Literary things


© The Turman-Foster Company / Universal Pictures


I reckon John Carpenter’s 1982 movie The Thing is one of the best horror films ever.  Its story of a shape-shifting alien organism that infiltrates a base in Antarctica, absorbing and assuming the forms of more and more of the base’s human (and canine) personnel, is a masterpiece of claustrophobia, paranoia and all-round scariness.


And its special effects, courtesy of make-up / effects genius Rob Bottin, massively raised the bar for what was achievable in horror movies at the time.  During those moments when it reveals itself, Bottin’s alien Thing is a hellish, glistening, squirming, tentacled nightmare made of bits and pieces of all the Earth creatures it’s consumed already.  It resembles a canvas painted and splattered simultaneously by Hieronymus Bosch and Jackson Pollock.


What makes Bottin’s work all the more remarkable, and believable, is that it consists of real, solid, practical effects.  For The Thing was made in the days was before digital technology took over and filmmakers went crazy using cartoonish and insubstantial-looking computer-generated imagery.  That’s the reason why I’ve never bothered watching Matthijs van Heijningen Jr’s 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s movie, also called The Thing.  Although practical special effects were used during the prequel’s shooting, studio executives later lost their nerve, decided 2011 audiences couldn’t handle an absence of CGI and had the wretched stuff superimposed over those practical effects in post-production.


Anyway, today – June 25th – is exactly 40 years since Carpenter’s The Thing was first released in cinemas.  Which, as well as making me feel bloody ancient, makes we want to post something about it on this blog.  But rather than write about the movie itself, as countless film critics, commentators and enthusiasts have over the years, I thought I’d look instead at its literary roots.  Because The Thing is an adaptation (scripted by Bill Lancaster, son of Burt) of a novella called Who Goes There?, written by science-fiction writer and editor John W. Campbell and published in 1938.


Who Goes There? had already been filmed in 1951 as The Thing from Another World, directed by Christian Nyby and produced by the legendary Howard Hawks.  The 1951 version keeps the story’s basic premise of the crew of a polar camp coming up against a malevolent alien.  But instead of depicting it as a shape-shifting beastie, which would have been difficult to do convincingly in 1951, the Hawks / Nyby film merely depicts it as a lumbering, pasty-skinned, dome-headed muscle-man played by none other than James Arness, later to star in the 1950s-1970s Western TV show Gunsmoke.   Howard Hawks’s trademark no-nonsense directorial style and brisk, punchy dialogue are much in evidence in The Thing from Another World and it’s often been speculated that he, rather than Nyby, shot much of the film.


© Winchester Pictures Corporation / RKO


John Carpenter was well-known for his admiration of Howard Hawks and his 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 in particular shows a big Hawksian influence.  So, when Carpenter’s version of The Thing was announced, I suspect many critics assumed it’d be a straightforward remake of the 1951 movie.  And I suspect that’s why it got such a hostile reception when it was released in 1982.  For although the movie has since been reappraised and is now regarded as a sci-fi / horror classic, it initially earned Carpenter some of the worst reviews of his career.  I seem to remember, for instance, the Observer slamming it under the headline JUST ONE DAMNED THING AFTER ANOTHER.  Those 1982 critics got something very different from what they were expecting and didn’t react well.


What they got, in fact, was a film capturing the shape-shifting concept of the alien in the real source material, the 1938 story by John W. Campbell – a story most of those critics were probably unfamiliar with.


I recently came across and read Who Goes There? online.  What did I think of it?


Well, what I immediately thought after reading it was “Phew!”  Experienced in 2022, with its dollops of torturous pose and pages upon pages of dialogue-framed exposition, Campbell’s story is hard going indeed.


It’s fun to see so many character-names that crop up in Carpenter’s film – McReady (in the film spelt ‘MacReady’), Blair, Copper, Garry, Norris, Clark, Benning – but the descriptions of those characters are madly overwrought.  The hero McReady is likened by Campbell to “a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life, and walked.  Six-feet-four inches he stood…  And he was bronze – his great red-bronze beard, the heavy hair that matched it.  The gnarled, corded hands gripping, relaxing on the table planks were bronze.  Even the deep-sunken eyes beneath the heavy brows were bronze.”  This Wagnerian, and bronze, version of McReady is far removed from the morose, tetchy git played in the film by Kurt Russell.


The scientist Blair, meanwhile, is described with this peculiar sentence: “His little birdlike motions of suppressed eagerness danced his shadow across the fringe of dingy grey underwear hanging from the low ceiling, the equatorial quiff of stiff, greying hair around his naked skull a comical halo about the shadow’s head.”  At least he sounds more like his cinematic incarnation, who’s played by the character actor Wilfred Brimley.


© Barnes & Noble


How the characters discover and bring into their camp their soon-to-be-unwelcome visitor is related in three pages of conversational backstory, which includes such unlikely pieces of dialogue as: “Right there, where that buried thing was, there is an ice-drowned mountain ridge, a granite wall of unshakable strength that has dammed back the ice creeping from the south.”   Later, as the Thing starts to imitate the base’s inhabitants, there are many talky pages where people speculate on its biology, its capabilities and how it can be detected; and also, where they start to crack up with paranoia.  “You sit as still as a bunch of graven images,” exclaims one man while his colleagues regard him suspiciously.  “You don’t say a word, but oh Lord, what expressive eyes you’ve got.  They roll around like a bunch of glass marbles spilling down a table.  They wink and blink and stare and whisper things.”


There are moments when Campbell’s prose conveys the bleakness of the situation, recording how the Antarctic wind created an “uneasy, malicious gurgling in the pipe of the galley stove” and how “the snow picked up by the mumbling wind fled in level, blinding lines across the face of the buried camp”.  But overall, thanks to its dire writing, Who Goes There? is a work to be endured rather than enjoyed.   It isn’t a patch on that other famous 1930s tale of Antarctica-set horror, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936).


Still, the story provides the film with its most celebrated scene, the ‘blood-test’ one wherein McReady hits on a method of identifying who’s-been-got and who’s not.  However, while John W. Campbell has McReady laboriously testing the blood of some 35 base-members, in the movie John Carpenter waits until there’s only half-a-dozen men left standing, which makes his enactment of the scene much more intense, focused and suspenseful.


And to be fair to Campbell, his story clarifies the Thing’s modus operandi.  At times the film is hazy about just what the humans are up against.  For example, watching The Thing, I was initially puzzled by the idea that the intruder could take the form of more than one victim at a time.  In the story, it’s made clear that when it absorbs an organism it adds the organism’s body mass to its own; and when the organism is replaced, that hives off again with the original’s massMeanwhile, the original Thing goes back to its original bulk too, free to absorb and replicate something else.


Then there’s the sub-plot with Blair.  In both the novella and film, Blair loses his mind as the horror unfolds and is locked up for his own and everyone else’s safety.  It later becomes apparent that he’s part of the Thing too, has its alien intelligence, and has spent his time in captivity assembling a mysterious machine.  The novella describes how he’s imprisoned in an equipment storeroom, where he uses pieces of the equipment to fashion a small anti-gravity device that’ll transport him from Antarctica to a populated continent where he can start replicating.  The film is murkier about what he’s up to.  We get a glimpse of some sort of capsule, like a mini-flying saucer, but there’s little explanation why and nothing about his place of incarceration being an equipment storeroom.  I was left with the impression that Blair for some reason had managed to construct a spacecraft out of empty soup cans and pieces of string.


Finally, I should point out that Who Goes There? isn’t the only literary work connected with the scary world of The Thing.  In 2010, Clarkesworld Magazine published a short story called The Things, written by Peter Watts, which retells the events of Carpenter’s movie through the eyes, if that’s the word, of the Thing itself.


Here, the Thing isn’t such a bad old thing.  It genuinely believes it’s doing the humans a favour by taking them over, which it describes as an act of ‘communion’.  It views their biology as ‘ill-adapted’, ‘inefficient’ and ‘disabled’ and wants to ‘fix’ them.  At times, it’s repulsed by their physical circumstances, calling their brains ‘tumours’ and their bodies ‘bony caverns’.  No wonder it’s upset when the humans respond to its kindness by using flamethrowers on it.


A thought-provoking and bleakly-amusing take on John Carpenter’s movie from the very last character in it you’d expect, Peter Watts’ The Things can be read on this webpage.  Meanwhile, John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? is available for reading here.  The 2010 story is 7,000 words long while the 1938 one clocks in at a hefty 30,000 words.  Comparing them, I have to say I agree with the old adage that the best Things come in small packages.


© Shasta Publishers

Rock star insults




This blog entry starts with Kate Bush… but isn’t about Kate Bush.


The other day I read a news report about how Kate Bush’s 1985 song Running Up That Hill had just gone to number one in the United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium and Sweden and reached number five in the United States.  The renewed popularity of the song was due to it being featured in season four of the American sci-fi / horror TV series Stranger Things.  My curiosity was sufficiently piqued for me to go to YouTube and type ‘running up that hill’ into its search-bar, wondering if it would provide the clip from the TV show where the song was used.  That didn’t happen, however.  Instead, YouTube – presumably its algorithms had taken note of my past musical preferences at the site – sent me to a cover version of Running Up That Hill performed by the late 1990s / early 2000s band Placebo.  I have to say the cover version didn’t sound bad at all.  And incidentally, the comments below were full of Americans saying things like, “I’d always assumed this was an original Placebo song.  I hadn’t known some English chick had sung it first, back in the 1980s!”


Meanwhile, my reaction at that time was: Placebo?  Wow, I haven’t heard of them for years…


And then I thought: Hold on! They were responsible for the greatest rock ‘n’ roll insult I’ve ever heard live!


Let me explain.  In 1999, I attended T in the Park, then the biggest annual music festival held in Scotland.  Placebo was one of the bands performing on the main stage and I was near the front of the crowd at the start of their set.  Also appearing that day was the rock band Gay Dad, who’d recently scored hit singles with the songs To Earth with Love and Joy, although sceptics grumbled that the hype surrounding the band was nothing to do with quality and everything to do with the fact that its singer Cliff Jones had previously been a music journalist – his former colleagues in the media were promoting his outfit as a favour.  Placebo’s singer Brian Molko was obviously one of the sceptics.  Before they began playing, Molko apologised for the band being slightly late in coming onstage.


This, he said, was because: “I was getting a blowjob backstage from the singer of Gay Dad.”  He paused, then added with timing worthy of a master comedian: “Believe me, it’s not just their music that sucks!”


Anyway, that memory got me thinking about the following question.  What are the best rock star insults of all time?


There are a few famous ones that come immediately to mind.  I recall Robert Smith of the Cure saying of the self-consciously fey and militantly vegetarian frontman of the Smiths, “If Morrissey says not to eat meat, then I eat meat. That’s how much I hate Morrissey.”  Also memorable was Nick Cave’s comment on a well-known Californian funk-rock band: “I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the f*ck is this garbage?’ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”  Van Halen singer Dave Lee Roth was pretty brutal about a certain post-punk troubadour of the late 1970s and early 1980s: “Music journalists like Elvis Costello because music journalists look like Elvis Costello.”  Though for brutality, you can’t beat the Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards talking about Slowdive, one of the key bands of the shoegaze movement of the late 1980s: “We hate Slowdive more than we hate Hitler.”


George Melly, though strictly speaking not a rock star – he was a jazz / blues singer – deserves inclusion here for his response to Mick Jagger.  Melly had drawn attention to the deep grooves on the Rolling Stone’s face and Jagger had tried to dismiss them as ‘laughter-lines’.  “Nothing,” pronounced Melly, “is that funny.”  Meanwhile, I was never a fan of Boy George but I’ve always chuckled at his verdict on Elton John: “All that money and he’s still got hair like a f*cking dinner lady.”  And just to prove that the art of the rock-star insult remains alive and well in 2022, there was recently a spat between Joan Jett and gun-humping, Trump-worshipping rock-neanderthal Ted Nugent, which produced this Jett-gem: “Ted Nugent has to live with being Ted Nugent.  He has to be in that body, so that’s punishment enough.”


From / © Will Fresch


The world of rock contains certain individuals who can be relied upon to denigrate their contemporaries practically every time they open their mouths.  Two who spring to mind are siblings Liam and Noel Gallagher, late of Britpop mega-band Oasis.  Among those suffering the wrath of Liam Gallagher have been Keith Richards and George Harrison (“jealous and senile and not getting enough f*cking meat pies”), Bob Dylan (“a bit of a miserable c*nt”), Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day (“I don’t like his head”), Bono (“he looks like a fanny”) and Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine (“sounds like someone’s stood on her f*cking foot”).  For my money, though, his best insult was heard at a Q Magazine Awards ceremony, where he yelled at Coldplay’s Chris Martin, “You’re a plant pot!”


As the older and supposedly more cerebral Gallagher, Noel’s insults have been more elaborate, if a tad less savage.  Of the musical output of Justin Bieber, he once opined, “My cat sounds more rock ‘n’ roll than that.”   He likened the appearance of the White Stripes’ Jack White to “Zorro on doughnuts” and mused about skatey Canadian punk rockers Sum 41: “After I heard Sum 41, I thought, I’m actually alive to hear the shittiest band of all time.”  Needless to say, Oasis’s Britpop arch-enemies Blur came in for some stick too: “I wish Blur were dead, John Lennon was alive and the Beatles would reform.”  And inevitably he’s had some choice words for his wayward younger brother since they acrimoniously parted company in 2009.  That same year he famously described Liam to “a man with a fork in a world of soup.”  (For his part, the younger Gallagher has repeatedly referred to Noel as a ‘potato’ and called his post-Oasis band the High Flying Birds ‘the High Flying Smurfs’.)


© Weidenfeld & Nicolson


The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards has also had a famously barbed tongue, powered by his apparent disdain for any form of music that isn’t structured around a 12-bar blues progression.  He’s dissed Prince as “an overrated midget”, REM as “a whiny college rock band” and P Diddy as “bereft of imagination.  What a piece of crap.”  He dumped on the Grateful Dead for “Just poodling about for hours and hours.  Jerry Garcia, boring shit, man. ”  Of Metallica he speculated, “I don’t know where Metallica’s inspiration comes from, but if it’s from me, I f*cked up.”  Hilariously, he said of Elton John after the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and after John had reworked his 1973 ode to Marilyn Monroe, Candle in the Wind, as a tribute to the deceased princess: “His writing is limited to songs about dead blondes.”  (To which Elton John retorted that the venerable Stones guitarist resembled “a monkey with arthritis.”)


But surely the man who’s suffered the most ignominious put-down from Keith Richards is his long-term singer, writing partner and fellow Rolling Stone Mick Jagger.  Jagger’s image as a tireless lothario took a dent when Richards wrote about his manhood in his 2010 autobiography Life: “Marianne Faithful had no fun with his tiny todger.  I know he’s got an enormous pair of balls but it doesn’t quite fill the gap.”




However, when it comes to rock-star insults, one man is – or alas, was – the undisputed champion.  Mark E. Smith, for four decades until his death in 2018 the driving force behind the fascinatingly off-the-wall post-punk / alternative rock group the Fall, was never more entertaining in interviews than when he directed his guns at his peers and rivals in the music world.  Among those getting it in the neck from Smith over the years were Badly Drawn Boy (“fat git”), Echo and the Bunnymen (“old crocks”), Garbage (“like watching paint dry”), Bob Geldof (“a dickhead”), Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (“should have his rock licence revoked”), Mumford and Sons (“We were playing a festival in Dublin…  There was this other group, like, warming up… and they were terrible.  I said, ‘Shut them c*nts up!’  And they were still warming up, so I threw a bottle at them…  I just thought they were a load of retarded Irish folk singers”), Pavement (“They haven’t got an original thought in their heads”), Ed Sheeran (like “a duff singer songwriter from the 70s you find in charity shops”) and Suede (“Never heard of them,” said Smith cruelly, just after off coming off a tour where Suede were the support band).


And in fact, not even a songstress as lauded as Kate Bush escaped Smith’s vitriol.  In 2014, when Bush’s Before the Dawn concerts – her first live performances since 1979 – triggered massive interest in her and her music again, Smith told the Manchester Evening News: “Who decided it was time to start liking her again?  I never even liked her the first time round.  It’s like all these radio DJs have been raiding their mam and dad’s record collections and decided that Kate Bush is cool again.  But I’m not having it!”


It’s a shame the wonderfully curmudgeonly Smith isn’t around today to witness Kate Bush’s latest return to prominence with Running Up That Hill.  I’m sure he’d have some entertaining pronouncements to make on the matter.



Climbing Mount Ulysses


© Penguin


Today is June 16th, a day that connoisseurs of Irish literature will recognise as Bloomsday, the date on which the events described in James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses took place in Dublin in 1904.  Literary legend has it that on the real June 16th, 1904, Joyce and his muse and future wife Nora Barnacle – “She stuck to him like a limpet!” one of my university lecturers liked to quip – acquired carnal knowledge of each other for the first time.  And since 2022 is the centenary of Ulysses‘ original publication in 1922, today is a special Bloomsday indeed.


Ah, Ulysses.  I first encountered it in 1982, when I spied a hefty copy of it reposing on a rack in Whitie’s, the main bookshop in my hometown of Peebles.  As someone who was into books and writing, I decided that this was something I ought to experience.  So I purchased it, lugged it home and started reading: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from a stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed…”


The task took me several months.  This amused my school English teacher Iain Jenkins, who cheerfully admitted that he’d never read Ulysses and never intended to, believing it to be a pile of pretentious twaddle.  Whenever he bumped into me, he’d mischievously inquire how I was getting on with Joyce’s masterwork, assuming sooner or later I’d throw in the towel and never get to the end of Bloomsday.


But I persevered.  The months passed.  April, May, June, July…  In fact, the countries I was in changed too, for I finished school in May and left Scotland for some pre-university wandering: France, Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Belgium…  And I took Ulysses with me.


As far as I can remember, it was in a chilly youth hostel in Brussels in November, as far away from Dublin on June 16th as seemed possible, that I navigated the book’s final section.  This is the lengthy stream of consciousness going on inside Molly Bloom’s head that ends: “…yes I said yes I will Yes.


I should point out that during those half-dozen months I didn’t just read Ulysses. Over the same period I remember reading stuff by Ernest Hemmingway, Ray Bradbury, Jerome K. Jerome, Sean O’Faolain and Anthony Burgess.  Incidentally, Burgess, who was still alive at the time, was probably the world’s most famous Joyce authority and had written a book about him called Here Comes Everybody in 1965.  It actually helped that I would read a section of Ulysess, leave the book for a couple of weeks, read something by someone else, and return to it.  I’d discovered how episodic it was, each episode having its own theme, style and literary gimmicks, and reading it this way gave me time to process one episode before I started on the next.


Famously, the episodes of Ulysses parallel the adventures of the mythological Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey, although this didn’t dawn on my 16 / 17-year-old self until the scene set in Barney Kiernan’s Pub.  This climaxes with the Citizen hurling a biscuit tin at Leopold Bloom’s head, which I realised was a representation of Polyphemus the Cyclops lobbing a rock after the escaping Ulysses in the Odyssey.


How did I find it? Well, there were times early on when it was bloody hard work.  At one point in June, while I was in France, I nearly did give up.  I was possibly mired in the book’s third section, which is notoriously abstruse.  But later it all seemed to click for me.  Joyce’s prose, however complicated it got, settled into a comforting, familiar rhythm.  The external and internal voices of its two main characters, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, became like the banter of old friends.  And when I finished, I felt I’d read a truly great book.  I suspect, though, my admiration for it then was like the admiration a climber feels for the grandeur of Mount Everest while standing on its summit.  The admiration is mingled with his or her own sense of achievement at having climbed the beast.


One thing that impressed me was that Joyce had obviously gone out and done some living.  He knew and was able to convincingly portray Dublin and its inhabitants – all its inhabitants, not just the posh or arty ones.  Perhaps that’s why I was never enthused by the works of Virginia Woolf, which I tackled soon afterwards.  Surely Woolf and her affected Bloomsbury (as opposed to Bloomsday) set wouldn’t have lasted long in Barney Kiernan’s Pub.


Talking of pubs, while I was wandering around Switzerland in October that year, I happened across an establishment in Zurich called the James Joyce Pub.  It cashed in on the fact that much of Joyce’s post-Ireland life had been spent in Zurich.  Eagerly, I popped inside for a Guinness. What a disappointment the place was.  It was full of people who regarded themselves as intellectuals and took themselves way too seriously – the opposite of what I believed Ulysses, in which all human life seemed present, was about.


And now?  Well, I wouldn’t like to read the book again.  One thing I’ve noticed about growing older is that, as the years and experiences accumulate, it becomes harder to feel impressed.  New people I meet, whom I would have found fascinating in my youth, make less of an impression because I’ve met their type before and their personality traits no longer seem special.  The same goes with books.  Literary razzle-dazzle that might have blown me away when I was younger just annoys me in my middle-age.  Sorry, I’ve seen all that already.  When I read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) in my twenties, I thought, “Wow!  This the profoundest book ever!”  Whereas I read Kundera’s Slowness (1995) last month and thought, “Oh, stop showing off, you poser.”  I’d hate it if I read Joyce’s opus again and reacted with the same weariness.


Some things are best left in the past. And though I still think it’s a great book, Ulysses is probably one of them.



Grovel, Britannia


From / © Joel Rouse / Ministry of Defence


A week has now passed since the Platinum Jubilee festivities – and the accompanying tsunami of media hype – that celebrated Queen Elizabeth II reaching the 70th year of her reign on the British throne.  I’ve now emerged from my bunker and feel ready to articulate my thoughts about the British Royal Family.  It’s fair to say my tolerance of the institution has waxed and waned over the years.


In my youth, during the 1980s and 1990s, I detested them.  They seemed a bloody awful lot and it sickened me how much the media kept ramming them down everyone’s throats, though of course, a lot of the public seemed happy to have them rammed down their throats: the aloof Queen and her grumpy husband; the weird and socially awkward Prince Charles and his vacuous-seeming wife Princess Diana who, as it turned out, was sharper than she looked; the porcine Prince Andrew who, as it turned out, was viler than he looked; and the insipid would-be thespian Prince Edward.  Princess Anne, however, I didn’t think was that bad, though that was probably only because she supported the national Scottish rugby team.


I knew ordinary people who were every bit as mediocre or dysfunctional as the royals, of course, but I didn’t have to hear about them every time I switched on the television or read about them every time I opened a newspaper.  It also galled me that not liking them or even not wanting to know about them was considered unpatriotic in 1980s and 1990s Britain.


Fast forward to 2012, the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and my opinion was more sanguine, at least of Elizabeth.  It was one of indifference tempered with a certain, grudging respect for the old biddy.  This was partly because I’d concluded that countries needed their symbolic heads of state – someone to open the supermarkets, launch the ships and sit down and sip tea with the US President or the Pope or whatever foreign dignitary happened to be in town.  This was the stuff that the prime minister didn’t have time to do because he or she had a country to run.  And the Queen had won a modicum of respect from me simply by doing her job for so long.  She grew older, greyer, smaller, but still she did her walkabouts, made her public appearances, indulged in boring chit-chat with members of women’s institutes, rotary clubs and Boy Scout troops who’d turned out to see her, and had disreputable politicians come through the doors of Buckingham Palace – Bush, Berlusconi, Sarkozy – whom she put on a smile for.


If someone had forced an 86-year-old relative of mine onto the street every morning and made her tramp around the neighbourhood all day long, saying hello to people, and then when she finally returned to her house, foisted a shower of crooks and chancers upon her for company, I’d have reported them to the police.  The Queen might have been one of the richest women on the planet, but what was the point of having shed-loads of money if you were subjected to torture like that every day of your life?


So back in 2012, I thought I could tolerate the idea of a British monarchy.  That toleration, though, came with the proviso that the thing needed to be massively scaled down.  The inhabitants of the Low Countries and Scandinavia had modestly-sized royal institutions and seemed no less respectful of their monarchs like Albert, Beatrix, Margrethe, Harald and Carl XVI Gustav, so why couldn’t that be the case in Britain?  Why did the British Royal Family have to be such a massive and costly operation, featuring as many cast-members as an opulent and labyrinthine American soap opera like Dallas or Dynasty?


That was then, however.  Maybe at the time I’d been infected by Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics and believed that with a bit of tweaking – for instance, modifying but not removing the Royal Family – Britain could become a decent, balanced, good-humoured and modern-minded country.  Also, I was a big James Bond fan and, at the Opening Ceremony, I thought it was pretty cool when the Queen, or possibly her stunt double, parachuted out of a plane with Daniel Craig.


From / © Ben Kerckx


Now I just want the whole thing gone.  Abolishing the monarchy the moment the Queen dies would be fine by me.  My reversion to republicanism isn’t so much to do with the Queen herself, though she certainly hasn’t done herself any favours in recent years with the revelations about how much of her money is invested in dodgy, tax-avoiding offshore accounts or her eagerness to fund her second son’s 12-million-pound settlement with Virginia Giuffre, who claimed Andrew had sexually assaulted her while she was being trafficked as a minor by Jeffrey Epstein.  (Andrew was unable to make an appearance at last week’s Platinum Jubilee festivities because he was stricken, supposedly, with Covid-19.  Aye, right.)  It’s more to do with the state of Britain.  The place is now such a basket-case that it needs to have its Royal Family surgically removed – one of many drastic treatments required if it’s to make any sort of recovery.


For one thing, the Royal Family is the ultimate symbol of Britain’s neurotic obsession with the past.  Remove that symbol and you might go some way to breaking the obsession, which hobbles the country left, right and centre.


There’s the dire state of its governing institutions, where more attention is paid to witless Ruritanian flummery like the State Opening of Parliament (the crown getting transported to the Houses of Parliament in a carriage of its own, the ridiculously ruffed Black Rod getting Parliament’s door slammed in his or her face) than to the constitution, which is unwritten and open to abuse by unscrupulous politicians, like the shower we have in office at the moment.  The argument is that Britain’s constitution is protected by some absurd, Boy’s Own Paper-style, ‘good chaps’ theory of government.  I’d struggle to describe the grinning war criminal Tony Blair, or the squish-faced posho David Cameron, or the Mother of Tears herself Margaret Thatcher as ‘good chaps’; but surely not even the most naïve person in the universe would bestow that term on the current incumbent of No 10 Downing Street.


There’s also the embarrassing preoccupation many Britons have with the Second World War and everything that goes with it (Churchill, the Blitz, Spitfires, Dame Vera Lynn), although to have even childhood memories about the conflict now you’d need to be in your 80s.  In 2016, that finest-hour, standing-alone, ourselves-against-the-world narrative was exploited by self-serving ratbags like Nigel Farage, who managed to conflate the European Union with the Third Reich in some people’s minds and got them to vote for the economic and political disaster of Brexit.


Predictably, Britain’s obsession with the past is focused on the nice bits of history – pomp, pageantry, Ladybird Adventure from History books, stiff-upper-lipped World War II movies.  There’s not much focus on the misery, poverty and injustices that the British Empire inflicted on millions of its ‘subjects’.  Meanwhile, with this mentality, Britain is never to going to have a scaled-down monarchy like the Swedes, Dutch, Belgians, etc., have.  It’s always going to be the full-on, super-expensive deal with parades, carriages, horses, bands, guardsmen and so on.  It’s like some balding, beer-gutted, 50-something football hooligan covering himself in bling and believing he still looks ‘hard’.


I’d do away with the monarchy too because of the depressing sycophancy it engenders in British society.  Everyone who comes into contact with the royals, and with the Establishment generally, seems to immediately de-evolve into a mollusc, apparently on the assumption that the more obsequious you are, the better your chances are of securing a CBE, OBE, knighthood or whatever.  This is never more obvious than in the country’s press.  British journalists do so much brown-nosing – presumably hoping that one day Her Majesty will reward them with an honour for services to toadying – that their pages, or webpages, seem to turn the colour of shite while you read them.


Inevitably, this brown-nosing was at its brownest during last week’s Platinum Jubilee. And it wasn’t done just by right-wing journalists and politicians wanting to use the Queen as a Culture War ruse to distract attention from the fact that under the current Conservative government there’s a lying sleazeball as Prime Minister, the country’s economic growth is on track to be second-worst in the G20 (after Putin’s pariah-status Russia), and nearly 180,000 people have died from Covid-19 in the last two years.


Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party and someone whom you’d expect to be at least a teensy-weensy bit socialist, wrote in the swivel-eyed, reactionary Daily Telegraph that it was our ‘patriotic duty’ to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee.  There it is again – you’re not patriotic if you don’t like the Queen.  Meanwhile, former Liberal Democratic leader Tim Farron tweeted: “You don’t need to think that everything about Britain is wonderful, just that being British is wonderful and that the Queen’s reign has been remarkable.”  No, Tim, the Queen doesn’t know who you are.  She isn’t going to give you a knighthood.


So yes, I just want the monarchy gone.  Goodbye Queen, goodbye Prince Charles, goodbye William, Kate and the kids, goodbye all of them.  But obviously, that isn’t going to happen.  The British Royal Family will endure, undeservedly.  And as for the country they’re supposed to represent…  Well, I now think it’s beyond all hope.


From / © Sabine Lang

Music à la Mode


From Facebook / © Depeche Mode


Well, bugger.  Just as I’m starting to get into Depeche Mode again, one of the sods goes and dies on us.


I’m referring to Andy Fletcher, founding member of Depeche Mode, bass, keyboard and synth-player, and from all accounts the bloke who dealt with the business, financial and legal matters that his two bandmates (Dave Gahan and Martin Gore) found too boring to deal with.  Fletcher passed away on May 26th.  Considering the industrial amounts of drugs and booze that Gahan and Gore have put away over the years, he surely wasn’t the band-member most people would have bet money on to pop their clogs first.


Not that Fletcher escaped all the excesses of Depeche Mode, which were at their most destructive in the early-to-mid-1990s, around the time of their notorious 1993 Devotional and 1994 Exotic tours.  While Gahan suffered cracked ribs and internal haemorrhaging from a botched stage-dive, became convinced he was a vampire and tried to bite a music journalist, had a drug-induced heart attack, attempted suicide and spent a few minutes technically dead after a 1996 heroin / cocaine speedball overdose, and while Gore experienced seizures that were the culmination of long-term alcohol and substance abuse, and while one-time member Alan Wilder quit due to what he euphemistically described as relations in the band being ‘seriously strained, increasingly frustrating and, ultimately, in certain situations, intolerable’, Fletcher had to temporarily leave Depeche Mode and check into hospital suffering from severe anxiety issues.


For me, one fact sums up the kamikaze state of Depeche Mode at the time.  Their support band during the North American leg of their 1994 tour was so horrified by what they saw that they recorded their next album in conditions of strict sobriety.  The support band was none other than the druggy, leather-trousered, hard-living, psychedelia-loving, Rolling Stones-worshipping Primal Scream.  Yes, Primal Scream!  As journalist Phil Sutcliffe noted in Q magazine, “Behold, then, Depeche Mode: the band who frightened Primal Scream into temperance.”


That Depeche Mode in the 1990s mutated into such out-and-out rock monsters came as a shock to me.  When they started at the beginning of the 1980s, I thought they were insufferable, synth-twiddling wimps.  Their maddeningly jaunty hit singles, like New Life and Just Can’t Get Enough (both 1981), made them popular with the sort of brainless pubescents whose purchasing power had recently clogged up the pop-charts with the unspeakable likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet (and had recently turned me, at the age of 17, into the musical equivalent of a grumpy old man: “Kids today!  They call this shit music?  Gah!”)  And even if Depeche Mode hadn’t won the adoration of those dopey New Romantic fans, and were judged purely by the standards of being an early 1980s synth-pop act, they seemed much less interesting than other acts of that type, like Soft Cell and the Human League.


It was funny, though, that Just Can’t Get Enough eventually became a football anthem. One set of supporters would sing it with the words slightly amended to insult an opposing set of supporters: “You just can’t get it up!  You just can’t get it up!”


© Mute


However, in the early 1990s – by which time I was living in Japan – I noticed something odd.   People whom I liked and whose musical tastes I respected, such as a friend from New York called Mary Beth Maslowski, and another friend, a Sapporo-ite called Satomi Munakata, had started arguing with me that Depeche Mode were good.  “Impossible,” I’d retort.  “They’re wimps!  Haven’t you heard Just Can’t Get Enough or  New Life?  What piffle!”  In fact, Satomi felt so strongly about the matter that she presented me with five of their albums recorded on cassette tapes and insisted that I listen to them.  Setting my prejudices aside, I slotted the things into the tape-deck of my stereo…  And, I had to admit, some of the stuff on them was actually really decent.  This was especially true of the more recent Depeche Mode albums, like Violator (1990) and Songs of Faith and Devotion (1993).


While it’s customary for bands to begin strong, full of youthful energy, imagination and enthusiasm, and then, having fired all their creative bolts during their first few albums, to become shite, the opposite had happened with Depeche Mode.  They’d begun shite but gradually become good.  Their annoyingly dinky sound of the early 1980s had gradually given way to a darker, crunchier one that had the relentlessness of industrial music but was also leavened with some melodies.  Goths, I noted, had become especially partial to the band.


After I’d decided I liked them, I bought each new Depeche Mode album that came out: Ultra (1997), Exciter (2001), Playing the Angel (2005), Sounds of the Universe (2009), Delta Machine (2013) and Spirit (2017).  These were sometimes uneven, but all had moments of quality.  Playing the Angel, full of groovy tunes like A Pain that I’m Used to, John the Revelator, Suffer Well and The Sinner in Me, is a particular favourite of mine, though nothing quite beats the mighty Barrel of a Gun on Ultra.


That said, I hadn’t listened to the band so much in recent years.  However, during the past month, alarmed at the state of my health – about as good as that of the average Depeche Mode member between 1993 and 1996 – I decided to get back into the habit of going to a gym.  And in the gym, I decided to spend most of my time running on the treadmill.  I used to be a keen jogger, but had pretty much given up because running on pavements and tarmacked roads and footpaths was subjecting my ageing knees and ankles to too much wear and tear.  Running on a treadmill, I thought, would be less damaging.  And to stop myself getting bored on the treadmill, I found myself listening to loads of Depeche Mode on my iPod.  (Yes, my iPod.  I told you I was ageing.)


I’ve especially listened to Depeche Mode: Remixes 81-04.  A bunch of Depeche Mode classics remixed by DJs, producers and bands like François Kervorkian, William Orbit, DJ Shadow, Goldfrapp, Underworld and the Beatmasters, where things go (electronically) ‘Thud!’ and ‘Thump!’ and ‘Crash!’ with machine-like regularity, are the perfect soundtrack when you’re trying to get your body into the rhythm of running again.


But then, suddenly, Andy Fletcher died.  Which sucks.


© Mute


Meanwhile last month, nine days before Fletcher passed away, another maestro of electronic music, whom I’d originally considered to be a bit crap but later changed my mind about, died too.  I’m talking about Evángelos Odysséas Papathanassíou, aka Vangelis.  For many years, I’d been sceptical about Vangelis’s musical talents because (a) he’d been half of the duo Jon & Vangelis (the other half being Jon Anderson), whose ultra-limp hit single I’ll Find My Home cleared dance floors the length and breadth of Britain in 1982; and (b) he provided the ponderous music for the ponderous 1981 movie Chariots of Fire.  The history of the British film industry is littered with boringly worthy costume dramas that I hate, but Chariots of Fire is probably the boringly worthy costume drama that I hate most.  Also, is it just me, or does the Chariots of Fire theme not sound like the Alexander Brothers’ These are my Mountains played at the wrong speed?


And yet…  Vangelis’s soundtrack album for Ridley Scott’s science-fiction masterpiece Blade Runner (1982) is a work of genius.  I didn’t appreciate the music so much when I originally saw the film, because I was overwhelmed by its cyberpunk visuals.  But a few years later, when I bought the soundtrack album, I realised how good it was.  Aurally, it perfectly captures Blade Runner’s aesthetic of toweringly futuristic skyscrapers, street-level mazes of Asian-style food counters and market stalls, high-tech corporations, low-fi 1940s-esque film noir sleuthing, neon, rain, grime and smoke.


Tracks like Tales of the Future, which featured the singer Demis Roussos, Vangelis’s fellow Greek and former colleague in the late 1960s / early 1970s prog-rock band Aphrodite’s Child, were spine-tingling.  (At the time poor Demis was something of a joke in Britain, thanks to his high-pitched warbling being featured in Mike Leigh’s hilarious satire on social class and social mobility, 1977’s Abigail’s Party).  I now regard the urgent end-credits theme as one of the most rousing pieces of film-music ever.  And then, when it segues into the late, great Rutger Hauer doing his ‘Tears in Rain’ monologue…  Well, what can you say?


Vangelis certainly wouldn’t have been my first choice to create the musical accompaniment to Blade Runner.  But as things turned out, I’m glad he got the gig.


© East West / Atlantic