Monday 29 January 2018

Poem: 'Ken Barlow's 115th Dream'

115th DREAM 

waking with the strangest suspicion
my entire life has been a Soap Opera,
all my passions and greatest fears
nothing more than plotlines,
yet it’s all ice-clear, I remember
it so real, the anger and tenderness
the lovers and friends written out,
uncle Albert, Ena and Elsie, Len,
and Deirdre… ah, always Deirdre,
the glisten of vinegar on chips
the warm smell of stale beer,
walking these familiar cobbles
hunting cameras from my eye-corner,
rerun memories in black-&-white
down from uni, impatient
to change the world, yet
still here on this same street
memorizing script prompts
watching the credits run
haunted by that endless plaintive theme…
William Roache wakes in strange confusion,
am I really Ken Barlow dreaming I’m me
or me, dreaming I’m Ken Barlow…?

Saturday 27 January 2018

UNTOUCHABLES: Two Interviews


They’re in Alex Cox’s classic cult ‘Repo Man’ 
movie. They look like an illegal assembly. 
 They’re One Step Beyond, by being one step behind. 
They are Stiff-records Ska-band Untouchables from L.A. ...


First thing I knew about Ska was Prince Buster, Ezz Reco & The Launchers, the Ethiopians, late-sixties Mod, the Bluebeat label, parka…

Then it was Special aka, Selecter, Madness, Two-Tone records, late-seventies, Coventry Ghost Town…

Now it’s Untouchables… Silver Lake Los Angles… and Surf-Mods?

‘It kinda caught on after ‘Quadrophenia’ (1979) came out’ explains bassist Caine Carruthers. ‘Actually, members of this band were the first cluster of Mods to ever happen in LA. We were devoted to the stuff (Ska) – and we started a movement pretty much in California that was based around that type of music. We helped spur it on. Of course, the bands that came from the UK were VERY influential as far as live shows were concerned, getting it to LIVE out there. They took plants and roots of it out there…’

We’re sat backstage at the Leeds Uni sampling the Students Ents hospitality – neat triangle-cut wholemeal sandwiches, and a bottle of Liebfraumilch poured into polystyrene cups. But Caine’s full of barely-suppressed energy and the confidence that charting a first single brings. “Free Yourself” is no.31 as we speak – with ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’ and ‘Top Of The Pops’ TV-slots already behind them, and a Stiff-records album all tied up and primed to GO! He’s telling me about playing American support-spots with UB40 and General Public while I’m trying to reconcile contradictions. The Rude Boy/ Gangster Pork Pie hat aligns with stereotype – but how does the ‘ROCK OUT WITH YOUR COCK OUT’ T-shirt square the Mod sartorial eloquence?

Whatever… ‘a lot of the Mod scene is ‘underground’ because of the way the American media is. It’s really hard to get anything that’s diverse or this-side-of-left on the radio, or to the people’s ears. That’s what happened with Two-Tone. If those bands had hung in one more year they would’ve been phenomenal in the States. One more tour and they would’ve been, like, over the top. But they just quit right before then. The Beat and the Specials both stopped right when they were reaching their…’ he leans forward to emphasise his near-disbelief, ‘but they just… Aaawwww! In many ways, this band picks up where they left off. We know there’s a hunger for it in the States as long as people can get exposed to it.’

All of which seems effortlessly logical as far as market-penetration Stateside goes – but this is LEEDS. Do we NEED a new Two-Tone already? I mean – do we REALLY need it? The answer is already charting. The answer is already stood milling around waiting outside for the gig to begin. I never imagined so many Two-Tone badges and so much Mod regalia was still in circulation. Largely on word of mouth, Untouchables have filled the venue, across the boards. Caine shrugs, ‘everyone loves to dance – all over the world.’

Josh Harris plays ubiquitous Roland keyboards. He’s blonde but sun-bleached white, with a long flexible face and a penchant for spontaneous work-outs during soundchecks. He pours me some more Liebfraumilch and offers ‘the Mods in California are also kinda taking on their own identity. There really are… like, Surf Mods out there!’ A concept to make Brian Wilson spin in his sandbox.

Caine rejoins the dialogue enthusiastically. ‘They have to adapt to our climate. So you get a lot of Mods going around in Surfer shorts and shirt-sleeves, or no shirts at all riding their scooters…’

‘…with their Surf boards,’ from Josh.

‘Sure. With their Surf boards tied on them!’

--- 0 --- 

Untouchables are ethnically mixed (four black/ two white). ‘We can be considered ‘two-tone’ in that respect, in that we have white AND black members. But when the band was set up we weren’t LOOKING for that balance. We didn’t say ‘well, we’ve got four black guys so we’d better get a coupla white guys.’ It was never like that. It’s just how it is, just being able to work together without even thinking about it. We don’t even see colours, y’know.’

Alongside Josh and Caine there’s vocalist Chuck Askerneese in neat dreadlocks, percussionist Jerry Miller – who snatches vocals for “Free Yourself”, Clyde Grimes whose high-kick guitar pose forms the band’s logo, and drummer Glenn Symmonds. On stage tonight they augment with sharp horn-fills from a three-piece brass section punching out their contagious ‘One Step Beyond’-mutation of Herb Alpert’s antique hit “Lonely Bull”. Their frantic “Lovers Again” – next single?, also comes with more than a modicum of the fast-pace Beat-beat. But although they wear their influences on their collective sleeve – a new band needs a high-profile image to latch on, sure – they already show signs of growing beyond the restrictions of that box-jacket.

On the twelve-inch mix of the single they do a live “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”, an old Monkees B-side, but – as Josh is quick to acknowledge, a Sex Pistols stalwart too, and that’s another input. ‘The Sex Pistols, yes. I’m influenced very much by their version of that song. Their version is very coarse, I like that.’ While the forthcoming album – cut in Amsterdam with American Soul veteran Stewart Levine producing, flirts with Rap-tracks and Stax riffing. But what sounds an odd mix on paper works a seamless dream tonight on stage.

--- 0 --- 

California Mod-ism has yet to produce its own celluloid manifesto. It took Britain fifteen years to get around to making ‘Quadrophenia’ – and then they cast Sting! But those who’ve caught ‘Repo Man’ (1984), Alex Cox’s inventive spoof sci-fi – oft over-the-top movie version of Los Angeles, will know that the movement’s already been documented.

‘Yeah, we get to beat up the star’ laughs Caine. ‘We do a scooter rally on the way to the guy’s house, and…’

‘He (Harry Dean Stanton) comes to repossess our car’ explains Josh more patiently. ‘The band has a car, right – in the movie, it’s all fictional of course! The band has a car, and he comes to repossess it. Unbeknown to us he’s trying to hotwire the engine, but WE have it suspended on jacks. So he’s got the engine going, but the car’s not moving. And we pull him out of the car and beat him up.’

Yes, it’s a laugh-out-loud sequence in a cult classic movie.

‘Man, it’s a GREAT movie’ confirms Caine.

Tickets for THE Last Train To Skaville, anyone…?


The bass-riff from “Day Tripper” stumbles through the wall… 

Josh Lawrence Harris dives into my bag, resurfaces with the ‘City Lights’ pocketbook edition of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. ‘Hey, when I was in ‘Frisco I’d hang out around the ‘City Lights Bookstore’, it’s still there y’know’ he informs. ‘I love all that old Beat stuff!’ We get into dissecting the trivia of fifties Beatnik minutia while the bass-riff gets to shake-out the plaster…

A warm night at Leeds University, and direct from L.A. USA – and the UK Top Forty, it’s Untouchables. Progenitors of the latest Mod renaissance, tying Ska and Two-Tone Blue Beat into a package acceptable for the eighties.

– but Beatniks?

There’s more to this band than fancy poses. Josh plays keyboards and adds vocals to “What’s Gone Wrong”, his malleable mobile face illustrating the lyrics. At soundcheck he turns in a fiery cool rerun of Booker T’s “Green Onions”, grinning across at bouncing guitarist Clyde Grimes who’s filling in Steve Cropper’s little guitar licks. Then Josh goes into aerobics – swivels from the hips, touch-toes, deep-bends, as the three-piece horn-section start jamming around the Stan Getz/ Astrud Gilberto “Girl From Ipanema” while practicing their neatly-rehearsed choreography.

There are but six Untouchables: dreadlocked Chuck ‘Pokie’ Askerneese (vocals), Jerry ‘EQ’ Miller who is all sharp-pressed suits, Pork-pie hat and sartorial Rude Boy-ism (percussion plus vocals on hit single “Free Yourself”), Josh, Clyde, Cain Carruthers filling bass-space, and resident drum-head Glenn Symonds. Their Stiff-label Press release proclaims them ‘L.A.’s coolest club act, signed to the world’s neatest label – the HiFi affair.’ They look like an illegal assembly. They’re One Step Beyond, by being one step behind. Their rhythms draw on reggae and non-stop Ska, the style is Two-Tone and Mod, the horns are Stax and Northern Soulboy, the keyboards are 1960s.

‘We play a lot of Soul,’ agrees Caine. ‘We hang onto our American roots. “Free Yourself” is basically a Stax-type of thing, but we put our own flavour onto it as well. We don’t just try to revive anything.’ But when they do “City Gent” – one of the eleven tracks offa their ‘Wild Child’ elpee (1985, Stiff SEEZ 57), they drop in references, quotes, from Cream’s “Sunshine Of Your Love”… and the Beatles’ “Day Tripper”. Same with their second single, they revamp Jamo Thomas’ “(I Spy For The) FBI”, given a London production job by the very-Special Jerry Dammers.

It could be argued that in the current disposable remake/remodel scene their knowledge of the prehysterical leviathans who Rocked the Earth before the world was formed – works to their advantage clear up the scale. They played the drenched-out Glastonbury CND Fest where they kick ass and kick HARD, winning all the arguments. They played the Hammersmith Palais, they played ‘Dingwalls’ – where Caine met Jedda Roskilly, and wed her three weeks after, they played Dublin’s TV-Club where they encore with Paul McCartney’s “Give Ireland Back To The Irish”, and now they’re playing Leeds!

America has a lot to answer for – John Travolta’s feet, Ronald Reagan’s morality, the Coca-colonisation of the world. But it’s all redeemed in the irresistible Ska‘n’B of the Untouchables’ contagious “Lovers Again”, or the Rapping “Mandingo”. Their set runs seamlessly, each song threaded on warm linking Rap-rapport from Jerry and Chuck…

The bass-riff from “Day Tripper” stumbles through the wall… first time I see Untouchables they’re playing catch-ball around the equipment-stacks and speaker cabinets that have yet to be positioned on the stage behind them. These guys are no-nonsense friendly and direct, no trace of the heavy political angst that accompanied the original Coventry Two-Tone wave. So, with the soundcheck beginning, me, Josh and Caine, cut out to the dressing room to document further…

Andrew Darlington: This is your first trip to Europe?

Caine Carruthers: Yes. As a band, and it’s really exciting.

Josh Harris: We’ve had some really wild times, it’s been really good…

CC: …and that’s before we’d even played! We’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time. We’ve played all over California, we kinda have that really sewed up, so we were eager to try it out on a new crowd. And it’s been going over really well.

JH: We’re surprised to be here. Three months ago we had no idea we were going to be in Britain AT ALL! It was all so sudden. It was our video that made the break for us (the promo for “Free Yourself”, which the band made themselves, and was voted top independent video of 1984 by America’s ‘Billboard’ magazine). That’s really how we got our break with Stiff Records. The President of Stiff had seen it here and was specially impressed. He went over and signed us! We were touring with UB40, and had no expectation of coming over here. It was kinda like a wild dream of some sort. And time has just slipped by so quick too. It’s been like… six-and-a-half weeks or so, and it’s like a day. It’s a blur.

AD: The Long Ryders from LA were also in Leeds recently. Do you know them?

CC: The Long Ryders? Oh sure, we know them. Actually it’s a really tight scene in LA. We know ALL the bands that are playing up there, and they all know us. We play with them. We have to share some stages and stuff. We share a certain amount of each other’s crowds too.

AD: Your styles are very different.

CC: Oh yeah. Which is the neat thing about LA bands. We’ve all got our own styles, it’s not very much like, maybe a lot of European bands get things going and a lot of bands’ll be playing the same thing – but LA, it’s the diversity of the people and the diversity of the musicians we have out there – so comes your diversity of bands. Every band has its own bag. It’s really neat.

AD: Whereas your style is Mod? Ska? Rocksteady?

JH: I think we’re closer to the new European bands than we are to the American bands. We’re closer to Northern Soul – we don’t sound American. Normally people are very surprised when they find out we’re from California. They don’t quite understand how we can do the music we do with California accents. But Northern Soul, we love it!

AD: Is there a Blue Beat/ Ska following in the States?

CC: Not really – other than us. We had to kinda start on our own.

AD: Do you go back beyond Two-Tone to the original Prince Buster-era stuff?

CC: Oh yeah. We dig everything we can find. Josh has got an AMAZING record collection.

JH: Yes, I’ve been collecting Reggae – Reggae particularly, for quite a while. I’m a connoisseur of Prince Buster – he’s great. The King of the Dirty Guys!

AD: That was happening in the UK in the mid-sixties.

JH: Sure, but the Mod scene didn’t happen in the States. There wasn’t an original Mod scene like it was in England, I guess.

CC: There was just a handful. And after that, we started the band and brought more people to it.

JH: There IS a strong Mod scene now though. It hasn’t been like a passing trend or anything. In California especially, they really love the British music scene.

AD: What kind of venues do you play over there?

CC: We play all kinds of Clubs. We’ve actually moved up into a higher ring of Clubs in LA because of our large following. We couldn’t even play a small Club now if we wanted to – unless it was REALLY outta town! Now we’re playing in the ‘Palace’ – what’s the seating there… 1,300? We sell out that place every time.

JH: Travelling British groups would play there once every six months or whatever, once a year. We play there regularly, that’s our home turf. But we’ve pretty-much penetrated the West Coast of the United States. We’ve opened up for quite a few acts – UB40, General Public, Black Uhuru.

CC: We’ve worked our way up from small Clubs. We started at the ‘O.N. Klub’ – a REAL dive. A small club out somewhere in Silver Lake, right outside of Hollywood. From there, we’ve worked our way up.

AD: Are you Los Angeles born?

CC: Well – no, we’re not all born in LA, but that’s home. I was born in New York but I’ve been in Hollywood for seventeen years now. I mean, it’s home.

JH: I’m from San Francisco.

AD: Who is most responsible for writing the group’s original material?

CC: We have Josh, and Clyde.

JH: Yes, as primary writers. Then the group as a whole, because we compose as a group as well. More of our compositions are leaning towards group efforts and less of individual efforts.

AD: Are you happy with the way the album (‘Wild Child’) has turned out?

JH: It sounds great, terribly good.

CC: We have Soul on it. We have Reggae. We have Ska tracks on it, and some good Rock ‘n’ Roll – actually, some high-tech New Wave Rock ‘n’ Roll with “Lovers Again”. That’s going to be a very very important song. We’re not shy or scared to try ANYTHING and make it work. There’s “Wild Child” itself, maybe our next single, and “Soul Together” which is a MONSTER as well. We tried a Rap-Funk on a song called “Freak From The Street” which is really good too. There’s actually no songs we haven’t been pleased with. It’s quite hard to say one over another.

JH: It’s consistency from the top to the end. We dabble a little bit in different styles, and they were successful, it works – but still, because it works it makes it a little more difficult for them to formatise us. We’re so versatile within the one album.

AD: You feature in the movie ‘Repo Man’ (starring Harry Dean Stanton), produced by Alex Cox – who is known for promo-video work with the Pogues! The ‘Repo Man’ soundtrack also includes such luminaries as Iggy Pop.

JH: We’ve actually been in two prior movies.

CC: But ‘Repo Man’ is the one to see – alright? We were in ‘The Party Animal’ (December 1984, a gross-out comedy directed by David Beaird, the Untouchables play “The General”) and ‘Surf II’ (January 1984, Beach-Zombies directed by Randall M Badat, the Untouchables play “Dancebeat”) as well, but those movies are kinda DOGS you know. They called us in to try and SAVE those movies. Hope this doesn’t bounce back at us but – I mean, we’re the best part of BOTH those movies. They were real low-budget B-movies.

JH: ‘Repo Man’ is pretty good though.

AD: I haven’t seen the movie yet (I have since, and I love it, check out my review at ). Do you play a Club-scene or something?

JH: No. We beat up the star!

CC: It’s a really good movie. ‘Cos we’re in it we feel good about it. Man – it’s a great movie. It’s gonna be a cult classic very much like ‘Clockwork Orange’ (1971) and those types of movies. It’s always gonna be around.

JH: I don’t think Alex Cox is your next Stanley Kubrick, but ‘Clockwork Orange’ – we see it all the time in LA.

CC: It’s something that shows continuously at specialist cinemas, if not on just regular cable television. I’ve seen it on that.

JH: I’ve just found an old ‘Mad’ magazine. They do a parody of it called ‘Clockwork Lemon’.

CC: I bought that the first time it came out. I actually read that before I saw the movie!

JH: And have you read the original Anthony Burgess novel ‘Clockwork Orange’ (1962)? It was WILD, a wild one!

AD: Your single “Free Yourself” was issued in a limited edition gun-shaped picture disc. Was that your idea?

CC: Well, it wasn’t actually our idea. The first picture disc that came out was just us with Clyde doing the kiss-ass symbol on it, right? And that was very nice. Then they offered us the gun – but we’re not really pro-gun and violence or stuff. It’s just one of those things that happened without us really having a hold on it. Hopefully it’s not gonna be a real negative thing. The idea behind it – the guy who did it, Dave Robinson and Stiff’s Art Department, they liked the name Untouchables, and they really tried to parody it…

AD: You mean they tried to parody the idea of the old ‘The Untouchables’ TV series?

CC: Yeah, the original ‘Untouchables’ TV series with Robert Stack (as Eliot Ness), the G-Men Gangster type of POW BANG BANG ‘we’re the good guys’. So – a tommy-gun made of chocolate or something, yeah – but a real Smith-&-Wesson 357 Magnum is kinda like… well, people could easily be misled by that. Because no, we’re not Gangsters or violent at all.

AD: Is the group name really derived from that late-1950s/ early-1960s TV series?

CC: Well – it was, of course, borrowed from that. But what it ACTUALLY means is – it was like a parody of the mid-seventies Supergroups who always walked around like they were mythical giants, y’know, they didn’t really relate to audiences at all, right? they were self-indulgent and wanted to keep away from crowds. But we are always mates and friends with our audiences, we always go out and chat with the crowds, just hang out and be loose. So we kinda made fun of it, I guess. We’re ‘untouchables’ – but it’s quite the reverse, if you get to know us.

JH: There was a Ska-band from the sixties too, the Untouchables from Jamaica.

CC: It’s that too – like Josh says, a lot of those Jamaican bands like rude names, y’know, Dennis Alcapone, Dillinger – ‘Prince Buster’ itself is a pretty rude name. The Untouchables kinda falls into that James Bond slick cool sorta thing. The TV series was a G-Man thing, it’s not shown in LA as much as it used to be, although you can still catch it once in a while. But really, we love English television wherever we can catch it. It’s a funny thing, people here complain you only have four channels – and I tell them ‘but god, look what you GET on your four stations!’ We just love the stuff. I never missed the ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ shows. Same as the Marty Feldman show… even Benny Hill cracks me up. It’s kinda funny – out here it’s ‘Dallas’ and ‘The A-Team’, out here it’s all cops.

AD: Do you intend covering any of the old Ska records?

CC: No. We don’t cover any Two-Tone or older Ska things. Those were all brilliant and I don’t see how we could really do them justice. I mean, us turn around and play a Specials song? We are much stronger in our own ring, you know what I mean? We play our own Ska. We put our own sound to it. We do “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”… we do Herb Alpert’s “The Lonely Bull” – our own version of that, we twist and bend that one.

JH: We try to make it more into a ‘Spaghetti Western’!

CC: We camp a little bit on “Green Onions” at the top of the set, to kinda get a groove going. Just to point us in the right direction. But we bring our own flavour to it, we put our own sound to it – which I’ve noticed ALL the Two-Tone bands had. Madness sounded a lot different to Selecter who sounded a lot different to the Specials.

AD: I always liked Selecter. Pauline Black is still around. She hosted a Channel Four chat-show for a while.

CC: Selecter were one of my fave favourite bands, and I SAW her on TV. It KILLED me man! It blew my mind – she was so professional and smart. I went ‘god, is that how she REALLY is!’ I saw her in ‘Dance Craze’ (Joe Massot’s 1981 live-tour documentary film, with Selecter doing “Three Minute Hero”, “On My Radio” and “Too Much Pressure”) – and I didn’t even ever get to see Selecter live, which is one of my big heartbreaks. Then there’s the Equators. Have you heard the Equators? They’re a band out of England also. They were almost put into the Two-Tone thing, but didn’t want to be a part of it (also signed to Stiff Records, the Equators backed Desmond Dekker on his July 1980 ‘Black And Dekker’ album – Stiff Records SEEZ26, and later issued a 1980 version of “Baby Come Back” produced by Eddy Grant, Stiff BUYIT95). The Equators just played Ska. They were all West Indians, and that’s the thing – they were all black. They weren’t a ‘two-toned’ band…

AD: Selecter were an all-black band too.

CC: It’s kinda funny, how do you call Madness a ‘two-tone’ band, ‘cos they don’t have any BLACK members? Yet ultimately, I don’t think that’s REAL important, whether you do or you don’t.

AD: Being part of a ‘movement’ like the Two-Tone thing can be an advantage, but it can also be stifling.

CC: Well, yeah. It’s a thing that Radio people and journalists alike have to have – a handle to really grab onto. I know a lot of bands that don’t have a real definite identity, it’s actually worse for them because the press don’t know what to think about them. Those guys are… Folkadelic, or whatever… they have to MAKE UP some other word to describe them…

…the bass-riff from “Day Tripper” stumbles through the wall…

Last time I see the Untouchables they’re onstage, triumphantly encoring with the Monkees-Sex Pistols “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”.

It’s been a good fun-time night…


1982 – “Twist ‘n’ Shake” c/w “Dance Beat” (own label, Dance Beat Records DB-101)

1983 – “The General” c/w “Tropical Bird” (Dance Beat Records DB-102) A-side featured in the movie ‘The Party Animal’

1984 – ‘Live And Let Dance’ cassette + mini-album (Twist Records E-1102) with ‘Free Yourself’, ‘Lebanon’, ‘Whiplash’, ‘What’s Gone Wrong?’, ‘What’s Gone (Dub)’, ‘(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone’ (live)

April 1985 – “Free Yourself” c/w “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone (Stiff BUY 221), produced by Chris Silyagi and Pat Foley. The B-side recorded live. Issued in limited-edition gun-shaped vinyl March 1985. Reaches no.26 during 11 weeks on the UK chart

July 1985 – “I Spy (For The FBI)” c/w “Whiplash” (Stiff BUY 227), produced by Jerry Dammers. Twelve-inch version also features “Shine On”. Reaches no.59 during five weeks on the UK chart

July 1985 – ‘Wild Child’ LP (Stiff SEEZ 57) produced in ‘Sound Push Studios’ Amsterdam by Stewart Levine (except*) with Side One (1) ‘Wild Child’, (2) ‘I Spy (For The FBI)’*, (3) ‘Freak In The Streets’, (4) ‘What’s Gone Wrong?’, (5) ‘Free Yourself’. Side Two (1) ‘Piece Of Your Love’, (2) ‘Soul Together’, (3) ‘Mandingo’, (4) ‘Lasershow’, (5) ‘Lovers Again’, (6) ‘City Gent’

1985 – “What’s Gone Wrong?” c/w “The Lonely Bull” (Stiff BUY 240), the twelve-inch version has an extended version of the A-side plus the album version. They perform the track in party scene in the 1987 crime movie ‘No Man’s Land’ directed by Peter Werner with Charlie Sheen

1986 – ‘Dance Party’ (Twelve-inch EP) (MCA-36016) with remixed versions of ‘Freak In The Street’, ‘(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone’, ‘Hey UT’s’ (live), ‘Free Yourself’, ‘I Spy (For The FBI)’, ‘What’s Gone Wrong?’

1986 – “Freak In The Street” (five mixes) (US only, MCA Twelve-inch 23690)

1988 – “Agent Double-O Soul” (four different mixes) (US only, Enigma ENCT 11)

2015 – ‘Free Yourself: Ska Hits’ (US, Cleopatra CLP 2127-2) with ‘Be Alright’, ‘Whiplash’, ‘Twist ‘n’ Shake’, ‘I Spy (For The FBI)’, ‘Jade’, ‘Bond’, ‘Mandingo’, ‘Keep On Pushing’, ‘Movin’ ‘n’ Groovin’’, ‘Free Yourself’, ‘Wild Child’, ‘What’s Gone Wrong?’, ‘The Lonely Bull’

Friday 26 January 2018

CD Review: Kim Deal & The Amps


 Album Review of: 
(October 1995, 4AD CAD 5016) 

‘Flaming Star’ (1960) is a Western with Elvis Presley as a half-breed half-Kiowa. Called Pacer. The film was directed by Don Siegel, the man responsible for the original ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’ (1956). ‘Pacer’… what ELSE could this album title mean?

The irresistible rise and rise of the Breeders got itself interrupted by Kelly Deal’s narcotic complications. So sister Kim masquerades as Tammy Ampersand in this supposedly temporary dalliance – with fellow ex-Breeder Jim MacPherson (drums), Nate Farley (lead) and Luis Lerma (bass). They record what sound to be first drafts for a planned Breeders third album at various locations including the ‘Totally Wired’ studios in Dublin. And it’s an inspired demented bliss. A noise as hard as walking around inside someone else’s migraine and as dirty-repulsive as licking a pit-bull’s eyeball. With arrogant ease Kim Deal nonchalantly shucks off riffs and hooks lesser bands would kill for.

She’s been a Pixie. And a Breeder. But ‘Pacer’ has all the raw spontaneous production roughness of a bunch of rude demo’s.

Warning: ‘Pacer’ contains explicit passages of audial sex, sonic violence and guitars doing beautifully horrible things to each other. Vital signs begin as early as the title-track which is fanged and rabid and is set to remorseless Mo Tucker-style drumming so primitive it hurts. Then there’s the single “Tipp City” which sounds like the sperm of the devil and already rates as a compulsive classic hereabouts. But ‘watch your ass, life is moving fast’ warns “I Am Decided” – and that’s just for openers. Later there’s “Hoverin’”, a delicious mess of Hendrix-fuzzy echoes, and “Breaking The Split-Screen Barrier”, ponderously deranged, disintegrating into ludicrously enjoyable looped noise. But wherever you listen – “Mom’s Drunk”, “Full-On Idle”, there’s no duds. ‘Pacer’ – at just thirty-three-minutes duration, may be a brief twelve-tracker, but it’s solid gem-studded crud.

Whatever the title means.

Thursday 25 January 2018

Todd Moore: The 'Dillinger' Poems


 Book Review of: 
(1977, Primal Publishing, 107 Brighton Ave, 
Allston, MA 02134, USA - $8.95 each 
 ISBN-0-941215-08-3 & ISBN0-941215-09-1)

John Dillinger goes to see a Fortune Teller, a fat dark woman in a multicoloured robe. His lifeline frightens her because ‘it just comes to a very abrupt end…/ but something tells me you already know abt this.’ There’s a thousand poems concealed in the turn of a phrase, all of them with the odour and colour of death. Todd Moore’s long poem cycle is an endless road movie bathed in the glare of gasoline, the dirt, the slime, and the wang-dang-doodle of (dis)organised crime.

This is a part of the American romance of the guiltless outlaw that runs through William Burroughs’ ‘Last Words Of Dutch Schultz’ (1970) and Bob Dylan’s ‘John Wesley Harding’ (1967). Unholy sagas of dishonourable social deviants treated with white mythopoetic contact lenses. For Todd Moore it’s been an ongoing project since at least 1974, with excerpts and tasters strewn like bank-raids here and there along the way – but now assembled like faces in an identity parade line-up within two identically mug-shot book jackets for volumes one and two. Moving in largely short stark stabs it switches through sections variously titled ‘The Name Is Dillinger’, ‘The Taste Of Blood’, or ‘Robbing A Bank’. A (largely) first-person self-historification self-consciously concerned with James Cagney, Lucky Luciano, movie stills and dark brutal celebrity, its concerns are money, pain, crime, and the exact rearrangements of the face caused by a point-forty-five slug passing through the cheek.

This is ‘dillinger of the reward poster and fbi memos/ dillinger of the dossiers/ dillinger of j edgar hoover’s bad dreams.’ Dillinger – says Moore, rhymes with ‘derringer’, the Wild-West handgun. Then he particularises it, rhyming gun with penis. An oldism but truism. Extending it out to include the symbolism of blood, the colour red, keys and penetration. Stealing cars is a species of rape, ‘entering others against their will.’ This is the psychology of violence, with its ambiguously unresolved father/son sex behind the pain in his eyes and in the angles of his face.

‘Dillinger’ is a verse-novel with subtexts, recurrent themes that touch rage and adrenalin, analysis and character deconstruction. Sections read like bloodied and hypnotic mantras to his untender mercies, with rapid cinematic flash-cuts and long landscape shots of night and cities and highways and violence. Dillinger is a slouch-hat, a gun in his pocket, and a vacuity of self-delusion, arrogance and brutality inside his skull.

Todd Moore snares it all. Exactly.

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Two Poets Of The Blues: Jesse Belvin & Percy Mayfield


Album Reviews of: 

When Jesse Belvin’s career was autowrecked to a fatal stop on 6 February 1960 RCA filled the vacancy on its artist-roster with young soul-stirrer Sam Cooke – who subsequently went on to Pop hits, Twist hits, Levi’s TV-ad hits, and yet more hits. It’s an irresistibly easy what-if alternative history to write. Stuck in the crossfire betwixt the waning Blues Big-Band, and the bratty Rock ‘n’ Roll upstart, both Cooke and Belvin could pen a mean hit song – Belvin’s “Earth Angel” sold two-million for the Penguins, as well as a side-order of sales for Gloria Mann, and for white coverists the Crew-Cats, but unlike Cooke, Belvin never completely successfully crossed-over into the lucrative milk-‘n’-cookies white teenage market. He hit a ‘Billboard’ no.31 in April 1959 with “Guess Who”, and scored with the drive-in smooch-standard “Goodnight My Love” – but beyond that, the might-have-been scenario is still up for grabs. 

But on the strength of this immaculately assembled and lovingly packaged CD of twenty-four tracks salvaged from the vaults of his pre-RCA days with the Dolphin and Specialty labels (1952-1958) the Texan falls largely into the late-night smoky-blues – some might say slightly draggy and very dated side of the equation. Billed ‘Mr Easy’, he looks back with the subtle swing of “Baby Don’t Go”, “Hang Your Tears Out To Dry”, or the slow luscious ooze of “Confusin’ Blues”, while leaning forward into the gently rocking ‘previously unissued demo’ of “Don’t Stop (Pretty Baby)”, or the novelty Coasters-styled “Puddin ‘n’ Tane”. There’s some atmospheric studio back-chat on “What’s The Matter”, and there’s a boisterous “Ding Dong Baby’ that goes ‘she’s fat and she’s a-round, weighs five-hundred pounds, she’s my luva-luva-luva lover, every ounce and every pound’! 

A compulsive aka Belvin also worked his way through a dozen labels as part of as many oddly-named groups – the Cliques, Hollywood Flames, Sheiks, or Three Dots-And-A-Dash, and there’s no less than three takes here of his Jesse & Marvin duo hit “Dream Girl”, prime deep-throated Doo-Wop, as well as a Marvin Phillips’ sax-break of some cooking honk-content on the duo’s “My Love Comes Tumbling Down”. 

Louisiana-born Percy Mayfield’s seven American hits spaced across the years 1950-1952 – including the soul-pleading “Please Send Me Someone To Love” and “What A Fool I Was”, were also restricted to the ‘Race Records’ zone of the black R&B Top Ten. With a career interrupted by a near-terminal auto-accident, he had to wait until 1960 before Ray Charles (and more recently Buzzz) took his composition “Hit The Road, Jack” to white ears. And although he’s another worthy contender for the ‘Great Unknowns’ category benefitting from Ace’s valuable ‘Legends Of Specialty’ vinyl archaeology series, there’s a tendency to the Mr Sheen side of over-polished audible across these twenty-five tracks. A blend that Black Music historian Paul Oliver describes as ‘palatable to the more sensitive tastes… popular music with Blues colouration’ (‘The Story Of The Blues’, Penguin Books, 1972). But there’s something magnificently dark about “Life Is Suicide” (‘going down to the river, go out with the tide/ without my baby, life is suicide’) and the thematically identical original take of his 1963 hit “River’s Invitation” – ‘I spoke to the river, the river spoke back to me/ and it said you look so lonely, you look full of misery/ and if you can’t find your baby, come and make your home with me.’ And while there’s more than a touch of Brook Benton-Lou Rawls tuxedo respectability in the deep Creole phrasing, a try-out for the sophisticated supper-club circuit rather than ‘American Bandstand’, there’s still enough Johnny Ace to keep you listening.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Classic SF: Walter M Miller Jr 'A Canticle For Leibowitz'


 The history, analysis and 
 retrospective significance of: 

Humans are meaning-seeking creatures. The space where there is no meaning they fill with fancies. Where there are no explanations they create elaborate myths. Six-hundred years after the near-extinction event of total nuclear war, how will those terrors be interpreted into new mythologies by the surviving, slowly re-emerging cultures? In the 1970 movie-sequel ‘Beneath The Planet Of The Apes’, astronaut Brent (James Franciscus) hunts for the missing Taylor (Charlton Heston) in post-apocalypse Earth, only to discover that the missing spacer is being held by a religious sect who worship the ‘Divine Bomb’, which results in the film’s closing statement, that this ‘green and insignificant planet, is now dead.’ ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ is far cleverer and much more nuanced.

David Pringle’s ‘The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’ calls it ‘one of the genre’s most distinguished works’ (Carlton Books, 1997). To John Clute ‘it is one of the two or three finest single achievements of modern SF’ (‘Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia’, Dorling Kindersley, 1995). While Brian Stableford calls it ‘the most impressive single work to come out of the post-war SF boom’ and ‘one of the most thoughtful speculative exercises produced within genre SF’ (in ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’, edited by Peter Nicholls, Granada 1981).

The only novel Miller published during his lifetime – ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ (US, 1960), is what genre academics call a fix-up, of three novelettes, the first of which appeared in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction’ dated March 1955 (no.47). Edited by Anthony Boucher, the title worked to higher literary standards than many of its competitors, and the issue is an odd compilation of strangeness. With Miller denied cover-art in favour of a beautiful Chesley Bonestell illustration titled ‘Surveying Mars’, it also includes a poem by Winona McClintic (“1980 Overtures”) and Lord Dunsany’s extravagant “The Ghosts Of The Heaviside Layer”. By the time the second self-contained installment appeared in the same magazine, “And The Light Is Risen” – July 1956 (no.63) Miller’s ‘short novel’ is granted cover-billing. As is what Boucher introduces as ‘here is the final story in the trilogy’ – “The Last Canticle” (January 1957, no.69). Taken together, considerably revised and rewritten for its JB Lippincott hardback book debut, the novel forms a sobering corrective for those who dismiss 1950s SF as spaceships and tentacled green aliens. This is a cerebrally slow-paced narrative with detailed theological arguments set in monastic austerity, more akin to – say, Umberto Eco’s ‘The Name Of The Rose’ (1980) than it is to the star-smashers of Space Opera.

Miller envisages an American future resembling the centuries that followed the collapse of Roman civilisation, where literacy in Northern Europe was retained by the Christian church, by monks endlessly recopying ancient Latin texts in scriptoriums set apart from an illiterate and uncaring populace. They ‘kept the spark burning while the world slept.’ The church also forms a sanctuary where the dissatisfied lowly-born could acquire some degree of learning, by joining the monastic order, accepting its pitilessly austere regime and bowing to its rigid disciplines. In the same way, his future-church exists in ‘a world smug in its illiteracy,’ were it ‘had become, quite coincidentally and without meaning to be, the only means whereby news was transmitted from place to place across the continent. If plague came to the north-east, the southwest would soon hear of it, as a coincidental effect of tales told and retold by messengers of the Church coming and going from New Rome.’

Brother Francis Gerard of Utah is one such timid aspirant, enduring a lonely desert Lenten-fast imposed by the abbey of the Albertine Order Of Leibowitz. Alongside what had been the route from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso, the novice attempts to construct a shelter of interlocking stones sourced from eroded ruins, when he encounters what he assumes to be a cantankerous old lone pilgrim. With Francis unable to eat or converse, the pilgrim is by turn tauntingly playful and antagonistic, but before they part he indicates the keystone Gerard needs to complete his shelter, by marking it with what turns out to be mystic Hebrew symbols. Removing the stone causes an implosion revealing the antechamber to a previously unsuspected Fallout Survival Shelter, in which Brother Francis discovers a box of relics, including a Memo notebook with shopping list for bagels, pastrami and kraut. And a Circuit Design blueprint. Although ‘it appeared to be no more than a network of lines connecting a patchwork of doohickii, squiggles, quids, laminulae, and thingumbob’ it is signed ‘Leibowitz, IE’, suggesting this memorabilia once belonged to the founder of the order. Yet rather than this find being celebrated, the unfortunate Francis is subject to a series of punitive misfortunes.

In an age of rationalism it’s impossible for us to see the world as a realm rifted with secret meanings, in which all actions are metaphors of some divine plan with every hint of meaning and message there to be teased out and deciphered, subject to dangerous heresy, accusations of blasphemy and open to schisms. The simple series of opening incidents that Brother Francis experiences are subject to minutely detailed scrutiny. The nature of the pilgrim and his message dissected and analysed in rich prose shot through with theological argument and lit by Latin phrases. The characters and dialogue lift the tone with bright humour too. Francis is beaten on the buttocks by Abbot Arkos with a hickory ruler, and his promotion into the order deferred as the chamber is sealed and deliberately forgotten.

The affair costs Brother Francis seven Lenten vigils. Time passes slowly, crawling, filled with the detailed tedium of work, wood-carving and text-copying. Until a delegation arrives to consider evidence for the canonization of the Beatus Leibowitz, and Francis is cross-questioned anew by both a postulator and an advocatus diaboli. Then, in answer to a summons, he packs his bindlestiff and his illuminated lambskin copy of the blueprint, and heads towards New Rome on his ass, for the canonization. Brother Francis is interviewed by the twenty-first Pope Leo – who is ‘less ferocious than Dom Arkos’, only for him to be then randomly killed and cannibalized on his return journey by the same ‘Pope’s Children’ mutant bandits who earlier stole his ass and illuminated lambskin. His remains buried by the same wanderer who’d initiated the sequence of events that both skewed, and cursed his life.

‘The complexity of the work as a whole is quite extraordinary’ points out John Clute, ‘there is humour, pathos, tragedy, myth, speculation, irony, and hope’ while ‘each section of the book both prefigures and echoes the other sections, giving the effect of a mosaic.’ He points out that, in one thread, Miller simultaneously balances the countervailing beliefs that secular history is both cyclic – ‘it never was any better, it never will be any better. It will only be richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day,’ yet also a linear pathway moving upwards towards a possible state of grace. With Thon Taddeo acting as Devil’s Advocate. ‘If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.’

Six-hundred years after total nuclear war, how will such a catastrophe be interpreted into new mythologies by the slowly re-emerging cultures? A lengthy gospel account of what they refer to as the Flame Deluge (Diluvium Ignis) is read to Thon Taddeo, in an expertly-contrived text with ‘a liking for scriptural mimicry.’ The previous civilization was felled ‘to test mankind which had become swelled with pride as in the time of Noah…’, it caused ‘the wise men of the age, among them the Blessed Leibowitz, to devise great engines of war such as had never before been upon the Earth, weapons of such might that they contained the very fires of Hell.’ Placed in the hands of rival ‘princes’ who conspire a First Strike strategy, and a war of weeks – some say days, that leaves cities melted to puddles of glass while entire nations vanish.

‘So it was that, after the Deluge, the Fallout, the plagues, the madness, the confusion of tongues, the rage, there began the bloodletting of the Simplification.’ Survivors vent their rage on all people of learning, who they hold responsible for the armageddon weaponry, by destroying literacy and burning books. Yet the monk’s task ‘was to preserve what was worthwhile in the old world, and at the same time to shape a new world that would not just re-enact the old tragedy’ according to John Clute’s encyclopedia entry. And this is where Isaac Edward Leibowitz attempts to bend the Cistercians role as sanctuary to preserve what can be saved by ‘bookleggers’ who smuggle books, and ‘memorizers’ who – as in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1953), memorise entire texts.

From the first section – ‘Fiat Homo’, a leap across a further six-hundred years of the ‘black millennium’ to 3174 into part two, ‘Fiat Lux’, with new rumours of war. ‘Time seeps slowly in the desert and there is little change to mark its passing.’ Yet there’s the rise of the secular power of Texarkana, and the emergence of the precociously talented ‘Sage of Sages’ Thon Taddeo Pfardentrott, bastard outcast of its ruling family, who seeks to test the truths – or falsehoods of the memorabilia in the abbey archives. Testing ‘the esoteric gulf between Christian monk and secular investigator of Nature.’ While within a vaulted basement of the abbey itself the spark of renaissance is ignited. Dom Paulo must arbitrate between the rival factions as Brother Kornhoer reinvents a treadle-driven dynamo to power an electrical lamp, ‘a brilliance that had not been seen in twelve centuries.’ A lesser writer than Miller would have him simply refer to a copy of Brother Francis Gerard’s blueprint. Inevitably the process is more complex than that, and fiercely opposed as blasphemy by traditionalist factions.

If the novel’s first section is slow interiors, the second extends out to the tribal clans of the plains, all the way to Laredo, which is threatened from the south by the State of Chihuahua. And it has a rich new cast of characters, with the mischievous ‘versifying vagrant’ the Poet-Sirrah – later ‘Saint Poet of the Miraculous Eyeball’, while the pilgrim reappears as Benjamin Eleazar bar Joshua in his role as the eternally Wandering Jew – ‘older than Methuselah,’ and later as Lazarus ‘whom not even the Bomb can relieve of his eternal penance’ (John Clute). Political manipulation and intrigue multiply, there’s death, brutality and torture. The buzzards eat well. Dom Paulo ‘felt forebodings. Some nameless threat lurked just around the corner of the world for the sun to rise again. The feeling had been gnawing at him, as annoying as a swarm of hungry insects that buzzed about one’s face in the desert sun. There was the sense of the imminent, the remorseless, the mindless, it coiled like a heat-maddened rattler, ready to strike at rolling tumbleweed.’

The surviving memorabilia in the Abbey archive is by its nature fragmentary, incomplete, and only ever partially understood. Miller employs playful typographic games, Latin phrases, Hebrew script, dialogue on the soul of Artificial Intelligence, and a wealth of allusion. He refers to Earth as ‘Mother Gaia’ almost a decade before James Lovelock developed the term into his hypothesis. And he suggests a possible bioengineering evolutionary detour. Where did he draw that from? As a fragment of a lost text, did he maybe have a specific novel in mind? The obvious candidate would be ‘R.U.R.’, the Karel Čapek SF play of 1920 in which artificial humans replace real people, and from which the word ‘robot’ is derived. Did a page survive beyond the Flame Deluge, to be confusingly drawn into the monk’s fractured mythology?

I bought my copy of the Corgi Science Fiction paperback edition of ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ as a teenager at the ‘Motherby Bookstall’ on Hull’s Open Market – then located in the square behind Holy Trinity Church. Drawn by the cover-art, strikingly highlighted by a dark cowled figure against a pure red background, I found it well worth paying its trade-in 1/6d price. The blurb quotes the ‘Chicago Tribune’ to the effect that ‘in the great tradition of ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’, this is ‘an extraordinary novel, terrifyingly grim, prodigiously imaginative, richly comic.’ The reference to Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, and George Orwell’s 1949 novel is not really helpful, but it indicates the status the publishers are targeting. This, they’re saying, is not cheap SF, this is literary fiction too, albeit with science fictional premises. As Brian Aldiss points out, ‘it was immediately greeted with the warmest praise by reviewers – ie, they said it was so good it couldn’t possibly be SF.’

The advent of nuclear weaponry at the close of World War II, and the escalation of superpower confrontation through the subsequent Cold War, legitimized a raft of shock-horror pulp excess glowing with radioactive mutants and thrilling new barbarities. With just the scary frisson of credibility provided by each new H-Bomb test and political crisis, maintaining a precarious Mutually Assured Destruction balance of terror. ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ is uniquely a product of this 1950s nuclear paranoia. Rather than hunting links in mainstream literature, a more appropriate parallel would be with John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’ (1955), in which a fundamentalist Christian community in post-apocalypse Labrador have survived what they term ‘the Tribulation’. Miller’s ‘dark robes’ inhabit the same essential wasteland future, but with a considerably more thought-through intelligence. Yet here the comparison also falters.

An enigmatic genre-figure, Walter M Miller was born in New Smyrna Beach, Florida 23 January 1923, and grew up in the American south. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps a month after Pearl Harbour, and served as tail-gunner and radioman, participating in fifty-five combat sorties over the Balkans and Italy, where he was involved in the Allies notorious destruction of the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino in Italy. Brian Aldiss compares the resulting trauma to that experienced by Kurt Vonnegut Jr, who was caught up in the fire-bombing of Dresden, and went on to create ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ (1969) from it. ‘We digest our own experience and offer them as nourishment for others’ Aldiss suggests (in ‘Billion Year Spree’, 1973).

Miller converted to Catholicism at twenty-five. And Kingsley Amis – who creates his own Catholic alternative history with ‘The Alteration’ (1976), recognizes ‘religion described – in full and affectionate detail’ in ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’. In a ‘Riverside Quarterly’ (Vol.8 no.4) essay, critic Marilyn House chases up a baffling density of biblical references easily overlooked by a reader of a more secular persuasion (‘Miller’s Anti-Utopian Vision’). To Amis, ‘although containing some amusing satire on monastic self-dedication’ Miller’s novel ‘has passages of what seems to me to be genuine religious conviction not devoid of impressiveness’ (in his ‘New Maps Of Hell’, 1961).

After the war Miller studied engineering, until his first SF story, “Secret Of The Death Dome” – a shoot-out with invading Martians hovering over the southwestern desert, appeared in ‘Amazing Stories’ (Vol.25 no.1, January1951), after which he contributed a slew of gradually-sophisticating tales to many genre magazines.

When dealing regular quirky robotics, such as “Dumb Waiter” (‘Astounding SF’ April 1952), Miller adds the twist of a robotic war being fought in the skies when there are no longer munitions, and the automated city functioning without human inhabitants, with the bizarrely convoluted code-cracking methods used by Mitch Laskell to access and reprogramme Central ‘when the machine age cracks up’. And “Blood Bank” (‘Astounding SF’ June 1952) with disgraced Cophian spacer Eli Roki uncovering the cannibalistic secret of forgotten backwater planet Earth, with a cigar-chewing Dalethian Talewa aboard her battered starship ‘The Idiot’. If these are experiments in form, trying out different styles of fiction as a learning curve, there’s still a difference that sets them apart from the other tales sharing the magazine issues. Something suggestive of a potential, finding its own voice.

“The Big Hunger” (‘Astounding SF’ October 1952) is an elegiac prose-poem of meaning-seeking human expansion across the stars in cycles of regression and resurgence, with no protagonist other than the starships which carry them. No characters, but the abstract principle of interstellar flight, and the whole future of the galaxy. According to the blurb, ‘there was a Race, and its life-drive was Curiosity, and only Space was limited.’ Until there’s nowhere else for them to go, but home. ‘I have seen the pride in their faces. They walk like kings.’ Written at a time of strong plot-driven narratives, it’s a bold experiment that can sometimes seem naïve… yet when I first read it, as an impressionable adolescent, I found its time-spanning philosophy compelling. I was even inspired to attempt my own galaxy-wide variant. Brian Aldiss select it for his anthology ‘Space Odysseys’ (Orbit, 1974) as ‘it sums up much of the content of this book, and says a great deal about aspiration in general.’

If SF is frequently accused of neglecting characterization in favour of gimmick-ideas, Miller’s finely-tuned subtlety can also provide the exception. His “You Triflin Skunk” (aka “The Triflin Man” in ‘Fantastic Universe’ January 1955), based on a similar premise to John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ (1957), is almost entirely character-driven. Attentively responsible for Doodie, a disabled son subject to violent fits following a drunken one-night stand with a stranger, dirt-poor white-trash Lucey, inadvertently saves the world from alien invasion by blasting Doodie’s errant airborne-jellyfish father with a shotgun. ‘Ain’t nothing worse than a triflin’ man’ she concludes, ‘if he’s human, or if he’s not’.

And “Anybody Else Like Me” (published as “Command Performance” in ‘Galaxy’ November 1952) opens with the sensual eroticism of Mrs Lisa Waverly dancing naked in the rain as ‘the drops took impersonal liberties with her body.’ With effortless eloquence the prose eases into stranger-threat as she picks up telepathic emanation, afraid of the unsettling implications of her own powers, she manipulates the only other telepath to death into a final desolation that leaves her even more alone in ‘the silence of the voiceless void’.

While, as an innovator, his “I, Dreamer” – which debuted in the June/July 1953 issue of ‘Amazing Stories’, anticipates Anne McCaffrey’s ‘The Ship Who Sang’ (1969) in featuring not only the confused emotional responses of what is clearly a ‘brainship’, with ‘Clicker’, the human child-brain grafted into the e-Eradani VII starship weaponry in its strike-back against the two-legs of Earth, but also its desire to sing. McCaffrey’s first tale in her cycle followed in the April 1961 issue of ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy And SF’.

Yet my personal favourite of his short stories, one I’ve returned to with pleasure over and over again – “Big Joe And The Nth Generation” (in ‘If’ as “It Takes A Thief”, May 1952), is an affectionate contribution to the ER Burroughs tradition. As in ‘A Princess Of Mars’ (1912) the red planet is a dying world which requires the periodic reactivation of an Atmosphere Plant to renew its thinning air. In a fatalistically devolved Mars, only the picaresque Asir of Franic – as a young thief ‘of his tenth Marsyear’, is capable of linking ‘ritual phrase’ snippets of stolen data leading him to the Vaults to rekindle The Blaze Of The Great Wind. The story has everything that makes this sub-genre appealing, an attractively outsider protagonist, a spirited girl companion, the romantic desolation of a doomed world with wonderfully bizarre fauna (the hüffen, ‘nature’s experiment in jet propulsion’), and the puzzle Asir must solve to outwit Joe, the guardian robot. The twist is that this Cimerian plain is on a far-future Mars populated by Ancient Fathers exiled from an Earth reduced by war to a new asteroid belt.

The first collection of Miller’s work was ‘Conditionally Human’ (US, 1962), which consists of three novellas, the title story where the concept of what defines humanity is explored – as well as what it means to be human, his Hugo-winning “The Darfsteller” (‘Astounding SF’ Vol.54 no.5, January 1955) – a poignant drama of human actors losing out against computer-directed robotic doll replicas (selected by editor Isaac Asimov for ‘The Hugo Winners’ 1963 anthology), and “Dark Benediction” in which micro-organisms from meteorites loose a ‘dermie’ plague on the world (from ‘Fantastic Adventures’ September 1951). A second collection, ‘The View From The Stars’ (US, 1965), gathers his touching tale “The Will” (‘Fantastic’, January-February 1954) which features ‘Captain Chronos, Custodian Of Time’, a thinly disguised reference to the popular ‘Captain Video’ TV show, to which Miller also contributed scripts charting the futuristic exploits of the Video Rangers. In the tale, fourteen-year-old Kenny Westmore, who is dying of leukemia, builds a tree-house time-ship to reach a future cure, yet, despite his foster-parents caring protections, he’s nevertheless snatched into tomorrow for healing treatment.

Cherry-picking from both volumes, ‘The Best Of Walter M Miller Jr’ (Gollancz, 1980) presents a comprehensive overview of his short fiction, leading ‘New Worlds’ reviewer Leslie Flood to concede that, whatever else Walter M Miller produced, these tales ‘can stand on their own.’

The final sequence of the novel – ‘Fiat Voluntas Tua’ (‘Thy Will Be Done’), takes events forward into the space-faring year of our lord 3781. And if ‘a Dark Age seemed to be passing,’ an even darker one was dawning. The nearby village of Sanly Bowitts has become a small city. There are aluminium and glass-wall additions to the ancient abbey, and a six-lane highway adjacent to it. As a result of Brother Kornhoer’s innovation, Leibowitz has also become patron saint of electronics. There are Nuns in the abbey from the Sister’s Chapel, necessitating a degree of decorum, and the Atlantic Confederacy is in superpower confrontation with the Asian coalition due to atmospheric radiation from the Itu Wan nuclear incident.

Reverend Father Jethrah Zerchi argues against the morality of euthanasia after Texarkana in nuked, and the abbey is inundated by radiation-blasted refugee victims, in a dialogue passage unlike any other in SF. As though Miller is working out each step of the equation himself, balancing issues eloquently one against the other. Until Zerchi is terminally trapped beneath the abbey’s falling masonry – forcing him to directly endure the unalleviated agony of death he was intellectually extolling as spiritual virtue. While the symbolism posed by Mrs Grales – a mutant with a sleeping second head she calls Rachel, also transcends the genre, into realms of wonder. After the final nuclear exchange, Mrs Grales is left comatose, but Rachel awakens. A new spirit unsullied by the world’s tarnishing. Whatever she represents to Miller must remain open to speculation. Except that humans fill with fancies the space where they find no meaning. While, escaping the new annihilating deluge – and more in hope than futility, Brother Joshua’s starship seeks ‘the continuity of the Order’ on ‘Alpha Centauri’s planet maybe, Beta Hydri, or one of the sickly straggling colonies on that planet of What’s-its-name in Scorpius.’

As Leslie Flood points out, ‘anything else Walter M Miller Jr writes must suffer comparison with his ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’’ (‘New Worlds’ no.137). Similarly, to Brian Aldiss, ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ is ‘the rocky summit of Miller’s brief writing career.’ For he virtually stopped writing at the age of thirty-six, and took his own life, aged 72 in Daytona Beach, Florida, 9 January 1996. A second novel – ‘Saint Leibowitz And The Wild Horse Woman’ (1997), was published posthumously (trailored by “God In Thus” in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’ no.556, October-November 1997). A sequel had been contractually agreed, begun and continued sporadically over the years, until Miller’s plotlines and notes were eventually drawn together by Terry Bisson. Taking up the future-history some eight decades after the original novel, to pit the exiled Papacy against the Empire of Texarkana, and while filled with incident and engaging characters, it’s a less than essential addition. Yet humans are meaning-seeking creatures, and in Miller’s fictional future, they’re still fumbling towards some kind of understanding.

Michael Moorcock – in his ‘James Colvin’ guise, suggests that Miller’s ‘stories have a slightly dated flavour. Things have moved on since they were written,’ before adding a new significance, in that ‘Miller is one of the people who has helped in the move’ (in ‘New Worlds’ no.162, May 1966). And ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ remains in print. It is still being read. It’s tempting to speculate how future archivists – discovering an intact copy in the ruins of our civilization, will interpret its story into new mythologies.

Command Performance” was selected by Brian Aldiss for ‘Penguin Science Fiction’ (Penguin, 1961), with Aldiss commenting that here ‘you have a portrait of a woman as actual as any in science fiction’ and ‘there is evidence of that force and vision which Walter Miller has lately brought to bear on his incomparable novel ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’.

I Made You”, for the sequel – ‘Yet More Penguin Science Fiction’ (Penguin, 1964) Aldiss chose a tale first published in ‘Astounding SF’ (vol.53 no.1, March 1954) ‘for a decade now I’ve been haunted by the vision of an immense and wounded machine lumbering over the surface of the moon, spitting out its anger at anything or anyone who dares to come within range. Only recently did I track down the story that contained this device and found it was written by Walter Miller… Miller skilfully portrays the frustration and rage felt by both man and machine in the story; by the end of it, like so many of the better science fiction stories, it seems to have taken on a wider meaning than its limited context would lead one to expect, possible because tales of the future are like shadows of our present, thrown upon and enlarged against some great platonic cave wall, so that the machine and the man become – in the anonymity granted by futurity – Machine and Man.’

Memento Homo” (originally published as “Death Of A Spaceman” in ‘Amazing Stories’ (Vol.28 no.1, March 1954) collected into ‘The Worlds Of Science Fiction’ (Victor Gollancz 1964, Panther SF, 1966) edited by Robert P Mills who says ‘each story is a favourite, on one count or another, of its author, and the author in each instance has attached a note explaining why’, with a preface by Miller himself ‘I knew and loved Old Donegal, who used a different name, and whose mistress was not a thundering rocket, but a thundering steam locomotive and who died long ago, I suppose it is that love that makes this story a favourite, in spite of its flaws, its corn, and its obvious obsolescence as science fiction’

The Darfsteller” was anthologised in ‘The Hugo Winners’ (Penguin, 1964) edited by Isaac Asimov, who recalls that Walter Miller was not at the Thirteenth SF Convention (Cleveland, 1955) where his Hugo was accepted by proxy Judith Merril, but adds an anecdote about a meal shared by Miller and Asimov with Robert P Mills – then editor of ‘Venture SF, in a New York French restaurant where Asimov attempts to impress by ordering in French. Writing later for permission to include the story in this anthology Miller responds ‘of course, I remember you. You ordered chitlins in French’