Monday 29 April 2013

Poem: '(I Wanna Hear) "Blue Suede Shoes" (On The Radio)'



I reach out,
she claws up to
stand on my hand

walls perspire, pressing in
six centimetres from terror,
I close fingers, fence her in,
brush her soft fur,
sense the quivering
pulse of her heart
the throb of pure
pure innocence…

she whispers of
severe perspectives,
a city of fugitive lights
concrete ceilings, visceral matings,
& exact gun-metal grey parameters

she hopes I won’t forget
and flies gratefully
through the window,
out over the rooftops
and into the
melting sun

I become more aware
of the dirt beneath
my nails, and
the repetition
of cages…

Published in:
‘ZENOS no.2’ (UK – August 1982)
‘YOUR FRIENDLY FASCIST no.23’ (Australia – Dec 1983)
‘FRONTAL LOBE no.2’ (UK – December 1994)
‘ASTARTE no.3’ (UK – February 1995)
‘TARGET no.1’ (UK – February 1996)
and in collection:
(Bound-into ‘MINOTAUR no.42 vol.9 no.3’)
(USA – September 2004)

Vintage Album - The Big Three: 'Cavern Stomp'



Album Review of:
(RPM Records, September 2009)

‘With the Hi-Fi high and the lights down low
here we go with The Big Three show!’
                        (‘The Cavern’ DJ Bob Wooler)

You could say The Big Three were Brian Epstein’s first failures. The first to crash and burn. The first indication that his Pop empire might not be entirely infallible. At a time when British Pop had become slick, and dull, the sudden upsurge of raw working-class northern music represented a reversion to a more primitive form of Rock ‘n’ Roll. And 1963 started out with the Epstein touch at its most Midas-gold. With the Beatles, Billy J Kramer With The Dakotas, and Gerry And The Pacemakers all racking up an unprecedented grab of no.1’s, and Cilla Black signed and ready to follow. A stable of artists with a hits-ratio second to none in Brit-Pop. And within that roster, he’d signed The Big Three. The logic, at least, was impeccable. Solid, stripped-down to the raw basics of bass, drums and lead guitar – what would later become known as the ‘Power Trio’ in the hands of Cream or the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Big Three had played all the major Liverpool clubs claiming a repertoire of some six-hundred songs, had a mighty fan-base, and regularly topped ‘Mersey Beat’ magazine polls. Epstein’s rise was essentially predicated on Beatles songs. Billy J Kramer’s first string of hits was with John and Paul songs. Later, the Fourmost would use a cast-off Beatles song – “Hello Little Girl”, as their passport to the Top Ten. Cilla Black’s first single, “Love Of The Loved” was written by them. Tommy Quickly’s debut – “Tip Of My Tongue”, was another slighter Beatles effort.

The Big Three were never gifted with a Beatles song. But the first that most everyone in northern England – outside of Liverpool itself, got to see of the Beatles, was a brief film-clip of them doing “Some Other Guy” live on stage at the ‘Cavern’ (22 August 1962). I saw it when it was shown on the Granada tea-time TV-slot ‘People And Places’, hosted by Bill Grundy and Gay Byrne. So, although it was not a Beatles song, “Some Other Guy” was emphatically Beatles-related, and there was no version of it by the Fab Four available at the time. Written by classic hitmakers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and originally recorded by Richard Barrett, it was a staple of the Mersey-group scene, so it was the ideal candidate for the Big Three debut ‘A’-side.

And on the brink of the year that would transfigure British Pop for ever, the Big Three became the third Liverpool ‘Merseybeat’ group to chart. Denied the opportunity of a full studio recording, much to the horror of the group itself, “Some Other Guy” was a 1:41-minute track lifted directly from their audition tape done at Decca’s basement No.2 studio. They’d only recently returned from wild Hamburg dates, and weren’t yet fully recovered. Johnny Gustafson’s vocals are hoarse. Yet it packs all the urgency and drive of a live performance. The flip – “Let True Love Begin”, is more relaxed with a 1950’s feel and chanted harmony vocal back-up. Borrowed from Nat King Cole, rather than their more usual Rocker sources. The single entered the ‘Record Mirror’ list at no.37 (16th April). Unfortunately, that was the highest position it would achieve. The following week it showed at no.40. Simultaneously, Gerry And The Pacemakers were no.1 with “How Do You Do It?”, yielding to the Beatles “From Me To You” for its second week. Yet “Some Other Guy” would remain a key track in the Merseybeat mythology. The Searchers recorded it for their second LP, ‘Sugar And Spice’ (1963), then Pete Best did his own version in 1965. Many years later the Big Three’s own version resurfaced as one of the tracks John Lennon chose for inclusion on his own personal juke-box, issued as a double-CD set by Virgin in 2004.

If there’s a ‘classic’ line-up for the Big Three, it would consist of Johnny ‘Gus’ Gustafson (vocals and bass), Brian Griffiths (vocals and lead guitar), and Maltese-born former-upholsterer Johnny ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson on drums. Their history had begun as a four-piece Skiffle-group in early 1959 as Cass And The Casanovas, fronted by vocalist Brian ‘Cass’ Casser (aka ‘Casey Valence’ or ‘Casey Jones’). Original guitarist Yorkshire-born Adrian Barber was nicknamed ‘coffins’ in recognition of the skilful way he wired their impressive sound-system to produce intimidating volume-levels. When Gustafson’s ability to play the guitar-intro to Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” so impressed Hutch that he was pressured to join, it was Adrian who converted and amplified a Hoyer acoustic guitar for ‘Gus’ to play. The group sold out all the local clubs, from ‘The Cassanova’ in Fraser Street to Alan Williams ‘Jacaranda’, and got to play support to Gene Vincent at the Liverpool Stadium (3 May 1960), and then on a bill with the Silver Beetles at the Wyvern Social Club.

With Cass long-gone to seek his fortune in London, and finally renamed the Big Three in January 1961, they impressed impresario Larry Parnes sufficiently to book them as back-up for his teen-idols Johnny Gentle and Duffy Power. Then Griffiths was recruited to add sonic-depth immediately prior to the group’s July 1962 month-long stint at Hamburg’s ‘Star Club’, oddly making the Big Three a four-piece! By then Epstein was attempting to influence the group, and at odds with this direction Barber quit to stay in Germany (like Stuart Sutcliff). Yet it was due to his electro-wizardry that the Beatles were recorded live at the ‘Star Club’, the set taped on a small Philips portable machine subsequently emerging as valuable bootleg recordings.

So it’s as a trio that they returned to Liverpool to decisively sign to Brian Epstein’s NEMS in November 1962, then to Decca in the first month of the new year. Liverpool is a small city. Its music scene incestuously interactive. It breeds myths and rumour. It’s a fact that Hutch sat in drumming for two dates with the Beatles (16 August 1962), in Chester and at the Birkenhead ‘Majestic’ theatre. It’s said he was also first in line to replace Pete Best during the Beatles’ fractious first EMI sessions, but that Hutch protested ‘Pete is a very good friend of mine. I couldn’t do the dirty on him’. John, Paul, George and Hutch? Could it have worked? Like Pete Best, I can’t see Hutch combing his quiff forward into the mop-top fringe. And would Hutch have been the conciliatory Ringo go-between the warring Beatle factions needed later on in the tale? Doubtful. Hutch – a big forceful guy, could, and did, intimidate John Lennon. Regardless of what might have been, the Johnny Hutchinson story is the Big Three story.

Meanwhile, Gerry Marsden also never benefited from a Beatles-penned hit. But, at the Beatles first session with George Martin, the famed producer had tried to get them to record a song he’d selected for them, “How Do You Do It”, written by would-be songwriter Mitch Murray. Grudgingly, and with obvious lack of enthusiasm, they humoured George Martin by running through it. Their attempt can be heard on the 1995 ‘Anthology 1’ CD album. Admitting defeat, Martin allowed them to concentrate on one of their own songs instead, a Roy Orbison pastiche called “Please Please Me”. But “How Do You Do It” was passed on to Gerry Marsden, and it was a perfect vehicle for his cheeky chirpy-chappie style, and gave him his first no.1. Mitch Murray promptly came up with the follow-up too, “I Like It”, around a similar template. Up-beat, energetic, a slight innuendo, which also hit no.1.

“By The Way” could easily have been a third Gerry And The Pacemakers hit. But it wasn’t. It could have been their third hit, if they hadn’t switched to show-tune “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, then to concentrating on Gerry’s own songs. But Mitch Murray’s new composition had all the hallmarks of the first Pacemaker hits. How could it fail? I liked it. I reviewed it in my own self-compiled charts and hand-written notes. One of the first songs I ever reviewed. Noting the sharp drum-breaks and raw harmonies, through the rough-edged jerky rhythms. And even then I picked up on Murray’s neat lyrical trick of using and turning the repeated lyric-phrase. ‘By the way that you look, I can see you’re the best in town, by the way that you kiss I can tell that you’ve been around’. Twisting it into the title-hook ‘Oh… by the way, I love you’. Two verses, middle-eight (‘I saw you once, walking by on the street where I live…’), into verse three. Two minutes nothing. End.

The ‘B’-side feeds on the notoriety of the Mersey explosion itself via a mock dance-craze, with Hutch bragging ‘we’ve got a dance in Liverpool’, which we call “The Cavern Stomp”. Then, driven on Brian Griffiths’ nagging curling guitar-riff, he’s urging you to ‘keep your jive and Rock ‘n’ Roll’. Well, some might argue that it was Rock ‘n’ Roll, although they then go on to accurately observe that the scene ‘started off with Rhythm-and-Blues’ before breaking off with a yelled ‘OK Baby’ taking them into a free full-on instrumental chunk of guitar. With writing credits to all members of the group Hutch later admitted that the song was ‘a load of rubbish that took me five minutes to write’, but which was nevertheless ‘the best record we ever did’.

The single entered the ‘Record Mirror’ chart at no.36 (18th July), rose to no.35, while entering the ‘New Musical Express’ chart at no.28 the same week (27th July 1963). The following week it rose to no.27 (no.22 in ‘NME’). The Big Three peaked at no.22 (8th August) as it simultaneously fell to no.28 in ‘NME’. It was no.23 in ‘Record Mirror’ as it hung on for another week at no.29 (‘NME’). It stayed on at no.23 (‘Record Mirror’) while there was a final spurt back up to no.27 (in ‘NME’, 24th August). That same week Billy J Kramer was no.1 (with “Bad To Me”), replacing the Searchers “Sweets For My Sweet” which fell to no.2, while two versions of “Twist And Shout” were in the top ten, the Beatles EP at no.5, and Brian Poole And The Tremeloes at no.10. Finally, The Big Three showed at no.24 in ‘Record Mirror’ (29th August), then no.30, with a last gasp at no.40 (12th September). Then it vanished. Later, as Mitch Murray went on to become a prominent writer/producer hit-maker in his own right, “By The Way” was picked up and featured on a Decca ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ compilation LP alongside the Marauders, Jet Harris & Tony Meehan, the Caravelles and the Rolling Stones first single “C’Mon”. So they were prominently around. And there would be more.


 As a schoolkid with bad acne and a paper-round, I never got to see the Big Three live, but I certainly watched with approval as they appeared on monochrome TV Pop-slots. They were high-profiled on the must-see ‘Merseybeat Special’ edition of Saturday evening’s ABC-TV ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ (29th June 1963) introduced by a boringly formal Pete Murray and featuring all of Epstein’s top names. The Big Three’s tight triad formation and hard beats edged them a pace ahead of the pack. Singled them out as a more intense proposition. Yet they never conformed to mop-top stereotype. Johnny Gustafson packed a degree of Pin-up potential, but just look at the drummer! Hutch was a big guy with what looked suspiciously like a Teddy Boy quiff. Aggressive and confrontational, they weren’t Paul McCartney pretty-boys by any stretch of the imagination. They were hardcore. They returned to the show with Brian Matthew compéring, and both Freddie Cannon and the mighty Bo Diddley topping the bill (Saturday, 28th September at 6:05pm).

The way music operated back then, you need a hit single before you get to do an album. You record the album off the back of the single’s success. If there’s no hit single, you don’t get to make the album. So it’s worth making a few grudging commercial compromises to get that hit. As a result, the third Big Three single – “I’m With You”, is a catchy mainstream Beat-group harmony showcase, not without its strengths. Opening Billy J-style with a semi-spoken ‘whatever you say, whatever you do’ pledge to stick around his girl, it is propelled on crashing drum-break and ‘yeah-yeah’ chorus. Flip it over, and there’s a kind of product-placement promotion for ‘a new food going round’ called “Peanut Butter” – ‘I took a big bite, and it stuck to my teeth’! A supermarket staple now, not so in October 1963, it’s more a novelty throw-away item that leaves an amused smirk. As a total package it was considerably less vital than the two preceding singles. And if they hadn’t high-charted, there was little to suggest this one would. Despite some high-profile promotion it appeared only on the music industry’s own chart, published by trade-paper ‘Record Retailer’, and then only at an inauspicious no.53.

Time for a rethink. It’s said that the trio’s formidable Liverpool reputation was based around the wildness of their on-stage presence, largely before the scene went national, and that the Big Three never successfully captured that unrestrained live energy on vinyl. So with the unrepresentative studio singles consistently underperforming, it made perfect sense to fall back on those live strengths – at EP (extended-play) length, if not as a full LP. At its best, live recording is a flawed hit-and-miss affair, and acoustically their most famous venue was acoustically hardly ideal. Yet Decca engineers spent three days experimenting with microphone positions and the eventual sessions took ten hours, complicated by technical problems.

‘The Big Three: Live At The Cavern’ comes with a well-spoken voice-over introduction by the Cavern’s resident compére Bob Wooler. He welcomes ‘all you cave-dwellers’ as the group play-in behind him, then part-quotes Elvis Presley to rhyme ‘with the Hi-Fi high and the lights down low, so here we go with the Big Three show’. The four tracks lead in with “What’d I Say?” – the Ray Charles standard also done, previously or subsequently by Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis, Brenda Lee and Elvis Presley. Among others. Screaming girls inject atmosphere, and there’s enthusiastic audience shout-back on the ‘huh-huh-huh’ chorus. When it fades, it reprises back in again with a ‘one two three, shake it one more time’ exhortation. The spontaneity is real, Hutch’s voice is on form, the uncontrived crowd-sound yells and whistles inject an intimate sense of small-venue feel. “Don’t Start Running Around” is a heavy-shaking group composition, although obviously using the “Some Other Guy” template – even the lyric runs ‘Baby, Baby, some other guy will be the apple of your eye’.

Flipping over onto side two, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” is the novelty song originally featured in the Disney movie ‘Song Of The South’ (1962), although the Big Three base their version on Phil Spector’s 1962 single for Bob B Soxx And The Blue Jeans. While finally, “Reelin’ And A Rockin’” is a loose loping jog-along take of the Chuck Berry song done by many groups around the time, including bratty newcomers the Rolling Stones. Nevertheless, even at the time, the Big Three’s reputation among record-buyers rested – not on singles, but on this EP. It certainly carried considerable playground-prestige among my school contemporaries. Underground writer and Sci-Fi novelist Mick Farren agrees, he recalls how ‘the Big Three had a whole bunch of legends. They were sweaty. They were a three-piece in the days of rhythm-guitar players. They had the first hundred-watt amps known to man. Drummer Johnny Hutchinson was the first guy I ever saw take the front skin off his bass drum. All in all they had it going for them to be a cult.’

You could say The Big Three were Brian Epstein’s first failures. Others tell it differently. In truth, although its indelible impact on the evolution of global Rock is equal to that of the 1950’s Memphis ‘Sun’ studios, the Merseybeat summer was a brief affair. With the Beatles sudden breakthrough into massive American success Brian Epstein had less time available for other managerial distractions. The lesser signings on his roster were farmed out to other promoters within his ‘stable’, and momentum was lost. The Big Three were increasingly restless, both with the neglect, and with the restrictions placed upon them when Epstein did attempt to exert his managerial discipline. As Bill Harry of the ‘Mersey Beat’ music-paper recalls ‘out went their informal gear of shirts and jeans, in came mohair suits. They weren’t fated to be tailor’s dummies! Out went the hard-driving material and in came ultra-commercial Pop. Out went the natural Big Three image portrayed in previous photographs and in came stilted studio shots with Johnny Hutch perched embarrassingly in front of a small snare drum.’ Bill Harry was there to witness a frustrated Griff cursing Epstein out at a venue called ‘The Grapes’, threatening to duff him up.

Inevitably, on Saturday, 20 July 1963 they split from NEMS. Then, at year’s-end Griffiths and Gustafson split away to form a new project, the short-lived Seniors. Confusingly, for German gigs, promoters insisted on billing this new group as the Big Three! Soon after, Gustafson up-shifted to join the charting Merseybeats. Replacing founder-member Billy Kinsley – with whom they’d already had two big Top Ten hits, Johnny ‘Gus’ was with them on two more, “Don’t Turn Around” and their cover of Dusty Springfield’s American hit “Wishin’ And Hopin’”. For Gustafson it was a springboard that took him on to serious-legend status with Heavy Prog-Rockers Quatermass, the Pirates, Hard Stuff, Roger Glover and Roxy Music.

Meanwhile, their places in Big Three were taken by two former Faron’s Flamingo’s, Faron Ruffley (bass and vocals), and by Paddy Chambers (lead guitar). Although this gutting of another top local band proved controversial in the ‘Mersey Beat’ letters-column, it was this line-up that contributed to another Decca live-album project. Again, confusingly called ‘Live At The Cavern’ (Decca LK4597), it consists of ‘Nine Great Groups’ caught performing at the famous venue – although only four of them were actually from Liverpool! Alongside the Big Three were underrated scouser Beryl Marsden, the Marauders, the Dennisons, Bern Elliott And The Fenmen, Heinz, plus Dave Berry And The Cruisers. Decca A-and-R man Noel Walker (a Liverpool jazz musician who formerly fronted Noel Walker’s Stompers), who gets producer credits for the EP also masterminded the album, on which DJ Bob Wooler again introduces the Big Three, this time as ‘the boys with the Benzedrine Beat’. Decca failed to pick up on this narcotic reference! According to later accounts they taped several numbers at the live session, although only one – a first try-out of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me” is the only one to survive.

Bill Harry mentions them also running through “Fortune Teller”, “Long Tall Sally” and “Walkin’ The Dog”. Again – cover versions, but consider that at that time there was no ‘YouTube’ or ‘Amazon’ to research, and the radio never played rare American R&B and vintage Rock ‘n’ Roll. So imported vinyl was jealously hoarded, carefully collected, secretly traded and lusted over by a coterie of fanatical enthusiasts. Musicians from the Liverpool groups vied with each other for more obscure titles. And The Big Three repertoire was second to none. A high-energy lost studio take on Jerry Lee Lewis’ “High School Confidential” resurfaced many years later, in time for inclusion on a 2009 RPM CD anthology.

Newly signed to Kennedy Street Enterprises there were plans for a follow-up live EP recorded at Manchester’s ‘Oasis’. And indeed, four titles were laid down at the venue – “Money Honey”, “Cruel Cruel World”, “New Orleans” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. What happened to the project? It never materialised, the tracks vanished. Instead, the line-up shifted again, when Paddy Chambers quit, dissatisfied with the group’s progress and – allegedly, by the way Hutch was assuming leadership of the group, paying the other two members a wage! He was soon replaced by Paul Pilnick in April 1964.

This final line-up cut a further failed single – “If You Ever Change Your Mind (Bring It On Home To Me)”, promoted in the press as constituting the first of the ‘New Wave’ northern combos to use a string-arrangement, making them, ‘sound more like the Big Eight’. Although it opens with the ‘Yeh-Yeh-Yeh’ vocal interchange – as done by Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls on the original, the strings swell in around midpoint. Mike Leander, who would later score the strings for “She’s Leaving Home” on ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, is credited as ‘musical arranger’ for this dubious innovation. Whatever its disputed merits it failed to chart. Instead, the song was soon rebooted and high-charted for the Animals, which is undeniable a stronger record. The single was backed by another group original – “You’ve Got To Keep Her Under Your Hand”, a sinuous ‘Hi-Heeled Sneakers’ retread, efficient group-R&B with a stinging guitar solo.

By then, things were moving on. Times were changing. The first beat-group wave was being overtaken by newer, harder, hairier, more solidly R&B-based groups. So the Big Three languished. Toured. Played gigs. And eventually split up in October 1964. Hutch quit the music business, to become – in Spencer Leigh’s words, ‘a small-time builder who could have been, perhaps should have been, a millionaire’. As for the runaway success that should have been the logical endpoint of the trio’s first assault on Pop, their numbers had never come up. So just how big were the Big Three? The recorded legacy they left in their wake is slight, and even that compromised. It’s fair to say that over the years, and decades since, very many more bands have achieved greater things, to considerably less acclaim. It was first preserved in its entirety on the fine 1982 Edsel vinyl LP ‘The Big Three: Cavern Stomp’, in time to catch the nostalgia-wave.

The magic that lingers around The Big Three is a word-of-mouth mythic thing. They were the Liverpool group who helped define the Mersey sound, yet never totally sold out. The very scarcity of their recorded output – like that of the lost Dixieland pioneers at the dawn of Jazz, adds a speculative dimension that time and legend only amplifies, albeit reliant on impressionable and increasingly fallible memories. They were the roughest, rawest, toughest group of them all. People whisper ‘you should have been there that night at the Cavern, before Epstein signed the Beatles, when the Big Three topped the bill and blew away all the opposition. They were magnificent that night’. Well… maybe. In truth, we’ll never know.



29 March 1963 – “Some Other Guy” (Leiber, Stoller and Ritchie Barrett) c/w “Let True Love Begin” (Barkan, Baron and Eddy) (Decca F 11614, no.37)

28 June 1963 – “By The Way” (Mitch Murray) c/w “Cavern Stomp” (Hutchinson, Griffiths, Gustafson, and Noel Walker) (Decca F 11689, no.22)

11 October 1963 – “I’m With You” (Hiller and Ford) c/w “Peanut Butter” (Barnum, Cooper, Smith and Goldsmith) (Decca F 11752)

12 June 1964 – “If You Ever Change Your Mind (Bring It On Home To Me)” (Sam Cooke) c/w “You’ve Got To Keep Her Under Your Hand” (Noel Walker, Hutchinson, Faron and Pilnick) (Decca F 11927)

1966 – “Take Me For A Little While” c/w “Make Me Your Number One” (Polydor BM56043) Johnny Gustafson solo single, released in opposition to the Koobas version

1973 – “Some Other Guy” c/w “Let It Rock” + “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” (Polydor 2058 343) the newly reconvened Big Three


1 November 1963 – ‘The Big Three: At The Cavern’ (Decca DFE 8552) with “What’d I Say” (Ray Charles), “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” (Wrubel, Gilbert), “Reelin’ And Rockin” (Chuck Berry), “Don’t Start Running Away” (Hutchinson, Gustafson, Griffiths) (reissued 1981)


September 1963 – ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars Volume 2’ (Decca LK 4554) spin-off compilation from ABC-TV’s weekly Pop show introduced by Brian Matthew, with the Big Three (“By The Way”), the Dennisons (“Be My Girl”), the Marauders (“That’s What I Want”), the Rolling Stones (“C’mon”), Brian Poole And The Tremeloes (“Twist And Shout”), Karl Denver (“Still”), Jet Harris And Tony Meehan (“Foot Stomp”), Mickie Most (“Mr Porter”), the Tornadoes (“The Ice Cream Man”), Heinz (“Just Like Eddie”) and others

March 1964 – ‘Live At The Cavern’ (Decca LK 4597) the Big Three, introduced on-stage by Bob Wooler contribute “If You Ever Change Your Mind (Bring It On Home To Me)”. The rest of the album consists of other artists, the Marauders (“Doctor Feelgood” and “Keep On Rolling”), the Dennisons (“You’d Better Move On” and “Devoted To You”), Bern Elliott And The Fenmen (“I’m Talkin’ About You” and “Little Egypt”), Lee Curtis And The Allstars (“Skinny Minnie” and “Jezebel”), Dave Berry And The Cruisers (“Little Queenie” and “Diddley Diddley Daddy”), Heinz (“I Got A Woman” and “Somebody To Love”), Beryl Marsden (“Everybody Loves A Lover”), and The Fortunes (“She’s Sure The Girl I Love”). In 1985 the album was reissued as CD ‘Recorded Live At The Cavern’ (See For Miles SEE 58) expanded with the four tracks from the Big Three’s ‘Live At The Cavern’ EP

May 1970 – ‘Quatermass’ (Harvest SHVL775) Progressive-Rock group centred around Johnny Gustafson (vocals and bass) with Mick Underwood (drums/percussion, formerly of Episode Six) and Peter Robinson (keyboards, formerly of Chris Farlowe’s Thunderbirds). With pterodactyl cover-art, tracks include Gustafson songs “Good Lord Knows”, “Up On The Ground” and “Post War, Saturday Echo” (co-written with Peter Robinson and Graham Ross), plus bonus tracks on 1990 CD reissue “Punting” and “One Blind Mice”. ‘A really outstanding record which should not go neglected’ says Richard Williams in ‘Melody Maker’. Johnny Gustafson later records LP ‘Bulletproof’ (July 1972, Purple Records) as part of Hard Stuff, with guitarist John Cann (formerly of Action)

1973 – ‘Resurrection’ (Polydor 2383199) sixteen tracks recorded by a reformed Big Three with Johnny Gustafson and Brian Griffiths returning to music after a break, plus Nigel Olsson (of the Elton John Band) on drums. Produced by Tony Bramwell, 16 and 17 December 1972 at AIR Studios, Oxford Street. Sleeve notes by Bill Harry. ‘Melody Maker’ reviewer Chris Charlesworth writes ‘perhaps to re-release some of the Big Three’s original recordings would have made more sense, but to re-record the group today with yesterday’s songs and techniques seems a waste of time.’ Mick Farren considered it ‘a painstaking reconstruction of the kind of music that constituted a good night out in New Brighton around 1962’

1974 – ‘Mersey Beat 1962-1964: The Sound Of Liverpool’ (United Artists USD305/) a 34-track double-vinyl compilation with three Big Three tracks, “Peanut Butter”, “Some Other Guy” and “I’m With You”, plus Faron’s Flamingos (“Let’s Stomp”, “Shake Sherry” and “Do You Love Me”), the Merseybeats (“Fortune Teller” and “Really Mystified”), the Searchers (“Farmer John” and “Twist And Shout”), the Mojos (“Everything’s Alright”), the Dennisons (“Be My Girl” and “Walking The Dog”), Freddie Starr And The Midnighters (“Peter Gunn Locomotion”) and many others. Includes two facsimile issues of ‘Mersey Beat’ newpaper dated 13 and 27 February 1964

1976 – ‘The Beat Merchants: British Beat Groups 1963-1964’ (United Artists UDM101/2) a 43-track double-vinyl companion to the earlier ‘Mersey Beat 1962-1964’ set, with The Big Three “What’d I Say” from the live Cavern EP, plus the Marauders (“That’s What I Want”), the Zephyrs (“I Can Tell”), Farons Flamingos (“See If She Cares”), the Merseybeats (“Last Night (I Made A Little Girl Cry)”, the Mojos (“Forever”), Wayne Fontana And The Mindbender (“Road Runner”), the Searchers (“Sick And Tired” recorded live at the Star Club, Hamburg), the Parmounts (later to become Procul Harum, with “Poison Ivy”), the Pirates (minus Johnny Kidd), Cliff Bennett And The Rebel Rousers, the Downliner Sect (Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What’s Wrong”), Dave Berry And the Cruisers (“Memphis Tennessee”) and many others

1982 – ‘The Big Three: Cavern Stomp’ (Edsel Records ED 111) a vinyl album credited as including ‘every track released by The Big Three in the 1960’s. Other titles recorded at the time have unfortunately not survived to the present day’. It includes side one: “Some Other Guy”, “I’m With You”, “Let True Love Begin”, “By The Way”, “Cavern Stomp”, “Peanut Butter”, “Bring It On Home To Me (Live)”. Side two: “What’d I Say”, “Don’t Start Running Away”, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”, “Reelin’ And Rockin’”, “You’ve Got To Keep Her Under Hand” and “Bring It On Home To Me (Studio)”. All titles producer by Noel Walker. Includes lavish black-and-white insert exhaustively documenting the Big Three history by ‘BBC Radio Merseyside’ presenter Spencer Leigh, with full interviews and anecdotes

2009 – ‘Cavern Stomp: The Complete Recordings’ (RPM Records) thirty-one tracks, the complete Decca output 1963/64 plus the 1973 reunion album with 16-page booklet. (1) “What’d I Say” (live), (2) “Don't Start Running Away” (live), (3) “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” (live), (4) “Reelin’ And Rockin’” (live), (5) “Bring It On Home To Me” (live), (6) “Some Other Guy”, (7) “Let True Love Begin”, (8) “By The Way”, (9) “Cavern Stomp”, (10) “I'm With You”, (11) “Peanut Butter”, (12) “If You Ever Change Your Mind (Bring It On Home To Me)” (single version), (13) “You’ve Got To Keep Her Under Hand”, (14) “High School Confidential” (previously unissued 1960’s track), (15) “If You Ever Change Your Mind (Bring It On Home To Me)” (alt. version), (16) “Some Other Guy”, (17) “Lavender Blue”, (18) “Rockin’ Robin”, (19) “Always”, (20) “I Got It”, (21) “Angel Baby”, (22) “Just A Little Bit”, (23) “Let It Rock”, (24) “Money”, (25) “I Know”, (26) “I Can’t Believe You Want To Leave”, (27) “All Of Me”, (28) “Price Of Love”, (29) “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”, (30) “If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody”, (31) “Lucille”

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Vintage SF: Kenneth Bulmer's 'The Fatal Fire'



(1962, Digit Books Paperback, published by
Brown, Watson Ltd, then hardback by
Hale, June 1969. Reprinted Hachette UK, 2011.
And Gateway Kindle edition )

‘They began flaying Bella Rose
exactly two-and-a-half
minutes after she died…’
(the opening line of ‘The Fatal Fire’)

Due to its aggressive and inherently warlike nature the human race is cryogenically frozen within the desolate Thread star system. Revived every three-thousand years or so by the docile and peaceful Galactic Union, only when they face an irresolvable military dilemma, and need to unleash their ‘ultimate weapon’. As they do when they’re threatened by an invasion of ho stile aliens from a neighbouring galaxy. This is the basis of “The Great Armadas”, a ‘novelette’ by Kenneth Bulmer featured in ‘Nebula no.19’ (December 1956). Editor Peter Hamilton comments that the writer makes ‘a fascinating suggestion as to the appropriate part which our descendents may play’ in this future, but that judging by then-current political tensions, he ‘may have a very valid suggestion’.

So is this story evidence of Bulmer’s bleak philosophical nihilism? A dark scornful refutation of those who see the human race aspire to greater things? On balance, I think not. Kenneth Bulmer’s fictional universe is vast, almost beyond comprehension. He was the kind of prolific writer who makes other prolific writers look like sluggards. As well as a storm of Science Fiction novels specialising in Space Opera and Galactic Adventure, frequently in linked series – ‘this was space. And space was a tough, pitiless taskmaster’, he wrote Westerns and Historical sagas featuring Romans, Vikings, Saxons and Normans, or the ‘Fox’ novel-series set in the Napoleonic period. As well as stories carrying his own name he published work under a maze of aliases and pseudonyms. And that’s before you even get to the picture-strip tales he scripted for the boys adventure comics, including the epic sagas of ‘Karl The Viking’ in ‘Lion’ and the action-packed ‘The Steel Claw’ for the pages of ‘Valiant’.

He was a writer. ‘One of the definers of yesterday’s tomorrow… a great entertainer’ according to his obituary in ‘The Independent’. So it’s more than likely that the dark theme of “The Great Armadas” was just another story idea too good to let go. Which he typed out, slotted into the envelope and dropped into the post-box. Then forgot about, and got on with the next story. At the time, during the late-fifties and early-sixties there were SF publishers eager for new manuscripts. Quality was not necessarily always an issue. Because the pay-rates were so low, the only way to make anything like a viable living from writing was to churn out new titles incredibly quickly. That was something that Kenneth Bulmer more than excelled in. That’s the way he worked.

To critically consider his entire oeuvre is virtually impossible, because there’s simply too much of it. Better to just take one of his books at random – say, the fairly modest 1962 novel ‘The Fatal Fire’, and look at it as representative of the greater whole. When it was originally serialised in three parts in ‘New Worlds’ (numbers 96 to 98, July to September 1960) – it was announced by editor John Carnell as ‘one of the finest novels of the far future we have yet published’. It was then novelised by Digit Books at 160pp. The paperback cover shows a blue-spacesuited figure on a pale arid planetscape, his eyes behind the visor are closed, and he’s holding up his right hand as though in an effort to stop something approaching, or to protect himself from the glare that is washing shadows over the crater-dunes behind him. Although nothing remotely resembling this actually occurs in the novel, the top-right flash says ‘Stowaways In Space!’, which was a teaser sufficient to snare my attention. The bottom-right price is 2/6 (two shillings and sixpence), although I bought it a few years later marked down to 1/6 at the ‘Motherby Book Stall’ in Hull’s Open Market in the cool shadow of Holy Trinity Church. At the time anything with a spaceship on the cover would exert a near-gravitational attraction on my adolescent mind, although I already recognised Bulmer’s name through seeing it in various SF magazines. He was already a name to look out for...


 ‘According to all the scientific facts,
this can never happen. And
according to all the scientific fiction,
it invariably does’
(“First Down”, ‘Authentic no.44’)

Born in London on Friday, 14 January 1921, Henry Kenneth Bulmer was one of those SF-fans with ‘rockets in your head and a dream in your eye’, hunting out imported issues of ‘Astounding SF’, ‘Amazing Stories’ and ‘Thrilling Wonder Stories’ in Woolworths dump-bins. He collaborated with Arthur C Clarke and John F Burke for features in ‘Tales Of Wonder’ (no.12 and no.14, Autumn 1940 and Spring 1941), and edited his own fanzines ‘Star Parade’ (seven issues) and ‘Nirvana’ which included examples of his own early fiction – including “Juggernaut”, a single-story fanzine in 1941 illustrated by Arthur Williams and Jack Burns. So, following war-service with the Royal Corps of Signals in North Africa and Europe, it was these fan-connections that led to him becoming a regular contributor to the post-war splurge of new SF magazines, from John Carnell’s ‘New Worlds’, ‘Science Fiction Adventures’ and ‘Science Fantasy’, through to the Glasgow-based ‘Nebula’, and even the strange ‘Vargo Statten British SF Magazine’. Aliases such as ‘H Philip Stratford’, ‘Frank Brandon’, ‘Rupert Clinton’, ‘Philip Kent’, ‘Nelson Sherwood’ and innumerable others enabled him to appear more than once in the same issue, while a fruitful association with research chemist John Newman resulted in a series of fact-based articles on planets and asteroids run under the joint name ‘Kenneth Johns’. Later, as ‘Alan Burt Akers’ he established his own mythic ERB-ian heroic-fantasy planetary romance series – with the ‘Dray Prescot’ sagas running to some fifty-two volumes.

His first novel – ‘Space Treason’ (Hamilton/ Panther, May 1952) was co-written with fan-activist Aubrey Vincent Clarke and published as by ‘AV Clarke and HK Bulmer’ with a suitably garish scarlet spaceship on the cover glistening with streamlined nacelles and strap-lined ‘Rival Powers Struggle For Supremacy To Dominate Space’. The next – ‘Cybernetic Controller’ (Hamilton/ Panther, August 1952), ‘Man’s Revolt Against Scientific Segregation Brings Death To The Overlords’, was another Clarke collaboration. Bulmer’s first short story sale – “First Down”, followed in ‘Authentic SF’ (no.44, April 1954), blurbed ‘Two Men In A Ship That Can Carry Only One. Both With A Burning Ambition’. It opens with a lone John Curry leaving the silver wheel of the space station on course to become the first man on the moon, until he hears knocking. ‘I was hoping my stowaway was a woman’ he sighs, ‘it would have enlivened the trip’, as it turns out that stowaway pressman Steve is also determined, on the point of an automatic pistol, to replace Neil Armstrong in the history books. The brief story closes with an unexpected self-sacrifice plot-twist.

The same issue includes a full-page ad for Panther Books listing HK Bulmer novels ‘The Stars Are Ours’ – ‘The Robots Arrived, And An Unseen Menace Struck Terror Into The Heart Of Man’ (1953), ‘Galactic Intrigue’ – ‘A Matter Transmitter Runs Amok, Bringing A Nightmare Of Interstellar Madness’ (1953) and ‘Empire Of Chaos’ – ‘Terror! Conflict! Oppression! And A Galaxy In Chains’ (1953), with tick-boxes to facilitate mail orders. During that same year he’d also produced ‘Space Salvage’ – ‘Space Salvage Develops Into War When Space Wreckers Operate’, plus a novel as ‘Karl Maras’ (‘Zhorani: Master Of The Universe’ for ‘Comyns Ltd), and two as ‘Philip Kent’ (‘Vassals Of Venus’ and ‘Mission To The Stars’ both for ‘Tit-Bits SF Library’). Already, he was proving unstoppable. Each book gushing with effortlessly florid prose – ‘they raced through the Galaxy, stars flaring up ahead to vanish rearwards if the Guide offered no promise of any interesting rewards for planetfall, they sought like children for that wonderful morrow beyond the next stellar conewards…’ (from ‘The Changeling Worlds’, 1959).

If ‘The Fatal Fire’ is a transitional work, an early novel showing evidence of a growing ability at spinning fiction, but before his mature linked book-series, it was nevertheless produced during a period of furious writing activity. In a future where only the elite Aristo’s work, it opens in the ‘Pool’, a rundown inner-city realm of shiftless welfare dependency where family’s boast shamelessly of generations of joblessness – ‘the Talbots never work!’ Talbot said fiercely, proudly, ‘the family has not worked for five-hundred years’. Eighteen-year-old Julian Justin was adopted by Talbot when his unmarried mother, Talbot’s sister, died. He lives in a kind of cheerful tumbledown tenement-squalor enlivened by stealing chickens from an overturned street-market stall or hanging out with Pool-arab friend Raphe Bartram. His ghetto is a place with ‘washing hanging from pole-propped lines’, where tobacco fumes dance in the ‘harsh unshaded electric glare’ of ‘dim fluorescent lighting’, and where lives revolve around the ‘hi-fi set’ and ‘football gambling’ plus the ‘local club and the telly’. While Dickensian urchins scrabble in the gutter. If these ingredients now seem strangely retro, more bombsite austerity than future-speculative, that’s probably not intentional, merely a reflection of the late-fifties attitudes in which it was written.

Julian also has premonition-flashes that take the form of vivid warning colours, when ‘the colour smelled all wrong’. Although he’s not exactly dissatisfied – more ‘un-normal’, a misfit from the ‘usual ruck of humanity’, his life is jolted out of its rut by the death of his much-loved seventeen-year-old half-sister Bella Rose. In a subculture where everything can be bartered Honest John Flayer is summoned to render ‘her skin a miracle of nature’, into a neat plastic-wrapped package that Julian is tasked with carrying out of the Pool-ghetto to the twentieth-street reception-gate of Gorgon Industries where a Mister Cope will purchase the ‘human pelt’ for use in book-binding. But, once outside his familiar protective community, he falls hypnotic prey to CC-recruitment, and finds himself enrolled as an unwilling member of ‘Construction Crews’, and whisked off-planet to help terraform Erinore, a new world acquired for the Solar Technocratic Empire, with excavating-robots and JCB-style tractors.

Once there he teams up with ‘smart-alec’ Ed Rayburn, a gambler who plays with six aces in his pack, and who exploits Julian’s psi-abilities to make cash. Together, they soon plan to desert, escaping their contracts by jumping a ship from the nearby space-field. While all this is going on there’s a sub-plot concerning dynastically-wrangling Aristo’s at the other end of the social scale, ‘the ruling class, capable of performing many duties simultaneously and comprising the money barons, corporations, and manipulators of the Galaxy’s finances’. With Harold Vladimir Skardon and brother Luis impatiently scheming to replace ‘the dead hand’ of grim old patriarch father Eli Skardon as head of Gorgon Industries. While third generation young-Eli – son of Louis, can ‘recognise decay and obsolescence when he saw and smelled it’, and plans his own corporate coup. The dysfunctional Skardons hold a family conference in a hotel on Titan where robots pour them drinks and there are panoramic views of Saturn’s rings, but they spend all their time plotting against each other.

‘This story gave me a particular pleasure in the writing’ Bulmer claims in a ‘New Worlds’ profile, ‘a pleasure which I hope comes across in the reading. I hope that the points I try to make and what I have to say matches up to that pleasure. I have never wholly subscribed to the belief that the short story is the be-all and end-all of science fiction. For a mood piece, for a sudden, stimulating shock of wonder, the short story form is probably supreme. But for the logical extrapolation and development of ideas, the greater scope of the novel cannot be challenged. In ‘The Fatal Fire’ two trends have been followed up, with others, to provide the background bones against which the story moves. A short story might have done justice to one skein, scarcely both.’ Then he teasingly adds, ‘although part of the background is traceable back to one of my earlier shorts.’

That earlier story, “Three-Cornered Knife” in ‘Infinity Science Fiction’ (February 1957), proffered a future social diversification which is developed in the novel into a critique of capitalism in which violent take-overs are assisted by the Guild of Assassins, and in which it is convenient for the ruling Aristo-class to maintain a pool of unemployed on which to draw as necessary. Bulmer himself comments that ‘the political and economic notion that a pool of unemployed to be drawn on when business is brisk and to be discarded on the dole when a depression sets in is not only commercial good sense to some, it has proved a workable solution to problems of an unbalanced economy,’ adding pointedly ‘that it is unprincipled and savagely anti-human affects only people with a social conscience.’ Bulmer, needless to say, cleaves to the latter point of view.


Indeed, if he can be said to have a theme, this future social stratification into what he terms ‘Homo bigbusinessiensis’ and ‘homo moronicus’ is certainly a recurrent element in his fiction. In the playful throwaway prose of ‘The Changeling Worlds’ (1959) there’s an attempt to portray the ‘Set’ as a galactic elite, eternally partying as neglected outer-worlds devolve back into grimy 1950’s industrial or agrarian squalor. ‘Stars and planets, interstellar dust, clouds of gas, comets – the whole mysterious Universe moved about them on its eternal circle and they could still find time to laugh and love and play games.’ Freed from the bothersome inconvenience of reproduction they even buy their children from a ‘Baby Emporium’ staffed by robots! This allows one character to ask ‘Where do babies come from?’ The novel’s big revelation is that they are harvested during ‘ingathering’ from the primitive worlds. This flimsy and highly unlikely event will be the point of insurrection against the unjust system. Michael Moorcock’s indulgently decadent ‘Dancers At The End Of Time’ (published between 1972 and 1976) might constitute a far more artfully imagined portrayal of such revellers, but Moorcock’s tales were written on the other side of a decade of vast social changes. Bulmer’s imaginings were constructed within tight 1950’s moral restrictions. And the straight-laced fifties do not do a convincing decadence. Although everyone smokes cigarettes.

For the characters caught up in ‘The Fatal Fire’, it’s something of a small universe. There are some unlikely links and coincidences. The spaceship the escaping Julian and Ed highjack happens to be owned by ‘suave and dapper’ Paul Hurwitz, an Aristo with Skardon connections. Estelle – archaeologist daughter of Harold, had once been the object of his suit. ‘What followed’ writes Bulmer, ‘however much it might be diluted by modern thinking, was an epic.’ The sabotaged ship crashes, stranding the three in Erinore’s hostile and arid wilderness. Their long trek back towards some semblance of civilisation forces the odd trio to bond, to become interdependent. So that Julian’s colour-sense alerts Hurwitz to assassination attempts as the returned Aristo launches a series of campaigns and corporate raids. There’s no alien threat. No space-battle dramas. Instead, the story assumes the contours of a Harold Robbins blockbuster in that the poor boy from the wrong side of town fights his way up into wealth and privilege, through a mix of chance and special ability. As Carnell writes, ‘Julian Justin finds himself climbing the ladder of success in a world he hardly knew existed. It is the method of his climb that is so interesting.’

The diverse plot-elements – what Bulmer calls ‘skeins’, come together after old Eli’s death, when the protagonists gather on the pleasure-world Mytilene. In the novel’s major imaginative flourish this is less a planet as a ‘magic web’ of atmosphere much larger than Jupiter, artificially-populated with planetoids from which hedonists resembling those of the ‘Set’ can flit to and fro on personal fliers, the entire phantasmagoria of worldlets ‘held together by electro-magnetic forces, created and maintained by the machines and the robot brains on the centre planet – which spins of itself, but does not move within the gaseous envelope’. There’s even a ‘daisy-chain’ of twelve suns of variegated colour drawn around it to provide eternal days of shifting light’. It’s here that Julian becomes distracted by his involvement with Estelle, after their accidental meeting at an anti-grav playground. In a romantic twist, he’s unaware of her true Skardon identity as the scheming upwardly-mobile triumvirate next set their sights on her family’s Gorgon Industries, who unleash assassins in retaliation. A promising trip to investigate the remains of an ancient civilisation on the Mytilene core-world is hastily postponed.

Back on Earth the various factions meet for negotiations. Full-circling to the novel’s opening as Harold Skardon sets a trap for Julian in a building beside the ‘Pool’, using Estelle as bait. It’s here, in the final face-off that it’s explained that the system’s social stratification has become an evolutionary one. That the Aristo’s ‘balancing’-skills have made them a kind of homo superior, the next upward step in evolution. And with Julian’s unknown father an Aristo, it makes him a kind of hybrid. The revelation about the true identity of Julian’s father – perhaps even that he’s Estelle’s half-sister, never comes. Instead, despite a token protestation that she’s free to make her own choices, Estelle’s future is bartered between the three men who desire her (or, in the novel’s 1950’s sense, intend to marry her!), Julian, Hurwitz, and a dynastically-inclined young-Eli. As these implications are being debated the ruthless young-Eli makes his power-grab move. Unfortunately for him the killer-for-hire assassin he’s contracted to eliminate the ‘targets’ standing in his way, turns out to be Julian’s old Pool-arab friend Raphe Bartram, who has joined the assassins-guild as his own route out of the ghetto. So, Estelle winds up with Hurwitz. Julian dies in the final struggle to kill Eli. Allowing Raphe to close the novel, as it began, with ‘Goodbye Julian. Remember me to Bella Rose’.

In its original ‘New Worlds’ serial-form Bulmer adds a footnote, omitted from later versions, in which he expounds on the novel’s evolutionary sub-text at some considerable length. To him, it is obviously the key ingredient of the tale. Even though none of Sci-Fi’s usual psi-powers apply to these mental-supermen, no telepathy, telekinesis or pyrokinetic abilities. Evolution, he points out, ‘operates under pressure’, but within the high-energy business eco-system the ‘pressure working on him and changing him are pressures of his own creation.’ And I’m certain there are mega-wealthy global plutocrats and a capitalist financial elite today who would happily own to Bulmer’s analysis.

Unless, he suggests in a teasing aside, ‘we opt out of society and join the Beat Generation’!

So, is it a good novel, a neglected classic deserving of serious academic attention? In every literary sense, no. It does not really stand overthinking in any deeply profound way. It’s an adventure story with some strong original ideas, some fast-moving action, and maybe a slight social critique to give it edge. It’s highly readable, easy to devour at one sitting. Ideal for a train-journey or some undemanding holiday free time. It won’t change your life or alter your perspective on anything. But it’s a solid and entertaining read. That’s enough. Bulmer himself would probably agree.

Always a gregariously accessible character, his long thin face and moustache a familiar presence at SF-Conventions wherever the SF-community gathered, Kenneth Bulmer died 16 December 2005. Other writers had evolved through a similar trajectory of disreputable magazines and cheap novels. Some – like John Brunner, Michael Moorcock and Brian Aldiss, achieved later respectability through critically-acclaimed mature works of considerable mainstream force. For Kenneth Bulmer this was not an option. Not that he was not capable of it.

Later, his editorial talents proved vital when he inherited the ‘New Writings In SF’ series of anthologies following John Carnell’s death in 1972, deliberately introducing fresh writers and taking the volumes on to new heights of achievement. And for ‘The Best Of British SF 2’ anthology, editor Mike Ashley selects Bulmer’s “Advertise Your Cyanide”, calling it ‘undoubtedly one of the finest stories it (‘Nebula’) ever published’. Constructed in the fragmented experimental style and set within the overpopulated resource-poor Earth later exploited by John Brunner, Bulmer himself later explains that ‘the form of the story is presented in a way that is now remarkably familiar to the many New Wave stories... This presentation was a conscious attempt, given that form and content are indivisible, to make the form work hard and punch home the content’. Yet this was a playful style-aberration, done as if to prove that he could do it if he chose, his preference was always for longer story-forms that allowed space to develop character and his frequently bizarre themes. Like the equally prolific EC Tubb, his considerable reputation as a writer remains largely within the SF-community. He was essentially a writer. That’s what he did.



SUNSET’ (1955) novelette with Harry Turner art in ‘Nebula no.14’ (November 1955). Portraying a grim future in which the State equates ‘unrestricted breeding’ with ‘food-shortages’ and hence controls population. Birth can only occur to replace a death. It opens with Neils Whitcombe attending his own funeral – complete with Dancing Girl Troupe, having been given a three-day notice as ‘no longer an asset to society, but a dragging handicap’ who ‘must make way for the unborn generations to come’. While Anton Rand is torn between his greedy pushy materialistic wife Netta, his pregnant former girlfriend Vicki, his father Corbon who is also on notice of termination, and the promise of promotion offered ‘in a confidential tone, with the self-importance underlying it so thick you can see them preen’. The story features the ‘Thames Yard’ of ‘Interplanetary Shipbuilders Ltd’

CITY UNDER THE SEA’ (1957), first appeared in three parts as ‘Green Destiny Part 1’ in ‘New Worlds no.57’ (March 1957), ‘Green Destiny Part 2’ in ‘New Worlds no.58’ (April 1957), and Part 3 in no.59 (May), then as ‘City Under The Sea’ (Ace Double, 1957), Avon edition, January 1980, 173pp. One of his best early novels, incident-packed with plot-twists.

NEVER TRUST A ROBOT’ (1958), novelette in ‘New Worlds no.67’ (January 1958) about the problem of robots controlling other robots in an unfamiliar environment

Advertise Your Cyanide” (April 1958, ‘Nebula no.29’) experimental story later collected into ‘The Best Of British SF 2’ edited by Mike Ashley (1977, Futura) ‘HIT THAT SYNAPSE WITH A WHIZ, DRAG THAT JAG WITH A NUCLEAR FIZZ!’, set in a ‘Bladerunner’ resource-poor future-city, ‘he caught the magnificent glitter of the elder’s ring, set with a solid piece of genuine coal, surrounded by diamonds. If he worked all his life, his soured mind nagged him, he still couldn’t have bought a ring like that with his amassed salary.’ Spencer Lord must protect repulsive Sahndran Ambassador Gosheron from assassination at a cardio-doped erotibombed drugged-up party because the alien’s home-world has Q’s Earth needs, but the second assassin is Katy, the girl he loves

THE COVETOUS’ (1958), novelette as by ‘H Philip Stratford’ in ‘Nebula no.30’ (May 1958). Blurbed ‘there was something odd about this little Earth-like planet… and something priceless which its natives gave away, merely for the asking’. Ahead of ‘Star Wars’, the aliens are Ewok-style ‘jolly roly-poly teddy-bear bundles of fur’ who have gems like a ‘shining morsel of sunlight’, only their gifts are jewel-in-the-skull parasites who transfer to the crew intent on reaching Earth. Fortunately alcohol kills them

THE CHANGELING WORLDS’ (1959, Ace Double – with Brian Aldiss ‘Vanguard From Alpha’, then 1961, Digit Books at 2s/6d) cover-blurbed ‘An Excursion Into The Fantastic World Of Tomorrow’, Richard Makepeace Kirby is part of the ‘Set’ who live hedonistic lives of interstellar parties enlivened by degrav, vibro-stimulators and narcotic giggle-gas. Mildly racy by 1950’s standards, ‘Molly was wearing a petulantly perplexed expression, and nothing else’, and occasionally silly. When Kirby’s missionary brother Alec is murdered his investigations take him to the dark devolved outer-worlds and the secret of the forbidden ‘red or black-symbol’ worlds

KARL THE VIKING’ (1960), initial saga titled ‘The Sword Of Einger’ debuted in ‘Lion’ 29 October 1960, scripted by Ken Bulmer, illustrated by Don Lawrence, with blonde Karl and sneering rival Skurl both pledged to recover the sword stolen by the Saxon Earl Gyrth of Eastumbria. Its popularity resulted in the strip continuing, retitled ‘Karl the Viking’, to run for four years and 205-episodes, ending 29 September 1964, with a total of thirteen adventures, some with fantasy elements – Atlantis, and hideous transformations wrought by hallucinogenic fungus, plus four more in ‘Lion Annuals’, one written by Michael Moorcock. From 1 October 1966 ‘Lion’ began a reprint-series retitled ‘Swords Of The Sea Wolves’ with Karl renamed Rolf to imply it was a new strip. Rolf's adventures ended after a year, on 7 October 1967, though not before ‘Lion Annual 1968’ carried a brand new adventure. Two years later there was another reprint series as ‘Erik the Viking’, this time in ‘Smash!’ between 3 May 1969 and 3 April 1971, with a new text adventure in ‘Valiant Summer Special 1971’ following the merger of ‘Smash!’ with ‘Valiant’. Kenneth Bulmer’s adult Viking novels published as by ‘Neil Langholm’ may owe a debt to the early Karl sagas (‘The Dark Return’ and ‘Blood Sacrifice’ both in 1975, and ‘Blood On The Sun’ in 1979)

BEYOND THE SILVER SKY’ (April 1961, Ace Double – with John Brunner’s ‘Meeting At Infinity’) originally a ‘long novelette’ in ‘Science Fantasy no.43’ (October 1960), cover-illustrated by Brian Lewis, where it was advertised as a follow-up to “Green Destiny” – ‘now we bring you another epic of the ocean deeps, the last refuge of Man, and a wonderful journey of exploration to discover what is above the silver sky’

LAND BEYOND THE MAP’ (1961, Ace Double), first in Bulmer’s ‘Keys To The Dimensions’ story-series about parallel worlds. Began as ‘The Map Country’ (in ‘Science Fantasy’, February 1961), then ‘Land Beyond The Map’ blurbed ‘Take This Route To… Oblivion’ (1961, Ace Double), then ‘The Key To Irunium’ (1967, Ace Double), ‘The Key To Venudine’ (1968), ‘The Wizards Of Senchuria’ (1969), ‘The Ships Of Durostorum’ (1970),’The Hunters Of Jundagai’ – blurbed ‘quest and quarry are one in the dimensional steeplechase’ (1971, Ace Double with John Glasby’s ‘Project Jove’), ‘The Chariots Of Ra’ (1972), ‘The Diamond Contessa’ (1983)

BEHOLD THE STARS’ (1965, Ace Double), the human race ventures into deep space via giant matter transmitters positioned between star systems

WORLDS FOR THE TAKING’ (1966, Ace. Gateway Kindle edition, September 2011), bringing planets from other solar systems to orbit our sun, until Chief Commander Stephen Strang discovers that the core of stolen planet Vesta is a vast time-bomb

TO OUTRUN DOOMSDAY’ (1967, Ace with Kelly Freas cover-art, February 1975 by New English Library at 40p). ‘Science Fiction Monthly’ review says ‘a spaceman crash-lands on a planet and finds the people harassed by their leaders who they revere as gods. He takes the side of the oppressed people in their struggle for freedom. One of his best’

THE DOOMSDAY MEN’ (1968, Doubleday/ Robert Hale), in a future-age of omnipotent machines, vast megalopolis with pedways and monorails, Robert Carver is an esper who make psychic contact with murder victims to discover the identity of their killers. But experiencing a sudden wave of murders begins to affect him. Available in ‘Gateway’ Kindle edition from July 2012

THE ULCER CULTURE’ (April 1969, Macdonald, then as ‘Stained-Glass World’, April 1976 by NEL at 45p), sharp division between the haves and have-nots in an extreme compendia of everything that is most unpleasant about modern city life

TRANSIT TO SCORPIO’ (December 1972, DAW Books), first title of epic ‘Dray Prescot’ tales as by ‘Alan Burt Akers’ which runs to 52 novel titles – from (2) ‘The Suns Of Scorpio’, (3) ‘Warrior Of Scorpio’, (4) ‘Swordships Of Scorpio’ and on, collected into ten ‘Sagas’, (1) ‘The Delian Cycle’, (2) ‘The Havilfar Cycle 1’, (3) ‘The Havilfar Cycle II’, (4) ‘The Krozair Cycle’, (5) ‘The Vallian Cycle’, (6) ‘The Jikaida Cycle’, (7) ‘The Spikatur Cycle’, (8) ‘The Pandahem Cycle 1’, (9) ‘The Pandahem Cycle II’, and (10) ‘The Witch War Cycle’

NEW WRITINGS IN SF’ (1973) Ken Bulmer replaces John Carnell as editor of this original-fiction anthology-series with no.22 (April 1973, Sidgwick & Jackson, then Corgi paperback at 35p) through to the final edition, no.30 (1978, Corgi). Plus three editions of ‘New Writings In SF Special’ (1975, 1978 and 1978). In 1970 he had been commissioned to edit ‘Sword And Sorcery’ – a fantasy companion title to the ‘Vision Of Tomorrow’ magazine. Two issues were prepared and type-set, but the project was aborted due to withdrawal of funds. Mike Ashley observes that ‘most of the unused material was snapped up by other magazines and the experience stood Bulmer in good stead’

THE PROFESSIONALS’ Kenneth Bulmer wrote a series of fifteen spin-off novels for the ‘The Professionals’, adapted from episode-scripts of the London Weekend TV-series and published as by ‘Ken Blake’ by Sphere, including (no.1, 1978) ‘Where The Jungle Ends’, (no.2, 1978) ‘Long Shot’, (no.10, 1981) ‘Cry Wolf’, (no.11, 1981) ‘Spy Probe’, (no.13, 1982) ‘The Untouchables’, (no.15, 1982) ‘You’ll Be Alright’

THE STEEL CLAW: THE VANISHING MAN’ (January 2006, Titan Books), 112-page graphic-novel reprint edition of the original ‘Valiant’ picture-strips, script by Ken Bulmer, art by Jesus Blasco. Although Bulmer only scripts the first three tales, the strip runs from 1962 to 1968, then in ‘Vulcan’ 1975-1976 with the ‘Mr No-Face’ story from 17 January to 31 January 1970 reprinted in the ‘Vulcan Annual 1977’. It opens ‘in the hushed privacy of a science laboratory the brilliant Professor Barringer and his hard-faced young assistant, Louis Crandell, were experimenting with a new ray for medical purposes. The assistant’s right hand was made of steel, replacing the real hand lost in a laboratory accident…’ but the experiment goes awry, ‘a crackling whiplash of ultra-high voltage smashed into Crandell’s hand!’ When the smoke clears, only the hand is left. Thereafter, the somewhat accident-prone Crandell is able to become invisible at will by passing an electrical current through it. At first he uses his powers for criminal activities, but later becomes a secret agent and superhero for the Shadow Squad of British Secret Service who refit his Claw with various secret weapons. He encounters genius children possessed by electrical aliens, and a mad genius who shrinks entire towns to hold their populations hostage

Henry Kenneth Bulmer (14 January 1921 – 16 December 2005). EC Tubb writes that ‘most men of imagination are chameleon-like in their diversity of interests, and Ken is no exception. Talk poetry, the old sailing ships, romantic voyages of discovery, archaeology and his special interest in the evolution of Man, and you will be enthralled and entertained.’ Ken Bulmer was also a model railway enthusiast.



at ‘The Duchess of York’, Leeds

‘Can Oliver be a girl’s name over here?’ asks Mark Kozelek hopefully. ‘No?, just that there’s this letter in the Dressing Room saying ‘Mark, I love you’, and it’s signed Oliver.’ As Oliver stands crammed up against the stage-front gazing adoringly from behind curtains of blonde hair at the object of his devotion. Mark wears a scruffed check shirt and slept-in hair. When he opens with “Michael, Where Are You Now?”, he does it solo acoustic, practically ignoring the mike, using it only occasionally for its potential for reverb, effect or emphasis. The song portrays ‘the oldest juvenile delinquent bum, my best friend’, and it catches the exact tone of hazy Beat Bohemia that Red House Painters most perfectly inhabit. ‘We are one of those bands that never rehearse’ he confides. ‘Tonight is not going to be a good show.’ Naturally, he’s wrong. His singing voice is flat, but it’s projected into extremes, his mouth a huge ‘O’ in anguished howl, run ragged with experience. He’s bruised internally, externally. A tramp shining.

Oliver seizes his hand like a leper grasping salvation, and he won’t let go. ‘Oliver, I love you too man, but you don’t understand. There’s – like, enthusiasm, and there’s like – being obnoxious, man.’ Erich Segal wrote the movie ‘Love Story’ about an impossible romance. He followed it with the novel ‘Oliver’s Story’. This is Oliver’s story, and another unrequited love just as intense. But Red House Painters have that effect on people. Bassist Jerry Vessel wears a ‘LUSH’ T-shirt and heavy black-rimmed glasses. Crop-headed thick-set bassist Gordon Mack is beatnik-bearded, and also wears glasses. They play studiously, but poke RHP with a stick – and it bites. “Evil” starts out in Arthur Lee changes, but builds to a climax as insistent as insanity. There’s an impression of shambling disorganisation, songs like “Mistress” or “Katy’s Song” from the vinyl double-album (‘Red House Painters’, 1993, 4AD DAD3008), come in answer to audience shouts and not from premeditation. “Strawberry Hill” is both hand-in-pocket casual, and then stretched on powerful rippling walls of extreme guitar violence. Like “Shadows” – a new song, its mood ‘blends with the state you’re in’. A state of deep surging emotion, songs of tormented love building into huge rages of romantic anger. ‘What’s that Oliver? Yeah – maybe we’ll kiss later.’

In “Uncle Joe” Mark says ‘I’ll try anything three times, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care’. Naturally, he cares. He cares to death, and into the darkness beyond. In “Grace Cathedral Park” he pleads ‘save me from my sickness’, but there ain’t no cure. And “Mother” is a long psychological probe into its murky vortices. Around the play-in phrases for “New Jersey” Mark dips down to catch his words, and Oliver disappears into that uncombed tangle of slept-in hair to kiss that adored cheek. The radiance on his face afterwards is a joy to behold.