Tuesday 28 May 2013



- after meeting Carolyn Cassady in London,
then going further, to Paris

after four months of chasing, Zoe quits
her husband for a flat in Headingley

now she goes down on me
auburned by dashboard glow
though she’s crying & I know
she’s still with him, only
here to revenge him,
while me, I’m here to
hunt visions of bright nebulae,
she says “you, you’re predatory”,
I say “love exists on
a symmetry of needs”,
doing numbers I’ve told before
and still half-believe, she
listens, nods, breathes,
holds my penis, “yes, but
you’re still predatory…”

I’m thinking Carolyn in Belsize
saying “writers must write,
it behoves the rest of us
to support them”, thinking
of my wife watching TV who
thinks I’m reading poems
in Bradford’s rainblack night

thinking Aragon, Apollinaire, Sartre,
Breton, walking this magic boulevard,
Henry Miller, Jean Cocteau too,
traffic slithering liquid by this tower
on the periferique as Cathy reads
in bed silvered by ten-channel TV
while I’m trapped, aching for
nests of bright nebulae that’ll
radiate out and illuminate Paris
through the Porte d’Italie to
the waitress upstairs in the
Pub St Germaine du Pres
and beyond

Zoe says “you, you’re predatory”,
and I think “yes, I’m predatory
for sensation over edges,
desires between strange limbs,
living ravenous for glaring dreams
that tug like gravity, and
a sensuality so huge it’ll
flesh this screaming void with
constellations of nebulae, and
I ache for them now”

but instead
I remember the revenge poem
Zoe wrote about biting off
her husband’s penis,
I watch taillights slither
through the luminous night
of Headingley, and strain
to catch the scent
of bright nebulae
over Paris…

The full Carolyn Cassady interview is detailed at: http://andrewdarlington.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/carlolyn-cassady-interview.html

This poem published in:
‘COKEFISH Vol.1 no.10’ (USA – November 1990)
‘RAMRAID EXTRAORDINAIRE no.3’ (UK – November 1994)
‘BOGGERS ALL no.5’ (UK – February 1998)
‘URBAN DISTRICT WRITERS no.1’ (UK – July 2007)
and in collection:
edit Pete Presford (UK – March 1994)

Monday 27 May 2013

Vintage SF novel: 'Alien Dust' by EC Tubb


‘Alien Dust’ by EC Tubb
(July 1955, TV Boardman, cover by Gerard Quinn)
novelisation based on six short stories

‘1995. First Colonising Expedition lands on Mars’

The world is still waiting. The worlds are still waiting. 1995 arrived, and passed into history. And still no Mars colony. Perhaps there never will be. Martian soil remains untrodden, despite a fleet of NASA robot rovers crawling its surface transmitting breath-catching images of crater-geology, extinct river-beds, and swirls of alien dust. The historically inevitable human outward expansion into the solar system that seemed so obvious to those 1950’s SF writers is now less certain. Its vision no longer quite so clear.

‘Outside the sun was setting, casting long shadows down the narrow streets of the settlement. Landry leaned against a wall. He felt suddenly tired. A mining town must have looked like this, he thought. One of the old boom-towns where men gathered to wrest wealth from the earth. A pioneer town. New born, without culture, tradition, or roots. Which is exactly what the colony was.’ This is EC Tubb’s Mars. And this is the long hard story of its painful colonisation.

In September 1955, in the same issue of ‘Nebula’ (no.13) that the short story “Operation Mars” topped the reader’s poll, taking 34.8% of the votes cast, Kenneth F Slater reviews ‘Alien Dust’, as ‘this novel – or rather, connected set of stories, is based on tales which have seen magazine publication, but have been almost completely rewritten to form a connected whole.’ For the novel, Tubb has reordered the random sequence in which the episodes first appeared, and added a future-history timeline to link the events into cohesion, from the 1995 first colonising expedition, through to 2030, and the first Mars-born children reaching maturity.

For example, the opening chapter is also the last to appear in magazine form. Framed by detailed art from Alan Hunter, showing needle-sharp spacecrafts on the Martian surface unloading their freight of supplies and materials for the scattered human figures in their long shadows, “Operation Mars” occupies the major portion of ‘Nebula no.11’ (December 1954). It is prefaced by the dramatic caption ‘They were conquerors of a new world, but they found that it would not yield without a grim struggle’. In general, at the time of its publication, the novel was seen as groundbreaking in its grim unrelenting authenticity. Unlike much fiction at the time, there are no Martians. No Martian lifeforms at all. No evocative ruins of graceful Martian cities left by ancient extinct civilisations for Terran archaeologists to rummage through. The Mars that the colonists discover is a pitilessly grim waterless wasteland. ‘There’s no native life on Mars’ says Verrill in an earlier Tubb novel, ‘jut the desert and the wind. No plants, no insects, nothing.’

There are no ‘canals’ either. But while Tubb dismisses the artificial nature of those mysterious surface-features, he utilises their ongoing myth-value by describing them as ‘only what Schiaparelli had originally called them’, that is – they are natural channels ‘a hundred miles wide and several miles deep.’ Tubb didn’t know at the time, but we can now think of the Valles Marineris, the subsequently discovered canyon system that – at 5000kms length, 500 wide, and 6kms deep, neatly accords with his speculation.

The thorny issue of whether it’s possible to breathe Martian air was still very much ongoing in the mid-fifties. Although it was generally agreed by then that it wasn’t really a good idea it nevertheless persisted in SF for some time. The movie ‘Robinson Crusoe On Mars’ (1964) neatly circumvents the problem by using ‘air pills’. And while Tubb has his colonists breathing the thin air he adds two caveats, firstly that ‘the air was just bearable to treated and conditioned lungs’ – that is, the colonists had been trained and prepared. And secondly that ‘we can live here without breathing apparatus providing we keep to the lower regions’ – that is, within the canyons. CS Lewis had used a similar device with his ‘handramit’ Martian lowlands in ‘Out Of Silent Planet’ (1938). Yet, although Tubb’s pioneers take refuge in the shell of the ship during the first freezing nights, it’s still strange to envisage their base-camp as a ‘primitive affair’ made up of ‘a few flimsy tents’. Tents…? On Mars? Which means that when the sandstorm hits, as it always does in novels set on Mars, they are totally exposed to its swirling grit.

The colonists arrive in three ships – ‘like two dreams and a nightmare.’ Ships that don’t carry radio, presumably for reasons of excess weight, so that when Ship No.2 crashes and explodes they can only speculate about the causes. Gyroscope failure perhaps? Yet its loss involves not only the death of ten men, but the bulk of the expedition’s food and water supplies. While the first ship is dismantled for materials, the remaining ship returns to Earth, leaving the colonists with no exit strategy. Jim Hargreaves captains the project – the ‘New Cortez’, backed up by Doc Winter and Weeway the dietician, who plans to cultivate yeast as the first step towards self-sufficiency. The other survival-scheme involves laying a hundred-mile water-pipeline, made of fused Martian sand, to tap the ice at the pole. But five of the thirty survivors die when the three-day sandstorm hits, and the failure of pipe-laying detail escalates the casualty list to thirteen.

As they debate their crisis-hit predicament it emerges that their venture has been based on one solitary previous survey to determine the planet’s habitability, and that the whole thing is a shoestring spin-off project from the military budget allocated for the Lunar Tycho base. If they fail, there’s no political will to fund a follow-up. This is the human race’s one-shot chance to colonise Mars, and Hargreaves is determined it will not fail, regardless of the extreme human cost that is now becoming apparent. Food supplies diminish. After immense effort the pipeline is completed, but the saline-content determines the untreated water undrinkable. So thirst is taking its toll. Yet against the odds they survive. In two ways.

In the ‘Nebula’ short story they miscalculate the remaining time by confusing Earth and Martian days, so that the relief ship arrives earlier than they’d estimated. One reader – and later novelist in his own right, Bob Shaw is critical in the letter column of the following issue. To him, the story is ‘guilty of the one mistake that should never be made by a writer who worships at the shrine of the progress of science – namely, underestimating the power of the scientific mind.’ More specifically he points out that ‘I can assure you, they (the space pioneers) would never forget about the difference in the lengths of Martian and Earth days.’ His objection seems entirely reasonable. And in the novel version of the same events they survive differently, by cannibalising the bodies of the dead. A gruesome, if logical solution, and one well-documented in history. In the 1972 Andes airplane disaster, for example, the living consumed the dead. As did the blizzard-bound Donner Pass covered-wagon pioneers in 1846 Colorado. And the early Jamestown colony in 1609 Virginia. So why not the desperate colonists on Mars? But what made Tubb make the last-minute plot-switch? Surely it was too late for him to have taken note of Bob Shaw’s comment and acted upon it (the novel appeared barely six months after the magazine issue)? Maybe ‘Nebula’-editor Peter Hamilton was nervous of introducing such a distasteful theme into his magazine. Perhaps he considered cannibalism too extreme a solution for his readers? So Tubb hurriedly contrived the weaker and less satisfying solution? We’ll never know.

Nevertheless, from group jeopardy the next tale moves forward into a more directly personal dilemma. With the colony established as ‘a huddle of low, rounded buildings, dun-coloured, made of tamped and fused sand, their surfaces bearing a faint polish’ standing ‘where a few flimsy tents had once been’, the new problem is presented as a teenage stowaway on the supply-ship from Earth. Again, a somewhat unlikely occurrence, but one also used by Kenneth Bulmer in his short story “First Down” (‘Authentic SF’, no.44, April 1954), in which a pressman smuggles himself aboard the first moon mission. Although Tubb himself was more ‘peeved’ by yet another similar tale. As he explained to me in a tone of wry humour, it is ‘the perfect case of me missing the boat entirely. It’s one of those – I won’t say ‘peevish’ things, because it’s nobody’s fault, it just happened. I wrote a story called “Precedent” about a stowaway on a ship bound for Mars. And they find him, and they have to throw him out. It was just a story.’ It was more than just a fine story, it provides an effective change-of-pace chapter for the novel. Originally published under Tubb’s ‘Charles Grey’ alias, it goes to great lengths to stress that ‘on a spaceship one extra passenger can mean the death of all,’ to the amusing extent that pilot John Manders surrenders his dentures as ‘unessential weight’ prior to launch. And with no fuel safety-margin, returning ships splashdown in Lake Michigan.

‘But’ Tubb muses, ‘I think it was Tom Godwin who wrote a story – “The Cold Equation” (‘Astounding/Analog’ August 1954), where they find the stowaway on the ship, but it’s a she. And they have to throw her out. And I look at that, and I think ‘oh dear’ – and I know I was first, not that it matters because you get overlap anyway, but why didn’t I think of a GIRL? Why did it have to be his bloody son-in-law or his brother-in-law or something (it is the captain’s seventeen-year-old brother-in-law, Carl), and the moral dilemma is ‘what would the wife say?’ Because logically again, at that time it would never have occurred to me that a woman would do that. It was just one of those things. It was a good story. But he got anthologised and lauded, rightly so. It even got on TV. While poor old “Precedent” just sat there, twitching…’ The Godwin story was indeed televised, first by the groundbreaking ABC-TV series ‘Out Of This World’ (14 July 1962) – introduced by Boris Karloff, and later by the revived ‘The Twilight Zone’ (7 January 1989).

In a later throwaway addendum it seems that pilot Manders becomes subsequently lost on the Venus-colony run. But Tubb’s point about the girl in the story is indicative of the novel in total. Until well into its halfway point there are no women on Mars. None. This omission is less due to misogyny on Tubb’s part, more that he’s an unreconstructed gentleman who could never conceive of female pioneers in space. Subsequent fiction, and subsequent events in space itself, have proved him emphatically wrong. No SF tale, and no Sci-Fi blockbuster movie can make it to first cut without a feisty ass-kicking femme. For the ‘Alien’ movie franchise. But not so for ‘Alien Dust’.

‘2005. Major Randolph recalled to Earth
to aid in recruiting of women for the colony’

Born in London, 15 October 1919, Edwin Charles ‘Ted’ Tubb was a dominating figure in British Science Fiction throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, and a considerable presence in the decades that followed. Scarcely a magazine issue zapped by without his name, in one of its many guises, being strongly featured on the contents page. By the time of ‘Alien Dust’ he’d already chewed out an innumerable stream of extravagant two-fisted pulp-novels, starting off with ‘Saturn Patrol’ (1951, as by ‘King Lang’). It isn’t actually about patrolling the planet Saturn at all, despite what the quaint cover-art suggests, but a force of mercenary Warbirds defending the worlds of the Rim during a kind of Asimovian post-‘Galactic Empire’ anarchy. And it is hard-hitting fast-action fiction. Gregg Harmond, a recruit from freezing backwater planet Lagos, is briefed that his new companions are ‘unwanted, but necessary. You’ll fight the aliens of a thousand worlds, and you’ll fight the most deadly foe of all – men. Planets will employ you, pander to your every whim, and when the battles are over, kick you out. You’ll do the dirty work of all the Galaxy.’ As in some future-glimpse of the ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997) movie they face hordes of Dreeda – ‘a cross between ants, spiders, and the devil himself’, who have the temerity to inhabit planet Prokeen required for human colonisation. And their payment-cheques are delivered via hyperbeam to the Inter-Galactic Bank!

The story charts Gregg’s uneasy ascent to Commander of the Eagles through mutiny, space-battles and war on cold dead moons, which leads him to turn his predatory ambitions towards the decadent wealthy empires of the galactic centre, playing one off against the other. Until The Tri-Combine and The Arsenal move in – like Asimov’s ‘Foundation’, to establish order once he’s unwittingly achieved their purpose. For Asimov, the space-battles happen off-stage, whereas Tubb describes each manoeuvre, every tortured starship blasted into ‘incandescent gases and semi-molten metal’ in eye-searing explosions. For a debut novel it’s surprisingly assured Space Opera, on an epic scale.

Other pulp novels rapidly followed with such wonderfully garish titles as ‘Atom War On Mars’ (1952), ‘Dynasty Of Doom’ (1953, as by ‘Charles Grey’), ‘City Of No Return’ (1954) and ‘The Hell Planet’ (1954), set on an implacably hostile Mercury. They remain highly-collectable. Tubb had even visited Mars before. Verrill, the hard-drinking Venusian Teng-weed smoking protagonist of ‘Journey To Mars’ (Scion, 1954) uses the planet’s ‘Port Mersham’ launch-point for the Big Jump to Alpha Centauri by Quendis Drive. But only after he flees tropical Jurassic Venus, calling off at Mercury and bypassing Vulcan on the way (a tiny world supposedly located within the orbit of Mercury). But ‘Alien Dust’ was intended to be different.

Describing its Mars in conversation he asked me to envisage taking the Sahara Desert and dumping it down in the Antarctic, then – incidentally, taking away the air. That, he said, is Mars. Ironically this hard-scrabble world has since proved to be as obsolete as the exotic exaggerations he sought to replace. I loved Leigh Brackett’s tales of the dying ERB-ian Mars, but her ‘Sea-Kings Of Mars’ (1949) was a step too far. Mars is arid, always has been. The ‘Dead-Sea Bottoms’ are an imaginative conceit that are no more seas than the Lunar Mares. Except that recent probe-data indicates that, yes, there once were liquid-water seas on Mars, albeit briefly and billions of years ago.

Nevertheless, ‘Alien Dust’ constitutes a conscious attempt to ratchet the fiction up a level. A determined shot at credibility. As Leslie Flood points out in the novel’s ‘New Worlds’ review ‘Tubb, I think, in his more serious work has developed a style no less striking than Hemingway in his field, and in my estimation, comparable. Often brutal, but always logical, he describes the dire struggle of men to establish a hold on the inhospitable red planet. A tenure made precarious by cruel fate, lack of support from Earth, biological setbacks and, above all, the unrelenting fury of the red Martian dust which chokes every endeavour.’

It is very much a 1950’s novel. His pioneers enjoy none of the techno-gadgetry we now take for granted, which would help alleviate the bleak drudgery of their lives. Arthur C Clarke’s ‘The Sands Of Mars’ (1951) covers a similar events-span, but unlike the Port Lowell base of Clarke’s novel there’s none of the descriptive eulogies of dawn rippling over the ochre Martian desert or the terrifying wonder of its tremendous valleys. There’s no beauty on Tubb’s Mars, and little poetry. Even the fleeting glimpse of lyricism is tainted. ‘A faint wind blew from the east, a gentle stirring in the air, and beneath it the undulating dunes altered in some subtle fashion into new, more fantastic configurations. Little clouds scudding over the desert, rising, falling, eddying and finally collapsing to add their burden to the dunes.’ But even that wind is terminally rifted with ‘dust. The curse of Mars.’ You wonder, faced with such relentless unrewarding toil, why they even stay. Until Jud Anders, from Earth’s ‘Department of Extra-Planetary Affairs’ arrives in chapter four (“Without Bugles”) with threats to withdraw funding, the irony is that by now it’s impossible for the men to leave Mars, their inhalation of this alien dust has wrecked their respiratory system, lift-off acceleration would kill them.

Against mounting evidence, Arthur C Clarke hangs onto the idea of kangaroo-like native creatures cropping indigenous plants. But nothing will grow in the radioactive grit of Tubb’s Mars. Why is it radioactive? In the short story he muses ‘once, how long ago we can only conjecture, there was a war, or maybe it was an accident, and radioactive dust was loose on the planet?’ For the novel, even this faint hint of once-Martians is scrupulously edited out. Substituted by ‘maybe Mars is as it is through purely natural causes. Maybe not. I doubt if we shall ever know.’ Instead, the reader shares the parched dryness at the back of the throat. Smells the staleness of its dust. Feels the grit griming beneath their nails. The chill penetrating to the bone. Tubb razors back bug-eyed myth in a calculated assault on the alt history encoded in the SF planetary legacy of ER Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, Stanley Weinbaum and Ray Bradbury. Ruthlessly stripping away all romance, as trivial distractions from its neo-realist stone-hard truth. All that remains is pain.

At what point the initially one-off stand-alone stories began to assume a uniting contour is not certain. The editor of ‘New Worlds’ was certainly a proactive element in bringing the novel together, with an enthusiastic input that earns him a dedication – ‘To John Carnell, without whom this book would not have been written.’ The reshaping process is most evident in the next story-into-chapter, which is radically restructured. The basic plotline is that Major Randolph returns to Earth after five years as commander of the Mars colony, to drum up awareness through lectures and promos, to seek new, and female recruits. Only to find the unfamiliar terrestrial gravity and atmospheric pressure unbearable. He has become a Martian. Only now, the manipulative Jud Anders is reinserted to aid continuity (in the short story the character is ‘Senator Wilson’). While accompanying Anders in the earlier “Without Bugles” episode was Pat Easton, the more sympathetic reporter for ‘Trans-World Commentary’, and first woman on Mars. She also reappears in a passage unique to the novel, immediately prior to “Home Is The Hero”. While an entire sequence in which ‘Randy’ visits a dying John ‘Atom’ Lomas, third man on the Moon and head of Tycho Station, is dropped for its novel revision. In a terrible warning, his tenure on the Moon has also resulted in muscular atrophy and irreversible physical deterioration.

In a subsequent passing comment, it seems that although his mission succeeded, Major Randolph never survived the rigours of the return trip. Yet there are now women on Mars, in spite of his scarcely enticing pitch – ‘you want a husband? You want children? You are prepared to leave Earth for ever in order to get them?’ Despite adjustments to compensate for the gender imbalance – which Tubb presciently terms ‘Feminist’, there are cancers, stillbirths and birth defects among what ‘Randy’ calls these ‘brood mares’. Even as it appears the raw radiation responsible has a dubious upside. As the political situation on Earth grows increasingly unstable the ‘fissionable elements evenly distributed throughout the (Martian) dust’ is found to be weapons-grade and capable of producing ‘more refined atomic death.’ The strategic value of a processing plant accelerates the colony’s slow and gradual expansion. Allowing Randolph’s grim satisfaction that ‘when you’ve finally managed to blow the Earth into atomic ruin, the colony will be safe.’ With the women and children evacuated back to Earth, his prophecy is fulfilled as the chronology dates the outbreak of atomic war to 2014. Communication between the two worlds is temporarily lost.

2020. ‘Countless millions of tiny particles,
worn to razor-edged crystals by eons of erosion
and friction, swirled and drifted about him,
lifted by the planet-wide winds’

The final two chapters complete the cycle, while working independently as well-constructed self-contained stories. The title-tale charts the arrival of a resentful group of juvenile delinquents at a settlement that has been neglected and sidelined by other more vital Solar System events. Commander Ventor makes his objections clear to Mars being used as a penal colony, while oldster ‘Pop’ takes a more sympathetic approach. The characters are strongly defined. It’s a big empty planet, but they’re claustrophobically confined to the low domes, trekking no further than the power-pile. Grudgingly young Sam Weston grows to respect Mars, and ultimately gives his life to repair the essential power-lines during a vicious sandstorm.

Then, as the colony faces terminal shut-down, they’re forced to resort to desperate measures. New Commander Tony Denton threatens to blitz a major Earth city with toxic radioactive Martian dust until he gets his concessions. It’s the defiant outlaw determination that impresses the Earth populace rather than the threat itself, leading to a new respect for their plight. Meanwhile, denied the genetic-engineering possible today the colonists have been attempting to devise something that will grow in the arid Martian regolith. So far they’ve subsisted on a flavoured mulch of hydroponic yeast. With renewed Earth investment in Mars provoked by Denton’s audacious ultimatum, the first laboriously cross-bred modified fungus takes root in alien dust, and the Mars-born children return with an immunity to the cancers and sterility that afflicted their parents. The novel closes on the up-beat with the evocative final line, ‘arm in arm the Martians stared across the rolling dunes of their new world.’

The TV Boardman hardback edition of ‘Alien Dust’ – with its striking Gerard Quinn cover-art, was critically well-received, selected to be no.21 in ‘The Science Fiction Book Club’ (July 1956), and published in America through Avalon Books (1957), where it was favourably reviewed by P Schuyler Miller (in ‘Astounding SF’, August 1957), Anthony Boucher (in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’, May 1957) and by Calvin M Knox (in ‘Science Fiction Stories’, September 1958). Stylistically, Tubb followed it with ‘Window On The Moon’ (1963, variant title ‘Moon Base’), which also started out as a three-part serial in ‘New Worlds’ (nos.129, 130 and 131, April, May and June 1963), and which takes a similarly grit-hard approach to lunar colonisation during a time of Cold War rivalry. But it was with ‘The Winds Of Gath’ (1967) – the first of his ‘Earl Dumarest of Terra’ novel-series which eventually ran to thirty-three titles, that EC Tubb would be promoted into the best-remembered SF-writers category.

And when it comes to colonising Mars, Tubb is hardly alone in his anticipations. Some decades later Kim Stanley Robinson expands the ‘Alien Dust’ scenario into an ambitious, if ultimately unsatisfying trilogy on novels – ‘Red Mars’ (1993), ‘Green Mars’ (1994) and ‘Blue Mars’ (1996), detailing the terraforming and populating of Mars, taking the vision across the worlds of the solar system and, ultimately, beyond. Around the same time Ben Bova was also regurgitating the much-paced saga of Martian colonisation (in ‘Mars’, 1992, and ‘Return To Mars’, 1999), with his Navajo geologist Jamie Waterman not only turning the fiction-clock back to discovering lichen in Tithonium Chasma, but the remains of earlier habitation in caves in the Valles Marineris walls too. They face the same government-imposed threats of budgetary cuts that Tubb’s pioneers had been subject to. And the same sandstorms. They were shoplifting ideas from a back-catalogue of images, dressed up in new techno-gimmickry.

Yet the historically inevitable human outward expansion into the solar system that seemed so obvious to Tubb’s generation of SF writers is now less certain. Its vision no longer quite so clear. The world is still waiting. The worlds are still waiting. Yet at the same time, a ‘Mars One’ project co-ordinated by Paul Romer’s Dutch reality-TV company, co-creator of ‘Big Brother’ and Nobel prize winning physicist, Gerard’t Hooft – proposing a one-way red planet trip financed through a not-for-profit conglomerate of corporate sponsorship and wealthy individual donations, attracted 850,000 unique web-visitors and over 30,000 volunteers. Even with the promise of a nine-month trip in a radiation-frazzled phone-box-size cubicle drinking your own recycled urine to arrive on a freezing airless rock, if they launch tomorrow rather than the 2023 target-year they’d still be overwhelmed with eager candidates. E-technology, miniaturisation, micro-circuitry and new flexible-light materials make the trip more feasible. Private enterprise is sensing exploitable opportunities. And emerging power economies in China, Brazil or India are expanding into a new space-race. So maybe it will still happen. On some level. In the foreseeable future. Just a little later than EC Tubb envisioned. Perhaps Tubb’s vision has been not so much outmoded, as merely postponed…?


Alien Dust’ by EC Tubb (July 1955, TV Boardman, cover by Gerard Quinn) novelisation based on six short stories published in the followed sequence,

(1) “Without Bugles” in ‘New Worlds no.13’ January 1952. Art by Gerard Quinn. ‘The Red Planet was pretty much a dust bowl. As a business project it didn’t rate much. Once there, however, it was difficult to return to Earth’. Story voted no.1 in ‘The Literary Line-up’ in no.15

(2) “Home Is The Hero” in ‘New Worlds no.15’ May 1952. Illustration by Alan Hunter. ‘After five years on Mars it was wonderful to be back. Or was it? In fact, what did happen to all pioneers of spaceflight?’

(3) “Precedent” as by ‘Charles Grey’ also in ‘New Worlds no.15’ May 1952. Art by Clothier. ‘A stowaway on an ocean-going liner isn’t much of a problem – but a stowaway on a spaceship can be disastrous!’

(4) “Men Only” in ‘New Worlds no.16’ July 1952. Art by Quinn. ‘Even when the Martian colony had settled its marital problems and life on the dusty planet was almost bearable, there was little hope for future generations. If there were any future generations’

(5) “Alien Dust” in ‘New Worlds no.19’ January 1953. Art by Quinn. ‘This story concerns an isolated incident in Mr Tubb’s Martian history – its characters are ordinary individuals, its hero is a criminal. The setting, a dust storm on Mars’. Tubb is also present as ‘Gordon Kent’ with the short story “Heroes Don’t Cry”. “Alien Dust” is voted no.2 in ‘The Literary Line-up’ in no.21

(6) “Pistol Point” in ‘New Worlds no.21’ June 1953. Art by Quinn. ‘At last a ray of hope for the destitute Martian colony – a plant that will grow in the desert. But to get recognition they had to threaten Earth itself!

(7) “Operation Mars” in ‘Nebula no.11’ December 1954. Art by Alan Hunter. ‘They were conquerors of a new world, but they found that it would not yield without a grim struggle’

The order in which they appear in the novel is:

1995 – Chapters one and two, “Operation Mars”
1998 – Chapter three, “Precedent”
2000 – Chapter four, “Without Bugles”
2005 – Chapter five, “Home Is The Hero” (radically revised and preceded by new bridging section) 2010 – Chapter six, “Men Only”
2020 – Chapter seven, “Alien Dust”
2030 – Chapter eight, “Pistol Point”

Reviews appeared in
‘Nebula no.13’ (September 1955) by Kenneth F Slater,
and in ‘New Worlds no.37’ (July 1955) by Leslie Flood

For more interviews and Book Reviews on EC Tubb visit

Friday 24 May 2013

The Cranberries Live In Leeds (1993)

at THE IRISH CENTRE, Leeds (1993)

Somewhere between... I think, “Liar” and “Linger”, Dolores O’Riordan lifts her lager, dabbles fingers into it, and delicately dribbles piss-clear liquid over her brow like it’s designer cologne. As the intensity builds, she not so much sweats, or even perspires... more glows. She says ‘Hello’ in Gaelic, and ‘Thanks a million’ with Limerick in each syllable. We arrive late – mid-way through P.J. Berry’s solo ‘Nintendo-Neil Young’ thrash, fighting for bar and floor-space. It’s not until the lights go up that P.J. sees the chaotic audience he’s been playing to, and yells ‘god, but you’re UGLY!’ Then Roadies with collapsed Brian May perms tune and pose with guitars others will play. Set out lager and towels others will use, as REM swirls around them. One T-shirt reads ‘WELL ‘ARD’ – which looks to be inviting trouble (‘So yer think yer ‘ard DO YA!?!?). It would be great one night to review the Roadies and ignore the band. But not this night. Not this band.

Cram the Sundays through an intensive 4AD back-catalogue, and Cranberries are glittering silver-lined vocals spun out on the phased scintillations of Noel Hogan’s Rickenbacker, as rich as cascading fractels. They’re on the brink of charting their single “Linger”, but start slow and tasteful with “Pretty”, building through “Sunday”, gaining momentum. For each song is a page from a dot-to-dot book that grows from small clues into a total picture. Each song the seismic tick that foretells the earth tremor. Dolores wears a formal little black number, low-cut and short. Worn with boots. Her black hair razored high over a nest of near-fetishistic ear-rings. She doesn’t move too much, although she loosens up as dot meets dot, draping the mike in various pensive and impassioned poses as the laser-wire guitar high-pressure points burst around her. “Dreams” – last year’s single weaves hypnotically, as do the more powered sound-bites from the album (‘Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?’, Island, March 1993).

‘Thanks a million’ says Dolores as she glows. She says it like she means it.

Thursday 23 May 2013

'Electronic Skiffle: Three interviews with Sheffield Band CHAKK


Electronic music should also be spontaneous.
Should be created out of the moment, out of sweat and
fire, out of the flesh. Who says so? Chakk say so.
Chakk are a group from Sheffield who describe
their music as ‘Electronic Skiffle’


‘Vibrasound Studio’: sixteen-tracks of quality you can hear at a mere £10-per-hour, in a location of picturesque shabbiness.

Mark Brydon is behind the glass, hair disarrayed around his deep-furrowed centre-parting, hands limpet-clamping the headphones in close, drinking the playback in intense concentration. His bass guitar hangs quivering loose. Studio technician Snake is behind the desk, timing bass drop-in points – ‘shall we try that section again without the bass?’ Pale blue digitals tick off the count-in, pin-sharp graphic-equalisers rise green, peaking into red.

‘I wanna know what Sim thinks.’ The speakers explode shockwaves of sonic violence, a protracted guerrilla war of splattered plastic-cracking rhythms. ‘It sounds fine’ concedes Sim cautiously.

‘Vibrasound’ – this music-blasted area, caters to the not-inconsiderable needs of Sheffield’s last growth industry. The mighty Box were here recently recording their final vinyl, the twelve-inch EP ‘Muscle In’ (1984, Doublevision DVR P1). This week, it’s Chakk. And rules? Chakk make ‘em up as they go on. And go on they do!

‘We’re just working up from the basics of it’ explains Alan (Cross), ‘From now, from this stage on, it gets more and more interesting. Once you get to the saxophone+vocals stage, that’s where you get all the soul coming through – because they are essentially human. They’re directly related to the human body, the lungs, the lips. The saxophone IS you. The way you can completely change the note by the way you do ‘this’ or ‘this’…’ he twists the air emphatically in front of his face ‘…you’re in complete control of it all the time. You can access every little variation of sound. You can’t really get that feel off a knob, at least, you can’t just yet…’

Alan plays keyboards. He also plays the studio. This one, and others. He’s spent time working at ‘Jacobs’ in Surrey, under the wing of Ken Thomas. He was present at recording sessions for Test Department’s ‘Beating The Retreat’ box-set (1984, Some Bizzare TEST 2-3) with Genesis P Orridge in attendance, he was there for a Marilyn single, he spent a ‘fantastic day’ recording with Haircut 100, and more. He also gets a liner-notes credit on fellow-Sheffield band Hula’s ‘Murmur’ album (1984, Red Rhino REDLP53). His central concern though, is that ‘feel you get off a knob’. His ideal is immediate fingertip response, cutting the pre-thought factor back to the nerve.

‘The problem with a lot of it is that the technology is so FRUSTRATING. To get one decent crotchet programmed into that Yamaha CX5 thing (two quavers equal a crotchet – remember?) you have to press thirty buttons. It seems totally wrong to me. You should be able to have an idea – bang it in, try it out, if it doesn’t work, try another. But at the moment it’s longer than that. That’s because a lot of electronics is based on programming which involves a lot of pre-thought. But then, synthesisers have only been around for – what? ten, fifteen years or something, which isn’t very long. Saxophones have been around for two-hundred years. It’s got a long way to go. But that’s nice, ‘cos we’ve got a long way to go too!’

Chakk see themselves as Electronic Skiffle. They see their role to be to the late-eighties what Skiffle was to the fifties, Mersey Beat was to the sixties, and Punk was to the seventies. Raw. Spontaneous. They’re out to get ‘blood on the tracks’. ‘If you get enough blood on the tracks you get sparks up your spine off the music, which is what music is. What it SHOULD be.’ They’re out to humanise electronics, to get that same human immediacy with keyboards that you get with the sax. That’s the ideal.


Chakk is ten-handed. Apart from those belonging to Mark and Alan there’s the aforementioned Sim (Simeon Lister) who provides sax, Dee Boyle (drums, percussion), and Jake Harries (voice and lyric-scripter). If you haven’t heard their critically-acclaimed ‘NME’ single-of-the-week 12” “Out Of The Flesh” you probably caught their John Peel sessions. If you heard neither – you’ve still time to catch up. There’s a substrate – or ‘core’, of highly danceable Funk bass and/or percussion – organic and generated, with connecting peripherals in a constant state of flux, tracks of distortion, twisted wires, tape-feeds and hybrid circuit-loops with built-in indeterminacy. There is no finished complete state. On the twelve-inch there are three mixes of “Out Of The Flesh” – none of them is definitive.

Chakk exist somewhere out beyond the territory unmapped by Cabaret Voltaire. In the closed environs of Sheffield the references are probably inescapable, but shouldn’t be overstated – and it’s a two-way exchange anyway. The Cab’s filched Chakk’s first drummer – Mark Tattersall, and it’s him you hear on the Cab’s excellent ‘Micro Phonies’ (November 1984, Some Bizzare/Virgin) album. In return, the original tapes for “Out Of The Flesh” were ‘evolved’ over two six-hour marathons at the Cab’s ‘Western Works’ studio (longer than it took the Beatles to record their entire first LP!), the end product issued on Cabaret Voltaire’s ‘Doublevision’ record label.

For Chakk the studio is as important as the instrumentation. ‘We’ve always demo’d on a four-track’ Jake points out. ‘And that way we SAVE a lot of money. We don’t need a lot of expensive gear to get very good sounds.’

‘It costs money’ from Sim, ‘but then the four-track isn’t the end of the world. A lot of people spend money on guitars and amps. But if you twist it around a bit and think in terms of recording, with a lot of bands you study and you get your songs together, but when it comes to recording it’s a completely different world, and you have to learn a lot of new stuff. And at the same time – if you’re not used to it, you’re paying money to learn. Whereas with us, it’s always been IN the group.’

The studio is important, but only as a starting point of the creative process, not its culmination. Vis “Out Of The Flesh” – Alan took the two hours of tape produced at Western Works to his flat for final splicing and editing. ‘We’re used to working in a spontaneous sort of way. Recording ideas as they happen rather than having really worked-out arrangements’ explains Sim. ‘And that’s where the editing comes in. We get some ideas on tape, and then we chop it up, we put it back together in a different way, and spend time listening to that.’

Accepted wisdom of editing is mere cutting excess tape down to a commercially acceptable three-four-minutes radio-programmable product. For Alan – for Chakk, it’s a complete creative discipline in itself. ‘That’s what a lot of our motivation comes from. Just trying to prove to people that recording doesn’t need to be boring. It doesn’t need to be dull. It doesn’t need to be technologically wondrous. It’s interesting now because technology is just about getting going. We can start using it.’ Alan pauses, his head critically aslant. ‘There’s a lot of that technology that is bad – it’s more a barrier to getting that feeling across. To getting the HUMAN idea across. It’s important that you can hear that human aspect. The thing that comes oozing out of the pores…’

‘At the start of it, it was people like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk who all latched onto the idea of electronic music – and they were GOOD! But because it was new they used it as a novelty. It was ‘this band use ONLY computers, and it’s AMAZING!’ They were utilising what was available, but their selling point was to have music that wasn’t human. They sold it by making it completely mechanical – the ‘ve are ze robots’ thing. But now I think people have got around to thinking ‘well OK, we’ve done that mechanical thing, why don’t we try to use the synthesiser in the same way that you use a viola or a cello?’ It should be all seen in the same light. But the technology or the design hasn’t quite caught up with that ideal.’

He leans back against the Vibrasound studio-glass between punishing takes, and grins in slow motion. ‘I can’t wait till they bring out an electric keyboard that is REALLY designed to play… like you play piano…’ ‘Vibrasound Studio’ is sixteen-tracks of quality you can hear at a mere £10-per-hour, in a location of picturesque shabbiness.

Published in:
(UK – March 1985)


When I first interview Chakk they’ve just released their
debut single, with the second twelve-incher lined up for
imminent launch. The albums ‘Ten Days In An Elevator’
and ‘Beneath The Dancefloor’ are still in the future.
Still further along that future I will re-encounter Mark Brydon
when I interview his Moloko project. But here and now,
Chakk is new and vital and set on breaking rules… 


Arctic Sheffield in deep mid-winter, and here in this studio complex, this building subdivided into a map of rehearsal rooms, jagged lines of deep bass lurk behind every door. Hot music in a cold climate. This building’s been through several lives, past incarnations peel off the wall in flakes of dead paint. Pre new-Depression it might have started out as a factory block.

Today: Chakk are recording here…

Chakk: their debut twelve-inch is “Out Of The Flesh”. An electronic chewing-gum of a rhythm track with vocal furniture scattered over it. Spooky swooshes of electro-wash. Hard-bound pulses that are gigantesque. It lurches along an aural precipice, almost – but not quite, out of control. Jagged sax spliced and tight-looped over a clack-clack clatter of stabbing skittering drums. Vocals are dislocated as semi-audible cut-up Sci-Fi voices drift in and out (‘the human race will not die, it will go on and on and on…’). It’s a blaze of noise signalling the advent of a dark millennium. It’s a challenge to the whole Industrial Funk state-of-play. And you can dance to it!

Jake Harries is the voice on the record. He sits here now, forward on the near-edge of his chair for emphasis. His hair is tufted into an overhang that precedes him. He wears a red close-check shirt clasped in at the throat with a small gold eagle. A logo’d carton of McDonald’s fries starts with him and is passed clock-wise like in some time-devolved hippie ritual of passing the joint, like some sub-‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ water-sharing rite. From Jake it goes to Sim Lister (saxophone), then to drummer time-keeper Dee Boyle who’s sat opposite me. He extracts three limp anaemic fries and angles them uncertainly into his mouth, then passes them on to bassist Mark Brydon, who declines the offer, thereby breaking the circle. Only one Chakk is now missing. He’s Alan Cross, and he’s still mixing tapes. Stories are told about Alan, about how his bedroom is pegged out with a clothes-line of different lengths of neatly numbered and annotated tapes, from which he’ll select and edit, mix and match.

Chakk: Mark explains what they tend to do. ‘What we tend to do’ he explains, ‘is just – like, actually, set up a kind of very very basic structure on a rhythm machine. Then what happens is the spontaneity that adds to it. A lot of the track is built up through processed sound or production ideas. That…’ he completes, ‘…is how it tends to work.’

‘That’s what we work from’ agrees Jake. ‘This machine – getting something that’s simple, but which works well as it stands.’

Dee retrieves the narrative. ‘I work alongside the drum machine. But maybe I’ll not even keep up the same rhythm. We tend to think in terms of sixteen-bars of ‘something’ – then a drop-in of something else. THAT’s when we know how to change, although we haven’t actually worked out what we’ll change from, or change to. It just says ‘we’re gonna change’…’


Outside, the blizzard sets in with a vengeance, while – in this studio complex, in this adventure playground of sound, me and Alan Cross sit on either side of an ITT portable cassette machine. ‘We did a first single that never came out – it was to be called “Stare Me Out” (it emerges as a track on their first album ‘Ten Days In An Elevator’). It was before “Out Of The Flesh”, and we did it at ‘Jacobs Studio’ in Fareham, Kent.’ This is Alan talking now, fast, authoritatively. ‘We started working on it when we had a deal with ‘Go Discs’ (the label that hosts Billy Bragg and Sheffield’s Box). But the deal was a complete non-event. Nevertheless we were working on this track down there with producer Ken Thomas. He liked what we were doing, and he just said to me ‘do you want a job here? Why not come in on some of the sessions I’ve got lined up.’ It was just a twist of fate really, but I ended up doing that for three or four months, working on some very varied sessions, which was good. I was asked to engineer the Test Department thing (their 1984 ‘Beating The Retreat’ box-set, for Some Bizzare TEST 2-3). I had quite a big hand in that. But I worked on everything. There were things like a day with Haircut 100, and then a Marilyn single (Boy George’s friend). I just sat in on that, I wasn’t playing a part on it, but it was quite an eye-opener seeing Ken doing that session. You learn a lot from actually seeing people do it, it’s the best way to learn. Sitting down and asking them – picking their brains, is one thing. But actually seeing it WORK is another!’

‘I even did a session with some people doing a ‘Library’ record. There are massive record libraries, EMI has one, but this one was for… um… can’t remember, it’s gone. Anyway, what they do is – when someone’s making a TV-commercial or a jingle, and they need some music, they go and pick one out of the Library. So, this particular week there were these people doing a Library record. It was a little different to working with a regular band, they knew EXACTLY what they were doing. They came in and set everything up, and in twelve days they’d done nearly ten sides! Everything was so… QUICK! There’s a bloke used to be in Be-Bop Deluxe – do you remember them? Andy ‘Mumbles’ Clarke. He’s ended up doing that for a living. Makes two albums a year, and lives off them. Lives very well too. He just bought a new house and all.’

One of the bands Alan engineered for during this period, but fails to mention, is Apocalypse. The now-defunct protégés of a certain Tony Fletcher’s ‘Jamming’ label. ‘But’ – he continues, ‘I found that, at the end of that time, I’d got to the stage where I wasn’t really bothered about the music that the bands were making. And that was really quite an important decision for me. Making a record, to me, is just like saying to someone ‘here’s my door-key’. It’s like throwing my door open to them. A lot of electronics people fail because they tend to forget that. They think they’re there just to make records, and that’s the be-all and end-all of everything. Just making records. They get into the trap where they’re making records and they think ‘you’ve got to make use of equipment like the Fairlight and the Emulator to be a contender’. Which, really, they don’t…’

Amrik Rai concurs. He’s Chakk’s manager. He’s also a totally hot journalist – part-Asian with a silly haircut (his description). ‘The “Out Of The Flesh” single was recorded on the cheap’ he adds. ‘For the price most people tend to spend on Speed.’ On reflection, his haircut’s not THAT silly, more a flatted pompadour that matches the shoestring tie quite well…

But Alan’s now into tech-speak, and accelerating. ‘The Emulator is wildly overpriced too. £7000 for that thing! It even LOOKS horrible. I know a few people who do computing, and when you talk to THEM about the way computers are coming into the music scene they laugh. Because computer technology is far more advanced than any of its applications in music. They’ve obviously got a long way to go, but instead, manufacturers have got into a rut. It’s like cameras or something. They’ve made a synthesiser. They know that it’s what sells. They know how to market it. It’s got THIS and THIS, oscillators and selectors, and they boast about it. They’ve settled for a format too soon. No-one’s come out with something REALLY wild, have they? I don’t know… a synth that runs off alpha waves or something. Just a different approach. But they’ve settled for something and they can sell it ‘cos musicians are pretty dumb!’ A thoughtful pause… ‘but that’s a point. Perhaps they SHOULD design something for idiots, yeah. If THAT approach to design was applied to a really good quality instrument then it’d be amazing. ‘Cos a lot of it’s just designed for boffins…’

But hang on – this is ‘Overground’ magazine, not ‘Technoflash Muso’s Monthly’. How’s about something salacious...?


                 (‘NME’ advert March 1985)

I go to my local Indie outlet to ask for “You”. “Chakk?” she says. “You mean Chaka Khan? We’ve got Chaka Khan.’ As though she’s offering me an acceptable alternative.

Chakk: they create sound tracts of creative disorder. A couple of 1982-‘83 cassette tapes emerged with the sound of nerves strung out and jangling like barbed wire in the wind. Of course, they draw on aspects of the past to upgrade and define their future – people say Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA or A Certain Ratio – but Chakk’s kind of intuition can’t be pre-programmed. Their music/non-music is structured with a painterly use of sound, almost taken outside its musical context. A non-musical use of sound in a dance-able art context. For “You”, a sample informs that ‘if chosen, the sacrificial virgin dances herself to death’, and a girl laughs, the way some girls do. ‘Hey you, you got me, I can’t move again’ it protests around shuddering juddering beats, ‘hey you, you’re in complete control again’. In Chakk, things like rhythm, pitch, melody and harmony are important – but they’re not the real issue. The issue is FEEL. The issue is to graphically illustrate a state of mind, it builds images out of noise.

When the ‘Go Discs’ deal left them stranded, Cabaret Voltaire bailed them out, taking “Out Of The Flesh” to launch their Doublevision label with an authentic sliver of vinyl shrapnel. The link-up was appropriate. Double your pleasure, double your fun. Doublevision was the complete design and development service, lifting Chakk into the rarified reaches of the Indies. And now…?

Now it’s been superseded by Amrik Rai’s latest project, Fon Records (as in ‘Fuck-Off-Nazis’), and…


U? Y-e-w?

‘No – “You”. As in ‘You’. The first Fon single.’


Outside, the snow falls in torrents. Inside, the interview disintegrates and the record playback of “You” begins. Tetchy rhythms shimmer in shockwaves of aural stress. An art of deliberate artlessness, a new high in the Industrial Funk state-of-play. It’s contagious. You can dance to it.

Chances R that Radio One’s Me-Mark Page hasn’t played it yet!

…and no-one mentions ‘getting into videos’…

Published in:
(UK – August 1986)


I interviewed Chakk in 1984.
Now, I play this interview back in my head.
It’s true that sometimes Chakk may have fallen short
of their aspirations, but there’s no doubting the tactile
sense of dangerous innovation about their project.
That buzz is still there. Still vivid. And you wonder,
where has that sense of adventure and experiment
gone to now? I don’t see much evidence
of this abrasive challenging attitude
around in today’s Indie.

I like Sheffield, the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire.

A month ago a thousand-kilogram German bomb dropped in the 1940-blitz caused the evacuation of three-hundred homes, and the cancellation of a Sheffield United football match at the ‘Bramall Lane’ ground. A week later evangelist Billy Graham drew some quarter-million people over eight nights at that same stadium, the cash collection alone raises £125,000. While the NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) hold their autopsy on the UK’s most bitterly fought strike in the airless dungeons of Sheffield City Hall – and Councillor David Blunkett, led by his guide dog, conspires in games of bluff and counterbluff, to defy central government penalties and take Sheffield into deliberate bankruptcy, protecting jobs from the Monetarist axe. In Sheffield some eighteen-percent of men are unemployed, a quarter of them for at least two years…

‘Is that tape recorder picking any of this up?’ asks Sim genially. In this room there’s a lairy silence. But sound conducts subliminally up through the architecture from the Rehearsal Rooms leased in units all around, to infiltrate the circuits, to confuse and disrupt the pick-up. The interview winds up wound tight, the tape treated and processed with a background drone as pervasive as feedback. With Chakk – perhaps that’s an appropriate setting.

But to semantics: does the word Chakk MEAN anything? ‘It’s just a sound.’

Mark: ‘we were looking for a word that had a sound to it, just a sharp…’ he snaps his fingers in an abrupt detonation, the confused VU’s on my ITT jumping seismically, ‘… so we made the word up. But since then we’ve…’

‘…learned about a thousand things.’ Jake picks up the idea. ‘African sun. Dope smoking. Rain gods. Chakk means a few things – coincidental things!’

Dee: ‘It’s a Japanese brand of toothpaste.’

Amik Rai, late journalist for ‘NME’, now svengali for the jackleg ‘Fon’ label – cuts into the dialogue. ‘It’s a Mayan god also. Which is quite interesting. The last Eric Random single had a ‘B’-side called “Dream Web Of Maya” (flip of “Mad As Mankind”, Doublevision DVR7, produced by Cabaret Voltaire )…’

Jake: ‘It’s Toltec. It’s not Mayan actually, it’s Toltec. I looked it up yesterday.’

Chakk takes you from microchip to brain-tip. They played a gig with Box at Sheffield’s ‘Marples’ in March 1982. One with Hula at the ‘Leadmill’ in April 1984. That night they had no drummer, so ‘we borrowed the Cab’s (Cabaret Voltaire’s) drummer and made tape loops out of – I think it was a Junior record (“Mama Used To Say”), just for a backbeat.’ Since then, their records have come in short-awaited instalments. For “Out Of The Flesh” (Doublevision) the Cab’s picked up the price-tab on a vinyl barrage of electronic coded symbols fissioned by Funk atom-smashers. “You” c/w “They Say” (Fon) was ‘New Musical Express’ ‘Single Of The Week’ for 23 March 1985. ‘If sound can be said to bubble and thunder simultaneously, then it’s Chakk… a huge groove that flexes in and out of focus’ (reviewer Mat Snow). A sell-out gig at London’s ‘Camden Palace Alternative Top Of The Pops’ followed.

And rumours escalate thru the roof:

‘*Chakk sign to MCA for £500,000. They flirt with ideas of building a 161-track studio.’

‘*Chakk work on an EP collaboration with hot gospeller Dizzy Hites and Africa Bambaata.’

‘*Chakk contribute (“Big Hot Blues”) to the ‘Miami Vice’ soundtrack LP’ (not true).

‘*Chakk obtain the services of producers Sly and Robbie, bussing them 180-miles up the M1-motorway to Sheffield (while Dunbar and Shakespeare prefer a Bill Laswell production for their own electro-funk stab ‘Language Barrier’ LP for Island).’

Chakk-ology is, as artist Francis Bacon describes it, ‘a shorthand of sensation.’ Like arranging autowrecks in rhythm, Chakk’s sound has been bent, twisted, and shook shapeless through collision. But now they’re upping that ante, all their systems are GO!

So do Chakk collect interesting bits of sound for future use? Do they hoard and select tape-snips like a collagist roots through magazines to pick out bits of quirky artwork? Jake: ‘we’ve got a cassette we take out on location to record natural sounds – like snapping wood.’ Listen to those sharp percussion-bursts again. George Lucas taped the sound of Industrial Guillotines in a steel-mill to obtain the laser-hiss for ‘Star Wars’. It all ties in. NOTHING is coincidental.

I like Sheffield. Coming in off the Tinsley raised section of the M1 you pass the visible scars of Sheffield’s collapsed economic base. The number of jobs in the steel industry fell from 39,394 in 1979 to 18,217 in 1983. In the car on the way to the studio, passing ‘Bramall Lane’ football stadium, a radio buzz splices in and wraps-around – news bulletins of bombs and evangelists, and that somewhere out beyond this sky, lipping the horizon, the Space Shuttle orbits a military mission testing ‘Star Wars (SDI)’ lasers. Someone suggests Pres Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev should be placed in a sealed capsule and left to fight World War III on interactive Space Invader screens – while the rest of us listen to Chakk’s soundtrakk… c’mon, feel the NOIZENIKS!!!

Mark: ‘someone who writes a lot of musical theory would say ‘I want to convey this feeling by using a certain progression of chords’. Because they know that minor chords create a kind of atmospheric feel. Whereas – we do that to a certain extent, but we’re very limited musically, I think we do it more in the studio. You were saying how Cabaret Voltaire throw things up against the wall and see what sticks. We try to, sort of, imagine what’s gonna stick first – THEN throw it up against the wall!’

‘That’s just another step in the process’ concurs Jake, ‘it’s the same thing.’

‘Cos the Cabs – they REALLY, really KNOW roughly what they’re gonna do, although they say they don’t. I’m sure of it. It’s just an appropriate way for them to describe their technique, basically. That’s their ATTITUDE. That’s why they’ve got their own studio, their own recording gear, it’s definitely part of what they do.’

Mark: ‘the end result is just sound, communicating!’

This is the Chakk interview – in, and out of the flesh. Those present are:

*Jake Harries, vox/lyrics. Such a voice, from such an UNASSUMING face. The look of a young Bunnyman.

*Mark Brydon, bass, commanding interview-voice, and oblique studio strategies. Shaggy centre-parting and wire-rim spectacles, a dishevelled face from the research labs of terminal sonics.

*Sim Lister, sax – formerly of a band called Cabinet who once did a ‘Janice Long Session’ for BBC Radio One.

*Dee Boyle, drums, rhythms played on the hurry-up, laconic Rotherham accent, a man who’s suffered for his art, he was mugged on the way home from the studio and robbed of £3!

*Alan Cross, keyboards, a tape-splicer who bleeds and blends sounds, and who says ‘the Emulator? it’s not THAT amazing really!’

Footsteps walk up the wall towards the ceiling in odd formations. They date from the rehearsal studio’s earlier phase as a Karate school. ‘Hid-ar-ee-gam-i’ is left punching. ‘Knee-ko-Ashi-Datchi’ is Cat Stance. The rest of the foot-placing diagrams are semi-eclipsed by half-roll remnants and waterfall cascades of rich-weave carpets. I can’t be certain if they’re remaindered from some other earlier warehousing project, or are deliberately positioned here as attempted sound-baffles for rehearsing bands. Chakk are here now. Maybe, before I arrived, they were working through “Cut The Dust”, or “Who Needs A Better Life” (which they debuted at the Nottingham ‘Garage’). Perhaps it was “Out Of The Flesh” itself – a deafening blare of sound freighting every molecule and subatomic particle of air into furious retinal-stinging explosion, Jake braying vocals into and over it – ‘release the heat, and let me BREATHE again…’

Were they happy with the way “Out Of The Flesh” turned out?

Jake: ‘I hated it when we first did it. It… could’ve been better. But every band says that. It was done in the studio, made up in the studio. There was a lot of stuff we were doing, little ideas… so we just fit them all together while we were recording. Then we processed it. The finished product was somewhere in the two hours of tape we took off from the mixes. And then that’s put together for best effect. The track isn’t finished until it’s edited.’

Outside, the Space Shuttle seeds the sky with geostationary spy satellites. Like Billy Bragg sez, it’s wrong to wish on space hardware. ‘We’ve got to CREATE jobs, not DESTROY them’ hectors David Blunkett, heretically opposing Thatcher-inspired cuts.

CHAKK ARE A BIRTHDAY PARTY IN THE BUSH OF GHOSTS announces Amrik Rai (in ‘New Musical Express’ 20 March 1982).

I like Sheffield – the alleged Socialist Republic that’s produced the most intriguing music of the dekkade thus far. This, also, is no coincidence. It was Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Vice Versa, Clock DVA, Heaven 17. Then it was Box, The Anti-Group, ABC, Hula, Cabaret Voltaire, Floy Joy, Vitamin Z – and Chakk. ‘That’s just another step in the process.’ Chakk is five intense and serious faces strung out around the rehearsal room. Chakk is the innovative spirit of the Cab’s ‘Red Mecca’ (Rough Trade, September 1981), mated with the black soul of DVA’s ‘Thirst’ (Fetish, January 1981), wrenched apart, reassembled and shoved forward on an electric Funk momentum. Mark and Alan (I suspect) are the ideological nucleus of the Chakk attakk (I could be wrong), they betray that nerve-drawn quality of the inspired extremist, the instinctive cutting edge that unites left with right hemisphere of the brain. Sim, Jake and Dee (I suspect) give that intuition a musical dexterity and form. In their harsh ellipticals of sound, chaotic irregulars and horizontal grains of processed noise and treated dubs, they’re reinventing reality from the stone-gone fabrications of blanket media overkill. They’re exaggerating reported and recorded life to the point of art and beyond – into DANCE. Testing dance music to destruction…?

Dee: ‘it’s an Electric Funk sort of dance music, yes. We use a sort of electronic Funk backing. It’s strict rhythm, and because it’s danceable it’s the mass medium of the day, so we deliberately use that.’

Jake: ‘unfortunately that’s how you sell records. That’s what we’re trying to do. That’s not the be-all and end-all of it, but we’re in the market, we’re doing it.’

Sim: ‘but we don’t want it to be JUST that. There’s a difference between just dancing, and what we want to do. Hopefully there’s a difference between the two. You dance to Chakk, but at the same time there’s a mood, an atmosphere. The approximate thing is – what we’re trying to do is to keep it more interesting, with a bit more FEEL!’

Skiffle: for those who don’t already know, Skiffle was an austerity pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll music of the bleak post-war 1950’s. Terry & Gerry’s kitsch xerox of its naivety has a degree of temporary contemporary novelty value (check out their ‘Butter’s On The Bread’ EP on Vindaloo Records). But Chakk – by applying, concentrating, and pressure-shaping the more intense energies of the bleak 1980’s through their utilisation of cheap technological toys, are more true to Skiffle’s creative spirit. Theirs is an Electronic Skiffle. Beneath a sky chokk-full of rinky-dink gizmo’s and gadgets, Trade Union leaders and Socialist Councillors fight for (what the Human League used to call) the “Dignity Of Labour” – while Chakk plot NEW directions. A Skiffle for technology’s Third Wave.

Skiffle? Jake: ‘exactly. It’s a great analogy. It’s really good – because our music isn’t complicated. Skiffle wasn’t complicated. What we do has just given it a new step-up of sounds and quality, technology – but it’s hopefully still retaining that sort of simplicity and guts.’

Mark: ‘a lot of the equipment we’ve bought isn’t (the term is) user-friendly. A lot of it’s so obscure that it’s very difficult to get that… Skiffle feel, that immediacy. Because you actually have to THINK too much.’

Sim: ‘we’re not into technology. There’s a difference between getting into buying a lot of gear, and basically getting something that you can push around. That’s what ‘user-friendly’ is. It’s no good getting into knobs, ‘cos all they do is tweak sounds. You should get into making the sounds. It’s getting better, technical things like drum-machines are better – but there’s the ‘Fairlight’ and ‘Greengate’ for instance (a Greengate ‘boxes’ sound-samples, allowing you to reduce or extend the decay-time at will within that ‘box’). The Greengate is a bit of a fiddle, it’s good – but you can’t go ‘POW-POW-POW-PA-PA-PA-POW’. You have to tap it in…’

‘…and read the manual first’ adds Dee.

‘…but that’ll improve, with time. And the reason for getting it isn’t to say ‘we’ve got a Greengate, we’ve got a blah blah blah, we’re something great’ – it’s to DO something, quickly and simply, but make it sound good. It’s just another tool.’

In the car on the way back through asphalt canyons of extinct steelworks to the Tinsley raised section of the M1, the interview tape is on the in-car speakers. ‘Is that tape recorder picking any of this up?’ asks Sim genially, like he’s on a loop. The cassette is wound tight, treated and processed with a background drone as pervasive as the industrial soundtrakk of dead factories. It all ties in. NOTHING is coincidental.

I like Sheffield…

CHAKK: The Albums

1982 – ‘Clocks And Babies’ (cassette) side one: “Caught In Your Face”, “Frame Of Behaviour”, “Scratch - Being Sick Pt. 2”, “God’s People”, “Salestalk”. Side two: “Square One (Back Two) Hip Hop... Trippity Trip, Down The Stairs... Rippity Rip”, “In Between Home And Dry”, “Mother Tongue”, “Picking Blooms With Aunty Offal – ‘How Many Times Have I Told You?’”, “Shut Down”, “Peeking Through Your Belly Button Air Air More Air Cut Your Way Out Get The Bus”, “Clocks And Babies”. Lists the personnel as Mark Tattersall (drums, percussion), Steve Nall (film technician), Mark Brydon (guitar, bass, vocals), Alan Cross (piano, synthesizer, vocals), Sim Lister (saxophone, trumpet, clarinet). Rcorded ‘at home’ or at Input Studios 1981-82

1986 – ‘Ten Days In An Elevator’ (vinyl LP with 12” EP, MCA MCG-6006, also as double LP, MCA 254185-1, and CD MCA DMCG 6006) side one: “Stare Me Out” (4:42), “Imagination (Who Needs A Better Life)” (5:03), “Big Hot Blues” (5:27), “Over The Edge” (7:26). Side two: “Lovetrip” (5:08), “She Conceives Destruction” (5:23), “Falling” (6:07)”, “Years I Worked” (5:40), + bonus 12” EP “Murderer / Big Hot Mix”, “Stare Me Out (Crash Mix)”, “Cut The Dust”. Lists personnel as Mark Brydon (bass, guitar), Diarmuid ‘Dee’ Boyle (drums), Alan Cross (keyboard programming, plus engineer tracks 1, 4 to 9, 12, with Frank Rosak tracks 2,3,6,7 and Robert Gordon tracks 1, 5 to 7, 12), Jake Harries and John Stuart (vocals), Sim Lister (saxophone, trumpet, French Horn), production by Chakk plus Richard James Burgess tracks 2,3,6,7. Robert Gordon co-remix on “Stare Me Out (Crash Mix)” plus Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare producers on “Stare Me Out”

1987 – ‘Beneath The Dancefloor – Basement Tapes’ (Chakk 1983-1984) (mini-LP, Fon FON-X6) side one: “Just Pieces (Edit)”, “Timebomb” (7” Cut), recorded November 1986 at Fon Studios 24-track. Side two: “Stare Me Out” December 1983 at Jacobs Farnham, “Cut The Dust” October 1983 at Input Sheffield eight-track, “Theme” May 1984 at Input, “Blind Eyes” recorded March 1983 at ‘Over The Underground’ Sheffield eight-track, B-sides from 1983 and 1984. Personnel listed as Mark Brydon (bass), Dee Boyle (drums on 1, 2 and ‘Theme’), Mark Tattersall (drums on other tracks), Alan Cross (keyboards, plus editing, with Ken Thomas on ‘Stare Me Out’), Sim Lister (saxophone), John Stuart (vocals on side one), Jake Harries (vocals on side two)

2007 – ‘Out Of The Flesh: The Singles’ (iTunes download) with “You” (6:27), “They Say” (4:57), “Imagination (Extended)” (6:37), “Imagination (Dub)” (6:29), “Out of the Flesh”(6:00), “Take Your Time” (5:24), “The Pieces” (5:16), “Just Wait” (4:58), “Take Your Time (Earth Calling Remix)” (7:53)

CHAKK: The Singles

1984 – “Out Of The Flesh (Mix I)” (6:00) c/w “Out Of The Flesh (Mix II)” (3:53) + “Out Of The Flesh (Mix III)” (5:06) Produced by Richard H Kirk (12”, Doublevision DVR-6). UK Indie no. 3

17 October 1984 – ‘John Peel Show’ Radio One session includes “Cut The Dust”, “Sedative Ends”, “No. 3 Sound”, and “Mother Tongues”

March 1985 – “You” c/w “They Say” (7”, Fon FON 001). UK Indie no. 14, with simultaneous 12” (Fon FONT-001) “You (Mix 1)” + “You (Mix 2)” c/w “They Say (Mix 1)” + “They Say (Mix 2)”)

1986 – “Imagination (Who Needs A Better Life)” (4:15) c/w “Imagination (Instrumental)” (7”, MCA/Fon FON-2), with simultaneous 12” “Imagination (Extended Mix)” c/w “Imagination (Dub Mix)” + “Imagination (Instrumental)” (MCA/Fon FONT-2)

1986 – “Big Hot Blues” c/w “Cut The Dust” (7”, MCA/Fon FON-3), with simultaneous 12”, “Big Hot Blues (Extended Mix)” c/w “Big Blue Mix” + “Cut The Dust” (12", MCA/Fon FONT-3)

1986 – “Bloodsport” (12”, Fon SWAN-3) with “Bloodsport (The Full Report)” c/w “Bloodsport (State Of Emergency) + “Bloodsport (Too Little Too Late)” collaboration with The Swanhunters

1986 – “Time Bomb” c/w “Just Pieces” (7”, Fon FON-06), UK Indie no. 20, with simultaneous ‘Timebomb’ EP (12”, Fon FONT-6) with “ Take Your Time” (5:23)” c/w “The Pieces” (5:14) + “Just Wait” (4:57). Also a ‘Timebomb Crashpack’ (Fon FONT-6-P) includes single-sided 12” “Out Of The Flesh” (FONT-10)

1987 – ‘Timebomb (Bombed-Out Remixes)’ (12”, Fon FONL-6) with “Take Your Time (Earth Calling)” c/w “Just Pieces (Bumper Bomb Bonus)”, “Just Pieces (Bomb-Bay Mix)”, “Just Pieces (Bouncing Beats)”

1987 – “Brain” c/w “Years I Worked” (45rpm, plus 12”, Fon CHAKK-1), credited as ‘previously unreleased original MCA recording’. Message in run-out groove reads ‘Demolish The Demo’ and ‘Footie Tonight Lads!’

following Chakk:

FON STUDIOS. Chakk’s £100,000 advance from MCA records funded their own Sheffield-based studio, which became key to subsequent local music

DJ CHAKK. An alias used in 1986 for a Fon remix of Age Of Chance’s version of Prince’s “Kiss” on their ‘Crush Collision’ (Fon AGE9) set, with three mixes (‘Sonic Crush Symphony’, ‘Your Move America’ and ‘Leeds vs The Bronx’) included on ‘Kiss: Jack-Knife Remixes’ 12” (Fon AGE L5). Alan Cross credited as engineer

KRUSH. Producers Mark Brydon and Robert Gordon, with Mark Gamble and Cassius Campbell, working as Krush, score a sample-based dance-track no.3 hit in December 1987 with “House Arrest” (Club JAB63), followed by “Walking On Sunshine”, no.71 in November 1992 (Network NWK55)

FUNKY WORM. Marky Brydon group score a no.13 hit in July 1988 with “Hustle! (To The Music)” (Fon FON15), no.61 in November 1988 with “The Spell” (Fon FON16), and no.46 in May 1989 with “U+Me=Love” (Fon FON19)

MOLOKO. Mark Brydon’s major 1990’s project, teamed with vocalist Róisín Murphy for a series of hit albums. See separate interviews http://andrewdarlington.blogspot.co.uk/2009/02/moloko-i-should-coco-moloko-take-their.html

MADE IN SHEFFIELD’ (2009) Chakk are featured in Eve Wood’s documentary films about Sheffield music, this one – and ‘The Beat Is The Law’ (2011)

with thanks to Amrik Rai, then based at
27 Victoria Road, Sheffield S10 2DJ