Tuesday 29 March 2022

Poem: 'A Taste For Butterflies'



I’m thinking of you skinny-dipping in your pool 
airplane lights rippling the reflected stars above 
the big dipper trickling water 
across the northwestern sky, 
cascading stardust into your pool as you bathe 
chasing little bits of stardust across your body 
kissing the starbursts springing over your skin 

I message you this memory, 
for love knows no gravity, 
love has its hemispheres, 
when you read Anaïs Nin 
it leaves unsettling emptiness, 
you paint in your studio 
in mystical languages 
that tease my senses, 
we live in hope 
beyond our means, 
you message intimate photos 
of your body to my laptop… 

we meet for coffee 
with serious amorous intent 
I’m at your tender mercies, 
but you don’t have 
to be too tender, for 
we cut into now, and 
our tomorrow bleeds away, 
then we go to bed together 
you in Seattle 
me in Yorkshire…

Monday 28 March 2022

Retro Pop: Brian Hyland & Johnny Tillotson




“Sealed With A Kiss” and “Poetry In Motion” were two 
career-defining hits on the cusp of the fifties into the sixties, 
and Brian Hyland and Johnny Tillotson both have tales to tell…


What I’ve never been able to understand is how the Boy Band – whose sole function is surely to be visually appealing, have turned out to be such unattractive examples of masculine youth. When it comes to good-looking pin-up faux-Boyfriends aimed at impressionable pubertal girls, the 1950s when Rock first got Rolling, beats them hands down. Ricky Nelson was pretty to the max, Bobby Vee had that cute smile, even a moody young Cliff Richard had charisma, before we even get to the searing sexuality of Elvis Presley himself! Then there was Brian Hyland, even younger and prettier than the rest. 

He began with a novelty hit record. It must seem an irresistible opportunity to break on through to instant fame and to reach a wider audience. Yet the downside of the equation is that the follow-up seldom happens. In most cases, a novelty is – almost by definition, a brief one-off fad that is impossible to replicate. Brian Hyland is one of the few who pulled off that unlikely comeback achievement. Born 12 November 1943, in New York’s Queens district, he sang in the choir of the Roman Catholic Church at Woodhaven, Long Island, and also sang with the Del-Fi’s, a Doo-Wop harmony group of school-friends. A disc cut privately by the group and sent to music companies, resulted in Brian being singled out by David Kapp and signed to Kapp records as a solo artist, issuing his debut single – “Rosemary”, in late 1959. 

The Brill Building writing team of Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss tried him out with the slight catchy novelty song “Four Little Heels (The Clickety-Clack Song)” which made sufficient waves to indicate potential. Brian was only fifteen when his recording of the team’s song “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” on the Leader label went into the US Hot Hundred. It topped the Billboard chart, and entered Britain’s ‘New Musical Express’ chart at no.29 (9 July 1960), climbing to no.10 by 13 August in a list topped by Cliff Richard’s lip-curling Rocker “Please Don’t Tease” and the Shadow’s “Apache”. It did marginally better over on the rival ‘Record Mirror’ chart where it peaked at a no.8. Its success meant that “Four Little Heels” was re-promoted and made a fleeting appearance, up to no.34 (20 October 1960). 

The 1950s was a strangely insular period for post-war Britain, an inwardness reflected in the tightly restricted horizons offered by home-grown Pop music. Its American equivalent seemed a distant and more exotic world. When Perry Como sang about the Moon hitting your eye like a big pizza pie – on “That’s Amore”, the general reaction was to ask what, exactly, is a pizza pie? Jerry Keller’s “Here Comes Summer” consists of trips to drive-in movies, while not only did British kids not have drive-in movies, but there might possibly be just one family car, driven by Dad. And when Jerry Keller kisses his girl it makes his flat-top curl. What the hell does that mean? We now know it means a kind of crop-headed high-school hairstyle. Back then it was simply a code for that jukebox soda-Pop life-style that we could only imagine. The bikini we could understand. We’d seen the photos in magazines. In fact the situation envisaged by the song could easily have been a saucy Bamforth seaside postcard, with the embarrassed semi-immersed girl in her scanty two-piece swimsuit ogled by a red-nosed oldster in a flat-cap berated by his harridan wife, as the seagull loops above. Except that on the surviving TV-clips Brian looks as cute and vulnerable as she did, and his innocent non-threatening delivery neatly robs the song of any suggestive content. His sympathies lie with her. There’s no faint trace-elements of nudge-nudge lewd innuendo. 

The song’s appeal was international, making it a hit in Ireland, Israel, Norway, Sweden and across South America. But there was a suspicion that the lyric, about the shy young girl embarrassed by wearing her skimpy swimwear, was something time-locked back in the more modest 1950s. Haven’t costumes got even skimpier and attitudes more blatant? Yet it returned to the chart, and finally hit the UK no.1 spot in November 1990, through the guise of Bombalurina, produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and widely assumed to be sung by children’s TV-star Timmy Mallett, although he later admitted that it was not his voice, as he was unable to hit the high notes. 

But meanwhile, because Brian’s debut hit had been a gimmicky record in the style of Paul Evans’ more knowing “Seven Little Girls (Sitting In The Back Seat)” – also by Lee Pockriss, but with co-writer Bob Hilliard, it was inevitably followed by the similarly odd “Lop-Sided, Overloaded And It Wiggled When I Rode It”, a paean to ‘our wacky little car’ which basically rewrites the ‘Bikini’ format with added comedy sound-effects. But Brian returned from a three-week Tokyo engagement to sign with ABC-Paramount who were more open to expanding his range, and “Let Me Belong To You” was more successful a year later, Brian’s first venture into big romance-balladry. ‘Make me your slave’ he utters unconvincingly at the midpoint, ‘tie me down and make me behave’ as Stan Applebaum’s orchestra and chorus soar to power-crescendos that recall some of Brenda Lee’s emotion-overload hits. 

Yet Brian had to wait until 1962 when he scored two straight Top Ten hits for ABC Records, “Ginny Come Lately” and “Sealed With A Kiss” – both controlled exercises in teen angst. With UK distribution switched from London-American to HMV, first, there’s a twist on the Johnny-come-lately idea, the New Girl At School theme, an acoustic guitar figure, gently-brushed percussion, an uncluttered production with unobtrusive strings and backing vocals, but a line about her ‘soft soft silhouette’ that could set adolescent pulses racing. And oh, the delicious agonies of teenage yearning that she evokes, she only had to smile, a little smile, nothing more than look at him, she only had to smile and in a little while he was dreaming recklessly. Written by the Gary Geld and lyricist Peter Udell team, there’s a tremulous naivety to the way he sings that makes it come totally real, there’s no postmodern awareness, no hint of insincerity to betray his feelings. 

From the same songwriting duo “Sealed With A Kiss” takes the hopeless romance of “Ginny Come Lately” a step further, with soft harmonica, muted dual-tracking, and just the correct edge of restrained passion in his voice. A sparse production of a simple melodic refrain, yet instantly unforgettably memorable. The season is over, school is done, they’re heading away for the long vacation from the parental home, but it’s gonna be a cold, lonely summer… will their romance survive their enforced months of separation, with only the words in his love-letters to fill the emptiness and take her heart away? ‘I’ll see you in the sunlight, I’ll hear your voice everywhere, I’ll run to tenderly hold you, but darling, you won’t be there.’ As far as he’s concerned, it might as well rain until September. Will their pledge to meet in the Fall be fulfilled, or will there be new distractions, new soft soft silhouettes to lure his attentions?

Sometimes, to create enduring memories, Pop music doesn’t need to make statements or define a generation. It just needs to be charming. The single entered the ‘New Musical Express’ chart at no.27 (11 August 1962), climbed to no.14, then no.8 and no.6 to peak at no.5 (8 September) as Frank Ifield’s yodelling “I Remember You” topped the chart. “Warmed Over Kisses” followed it into the chart at no.30 (3 November 1962), a few places below Johnny Tillotson’s “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On”, the week after the Beatles made their chart debut with “Love Me Do”. With a Country-style piano run “Warmed Over Kisses” is the third in a Geld-Udell trilogy of appealing singles as he anticipates that his girl is about to leave him for a new boy, ‘I see I gotta be headed for pain, I see a broken heart wearin’ my name…’ The song was later effectively revived by Dave Edmunds. But meanwhile, in early 1963, Brian toured the UK as part of a package-show with Little Eva and the Brook Brothers. 

This tight little handful of hits – an arc of songs tracking love from first anticipations, through enforced separation towards the final parting, proved to be the high point of Brian’s career. Other artists had more hits. Other Teen Heart-throbs had moodier more charismatic image. But when it came to sixties nostalgia, and the endless procession of hits compilations that resulted, Brian Hyland was always there. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight it seems to have been a kinder less hectic era, when issues were simpler and more clearly defined. If Rock was a revolution, it was only in the sense that kids demanded a change, they got it, and it was here to stay. But when it comes to the lure of fame and fortune, competition is always going to be intense. 

In Britain the recording scene was locked into a monopoly of labels, EMI, Decca and maybe Philips. If you weren’t signed to one of these dominant majors, your career didn’t stand a chance. There was no independent sector that would take a chance with a new unknown. In the States it was different, there was a mass of little regional labels all hunting that one hit record ahead of the trend curve that would break-out nationally and elevate them into big-time players. And if naïve young singers were exploited by ruthless industry forces, naïve young singers have always been exploited, and their naïveté will always be taken advantage of. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Some singers luck into levels of fame that their abilities perhaps never justify, through a combination of being in the right place at the right time, with a song that gets exactly the right promotional airtime boost or lucky TV spot. Other more able talents languish. Which is why archivists and vinyl junkies keep rediscovering neglected gems of Rockabilly, Northern Soul or Freakbeat. Or just sweet Soda-pop Pop to soundtrack nostalgia TV-movies.

In a time of Pin-up picture-romance magazines with titles like ‘Roxy’, ‘Valentine’, ‘Mirabelle’, and most opaque of all, ‘Boyfriend’, these pretty Pop Stars were surrogate boyfriends targeted at the adolescent dreams of teenage girls, a rehearsal for – or an alternative until the real thing comes along. While the boys at school or in the office might have acne or poor personal hygiene problems, Bobby Vee, Ricky Nelson, Billy Fury – Brian Hyland or Johnny Tillotson were never less than photogenically pristine. In a few years time it would be Paul McCartney or Billy J Kramer on the fan-mag covers, then Donny Osmond and David Essex, before descending to Westlife and Boyzone. But for those few early-sixties years these were the Boyfriends of choice with songs of sweet innocence perfectly matched to the time. 

‘Those early days made me very paranoid’ Brian told journalist Michael Watts, ‘I had a million-selling record and I wasn’t ready for it. I was just thrown out onto gigs. I was sixteen and doing shows for maybe ten and twenty-thousand people. I hadn’t worked to attain it. I guess, unlike most people, I’ve never really had the time in my life between sixteen and twenty-one when you can be really loose. I was always being told, hide that cigarette, hide that drink. And all around were older people – promotion men, managers etc’ (‘Melody Maker’ March 1971). Yet in his home country Brian continued recording with ABC, Philips and Dot – on which he had a Top Twenty hit with the bright bubble-Pop Snuff Garrett-produced and Leon Russell-arranged “The Joker Went Wild” in 1966. 

Then Brian moved to California, signed to the Liberty-subsidiary Uni, and came under the production supervision of Del Shannon who he’d first met when they toured together in 1961, but whose own hit-making career was in decline. They began to write and record together, and it was with Del producing that Brian had his final hit, “Gypsy Woman” in 1970. A slick effortless trip around the Curtis Mayfield song – ‘she danced around and around to a guitar melody,’ enhanced by Romany violins, electric piano and near-falsetto passages. After his teen-idol phase, although still only in his late-twenties, this was evidence of a more mature Brian Hyland. Then “Sealed With A Kiss” became a UK Top Ten hit all over again in Britain when it was reissued in 1975, and Brian flew in for a ‘Top Of The Pops’ appearance – sealed with a royalty cheque!, causing comment by sporting a seriously off-trend pony-tail! While the song proved its longevity by charting yet again for Jason Donovan.

Johnny Tillotson

Time changes everything into its opposite, youth into age, innocence into experience, certainty into uncertainty. Only the hits remain unchanged, although they’re seen through an increasingly distorting lens. Johnny Tillotson’s “Poetry In Motion” knocked Cliff Richard off the no.1 spot (with “I Love You”), to reign for the two weeks of 12th and 19th January 1961, before in turn being deposed by Elvis Presley (“Are You Lonesome Tonight?”). Johnny’s only substantial UK hit, it was nevertheless all he needs to become indelibly part of the Pop landscape. If the title wasn’t necessarily freshly-minted, it passed into common currency with renewed power. ‘P-P-P-P-Poetry In Motion’ bounces with contagious energies, as he celebrates his girl’s ‘gentle sway… no wave out on the ocean, could ever move that way.’ When little literary magazines and Bardic verse-readings playfully adopt ‘Poetry In Motion’ as a titular flag of convenience, following the Love-Story-In-Pictures adaptation, it is to this bright uncomplicated hymn to the joys of love that they’re cocking their hats. ‘She doesn’t need improvement, there’s nothing I would change’ he sings in high clear articulation and total conviction, ‘she’s much too nice to re-arr-range.’ Written by the New York duo of Paul Kauffman with Mike Anthony, and issued here on the distinctive black-&-silver London label, the record was instantly everywhere. 

Unlike Brian Hyland, Johnny was originally seen as a Country singer who claimed Hank Williams as his greatest influence. He was born in Jacksonville, Florida on 20 April 1939, and was talent-spotted at the Nashville ‘Pet Milk’ talent show, from where the baby-faced teenager was astutely signed to Archie Bleyer’s Cadence Records which was then enjoying huge success with the Everly Brothers, as well as The Chordettes and Andy Williams. His debut hit, “Poetry In Motion” was recorded twice, first unsatisfactorily in New York, then a second time in Nashville where studio sessions with Floyd Cramer’s piano and Boots Randolph’s sax, deliver pristine Teen-vinyl. 

Between 1958 and 1966 Johnny was rarely out of the US Pop charts, enjoying some twenty-five Hot Hundred records including “Without You” (no.7), “It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’” (no.3), the syrupy “Send Me The Pillow You Dream On” (no.17) and – in a curious twist, a cover of Kenny Lynch’s UK hit “You Can Never Stop Me Loving You” (no.24). Some of his hits ventured into a strong backbeat, but he was never less than parentally-approved, and clear-voiced with no rough edges. When the Everly Brothers quit Cadence for the newly-launched Warner Brothers records, Bleyer wound up his label, with Andy Williams acquiring many of the masters. While Johnny Tillotson simply re-signed to MGM, and soon returned to the Top Ten with the saccharin “Talk Back Trembling Lips”. And it was melancholic Country songs that would guarantee him a loyal audience long after his Pop career declined, as ‘Melody Maker’ phrased it, ‘Remember Johnny? Gather round all ye lovers of olde Pop and drift in mists of sentiment with the ballad ‘n’ country voice of Tillotson’ (January 1967). 

Sometimes, to create enduring memories, Pop music just needs to be charming. “Sealed With A Kiss” and “Poetry In Motion” need nothing more.



7 July 1960 – ‘Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ c/w ‘Don’t Dilly Dally, Sally’ (London HLR 9161) hits no.8, on the chart for 13 weeks. US no.1 on Billboard chart (Leader 805) 

20 October 1960 – ‘Four Little Heels’ c/w ‘That’s How Much’ (London HLR 9203) hits no.29, on the chart for six weeks. 

November 1960 – ‘Lop-Sided Over-Loaded (And It Wiggles When We Rode It)’ c/w ‘I Gotta Go (‘Cause I Love You)’ (US Kapp K-363X) issues in UK as London 9262. The B-side written by John D Loudermilk. 

4 September 1961 – ‘Let Me Belong To You’ c/w ‘Let It Die’ (ABC-Paramount 10236), no.20 on US Billboard chart. 

10 May 1962 – ‘Ginny Come Lately’ c/w ‘I Should Be Getting’ Better’ (HMV POP 10130) hits no.5, on the chart for 15 weeks. No.21 on US Billboard chart (ABC-Paramount 10294) 

2 August 1962 – ‘Sealed With A Kiss’ c/w ‘Summer Job’ (HMV POP 1015) hits no.3, on the chart for 15 weeks. No.3 on US Billboard chart (ABC-Paramount 10336) 

8 November 1962 – ‘Warmed Over Kisses’ (HMV POP 1079) hits no.28, on the chart for 6 weeks. No.25 on US Billboard chart (ABC-Para 10359) 

6 August 1966 – ‘The Joker Went Wild’ c/w ‘I Can Hear The Rain’ (US, Philips 40377) US no.20, issued in the UK as Philips BF 1508.

26 November 1966 – ‘Run, Run, Look And See’ (US, Philips 40405) US no.25, issued in the UK as Philips BF 1528. 

1966 – LP ‘The Joker Went Wild/ Run Run Look And See’ (Philips BL 7762) which includes ‘Just Out Of Reach’, ‘Yesterday I Had A Girl’, ‘Lavender Blue (Dilly Dilly)’ and the Beatles ‘Norwegian Wood’. ‘Record Mirror’ calls it ‘a bunch of clean-limbed songs… but Pop music here has changed since this type of sound sold well.’ 

March 1967 – ‘Hung Up In Your Eyes’ c/w ‘Why Mine’ (Philips BF 1555), both sides written by Crickets Glen Hardin and Sonny Curtis, ‘Why Mine’ with Snuff ‘TL’ Garrett. 

May 1967 – ‘Holiday For Clowns’ c/w ‘Yesterday I Had A Girl’ (Philips BF 1569. 

August 1967 – ‘Get The Message’ c/w ‘Kinda Groovy’ (Philips BF 1601) 

February 1969 – ‘Tragedy’ c/w ‘You’d Better Stop, And Think It Over’ (Dot 119) 

May 1969 – ‘A Million To One’c/w ‘It Could All Begin Again (In You)’ (Dot 124) 

August 1969 – ‘Stay And Love Me All Summer’ c/w ‘Rainy April Morning’ (UK Dot 128), flip-side written by Brian Hyland. 

10 April 1971 – ‘Gypsy Woman’ c/w ‘You And Me’ (Uni UN 530) hits no.42, on the chart for 5 weeks, US no.3 (UNI 55240). A Curtis Mayfield song, produced by Del Shannon. 

1972 – ‘Only Wanna Make You Happy’ c/w ‘When You’re Lovin’ Me’ (UNI 545), produced by Bobby Hart with Brian Hyland, ‘Melody Maker’ says that ‘I guess Brian sounds as young as ever.’ 

28 June 1975 – ‘Sealed With A Kiss’ (ABC 4059) hits no.7, on the chart for 11 weeks.


1 December 1960 – ‘Poetry In Motion’ (London HLA 9231) hits no.1, on the chart for 15 weeks. When it was included on the November 1972 ‘The Best Of Johnny Tillotson’ (MGM) collection the ‘Melody Maker’ reviewer (MO) said ‘I can remember pressing my ears up to the radio, tuned to Luxembourg, at age ten or so in order to catch each fading second of ‘Poetry In Motion’.’ 

2 February 1961 – ‘Jimmy’s Girl’ (London HLA 9275) hits no.43, on the chart for 2 weeks 

12 June 1962 – ‘It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin’’ (London HLA 9550) hits no.31, on the chart for 10 weeks 

4 October 1962 – ‘Send Me The Pillow You Dream On’ (London HLA 9598) hits no.21, on the chart for 10 weeks, in competition with a cover version by Marty Wilde. 

27 December 1962 – ‘I Can’t Help It’ (London HLA 9642) hits no.41, on the chart for 6 weeks 

9 May 1963 – ‘Out Of My Mind’ (London HLA 9695) hits no.34, on the chart for 5 weeks 

1966 – ‘No Love At All’ c/w ‘What Am I Gonna Do’ (MGM) ‘NME’ says ‘a plaintive country-type ballad, sung by Johnny in heartfelt, sob-in-the-throat style, against a background of cascading strings, whispering girls and a slowly plodding beat.’ Co-composed by Tillotson with his wife Lucille Cosanza. The title-song of a January 1967 LP (MGM C8025). 

January 1967 – ‘Tommy Jones’ c/w ‘Strange Things Happen’ (US MGM K13684) 

March 1968 – ‘Cabaret’ c/w ‘If I Were A Rich Man’ (MGM1393), ‘Record Mirror’ says ‘Johnny takes this much-recorded show hit at breakneck speed, I liked it, but I feel it’s in the field a bit late.’ 

14 April 1979 – ‘Poetry In Motion’ (Lightning LIG 9016), a reissue that hits no.67, on the chart for 2 weeks

Sunday 27 March 2022

SF Classic: 'The Genocides' by Thomas M Disch



Review of: 
(Berkley Medallion, December 1965 
Panther UK paperback, 1968 ISBN 0-586-02420-4)

It opens in the simple rural community of New Tassel, a ramshackle settlement of two-hundred-and forty-seven folk living on the northern shore of Lake Superior as the lake itself recedes to uncover new fertile arable land. With stern ‘strong-willed bigot’ father Anderson, and his two sons, Neil who is lumbering, mean and brutish, and younger more rebellious half-brother Buddy. Among the simple hardworking folk, the ‘Prodigal’ Buddy is the only one to have ventured into the cities of the greater world beyond, to University where the streets were swift-flowing rivers of light… before the fall. Now there are no more cities. There is only the endless green of the alien plant growths that have smothered the planet, stifling all rival forms of life. ‘They had come of a sudden in April of ’72, a billion spores… and within days every inch of ground, farmland and desert, jungle and tundra, was covered with a carpet of richest green.’ 

Neil is married to Buddy’s flirtatious former-girlfriend Greta, who gets wistfully nostalgic for the world they’ve lost. Buddy is married to mousey pregnant Maryann, survivor of a massacred Marauders party up from Minneapolis. The Anderson’s continue much as they always have done, simply adapting their methods by tapping bucketfuls of oozing honey-like sap from the towering smooth-skinned plants that soar to six-hundred feet, and using the sap to fertilise their patient rows of maize in plots hacked out of the growth. Until the next stage of the global take-over begins with the arrival of the ‘incinerators’, signalled when escaping cattle are reduced to ash, along with pursuing younger Anderson son, Jimmie. This levelling of ‘remaining artifacts’ (Disch’s spelling) prefigures the final ‘Good-Bye Western Civilisation’ phase. 

Life on Earth is a precarious thing. Humans have enjoyed ten-thousand years of relative stability. There’s a playful frisson to conjecturing that this condition will not continue indefinitely. The cover-art for the 1979 Panther paperback edition announces ‘The Genocides’ as ‘The Best Post-Disaster Yarn Since ‘The Day Of The Triffids’,’ evoking certain obvious parallels. There’s a suspicious familiarity that the scenario encroaches other post-apocalypse novels, particularly George R Stewart’s 1949 ‘Earth Abides’, even as it assumes elements of Wyndham’s ‘School of Cosy Disaster’ SF. As the ever-perceptive Brian Aldiss points out, although ‘Disch is an American. ‘The Genocides’ is curiously English. It is another story of a dwindling community which has survived a catastrophe, although Disch handles it in his own way’ (in ‘SF Impulse’ no.11). Yet there are other even more precise precedents. There’s a suspiciously similar plot to ‘Earth Our New Eden’ by veteran writer FG Rayer in ‘Authentic Science Fiction no.20’ (15 April 1952), where the Earth is seeded by alien plants, producing a ‘Green Twilight’. ‘The tops of the plants spread like giant ferns, each interlacing with its neighbours. Behind the precipice of alien growth, away to his right, the sun was outlined as a dull red orb. The patchy cloud above was ruby tinted, fading away to purple and black in the east. The whole made a scene so strange, so terrifying, that Peter felt his limbs grow cold’. The machines stop, with ‘Earth rapidly becoming uninhabitable for men’. 

As Rayer’s protagonists struggle to survive in this re-made world of final blackout they encounter images that eerily anticipate Disch. ‘Never since prehistoric times had there been such plants on the Earth, he thought, amazed. Now, once again, was an abundance of such vegetation as had existed when the great coal-beds of the planet had been laid down. He might have imagined himself plunged back millions of years into prehistory, but for one thing – the plants were alien...’

Born in Iowa in 1940 Thomas Michael Disch grew up in Minnesota, and was educated at New York University. He became a freelance writer in 1964 after working for a year in advertising, to be soon marked out as ‘a noted arrival in the SF field of the 1960s,’ according to Brian Ash (in ‘Who’s Who In Science Fiction’, Sphere, 1976). ‘The Genocides’ was Disch’s first novel, preceded by a series of impressively powerful short stories that gained him a strong reputation as an innovator. Yet strangely, for a supposedly New Wave classic, Disch also employs strong religious overtones, as early as the title-page quote from the biblical book of Jeremiah 8.20. ‘Anderson knew that the same angry and jealous God who had once before visited a flood upon an earth that was corrupt had created the Plants and sown them. He never argued about it.’ Perhaps this attitude is intended to reflect the unsophisticated morality of stoic rural people? 

The novel only becomes ‘New Wave’ when that religiosity is turned around, so that it’s viewed not only as a conscious part of the post-apocalypse genre tradition, but also as a knowing satire of them. Disch shifts the narrative focus, with each of the core figures given voice at different times. There are even brief sequences seen from the alien perspective; a date for the Estimated Completion Of Project (2 February 1980), and an instruction for the entire incineration of surviving terrestrial life-forms by 4 July 1979, exterminating human ‘indigenous mammals’ in the ‘Duluth-Superior artifact’. That the aliens are clearly working to a schedule not too far removed from human corporate mentality, with reports of ‘mechanical failures’ sent to the ‘Office of Supplies’ complete with appendaged carbons! could be seen as detracting from the existential crisis afflicting the planet. Might it not have been better to leave the alien thought-processes impenetrable, as FG Rayer had done, with the effect of his story heightened by the imprecisely-glimpsed but never-quite-seen extraterrestrial denizens of the alien jungle that Earth has become? But that is clearly not Disch’s intention. That their completion date coincides with ‘Independence Day’ – the movie had yet to happen, is further evidence of a satiric agenda. 

When the community share a grotesque family Thanksgiving meal that consists of nine-inch-long sausages recycling the human remains of slaughtered scavengers, there’s the moral justification of the ‘Donner party’ and the wreck of the ‘Medusa’ where survivors had also descended to cannibalism, with the implied ritual bonding of collective complicity in the murders that eating represents. But surely there’s also the darkest most repellent of back humour in there too? In balance there’s also a clear understanding of the interactivity of the natural world and its food-chain, as the extreme monoculture of alien plants smother all else, the world’s rich biodiversity goes into a freefall towards extinction, and even the soil, deprived of nutrition, turns to gritty dust that blows away. While colder winters result from climate-change induced by loss of carbon dioxide as the plants alter the balance of the atmosphere.

Meanwhile – switching focus, Jackie Whythe and mining-engineer ‘Jerry’ Jeremiah Orville watch as ‘incendiary mechanisms’ burn Duluth to the ground. Initially intoxicated by a strange sense of elation as he’s liberated from his formerly paunchy dead-end life-prospects, Jerry ‘learned to be as unscrupulous as the heroes in the pulp adventure magazines he’d read as a boy – sometimes as unscrupulous as the villains.’ After surviving in the safe-deposit vault of the First American National Bank with a store of scavenged cans and jars, they escape on bicycles, only to be stopped by former-nurse Alice Nemeron – ‘if you get sick, I can tell you the name of what you’ve got.’ They join her band of ‘Wolves’ travelling northeast on Route 61, until they’re overwhelmed by the Anderson Clan. When only Jerry and Alice survive, he pledges vengeance. 

In the grip of freezing snowbound winter New Tassel’s final cow dies giving birth, and then three spherical incendiaries reduce their sheltering common-room to ash, leaving them refugees. When the child Blossom leads them to a cave on the lakeshore that she remembers from a childhood incident, they huddle inside. It’s there that Jerry investigates some plant-roots that have grown down through the cave-roof and discovers not only that they’re hollow but that they’re interconnected into an endless network of navigable passages, with fruiting tubers large enough to provide a sanctuary rich with edible fibres, where they become drunk on an orgy of oxygen. The thirty-one survivors are reduced to ‘the puppets of necessity,’ little more than termites, ‘they were worms, crawling through an apple.’

Disch’s prose-style is highly readable, as he delineates the group’s internal rivalries, the strongly-sketched characters all the more believable for their flaws. Orville’s informed resourcefulness, backed up by Buddy’s support, erodes Anderson’s strict Bible-sanctioned authority, as they encounter hordes of rats driven to equally extreme measures. There’s a rebellion, and a breakaway group led by Greta. Then the crisis is tipped further into critical when an already ageing Anderson is gangrenously infected by a rat-bite, Neil suffocates him before he can nominate Orville as his successor, then has witness Alice thrown down a deep root-tunnel to die. Anderson’s death robs Orville of his long-delayed revenge, and he’s tormented by Jackie Whythe’s accusing ghost images. Yet Buddy and Orville form an uneasy temporary alliance with Neil and Blossom, until Neil is destroyed in madness. There’s implied incest, corpse desecration and the grotesque obesity into which Greta has devolved, as the plant-sap goes into spate and on the surface far above them the harvest is being prepared. They eventually return to the scorched-earth surface where a new crop of plants is already germinating. 

As Disch explained to Charles Platt, ‘it was always aesthetically unsatisfying to see some giant juggernaut alien force finally take a quiet pratfall at the end of an alien-invasion novel. It seemed to me to be perfectly natural to say, let’s be honest, the real interest in this kind of story is to see some devastating cataclysm wipe mankind out. There’s a grandeur in that idea that all the other people threw away and trivialised. My point was simply to write a book where you don’t spoil that beauty and pleasure at the end’ (in ‘Who Writes Science Fiction?’, 1980, Savoy Books). For the epilogue is called ‘The Extinction Of The Species’. There’s no upbeat ending. This is the New Wave shock. Earlier eco-disaster novels closed on a note of new hope, the dawn of new beginnings. Even for JG Ballard his characters transfigure into an acceptance of an Earth that’s undergone metamorphosis into surrealism. 

Not for Disch. Not for ‘The Genocides’. There’s no meaning, no salvation. Even the novel’s title is inaccurate – although an obvious genocide occurs, it is less a targeted focused genocide, more an irritable brushing aside. The implications are disturbing. Unlike Anderson’s belief in divine purpose and destiny, life on this planet happened as the result of a random accident of no great significance, and it can be snuffed out in a way that is equally random and insignificant. ‘It wounded his pride to think that his race, his species, his world was being defeated with such apparent ease. What was worse, what he could not endure was the suspicion that it all meant nothing, that the process of their annihilation was something quite mechanical: that mankind’s destroyers were not, in other words, fighting a war but merely spraying the garden…’ 

Although there would be further well-received novels, Thomas M Disch was never an easy fit within the SF genre, utilising its tropes instead for intellectual literary games. Readers were quick to spot that he marched to a different drum from the writers they were familiar with, and while celebrated by the ‘New Worlds’ coterie, others failed to warm to the high chill factor of his new realism. ‘Acerbic yet jolly, terse yet lushly Victorian, sardonic yet unwillingly romantic, ruthlessly modern yet operatic’ according to his entry in ‘The Ultimate Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’ (1997, Carlton Books) edited by David Pringle, Disch proved himself to be ‘a deep well of many waters.’

2 February 1940 – 4 July 2008 

1962 – “The Double-Timer” (‘Fantastic Stories Of Imagination’, Vol.11 no.10, October 1962), collected into ‘Fundamental Disch’ (Bantam Books, 1980). 

1963 – “The Demi-Urge” (‘Amazing Stories’, Vol.37 no.6, June 1963). 

1963 – “Final Audit” (‘Fantastic Stories Of Imagination’, Vol.12 no.7, July 1963). 

1963 – “Utopia? Never!” (‘Amazing Stories’ Vol.37 no.8, August 1963) edited by Cele Goldsmith. 

1964 – “Minnesota Gothic” as by ‘Dobbin Thorpe’ (‘Fantastic Stories Of Imagination’, Vol.13 no.1, January 1964), with artwork by Lutjens. Plus short story “A Thesis On Social Forms And Social Controls In The USA” as by Thomas M Disch. 

1964 – “Death Before Dishonour” as by ‘Dobbin Thorpe’ (‘Fantastic Stories Of Imagination’, Vol.13 no.2, February 1964) also edited by Cele Goldsmith. 

1964 – “Now Is Forever” as by ‘Dobbin Thorpe’ (‘Amazing Stories’ Vol.38 no.3, March 1964) with Virgil Finlay artwork. 

1964 – “Genetic Coda” (‘Fantastic Stories Of Imagination’, Vol.13 no.6, June 1964). 

1964 – “Descending” (‘Fantastic Stories Of Imagination’, Vol.13 no.7, July 1964), collected into Judith Merril’s ‘Tenth Annual Edition: The Year’s Best SF’. 

1964 – “Nada” (‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction’, No.159, August 1964) collected into the fourteenth ‘Best From Fantasy & Science Fiction’ anthology. 

1964 – “Dangerous Flags” (‘Fantastic Stories Of Imagination’, Vol.13 no.8, August 1964).

1965 – ‘THE GENOCIDES’ (US) 

1965 – “102 H-Bombs” (‘Fantastic Stories Of Imagination’ Vol.14 no.3’). 

1965 – “White Fang Goes Dingo” (‘If’ no.89, April 1965) novelette later expanded into ‘Mankind Under The Leash’. 

1966 – “The Roaches” (‘SF Impulse no.9’, November 1966), plain Marcia Kenwell moves from Minnesota to find her own way in Manhattan but finds only ‘dull jobs at mediocre wages’ and cheap apartments with dread cockroaches she battles against. But when the insanitary Shchapoli trio move into the next room, she discovers she can will the bugs to obey her, and uses them to drive the three out. She is now mistress of every cockroach in the city. This story is advertised on the ‘In Our Next Issue’ page 159 of ‘SF Impulse no.8’ 

1966 – ‘MANKIND UNDER THE LEASH’ (US), ‘humiliations render people into pets’ (‘The Ultimate Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’, 1997, Carlton Books). Also known as ‘The Puppies Of Terra’. Humankind is enslaved by aliens, who like our looks and the way we dance, until the hero – a wimp with brains, decides to drive away the new masters by annoying them, the way a dog might annoy its owner. They eventually leave because ‘they couldn’t stand the barking.’ 

1966 – ‘THE HOUSE THAT FEAR BUILT’ (Paperback Library) collaboration with John Sladek as by ‘Cassandra Knye’. 

1966 – ‘ONE HUNDRED AND TWO H-BOMBS’ (UK, Compact) short story collection, later revised as ‘White Fang Goes Dingo And Other Funny SF Stories’. 

1966 – “Three Points On The Demographic Curve” (‘SF Impulse no.10’, December 1966), vast time-spanning mini-epic ‘in a tone of wry humour’, in a ‘Make Room Make Room’ Malthus-overcrowded 2440, Investigator Darien Milkthirst tracks down mass child kidnappings to Prosper Ashfield – Last Man On Earth, from the future, who is trying to repopulate a lifeless Earth. When the stolen children lack motivation he sells them to Elijah Grasp in 1790 as factory child-labour, kicking off the Industrial Revolution. As his robots work, Ashfield places himself in stasis until the solar system’s bleak end. Plus ‘Hell Revisited’ Disch’s interview with Kingsley Amis, six years after the publication of ‘New Maps Of Hell’, Amis expresses his disappointment with the subsequent work of Pohl, Bradbury, Sheckley, Clarke and Blish. ‘Perhaps it’s the curse of ambitious science fiction that it goes outside the field of science fiction altogether and becomes something pretentious, fantastic and certainly obscure.’ 

1967 – Brian Aldiss reviews ‘The Genocides’ in ‘SF Impulse no.11’ (January 1967), ‘a new writer has come along, to delight us with an unadulterated shot of pure bracing gloom.’ 

1967 – “The Number You Have Reached” (‘SF Impulse no.12’, February 1967, with Keith Roberts art), astronaut Justin Holt returns from Mars to find he’s ‘the last man on earth’ in a winter city after neutron bomb war, everyone is dead although buildings remain intact, with bodies automatically removed by cleansing, except a woman keeps phoning him. Is she real? Or will admitting her reality be to accept his own madness? Keith Roberts editorial calls the story ‘a suave and polished account of a man’s obsessive fantasy. Or is it fantasy? One is never quite sure; and Thomas M Disch is far too skilled a writer to give too much away.’ 

1967 – ‘ECHO ROUND HIS BONES’ (US) an unexpected ‘echo effect’ produced by matter transmission, delves into the shadow existence of artificial, accidental doppelgangers. 

1967 – “The Affluence Of Edwin Lollard” (‘New Writings In SF no.10’, Dobson Books 1967, Corgi Paperback) edited by John Carnell, the consumer-satire of a man charged with ‘criminal poverty’, quoting George Bernard Shaw as source. 

1968 – ‘CAMP CONCENTRATION’ (US), a wicked book, one of ‘The Peaks Of Disch’s SF Career’, and a ‘New Wave bombshell’, intelligence in selected prisoners in a military Concentration Camp is temporarily enhanced, at the eventual cost of their lives, the diary of a character who is locked up and given a drug to heighten his intelligence; an unfortunate side-effect of the drug is that it induces death within a matter of months.’ To ‘Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia’ (1995, Dorling Kindersley) edited by John Clute, ‘the analogy with syphilis is explicit – syphilis has very often been (wrongly) treated by writers as a disease that first inspires, then kills.’ 

1968 – ‘BLACK ALICE’ (US, Doubleday) a contemporary mystery-suspense novel written jointly with John T Sladek as ‘Thom Demijohn’. The UK cover-blurb on the Panther edition is ‘Heiresses aren’t usually found in whorehouses. That was the beauty of the plan.’ 

1968 – ‘UNDER COMPULSION’ (UK) short story collection. 

1969 – ‘THE PRISONER’ (US, Ace), novelisation of the cult Patrick McGoohan TV series, aka ‘The Prisoner: I Am Not A Number’. 

1971 – “Angouleme” (‘New Worlds no.1’, Sphere paperback edition) ‘The Science Fiction Quarterly’ edited by Michael Moorcock, art by ‘Glyn Jones’. Densely-written highly imagist story that approaches prose-poetry in its intensity. Angouleme is the name given to New York harbour by Florentine-born navigator Giovanni Verrazzano in April 1524. Samuel Delany devotes his critical work ‘The American Shore’ subtitled ‘Meditations On A Tale Of Science Fiction By Thomas M Disch: Angouleme’ to his analysis of this story. Pre-teen Alexandrians led by Little Mister Kissy Lips, with Sniffles, MaryJane, Celeste DiCecca and Amparo (of course) gather by the Verrazzano statue to debate and discuss who they should murder, deliberately referencing Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime & Punishment’ (as Raskalnikov). There are other arty references as they dance to Terry Riley’s day-long ‘Orfeo’. As others fall away there is only Little Mister Kissy Lips who follows homeless Alyona Ivanovna with his father’s French duelling pistol, and faces him. Does he shoot him? The ending is ambiguous. Whether this story can even he classified as SF is equally ambiguous. 

1971 – “Feathers From The Wings Of An Angel” (‘New Worlds no.2’, Sphere paperback edition) edited by Michael Moorcock, art by Claire Murrell. An experiment in overwrought melodrama, an exercise in Victorian sentimentality, a blind girl child, a dying mother, and Tom Wilson a man of ‘careworn aspect’. Through what seems an act of divine intervention his life-story wins a $10,000 ‘Life Magazine’ competition, which arrives too late to save the mother. ‘It cannot be that the earth is man’s only abiding place! It cannot be that our life is a mere bubble cast up by eternity to float a moment on its waves and then sink back into nothingness!’ 

1971 – ‘WHITE FANG GOES DINGO AND OTHER’ (UK, Arrow) short story collection, with the novelette magazine origins of ‘Mankind Under The Leash’, reconfigured collection from ‘102 H-Bombs’. 

1972 – “The Wonderful World Of Griswald Tractors” (‘New Worlds no.3’, Sphere paperback edition) edited by Michael Moorcock. Absurdist compressed four-page novel of wild invention. Chiropractor and dabbler in hypnosis Selbst has guillotined himself, or was he murdered? The Society for the Legalization of Death becomes a successful business specialising in exotic suicides and games of chance. Hired thugs (Puerto Ricans) set Colin against his father Nathan in gladiatorial contest, as Brooklyn burns. They escape by Staten Island ferry to ghostly abandoned suburb on Long Island. 

1972 – “334” (‘New Worlds no.4’, Sphere paperback edition) edited by Michael Moorcock, art by RG Jones. Running from p.58 to p.155 in Six Parts divided into forty-three sequences dated from ‘The Teevee’ (2021) to Mrs Hanson In Room 7 (2026), Amparo from ‘Angouleme’ joined by a new cast of odd characters. 

1972 – ‘334’ (UK, MacGibbon & Kee), a completely linked set of vignettes depicting an oppressive view of a dying culture in an over-populated future. There is no hero. M John Harrison reviews it in ‘New Worlds 6’, pointing out that excerpts had already appeared in NWQ, ‘the novel presents a detailed picture of a New York in the near future, describing the lives and ambitions of a group of people’ living in a vast and decaying apartment building (334 East 11th Street)… ‘if ‘334’ hadn’t been published as SF Disch would have been in line for the Booker Prize at very least and would certainly have received the serious critical attention his work must eventually get. Perhaps he is wasting his time working within the terms of SF’? The address, when written 3-3-4, represents an arithmetical pattern that governs characters, sequences and geography. The novel lives and breathes its author’s love-hate understanding with New York. 

1973 – “The Assassination Of The Mayor” (‘New Worlds no.5’, Sphere paperback edition) edited by Michael Moorcock. Twenty-two line poem written in the same compressed-novel style as his recent fiction, ‘dreadful garbage trucks that grew louder every day…’ 


1973 – ‘THE RUINS OF EARTH’ (UK) anthology edited by Thomas M Disch, reviewed in ‘New Worlds 6’ by M John Harrison, who says ‘the theme of the book is The Environment and what it does to us, what we do to it… Disch is an editor with exceptional intelligence and taste… and has combined SF and non-SF to make a particularly coherent statement on the theme.’ 

1974 – “Pyramids For Minnesota” (‘Harper’s Magazine’ January 1974), later included in the Disch-edited ‘The New Improved Sun’ (Harper & Row, September 1975). 

1974 – ‘BAD MOON RISING’ (UK) anthology edited by Thomas M Disch. 

1974 – “The Santa Claus Compromise” (‘Crawdaddy’, December 1974), selected by editors Brian Aldiss & Harry Harrison for ‘The Year’s Best Science Fiction no.9’ (Futura, 1976). 

1975 – “The Apartment Next To The War” (‘Science Fiction Monthly’, Vol.2 no.6, June 1975). 

1975 – ‘CLARA REEVE’ (Knopf) an enormously complicated Gothic tale, published as by ‘Leonie Hargrave’. 

1975 – “At The Pleasure Centre” (‘Science Fiction Monthly’, Vol.2 no.11, November 1975), New English Library colour tabloid edited by Julie Davis. 

1976 – “The Black Cat” (‘Shenandoah’, Summer 1976), later collected into ‘The Man Who Had No Idea’. 

1976 – “The Eternal Invalid: A Celebration Of Life With The Author Of Rash” (‘New Worlds no.10’) Corgi anthology edition edited by Hilary Bailey, a spoof interview with the morbid GG Allbard on his sickbed at his Ealing flat, 13 March 1975, ‘within five minutes I was having a bowel movement in rhymed couplets!’, the interviewer is seldom allowed space to speak, as he talks of ‘a literature of extremity’ in which ‘hospitals are the cathedrals of the twentieth century.’ 

1977 – “How To Fly” (‘Bananas’, Summer 1977), later collected into ‘The Man Who Had No Idea’. 

1977 – “Planet Of The Rapes” (‘Penthouse’, Vol.12 no.9), published in the UK edition of ‘Penthouse’, later collected into ‘The Shape Of Sex To Come’ edited by Douglas Hill (Pan Books, 1978). 

1978 – “Concepts” (‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’ no.331, December 1978), edited by Edward L Ferman, novelette later collected into ‘The Man Who Had No Idea’. 

1979 – ‘ON WINGS OF SONG’ (Gollancz), set in a New York on the brink of disintegration, the central character longs for success in opera, his eventual triumph is deeply ambiguous. The ‘Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia’ (1995, Dorling Kindersley) suggests ‘in this novel, Disch may have been making a veiled statement about his own SF career; since its publication, he has concentrated in other genres.’ 

1980 – ‘WHO WRITES SCIENCE FICTION?’ by Charles Platt (Savoy Books, 1980), ‘An Amazing Journey Into The Minds Of Thirty Top Science Fiction Writers’, Platt interviews Disch in his eleventh-floor apartment in a sixteen-storey ex-office building in New York’s Chelsea area close by Union Square, ‘a writer who is known in the science-fiction field for his almost elitist, civilized sensibilities.’ 

1980 – “The Vengeance Of Hera Or, Monogamy Triumphant” short story in anthology ‘Edges’ (Pocket Books, November 1980) edited by Virginia Kidd & Ursula K LeGuin, later collected into ‘The Man Who Had No Idea’. 

1982 – “Cantata ’82: An Ode To The Death Of Philip K Dick” (‘Interzone no.2’, Summer, June 1982) poem by Thomas M Disch. 

1982 – review of Thomas M Disch’s collection ‘The Man Who Had No Idea’ (Gollancz, April 1982) in ‘Interzone no.3’, Autumn, September 1982, originally published as a short story in ‘The Magazine Of Fantasy & SF’ (no.329, October 1978), in a world where licenses are required in order to participate in conversations, Barry Riordan risks failing his exam because he cannot think of anything original. 

1984 – “Canned Goods” (‘Interzone no.9’, Autumn 1984), an ‘all-star’ line-up, after an unspecified economic crash Mr Weyman barters artwork with art-dealer Shroder – for food, Motherwell is devalued, with a brief gag about trading Warhol for a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup. 

1986 – “Hard Work Or, The Secrets Of Success” (‘Interzone no.17’, Autumn 1986). 

1988 – Gregory Feeley interviews Thomas M Disch in ‘Interzone no.24’ (Summer 1988). 

1988 – “The Village Alien” (‘Interzone no.25’, September/October 1988), reprinted from ‘The Nation’, Disch investigates the ‘True Story’ of real-life author Whitley Strieber’s ‘Communion: Encounters With The Unknown’, superficially convinced of his claims of alien abduction and anal-probe, even though it was expanded from short-story “Pain” (published in Dennis Etchison’s anthology ‘Cutting Edge’, 1986). There’s an exchange of phone calls, then Disch recounts his own alien abduction via a shrink-blaster into the Frisbee-sized saucer of the alien Winipi who warn him of Xlom money-making plans to take control of Earth, and that Strieber has already been transformed! 

1990 – “Celebrity Love” (‘Interzone no.35’, May 1990) Thomas M Disch short story. 

1992 – Book review of Thomas M Disch (‘The M.D.’) (in ‘Interzone no.60’, June 1992). A horror fantasy that unflinchingly plumbs the dark underside of the human condition, it features a doctor given a magic staff (or caduceus) by the Devil, he makes a terrifying mess of the wishes granted him by this tool. To ‘Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia’ (1995, Dorling Kindersley) edited by John Clute ‘it is a harsh message, but a necessary lesson: Disch’s entire career, in a nutshell.’ 

1994 – “The Man Who Read A Book” (‘Interzone no.87’, September 1994), barely a whisper of SF, more a cynical humorous spoof on the declining book trade. People don’t read books anymore, instead they devise devious scams to make money out of naïveté. Responding to an ad for publisher’s readers Jerome Bagley reviews ‘A Collector’s Guide To Plastic Purses’, then meets aspirant novelist Lucius Swindling and agrees to read his manuscript ‘The Last Of The Leather Stockings’, plagiarizes it into ‘I Iced Madame Bovary’ in order to get various Literary Grants.

Saturday 26 March 2022






Review of: 
(1969) Producer: Denis O’Dell. Director: Joseph McGrath. 
Based on the novel by Terry Southern. With Peter Sellers, 
Ringo Starr, Richard Attenborough, Leonard Frey, 
Laurence Harvey, Christopher Lee, Spike Milligan, 
Raquel Welch, Wilfred Hyde-White, John Cleese, 
Patrick Cargill, Hattie Jacques. Music by Ken Thorne, 
with songs “Come And Get It” written by Paul McCartney, 
performed by Badfinger. (DVD, Universal 2006)


It could have been better. It should have been better. All of the potential ingredients are there. The film arrived at the very event horizon of the swinging sixties lapping over into the opulent promise of the new seventies yet to come. As such it benefits from all the absurdist satiric weaponry and surreal oddness that had been fought for and won by a decade of startlingly innovative movie-makers. With gender freedoms and erotic possibilities open as never before, and in some ways, that would never be as open again. The cast is a dream of familiar faces, celluloid heroes and icons to drool over. Even the original novel upon which it’s based is by respected Beat counter-culture writer Terry Southern, who not only wrote ‘Candy’ for Olympia Press (1958), but scripted dialogue for ‘Easy Rider’ (1969) in ways that altered the vocabulary of film. 

And yet there’s something that indefinably doesn’t quite work, that fails to ignite lift-off. Maybe there’s a certain degree of complacency at work here? It’s not groundbreaking, because the ground has already been broken. It’s more a celebration than an innovation. A self-indulgence, a decade’s end party with a splendid time guaranteed for all. They have Peter Sellers in the lead role as eccentric Sir Guy Grand KG KC CBE whose immense wealth allows him to play pranks on the unsuspecting world to prove his assertion that ‘everyone has their price’. But if the intention is to prove the craven venality of predatory capitalism, it can hardly be considered salutary to use a position of social privilege in order to heap humiliation and indignity on a lowly-paid Traffic Warden. ‘I just wanted to see if you had your price’ explains Sellers, ‘most of us do.’ Unless the moral, or what could be dignified as the film’s underlying message, is the nihilistic blackest of black comedy ideas that all human striving and endeavor is equally corrupt and contemptible?

That they’d also recruited Ringo Starr as a character to be inserted into the plot purely in order to exploit his bankability was all the further effort they need to make the film a success. They need do no more. With the Beatles in an accelerated process of collapse, the film can be seen as the first of Ringo’s post-Fab projects in that all that’s required of him is to schmooze through the role as himself, exploiting his amiable likeability and celebrity value in a way that would underwrite the rest of his career. He had demonstrated a mild comic talent in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (1964), which was developed somewhat in ‘Help!’ (1965), but now he seems content to follow Sellers around like some affable shaggy dog, adding little to the film beyond his presence. 

And they’ve got an original Paul McCartney theme-song. I’ve always interpreted “Come And Get It” as a disguised appeal to the other three Beatles to concentrate on the core product instead of becoming increasingly distracted by their various side-projects, ‘if you want it, here it is… but you’d better hurry ‘cause it may not last,’ with Paul emphasizing his point by giving away a song with such obvious hit-potential to another Apple Records band. The song, played over the credits, with the bouncing ball following the lyric subtitles over the background of a ten-pound note, is featured at intervals throughout the score, and inevitably soared on to become a Top Ten single both in the UK and America. There are other more folksy songs on the score, including Badfinger’s own “Carry On To Tomorrow”, which pledges to ‘carry on till I find the rainbow’s end.’ 

The film opens to two contrasting mornings. The chimes of Big Ben wake Peter Sellers. He climbs into his stretch-Mercedes as a busker-violinist accompanies him (the car has a ‘Together We Chose A Mercedes’ sticker in the rear-window). Meanwhile, a park-keeper who sounds suspiciously like Spike Milligan wakes Ringo from his sleeping-bag in Green Park. He brushes his teeth in the fountain outside Buckingham Palace. Then the wonderful character-actor Rita Webb banters with him on the Park bench. Until, in a random encounter, Sellers happens to meet Ringo on the Park bridge where he’s tossing crumbs to the ducks. As the mismatched pair walk back towards the Mercedes they pass a black Nun playing tennis, as though she’s come adrift from Michelangelo Antonioni’s far superior ‘Blowup’ (1966). 

Sir Guy formally adopts the vagrant Beatle as ‘Youngman Grand’. When they embrace, Ringo exclaims ‘father’. There’s no reason or logic. Yougman has no back-story other than being a ‘young man’. He doesn’t need a back-story, he’s a cipher. Ciphers don’t need a back-story. Which is the whole point. Guy acts on impulse, an amusing whim. It was ‘love at first sight’ – paternal, of course. The family has no heirs, he and sisters Agnes (Isabel Jeans) and Esther (Caroline Blakiston) have failed to produce progeny – quite independently he stresses. Hence Ringo. 

The original novel was set in Los Angeles. That it has been relocated and extensively rewritten, with Terry Southern’s active participation, allows it to take advantage of London’s fading glamour. They use a private helicopter to fly to the theatre for a Rosencrantz & Guildenstern premier. ‘Thanks for the new suit’ says Ringo politely, ‘it’s very nice.’ ‘My pleasure, Youngman’ assures Sellers oleaginously, ‘one has to be smart when observing the effect of money on the arts.’ Guy introduces Youngman to his sisters who are already in the theatre box seats. They show no outwards signs of surprise at their brother’s latest eccentricity. As soon as the onstage Laurence Harvey goes into his Shakespearian ‘to be…’, Ringo dismisses it with ‘I’ve seen it.’ Yet the actor does a full bump-&-grind striptease to the soliloquy, as the audience gawp through theatre-glasses, the better to witness the ultimate fall of his posing pouch. ‘That fellow’s taking licence in my view’ says a disapproving Sellers, although the spectacle is due to his own intervention. ‘You’ve got to hand it to that Laurence Harvey, he really knows his job’ comments Yougman. 

There are spliced-in comic sequences. One of Sir Guy opening a low-price bargain shop, that’s indiscriminately emptied by eager shoppers. Then there’s an editorial meeting of a Grand-owned newspaper, ‘you’re thinking men of course, if memory serves,’ he tells them. Foreign words have been infiltrated into the paper, with an apology printed in Polish. ‘We are a nation on the move’ he lectures. ‘A nation of tiny cars.’ Cue a cartoon animation movie ‘New Concept in Motoring’ of a giant spaceship-streamlined Zeus auto rocketing between city blocks. As the animation concludes Sir Guy loses enthusiasm, ‘best sleep on it, eh. Don’t want to over-extend.’ Guy reads a rude limerick instead, credited to Rudyard Kipling – then the boardroom opens out and is revealed to be a train-carriage. He fires the board members, confiscates their red carnations, and abandons them at an isolated rail-station with ‘a map containing a clue to your present location.’ Except the maps are of Afghanistan or North America. 

In a new strand, Guy ‘rather fancies’ a hot-dog. So he buys a hot-doggy from a platform vendor – nine pence, but pays with a ‘fiver’ (a five-pound note) as the 3Z10 train begins to move, and the vendor runs to keep up as Sellers passes him more notes, wearing a grotesque pig’s head, causing the vendor to overbalance and fall in a spray of steam. ‘It’s not enough merely to teach, one has to punish as well’ Guy lectures reprovingly, as they stalk the train corridor. There’s a complicated stunt pulled on a ‘Times’ reader, as he’s faced by a revolving sequence of oriental men… only for him to be arrested and led away by two Nazi storm-troopers as they disembark from the train at Auchengillan accompanied by bishops, strippers and a wetsuit diver. 

‘These are strange times we live in’ Sellers tells Ringo. 

‘The old values are crumbling’ he agrees.


In a blur of absurdity, they go on a pheasant shoot, Guy uses a machinegun, then Army artillery Red Leader One opens up leaving the unfortunate bird crisped and served on a silver salver, accompanied by a military band. At the big country house, after Sellers has introduced the staff ‘Downton Abbey’-style, Guy plays harp and Youngman plays recorder as saucy French maids use feather-dusters while the TV-screen shows atrocities of riot-squad violence, race-riot brutality and a Vietnam street execution. Then the new breed of dog at Crufts is revealed as a panther which eats all the other show-dogs. Ringo and Sellers play War Games on a full tabletop display, destroying Cathedrals. ‘Why don’t we write a dirty filthy pornographic book’ suggests Ringo, but leave blank spaces where the dirty words have been omitted? 

Most of the scattergun sequences seem to be there merely for contrived effect. Even the few that promise a teasing gender ambiguity. The duo watch the Heavyweight Championship Boxing Match between the American Ike Jones and the British Joe Thompson on TV. ‘I have reason to believe this may be an exceptional bout’ Guy signals, as the pugilists embrace and kiss in the ring, collapsing in an intimate tangle of limbs, with the crowd ‘sickened by the sight of no blood…’ ‘I thought they were just good friends’ quips Ringo. Then there’s solitary drinker (Roman Polanski) serenaded by a vamp in green singing Noël Coward’s “Mad About The Boy”, who is revealed to be a transvestite Yul Brynner. And then the racially-offensive Major Trubshawe who is confronted by a black-and-white body-builder balletic team dancing in erotic poses as they stuff money down their skimpy glitter posing-pouches. Although these sketches are merely played for comic value, without any mitigating crusading intent, beyond the natural assumption of their vague liberal agenda. 

Yet all of the potential ingredients are there. The two most effective stunts are where Guy offers ‘an interesting proposition’ to Richard Attenborough as the Oxford team coach in the boat-race against Cambridge. ‘I think they’re trying to bribe us’ exclaims shocked oarsman Graham Chapman (uncredited), ‘Oxford men can’t be bought!’ But what ‘if the sum was large enough?’ suggests Guy, ‘as large as this,’ opening a case packed with neat packs of banknotes. Inevitably, Oxford men can be bought. Oxford cuts the Cambridge steering-cables then rams their boat, severing it neatly into two sinking halves. John Le Mesurier, observing events through binoculars, takes more exception to Ringo wearing an Oxford cap. Is he entitled to wear the hat? Why is he wearing it? ‘To keep me ‘ead warm’ says Ringo chirpily.

The other self-contained sketch has Spike Milligan as a grovelling ‘jobsworth’ Parking Warden paid £500 to devour the parking ticket he’s just stuck to the windscreen of the stretch Merc parked in a ‘Loading Zone’. A non-sequitur procession of sandwich-board men file past with placards declaring ‘You’re Telling Me God’, while Ringo reads a yellow ‘Isometric Exercises’ book, acting out the ‘Silent Scream’ and ‘Tiny Face’ facial expressions. He looks like a ‘bleeding nutcase’ accuses Spike, ‘why don’t you get your bleeding ‘air cut?’ As Guy induces ‘Grand is the name and money is the game. Would you care to play?’ ‘What’s yer game?’ protests the confused Spike before he eats not only the ticket but the plastic cover-envelope too, leaving a defiant ‘let that be a lesson to you’ as the Merc drives away. This is Spike playing against his former Goon colleague in a way that almost vindicates the preposterously overblown movie in which it is embedded. 

John Cleese also excels as the sniffy art expert extolling the virtues of ‘light and shade’ in the ‘school of Rembrandt’ painting up for auction at Sotheby’s. Guy offers £30,000. Cleese says ‘SHIT!’ Guy then takes out scissors and neatly snips the nose from the painting as Cleese watches in a controlled rictus of horrified shock. With the first episode broadcast by BBC-TV 11pm on Sunday, 5 October 1969, ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ had yet to assume its cult status, although Cleese adopts the recognisably uptight persona he will employ for lethal comedic effect in the show. The scene where Guy dines at the posh restaurant that serves Rice Krispies, gargles a ‘plucky little Burgundy’, and is then strapped into his chair devouring caviar with his hands as staff sponge and spray him clean has future-echoes of the Python’s ‘Mr Creosote’ sketch. Meanwhile, Guy plays an elaborate charade bidding for a ‘sentimental’ Landseer at auction using harmonica, semaphore, siren and loudhailer, ratcheting the bids impossibly high against competing bids, before withdrawing at the last moment, ‘…mark it sold to the old American twit in the front row’ deadpans auctioneer Patrick Cargill. 

Yet the movie rises to its most extravagant centre-piece with the announced maiden voyage of the luxury cruise-ship ‘The Magic Christian’ itself, with popular TV presenter Michael Aspel speaking-to-camera to describe the ‘beautiful trendy people’ who will be aboard, and Alan Wicker covering the Tower Bridge embarkation as Jacqueline Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis, John & Yoko board behind him. Or is it John & Yoko? No, it’s look-alikes. Things immediately disintegrate into a ludicrously unleashed chaos. Sellers reads ‘Wind In The Willows as a bedtime story to his adopted son and heir, as the TV shows ship’s captain Wilfred Hyde-White being hijacked by ‘take me to Cuba’ terrorists. The ship’s physician smokes a joint to ‘tighten me wig.’ A background movie shows the first trans-racial head-transplant that results in face and feet facing opposing directions, as a vampiric Christopher Lee prowls the corridors seeking victims. A rampaging gorilla-suited figure carries off the captain. A Nun escorts an overweight man in a loincloth carrying a cross. ‘THERE IS NO CAUSE FOR ALARM!’ blares the speakers, causing alarm. ‘SMASH CAPITALISM!’ graffiti appears, as well as ‘Down With Pants’ sprayed on walls. A poster of Mao. The two homoerotic bodybuilders. 

When he’s asked ‘how do we get out of here?’ Ringo helpfully suggests ‘through the engine-room if memory serves.’ Yet the engine-room consists of a hundred topless girl galley slaves chained five-to-an-oar, driven by ‘Priestess of the Whip’ Raquel Welch as two bare-breasted girl drummers beat out the rhythm. But just as the earlier boardroom turned out to be a train carriage, now the confused passengers break through a plywood construct to emerge on the same wharf. The entire cruise-ship is a set. The final orchestral crash from the ‘Sgt Pepper’ album fades over Tower Bridge. 

Yet this is no conclusion, there’s more to come. Although there will be no ironic plot-reversal or poetic retribution. Sir Guy’s project simply continues, testing out new limits. To what extreme lengths will people humiliate or debase themselves in the quest for wealth? If ‘everyone has their price,’ does that include Guy Grand himself? We will never find out. It might have been an interesting detour to see a financial crash or an unwise investment go spectacularly wrong, wiping out his wealth, with a bankrupt Guy ending up street-sleeping through necessity, and dancing for tourist amusement and tossed coins. While Yougman is permitted no back-story, he could use his new heir status to settle dubious secrets from the past in various compromising ways? But nothing of that nature is allowed to happen. There’s no comeuppance to add moral equivalence to the otherwise unrelieved repetition of stunts. 

Instead, Ringo and Sellers use loudhailers to announce ‘Free Money’ as operatives wearing gasmasks fill a large vat on the Thames embankment with a hundred gallons of slaughterhouse blood, two-hundred gallons of urine and five-hundred cubic feet of animal manure. Thunderclap Newman’s hit record “Something In The Air” soundtracks the gathering gawking crowd who use handkerchiefs to muffle the stench, as banknotes are thrown and stirred into the sludge. A bowler-hatted brolly-brigade descend the stairs in precise step, masking their noses. They paddle and submerge in the disgusting mire of filth, using opened brolly’s and bowlers to fish floating notes as more plunge in to scoop and gather their share of free money. 

Not even hanging around to witness the outcome of their provocation Sir Guy and Youngman retreat to the Park where the movie opened, and squirm into adjacent sleeping-bags. ‘You’re quite right, Youngman, there must be a simpler way’ Sellers concedes. ‘This is it’ agrees Ringo. ‘Well, let’s give it a try.’ Interrupted by the Park Keeper, they bribe him too. ‘Sod the Regulations’ he says, ‘you can kip here any night you like. Goodnight Gents.’ 

They have Peter Sellers and the cream of celebrity cameos. They have Ringo Starr, plus a new Paul McCartney song. They need do no more. But it could have been better. It should have been better. 

‘THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN’ (December 1969 UK, February 1970 USA, Grand Films Limited, Commonwealth United Entertainment) Producer: Denis O’Dell. Director: Joseph McGrath. Adapted from Terry Southern novel, with screenplay by Joseph McGrath and Terry Southern by. With Peter Sellers (as Sir Guy Grand KG, KC, CBE), Ringo Starr as (Youngman Grand Esq), Richard Attenborough (as Oxford Coach), Leonard Frey (as ship’s physician Laurence Faggot), Laurence Harvey (as actor playing ‘Hamlet’), Christopher Lee (ship’s vampire), Spike Milligan (as Traffic Warden no.27), Raquel Welch (as Priestess Of The Whip), Wilfred Hyde-White (as Captain Reginald K Klaus), Isabel Jeans as (Dame Agnes Grand), Caroline Blakiston (as Hon Esther Grand), John Cleese (as Sotheby Director Mr Dugdale), Patrick Cargill (Sotheby Auctioneer), Hattie Jacques (as Ginger Horton). Music: composed by Ken Thorne, with songs “Come And Get It” written by Paul McCartney, performed by Badfinger, “Carry On Till Tomorrow” by Tom & Pete, “Rock Of All Ages” by Badfinger (written by Tom (Evans), Pete (Ham) and Mike (Gibbins)), featured on the ‘Magic Christian Music’ LP Apple SAPCOR12, plus “Something In The Air” by Thunderclap Newman (written by Speedy Keen and produced by Pete Townshend). (DVD, Universal 2006) 92 minutes