Friday, August 17, 2012

Harry Harrison

2012 is turning out to be a really rotten year. Following the recent deaths of Ray Bradbury and Margaret Mahy, this week saw the passing of Harry Harrison, one of the greats, and a real name from the Golden Age of popular SF. Harrison is unique among the writers I discovered by virtue of first coming to my attention through comics. 2000AD ran a series of adaptations of Harrison's celebrated Stainless Steel Rat books through to around 1984's Stainless Steel Rat for President and, as it turned out, the first year of my collecting the comic full-time. In the pages of 2000AD Slippery Jim DiGriz was in the reliable hands of Dredd/Strontium Dog artist Carlos Ezquerra, and so it's his version of the silver-haired rogue that stays with me even now.

In those same pages the letters column would regularly be filled with readers speculating on how they'd cast movie versions of the comic's strips. You could rely on Joe Dredd's tight boots being filled by Clint Eastwood, and for DiGriz the actor of choice was invariably James Coburn, which worked for me after I saw him in The President's Analyst. Nowadays, maybe Clooney?

The role of the Rat definitely needs a light touch, and it seems that this sort of character was what Harrison really specialised in. You can't help but side with this crook, no doubt seduced as you were by the first-person narrative. I definitely was - even seeking out the novel of SSRFP at the local library to check how faithful the adaptation was (pretty much, I concluded), and then following it with the original novel. Perhaps the Silver one will finally reach the silver screen? It's a shame Harrison never saw it happen, I guess.

To my shame, that's almost all I read of Harry Harrison's work, save for another one of his best, Make Room! Make Room! - almost the opposite to the Rat stories. A future dystopia (a friend once observed that there are no future utopian fiction, and I haven't seen anything to prove otherwise) of an overcrowded planet and a desperate and awful solution to world hunger, filmed of course as Soylent Green (I didn't care for the adaptation this time), and of course somewhat diminished by being one of the most spoiled endings of modern SF because of it. The novel is the superior, and I remember how much it affected me, even though a few years' worth of similar stuff in 2000AD should have prepared me well enough.

And so, like Bradbury before him, I feel as though I have a lot of reading to do.  But here's to you, Mr Harrison. Here's hoping that the world you're inhabiting now is every bit as bold and exciting, human and humourous as the world of Jim DiGriz. And thanks for the great stories.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

"Cosmetic / Polemic"

Manic Street Preachers: 'Know Your Enemy' (2001)

"Hello, it's us again" – The Masses Against the Classes

A new millennium has dawned, and Manic Street Preachers have turned ten, seeing in the new2 era with a live concert in Cardiff Arms Stadium, and after the success of the last album (and the group’s first number one in If You Tolerate This) releasing a standalone single: The Masses Against the Classes – a stomping rallying cry to fans who were critical of This Is My Truth’s ‘sell out’ sound. This gesture of goodwill, reminiscent in its verses of Blur’s Movin’ On from their eponymous album was boosted through the dedication of an enlarged fanbase, and turned into a surprise second number one after its release and immediate deletion with no accompanying video. And then…?

Know Your Enemy’s creation doesn’t quite speak from the success of This Is My Truth or Masses. With the band still not making head roads into a larger US market, the risk was seen of the Manics being a UK-only success was real, and so resources for the follow-up were cut significantly. It seems churlish of their record company, especially after a second number one. And yet, this seems to be the story, and perhaps Enemy is a reaction as much to this. Gone are the sweeping panoramic string sections, back is the overdrive pedal; lyrics less concerned with internalised melancholy and longing, and more agitprop and cut-up politics. Overall the sound and approach mark a lo-fi retreat along the lines of U2's Achtung Baby and, again, that crucial self-titled fifth Blur album. The result is perhaps best put kindly as a mix of styles – described by one Pitchfork review as an attempt to write a protest song in every genre. It’s not quite that, but the grab-bag approach is obvious, as are the influences from The Byrds (the uplifting Let Robeson Sing), The Beach Boys (So Why So Sad), New Order (The Convalescent, Intravenous Agnostic), REM (Year of Purification, His Last Painting), early U2 (My Guernica, with a drumbeat recalling Joy Division’s Transmission) and Nirvana (Dead Martyrs). All are good compositions, but strangely not recognisable Manic Street Preacher songs – the mimesis makes the album sound little like anything they’ve done, or were known for – particularly after two very strong chart-teasing works.

It’s this inconsistency which I think plays against Know Your Enemy on the whole, rendering it less cohesive than its predecessors. There’s less to latch onto here. "You Don't Just Sit in a Rocking Chair When You've Built a Revolution" – Baby Elian From the outset the album seems misjudged: Promoted with the questionable decision to play in Havana and a personal press meeting with Castro (Wire has seemingly since recanted) and released in May 2001 – a full six months before the September 11 attacks that would turn global geopolitics completely over and really give the group something to talk about (but who would have known?) If the previous album’s S.Y.M.M and its lyrics (“The subtext of this song / I've thought about it for so long / But it's really not the sort of thing / That people want to hear us sing") were in any way a warning sign of lyrics to come then they were ignored – the Pop-like Miss Europa Disco Dancer stuttering to a profanity-laced conclusion, pop culture names dropped in carelessly. The remainder, the vast remainder of Know Your Enemy is something of a slog lyrics-wise, lazy rhyming and lines that could have done with a second and third pass (and maybe an external eye – even seventeen-year-old me could have told Nicky Wire that T S Eliot’s lugubrious antihero is the weakly-named J Alfred Prufrock, not Alfred J Prufrock.)

It’s less well-wrought than Richey Edwards’ stream of conscious stuff, and sadly Bradfield’s contribution, Ocean Spray (I was astonished in thinking that the band couldn’t have realised that the song’s name is also that of a popular cranberry drink – then gobsmacked when I realised that this is what the song is about), just proves that he’s every bit the lyricist that Nicky Wire is a vocalist. Know Your Enemy seems a long album (the version I have includes The Masses as a bonus track plus a perfunctory Avalances remix of So Why So Sad) but delivers so little. I was off them by now, and hearing snippets of So Why So Sad and Ocean Spray didn’t endear me to check the album out further. The next release would be longer in the making and prove another departure, by which time Manic Street Preachers were almost entirely off my radar.

Cover Story
: After two albums featuring the band members on the front, this one is all text and grit, with nods to the group’s past penchant for stenciled statements on their stage clothes. Inside the lyrics are reproduced as facsimiles of the songbooks they came from – all very verite, but all the more revealing for the typos and formative lyrical ideas.

Here's a thing. Trying to decide which video to feature as a standout or typical track from the album? There is none, so I had to pick two.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Hondo City Justice

When I was a teenager Hiroshima Day pretty much meant one thing: the bomb. A day of reflection and not a little dread about what we'd come to as a civilisation, and what measures our grandparents' generation had decided were necessary to take to end a global war. The fates of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were equally horrific and fascinating in my mind, as obsessed as I was with the Cold War I and my friends had grown up in, and the sci-fi adoption of the atom bomb as both a symbol of technological mastery and annihilation. In all of this, I don't think I considered once that for the nation of japan the destruction of those cities, followed by the surrender of the Empire in the following Month, a new beginning and new identity would rise. The Japan of our grandparents was something to fear - the topic of truly dreadful and despicable stories of wartime atrocity and the ghost of centuries of Yellow Peril scaremongering. For my parents Japan was a different thing again - the place where all our new transistor radios, microwave ovens, TVs and cars were being made. It was a place creating the future, for better or worse if you took into consideration the manufacturers of the West. And then for my generation Japan was the source of new curiosities - ninjas and martial arts, robots, cartoons and crazy sci-fi influences. It was the home of Akira. A fascinating country and people, with a deep and seemingly unfathomable pop culture. It seems somehow inevitable then that the world of Judge Dredd would eventually turn to a future japan, informed, as I see it, by all of the above.

Hondo City is the Japan of Dredd's world, a city that coves the entire chain of islands of modern japan and some parts beyond. Imperial, highly advanced in its technology and irresistibly designed, its Judge-Inspectors had their uniforms designed by Brendan McCarthy, interpreted in strip form by Colin MacNeill in the still-controversial Our Man in Hondo, and then, after a few visitations from the regular roster of artists, they were stream-lined and stylised once more by the pen of Frank Quitely into a version similar but far superior to the one I've done here. Our Man in Hondo is to me a rough story, given an unfunny 'Charlie Chan'-styled omniscient narrative (thinks a peppering of 'honourable's, 'so sorries' and the like), but things got a little better. On the whole though, the Hondo Judge stories which spun off into their own series (Shimura, Hondo City Justice) have struggled to really find their own identity outside of a very hackneyed version of Japanese pop culture. Giant monsters, yakuza, Judges turning ronin, mad science - it's all there, but sometimes it seems that's all there is. Any Dreddworld series needs more than cliche as its basis.
The Hondo Judges do look cool, though. Cooler than Mega-City One's, in fact. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Stuff As [Bad] Dreams Are Made On

This post was inspired by the splendid WIP Black Dog currently on AnEvilGiraffe's modelling blog. Check it out!

Here's something I once had, lost, and then bought again as soon as I saw it.

All About Ghosts (1977) is one of a series of three books on the supernatural by Usborne/Maynard. Usborne really seemed to be the go-to chaps for guidebooks on anything a youngster of the Seventies might want - Spies, Pirates, Explorers, War, the Future, awesome vehicles, and of course these guys.

There are some great scans of some of the internal pages here, as well as a pretty fine write-up and comments. In fact, click around the Web and you'll find a lot of nostalgia, love and yearning for this tidy wee series, a good many young readers, it seems, scared themselves silly with these books, which wasn't surprising as the interior artwork was of a very high standard and oh so evocative. To illustrate, here's a two-page spread of the terror of Blythburgh, Black Shuck:

I'm not sure whether that centre fold spoils the picture or enhances it, making it appear as though the monster is actually LEAPING at you from inside the book.

The style is typical of the World of the Unknown series, as it was later called and bound into one enviable volume (yes, a friend had it, and yes, if I couldn't borrow his then I was continually loaning it from the school library - another popular story, apparently.) In those three books I encountered for the first time in lurid detail Shuck, Beowulf and Grendel, Efrit, Reverend Dodge the whipcracking ghosthunter, Gef the Mongoose, the Hopkinsville Goblins, the Lambton Worm, and dozens of other truly creepy stories, enhanced by some of the most mundane pictures of wooded lanes and silent quarries that would attest to having been visited by the supernatural. Like the after-image trick presented in the bound edition, it left an indelible mark on my childhood, and so when I saw the Ghosts volume nearly ten years ago at a recent school fair, I snapped it up before somebody else's nostalgia beat me to it. Who knows, perhaps I saved a young child some nightmares that night, eh?

And so now it just leaves me to invite The Darkness to play us out on an appropriate song, Black Shuck. Take it away, boys...

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Night of Chill Blue

The Chills, the Bats and the 3d's Dunedin Town Hall Sunday 8th of July 1990

"That's it- they were ethereal!"

A few weeks ago I was reminiscing with Nic, an old friend from University, about a gig twenty two years and four days in our past, when it seemed that everybody we knew at the time was in the same place, watching the same thing.

I am nineteen, and my favourite band in the whole world is The Chills, a band from my new adopted home of Dunedin, now ten years old and touring the biggest album of their careers, the impeccable Submarine Bells. I first heard this album in its last lines lulling quietly out the door of Roi Colbert's legendary music shop in Stuart Street, Records Records. Like a lot of young local bands, Roi had been very good to my group, indulging us in our visits and playing our demo for visitors, even pointing overseas guests to our gigs when they arrived wanting to hear something reminiscent of The Dunedin Sound. It was fair enough, because that was the sound we liked as a band. That was the kind of band I wanted to be in, so that was the style of music I wrote. The Chills, a melodious and almost juvenile band, were then the peak of what a Dunedin band was to me; I inhaled their music, scrutinising their lyrics and trying to see if I could see the same things their leader Martin Phillipps might have been seeing when he wrote songs like I Soar, Green Eyed Owl, or Night of Chill Blue. The love affair had started at high school, through my first year of University (when I bought their entire available back catalogue second hand on vinyl from Records Records - it was that easy back then), and ended two years later, with the disappointing Soft Bomb and the virtual demise of the band as a unit.

The Dunedin Town Hall gig was the final night of a large tour, and was a big deal. The Chills were the new New Zealand success story, having flown the Flying Nun coop and signed to Slash (a Warners subsidiary), their anthemic Heavenly Pop Hit struck at just the right time to grab a country's sesquicentennial consciousness. On their return to Phillipps' home town they were given a mayoral reception and instead of the usual venues, the Town Hall, more often reserved for international acts and Univerity graduation.

With a belly full of home-cooked rabbit I joined my friends and we set off with bandmates, flatmates, girlfriends, and all of the former to be in the future, to the Octagon. It was, aptly, freezing cold, but the snow had left the hills by that time of year, as I recall. Inside the Town Hall was, it seemed, everyone we knew, fans or not. My future wife was there, though neither of us had yet met, and Nic was a few rows behind my bassist and I, who ploughed to stage right as soon as the lights went down, hugging a foldback so as not to be drawn into the crowd, and squinting at the guitarists to work out their chord changes among the songs. The band was at its peak in profile and performance, and everything seemed to go on slow motion, especially the transcendental opening song:

After a rousing and rowdy encore we left in the cold midnight air to our respective abodes, peeling off in ones and twos as we ambled further into north Dunedin. At my flat I collapsed onto my bed, scrawled what I could remember of the setlist in my diary, closed it and went off to sleep with the beginnings of a lifetime's tinnitus ringing in my ear.

I would see The Chills play roughly half a dozen times later over the next ten years, but nothing matched that one night when a still-young man of twenty-seven, his glittering blue guitar and fellow travellers held the youth of his home town in their hands.

My memorised Set list*: The Night of Chill Blue Part Past, Part Fiction Don't Be Memory I Love My Leather Jacket Pink Frost Dan Destiny and the Silver Dawn Wet Blanket Whole Lot of Non Going On Look For the Good in Others and They'll See the Good in You Creep Dark Carnival Submarine Bells Sweet Times Effloresce and Deliquesce Familiarity Breeds Contempt Heavenly Pop Hit Oncoming Day Doledrums I Saw Your Silhouette Kaleidoscope World What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor? Smile from a Dead Dead Face [unknown encore] [* The memory cheats, of course. This may or may not bear things out, but a set list from an Australian gig later that same year with many of the same tracks can be found here] From a Dead Dead Face - Melbourne, Australia 6/9/90