hi-de-Hi!’ kind of way. A good time was had by all, in which the DJ’s got to mingle and entertain and do their thing to a largely-responsive and appreciative live crowd.

In some cases the DJ’s actually became the records they played. Jimmy Savile started in 1962 with a Decca single “Ahab The Arab”. Although Tony Blackburn’s run of singles failed to chart – “So Much Love” reached no higher than no.31 in January 1968, a contrivance masquerading as Laurie Lingo And The Dipsticks actually hit no.7 in April 1976 with an anglicised version of CW McCall’s citizen-band hit “Convoy”. It was an atrocity committed by Dave Lee Travis and Paul Burnett. Mildly amusing at best, its Top Ten status had more to do with the familiarity of its participants than its quality. While, although the rota of ‘Top Of The Pops’ provided a visibility window, the transition to television represented a career move on and up. Kenny Everett, an innovative and experimental radio DJ who took the cut-up style pioneered by Jack Jackson (interspersing his own voice with clips of Tony Hancock and others), then remade himself into a dubious TV figure with his over-the-top comedy shows. Noel Edmonds, who got his radio-break replacing Everett when Kenny was first fired from Radio 1, used his radio-tenure as an up-gear stepping-stone to a long-term TV career. Jimmy Savile did ‘Jim’ll Fix It’, creepily teasing sniggering little girls with ‘are you married?’, then scoring lucrative TV-ad contracts for ‘Klunk-Klik’ and ‘The Age Of The Train’. Alan Freeman did voice-over ads for ‘Brentford Nylons’. Even Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart transitioned his ‘Junior Choice’ radio-status across to front ‘Crackerjack’ on TV, despite having no discernible rapport with children.

Dave Lee Travis never quite achieved that transition. He guested on the ‘Celebrity Squares’ game-show with Bonnie Langford and Little & Large, and revenged himself on Noel Edmonds for a practical-joke phone-in by ‘gunging’ him on ‘Noel’s House Party’. His most determined shot came when video became the weapon of choice in Pop promotion, and he inaugurated ‘The Golden Oldie Picture Show’ (from 9 January 1985), a BBC1 series in which videos were devised around old pre-video hits, some of which were mildly amusing, but without the active participation of the artist, they largely failed to ignite, and the show was dropped. Video didn’t kill the radio star. But it didn’t help his career either.

The neat tie-in would not outlast the time-frame. Christopher Chataway, Minister of Post and Telecommunications, announced his intention to introduce airwave competition. And as early as 1973 licences were granted for the first commercial radio stations, LBC and Capital Radio, with a broadcasting range restricted to London. Although temporarily halted by a suspicious Labour government in 1976, the return of a Conservative administration in 1979 led to a rapid expansion of the ILP network into the Eighties. This process was shadowed by the growth of local BBC stations. Yet Radio One retained its potency. During the 1979 election campaign Labour leader Michael Foot hoofed up and down Britain addressing and haranguing every meeting and assembly. Mrs Thatcher appeared on the Jimmy Young Radio Show once, spoke about running the economy as her father had run his corner-shop in Grantham, and the gross simplification made such sense to the mass radio audience that she had to do no more.

Radio One itself began to adjust to the changes. Kenny Everett caught a new mood, ‘I hate DJs who just say ‘that was Ricky Twinge and The Midwives, the time is now 10:15 on your groovy platter station, Radio 1, and now a great big biggy from a really outasite band “You’re Too Much” by the Stoatcatchers.’ As Radio Two audience-figures grew proportionally to the shifting demographic, Radio One lost its on-air supremacy, and through the initiative of controllers Johnny Beerling and Matthew Banister, began a deliberate policy of repositioning itself towards targeting a more youthful listenership. By the time Dave Lee Travis delivered his on-air resignation – 8 August 1993, there was a plethora of alternatives in which to continue a radio career. But the audience-figures of the 1970’s were gone forever. DJ’s had evolved into double-deck club superstars. Zoo-radio presenters had studio posses to laugh appropriately at their scripted gags. Chris Evans and Chris Moyles rode the ‘Breakfast Show’ into new decades. Ask the majority of people in your local mall today who presents the Radio One Breakfast Show, or who has the current no.1 single, and they shrug. Who cares…? While Dave Lee Travis is accused of being a serial sex-offender. Following in Jimmy Savile’s squalid wake. Regardless of the truth behind the allegations, it’s a sad postscript to a shoddy decade. At their very best, they seemed eccentrically harmless. The novelty fridge-magnets that remind you of the frivolous holiday you spent at the tacky seaside resort. Now they’re not even that.