The Castle of Indolence Beseiged (an electoral broadcast…)

Indolence The Castle hight of Indolence,
And its false Luxury;
Where for a little Time, alas!
We liv’d right jollity.

O mortal Man, who livest here by Toil,
Do not complain of this thy hard Estate;
That like an Emmet thou must ever moil,
Is a sad Sentence of an ancient Date:

And, certes, there is for it Reason great;
For, though sometimes it makes thee weep and wail,
And curse thy Star, and early drudge and late,
Withouten That would come an heavier Bale,
Loose Life, unruly Passions, and Diseases pale.

‘The Castle of Indolence’
James Thomson
1748

With the election now mere hours away, my thoughts have turned to matters political. It is very difficult to know who to vote for, as each party in turn has committed themselves to policies I find quite impossible to endorse. Yet I feel I should put my cross somewhere, and some time back developed a foolproof process of elimination. Any party that employed my least favourite political cliché was immediately out of the running in my books. The odious cliché I refer to?

“Hard Working fucking Families…”

But what could any reasonable person find objectionable about such a phrase, embodying as it does the moral and economic backbone of our proud nation? Allow me to explain…

Conservative Party Annual Conference, Manchester, Britain - 02 Oct 2013 Taking the first part of the phrase, I have no time for anyone who thinks that hard work is a virtue unto itself. I think I’m pretty well qualified to comment, as I’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum. I’ve worked hard on occasion. Typed away until the screen began to blur and the sun crept around the edges of the curtains when a fierce deadline loomed. I’ve also had my share of hard graft in the past, walking home like a wound-down clockwork toy due to exhaustion, falling asleep with a beer in my hand in front of the TV. I’ve also experienced idleness. Doing nothing for the sake of it, or simply because there was nothing much to do.

I’m not a fan of either. Idleness gets dull pretty fast if you have a lively mind. Work too hard and you make mistakes, and ultimately forget why on earth you’re doing what you’re doing. The sensible route is a compromise. Work hard enough to get the job done, but build in period for reflection and to recharge your batteries. The idea that we are just here to work is a pernicious lie. Many people are fulfilled by their jobs, but if you’re not, then it is a means to an end, not some sacred calling.

There are many myths about the nobility of labour perpetuated by those who benefit most from the sweat of others. Working hard is not a selfless act – quite the reverse – it is more often the hallmark of a selfish soul. Perhaps you are working hard because you enjoy it? If so, you scarcely deserve a round of applause. Maybe you hope to earn enough to obtain something? While you may deserve whatever material rewards you achieve, a medal does not come with it. The fact is, the people who earn most from working, are usually those making the world a more miserable place to live.

We should no more laud the hard work of, say, bankers, than we should be praising Jack the Ripper for his tenacity and devotion to his chosen vocation.

Leaving work aside for a second, what of the family? Surely everybody approves of this institution, the very embodiment of affection and selfless devotion. I am blessed to be part of a small, but loving family, and think the world of all of them. Yet I’ve no intention of creating another family of my own at present. Some people charge that those who choose to live child-free are selfish. Once again, I’d suggest that is the very reverse of the true situation, because I put it to you that people seldom, if ever have children for truly altruistic reasons.

There are many motives for starting a family. Perhaps you want to stabilise a fragile relationship? Maybe you like the idealised family life you’ve seen on the TV in adverts and sit-coms? Perhaps you want to rerun your own unhappy childhood, with a happy ending to this one? Perhaps the idea of somebody wholly dependent on you, who’ll love you unconditionally appeals? I suspect the most common motivation is to achieve a kind of immortality, to inflict another version of yourself upon the world.

soylent It could be any one of these, a mixture, or something else entirely. Whichever, almost every instinct to begin a family has a large selfish component. So, my hats off to you for taking on a tough, demanding commitment. But don’t try and pretend you’re doing the world a favour by reproducing. Even with modern contraception, avoiding pregnancy can be more of a challenge than yielding to the biological imperative. In the modern world, just about the only resource not running low is idiots. Creating more isn’t a service to humanity. You’d do more good keeping an allotment.

I don’t hate families, or children, any more than I abhor work. I just reject the absurd ideology that sanctifies them. In place of hard working, how about praising the clever? Or kind? Or even amusing? Virtues far less ambivalent than the blind belief in the moral superiority of hard labour. Similarly, while some of us are in happy families, others aren’t, whether by circumstance or design. But we’re all individuals, who should be equally deserving of the attention and approval of our political masters.

Unless, of course, they’re only really interested in the amount of work we can do to make their obscenely wealthy economic masters even wealthier. And the amount of work our children can do once we’ve dropped from exhaustion. I’m reminded of an old Yorkshire proverb…

‘Ear all, see all, say nowt;
Eyt all, sup all, pay nowt;
And if ivver tha does owt fer nowt –
Allus do it fer thissen.

A Surprise New Addition to the Library…

bookcover This book has been in the works so long I was kind of taken aback when a copy finally landed on my front door mat. But here it is… It’s an attempt to chart the history of counterculture, getting under the skin of every major style cult fromn the teddy boys to cybergoth and beyond. I’ll reveal some more details and share a few reviews (assuming they’re not too unkind) presently. But for now I think I’ll just sit back and recover from the shock that it’s actually here!…

The Dreary New Game of Thrones

A curious notion struck me earlier, spawned by pre-election bickering over inheritance tax here in Britain, and recent political events Stateside…
Throne
With the current incumbent of the White House an African American, and one of the front-runners for the next leader of the most powerful nation on earth a woman, are sexism and racism really the chief barriers to equality these days, at least in the West?

Clorox Might nepotism be the elephant in the room, the real enemy of opportunity, neglected as we become focused on issues of race, gender and sexuality to an absurdly acute degree? I could use the current furore over a tweet from a bleach company which the usual suspects have branded racists, as if a bathroom product PR team would really deliberately advocate white supremacism as a marketing strategy. It’s mindless noise for the sake of it – and I could’ve picked a different stupid non-story from the net pretty much any day of the week – but is this moronic sanctimonious din distracting attention from the real story?

Clintons The female candidate I referred to above is of course Hillary Clinton, making this surely the first time we may have a husband and wife as presidents of the US. Considering America’s population, what in Hell are the odds of that? One of Hillary’s most vocal opponents is rival candidate Jeb Bush. If he wins he’ll be following in the footsteps of his brother and father. Again, remember how many fucking people there are in America, then contemplate some stats. This is nothing new of course – consider the legendary Kennedys – but is it getting worse?

Bullingdon Naturally we are hardly immune here in Blighty. The leadership of the Labour Party was effectively contested between two brothers. Inevitably, in Britain, class rears its ancient head, and another obvious, less hereditary establishment clique is Oxford University’s infamous Bullingdon Club. I don’t want to get judgemental on their riotous behaviour – I’m not here to play the puritan right now – just draw attention to how one tiny club contains so much of the future elite. Our prime minister, chancellor of the exchequer, and Mayor of London (and possible future prime minister) all members of this exclusive set. Again, considering the UK population, what are the odds?

You could argue that cliques are inevitable – that we all naturally employ and trust those we already know -but the extent to which the influential and powerful are all drawn from people who know each other from across the breakfast table seems to be reaching newly incestuous levels.

It isn’t confined to politics of course. Everything from music and acting, to architecture and advertising – every desirable career path – is now suffocating beneath a culture of nepotism. If you ever wonder how so many folk of little evident ability or talent keep cropping up on your screen, in the news, in positions of power, check out who their parents – or at most god parents – are. Way more often than not, you’ll recognise the name.

We sneer loftily at those less developed nations ruled by corrupt dynasties, royalty in name or effect, while our own ‘democracy’ drifts ever further into a sticky web gummed together by blood. People rail against our own royal family as if this were the worst, or even a significant example of unearnt power and privilege, yet the Windsors are surely among the most impotent, least pernicious of the family firms currently carving up our world. I suspect we are approaching an era that will make the dynastic tyrannies of our medieval forebears look egalitarian and meritocratic by comparison…

Another Nasty Episode in Wales…

Part II

[Better late than never as the tired old adage has it. After my site’s long hiatus due to ‘technical difficulties’, I thought I’d finally post the second part of my coverage of last year’s excellent Abertoir festival (part one can be found here). While now more than a little tardy, several of the films previewed there are now seeing general release. Plus, I had such a good time, it’d seem criminal not to scribble down the rest of my fervid thoughts on the matter. So, without further ado, more rum doings in Wales…]

Friday

The weekend kicked off with another of those cross-disciplinary horror events that Abertoir does so well. In this case, film scholars Mark McKenna and Johnny Walker presented an illustrated talk entitled From Video Collecting to Contemporary Cinema, continuing the festival’s focus on the 1980s ‘Video Nasties’ panic. While both gents are academics, they’re also clearly dedicated horror enthusiasts, and the engaging presentation successfully walked the line of taking an oft-condemned field seriously, while never losing sight of the fact that these films were always supposed to be fun. It was still a slightly odd feeling to see all of those films I’d watched through a fug of booze and smoke in my teen years being subjected to serious scholastic scrutiny.

the-pool-poster-dutch Next up, after lunch on Friday, was the UK premier of Dutch chiller The Pool. Two families go on a camping holiday in the woods. But things do not go according to plan, and job issues, family stress and sexual tension conspire to make an idyllic, bucolic setting feeling increasingly oppressive and malign. Meanwhile, something ancient and seductively malevolent lurks beneath the murky surface of the pool they have camped beside. Frequently creepy and, on occasion, nightmarish, The Pool is a darkly refreshing change from the usual, predictable Hollywood product, that will please fans of atmospheric horror cinema that doesn’t pander to Hollywood cliches.

canalreview0003 Continuing the watery theme, Friday’s following feature was The Canal, an Irish film that also felt fresh compared to much of what you might see at your local multiplex. While superficially it sounds like wearyingly familiar fare – a ghost story that uses haunted audiovisual technology to update the scares – The Canal attacks its subject with much more skill and originality than the glut of formulaic ghost movies being pumped out by major studios right now. Seeing the indies do it right like this is a reminder why it’s so rewarding to attend festivals like Abertoir, that screen superior, low profile material you might never otherwise see.

Sabbaton Next up was a one-man play, an adaptation of The Temple, a short story by cult horror author H.P. Lovecraft. I’m somewhat sceptical of experimental theatre, and The Temple isn’t one of Lovecraft’s better stories, but I needn’t have worried. Performed by Michael Sabbaton, an actor who specialises in such productions, it tells the story of a German U-boat captain, the last surviving crew member of a submarine that has lost power and is inexorably sinking into the ocean’s stygian depths, as his sanity steadily dwindles. Hypnotic, effective and tense, and a true treat for Cthulhu mythos devotees, I shall certainly be trying to catch Mr Sabbaton’s next tour.

Friday night concluded with a crowd-pleasing screening of Gremlins followed by an 80s themed disco. We ducked out of the former to get a pint, then concentrated exploring the Abertoir themed beers and cocktails through the disco as, to be honest, strutting our stuff was not my company’s strong suit. And so to bed, in preparation for a full programme on Saturday…

Saturday

Faults Opening Saturday’s programme was Faults, a film that deserves plaudits for tackling a difficult and important, yet not overtly commercial subject, with courage and intelligence. Clearly low budget, the film rests squarely on the performances of the leads, playing a disgraced cult-buster (Leland Orser), and the young girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) he’s been hired to de-programme from the new age cult she’s joined. Both deliver powerhouse performances in a clever film that keeps you guessing till the final scene, while deftly exploring concepts like brainwashing and religion. Faults is, in the best sense of the term, a subtle mind-fuck.

TuskPart II Next up was Tusk, the new film from cult director Kevin Smith. Smith alienated much of his core audience with his previous, oddball, provocative thriller Red State (and accompanying media outbursts) and I doubt Tusk will change that. It’s likely too goofball and quirky for most horror audiences, and too unabashedly dark and macabre for his former fans. But I really liked it. It’s a pitch-black, absurdist comedy about social media and serial murder that pays little heed to modern taste or cinematic convention, featuring Johnny Depp in one of his most unconventional roles, and I howled and gagged throughout in all the right places.

Contaminationposter We went retro next with Contamination (aka Alien Contamination), an Italian Alien rip-off from 1980 that got caught up in the Video Nasties panic. It’s director Luigi Cozzi and star Ian McCulloch were on hand to explain matters in person after the screening, though even they could shed little light on a wildly lurid, irresistibly silly plot about exploding extraterrestrial eggs, drunk astronauts and space cyclopses. It was, of course, sublime fun, and the Q&A afterwards a treat, as McCulloch talked about fighting midgets and Cozzi revealed that the film was only funded as part of a drug smuggling caper.

horrorexpresscover Abertoir always go the extra mile to offer something different, and Saturday concluded with a moonlit ride through the haunted Welsh countryside on a vintage steam train, followed by a screening of the 1972 shocker Horror Express on the station platform. Bringing together the peerless cast of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Telly Savalas, Horror Express explores what happens when a brain-sucking alien encounters two Edwardian British gents on the Trans-Siberian Express. Our train journey was less eventful, but just as wonderful (and similarly chilly) and even though I’ve seen Horror Express numerous times, I shall never forget watching this toothsome slice of Euro-horror in such a perfect setting!

Sunday

Starry_Poster27x40.indd Sunday’s opener Starry Eyes has been enjoying some praise among horror devotees as an underrated gem, but I’m afraid I wasn’t so taken with it. It felt too much like hipster filmmakers making a film about hipster filmmakers trying to make films. The lead is convincing as a highly-strung ambitious actress, but I’ve known enough neurotic narcissists in my time, and didn’t relish spending too much time in her company. I don’t believe a film needs sympathetic characters, but if the characters don’t engage, the plot has to, and the whole ‘Hollywood is wicked’ schtick felt pretty tired here. Starry Eyes isn’t a disaster, but I thought it fell rather short of its building reputation.

Next up was pianist Paul Shallcross, who’s become something of an Abertoir institution with his live soundtracks for silent horror films. Like last year, Paul chose a selection of short films, which works very well, as movies that are sometimes over a century old can challenge modern attention spans. This time he accompanied a quintet of subjects of a more whimsical tone, though the 1927 British short about premature burial, inspired by Rachmaninov’s famous Prelude in C sharp minor, was pleasingly dark. Paul’s compositions really brought the films to life, as did his informative, amusing introductions, making for a splendid programme that comes highly recommended.

ratscast It was now time for another Abertoir institution, in the shape of the Bad Film Club, hosted by comedians Nicko and Joe. Every year the identity of the turkey concerned is kept top secret until the day, with this year seeing the audience subjected to the 1984 stinker Rats: Night of Terror. A disarmingly inept Italian Mad Max rip-off, which tries – and fails – to up the post-apocalyptic ante by introducing sentient rats, Nicko and Joe mercilessly mock the film’s countless shortcomings, while encouraging the audience to join in the fun. It’s a winning formula, that contributes yet more variety to Abertoir’s commendably varied programme of horror themed entertainment.

How do you top something like that? Well, with an evening with Ian McCulloch, fresh from his engaging Contamination Q&A the previous night. Ian was a popular, accomplished actor who happened to stumble into roles in a number of the most notorious banned horror films of the Video Nasty era. Only nominally horror related – you suspected his popularity in the genre somewhat bemused him – Ian’s presentation at Abertoir was akin to an accomplished after-dinner golf club speech, replete with theatrical anecdotes and blue jokes, alongside some eccentric musical interludes. Only at Abertoir could you find yourself in an auditorium full of horror fans, singing a children’s song about dinosaurs, led by the star of Zombie Flesh Eaters on guitar…

Dead-Snow-2 The week’s finale came all too soon, a preview screening of the sequel to the popular 2009 Norwegian Nazi zombie romp Dead Snow. I have to say I felt that the original was a bit too self-aware – nudging the audience in the ribs a little too often – and that Dead Snow: Red vs Dead was worse in that department. It’s received some pretty good notices, but I found the introduction of the nerdy American ‘Zombie Squad’ – evidently introduced to appeal to US fans – nearly ruined the film for me with their grating ‘geek chic’. Happily, every time this infuriating trio made me want to abandon the film, the director fired off another bad taste sight gag – a Nazi tank shelling a woman pushing a pram or suchlike – so I’d give Red vs Dead a mitigated thumbs up.

[This year will be Abertoir's tenth anniversary, and I have little doubt that the crew will pull out all the stops yet again. It's a very special event. Sadly, Afan ab Alun, a regular attendee, died last year. He left money in his will to contribute towards the 2014 event. That's the kind of festival it is, and I wouldn't miss the 2015 Aber for the world. See you there!]

Normal Service Will be Resumed…

do_not_adjust_your_set Apologies for this blog’s lengthy absence, and thanks to those who got in touch personally regarding its mysterious disappearance. I haven’t died, or indeed found the love of Our Lord and Saviour. Rather, a fiendish pincer-movement from my internet service provider and website host conspired to cripple, dismember, and finally dissolve the site. Updating Windows inevitably added to the fun. Happily, thanks to the expertise of my friends at Ave Satanas, we’re up and running again.

I plan on making a few changes to what and how I post on here in future, as well as promoting the site a little, rather than leaving it languishing, as before, in the bowels of the net like the spectre of some unwanted guest. When disaster struck, I still owed the site the second part of my review of Abertoir film fest, plus the conclusion of my piece on the primordial roots of heavy metal. Of course they’re scarcely topical now, but they were hardly topical then, so perhaps I’ll start by searching the cobwebby depths of my archives and open with those. In the mean time, watch this space…

A Nasty Episode in Wales…

Part I

[I was going to finally put the finishing touches to my piece on the origins of heavy metal, but I had such a good time at the Abertoir Film Festival last week, I thought I'd pen a few words on that while it was still fresh in my mind...]

Abertoir-2014
Abertoir’s now become a fixture in my calendar, my favourite among the growing number of horror festivals springing up all over our septic isle. Situated in the arts centre, in the coastal town of Aberystwyth, its now in its ninth year of offering a wide range of horror related events. While primarily a film festival, over the years Abertoir’s hosted stage plays, discussion panels, live music, quizzes, and lectures – I’ve been called upon in the latter capacity more than once – but don’t let that put you off. This year’s fear-filled schedule included a spooky steam train expedition, an after-dinner speaker, and an 80s-style retro disco. The reason for this last event was this year’s theme, suggested by the 30th anniversary of the Video Records Act.

The UK’s infamous VRA legislation criminalised selling or owning certain, officially proscribed horror videos. It was triggered by the ‘Video Nasties’ media panic, which blamed lurid chillers on the new home video format for all of society’s ills. Abertoir’s passionate attention to detail was immediately obvious in their cinema lobby, decked out to resemble a 1980s video library, its shelves resplendent with a bountiful selection of lurid horror titles. Completing the vignette was a cabinet containing all 39 of the officially banned titles – securely locked as originals now command hefty prices among collectors (a copy of Beast in Heat, perhaps the rarest, recently went for £1,700!)

Tuesday

63-vincent-price-theredlistFor Abertoir’s opening film we ventured even further back into the vault’s of horror history for the vintage 1953 chiller House of Wax, starring the festival’s official patron saint, Vincent Price. Part of the brief 50s fad for 3D, this print had been specially updated to screen in state-of-the-art 21st century 3D, in its tale of a waxwork museum that conceals a grisly secret. Arguably the film that cemented Price’s status as a horror icon, House of Wax is enormous fun, though I feel the actor was still finding his feet in the genre.

editorFollowing on was a preview of The Editor, the new film from the fast rising favourites of cult cinema, the Canadian studio Astron-6. The Editor is an affectionate parody of 80s genre exploitation film, especially Italy’s gory ‘Giallo’ thrillers, with every lurid cliché and absurd stereotype lovingly recreated. It plays out a bit like a Monty Python retread of Berberian Sound Studio. Fans of European cinema’s trash gems of the 80s will adore this, picking out each arch reference, but more mainstream audiences may find the artful blend of surreal sleaze and gauche gore outstays its welcome a little.

ABCs2Closing Tuesday was the follow-up to the 2012 anthology film The ABCs of Death. Following the same format, of inviting 26 promising directors to submit a short film linked to a different letter of the alphabet, The ABCs of Death 2 was inevitably a mixed bag. Yet, for whatever reason, this miscellanea of morbidity was stronger than the first, with only a couple of misfires during its two-hour-plus run time, and it made for a satisfying end to the first day.

Wednesday

lostsoul4__large The second day opened with a new documentary, Lost Soul. It details the disastrous progress of director Richard Stanley’s adaptation of The Island of Dr Moreau, from the most exciting genre film on the horizon in the mid-90s, to a car crash that threatens to ruin everyone involved. Lost Soul is a masterful piece of work, compelling, funny and bizarre. Whether you’re interested in Hollywood, the fate of visionaries in a commercial environment, or just enjoy strong documentary film-making, Lost Soul comes highly recommended.

GBAberThe poor soul tasked with following such a strong opener was me. In fitting with the theme of Video Nasties and censorship, I gave a talk illustrating moral panics preceding the video hysteria of the 1980s. Following me was the short film programme, with eleven brief chillers, from as far afield as Argentina, Spain and Australia. It’s nice to report that the best of the bunch was a Brit entry entitled The Stomach, a gripping, offbeat blend of gangster thriller, supernatural and body horror that begged to be expanded into a full feature.

What-We-Do-in-the-ShadowsNext up was the first of a number of strong Kiwi films, the undead mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. Deftly using vampires to mock dreary documentaries, and the documentary style to affectionately skewer vampire clichés, What We Do in the Shadows was a delight from start to finish. It’s one of those films you could cheerfully recommend to pretty much anybody, with ghoulish gags that’ll certainly tickle those of a Gothic persuasion, but pulled off with such slick deftness as to make even a corpse snigger.

What We Do in the Shadow’s only black mark was a close (and doubtless coincidental) resemblance to Vampires, a similar Belgian film that debuted at Abertoir some years ago, and then tragically disappeared without trace. The last film of the night was Live, the new film from madcap Japanese director Noboru Iguchi, whose Dead Sushi wowed Abertoir last year. Sadly, my companions were already flagging, so we decided to pace ourselves, and retire for a nightcap. If anybody’s seen Live, I’d be fascinated to hear their views…

Thursday

Housebound-banner-740x493Thursday opened with Housebound, another premier from New Zealand, telling the story of a troubled teen, sentenced to house arrest in her old family home, a house she believed to be haunted as a child. I didn’t expect much, but was blown away. The film jumps from authentically creepy, to brilliant character comedy effortlessly, dragging the audience along at every turn. Housebound is also almost impossible to pin down in terms of genre, frequently shifting gear, and successfully pulling off one twist after another, making it my film of the festival from a particularly strong programme.

I’m afraid we missed the Brit ghost story Forgotten as by then we badly needed hot food, but came back in time for Fires of the Plain, a bleak new war film from the Japanese cult director Shinya Tsukamoto. Sadly, a cock up by the delivery company meant our print was still in the United Arab Emirates, so Abertoir went for a back-up screening of the hit Uruguayan film House at the End of Time. Relying on an intricate plot that unfolds something like a puzzle-box, it’s an intriguing metaphysical affair, lent extra interest by its Latin American setting, that starts as a traditional haunted house story, before charting more unfamiliar territory.

Next up was the second of our talks themed around the Video Nasty panic, delivered by the media academic Professor Martin Barker. Barker was largely a lone voice calling for sanity at the height of the hysteria over horror films in the 1980s and was widely vilified in the press. So it was fascinating to hear a, frequently very personal, account of what it was like to be at the apex of a media witch hunt. I was particularly pleased to hear Professor Barker emphasise the role played by Evangelical Christians in provoking the panic, and then trying to exploit it to press their religious agenda.

OverYourDeadBodyNext up was the premier of Over Your Dead Body, the latest film from legendary Japanese director Takashi Miike. Miike is nothing if not prolific, and I began with a degree of scepticism after sitting through a couple of his less impressive efforts. However Over Your Dead Body is another example of the mercurial Miike on form. A theatre company is rehearsing a production of a traditional Japanese ghost story, but as the rehearsals progress, the play’s horrors start to subtly engulf the cast. Strangely haunting, often beautiful, and occasionally grotesque, Over Your Dead Body should please anyone who enjoys the subtler side of Japanese horror cinema.

baycover
Concluding Thursday was a screening of Bay of Blood, one of the original banned Nasties, screened from an actual VHS machine for added nostalgia value! It was almost a disappointment that it went so slowly, though obviously the picture quality was reassuringly poor. The film itself is something of a camp classic, often (mistakenly in my opinion) heralded as the first slasher flick, it follows the misadventures of a cast of cheesy 70s stereotypes, being messily murdered by each other. Irresistibly tacky, visceral trash Bay of Blood proved a fitting finale at Abertoir’s halfway mark.

Back to the 80s…

I really should get around to putting a few more of my terrible articles on here. Part II of the Metal Stone Age piece has been sat on my desktop, looking wan, near-finished, yet neglected for light years now. In my defence this time of year is always fearsomely busy for me, and this year was no exception. Top that with having to move onto a new PC, as my old one threatened messy suicide, with a new OS (Windows 8, I hate you) and I think a little chaos was to be expected. And the dog ate it…

Aberale Anyhow, can’t get too much done now as I’m off PDQ on my annual pilgrimage to the awesome Abertoir horror fest in Wales. They’re celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the infamous Video Nasties Act, so expect plenty of 80s-themed depravity. I’ll be there as usual, giving one of my infamous talks, on Wednesday afternoon. I’m hoping to give a little context – a history of media panics and censorship – in an address that will be bursting with wit and wisdom… or wrongness. Mostly wrongness. However, don’t let me put you off. After all, where else can you get a limited edition horror beer, distinguished by the image of Gizmo the gremlin watching Cannibal Holocaust?

If you come along and see me, say hello. I might even buy you a beer…

Metal’s Stone Age

Part One: Born to Be Wild

My recent annual pilgrimage to the Bloodstock Open Air heavy metal festival’s inspired me to meditate on matters metallic and heavy, particularly of the primordial variety. ‘Primordial’s one of the terms frequently associated with the genre. Indeed, as anyone who’s ever written much about metal at any length can confirm, one of the challenges is finding new adjectives to employ after the more obvious candidates have been done-to-death. I can’t be the only metal scribe who’s found themselves driven in desperation to the thesaurus looking for fresh ways of saying ‘ominous’, ‘brutal’, ‘thunderous’, and suchlike. And I’ve been in this game in one form or another far longer than I’d care to recall.

When I first started putting finger to keyboard on the topic, serious studies of the genre and its associated subculture were notably thin on the ground. In recent years, a substantial library of texts – many of them impenetrably (and I’d suggest often risibly) academic – has accumulated. Of course, the cultural landscape has shifted quite a bit. For example, many bands once regarded as mainstays of the metal genre – the likes of Nazareth or Uriah Heep – have since long been pensioned off into the general rock section. Muddying the waters, heavy metal only really established itself as common parlance gradually during the 70s, allowing for myriad interpretations as it evolved and reinvented itself throughout the decade.

Black_Sabbath_debut_albumMost, however, now agree that the first fully-fledged heavy metal album was Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut, giving the genre a date-of-birth of Friday the 13th of February, 1970. Identifying the genre’s prehistory, however, takes the metal scholar into more controversial territory. When I’ve been trying to excavate metal’s roots I frequently find myself at odds with the orthodox version of events. Bands and songs routinely referred to as the genre’s direct ancestors often feel instinctively wrong. So, if you’ll indulge me in a brace of little essays, I’d like to ponder the movement’s prehistory, before offering my own unorthodox candidate for the mantle of heavy metal’s forefathers. In the process I’ll be offering the odd personal perspective on what I – as a lifelong fan – think makes heavy metal, well, heavy metal…

The origins of the term itself are obscure. ‘Heavy’ is hippie slang for ominous, serious or grave – all adjectives appropriate to the genre. The ‘metal’ part is more difficult to pin down. Outside of the realms of pop culture, in chemical terms ‘heavy metal’ refers to metals with unusual density or toxicity, such as lead or cadmium. But there appears to be little more than coincidental connections between this scientific term and the musical subculture we’re putting under the microscope here. In our context, the term doesn’t really mean anything. Perhaps that’s part of the secret of the subculture’s longevity, as such ambiguity allows for an elasticity of definition. In other words, if ‘heavy metal’ as a phrase effectively meant nothing, it could potentially mean anything.

Other comparable subcultures have laboured under more explicit, hence limiting, inappropriate or unhelpful, monikers. Mod, for example, was an abbreviation of ‘Modernist’ when the movement emerged in the early 60s. Today, Mod’s one of the most backward-looking, nostalgia-bound subculture to be found on the streets. While I’d contend that the Gothic elements are the most interesting aspects of the Goth movement, many devotees think the emphasis on all things dark and gloomy is misleading and unnecessarily brands Goths as clichéd miserablists. By way of contrast, while the phrase ‘heavy metal’ implies ideas about power and strength, it remains abstract – open to reinterpretation and evolution.

steppenwolf-wildBut, for all that, the term must’ve come from somewhere. Theories about its genesis range from references in the work of the druggy beat author William Burroughs, to language used in live reviews of the Jimi Hendrix Experience. A more concrete source can be found in the 1968 Steppenwolf song ‘Born to be Wild’. The lyrics ‘I like smoke and lightning, Heavy metal thunder, Racing with the wind, And the feeling that I’m under’ not only likely represent the first use of the terminology in a song, but also capture something of the ethos that would come to epitomise the spirit of heavy metal – a tempestuous passion for Wagnerian melodrama, an evocation of nature red in tooth and claw.

Crucially, however, it was the song’s prominent inclusion in the soundtrack to the iconic biker flick ‘Easy Rider’ the following year that ensured the song’s immortality. Within that context, the previously ambiguous ‘heavy metal’ now clearly refers to the custom Harleys at the core of the film (revving bike engines introduce the song on the soundtrack album). Motorbikes – particularly big, American customised bikes – quickly became iconic in metal culture. Though the relationship between metal and the outlaw biker subculture was often initially akin to that between an overly eager youngster and his cooler older brother – metalheads liked bikes more than most bikers liked metal – there’s more than one band promo shot where the metal heroes are sat astride borrowed motorbikes.

Judas_Priest_early_1973The band that did more to establish heavy metal style than most was England’s Judas Priest. Founded in 1969, they evolved from a generic hippie hard rock outfit, via a brief psychedelic silken prog stage, to the stereotypical leatherclad metal outfit. ‘The whole association with motorcycles and Judas Priest goes back to [1978 release] ‘Hell Bent for Leather’,’ the band’s vocalist Rob Halford reflected. ‘When we were touring in England, we thought that it would be cool if we could bring the bike on stage when we did the song.’ Yet, despite the leather and chains, Halford was no biker, and in one of metal’s more unedifying episodes collided with a stage prop while astride the bike while performing in 1990. The singer suffered a broken nose and was knocked out, though as a true trooper concluded the show as soon as he came round.

halford bikeIn truth, powerful custom bikes have long been largely the stuff of fantasy for many young metal fans, alongside other iconic imagery, from battleaxes and expensive guitars, to demons and improbably chesty ladies-of-easy-virtue. Romantic escapism has always been at the core of the subculture’s allure. Few worldly fans were surprised when it became clear that the band’s wardrobe came, not from a Hell’s Angels chop shop, but an S/M boutique aimed at gay men who liked to play at being stereotypical butch bikers. Or indeed, surprised when Halford came out as homosexual himself in 1998. Titles like ‘Hell Bent for Leather’ didn’t take too much decoding in order to detect a possible gay subtext.

hell bent
This isn’t, incidentally to suggest heavy metal is an inherently homosexual subculture, rather that both cultures share a keen appreciation of the subtleties of high camp. There are gay metal aficionados, but one suspects no more or less in number than in any comparable demographic. And, contrary to the enduring negative stereotypes about metal fans as backward bigots, Rob Halford recalls that when he revealed his sexuality to fans, ‘the vast majority of them were completely accepting of me, and it was tremendously powerful.’ Metal’s long provided a home to outcasts and misfits – though typically those beyond the clichéd ‘minorities’ patronisingly put on pedestals by the liberal left.

WildangelsposterReturning back to ‘Easy Rider’, it’s worth making a few observations on the 1969 film’s subcultural significance. Its importance rests in part on the way the movie represented an axis between a series of underground trends and movements. It wasn’t, as many suppose, the first cult biker film. By the time ‘Easy Rider’ hit the screens, a subgenre had already been established for several years. Movies like ‘The Wild Angels’ (1966), ‘Hell’s Angels on Wheels’ (1967), ‘Angels from Hell’ (1968) were already pulling crowds and outraging critics with their depiction of high-octane, two-wheeled mayhem and sleazy, nihilistic thrill-seeking. The tag-lines for these films – such as ‘Their credo is violence… Their God is hate…’ for ‘The Wild Angels’ – could easily fit into a metal lyric of some kind.

By way of comparison, ‘Easy Rider’ is a gentle, even pacifistic ride, where the protagonists are the victims, not the perpetrators of brutality. Our heroes may have financed their journey of discovery with a sizeable drugs deal, and chosen to take it astride chopped Harleys, but their goal is the pursuit of old-fashioned freedom in the face of an oppressive world. While the Hells Angels themselves only came to prominence in the 60s – largely courtesy of demonisation in the media – the outlaw biker culture depicted in the Angel films had roots stretching at least as far back as the 40s. The 1953 film ‘The Wild One’, which both launched the career of a young Marlon Brando and a legion of leather-clad, rebel motorcyclists, was inspired by a 1947 bike rally in Hollister, California, that famously got out of hand.

wild-one‘The Wild One’ was a subcultural game-changer, and so was ‘Easy Rider’ sixteen years later. Interestingly, colourised stills from the B&W ‘Wild One’ depict the bikers’ jackets as brown, not black, while they ride Brit bikes rather than American Harleys (then often considered the cheap, unreliable option). Bikers had long been condemned by straights for their longhair, but such things are relative. In the early days, when crew cuts and buzz cuts signified male conformity, hair that approached the collar was regarded with suspicion, particularly if greased up into a quiff or pompadour. It was ‘Easy Rider’, with its international success, which was instrumental in introducing even longer hair into the metal scene, via the outlaw biker subculture.

‘Easy Rider’ represented a collision between the biker and hippie subcultures, already cross-pollinating in the heady atmosphere of America’s West Coast. Previously a world chiefly fuelled by beer, the introduction of illicit narcotics to the mix – at least according to their many critics – transformed the hardcore of the biker legions from lawless hellraisers to organised crime outfits. In fact, clubs like the Hell’s Angels had long been far more ordered, even disciplined, than many outsiders suspected, working under a rigidly enforced set of rules. This chimes ill with heavy metal’s instinctive rejection of rules, which is perhaps why ‘Easy Rider’ – with its underlying requiem for doomed freedom and individualism – is more a part of metal’s blueprint than the brutal Angel movies with their close-knit cabals of freewheeling thugs and hard-drinking ne’er-do-wells.

easy-rider-film-poster‘Easy Rider’ was in many respects a tombstone for the hippie era (the subculture’s forefathers had held a funeral for the movement in its San Francisco birthplace two years earlier). The film’s bleak ending expressed a general sense that the experiment in Flower Power idealism had failed, one of a series of grim omens in 1969 that promised a dark future ahead. Things were definitely getting heavy. Early heavy metal provided a funeral dirge for the lost innocence of the love generation. Black Sabbath often talked about the contrast between the beautiful things they’d heard were happening in sunny California, and the altogether grimmer realities they were experiencing, a sense of despair and betrayal that characterised their early music. Heavy metal was the epic hangover after the hedonistic celebrations of the Summer of Love.

While heavy metal finding its feet during the 70s, it drew on a few hippie influences, and rather more drawn from biker culture, such as black leather and cut off denim jackets. However other elements began to creep in. For example, one of the most influential heavy albums ever recorded, is surely Motörhead’s 1980 release ‘Ace of Spades’ (despite the band’s rejection of the metal label). Not just for its seminal musical content, but also the photo shoot on the cover, which depicts the band as desperados drawn straight from a Spaghetti Western. I’d contend that shoot would never have happened without the huge success of Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy of films released some fifteen years earlier. Clint Eastwood’s snake-eyed, lone wolf Man With No Name made a perfect heavy metal icon, and cowboy boots and bullet belts duly made their way into metal wardrobes (though not many could pull off the poncho).

Ace_of_SpadesYou’ll have noticed by now that I’ve been emphasising general culture – cinema in particular in this case – in my survey of the roots of heavy metal. It’s more conventional to focus almost exclusively on music while attempting such a survey – something I’ve deliberately avoided here. It’s always been a feature of my work to try and understand the milieu in which subcultures avoid – they do not evolve in a vacuum, but react to events and other cultural output that is going on around them. Yet I can’t deny that the music is, of course, highly significant. In the second half of this essay, I’m going to address where heavy metal music came from in my opinion. My theories don’t agree with the orthodox version, and might just surprise a few of you…

What I Did in My Holidays…

BOAI’ve been neglecting this blog a little of late, but will be returning with a vengeance with a few of my dreaded essays presently. In the meantime, to give some idea of what I’ve been up to when I should have been updating this, here’s an account of my misadventures at the Bloodstock Open Air festival which I penned for those fine folk at Alchemy. Check it out here