Friday 31 October 2014

Poem: 'Bourbon Street Blues'


‘Out of luck, stuck in a rut,
I’m in need, of someone’s good deed’
sat sidewalk-hunched, eyes downcast
beneath Bourbon street-sign
with her poem on carton-cardboard,
the craziness cascading by her

I feel a momentary pang

but steal her poem anyway…

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Thursday 30 October 2014

ELVIS PRESLEY: 'Sailing To Graceland'



There’s a squirrel on the Graceland lawn. The squirrel doesn’t know it’s on the Graceland lawn. The squirrel knows nothing about the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, his amazing life and stupid death. The squirrel just enjoys the shade the trees cast across the lawn. Graceland is a pleasant place to live. It’s easy to see why Elvis valued this place. Why he returned here from the madness of the world whenever he got the chance.

On the way here we talk about Justin Bieber and Britney Spears. They went into overnight fame and wealth, and couldn’t deal with it. They lost the plot. Elvis Presley came from dirt-poor country-boy to become more globally famous and vastly wealthy than just about anyone else. He bought ‘Graceland’ in early 1957 and it’s reassuring evidence that, despite career blips and the kind of excess we’re all familiar with, he never quite blew it. There’s no massive 1950’s tasteless splurges of bling or monumental ostentation. Even what later became known as the Jungle Room – where ‘there’s a pretty little thing, waiting for the King’, is more cool and elegant. Graceland is the kind of place you’d move into, if you had the budget.

When he bought the place, it was pretty-much an empty shell. It was decorated and redesigned according to his dictates. Later, no doubt, Priscilla had a say in its décor too. Yet it reflects his taste. Although originally in a wooded area outside the city, the Memphis sprawl has extended to surround it, with the renamed ‘Elvis Presley Boulevard’ lined with souvenir shops and malls. Shuttle coaches take visitors ‘poor boys and pilgrims’ from one side of the boulevard, where the booking, frisking and queuing takes place, across to and up the drive to Graceland itself. It feels hot and irritable standing in line. There’s no opportunity to grab a photo at the famous music-notes gates. Instead they will snap you in front of mock-up gates, and sell you the photo in a presentation folder as you leave. They are not cheap. Nothing here is cheap. But as you queue for the next shuttle in the sullen Tennessee heat with the endless Elvis soundtrack playing from speakers around you, they issue you with iPads that will talk you through each room, with click-on video-clips, audio-grabs and fact-sidebars. iPads don’t come cheap either.

Never quite understood the line in the Marc Cohn song about ‘do I really feel the way I feel’, now I’m here, now I’m “Walking In Memphis” myself, I know exactly what he means.

Pop isn’t rational. There’s no verifiable reason for liking or not liking. Perhaps it’s just that, like sex, the first cut is the deepest? Some great writer-producer teams have attempted to reduce the formula down to an equation. Some have created Hit Machines as a result. But there’s always going to be that inexplicable quality about music which is more mystical than it is logical. There are immensely talented artists you can respect, and yet not love. Neil Young is a creative giant. The intensity of some of his songs – “A Man Needs A Maid”, can near reduce me to tears. Yet listen to a full Neil Young album, and the high whine starts to grate before the wind-down groove.

When it comes to creative intelligence Elvis Presley was never in the same league. But he has the voice. Even working with the most appallingly inept material, he could midas it into gold. At his very worst – and I’m thinking the 1964 ‘Kissin’ Cousins’ LP, the soundtrack album of the embarrassingly inept movie, side one track six, “Tender Feeling” is a barrel-scraping exercise in songwriting, tacking on hasty new lyrics to the old “Shenandoah” tune, yet the vocal interpretation salvages it with some dignity, so it’s a delight to listen. Was Elvis smart? He was what we’d now call trailer-trash sharp, dirt-po’white, he couldn’t articulate what he did, or why it proved so seismic. His was animal-intuition. He worked the song, until it felt ‘right’. There’s a TV-clip of Richard Madeley interviewing Shakin’ Stevens. When he’s asked a question he clearly doesn’t understand, Shakin’ playfully pounces on Madeley and gets him in a headlock. I suspect that in this sense, Shakin’ is a fairly accurate Elvis impersonator. When Elvis does a press-conference, and is asked if beneath the fame and celebrity he’s still the same ole country boy, he simply stands up and indicates his massive blingy jewelled belt, which says it all.

The first vinyl 45rpm record I ever owned was Elvis’ “The Girl Of My Best Friend”, on the black RCA label, with its silver lettering. I’d just turned thirteen, and I was entranced. Even when I hear that song now – shuffled unexpectedly on my iPod between the Ramones and Prodigy, I still love it, from the Jordanaires opening ‘aah-aah aah-aah-aah’ into the honeyed-smooth first line. As a track (side one, track three) on his first post-Army LP ‘Elvis Is Back’ (April 1960) – what many consider to be his greatest album, it wasn’t even intended to be a single. In the USA it wasn’t. The American follow-up to his lubriciously suggestive hit “Stuck On You” was “It’s Now Or Never” c/w “A Mess Of Blues”, but when copyright complications due to its “O Solo Mio” origins held up the song’s UK release, there was a commercial vacuum that needed filling. Hence “A Mess Of Blues” was promoted from ‘B’-side status while “The Girl Of My Best Friend” was lifted from the album to accompany it. Marketed as a double-‘A’ (RCA 1194) it hit no.2 in September 1960 (beneath the Shadows “Apache”) – appropriately close to my birthday. I’d heard it on the BBC Light Programme, the ‘bumper-bundle’ most-requested record of the week on Brian Matthew’s ‘Saturday Club’.

So I bought it. I still have it, although I also have subsequent CD and mp3 versions too. It was what critics of the time termed a rocka-ballad, written by Sam Bobrick and Beverly Ross, first recorded in 1959 for Warner Bros by Charlie Blackwell. But listen to Blackwell’s original vinyl, and it’s an awkward charmless thing. Then check out the various Elvis outtakes on YouTube as he fumbles through different takes, moulding the contours of the simple song into an irresistible Pop gem. How did he work the alchemy? By intuition? Until it sounds somehow right? A thing of instinct?

Elvis sound-alike Ral Donner took the song into the US charts, to no.19 as an ‘Elvis Is Back’ cover. Johnny Burnette, and much later Bryan Ferry also reworked it. But at a concise 2:27-minutes, Elvis’ assured vocal control takes it up several notches. It consists of fairly routine love-triangle subject-matter, recycling ‘the way she walks’, with ‘the way she talks’ – a rhyme used so frequently in Pop it’s almost a joke. Elvis gives its triteness an achingly empathic sincerity. He’s caught up in a romantic dilemma, ‘I want to tell her how I love her so’, but he’s wary that ‘what if she got real mad and told him so?’, then he ‘could never face either one again.’ So he watches ‘the way they kiss’ and ‘their happiness’, with a jealously-pained secret that can never speak its name. Will his aching heart ever end? Even its title is a little grammatically clunky, cut-up and reshuffled more efficiently by Cars into “My Best Friend’s Girlfriend”. Whoever said Pop was rational?

Many years later, reissued as an ‘A’-side in its own right, in a chart full of Abba, Demis Roussos and Tina Charles, it reached no.9 in October 1976. Odd to think it might also have been the first vinyl 45rpm purchase for fans of that generation too.

RCA Victor Studio B in Nashville is where Elvis recorded it. Although signed to other labels Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers also booked studio time here. While Gentleman Jim Reeves did most of his recordings here. Floyd Cramer’s original piano is there, in the corner of the studio. The one he played on Presley sessions for “Mess Of Blues” and ‘Elvis Is Back’. Elvis installed his own mood-lighting. It’s still in place. He would use red lighting for up-tempo sessions. Blue lighting for slow ballads. But neither worked when he was trying out for the first takes of “Are You Lonesome Tonight”. Until he decides to fade the lighting way down, and record the song in intimate darkness. Here, now, they fade the lights down to darkness, and fade the track in, Elvis’ voice resonates spookily, here, where he stood to record it. It’s impossible not feel a chill of frisson. This is a moment of extreme dislocating weirdness. I’m not afraid to admit it had me choking up.

We pass Chet Atkins Place on the way here, but when I want to re-find it for a photo I lose my way. There’s Roy Acuff Place too in a tight ‘Music City’ block off the long Broadway which eventually counts down to the music bars and country stores sloping towards the Cumberland Riverfront. Studio B was constructed as a result of Chet’s urging, in 1957, partly to facilitate the demands of Elvis’ burgeoning career. It wasn’t called Studio B then, not until a larger studio complex was built on 17th Street, which became Studio A. It’s Studio B that remains legendary.

It started with Elvis. It must end with Elvis.

He drove golf-carts across these Graceland lawns where squirrels now enjoy the shade of the trees. He rode horses around the paddocks outside the back. And stroll around the side, by the surprisingly modest swimming pool, there’s the meditation garden where Elvis would come when he wanted peace and quiet. So pause, deliberately, take it all in, condense this moment down for future reference. The formation of Presley graves are here. Four of them. Parents Vernon and Gladys. Elvis himself. And grandmother Minnie Mae Presley, who outlived them all, and died in May 1980. There’s also a plaque for Elvis’ stillborn twin, Jessie Garon.

Standing here now, about as close to Elvis Presley as I’m ever likely to get, is an undeniably disquieting experience. I didn’t expect to feel this way. I couldn’t quite anticipate how I’d feel. But yes, he reaches out and touches me…

The ‘Girl Of My Best Friend’ section published in:
‘R2: ROCK ‘N’ REEL’ (Vol.2 Issue 41 – September 2013)

Live In Nashville: VINCE GILL at the 'Grand Ole Opry'

Gig Review of: 
at ‘The Grand Ole Opry’, Nashville 

It’s Vince Gill they aspire to. Those scuffing on the street-corners of Nashville’s Broadway, setting up their equipment and hefting their battered guitars, busking their new songs at folks checking out the bars and the boot stores. It’s Vince Gill in his big Stetson and his confident stage presence here at the Opry that they want to be. Since he first surfaced with Pure Prairie League in the 1970’s he’s done everything that Alt. Americana is supposed to do, done the collaborations, the albums, the divorce. He’s a big solid guy who reaches out and fills the venue with his easy personality, the regular strengths that also contain the vulnerable sensitivities that the genre wallows in. He opens with “Take Your Memory With You When You Go”, the hit from his 1991 ‘Pocket Of Gold’ album. With its sighing steel guitars and an irresistibly sing-along chorus tinged with regret, it’s made up of just about every classic ingredient a country song should have. Then, slowing it down with “Look At Us” – from the same album, she’s still pretty as a picture, he’s still crazy over her, it gets an immediate roar of recognition. He talks about anniversaries and ‘the miracle of long-term love.’ Who could resist? Here is all the narrative, the reassuring certainty, the confirmation of traditional values the audience craves. In times of uncertainty and shifting definitions, in a hundred years from now, he asserts without a doubt, heterosexual monogamy will still stand. He dedicates the song to Charlie Daniels. Tommy White, a legend in his own right, plays steel guitar. Tommy was one of the Band Of Brothers who played on Vince’s “Whenever You Come Around” when Willie Nelson recorded it. Then Vince talks about George Hamilton IV, who recently passed. The ‘Grand Ole Opry’ respects its precedents, its traditions, its heroes. He closes with “Go To Him”. While on the street-corners of Nashville’s Broadway, they all aspire to be Vince Gill.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Elvis Presley "That's All Right" at 'Sun Studios'



My feet hit the sidewalk. Outside 706 Union Avenue, Memphis.

It was here – ‘Memphis Recording Service’, on the evening of Monday, 5 July 1954 that time began. This was the primal big-bang moment when everything came together, and the second half of the twentieth century was ignited. Before this, there was nothing. This was a day without a yesterday. There was no such thing as a Golden Oldie, a Revive Forty-Five or a Blast From The Past. So gather round all ye Trendies, Groovers, Popstrels, Homies, With-It Birds and Turned-On Guys, ye Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger-Poppin Daddy-O’s, or whatever this week’s buzz-word is for the young and stylish. Because this tale’s been told and retold so many multiple times detracts nothing. Greasy young Elvis, just nineteen, fooling around with an Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup song he’d memorised from black radio station WDIA – “That’s All Right”, Bill Black catching it and adding slap-slap thump-thump upright bass, then Scotty Moore strumming in on guitar. No drums. No overdubs. No edits. Elvis is more raw, tighter, less smooth than the original. He omits a verse, elides other lines together. Alters the dynamics, steps up the tempo. Of the song, and of the temporal continuum itself…

There’s a couple of rejected takes with false starts that emerge years later. A live version done on the ‘Louisiana Hayride’. ‘Momma she dun tole me, Poppa dun tole me too, son that gal you’re foolin’ with she ain’t no good for you.’ It’s still spine-tingling. It’s still alien. Like nothing else, before or since. Caught live in one-take on one-track machine it became Sun 209, a record that changed history. It didn’t invent Rock ‘n’ Roll. Academic debate goes on about that. Most nods go to Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” under the guise of Jackie Brenston. Also cut here. But Elvis brought all the elements together into the most perfect fusion, and he took it global. Everything that followed, led on from this singular 1:58-minute primordial atom moment. This is the moment that time began…

Freeze that day. Slip it under the chronoscope for close analysis. It was a strangely different planet, barely recognisable from the one we inhabit today. But some of us were part of it. Some of us were there. I was six years old, in short trousers, living with my mother and half-brother in Dunswell in the East Riding of Yorkshire, off the main road between Beverley and Hull. More concerned about starting the village school, having transferred from North Hull Infants, fleeing domestic violence from a Seventh Avenue council house. Naturally, at the time, I knew nothing about Sun Studios. No-one did.

The ‘New Musical Express’ record chart for that week (3 July 1954) was made up of big clunky easily-breakable 78rpm singles. The Hit Parade best-sellers were headed by the quasi-operatic warbling of Hull-born David Whitfield’s “Cara Mia”, recorded with Mantovani’s cascading strings. It made him the first UK male vocalist to qualify for Gold Disc status. Doris Day was no.2 with “Secret Love” – from her comic-Western musical ‘Calamity Jane’, followed by Johnny Ray’s “Such A Night”, which Elvis himself would later revive for his 1960 ‘Elvis Is Back’ LP. Crooner Perry Como had two titles in the ten – “Idle Gossip” at no.4 and “Wanted” at no.7. While Kitty Kallen’s “Little Things Mean A Lot” was not only the highest entry at no.5, but simultaneously topped the American record sales, radio plays and jukebox charts across the Atlantic. Mellow, sentimental, unthreatening, radio stars were also prominently featured, with both Max Bygraves and the Billy Cotton Band present. It was a staid somnambulistic chart.

For it was a soporific time. Barely nine years after the cessation of global war, with the visible reminder there in every city bombsite. Those who’d lived through the war-years – our parents, had had enough of excitement, uncertainty, anger. It was as though the world was tired, emotionally drained, retreating into itself to lick its wounds. Rationing finally ended only this month. Following the revolutionary post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee, a seriously ailing Winston Churchill was returned as Prime Minister. This month his government published plans for civil defence in the event of H-bomb attack, as they simultaneously announce British troops are to be pulled out of their Suez Canal base. Germany won the World Cup in a final against Hungary. And Jaroslav Drobny, a thirty-two year-old Czech with Egyptian nationality, won the singles title at Wimbledon against Australia’s Ken Rosewall.

The day’s BBC radio Light Programme broadcasts began with Bob Danvers Walker introducing ‘Housewives Choice’, followed – after the religious ‘Five To Ten’ hymn and prayer slot, by Andrew Fenner at the BBC theatre organ, then ‘Music While You Work’ with the Hugh James Orchestra. In the evening there was twenty-minutes of ‘British Jazz’ by the Tony Kinsey Trio, which was about as hip as it got. The fourth series of ‘The Goon Show’ had ended a month earlier – 11 June, with a ‘Special’ “Archie In Goonland” in which the regular crew were joined by radio ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy ‘Archie Andrews’, plus Hattie Jacques, all scripted by Eric Sykes and Spike Milligan. The second series of ‘Meet The Huggetts’ – a cosy radio sit-com with Jack Warner, Kathleen Harrison and Kenneth Connor, had begun in May, overshadowed by the real-life suicide of daughter Joan Dowling, replaced on air by Vera Day.

There was one monochrome TV channel, the day’s programming dominated by the second Test Match from Trent Bridge with England v Pakistan. At 5pm Children’s Television featured ‘Little Ig’ the adventures of a prehistoric boy, followed by the evening’s highlight – ‘The Royal’, a visit to the Great Park at Windsor for a preview of the ‘world’s greatest agricultural show’. This day Richard Baker also fronted Britain’s first TV ‘illustrated summary of the news’ – at 7:30pm, a bulletin broadcast live from the faded Victorian Alexandra Palace on the heights of Muswell Hill. There are tales of housewives refusing to sit down and watch him before primping their hair and make-up first.

Other forms of fantasy escapism could be found crammed onto the overflowing newsagent’s counter. ‘Dan Dare: Prisoners Of Space’ was splashed in vivid colour across the front of ‘Eagle’ – with Steve Valiant, Flamer Spry and Groupie investigating the radio silence of Space Station XQY. This week’s cover sensationally reveals that Flamer – seen on Dare’s screen, is imprisoned by ‘Red Gauntlets Over Green Hands! They Can Mean Only One Thing!’ Yes – ‘The Mekon’s Shock Troops! But How…?’ Read on to discover that the Space Station has fallen foul of the Mekon and his loyal Treen followers. The issue – priced at just fourpence-halfpenny, also includes a photo-spread of Racing Driver Stirling Moss, who had just driven to victory in the first motor race to be held at the new Liverpool Aintree track. While rival space-hero ‘Captain Condor & The Spaceship Spy’ – striking back at the Dictator tyrant of Earth in the year 3000AD, was on the front of ‘Lion’. I was still too young for both. ‘Mickey The Monkey’ was ‘The Topper’ cover-star, ‘Biffo The Bear’ on ‘The Beano’, and ‘Korky The Cat’ over at ‘The Dandy’.

For more adult futures, the dramatic and eye-catching Gerard Quinn cover of ‘New Worlds’ (no.25, July 1954), features a space-suited figure scrabbling among moon rocks with the full splendour of ringed Saturn above. Back then, even the solar system was different. Check out the astronomy books in the local library and it tells you Saturn has just nine moons. They are faint vastly distant objects about which little is known. Following by-pass and orbital probes we now count sixty-two moons, and have dazzling psychedelic photo-mosaics of their exotic surfaces. The magazine issue features fiction by Robert Sheckley, plus British writers ER James, Francis G Rayer and a James White novelette “Starvation Orbit”. From the same Nova Publications stable ‘Science Fantasy’ (no.9, July 1954) features Brian W Aldiss (“Criminal Record”) and EC Tubb (“Occupational Hazard”) plus tales by A Bertram Chandler and JT McIntosh. Elsewhere ‘Authentic Science Fiction Monthly’ (no.47, July 1954) features fiction by Kenneth Bulmer – under the alias ‘Peter Green’, while the Book column reviews Arthur C Clarke’s ‘Childhood’s End’, Ray Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and Robert Heinlein’s ‘The Green Hills Of Earth’. Surely a classic batch of new titles? But Science Fiction wouldn’t hit me for a number of years yet.

Elvis also hit me a few years later, although I quickly rewound backwards to his Sun Records catalogue, collected onto his March 1959 RCA LP ‘Elvis’ (RD 27120). For me, this now became the moment the universe sprang spontaneously into being. Nothing before it was of any consequence. Despite its incoherence, it made sense of my confusions, and articulated my dumb insolence. If he’d been a weird misfit of a kid, that was fine, because so was I. Once I grew into my late-teens and began reading up on jazz and listening to early Blues my perception expanded somewhat. But for now, this black vinyl, this is all that matters…

Sixty years later. My feet hit the sidewalk. It’s sultry-hot outside 706 Union Avenue, Memphis. The street-sign outside now says ‘Sam Philips Avenue’, on the corner of Marshall. There’s a huge white guitar suspended above the green awnings. ‘706’ picked out in black-on-red coloured glass, with a yellow fan around it, above the entrance door. It’s difficult to believe I’m actually here. Here, tell yourself – HERE, is where it happened. This small studio. This very space. You step off the street, through the door, into the hit of coffee. What was once the front office is now given over to merchandising. Yellow ‘Sun’-logo T-shirts, key-fobs and mugs. But this was where Marion Keisker sat, greeting potential artists who walk in seeking recording opportunities.

‘WE RECORD ANYTHING, ANYWHERE, ANYTIME’. This was where she joshed with a nervous awkward teen-Elvis. What kind of singer are you? ‘I sing all kinds.’ Who do you sound like? ‘I don’t sound like nobody.’ It’s only a year since his photo was plastered into the June 1953 ‘LC Humes High School’ Yearbook. But by then he’d quit school for hauling as a truck-driver with ‘Crown Electric Company’, 655 Marshall Avenue, within walking distance of here. Hear the echo-voices trapped into the soundproofing. There are posters and concert-bills of Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Roy Orbison. Someone points at a black-and-white photo of Rufus Thomas and asks ‘who’s that…?’

Step up into the small white box-studio. A big photo of the ‘Million-Dollar Quartet’ on the wall, from a few years later. Elvis was signed to RCA Victor by then, but he was always loyal to those who’d helped him. He called in at the studio, where Carl Perkins happened to be cutting “Matchbox” (later picked up by the Beatles for a Ringo feature-item). Jerry Lee Lewis was pumping piano as session-player. Johnny Cash also called round. They jam together. Engineer Jack Clement keeps the tape running. A ‘Memphis Press-Scimitar’ photographer takes this photo. Elvis sits at the piano, looking up over his shoulder at Carl Perkins. As the bright tour-guide in tattoos, green hair and 1950’s-style flared miniskirt narrates, Elvis’ girlfriend Marilyn Evans was sitting on the piano. She was cropped off the photo, but follow Jerry Lee’s eyes to indicate her points of anatomical interest. The guide plays a clip of studio banter from the session, Elvis is telling them how he caught a Jackie Wilson set at Las Vegas, and how Jackie’s version of “Don’t Be Cruel” ‘got much better, boy, much better than that record of mine… I went back four nights straight and heard that guy do that…’ When you see Elvis doing “Return To Sender” in the ‘Girls! Girls! Girls!’ (1962) movie, rumour has it he’s doing Jackie Wilson’s dance moves. Here, now, Elvis’ voice sounds hauntingly natural, conversational. Turn your back, he might be there.

There’s a big 1950’s microphone we’re invited to pose for photos with. There’s also a photo of U2, also in atmospheric monochrome. They were here to record “Angel Of Harlem” and “When Love Comes To Town” for ‘Rattle And Hum’ (1988), as a respectful homage to their Rock ‘n’ Roll roots. Stand on this spot, marked on the floor with a black ‘X’. This is where Elvis stood. How can they know…? How can they be sure? Well, he certainly spent some considerable time here. He cut twenty-four tracks here. Both sides of his first five singles. “Mystery Train”, “I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine”, “I Forgot To Remember To Forget”. And “Milkcow Blues Boogie” where he stops in mid-verse, to slur ‘hold it fellahs, that don’ MOVE me, let’s get real real gone for a change.’ Sleepy John Estes wrote it. Robert Johnson, a Rockabilly Ricky Nelson and a sinuous Eddie Cochran do versions. But it never ever sounds like it does when Elvis ups the tempo and gets real real GONE! There’s also “Baby Let’s Play House” – ‘you may go to college, you may go to school, you may have a pink Cadillac, but don’t you be nobody’s fool.’ And yes, Elvis would get his pink Cadillac. More tracks filtered out over the subsequent years. So chances are that yes, he did step here, at one time or another. Feel the frisson? Feel the magic? Sense the drip of sweat.

There’s a mock-up of the WHBQ radio studio from where DJ Dewey Phillips gave that debut Elvis single its first-ever pre-release radio-play on his ‘Red Hot And Blue’ show, 7 July. There’s one big turntable, and the sharp-shard pieces of a shattered 78rpm record on the desk-side floor. If he didn’t like a record, Dewey’d smash it on air. But response was so good he plays “That’s All Right” fourteen times, while Elvis hides out in the local movie theatre, scared and uncertain, fearing the reaction radio-play would bring. He was tracked down, and dragged into the studio. Answered some fairly bland questions in his usual respectful self-effacing manner, unaware that he was being interviewed live. The style? He’d just ‘stumbled upon it’ as he later divulged to the ‘Louisiana Hayride’ host Frank Page. He was always loyal to those who’d helped him. During the filming of his third movie, ‘Jailhouse Rock’ (1957), Elvis flies Dewey Phillips out to Hollywood for a couple of days to spend time on the MGM set.

Some time – and an eternity later, Elvis announces “That’s All Right Little Mama” in the sit-down section of his 1968 NBC-TV special, with Scotty Moore’s guitar, and still rips it up convincingly.

Stepping back outside onto the Memphis sidewalk, directly across the street, above a Domino’s Pizza take-away, there’s a big billboard announcing ‘Visit Graceland, Only 10 Minutes Away’… For Elvis it was still a little more than ten minutes. But he was on his way.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Music Interview: THE CASSANDRA COMPLEX Leeds, 1988


This interview with CASSANDRA COMPLEX took place in 
1988. Some of the ideas, and some of the technology has been 
overtaken by events. The energy, the attitude, and the spirit, has not…

‘Contact Music’, Briggate, Leeds. ‘Surplus Music’, Boar Lane, Leeds.

Rodney looks wistfully through the plate-glass at West Yorkshire’s premier Music Marts. ‘When we had no money, we’d look in here longing to own all the gear we couldn’t afford. Now we’re bankable and there’s nothing here I actually want to buy!’ THIS from the guy who yells onstage ‘if we could AFFORD two guitars, we’d HAVE two guitars!’ (dialogue on ‘Feel The Width’).

Rodney Orpheus is voice, oracle, and programming with Cassandra Complex whose fourth album – ‘Theomania’, is a solitary cat in a street of its own. Audible sound operates from twenty to 20,000 vibrations per second. The number of vibrations per second is called frequency. Presumably ‘Theomania’ operates within such limitations, it just makes it sound like more. CX – his preferred abbreviation, are a band on the knife-edge of now, with a bias into tomorrow, and a reputation for a teasingly good up-chat line… on the ‘eat drink and party ‘cos tomorrow we may be obsolete’ principle. A Complex simplicity – a cat among the pigeons.

Sometimes Rodney comes on all fast-talking technocrat, then he’s mass-market conman. Now he’s a fusion of the many. So I attempt to hack into some controversial copy. We talk ‘Game Theory’ and George Orwell. We talk paranoia and ‘Star Trek’. I ask was it Pete Wylie who said ‘there’s never been a Jimi Hendrix for the synthesiser?’ There’s never been someone who took the synth and extended it out to – and beyond, the limits of its capability. Rodney’s is an instant non-flexible response – ‘yes there is, Tomita. He was one of the first synth players, but listen to the sounds and the textures of his stuff, the way he puts his things together. He IS the Hendrix of the synthesiser world. No way around it. His album of Ravel pieces is incredible (‘The Ravel Album’, 1979). Jean-Michel Jarre is basically very overblown – big layers of sound. Whereas Tomita is completely the opposite. He’s deconstructivist. He’s…’

Minimalist? I suggest. ‘In a sense. Closer to people like Ravel or Debussy who painted sound pictures.’

Pointilistic? I persist. ‘Perhaps. But taking that process further. He replaces entire orchestral sections with a single synth sound. He just places that sound for a few seconds – then leaves it, complete, a statement in itself…’

I’d not expected Tomita. Suicide perhaps. Or Giorgio Moroder. Even electro-industrial circa Throbbing Gristle or Cabaret Voltaire. The second CX album – ‘Hello America’, is a stylistic kleptomania of such names, a refinement of aggression carried out with surgical efficiency, and an eye to product placement. A compilation culled from CX’s first eighteen months of recording it includes the self-financed debut single, “March” – a trial balloon feeler for Rodney’s multinational schizo-geographic ambitions, followed by “Moscow Idaho” (‘it’s a real place, I’ve never been there. I can’t wait to go!’), and “Datakill” – both major European hits. And there’s more, a collection of some of the most stimulating sounds these ears have come across in a singularly l-o-n-g barren time-span, and all the more valuable because of it.

But depressingly, English reviewers and record-buyers at large still fight shy of CX. Perhaps because of words like ‘programming’ which tend to crop up with some regularity on their sleeves? Is it a form of technophobia, part and parcel of the problematic concept of ‘personalising’ electronics? ‘Y-e-a-h’ concedes Rodney. ‘It’s definitely an obstacle. You can personalise guitars, but it can be difficult to differentiate between drum machines. You can tell the difference in the style of programming, but the essential sound is going to be the same. I can tell every time I listen to a record these days, which drum machine they’re using, ninety-nine percent of the audience isn’t going to have the foggiest idea of the difference between a 707 or an 808. But any musician’s gonna pick it out immediately. But things are changing. As equipment becomes more advanced, and cheaper, there’s a greater diversity of style. You can BUY greater versatility for your money…’ For the record, CX use ‘a TR707 drum machine, which is really’ – snaps fingers – ‘excellent. Very simple to use. Totally IDIOT-proof because it’s step-time programming, and we’re crap at doing anything that involves mechanical skill.’

In Rodney’s game-plan – rather than being an elitist thing envisaged by technophobic reviewers and record-buyers, electronics technology provides ‘the ultimate Punk instruments, absolutely. You can buy yourself one of those little Casio samplers for £99 – and make a record with it, easily. You can’t get a decent GUITAR for £99. It’s like the old Akai F6-12 sampler, they’re only £400 now. And ease of use is one of the best criteria for buying an instrument. It SHOULD be easy to use. For some reason, when you read reviews of instruments, they very rarely take that into account. It’s a pain in the ass to have to sit down and read through a fifty-page manual and press sixteen buttons, when what you want – to create a piece of music, is to just go BANG, and DO IT! We’ve used the Akai F6-12 because it’s ridiculously cheap, ridiculously brilliant, and ridiculously easy to use. Any moron can make a good sample and play it in five minutes. The instrument manual is four pages long! – which, for a piece of modern electronic equipment, is unbelievable. It’s easier to operate than a cassette deck.’

Is this what CX mean by Datakill? – stay tuned! ‘But you want flexibility as well, which is another reason why we use all these things. They ARE flexible. We use a lot of little Casio keyboards, just normal small £90 ones. We run them through fuzzboxes and all kinds of effects pedals so they sound incredible. Those cheap Casio’s have got an ATTACK and drive that you just can’t get on anything else. We always have a couple of those. On tour we carry two or three and just throw them around the stage. They’re so cheap it doesn’t matter if you bash them, you can beat the crap out of them…’

So does this instant access aspect of techno make musicianship less important, as some insensitive folk suggest? ‘Of course it’s important’ he snaps back. ‘A lot of people would think that sounds insulting! It’s bloody stupid to say that musicianship isn’t important. In the same sense that if you want to be a good plumber you’ve got to know what size pipes to use. If you want to be a good carpenter you’ve got to know the difference between one bit of wood and another. You can be a naturally gifted carpenter, and be able to knock up chairs and tables – but you’ll be an even BETTER carpenter if you know the best sort of wood, the best sort of glue, the best sort of nails to use. And if you want to make good MUSIC, the important thing is the creativity, the idea. But those ideas aren’t very much use if you don’t have some conception of how to manifest them into a material form. People can’t listen to ideas. They can only listen to the product.’

So let’s listen to the product…

--- 0 --- 
‘You know what an orgone is? An orgone is a unit of energy 
produced during extreme sexual excitement. 
You know that? Well, you know NOW!’ 
                         (dialogue on ‘Feed The Width’

‘Feel The Width’ – their third album, is four sides and ninety minutes of electronic violence, hi-NRG that breaks the groove-barrier in a track-by-track series of neon-lit synth-fizzy tail-fin flashes. If music is the spice of life – this is a Madras! CX toured Europe with Severed Heads. They shift a lot of sales units there which tend to receipt in Euro-currencies. On the tour that spawned the album, Cassandra Complex was Belfast-born Rodney, with journalist co-founder Andy Booth (guitar, keyboards, voice and programming), and John Marchini (sax, bass, percussion), augmented by ‘Surfin’ Jez Willis (later of Utah Saints) and Keith Langley. ‘Feel The Width’ – ‘a LIVE double-album’ he drools, ‘Hey, ROCK ‘N’ RAAAAWLLL!’, with more than a hint of gleeful derision.

And now it’s ‘Theomania’, new titles like “One-Millionth Happy Customer”, “Oz”, “God John”, “Too Stupid To Sin”, and more…

But we’ve crossed the city centre pedestrian precincts to cruise a Fantasy Games store, ‘Dungeons & Dragons’, Interactives, ‘Paranoia’ box-sets, ‘Star Trek’. Rodney is a fan. The ‘Theomania’ sleeve shows him over a back-projection Starship Enterprise. But then – to Rodney, the shift from Music Mart to Gameplay Theory is not a great one. CX played downbill to ace Game Theorists Sigue Sigue Sputnik (‘loved Tony James, didn’t rate Martin Degville’) at their legendary Abbey Road Studio gig. Which made CX the first band to play live there since the Fabs twenty years ago today.

But let’s play games – the BIG games. Life and death, meaning and the nature of reality. ‘Theomania’ means ‘the conviction that you are god.’ So I confront the god-like genius of Rodney Orpheus with the philosophical games of perception raised by such a condition, of what is and what is not true, whether or not there is an objective truth to measure your god-like qualities against. He’s admirably unphased. ‘There’s a consensus on that constitutes ‘truth’’ he banters. ‘There is such a thing as ‘Consensus Reality’. Reality is either a totally individual subjective thing – or it’s a consensus of individual perceptions. There’s no answer beyond that.’ THIS, from a guy who sings ‘well, fuck you asshole’ and ‘fuck this life, give me a Kalashnikov’ (on “Oz”).

Surely ‘theomania’, like ‘conspiracy theory’, is just a form of paranoia? A delusion that everything that happens is the result of some vast scheme, whether controlled by a deity or by some hidden power-group – CIA, Masonic Lodges, MI5, the Jesuits? ‘Yes. The big attraction of Conspiracy Theory is that it makes you realise you are important. Imagine a guy who’s on the dole. He sits watching TV every night, nothing else to do, nothing to think, no-one gives a shit about him. But… then he discovers Conspiracy Theory, and finds out that EVERYBODY – Police, Masons, Science Fiction fans, EVERYBODY, is part of one giant plot to GET HIM!!! So he’s got to be incredibly important. It makes him aware that he’s at the centre of this huge web of international intrigue, all designed to place him exactly where he is… on the dole, in his front room, watching TV.’

Personally I tend towards the fuck-up accidental theory of history. The one that says that no oganisation, deity, or bureaucracy is efficient enough to organise anything. No-one knows what the hell’s going on. That’s also quite reassuring in a way. ‘Someone said that when you look back over human history, and you realise the horrendous things that people have done to each other, and to the environment, through the centuries, it gives you real hope. Because if the human race can be this STUPID and yet have survived this long, we should be able to muddle through just about anything.’

He indicates a box-set game on the display. ‘You definitely should play ‘Paranoia’ – it’ll certainly open your eyes to all this. It’s the ULTIMATE bureaucratic nightmare…’

--- 0 --- 
‘People who don’t get 
computer literate in the 
 next few years are going 
to be in trouble…’ 
 (Rodney Orpheus in 
‘Melody Maker’, 23 July 1988) 

Cassandra Complex began in Leeds, Yorkshire, with two albums – ‘Grenade’ and ‘Hello America’ issued through the local Rouska label. Then, just when you’d got your breath back, there was the multinational switch to living in Aachen and signing to Belgium’s Play It Again Sam for ‘Feel The Width’ and ‘Theomania’. They were recorded on videotape through a Sony PCM digital mastering system, which sounds hi-tech, but ain’t. ‘There’s this absurd notion that somehow the more technological you become, the less ‘live’ you are, the less raw, which is completely the opposite of what’s true’ he begins.

More Cassandra Complexities follow, stay tuned! ‘If you use low-grade technology you get massive signal degradation creeping in. Sometimes that can be nice. Distortion can be very useful. You take Holger Czukay’s thing where he just uses a really poor-quality Dictaphone, and the signal degradation becomes part of the music. But that’s an effect rather than a universal usage. In normal multi-track recording, every time you transfer from tape to tape you get some degradation, then when you go to normal quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape you automatically lose some of the power of your drums, you get surface-hiss building up, all sorts of shit. But you don’t HAVE TO do it that way.

‘You can record digitally using Sony PCM converter and videotape! Same quality as CD more or less, better dynamics, no tape hiss. For some reason it’s not a very well-known technique with the average punter, but it’s quite common among electronic musicians. What you do is – you don’t record the drums, the samples or sequencers on multi-track tape at all, you just record a time code. Then you programme the drums and all the keyboards etc through a midi into the computer, just directly into the desk. Then, when you do your mixdown, you’ve got your voice and guitars and stuff coming off multi-track, sure – but you’ve got EVERYTHING ELSE coming off time-code on ONE TRACK. So you can record thirty tracks of music off an eight-track tape machine – which makes it very very cheap and handy to use.’

A pause for breath. ‘It means that when you cut the record, your drums are literally LIVE – because the digital samples go direct to digital videotape that’s going direct to disc, so what you hear on record is EXACTLY what went into the desk…’

So what of the future, Rodney? His is an instant non-flexible response. ‘Do you remember a BBC2 TV Science Fiction series from many years back called ‘1990’, with Edward Woodward (two series: 18 September 1977 – 10 April 1978)? Funny – nobody ever saw it. I saw it. It wasn’t Ray Guns and starships SF. It was just a prediction of what Britain might be like in the year 1990 – a totalitarian state that had evolved that way through complete stumbling inefficiency, rather than any sort of Big Brother bullshit. I thought ‘1984’ was a piece of crap. George Orwell was a HORRIBLE writer who should never have been allowed anywhere near Science Fiction. But ‘1990’ was fascinating, with Edward Woodward at his most brilliant. But for some reason it just got completely and utterly ignored by everybody…’

Rodney Orpheus is a Complex character. According to ‘Melody Maker’ he’s a ‘sort of cross between Pete Burns, Muriel Gray, and a hippie’ (23 May 1987). But his game-play theory of DIY recording sounds like a far more viable vision of 1990 than anything conjured up by BBC2, with or without Edward Woodward!

Cassandra Complex is a band on the knife-edge of now, with a bias into tomorrow. A solitary cat in a street of its own.

Image, charisma, distinction – call it what you will, CX got it. You’d be unwise to miss it.


March 1985 – “March” c/w “Pickup (Live) + “Hcoma” (Complex RAP CXD001) 12” single, with Rodney Orpheus, Paul Dillon and Andy Booth

April 1985 – ‘LIVE IN LEATHER’ (Complex) live cassette-only release

October 1985 – “Moscow Idaho” c/w “Beyond Belief + “David Venus” (Rouska Come 2T) 12” single

October 1985 – ‘RAGING SUN’ (Rouska RANT 01) label compilation includes Cassandra Complex track ‘Fragile’

August 1986 – “Datakill” c/w “Wintry Weather Song” + “Three Cities” (Rouska Come 5T) with John Marchini replacing Paul Dillon

September 1986 – ‘GRENADE’ (Rouska CXRA 01) features eight tracks, including ‘Wonderworld’, ‘Prairie Bitch’, ‘Motherad’, ‘Report From The Back’. In the German Indie Top Ten for eight months. Credited to Rodney Orpheus (voice, programming) and Andy Booth (guitar, keyboards, voice, programming) with ‘Surfin’ Jez Willis (later of Utah Saints, bass and keyboards), John Marchini (saxophone, bas guitar) and Keith Langley (acoustic and electronic percussion, voice)

May 1987 – ‘ZARAH LEANDER’S GREATEST HITS’ (Rouska Concord 18CD) fifteen-track 64-minute CD-only label compilation featuring ‘Beyond Belief’, ‘Datakill’, ‘Clouds’ and ‘Power’ plus material by other bands

September 1987 – ‘HELLO AMERICA’ (Rouska CXRA 002), compilation made up of Come 2T, Come 5T and ‘Raging Sun’, plus so-far unreleased ‘Clouds’, described as ‘glacial peaks and boiling troughs’ by ‘Melody Maker’ (5 December 1987)

September 1987 – ‘FEEL THE WIDTH’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 68) recorded ‘on cassette by Hubert’, including ‘Clouds’, ‘Wonderworld’, ‘Power’, ‘Prairie Rose’, ‘March’, ‘Moscow Idaho’, ‘Ghost Rider (old Vega-Rev’s number), ‘Something Came Over Me’ (Throbbing Gristle cover) and more. ‘Underground no.7’ magazine said ‘a monstrous din… like banging your head against a wall of speakers’

October 1987 – “Kill Your Children” c/w “Something Came Over Me” + “Angels In The Sky” (Play It Again Sam BIAS 64) ‘Melody Maker’ says ‘it closes in upon your imagination as unsettling as it is ridiculously pretty. To ignore it would be unpardonable’ (3 October 1987)

June 1988 – ‘THEOMANIA’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 88), eight new tracks spread across Side.0 and Side.1, including ‘God John’, ‘Oz’, ‘Too Stupid To Sin’ and ‘Honeytrap’. ‘Melody Maker’ says it’s ‘clearly working on a pretty advanced level of irreverence’ (Dave Jennings, 18 June 1988). Marchini and Andy Booth leave, guitarist Volker Zacharias joins (from Girls Under Glass)

1988 – “Thirty Minutes Of Death” c/w “Gunship” + “Moment Before Impact” (Play It Again Sam BIAS 112)

1988 – “(In Search Of) Penny Century” (Play It Again Sam BIAS 136) with title and extended mix, plus ‘Beyond Belief (Revisited)’, ‘Something Came Over Me/ You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling (Medley)’ and ‘Oz’

1989 – ‘SATAN, BUGS BUNNY, AND ME…’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 118) seven tracks with ‘Kill The Christian Swine’, ‘Symphony For The Devil’, ‘City Of Dreams’, ‘What Can You Say?’ etc

1990 – “Finland” (Play It Again Sam BIAS 151) with ‘I Believe In Free Everything (Charlie Victor)’, ‘Let’s Go To Europe’, ‘What Turns You On?’, ‘Fire And Forget’ and ‘Forests’

1990 – ‘CYBERPUNX’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 148) twelve tracks including ‘Nice Work (If You Can Get It)’, ‘Let’s Go To Europe’, ‘Happy Days (War Is Here Again)’, ‘Jihad Girl’, ‘Sunshine At Midnight’ etc

1990 – “Nice Work” (Play It Again Sam BIAS 164) with ‘Mace Mix’ and Cellphone Mix’ plus ‘I Want You’ and ‘Sleeper’

1991 – “Gnostic Christmas”, free with limited edition ‘War Against Sleep’

1992 – ‘THE WAR AGAINST SLEEP’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 195) nine tracks including ‘Lullaby For The First Baby Born In Outer Space’, ‘Lakeside’, ‘What Can I Do For You?’, ‘Dr Adder’ etc

1992 – ‘BEYOND THE WALL OF SLEEP’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 230) live 2CD album with Rodney Orpheus’ tour diary from November 1991 to May 1992, includes ‘Angels In The Sky’, ‘Honeytrap’, ‘Datakill’, ‘Let’s Go To Europe’, ‘Dr Adder’, ‘She Loves Me’ etc

1993 – ‘SEX AND DEATH’ (Play It Again Sam BIAS 255) thirteen tracks with ‘Kneel To The Boss’, ‘Mouth Of Heaven’, ‘The War Against Sleep’, ‘Come Out’, ‘Satisfy Me’ plus John Cage ‘4:33’. With Rodney Orpheus, Volker Zacharias, Jurgen Jansen, Robert Wilcocks, Andy Booth

1994 – “Give Me What I Need” (Play It Again Sam BIAS 258) maxi-single with ‘Looking Good Mix’, ‘Original Mix’, ‘Looking Bad Mix’ plus ‘You Still Make Me Sick’. Also 12” single c/w ‘Mouth Of Heaven’

1995 – ‘WORK 1.0’ (Play It Again Sam) compilation

2000 – “Twice As Good” (Synthetic Symphony SPV) with ‘Apop Sexy Disco Mix’, ‘Genytal Mix’, ‘Wetware Mix’ plus ‘Nothing Personal’

2000 – ‘WETWARE’ (Metropolis MET 182) with ‘Twice As Good (Apop)’, ‘Dion Fortune’, ‘Valis’, ‘My Possession’, ‘Blood Vessel’ etc

2012 – ‘LOOTING THE DUNGEON’ (Nimbit/ self-released MP3) with remastered ‘Fragile’, ‘Clouds’ and ‘Ghost Rider’

August 2013 – ‘ALL THE THINGS I’VE ALWAYS WANTED’ (Nimbit/ self-released download-only) with Rodney Orpheus (vocals), Volker Zacharias (guitar, bass), Andy Booth (guitar, keyboards), Axel Ermes (keyboards, vocoder), twenty-four tracks including ‘Gunship’, ‘One Millionth Happy Customer’, ‘Kneel To The Boss’, ‘Too Stupid To Sin’, ‘Moscow Idaho”, ‘Motherad’, ‘Datakill’ etc

‘EIGHT MILES HIGHER’ enthusiastically recommends ‘THE BLACK BOOK (THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF RICHARD ROUSKA)’ by CAPTAIN SWING… which revisits, re-invigorates and disembowels the full secret histories of Leeds Indie scene from the insider perspective…

Monday 27 October 2014



An alien structure on the Moon, 
which kills people. Is there more to 
ALGIS BUDRYS’ classic SF novel 
  ‘ROGUE MOON’ than that…? 
Maybe something to do with a 
metaphor for death and resurrection…? 
 Andrew Darlington re-reads the novel to find out.

 ‘The old devil moon – a timeless symbol for the lover’s 
ecstasy, a vast frontier for the adventurer’s curiosity’ 

‘Now man had actually reached the moon – and on it the explorers found a structure, a formation so terrible and incomprehensible that it couldn’t even be described in human terms. It was a thing that devoured men – that killed them again and again in torturous, unfathomable ways.’ This is the luring blurb that seduced me into buying the 1960 Gold Medal Books edition of ‘Rogue Moon’. The Algis Budrys novel was considerably redrafted from its original form as “The Death Machine”, and as a serial in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’ (April and May 1961). Some critics claim the results are a pristine example of genre symbolism, exploring metaphysical aspects of death and resurrection. Originally, on that first teenage reading, I was simply hung on its inventive and gripping narrative set around the investigation of the lethal alien labyrinth. There’s no galaxy-spanning empires or hyperdrive starships. It’s subtler than that. But it’s more than either claim too.

There’s an enigma on the Moon, ‘we don’t even know what to call that place. The eye won’t follow it, and photographs convey only the most fragile impression. There is reason to suspect it exists in more than three spatial dimensions. Nobody knows what it is, why it’s located there, what its true purpose might be, or what created it. We don’t know whether it’s animal, vegetable, or mineral. We don’t know whether it’s somehow natural, or artificial. We know, from the geology of several meteorite craters that have heaped rubble against its sides, that it’s been there for, at the very least, a million years. And we know what it does now: it kills people.’

Inside, it is ‘Alice In Wonderland with teeth.’ Arthur C Clarke had already written a short story “The Sentinel” in 1948, which was collected into his ‘Expedition To Earth’ (Ballantine, 1953). It, too, deals with the discovery of an ancient alien structure, a many-faceted tetrahedron on the Moon’s Mare Crisium. A complete tale in itself, it nevertheless contains the seeds of the eventual movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968). It shares with ‘Rogue Moon’ a tendency to certain abstract preoccupations that could be deemed profound. But little more. Densely written – even overwritten, the Budrys novel is a well-structured narrative with greater psychological character interplay than the SF reader was used to at its time of publication. Yet it’s effortlessly readable.

‘Relationships between people are a complicated thing’ explains Dr Edward Hawks, Budrys’ protagonist in the novel. Although conversations are frequently less dialogue than lengthy chunks of monologue, an early chat-sequence delineates the complex bond, and sniping antagonisms that unite and contrast its characters. James Blish once suggested they’re all certifiably insane. Certainly they’re all rigidly set in tight behaviour patterns. Scientist Hawks is the cool calculating analyser. He’s an emotionally detached man who ‘sees the whole world as cause an’ effect. And the world’s consistent, explained that way, so why look for any further?’

While Al Barker, who becomes his test-subject probing into the lunar structure, is not only ‘a wonderful machine made out of gut and hickory wood,’ but also a deeply cynical and unpleasant person. Descended from Mimbreño Apache grandparents, but Ivy League educated, he’s an alpha-male keyed with macho attitude. The interactive character-chemistry between the two is vital to an unusual degree in what Budrys once termed the ‘pocket universe’ of SF. It’s essential for the plot that Barker has certain qualities – his ‘neurotic personality constellation’ makes him ‘useful on a functional level.’ More than simply courage. But that death, or at least the threat of death, holds an attraction for him. He is ‘a new kind of man’, a man impassioned by death. Hawks sums the equation defining himself and Barker as ‘you’re a suicide, I’m a murderer.’

Vincent ‘Connie’ Conningham is the personnel man who brings them together. He’s a manipulator who sets up human confrontations as though they’re moves in a chess-game, while seeking out exploitable weakness. He knows people ‘like a chemist knows valences. Like a physicist knows particle charges. Positive, negative. Atomic weight, ‘tomic number. Attract, repel, I mix ‘em.’ He takes ‘a raw handful of people’ and ‘make isotopes out of it – I make solvents, reagents – an’ I can make ‘splovices too, when I want.’ While Claire Pack provides the unstable ingredient triangulating them. She’s an ‘elemental – the rise of the tides, the coming of the seasons, an eclipse of the Sun.’ She may ‘walk in beauty, like the night,’ but she’s also a predator taunting and teasing, using sexual attraction not only to test men’s limits, but to reinforce her own self-image. She remains with Barker – as a warrior’s woman, by right of conquest. With Claire ‘forewarned is not forearmed.’ While the four of them are all warily probing and testing each other, gauging vulnerabilities.

Detail is meticulous. Chapter two consists of an encounter in a rundown general store gas station as Hawks walks back towards the city from Barker’s remote and inaccessible property. With the observational precision of a mainstream novel, each facet is related, from the empty store, to Hawks’ indecision. He opens up the cooler’s lid ‘looking down at the bottles inside. They were all some local brand, bright orange and glassy red, up to their crowns in dirty water. Saturated paper labels had crawled up the sides of some of them. A chunk of ice, streamlined down to a piece like a giant rat’s head, bobbed in one corner, speckled through with the same kind of sediment that formed a scum on the bottles.’ Then there’s a girl who pulls in for gas, and the suspicious slob store-keeper who’d been ‘catchin’ forty winks’ out back. He appears and leers at the girl. So Hawks intervenes, to be rewarded with a lift back to Continental Electronics, and by a date with Elizabeth Cummings.

Such care, and forensic attention to the nuance of detail, matters. If the involved character interplay can occasionally take on Soap Opera aspects, this also gives the novel its authentic human spine. The way the complicated pressures acting on Hawks for success are delineated, balancing the results in terms of the cost in human victims, and in the termination of the project if it fails. Every aspect is elaborated. Hawks doesn’t simply walk across the carpet, he walks across the ‘bristly’ carpet. He doesn’t just step through the door, he ‘knocked once on the featureless mahogany sheet of Cobey’s door, opened it and went through.’ And when he sits down for an interview with Continental’s president, he does so ‘adjusting the crease in his trousers.’ Later, lights don’t come on, ‘the studio’s overhead fluorescents tittered into light.’

The protective suit Barker will wear to be beamed to the moon is wrought, as illustrated by Budrys’ extended metaphor, as the invincible suit of armour created by Merlin the Magician for Sir Galahad, which ‘will not fail, upon some field, against some lance unknown to your devising.’ The field will be the lunar surface. The lance unknown to his devising is the lethal alien structure he has yet to face…

--- 0 --- 
‘You thought then you’d already felt the surest death 
of all. You hadn’t. I have to do it once more’ 

Algirdas Jonas Budrys was born 9 January 1931, in Königsberg, a medieval city in what was then East Prussia, but which would be almost completely levelled by waves of Allied aerial bombing in 1944. Fortunately, in 1936 his family had moved to the USA where his father served as Consul General for the Lithuanian Government-in-Exile. To previous generations of Eastern European émigrés to America – including Isaac Asimov, the new world provoked enticing images of future wonders. Its possible New York had the same effect on young Budrys. ‘I often walked when I was a boy’ explains Hawks, in a passage that seems autobiographical. ‘I had many things to think about. I couldn’t understand the world, and I kept trying to discover the secret of living successfully in it. If I sat in a chair at home and thought, it worried my parents. There were times when they thought it was laziness, and times when they thought there was something wrong with me. I didn’t know what it was. If I went somewhere else, there were other people who had to be accounted to. So I walked to be alone with myself. I walked miles. And I couldn’t discover the secret of the world, or what was wrong with me. But I felt I was coming closer and closer.’

He briefly assisted his father, then worked for American Express before becoming Assistant Editor with ‘Galaxy Publications’ in 1953. He doubled for ‘Gnome Press’, then moved on to join ‘Playboy Press’ as book editor. Next, with Frederik Pohl acting as Literary Agent, his first two short stories were published simultaneously, with “The High Purpose” – illustrated by Pawelka, in ‘Astounding SF’, the same month as “Walk To The World” appeared in ‘Space Science Fiction’ (November 1952). His work continued appearing alongside those of Robert Sheckley and Philip K Dick, gathering a leading reputation as part of what Robert Silverberg calls ‘a rush of gifted newcomers,’ a 1950’s influx of SF writers bringing new literacy, mordancy and grace to a genre not previously known for such qualities. 

Three novelettes and four of his short tales were gathered into a first collection, ‘The Unexpected Dimension’ (Ballantine, 1960) – reviewed as ‘cerebral’ by Leslie Flood in ‘New Worlds’ (no.118, May 1962). Flood perceptively notes that, ‘often ambiguously conclusive, each of these stories utilises a familiar science fictional idea for its framework, but immediately penetrates to the deeper issues involved.’ An observation equally applicable to ‘Rogue Moon’. Flood adds that ‘a grimly ironic but highly logical twist’, extends ‘a vastly intriguing human (or in one case, robot) problem, subject to the stresses of violence and hatred, love and humanity, oppression and tyranny, freedom and justice.’ The robot story is “First To Serve” (‘Astounding SF’, May 1954) about the creation of a military robot superior to humans, which, it is ultimately decided, it too terrible to be allowed to exist. And “The End Of Summer” – from ‘Astounding SF’ (November 1954), which was also anthologised into the prestigious ‘Penguin Science Fiction’ (1961), where editor Brian Aldiss described it as a ‘brilliant account of one of the chief drawbacks to immortality.’ With radiation inducing cellular regeneration, memory-loss became a by-product of that regrowth, so that 1,000-year olds carry portable memory spools.

But the selection also indicates how well Budrys can use the technique of understated suggestion. “The Distant Sound Of Engines” takes up barely six pages, a tale originally featured in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’ (March 1959). Lenny, the narrator lies in a hospital bed. As a result of an auto accident his legs have been amputated. In the next bed, a heavily-bandaged burns victim, continually sedated, raves to him of impossible fantasies. Lenny once worked in a diner where he trained himself to memorise orders, then promptly forget them. He listens to the man’s formulas and theorems, and then erases them from his memory. It’s never explicitly stated that his companion is an alien survivor from a UFO-wreck, that the priceless data he’s attempting to transfer is being so casually discarded. No, Lenny is more concerned with planning out new driving routes across America. It’s a breathtakingly concise sleight of hand.

Around the same time, publishing his story “Yesterday’s Man” in the launch issue of ‘Science Fiction Adventures’ (March 1958) UK editor John Carnell notes that Budrys is ‘a paradoxical young man – as muscularly handsome as the hero of any science fiction story, but so quietly self-effacing that his hair-raisingly powerful writing style is a distinct surprise to many readers.’ Some of his other earlier stories, exhibiting these qualities – such as “The Congruent People” (in ‘Star Science Fiction no.2’, 1953) appeared as by AJ Budrys, while, in keeping with other writers of the time, he used numerous aliases, including Frank Mason, David C Hodgkins, Albert Stroud, Alger Rome (for his collaborations with Jerome Bixby), John A Sentry (an Anglicisation of his Lithuanian name), and William Scarff (used in ‘Tomorrow Speculative Fiction’). He was also both Ivan or Paul Janvier (for his ‘Gus’ stories), including the evolutionary theme of a lone esper telepath in “Nobody Bothers Gus” (1955) and its sequel “And Then She Found Him” (1957).

The latter was featured in a second collection, ‘Budrys’ Inferno’ (aka ‘The Furious Future’, Berkley, 1964 – reviewed in ‘Galaxy’ February 1965) alongside “Lower Than Angels” – ‘A Novel You’ll Remember’, previously cover-blurbed on ‘Infinity Science Fiction’ (no.5, October 1956) with a striking Emsh cover. While in “Dream Of Victory” (‘Amazing Stories’, August-September 1953) androids re-civilise the world after civilisation’s fall, only to find themselves usurped as humans struggle back, and “Between The Dark And The Daylight” (1958) which uses colonists genetically-engineered with tusks and claws to survive the rigours of a hostile world. Another story, “Silent Brother” (1956) – initially published as by Paul Janvier, deals with a benign alien symbiant. Michael Moorcock reviews the collection twice under his ‘James Colvin’ alias, reaching outside of what Budrys terms the ‘root-bound view of SF’ (in which SF writers are only compared to other SF writers) to write about “The Man Who Tasted Ashes”. He identifies ‘vague overtone of Graham Greene, with its central character a disgraced minor diplomat living in Washington who’s commissioned by an alien race to kill a foreign ambassador and start WW3.’ Moorcock declares it ‘perhaps the best story, with a good twist’ (in ‘New Worlds’ no 143, July-August 1964, a review of the Panther paperback follows in no.163, June 1966).

Never less than a prodigious talent and a master short story craftsman, his non-fiction work – erudite book reviews and authoritative essays are also highly regarded. He first contributed critical prose to Horace Gold’s ‘Galaxy’ from 1965-1971 (collected into ‘Galaxy Bookshelf’, 1985). One essay playfully draws comparisons between the work of his own aliases – Paul Janvier and John A Sentry, and ‘the mainstream’! (April 1965). The column later transferred to ‘Fantasy & Science Fiction’, collected into three Ansible Editions volumes, ‘Benchmarks Continued: 1979-1982’ (2012), ‘Benchmarks Revisited: 1983-1986’ and ‘Benchmark Concluded: 1987-1993’ (both in 2013). While his editing skills were apparent in the ‘Tomorrow Speculative Fiction’ magazine series which appeared annually 1993-1997, and more controversially the ‘Writers Of The Future’ anthology series 1985-2000. Although they appeared through L Ron Hubbard’s Bridge Publications, he nevertheless used the series to promote many worthy new talents.

For those who care about such dubious awards, ‘Rogue Moon’ (1960), his novel most regularly singled out for critical praise, was narrowly beaten in the Hugo stakes only by Walter M Miller’s ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’. And, although ‘Rogue Moon’ was adapted into a 1979 radio drama by Yuri Rasovsky, Budrys’ ‘Who?’ (Pyramid, 1958) probably reached an even wider audience. Four months after a disfiguring K-Eighty-Eight explosion, American weapon-scientist Dr Lucas Martino is handed back by his Soviet captors, wearing a gleaming steel skull. It’s left to US security to verify that the man in the iron mask, ‘this ball-bearing on legs’, is actually who he claims to be. Martino himself faces an identity crisis, resolved by a proto-Ballardian acceptance through finding a new persona based on what he’s become, rather than what he’d been. Again, there’s more than just Cold War mind-games here. Hilary Bailey asks ‘the remaining mystery to my mind is still how Penguin justified publishing this psychological spy story under an SF label (in ‘New Worlds’ no.147, February 1965), while critic John Clute claims the novel ‘quite successfully grafts an abstract vision of the subjection of man to existential tortures onto an ostensibly orthodox SF plot.’ It was translated into a 1973 espionage movie directed by Jack Gold, starring Joseph Bova as Martino, with Trevor Howard as Russian interrogator Colonel Anastas Azarin, and Elliott Gould as American intelligence agent Sean Rogers.

As all this indicates, with Algis Budrys, very little is straightforward…

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‘A man is a phoenix, who must be reborn from his own ashes, 
for there is no other like him in the universe. If the wind stirs 
 the ashes into a clumsy parody, then the phoenix is dead forever’ 

The first time I read ‘Rogue Moon’ was during my late teenage years. It left a lasting impression. Rereading it now it seems it’s made up of more levels, more depths of meaning than I’d previously suspected. It reveals itself – in David Langford’s words, as ‘impressive, compulsive SF, a novel that can be read many times without going stale’ (in ‘Starburst’ no.110, 1987).

Yet even halfway through the book, none of the central characters has so far set foot on the moon. The alien structure, 100-metres diameter and 20-metres high, is located on the moon’s dark side. During the Cold War time of superpower rivalry in which it was written, this lunar hemisphere was still unseen. The Soviet flyby probe Luna 3, launched in October 1959, brought the first blurry glimpses of the Moon’s far side, although SF had already populated it with some playful fantasies. So Budrys’ tale was current. In the novel, no manned rockets, either Soviet or American, have made a landing. The Neil Armstrong moment has yet to come. Instead, following a chance photo taken by a stricken US probe, the alien structure was detected, and Continental Electronics’ experimental matter-transmitter was adapted to reach it, before the Russians could.

Unmanned rockets drop components to the lunar surface, through which technicians are beamed to construct a base. When Budrys describes the test-station they’re projecting from there’s an impression that he’s envisioned it completely. That the operatives are moving around within a fully thought-out environment. But there’s more to the writing than the strictly descriptive. The teleport technology itself was not innovative, even the famous movie based on George Langelaan’s ‘The Fly’ (1957) preceded it. But Budrys took the idea further. Although it predicts ‘Star Trek’s beam-me-up technology, it’s interpreted as a form of death and rebirth. There’s an intriguing, but largely unexplored sub-plot in which Hawks replaces a member of his team – Sam Latourette, who has terminal cancer. Sam offers to have ‘a dupe of me run off from my file tape’, presumably for posthumous use. So, after his death, new Latourettes could be duplicated! This potential form of immortality remains unexploited.

In earlier eras of SF, Space Heroes confronting an alien enigma on the Moon’s surface, would simply resolve the issue by using atomic cannons and hand-blasters. For Budrys they must rely on resourcefulness, intuition, and the correct psychological mindset. Because it’s more intellectual puzzle than it is fast-action romp. As Barker prepares for his first projection, he’s briefed on the fate of previous test-subjects who were killed or driven insane by entering the structure, ‘thus far, we have a charted safe path and safe motions to a distance of some twelve meters. The survival time for a man within the formation is now up to three minutes, fifty-two seconds.’ Barker is to be computer-mapped on Earth, the data beamed up, and instantaneously reconstructed by the lunar receivers. But in Budrys’ system the anaesthetised original subject – Barker L, stays on Earth as the receiver forms a series of doppelgangers on the Moon – Barker M’s, with a mental link connecting them.

To Barker, it represents both a gladiatorial contest, and a game of chicken. A challenge to his alpha-status, for a man ‘must never be afraid to meet the tests of his manhood.’ His first venture, and first death, is related only through tense and freighted subsequent dialogue exchanged in Barker’s remote and inaccessible property where their first tense meeting had taken place, and as the four-way sexual intrigue explodes into violent confrontation around him. Despite Barker nearly beating him to pulp, Claire leaves Barker, and heads East with Connington, apparently breaking her own code. Who the victor now? While only gradually Barker reveals the existential truth that the structure doesn’t respect his definition of masculinity, that it doesn’t care about his individuality, instead ‘I was… no-n-nothing!’ When each of his subsequent duplicates on the Moon is killed in turn, progressively surviving 4:38, 6:12, 6:39 and 7:12 minutes, Al Barker back on Earth experiences and remembers each death.

Finally, as durations go up to 7:49, 8:31 and 9:30 minutes, Hawks joins Barker in teleporting to the moon. For seven pages of the ninth chapter the prose flares up from 1950’s monochrome into full-colour psychedelic phantasmagoria as the two make their way through the deceptively shifting labyrinth, to emerge successfully from its far side. Arthur C Clarke’s “The Sentinel” evolves from its short story seed through successive stages into the full hallucinogenic symbolism of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Budrys lunar artefact is not like that. It’s a different kind of story. There’s no attempt to explain, or seriously question the obsidian hulk’s enormous puzzle, its construction or purpose. No theory is offered. It exists to be the catalyst for the characters. Meanwhile, those on the moon can never return to the Earth. They have become shadows, zombies, the living dead. So, switching the original ‘you’re a suicide, I’m a murderer’ equation, it is Hawks who deliberately ends his life. While the Hawks and Barker on Earth reach a kind of understanding.

When it was reissued as one of Gollancz ‘SF Masterworks’ series, David Pringle recognises the novel’s long-term influence, pointing out that its ‘potent motif would echo throughout SF, from Robert Silverberg’s ‘The Man In The Maze’ (1969), Philip K Dick’s ‘A Maze Of Death’ (1970) to Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Peace On Earth’ (1994) (in ‘The Ultimate Encyclopaedia Of Science Fiction: The Definitive Illustrated Guide’, 1996).

Yet Budrys had fallen into novels via an abbreviated version of a longer post-catastrophe manuscript published as ‘False Night’ by Lion Books in December 1954 (preceded by the sixth chapter appearing as the short story “Ironclad” in ‘Galaxy SF’ March 1954). The full text was revised as ‘Some Will Not Die’ (1961), in which a sequence of protagonists chart the future of a plague-decimated America. By then ‘Man Of Earth’ (Ballantine, 1958) had already appeared – ‘a fascinating Science Fiction novel of a man who chose his own physical structure’ set on a terraformed Pluto. Then came ‘The Falling Torch’ (Pyramid, 1959) – ‘He Had To Free An Enslaved Planet – Or Die!’, in which an Alpha Centauri colony struggles to liberate home-world Earth from its alien conquerors. Again, superficially hard SF adventure, some have interpreted it as a Cold War allegory with its roots in the fate of his own homeland. Caught up in shifting post-war geopolitics, Königsberg had by then been annexed as an exclave of the Russian Federation, as Kaliningrad.

Following ‘The Amsirs And The Iron Thorn’ (Fawcett, 1967, expanded from a serial in ‘If’) – featuring a genetically-controlled colony on Mars, and a decade’s gap, his next novel ‘Michaelmas’ (Berkley/Victor Gollancz, 1977) adds thriller elements to cyberpunk anticipations of the internet. Its media-figure title character Laurent is cerebrally plugged-into gestalt AI Domino, linking him to every electronic communications network in the world. Despite a largely favourable reception, it was only after a period working on the ‘Writers Of The Future’ project, that Budrys delivered what was to be his final novel, ‘Hard Landing’ (Bantam, 1993), tracing the melancholy fates of stranded UFO humanoids as they fade into Earth’s societies under various guises.

To John Clute, writing before his subject’s death, Budrys ‘is a congenial, sociable man in public, his friends are many. He faintly resembles Michaelmas, the quiet, portly and deeply intelligent reporter in the novel that takes his name, and who is revealed to be the secret, compassionate ruler of the world. But there is another side to Algis Budrys, which comes out in novels such as ‘Who?’ and ‘The Falling Torch’ and ‘Rogue Moon’. These are austere, intricate, bleak tales, in which the obsessed, solitary heroes tackle metaphysical and political problems of the darkest hue, and triumph only ambiguously’ (‘Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia’, 1995).

Algis Budrys died aged 77, on 9 June 2008, a writer perhaps more respected by his peers than loved by the wider literary audience. He was a writer’s writer. That seems more than enough.