Wednesday 30 November 2016

Poem: 'Love Times Infinity/ The Birthday Poem'


you will be my last love
I fill my last silences with you
you’ll be there at the end
inside my mind, my dreams, my body
…now, you sit in a taco bell
pulled in off the highway
messaging me sweet erotic haikus
as you watch the cars,
they’ve got sat-navs set for home
but if all we have is this space
 we create for each other
that’s enough…
you’ll be my last love, and yet
I wonder how the hell we got here,
and how, despite the odds against us
I still believe in all this, for
I can never walk myself away
from your fingers stained with acrylics
from the taste of your morning breath
I’m with you into the last silences
as we pursue each other
off the edge of the map
you… my last love in
a forever that has no end

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Depeche Mode: According To Vince Clarke


 Vince Clarke is now one half of a star called Erasure
He doesn’t like touring, dislikes doing videos and 
avoids doing interviews. So what are the chances of 
getting him to talk about his founding 
early days with Depeche Mode…? 
Andrew Darlington takes up the challenge…


This is High Mass for the godless.

Depeche Mode come back from 101 globe-straddling stadium-filling American nights with longer hair, louder guitars, and devotional imagery. Flesh, and devilry.

“I Feel You” is total art assault on the senses in broad Wagnerian gothic. Dave Gahan’s tattooed torso writhes and prostrates as his stark black-&-white Warhol video-frame multiples burn in arms-spread crucifixion, as Martin Gore in ludicrous leather shorts strikes heavy guitar-hero poses with a solid-bodied Eddie Cochran Gibson. On the album its nagging guitar repetition sounds to be a sample – rumoured to be lifted from U2, but live, Gore milks its minimal potential to maximum effect, while Alan Wilder hijacks a full Rock ‘n’ Roll drum-kit for the first time. The sound climbs in electronic layers building in dense emotive swatches as lush red and purple lighting lurids the voluptuousness and carnal religiosity of the flimsy libretto, and adoring hands extend in obsessive Southern Spiritual Revivalist exhortation, until Gahan ruptures the spell by hurling the mike-stand away, high wide and contemptuously… leaving charged video images of praying hands, a single candle, a cross.

Oddly, their second encore is “Everything Counts”, their early naïve anti-capitalist single from August 1983, the purity of its message sabotaged only slightly by Gahan’s elaborate striptease, throwing his T-shirt into the mass of predatory fan hands. But from such simple sperm morphed this information super-highway as powerful as a shot of ‘E’ injected directly into the pleasure centres of the grey lobes. From the start – with huge shadow figures looming behind Horror-Movie drapes (for “Higher Love”), then exploding into a split-level stage, Gahan cavorting and crotch-grabbing in front of nine fold-out video screens on which the three Kraftwerk-style keyboardists operate (“Policy Of Truth”), the visuals punch out the sound in exact balance. ‘I wanna see those hands’ are the first words directed at the masses. There are few to follow. But when the Speak & Spell Anton Corbijn co-ordinated crawl of fetishistic bird-headed figures start slo-moing across the screens from one to the next (for “Walk In My Shoes”) and the dense sheets of wrap-around sound envelops, they’re no longer necessary. It’s enough just to ‘reach out and touch faith.’

Gore takes three vocals, clear high and surprisingly strong, but Gahan works the dramatics. The sound enriched by the gospel infusion of Samantha Smith and Hildia Campbell through “Behind The Wheel”, “Condemnation” and “Personal Jesus”. “Stripped” loops a sampled rusty car-exhaust thrum while framing a huge navel on all videos and the two tall film screens above. Each stomach systematically graffiti’d as the number gains momentum. And then “In Your Room” with nude figures entwined like a high-gloss safe-sex ice cream ad.

Depeche Mode can at times seem like fleshy devilment, torment and ecstasy, sound and sensuality, pomp and pretension. And stupid fun. A black celebration for the Masses. A High Mass for the godless.


I remember talking to ABC. They’d started out in Sheffield as an electro-pop trio called Vice Versa. And Martin Fry wistfully recalls how they’d sat around watching the early Depeche Mode appearances on ‘Top Of The Pops’, with those little synth keyboards and those big turning Revox spools. And they were thinking ‘That shoulda been us…’ When Depeche Mode began, Tubeway Army, with Gary Numan’s deep JG Ballard-William Burroughs imagery had already set the controls, despite rapidly devolving into cartoon-futurism. There was Ultravox with its chart-style spin-off Visage, and their more art-credible ex-vocalist John Foxx. Bill Nelson was ‘dreaming in colour’ post-Be-Bop Deluxe. While, freed up by new sonic possibilities Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and Clock DVA were pushing the boundaries further. Until the still-pristine mobile intelligent unit that was Soft Cell moved from sub-cult to ‘Top Of The Pops’ virtually overnight. Now, decades later, all that remains of that once-vibrant scene – aside from Depeche and Erasure, Pet Shop Boys and Human League, are ripples of occasional retro-futurists.

Born Vincent John Martin 3 July 1960, Vince Clarke has been an active component of probably more name chart bands than just about anyone else. Depeche Mode. Yazoo. Assembly. Until becoming one-half of the star called Erasure. Born in South Woodford, London, before his family shifted to concrete new town Basildon, it’s been written that Vince was a professional musician virtually since leaving school.

‘Oh no. No – I didn’t get into…’ He pauses. We’re here specifically to talk about Erasure’s ‘I Say, I Say, I Say’ (May 1994) abum. But I want more. He resumes ‘…Depeche didn’t start until I was nineteen. I’d done all sorts before that.’ But surely he’d met the other members of Depeche Mode at school? ‘No. I met one of the guys at Boy’s Brigade. He was lieutenant, or corporal, (Andy) Fletcher. And Martin (Gore) lived round the corner from me in my hometown (Basildon). And David (Gahan), we got him in ‘cos he had a lot of mates who came to the gigs. But no, before Depeche I was doing other jobs. Packing and that.’ Nevertheless, that means he’s been a pro musician MOST of his life. ‘I don’t know. I’ve only been a musician since I was nineteen. I’m now, how old… thirty-three? Let me think. No. I’ve still spent most of my life NOT being a musician actually!’

Yet there were evolutionary stages. As early as the late-seventies, Vince and school-friend Andy Fletcher were a short-lived No Romance In China. By 1980 he’d teamed with Robert Marlow and Martin Gore to form French Look. There was a further unit – the two-guitars-and-synth Composition Of Sound trio with Gore and Fletcher. Vince was vocalist, until Dave Gahan joined – to become Depeche Mode, lifting the name ‘Fast Fashion’ from a French style magazine. At the end of the year, playing East London ‘Futurist’ nights at the ‘Bridge House’ they were head-hunted by Stevo, who took their “Photographic” – ‘I take pictures, photographic pictures, bright lights, dark room’, and put it on his ‘Some Bizzare Album’ (January 1981, BZ1) in a one-off deal, alongside Soft Cell, Blancmange and The The. It was a beginning.

It seems to me that Depeche Mode were near chart-contemporaries with Human League? ‘No’ Vince corrects me. ‘We came afterwards. We were contemporaries of the ‘Dare’-period Human League, perhaps. But not of the first two Human League albums (the one’s featuring Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh). They came before we did. They were the heady days. That was really my time, y’know? Really. Fan-wise. The early Eighties. All that stuff. It was fantastic’.

In fact, we’re both correct. It’s true Human League had been around for a while, as a kind of underground cult phenomena. But both bands achieved their first hit singles within months of each other – Human League’s “The Sound Of The Crowd” reaching no.12 (30 May 1981) and Depeche Mode’s “New Life” following it to no.11 (8 August 1981). The first time both bands reached mainstream audiences. So weren’t there ever occasions when they got to meet Human League backstage at ‘Top Of The Pops’ or anything? ‘No. I did go up to see them at the Marquee once’ Vince recalls. ‘But there was a huge queue all wrapped way around Soho. And we couldn’t get in. It’s a big disappointment not to see them ever live’.

Then they were supporting Fad Gadget when they catch Daniel Miller’s attention. And record the first Depeche single proper at Miller’s Blackwing Studios – “Dreaming Of Me” c/w “Ice Machine” (Mute 13, February 1981). Again, there’s a distinctively Pop-catchy Vince synth figure, with imagistic lyrics about ‘light switch, man switch’ and ‘filming and screening, I picture the scene’, sweetened with an ooh-la-la chorus and softy-whispered voice-over in the fade. Although it charts no higher than no.57, it establishes their presence. And pacts the long-term bond with the Indie Mute label. So when it’s followed by the optimistically-titled “New Life” c/w “Shout” (Mute 14, May 1981, with an extended twelve-inch version), again made up of two Vince songs, it takes things above-ground. As it peaks at no.11 the group debuts on ‘Top Of The Pops’ – on 5 June, the clip, salvaged onto BBC4’s ‘Synth Britannia’, shows an absurdly youthful four-piece, a boyish gyrating coiffed Gahan, and Vince dressed-down in shoddy leather jacket. At the flick of a switch – it says, life’s better.

At a time when lots of other bands out there were attempting to fabricate ‘pure pop’ by stealing different re-combinations of the past, the Depeche sound – and Vince’s subsequent projects with Yazoo and Erasure, have always been wholly contemporary with few references whatever to the Pop of times past. Vince agrees, ‘No. But that’s because when people use influences from the past, they’re not only trying to copy the songs, or even emulate the songs, they’re sampling the records as well. We’re not into that. We don’t do any sampling. We try and do everything (he pronounces it ‘everyfing’) originally’.

The third, and final single to be written by Vince – “Just Can’t Get Enough” c/w “Any Second Now” (Mute 16, September, with an extended ‘Schizo Mix’ on the twelve-inch), sets its rhythm tourniquet-tight, and ditches trendy cut-up lyrics in favour of straight boy-girl romance – ‘we slip and slide as we fall in love’, part innovation and part magic it climbs even higher, into the Top Ten to no.8. The official promo-video with two decorous New Romantic girls sipping cocktails, is the only Depeche Mode video to feature Vince. While the first single was only featured on the American reshuffle, the two subsequent singles open and close their ‘Speak And Spell’ (Mute STUMM5, October 1981) album – joined by a rerecorded “Photographic” and a Martin Gore vocal mix of the instrumental “Any Second Now” B-side. Critically well-received – ‘like Gary (Numan) at his best, but better’ (Sunie in ‘Record Mirror’), it sells its way to no.10 on the album chart.

Until Vince left the Mode because of his studio-addict aversion to touring. ‘I don’t like touring. That’s not untrue. I mean… at that time, I was a lot younger. When you’re young your ego is somewhere UP THERE, especially if you have a hit single like that, y’know? I was terribly obnoxious. As we all were, I think. So things weren’t going to work out’. As with Pink Floyd – an unlikely comparison maybe, but they start out with Syd Barrett as their primary writer, but enjoy a second higher-profile career with Roger Waters, Depeche Mode’s first successes were built around Vince Clarke’s songs. Once he left, it was Martin Gore who assumed the main song-writing role, taking them in darker directions. While Alan Wilder replaces Clarke in the line-up for their first American tour – he can be seen in TV clips promoting “Just Can’t Get Enough”, and he stays.

Yet there’s a clear continuity in Vince’s work from his first hit with Depeche Mode, clear up to ‘I Say, I Say, I Say’ (May 1994, produced by that same Martyn Ware). He’s remained true to that shining image of electricity. ‘Mmmmm’ he concedes ‘we’ve been very lucky. Very fortunate, y’know.’

But while it’s true that Vince stayed true to his early keyboards, Depeche has kept pace with evolving technology. To ludicrously over-extend an already tenuous comparison, Pink Floyd also started out as a playfully earnest Indie group, and grew into stadium monsters. Rock ‘n’ Roll, derived from Blues and R&B, is essentially an American music. Its roots deep in black America. Electronic music, by contrast, comes from Europe. From the European avant garde classical tradition of Karlhienz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, filtered through Can, Kraftwerk, Faust. Guitars are organic. Keyboards cerebral. What Depeche Mode did… what Depeche Mode do, is give a form of electro-based music an angst-content. A soul, often a tortured soul. A bleak existential soul, but a soul nonetheless. Listen to Johnny Cash doing “Personal Jesus”. If the original is atheistically mocking, reflecting US tele-evangelists, the Man in Black takes the exact-same words, the same melody, and invests it with genuine belief. When he reaches out to touch faith, he means it.

‘THE SINGLES ’81-‘85’ 

De-construction time again.

Just what WAS modern music’s most important moment – Abba winning Eurovision? The Pistols trashing Grundy? Both have been used as base incidents for learned dissertations – but try this one for size, the crucial shift occurred when the first synth/Revox Pop band appeared on ‘Top Of The Pops’. Depeche Mode? I mean – since the invention of Elvis Presley and on down through the Shadows/Beatles into Punk, the orthodox visual icon of Pop culture is a two guitars-plus-drumkit triad. Two and a half decades passed during which that silhouette remained virtually constant. Punk supposedly reset the clock to year zero, clearing away the accumulated debris of the past. Until overnight it was all wiped clean by a gleaming new vision of cheap Casio’s/Rolands + those big Revox spools reel-to-reeling in the background. Now kids play imaginary keyboards at their bedroom mirrors like once they posed pretend phallic guitars.

Technical Musician’s magazines still write of the problems of ‘humanising’ electronics, while the ‘New Musical Express’ dates the advent of Depeche Mode’s REAL credibility from circa the addition of a bit of trendy metal-bashing on “People Are People”, or the comic-book simple political slogans of “Everything Counts”. But they’re both off-target. Before Depeche Mode electronic music still zeroxed Kraftwerk’s cybernetic imagery – through the Bowie conduit into Numan, or it was techno-flash multiple-keyboard Rick Wakeman-Keith Emersons. Honourable mention has to go to Giorgio Morodor’s orgasmic Disco-synths and perhaps to Eno’s non-muso role with early Roxy – but it was Mode’s not-inconsiderable achievement to get Mr. Moog’s bleeps and fizzes into the glossy fan-mags. That’s where the REAL humanising happened.

With Mute Records as initially a Pop raft for the JG Ballard-centric concepts of sex and technology that their label boss – Daniel Miller, had explored on his 1978 single “Warm Leatherette” c/w “TVOD” while recording as ‘The Normal’, “Dreaming Of Me” happened in April 1981. There were Bunnymen and Human Leagues waiting in the wings but both were tainted with arty elitism, even Oakey galumphing through Gary Glitter’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” was just a patronising esoteric joke – wasn’t it? But Depeche Mode were fresh and clean, boyishly innocent, they were Speaking and Spelling “New Life” into the chart and were market-leaders in teen-appeal by the time “Just Can’t Get Enough” was hitting no.8.

By 1982 they’d broken the frame by ditching – or being ditched by, Vince Clarke, the token boffin-figure, thereby leaving the visual presentation even purer and the hits even bigger – “See You” up to no.6, then “Leave In Silence” and “Get The Balance Right”. There are thirteen hits presented chronologically on their first Greatest Hits compilation – ‘The Singles ’81-‘85’ (October 1985, Mute). There would be more on their eventful trek from well-scrubbed synth act singing snappy tunes about industry and sadomasochism to multinational global statesmen of electro-pop, surviving internal wrangles and Gahan’s attempted suicide with heroin o/d, but there-in lies their true significance. Kids eyeballing £69 Casio’s in Boots Music Dept. knew it could be THAT easy to become a chart-band like Depeche Mode. That’s no mean achievement, and could just constitute modern music’s most crucial shift.

Read and discuss…


Unfortunately low on the scale of memorable tunes, ‘Exciter’ (2001) was perhaps a misnomer, while ‘Playing The Angel’ (2005) was predictable Depeche Mode-by-numbers. So that, by the time “Just Can’t Get Enough” was getting itself revamped into a hit for girl-group the Saturdays (in aid of that year’s Comic Relief), Depeche were being written off as ‘electro veterans’. Then they issued their twelfth album ‘Sounds Of The Universe’ (Mute, April 2009), back in matt black. Taking their dark electro-synth rhythms embedded in a template of growling goth angst, alienation, despair and spiritual emptiness, paced to the pompous end of pomp, and taking it all into space, splicing the gloomy bloodletting with bloopy, ethereal is-there-anyone-out-there? atmospherics.

Commencing with a cacophonous mix of distortion, booming bass, and what sounds to be a Saturn 5 booster lifting off, it grabs from the get-go. Then “In Chains” is classic dark electro-pop with ‘the way you move has left me’ first yearning, then ‘burning’. This partial sense of renewal is suggested by Gahan maintaining his song-writing ratio from the previous album, with three new titles (“Hole To Feed”, “Come Back” and “Miles Away /The Truth Is”). While Martin Gore, who writes the rest, has sorted out a troubling alcohol problem, alluded to on “Peace” – ‘I’m leaving bitterness behind, this time I’m cleaning out my mind.’ Sure, there’s a few indulgences – the atmospheric instrumental “Spacewalker” which recalls an outtake from Bowie’s ‘Low’, and a haunting devil-woman love song about “Jezebel” sung by Gore (lifting its title from a track by Recoil, the spin-off formed by ex-Mode Alan Wilder). There’s “Corrupt” with Gahan at his most demonic, howling ‘I could corrupt you in a heartbeat’, and “Come Back” an exercise in Space Invaders industrial goth with Gahan ‘walking the thin white line between love and hate’. Spin-off single “Wrong” opens with Gahan barking the title over and over, before kicking into a slab of vintage robot swagger recalling 1990’s imperious ‘Violator’, as menacing as it is catchy. While “Miles Away /The Truth Is” uses a guitar-sample leading into a relentlessly re-energised grinding dirty club-style mix.

Lyrical profundity? ‘Who do you think I am – fucking Wordsworth?’ snipes Gahan in their ‘101’ road movie.

Saturday 26 November 2016

SF Book: Larry Niven & Steven Barnes 'The Barsoom Project'


 Book Review of: 
 (Ace Books, September 1989, 
 Pan Books, February 1991, ISBN 0-330-31670-2)

SF-heads of long standing will recognise ‘Barsoom’ as the planet Mars in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fantasia, a world of dazzling swordplay, beautiful oviparous princesses, and heroic derring-do in ancient cities set like wondrous jewels on dry sea-beds. The ‘Project’ is a scheme for magiking the real lifeless Mars of today’s Viking Lander, through a controlled terraforming process, into the planet Burroughs’ protagonists knew. But there’s more. Niven & Barnes stated intent is to ‘blend dozens of individual threads of information into one seamless tapestry,’ and the Martian strand is only one…

Laurence Van Cott Niven – to give him his full name, writes ‘hard SF’. ‘His scientific extrapolation is based solidly in what is known at the date of writing,’ according to Harlan Ellison in ‘Dangerous Visions’ (1967). And this follow-up to his ‘Dream Park’ (1981) collaboration continues many of the earlier novel’s preoccupations. It’s set in the same stately pleasure dome designed by Richard and Mitsuko Lopez, most brilliant of all Game Masters. The same computer-generated holographic ‘Disneyplanet’ in which ‘reality has become almost optional.’ In which hazardous maze-games are played through a menacing puzzle of bizarre environments designed to test and stimulate. ‘Dream Park’ is an entertainment complex that TV’s ‘Tomorrow’s World’ would call interactive virtual reality, enhanced to the nth degree and cross-matched to the greatest Fantasy Gaming role-play on the market. So – although dealing mythworlds, trading the Melanesian culture of the original novel for the Inuit Eskimo pantheon of the Fimbulwinter, Niven can conjure a scenario set in ‘the winter wonderland of an arctic day at the end of the world,’ release the goddess Sedna imprisoned by the ‘sins’ of Western decadence in a vaguely Green trial sequence, and battle the evil Cabal in Cthulhu’s Lovecraftian city of R’lyeh, and yet still remain essentially within Ellison’s parameters.

Steven Barnes has other duo novel-shots with Niven to his credit, and also created some animated sequences for the Gene Kelly/ Olivia Newton-John movie ‘Xanadu’ (1980). In the ‘Dream Park’ books he helps choreograph a huge 3D Dungeons & Dragons, populated with REAL dragons – the hideous Mountain Trolls, burrowing Mammoths, the ‘grotesquely wormlike’ Terichik, and Killer Land-Whales that walk on sets of human hands! But, of course, there are also glitches, sabotage, espionage, things go wrong, and people get Killed instead of just ‘killed’. It’s a compendious tale with stories within stories flickering in and out of the text uncertainly, overlapping ‘real’ with Dream Park ‘illusion’, and retaining yet further levels of possibility that are only hinted at. ‘Who was to say that there weren’t trolls in those tunnels, demons in those depths? Perhaps the real illusion of Dream Park was the pretence of technology?’

Our SF-heads of long standing will realise that none of these ideas are particularly new. Such role-play machines have been postulated since before Niven and Barnes were sperm and ovum. But they write it well, alternating vivid descriptive power with an off-beat humour in which one player ‘donned her persona like a second skin – like a body condom, and it wouldn’t come off’!

Part of the Dream Park novel-cycle:
‘Dream Park’ (1981)
‘The Barsoom Project’ (1981)
‘The Voodoo Game’ (1991)
‘The Moon Maze Game’ (2011)

Friday 25 November 2016

Books: GH Morris 'The Brightside Dinosaur'


Book Review of: 
 (Constable, March 1991, ISBN 0-09-470370-1
 Penguin Books, April 1992) 

This is 1930s Yorkshire. A deranged and oddly beautiful collision impacting ‘Brass’ remixed by Ivor Cutler, with ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ re-edited by Groucho Marx, all shot through with a bric-a-brac surrealism of rare and wonderful incidents. Bagshaw Moralee, a naturalist in Java, sends Leeds colleague Thomas Quekett the body of a Bird of Paradise, but for ease of packaging he removes the legs. Quekett, imagining this to be the bird’s natural state, writes an essay for a learned ornithological journal speculating on ‘how this wonderful bird would have to spend the whole of its existence on the wing… suspended without legs, forever shimmering his feathers in the hot Javanese air.’ Correspondents write ‘congratulating the journal, congratulating Quekett, and eventually congratulating god himself on this creation of such breathtaking beauty, such a strange addition to all of His diversity.’

The third instalment of a trilogy meandering through the convoluted evolution of the eccentric Family Brightside – following ‘Doves And Silk Handkerchiefs’ (1986), and ‘Grandmother, Grandmother Come And See’ (1989) – this volume advances Leeds-born Morris’ epic in irregular spurts and via strangely contorted side-routes from 1931 to 1947, from an earthquake in Manchester to a tidal wave in Blackpool. Episodically it concerns a brothel raid, a dinosaur museum exhibit made up in equal parts from the inextricably jumbled remains of an iguanodon skeleton and the bones of its discoverer, collier James Brightside, plus a man with rotating eyeballs who invents an invisibility machine, and the later invention of rubber suiting which – once inflated, allows children to float ‘the sky like planets’. There’s also a zoo-keeper who cooks and eats his way through all the animals in his charge, discovering that ostrich makes you fart!, and a man with a permanent erection who chooses to hide inside a barrel exposing his affliction through a carefully prepared bolt-hole in its side. Broken by dialect passages and set in a pit village, ‘The Brightside Dinosaur’ achieves a reality heightened and intensified into an absurdism that makes well-drawn Yorkshire as alien and exotic as the weirdest South American rainforest. An essay in Magical Realism from a curiosity shop crammed rafters-high with fascinating antique oddities, arcane wisdoms, and intricately contrived comic anecdote.

Thursday 24 November 2016

Music: Emile Ford & The Checkmates


He wanted to be a sound-engineer, 
but the hit records got in the way! 
The strange career of Emile Sweetnam
 – ‘Emile Ford’… 

British Pop was a different country in 1959. An unrecognizable place, duller, greyer, more formal and restrained. Rock ‘n’ Roll was a disreputable American import associated with juvenile delinquency and dumb insolence, a temporary fad we’d not quite got the hang of. Records were issued as big fragile ten-inch 78rpm editions, or those new-fangled seven-inch 45rpm. There was only BBC radio, and just two TV channels, both in black-&-white.

Emile Ford was born in Castries, Saint Lucia on 16 October 1937 as Michael Emile Telford Miller, and – following his mother’s remarriage, Emile Sweetnam. His was a privileged and musically-rich family, and the West Indies were part of the Empire and Commonwealth, which made him British. So his mother uprooted the family to England when he was seventeen. Not specifically a member of the ‘Windrush Generation’, but part of the same Caribbean migration inwards towards the ‘Mother Country’. There was a ‘No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish’ tendency at the time. There were race riots in Notting Hill orchestrated by the Far-Right ‘White Defence League’ and remnants of Oswald Mosley’s fascist Union Movement. But that English insularity was already eroding, with music as a vital catalyst in that torturous social evolution.

With clean good looks, a contagious smile and shirts that were bright colour-splashes even on monochrome TV, plus the sweet-as-a-sugar-rush vocal smoothness of a Sam Cooke, Emile had energy enough to recharge the depleted national grid. He was also a proficient multi-instrumentalist who began performing in London coffee bars, with his bass-playing half-brother George Sweetnam-Ford (born 1 January 1941), together with drummer John Cuffley (much later of Climax Chicago Blues Band) and guitarist Ken Street (born in 1943). They became the Checkmates. Using a Fats Domino-style repertoire of up-beating standards, they won a Pye-sponsored Soho talent contest in July 1959. Four months later they were riding the top of the charts. It seemed THAT easy!

Cut in one thirty-minute session, the first oldie they updated was “What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?” carried along by Emile’s happy, friendly, infectious personality. A sing-along version of a familiar song, it owed much of its success to the punchy doo-wop-bedo-debo-doowop, bedo-bebo-doo arrangement, emphasized by pistol-shot drum-breaks, and his gentle delivery of sexually-charged lyrics like ‘I’ll get you alone some night, and Baby you’ll find you’re messing with dynamite’. The playful false ending, tripping up Radio Luxembourg DJs in a mischievous way added to its appeal. The equally high-profile ‘B’-side was even-more intriguing, a cover of Don Gibson’s bitterly melancholy country hit “Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles” whipped up into a sharp be-bopper. Although Gibson himself would only score one solitary UK hit – “Sea Of Heartbreak” in October 1961, other songs of his would chart for Roy Orbison, Ray Charles and Patsy Cline. Yet Emile Ford was the first to lift his composition across genres and reinterpret it that way, making his debut single a value double-sider.

The ‘New Musical Express’ chart that Emile Ford was first entering – at no.12 on 31 October 1959, was headed by Cliff Richard’s “Travellin’ Light” while the surly young Rocker’s “Living Doll” was still there at no.15. Bobby Darin (“Mack The Knife”), Marty Wilde (“Sea Of Love”) and the Everly Brothers (“Til I Kissed You”) made for a curiously cosy fan-mag top five, with oldsters Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn and Johnny Mathis balanced out by teen-fodder Craig Douglas, Ricky Nelson and Eddie Cochran.

Vaulting over Adam Faith’s “What Do You Want”, Emile become not only the final chart-topper of the 1950s – a no.1 in December 1959, but stayed on the charts for twenty-five weeks to collect a gold disc in the process. Shakin’ Stevens would use Emile’s version of the 1917 song as template for his own November 1987 hit… peaking at no.5.

Although party-time piano-playing Winifred Atwell and Tiger Bay’s Shirley Bassey had reached the top slot before him, Emile Ford was the first British black male artist to do so. Yet there was little about his music – neither his voice nor his vocal styling, that was essentially ‘black’. Indeed, he professed an admiration for Mario Lanza, telling an interviewer that ‘I like music with a beat, and if it happens to be called Rock ‘n’ Roll – which I know is regarded as a dirty word in some quarters, then it’s too bad.’ He was never political, never spoke out. His presence was statement enough. Marginally before him there was ‘Cuddly Dudley’ Heslop, with a residency on Jack Good’s ‘Oh Boy’ TV-show billed as ‘Britain’s First Black Rock ‘n’ Roller’, and soon there was versatile Kenny Lynch who crossed over from hit singles to songwriter (he wrote the Small Faces hit “Sha-La-La-La-La-Lee”) to actor and stand-up comedian, bizarrely sharing a stage with Jimmy Tarbuck, turning the audience’s racist humour back on itself.

Yet the Checkmates hits were almost an opportunistic thing, opening up possibilities elsewhere. Emile described himself as an ‘accidental’ star, side-tracked into becoming a singer. A techno-boffin ‘sonic scientist’ by trade – following studies at the Paddington Tech College, Emile was a qualified sound engineer, and that made him very particular about the quality of his music both onstage and on record, earning himself a reputation for being a perfectionist. ‘With these handicaps (ie, hit records), my career in sound-engineering suffered’ he told journalist Jim Daley, only half-joking.

With Larry Parnes monopolizing the pretty-boy teen market, Emile shrewdly signed with Leslie Grade, giving his own career more individual focus. With similar acute perception, he’d turned down the mighty EMI in favour of the more modest Pye label, because their contract enabled him production-control of his own records. An attitude he carried over into live performance, self-devising a prerecorded backing-track system to reduce the hazards of onstage slip-ups. This electronics expertise ensured a cleaner PA sound-quality over rival groups. Dispensing with live musicians entirely, he did a midnight charity matinee in Morecambe, Lancashire in June 1960 using just backing tapes, an innovation fiercely resisted by the Musicians Union and opposed by the theatre managers of the powerful Moss Empire theatre circuit.

But first, the immediate follow-up single to his breakthrough no.1 is the vintage chestnut “(I’d Like To Get You) On A Slowboat To China”, given a safely zerox up-tempo treatment, that just fails to earn it the top spot the following February. Then “You’ll Never Know What You’re Missing”, originally recorded by Ricky Nelson, but given Emile’s jaunty up-beat ‘bop-bop-badda-da’ twist with a honking sax-break. A motivational song designed to instill courage in potential chat-up situations, it proved a useful maxim at the Dance-Hall. I used it myself. ‘Have you ever wanted to steal a kiss, have you ever wanted to try, but you let her get you scared to death?’… well, yes. ‘Have you ever wanted to hold her tight, but you couldn’t get up the nerve?’… that too. Well, ‘I’m sorry for you, but I really don’t know why’ because ‘you got just what you deserve.’ A hard truth, and good advice. It was followed by yet another hit with “Them There Eyes”, with ‘NME’ readers voting Emile ‘Best New Act’ of the year.

But already there’s a predictable formula, a pattern. Could there have been more? Was there ever a potential to move forward and evolve? His debut album might be titled ‘New Tracks With Emile’ (1960), but it essentially applies the same make-over to another batch of largely-familiar songs. British Pop was a different country in 1960. It takes a major effort to recast your mind-set back to how it was. But whichever way you figure it, Rock ‘n’ Roll was barely out of its romper-room phase. There was not a large back-catalogue of Rock songs, for there had not been time to build a repertoire. In America there was Leiber-Stoller, Chuck Berry and Little Richard – although even the mighty Mr Penniman’s most recent hits had been oldies “Baby Face” and “By The Light Of The Silvery Moon”. In England, with the music industry reluctantly struggling to adapt to the disreputable new kid’s fad, things were even worse. Cliff Richard had been fortunate to have Ian Samwell write the throw-away ‘B’-side “Move It” which became the first positive British Rock ‘n’ Roll statement. Lionel Bart had been quick to attempt songs for Tommy Steele by the simple expedient of adding ‘Rock’ to the title – “Doomsday Rock” and “Rock With The Caveman”, before adding Cliff’s “Living Doll” to his portfolio. So, as an aspiring young teen-hopeful, you either cover the latest American hit, or you revive a standard, giving it a Rock spin.

Yet there was an Emile Ford EP – a four-track extended play package that topped the EP chart in its own right. Opener “Red Sails In The Sunset” is the formula exactly as before. But there are two new songs written pseudonymously by Emile himself, “Send For Me” and “Move Along”. Neither are earth-shakingly original. They bounce along pleasantly with all of his hallmark energy, and sharp guitar-break, but it’s a promising start. And later he’ll go on to write, or co-write a couple of ‘B’-sides too.

Almost immediately afterwards, at the rainy turn of the year, he scored another big hit with “Counting Teardrops” (‘all I need to keep me from drowning, is a plumber or a submarine’), with its “Dream Lover” yeh-yeh-yeh vocal chorus-build. But that was pretty-much the last high-point of his chart career. By the time he notched up a minor hit in March 1961 with “What Am I Going To Do?” the Checkmates had expanded from a trio to a seven-piece with the addition of half-brother Dave Sweetnam-Ford (sax), future in-demand session-player and TV-composer Alan Hawkshaw, plus three girl singers called the Fordettes, à la the Raylettes. But even they couldn’t lift his profile, and after a minor hit in June – “Half Of My Heart”, he slipped from visibility. 

By the mid-sixties things were changed sufficient for Geno Washington and Jimmy James to become huge Mod stars, while visiting American artists Wilson Pickett, Lee Dorsey and Edwin Starr were treated like gods. Enoch Powell’s dour prognostications about ‘rivers of blood’ stood little chance against the lure of ‘Sweet Soul Music’. While the Caribbean-link also meant that Ska, Blue-Beat and Reggae were eroding racial barriers from within inner-city clubs. Prince Buster albums were essential for any self-respecting Mod. And the film-clip used to promote Desmond Dekker’s ground-breaking 1967 “007 (Shanty Town)” (Pyramid Records) opened up a whole new window onto world music.

But, despite retaining a following on the Continent, and still doing live performances, and Rock ‘n’ Roll revival shows, Emile Ford was no longer a part of it. The Checkmates had split away, first to join a singer Emile himself had discovered – Jimmy Justice. Then half-brothers George and Dave, with drummer Barry Reeves joined Trinidad-born singer Diane Ferraz to enjoy cult success as Ferris Wheel. They issued two highly-rated and collectable psychedelic-soul albums in a sharp Fifth Dimension style. ‘Can’t Break The Habit’ (Pye, 1967), covers a spectrum from the Supremes “You Keep Me Hanging On” done in the Vanilla Fudge vein, to Paul Simon’s “You Don’t Know Where Your Interest Lies”, under the auspices of producer John Schroeder. It was followed by ‘Ferris Wheel’ (Polydor, 1970). After the band’s demise George moved into session-work, before relocating to Canada in the 1980s where he worked with Long John Baldry.

Meanwhile, Bob Marley advanced his music by making the Wailers into a regular self-sufficient gigging band, whereas Jamaican music had previously always been based around the Toaster, or DJ Sound System, in the way that Hip-Hop and Rap would evolve. A principle Emile Ford had pioneered, and was already adapting into his own open-air audio playback system. By 1969 he collaborated with his father, investing royalties in setting up and equipping a recording studio in Barbados. A further move took him to Sweden – where his records had always been popular, and he found time to devote work most intensively – during the 1970s, on developing his ‘Liveoteque Sound’ Frequency Feedback Injection System (patented to him no.2148074), which he demonstrated in UK theatres and top Bingo Halls. This can reduce down to a kind of glorified karaoke at its poorest application, but can also add extra dimensions to creatively enhance musicians on stage.

And when he decided to tour in his own right, Emile Ford remained a highly personable performer with a strong back-catalogue of instantly-recognisable hits. As he proved when he played the Wakefield ‘Alexandra Bar’ in May 1982. He died 11 April 2016, aged seventy-eight, leaving four daughters, three sons, and a whole lot of nostalgic affection.


30 October 1959 – ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For’ c/w ‘Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles’ (Pye 7N15225) as Emile Ford & The Checkmates, produced by Michael Barclay, no.1

5 February 1960 – ‘(I’d Like To Get You) On A Slow Boat To China’ c/w ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ (Pye 7N15245), written by Frank Loesser in 1948 it had previously been recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, the ‘B’-side had been a 1949 hit for Frankie Line, no.3

1960 – ‘EMILE’ EP (Pye NEP 24119) with ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’, ‘Move Along’, ‘Send For Me’, ‘Heavenly’, no.1 on EP chart. Norway-only single ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’ c/w ‘Heavenly’ (Pye 7N24119)

1960 – ‘EMILE FORD: HIT PARADE’ EP (Pye NEP24124) with ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For’, ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, ‘On A Slow Boat To China’, ‘Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles’

26 May 1960 – ‘You’ll Never Know What You’re Missing (‘Til You Try’)’ c/w ‘Still’ (Pye 7N15268), with close-harmony 1950s-style ‘B’-side, no.12

1960 – ‘NEW TRACKS WITH EMILE’ LP (Pye 18049), with side one: ‘I Ran All The Way Home’ (Impalas US hit), ‘Paralysed’ (Otis Blackwell-penned Elvis hit), ‘So Many Ways’, ‘Buona Sera’, ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’, ‘I’ll Be Satisfied’ (Berry Gordy Jr song). Side two: ‘Lonely Weekends’, ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘My Wish Came True’, ‘Be My Guest’, ‘Endlessly’, ‘Wiggle’

1 September 1960 – ‘Them There Eyes’ c/w ‘Question’ (Pye 7N15282), published in 1930 the best-known prior version was by Billie Holiday in 1939, ‘B’-side is a cover of Lloyd Price’s self-penned last hit, no.18

1960 – ‘EMILE FORD: HIT PARADE Vol.2’ EP (Pye NEP 24133) with ‘Them There Eyes’, ‘Questions’, ‘You’ll Never Know What You’re Missing’, ‘Still’

8 December 1960 – ‘Counting Teardrops’ c/w ‘White Christmas’ (Pye 7N15314), Barry Mann & Howie Greenfield song, no.4

1960 – ‘EMILE’ EP (Pye NEP 24500) with ‘Counting Teardrops’, ‘I’ll Be Satisfied’, ‘Them There Eyes’, ‘Questions’

2 March 1961 – ‘What Am I Gonna Do?’ c/w ‘A Kiss To Build A Dream On’ (Pye 7N15331), Neil Sedaka-Howie Greenfield song, no.33

18 May 1961 – ‘Half Of My Heart’ c/w ‘Gypsy Love’ (Piccadilly 7N35003), Barry White-Don George song, no.42

1961 – ‘After You’ve Gone’ c/w ‘Hush, Somebody’s Calling My Name’ (Piccadilly 7N 35007)

1961 – ‘EMILE’ LP (Piccadilly NPL 38001) with Side one: ‘Fever’, ‘Always’, ‘Early In The Morning’, ‘Don’t’, ‘Scarlet Ribbons’, ‘Vaya Con Dios’ (sweet version of Les Paul & Mary Ford 1953 hit). Side two: ‘Trouble’, ‘Laudy Miss Claudy’, ‘The Joker’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘Yellow Bird’ (Haitian calypso previously done by Harry Belafonte), ‘Buena Sera’

1961 – ‘The Alphabet Song (‘A’ You’re Adorable)’ c/w ‘Keep A-Lovin Me’ (Piccadilly 7N35019), ‘B’-side is a Checkmates original composition

8 March 1962 – ‘I Wonder Whose Kissing Her Now’ c/w ‘Doin’ The Twist’ (Piccadilly 7N35033), arranged and directed by Les Reed, song dates from 1909 and was also revived by Bobby Darin, ‘B’-side writer-credits to Checkmates, no.43

1962 – ‘Your Nose Is Gonna Grow’ c/w ‘The Rains Came’ (Piccadilly 7N 35078), billed as Emile Ford & The Checkmates

1962 – ‘EMILE FORD AT GRÖNA LUND’ EP (Sweden, Pye NEP 5010) with ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?’, ‘On A Slow Boat To China’, ‘Buona Sera’, ‘That Lucky Old Sun’

1963 – ‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me’ c/w ‘Keep On Doin What You’re Doin’ (Piccadilly 7N35116), billed as Emile Ford & The Big Six

1964 – ‘MEET EMILE AT GRÖNA LUND AGAIN’ EP (Sweden, Pye NEP 5035), with ‘Twilight Time’, ‘Down By The Riverside’, ‘You Are My Sunshine’, ‘Only You’

February 1969 – ‘PYE RECORDS: PRESENTS TEN YEARS OF GOLDEN HITS’ (Pye Marble Arch MT10), includes ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?’ alongside hits by Searchers, Kinks, Lonnie Donegan, etc

1970 – ‘MEET EMILE AT GRÖNA LUND AGAIN’ LP (Sweden, Pye Golden Guinea GGL 9002) with ‘Twilight Time’, ‘Down By The Riverside’, ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, ‘Mean Woman Blues’, ‘Buena Sera’, ‘You Are My Sunshine’, ‘Only You’, ‘Little June’, ‘My Best Friend’, ‘Mona Lisa’, ‘Wedding Of The Snowman’

1972 – ‘What Is Wrong With My Loving You’ c/w ‘Don’t Say No’ (Sunlight SLX101) billed as just Emile Ford, ‘Melody Maker’ says ‘one of the stars of the early sixties returns after many years living in Sweden with a bright, cheerful tune, already a hit in foreign shore’

April 1991 – ‘THE VERY BEST OF EMILE FORD & THE CHECKMATES’ LD/CD (See For Miles SEE 309), LP has ‘What Do You Want To Make Those Eyes At Me For?’, ‘After You’ve Gone’, ‘Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me’, ‘Keep Me Doin What You’re Doin’, ‘Them There Eyes’, ‘Questions’, ‘Still’, ‘You’ll Never Know What You’re Missing’, ‘Trouble’, ‘Laudy Miss Claudy’, ‘The Joker’, ‘Yellow Bird’, ‘Buona Sera’. ‘I Don’t’, ‘Danny Boy’, ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, ‘Counting Teardrops’, ‘Heavenly’, ‘What Am I Gonna Do?’, ‘Slow Boat To China’, ‘Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles’, ‘Red Sails In The Sunset’ plus on CD only ‘Send For Me’, ‘A Kiss To Build A Dream On’, ‘Scarlet Ribbons’, ‘Vaya Con Dios’, ‘Move Along’. ‘Vox’ magazine reviews this as ‘a real vocal gem’

2000 – ‘COUNTING TEARDROPS’ 2CD (Sequel NEECD 347), 61-track greatest hits anthology from his Pye and Piccadilly records


Tuesday 22 November 2016

SF Book: 'Gypsies' by Robert Charles Wilson


Book Review of: 
 (Doubleday Foundation, January 1989, 
 Orbit, April 1991, ISBN 0-7088-8353-2) 

Nineteen-fifties Science Fiction was celibate, although a Martian Princess is space-helmet and bacofoil bikini was a useful prop to rescue from many-tentacled Saturnian spinach-plants with rapacious intent. By contrast, Sixties New Wave SF explored multiverses of ‘Hello I love you, won’t you tell me your name’ no-strings free-fall Reichian sex-bouts, while the Seventies went hermaphrodite multi-sexed and wonderfully weird. Now we’re into post-coital angst. Every other American genre novel I’ve read this year is about mid-life couples in divorce trauma, the kind of fiction situations SF Writers Workshops say gives characters ‘emotional authentication’ and ‘reader-identification’. Personally, if I want to read menopausal life-crisis infidelity stories there are ten mainstream novels a week reviewed in the Sunday Lit-Pages that do just that, better.

Having said that – ‘Gypsies’ uses the situation as a plot hinge more effectively than most. Karen White left a family of ESP-ers in the hope that straight marriage would normalise her. Hence the divorce that inevitably follows is a device forcing her out of normalcy and back into her genetic uniqueness. The talent she shares with her son Michael, sister Laura, and vanished brother Tim, the ‘ability to walk sideways off the planet’. There’s tired hippie counter-culture name-drops in dayglo bursts of Tim Leary, Aldous Huxley and Gary Snyder, some friendly grass and Beatles harmonies, while Karen searches out answers to lots of whys – why the talent, where’s it from, why should they be afraid of it, and most importantly why is The Grey Man pursuing them across worlds?

The family inter-relationships are well-sketched with lots of intense dialogue and comings and goings across this America, and others. There’s also a self-referential awareness that much of the weirdness quotient is made up of stock ideas from the fantasy image bank, an awareness shared even by the protagonists – ‘this concept’ muses Michael, ‘was familiar from the science fiction he’d read, a ‘parallel world’.’ Ideas handed down from, and often done better by the likes of Jack Williamson, Philip K Dick – and particularly the ‘Pavane’ series of Keith Roberts, whose Catholic Europe is implied in Wilson’s Novus Ordo, the vicious heretical alternative America to which it all gravitates.

‘Gypsies’ is everything we expect from Nineties SF, well-plotted, sensitive characterisation, well-rounded prose, and just a little bland. A good undemanding read, but I’d appreciate a Martian Princess in bacofoil bikini too, just once in a while.

Born 15 December 1953, in California,
I did very much enjoy
Robert Charles Wilson’s 1998 novel
‘Darwinia’ (Tor, ISBN 0-312-86038-2)