Saturday, 18 November 2017


Attenborough Centre For the Creative Arts, Falmer, Sat 11th Nov

Before the review proper, two quite hefty caveats. Factory Floor found themselves unable to perform their soundtrack live as originally intended, through circumstances which may well have been unavoidable. But rather than offering ticket-holders either refund or discount, the venue instead promised a fiver off a future show. None of which I’ve any interest in seeing. I’d have probably still gone had a refund been offered, but that was the thing to do in the circumstances.

Then, only after the film began, did it become clear it was being shown without English subtitles. (Yes, I do know the story. Not the point.) I imagined at the time that must have been an affectation of the band’s, perhaps some notion of ‘authenticity’. But YouTube footage (clip below) shows them performing to a subtitled version. Such shoddy behaviour probably wouldn’t put me off something I really wanted to see, but I’ll be avoiding ACCA for impulse purchases. Fool me twice, shame on you.

Dan O'Bannon famously said “I didn’t steal ’Alien’ from anywhere, I stole it from everywhere”. Similarly, as an early classic of science fiction cinema ’Metropolis’ (1927) hasn’t influenced anything so much as everything. It would be harder to find something, film or visual art, which didn’t bear it’s imprint to some degree. The maschinenmensch (as it’s called without subtitles) isn’t just the poster girl of the film but an icon of science fiction in general. She unsurprisingly featured in the Barbican’s recent science fiction exhibition.

And it’s a film whose meaning is on the surface, residing in it’s images rather than the somewhat haphazard plot. Nevertheless, for the few who don’t know... protagonist Freder, despite being the son of the “Master”, resolves to explore the lower depths of the titular future city. In this way he’s quite an Orwellian figure, a toff who doesn’t plonk flags on distant lands but ventures into the parts of his own society he’d normally be kept away from. Certainly, he explains his motives with “I wanted to look into the faces of the people whose little children are my brothers, my sisters.” And by co-incidence, Orwell’s experiences which came to be written up as ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, though not published till ‘33, were pretty much contemporary to this.

On the other hand he may just be mindful he’s talking to his father here, for he actually goes to the Lower City chasing a girl. In fact he’s something of an Alice, with Maria his ever-out-of-reach white rabbit. He spends much of his time wandering through a world incomprehensible to him. There’s a repeated motif of him staggering a few steps forwards, magnetised by some new sight, then stumbling to a bewildered halt. He’s beset by visions, which at one point leave him bed-ridden. Only in the third act does he switch into a more conventional heroic role. For most of the time he’s less do-er than witness. And in many ways our reaction, both to city and film, is his.

Let’s pull back slightly, to that much-celebrated opening montage. It’s largely effective because it makes clear ’Metropolis’ is primarily about Metropolis. To paraphrase the Red Queen, all the ways around the city belong to the city itself. The montage suggests it’s less architecture than mechanism, moving to a clockwork order. Later it seems that the cars that cross the high carriageways are themselves part of the machine, stopping as abruptly as it does, like it’s all some life-size diorama. Most of these workings are invisible to it’s population, or at least to the top-dwelling toffs, like the pipes and wires in our homes are hidden from our view. But it’s laid bare to the viewer from the start.

Like that earlier German silent classic ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, ‘Metropolis’ could be said to use the artifice of cinema to convey the alienation of the contemporary urban environment. The workers are shown as ancillary to their machines, shuffling to and from shifts as if on a production line themselves. Fredersen may be the city’s “Master”, his office holding a commanding view. But it’s so large, it’s doors not just oversize but with handles absurdly high, it’s as if he’s trying to sport a suit too big for him. He issues commands, but is more often taken by surprise by events.

As part of this machine motif clocks, dials, maps, diagrams and numbers are everywhere. And yet there’s also hallucinations, catacombs, cathedrals and an ending borrowed pretty much wholesale from ’The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923). Freder’s frequent hallucinations, rather than being delineated as Hollywood flashbacks would, permeate their surroundings until the whole film becomes a phantasmagoria. The frequent montages enable their spread. Despite the setting characters don’t wear the futuristic tunics we now expect from science fiction but contemporary clothes. They even drive contemporary cars, as if in an achronic dream where realities are jumbled up.

In the famous sequence where Freder takes over a worker’s shift the task (pointing clock arms at alternately lit bulbs) seems less purposeful labour and more fairground game. On release, no less than HG Wells accused it of “muddleness about mechanical progress and progress in general.” But he was forcing his own expectations on the film, then lambasting it for his failure to make them stick.

For, and again like ‘Dr Caligari’, beneath the futuristic surface it’s a self-consciously Gothic story. The workers have their own city “deep below the earth’s surface”. (No, not quarters. Their own underground city.) But beneath those lie the catacombs. And Metropolis is portrayed as but the reprise of Babylon, doomed to relive it’s doom. (The film evokes then plays fast and loose with the Biblical Babylon, but then that tale had become a folk meme long before.) All of which enables the Gothic tropes of the present never truly overwriting the past and the ego never truly overcoming the id, made manifest by the rising waters which flood the workers’ city.

The two collide most clearly in Rotwang, deranged inventor and villain of the piece. He’s the most pro-active character in the film, certainly more than the witness Freder, the so-called Master or the counsellor of inaction Maria. Yet, in a typical paradox, he hasn’t built this city but instead plans to destroy it. His activity he uses disruptively. His house isn’t at all futuristic but like a cottage from a folk tale, complete with pentagram on the door. When Freder is trapped there, it seems to happen more by magic than science. The trapdoor it contains, allowing him to pass between the levels of the city, make him quite a shamanic figure. In some ways his role is similar to the Joker’s in ’Dark Knight’, he arrives late to the film and seems set on systematically wrecking anything and everything around him.

He plans to achieve this, naturally enough, by building a robot duplicate of the saintly Maria – in order to lead the workers astray. The sheer bizarreness of the machine Maria being the sexy one is played up as she dances at the Yoshiwara club, actor Brigitte Helm giving her exaggerated hyper-sexualised movements at the same time as strange jerks of the head. These seem at the same time deeply weird and uncannily prophetic of modern pop videos. (Wikipedia lists videos by Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga as directly influenced by her.) 
The strangeness is perhaps exceeded only by the burning of a bad robot at the stake.

‘Metropolis’ is very much an industrial era film, it’s mighty mechanical parts issuing great flurries of steam stemming from a time where machinery genuinely risked exploding. Whereas the score is provided by electronica outfit Factory Floor, described by Wikipedia as post-industrial. Even their name recalls Factory Records which, as every post-punk trainspotter knows, was named after all the contemporary “factory closing down” signs.

Yet that becomes precisely what makes the soundtrack so effective. It’s a cliché of course to claim electronic music is “about alienation”, but then cliches are often like coins made grubby from too much handling - a little polishing can bring back their shine. But more importantly its ‘haunted machine’ aesthetic contains hints of human voices and traces of more conventional instruments, violins from Venus.

Hollywood devices, such as giving each character their motif, would be worse that useless here. If this soundtrack was a character from the film it would either be the city itself or Rotwang, with his one human and one robot hand. It’s also quite unperformative, frequently unafraid to be repetitive when that’s enough to evoke the required mood. At the end, rather than finish on a flourish it slowly ebbs away, in fact lasting longer than many in the audience.

Alas, however, there’s times where it falls into disco beats. Which are not only intrusive but way too rock video, making the film appear some Gothic dystopian version of ‘Jailhouse Rock’. The end of the second act particularly suffered from these. At which point I feared for the finale, though happily that worked much better.

(Admittedly, I may have baggage here. I endured the period where it was only possible to see this film via the 1984 Giorgio Moroder version, with Freddie Mercury and Bonnie Tyler warbling away over it. Which seemed a worse fate than not being able to see it at all.)

It’s possibly a mark of the effectiveness of the soundtrack that I saw the film so much through it’s filter. (Seeing it un-subtitled may also hold a sway, pushing you away from the plot to see the film as a cascade of images. Even if it’s pretty much like that anyway.) And, perhaps unsurprisingly for our times, that filter filters out much of its political implications.

...and there we might have left it. Yet the film continued to marinate around in my brain. So please consider the rest of this review an optional extra after Factory Floor left the building...

On release, it was not just re-cut but, by altering the inter-titles, rescripted to remove allegedly communist sympathies. While Goebbles lauded the film, claiming it heralded how "the political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history.” Which seems particularly bizarre in retrospect. The ordered, autocratic world of ’Metropolis’ seems to us more a warning of the incoming fascist regime than a commentary on its contemporary Weimar world. Had it been a truly fascist film surely Freder would have deposed his weak-willed Father, and ruled by imposing his will but on the workers’ behalf. Was Goebbles simply engaged in the typical fascist activity of territorial annexation?

The workers are shown to be not just enlisted but themselves destroyed by the forces of production, as much fuel as they are parts. Bad Maria has a point when she says “Who is the living food for the machines in Metropolis - ? Who lubricates the machine joints with their own blood - ? Who feeds the machines with their own flesh - ? Let the machines starve, you fools - ! Let them die - ! Kill them - the machines - !” This in itself is a genuinely communist statement, for all that it’s wrapped up in Gothic trappings. But then how are those workers depicted?

Unsurprisingly the good/bad Marias are included in TV Tropes’ examples of the Madonna Whore complex. (Though, for some reason, bad Maria doesn’t make the cut for Evil is Sexy.) But, at their beck and call of both Marias, the workers effectively take up the same dichotomy. They either sacrifice themselves to the machines (literalised in Freder’s vision) or destroy them in a deranged frenzy, oblivious to the warning that this means destroying themselves.

Crowds are a mass of bodies reduced to a single head. (And someone should really compare Bad Maria’s suggestive stirring up of the workers to Lenin’s speechifying in ’October.’) Class revolt is reduced to brute urges. Could the workers could use the machines for their own ends, or make their own machines more to their liking? Not something which come up.

And how does the film end? With the phrase “HEAD and HANDS need a mediator. THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!” (The film’s capitals.) Fredersen's problem is not that he’s autocratic or exploits the workers, but that he’s remote, unknowing and hence uninterested. But Freder, now he’s visited the workers’ city, can be that mediator. Society doesn’t need reorganising, the body politic just requires pulling together. Now we can all get along.

And for a film with such a strange love-hate relationship to machines, this patented fix is very mechanistic. For the thing to work all the parts need to be synched up. The main machine set, the one we see the workers destroy, is even called the Heart machine – as if one heart replaces another.

So the slightly less exciting answer is that the film is neither communist nor fascist but mainstream social democratic. Yet it was made in a time when communism was still making its presence felt. Revolution was not the threat it had been a decade earlier, but strong workers’ organisations persisted. So the film becomes like a magic spell where the workers rise up only to be assuaged, the more likely for that to be the result in real life. But its understanding of communism is equivalent of mine to German inter-titles – a pidgin communism, inadequate to the point of parodic. It’s seen as little more than the cry for help from the attempted suicide, filtered through some fear of the crowd.

And it’s precisely the engagement with this pidgin form of communism which makes the film so attractive to fascism. Fascism only came to power in countries with strong worker’s movements. It’s in essence a spoiler product for revolution, which must always dress it’s anti-revolutionary essence in revolutionary clothing. Goebbles’ quote above makes that perfectly clear. (Scriptwriter Thea von Hourben later embraced the Nazis, proving how easy was the slippage.)

And those references to the body politic as a metaphor for social cohesion, particularly when phrased in terms of calls to the workers, though here social democratic in expression – they hand some of that clothing to fascism. Having to take up some of the more formal aspects of communism while opposing it’s content, that effectively left fascism without a content. 

As Gilles Dauve commented “It's significant that fascism defined itself first as a form of organisation and not as a program. Its only program was to unite everyone into fasces, to force together all the elements making up society.” A Nazi speechmaker once genuinely said: "We don't want lower bread prices, we don't want higher bread prices, we don't want unchanged bread prices—we want National Socialist bread prices!"

Fascism is the fetishisation of unity masquerading as a programme. And Freder’s well-intentioned interventions in visiting the Lower City, they would help pave it’s path.

The classic montage opening (note, ACCA, with subtitles)…

Saturday, 11 November 2017


...this time off Brighton's London Road. This is the second time the full set has been uploaded to 500px, after Yahoo turned out to be a bunch of thieving bastards. Main drawback so far... which seems quite a big one... is that it uploads your pictures in a random order. Previously, I'd numbered the pics before uploading, then deleted the numbers once they were up. 500px seems to delete the numbering itself, which would be fine if it didn't then ignore the order. You can rearrange them yourself, but that's clunky and time-consuming. I tried to Google a fix for this, but only found more people complaining it couldn't be done.

Coming soon! More gig-going adventures...

Saturday, 4 November 2017


Brighton Dome, Mon 23rd Oct

After me telling everyone who would listen that Godspeed had reached their apogee through ditching the pseudo-classicism for greater sonic adventurism, they’ve come out with their most classical album yet! ‘Luciferian Towers’ stays on the same post-hiatus roll as it’s predecessors, but seems much more influenced by at least the non-rock music sometimes umbrella-termed as ‘classical’. You can hear Morricone in ’Anthem For No State’ and perhaps even a touch of Gershwin in the title track.

As is their wont, they play a near two hour set which includes the new album in full. Though it’s probably significant that their last two releases have been their shortest. (Forty and forty-four minutes respectively.) To generalise more than a little, much early Godspeed seemed primarily about dynamics so required duration to make it’s moves in. Expansiveness was its home turf. Whereas the new tracks go a lot further in less space, do more in less time.

‘Fam/Famine’, for example, starts with a violin and double bass duet that could come from a recital. But the other instruments slowly pour in, overcoming the distinct melodic lines, like the sea breaching and dissolving a sandcastle. It’s one of the band’s most serene tracks. Though at other points they use more popular music devices, such as locking some instruments in a holding pattern and moving others around them.

The two old tracks of their last appearance is now down to one - ‘BBF3’ off ‘Slow Riot’. And, though the tour setlist seems to have varied a little from night to night, that’s a pattern they pretty much held to. 
Which, to be honest, still seems one too many for me. Pastures new are so much richer, it makes me wonder if they feel obliged to retain at least one of the taped spoken word sections they used to be so known for.

The accompanying film show (projected as they’re always keen to point out, by a full band member) starts with the word “Hope”, passes through industrial, natural and abstract scenes before ending up with riot footage. Which is reminiscent of the “grand demands” which accompanied the new album’s press release. And yet despite such anarchist affiliations, their shows couldn’t be any less like those hardcore or anarcho-punk gigs of old. By chance a friend was on security that night, who confessed afterwards that from a crowd control standpoint the night was such a non-event she nearly fell asleep.

But there’s a reason for that, in fact quite a good one. People are keen to pin many and seemingly contradictory labels on the band – funereal, anthemic, apocalyptic, euphoric – that perhaps we should stop trying to sort them out and see that as the point. As said after the last gig: “You're never sure whether Godspeed's tumultuous sound is of something collapsing or being built up, or even if there's that much difference between the two.”

The late Sixties might have been the last time songs could come over as genuinely insurrectionary - ‘Volunteers’, ‘Five To One’ and all the rest. Even by the punk days, like adulterated street speed, the agitation was already being cut with nihilism. True, corners of anarcho-punk kept up the “rise up” rhetoric. But that just confirmed what bubble worlds they lived in, their sound and fury signifying nothing.

Whereas the music of Godspeed, grandeur combined with ambiguity, perhaps sums up our era. All we can be sure of is that things cannot possibly stay the same, our only certainty the lack of certainty. What happens next we may not know until it’s upon us. As the band themselves said in a Guardian interview: “We're at a particular junction in history where it's clear that something has to give: problem is that things could tip any which way. We're excited and terrified.” 

The gig poster I associate with the lightning-struck Tower of the Tarot, transferred to suburbia. The projected word ‘Hope’ which starts the show is not rendered in the big block letters of the Obamacists’ favourite poster. It looks like it’s been crudely scratched into a wall. The image of it is flickering, tentative.

In another of the aspects of the Sixties which now seems strange to us, musicians were seen as figureheads if not leaders. Whereas Godspeed are almost anonymous, band members entering the stage one by one to add to a slow building drone, playing (as ever) in a circle in near-darkness, exiting without fanfare, never acknowledging the audience. The lyrics, the place from where the rallying calls came to be made, are entirely absent. True there is something post-modern to it all. It seems less new music than setting existing music in new forms, but perhaps some of that is inevitable. It’s tumultous music for tumultuous times.

And if you take to this, part of ’Bosses Hang’ from Glasgow…

…you may like this. The full show from Rennes…

The Haunt, Brighton, Fri 27th Oct

Wire were among the most archetypical of the British post-punk bands; inscrutably cool, rigorously impatient of cliché and the done-before, dismissive of excess, ceaselessly intellectually curious, firing out furiously nonsensical lyrics seemingly plundered from a Dadaist’s scrapbook, passionate and dispassionate in equal measure. We in Lucid Frenzy HQ have been lucky enough to see them three times before, and blogged about them twice.

Now it seems they’ve somehow reached their fortieth anniversary. (Well, discounting a five-year hiatus in the Eighties.) Though they have a new album out, ’Silver/Lead’, such is the breadth of musical ground they cover I figure they must be turning the occasion over to their history. In fact, a post-gig perusal of setlist sites suggest they do play a fair few new songs. Whichever, anyone caught claiming guitar music to be inherently limited should have been forced to attend one of their gigs, the better to taste his own words.

True, such eclecticism doesn’t always pay off. As said of their Albert appearance two and a half years ago, some of the more recent material has shown indie tendencies. Admittedly quirky indie, never descending to the Teenage Fanclub level, but indie nonetheless. At one point frontman Colin Newman proudly introduces a track as from the least liked Wire album, and alas it matches the description. But such moments are exception not rule.

The early tracks are the easiest to spot, short sharp shocks, leaping into action like tight-wound springs set loose. But there’s also two quite psychedelic numbers played back to back, where the guitars somehow manage to sound sharp and phased at the same time.

The main set ends with a powerful, extended riff-driven track, every iteration of it like another layer of sandpaper rubbing at your ears, the punch of hard rock with none of the chest-puffing stuff, before breaking into a freeform freakout as the stage lights dim. But perhaps the significant thing about Wire, in a similar way to the Ex, is the way they can explore so many different styles while still sounding just like themselves. Happy Fortieth!

Not from anywhere near Brighton…

Saturday, 28 October 2017


Just in case you missed it up top, this is not a proper review of ‘Blade Runner 2049’ in any shape or form. It’s more a rumination upon two questions, one exceedingly fannish (the great Deckard debate) and the other a bone of some contention in the political blogsphere. (Well, us SJWs have to get our virtue signalling in somehow.) Hopefully needless to say, but tackling both takes us into PLOT SPOILER territory…

Token review bit… Yes, it is a good film. In some ways it bears the same relationship to the original as ‘2046’ did to to ‘In the Mood For Love’, for all that those films are very different. It works as the difficult B-side, digging deeper into questions. Despite being long (over 160 minutes) it’s very well paced and does (kind of) work as a detective story.

And despite looking stunning, it doesn’t just look stunning. The imagery often is imagery, rather than an excuse for another CGI-fest. For example, some have claimed that the statues found in abandoned Vegas are a copy of ’Planet of the Apes’. But that misses the point that the shock of seeing the Statue of Liberty sticking up out of the sand is that one day it meant something, and part and parcel of that shock is it being an original. Whereas the Vegas statues were built to be copies, or – to use a very Dickian word – simulcara.

To start on the Deckard debate, we do need to look back at the original. Most people bothering to read this will know this next para already, but…

This sequel was designed so it might fit both originals. The original original, the one first released, turns out to be in essence a love story. Hero Rick Deckard is able to escape into the wild green yonder with his girlfriend Rachael. Who’s a Replicant (a synthetic imitation human), but then love conquers all. Even, it would seem, plot. 

But in the bleaker director’s cut escape is not an option, those luring adverts for the off-world colonies only taunt, and rather than Rachael getting to live as a human there’s the hint Deckard might be a Replicant himself. (There’s now multiple versions, but that’s essentially the division they come down to.)

Original director Ridley Scott has consistently insisted that original original was only ever a studio imposition, that the second version was always his intention. Then more recently he added that Deckard definitely was a Replicant. Now one of these things is more useful than the other. (In fact when he first said that I confess to shouting at the telly, an activity I normally reserve for Tory MPs and anyone associated with ‘Top Gear’.)

In fact, I suspect he’d been on the convention circuit too long and was merely repeating back to fans what they want to hear. Because fans, forever keen to believe they possess secret knowledge denied to norms, had long insisted this. And the problem with it is that it treats Deckard’s status as something of an Easter egg. Each scene, each line of dialogue should be scoured obsessively for clues, with little consideration of how the answer would affect the film overall. But let’s assume that in art, if the creators want you to know something they’re probably going to tell you. So by the same token, if they keep things ambiguous that was most likely a decision too.

‘Blade Runner’ starts with humans being humans and Replicants Replicants, only to progressively muddy the waters. Tyrell, director of the evil Corporation who makes the Replicants proudly insists "more human than human" is our motto. While Gaff’s parting shot to Deckard (in Scott’s version the last line), speaking of Rachael, is “It's too bad she won't live! But then again, who does?”

Because we don’t. Humans live in a society which dehumanises, which effectively forces them to treat each other as though they’re not human. Deckard wants no part in the Blade Runner business but is forced back in. While at the same time Tyrell is more right than he thinks. The Replicants, the supposed non-humans, are becoming human. Chiefly evidenced in their final battle where Batty, who has been painted throughout as the villain and been shown to kill remorselessly, chooses instead to save Deckard’s life. 

Scott has said of this: “It was an endorsement in a way, that the character is almost more human than human, in that he can demonstrate a very human quality at a time when the roles are reversed and Deckard may have been delighted to blow his head off. But Roy [Batty] takes the humane route.” 

The line turns out to be blurred, the street two-way. So the sequel wisely retains these ambiguities, in fact throws up ambiguities of it’s own. However, does it really match both originals? It’s world is clearly not that verdant green space which the original Deckard and Rachael run off into. It’s a barren wasteland, where only maggots grow and wood is valued like a precious metal. It’s also true that K, the new protagonist is effectively Deckard’s mirror image, a Replicant who starts to suspect he might be human.

Yet, at least as far as the Deckard = Replicant option goes, it firmly follows the original. In fact, those not clued up on these things might miss entirely any suggestion otherwise.

Some point out Deckard doesn’t have Replicant abilities, by which they mostly mean super strength. But there’s no reason why Replicants have to be built to be super-strong, any more than every processing device is built to have bags of RAM. Plus if the plan is to conceal his true nature from him, granting him super-strength might be something of a giveaway. 

It makes more sense to concentrate on his ageing. Short of having Harrison Ford frozen since 1982 on the off-chance of a sequel, they are of course stuck with an older Deckard. In the original we saw with Batty how a Replicant expires. And he doesn’t die like a human, of old age, only faster. He more shuts down. But then like Rachael Deckard would be a special, new kind of Replicant with handwaves allowed. So they could either skirt around that issue, or hint that because of reasons someone might have designed Replicants to mimic human ageing.

As it is, by reintroducing Rachael, they virtually do the opposite. Because this is a rebuilt Rachael, as she was, as only a machine can be rebuilt, the way it was, in contrast to the ageing Deckard. It’s true that Wallace (the wicked capitalist this time) suggests that he might have been set up to get it on with Rachael. But humans can be set up for dates too.

A recurring theme of the film is data, fitting both the techno-future setting and a detective story organised around the search for clues. But the theme pivots to emphasise the unreliability of data; pages ripped from record books, glitches in VR displays, memories which may not be yours.

And that unreliability is associated with the Replicant resistance (more of which anon), particularly with the Blackout – the great data wipe they engineer. But this is itself very much associated with their becoming human. Part of K’s journey of self-actualisation is his developing the ability to lie, when he tells his boss Rachael’s child’s been “taken care of”.

But mostly this ambiguity is associated with Deckard. He’s still alive when he shouldn’t be, living in the abandoned hotel with the glitchy VR. And we’re told quite specifically it was him who covered his child’s tracks.

Which makes his and Rachael’s child a hybrid child, in a plot line oddly mirroring ‘Battlestar Galactica’ a union between human and Replicant. The Replicant resistance don’t want to replace humans so much as insist on their parity, a para-military civil rights movement. So such a unifying child becomes the solution to the whole problem. It might “break the world,” or it could break down “the wall that separates kind”.

K’s accessing the memory of the hidden wooden horse is what leads him on the self-actualisation path, even accessing a name. Ana tells him “someone lived this”, withholding the rather vital information it was her. (The memory is also the microcosm of her life. She has to abandon the horse to preserve it, just as her father has to abandon her to save her.) Yet Mariette later recognises the horse and underground leader Freysa tells him "we all thought we were the child."

Which suggests that Ana slips this memory into all Replicant craniums, as a kind of equivalent to the wake-up code in ‘Humans’. (This works better symbolically. All Replicants can’t be expected to all take the journey to the orphanage, and if they did and hopefully hunted for the horse they’d now find it gone.) When K dies, she experiences from her cell the snow that falls on him, also suggesting some sort of psychic link.

So in brief the answer to the question “is Deckard a Replicant?” is the same as it would be to “does he have African ancestry?” We don’t care, and we’re fighting for a world where that won’t matter to anyone.

For a brief summary of the claim the film has a “women problem”, there’s 
Anna Smith’s piece in the Guardian. Let’s start with Joi, a hologram designed to stop live-alone loners like K getting the blues. (An extension of female-gendered operating systems already in existence, like Siri.) Except, much like K and his orders, Joi overcomes her programming and the two fall in love.

Or does she? Look at little harder, and it’s as deliberately ambiguous as the Deckard debate. There’s a theory that kept apes taught human language were really mimicking rather than absorbing what they were told, fulfilling their role as best they could so as to appease the fruit providers. Similarly K wants not just the off-the-shelf sex toy but for Joi to assume sentience and embark on a genuine relationship with him. She, built to oblige, does just that.

At Forbes, Paul Tassi develops the simulacrum argument. To which we might add Mariette’s line to Joi: “I've been inside you. There's not as much there as you think.”

But how does this relate to the women problem in wider popular culture? At most, by foregrounding it. Which can be a valuable thing to do, but only if you then go on to deal with it. Foregrounding alone achieves little. (Supposing in the original Rachael had a line of dialogue where she said “here I was thinking I was a sentient being who made my own decisions. Whereas as it turns out all I wanted was a he-man to come along, slam me against a wall and tell me how I feel. I am so much better now. Let’s run away together so you can dominate me some more.” That would improve things?)

K does become Joe after a fashion, achieving a form of self-actualisation, even if it doesn’t happen according to the script in his head. Joi, whichever way you read her, is there to encourage this process before nobly sacrificing herself for him in classic girlfriend sidekick mode. And beside K’s antagonist, Luv, Joi is the chief female character in the film. She’s the only female character on the version of the poster above.

Unfortunately, Anna Smith then goes on to generalise from her example, saying “Mariette shows initial promise as a strong character who can give as good as she gets, but she is also a sex worker who is literally used as a puppet.”

Uh, no. Not what happens at all. From her first scene it’s made clear she’s posing as a sex worker to gain info on K. She slips a tracker on him which she then uses to save his life and take him to the Replicant resistance. Who are led by a woman – Freysa. And this is the real point where the critique gets derailed. K’s investigations cause him to believe Rachael’s child is a boy, who he then assumes to be himself. Yet he’s completely wrong-ended when Freysa tells him it’s really a girl.

So when Smith writes “it is worth thinking about whether this is the future we want for women in film”, she’s talking about a future where a woman has a central role. This is the very opposite trajectory to the boy power fantasy of for example Neo in ‘The Matrix’, where the regular guy gets to discover he’s “the one”, a rank which comes complete with a sexy girlfriend sidekick. 

Freysa suggests to K he take out the captured Deckard before he can have intel extracted from him, though it’s clear he won’t be coming back from such a mission himself. K then encounters another Joi copy on a bridge, who is back to default sex-toy mode purring come-ons. Bridges, as a symbol in films, are often associated with suicide. This is the point where he bottoms out, gives up entirely on ever becoming Joe, and is liberated to embark on his suicide mission. He’s only a cog. But he can still choose which wheel to fit his cog into.

(I couldn’t quite tell whether K was there to kind of blindside us as we led into the real story, and the whole film was to set up a sequel around the actual antagonism of Ana and Wallace. But the film fared poorly domestically, which I guess strikes that option out and so we’ll never know.)

But from here things get more interesting. Wallace’s plot is to gain for himself the secret of Replicant reproduction. His ostensible reason for this, “I can only make so many”, is the very reverse of sense. Surely the very point of making machines to populate the planets was that human reproduction is so time-consuming and imprecise? So let’s look for symbolic sense. We see a Replicant created the way a foal is born. Though, displeased at his barren handiwork, he dispatches her. But what if he, the future capitalist who has conquered human society so completely he effectively lords it, is now turning his expansionist eye on the world of nature? (A regular SF trope in recent years. Weyland in ‘Prometheus’ wanted to conquer death.)

What Wallace wants to do is seize the ‘miracle’ of birth from women. That might even explain another strange plot flaw. Everyone’s so excited the child is born while not considering that her mother died in labour, which suggests the ‘miracle’ isn’t quite down pat yet. But what if Wallace’s plan is effectively to make women redundant, to do away with them? If so, what more natural figure to lead the resistance against him than a woman?

Which probably takes us into a pointed debate. Is this a dystopian future where male-dominated science and technology are in effect trying not just to colonise women’s bodies but usurp them, and women are fighting back? Or is it another form of gender essentialism, where women’s main role in society is held to be inherently due to their biology? Whether the film has a “women problem” may be down to the form of feminism you adhere to.

Coming soon! Back with the gig-going adventures...

Saturday, 21 October 2017


The Green Door Store, Brighton, Sat 14th Oct

This co-headlined tribute to the late John Peel was put on by the good folks at Spinningchilli, who also took the photos.

I’d only seen the Nightingales once before, sometime back in the mid-Eighties, if memory serves on the same bill as Fuzzbox. And at the time found them arch and indie but largely nondescript. I’m not sure if I even knew then that frontman Robert Lloyd was a veteran of punk provocateurs the Prefects, or in those far-off days if I even knew of such. Others would well me of times they’d seem the band do well, and I’d sagely inform them they were mistaken.

Now thirty years later I am to discover they’re a very fine band indeed! They still have that archness, cladding themselves in some very un-rock-and-roll smarty and spangly jackets. And Lloyd namechecks, at at times seems to be channelling the crooning of Sinatra, while commenting on the music as it proceeds. At one point, after forewarning us of “a good bit”, he suggests the band go back and play it again.

But rather than anything indie they’re an exceptionally tight alternative rock band. The songs are played straight through, each jumping between quite different sections - to the point I soon give up trying to tell where one track ends and another begins, and just take the thing as a whole. Imagine a gig as a multi-sectioned sandwich, like a mega Scooby snack. With Lloyd’s voice often playing call-and-response with the more rockist cries of the drummer, the virtuous combination of opposites would seem to be the thing. 

After recent sightings of the reformed Cravats, they’ve now released their first new record in some forty years – the arena-baiting ‘Dustbin Of Sound’. Though originally operating in the punk era, I’m tempted to say they’re actually a psychedelic band who just do that black and white sort of psychedelic, before the world came into colour. Certainly they’re closer to ‘Arnold Layne’ than ‘White Riot’. Though the new release has flecks of… gasp!… colour on it’s sleeve, theirs is very much a black and white look, white shirts and black ties the order of the day.

Imagine a band which time travelled back to the mid-Sixties and peformed its amphetamine beat music and imaginary spy-fi soundtracks, but with the awareness of all that was coming. So everything they add - psychedelic weirdness, the edginess and grotesquerie of punk, the herky-jerky rhythms of post-punk – they don’t add so much as incorporate, as fold in. Everything they do, they do all at once. (They’d then need to be transported back in time again in order to have their album launch at the Green Door Store. I may not have that bit of the metaphor quite worked out yet.)

Except you’d also need to add in absurdist theatre and decadent cabaret, where cartoon menace mingles with that menacing kind of menace. Lyrics include the barked chorus “hang them, shoot them, electrocute them” and “I didn’t want things to end this way but I’m a liar”. Their psychedelia isn’t of strawberry fields or marmalade skies but of pylons, cows and blaring sirens – parochial Englishness estranged.

If the Nightingales were a layered Scooby snack, the Cravats would be a surrealist strain of sushi, the chance encounter of such divergent elements compressed inside a three-minute sonic shock. Hence I called them, after an earlier encounter, “the systematic deragement of the senses you can dance to”. We can only hope for further interruptions of normal service.

No live footage on yonder interweb so here’s t he video to single ’Jingo Bells’ (with a Hitchcockian cameo from Penny Rimbaud)…

Con Club, Lewes, Wed 18th Oct

Despite catching Japanese psychedelic outfit Acid Mothers Temple whenever and wherever I can, I had missed last year’s visit (glowingly reviewed in no less than the Guardian) 
as out of town.

And their gig before that had been a little too free form, a little too spacey for any gravitational pull to take hold. You want them to land on alien planets where the life, Jim, is not as we know it. But you do want them to land. Or perhaps the hour set was simply too short for such astral journeys. Regardless, it left appetites whetted rather than quashed.

This time they’re definitely putting the rock back into space rock, starting off with a squall of noise and never quite losing the driving beat. They even launch into the harmonica-led riff of Sabbath’s ’The Wizard’, the nearest I’ve seen them do to a cover. (Though the internet claims they’re also known to play ’War Pigs’.)

Though of course being AMT their nearest to a cover isn’t that close to a cover; they bend and twist it, sometimes reverting back to the original, before they’re done. Their ability to shift, transform and mutate feels like they can stay forever in a groove, while at the very same time explore new territory. An AMT setlist wouldn’t be a neat numbered page, but like one of those convoluted looping flow charts mad scientists scrawl on white boards in films.

It’s true, I am often to be found complaining too many bands merely ape past styles, and end up effectively as tribute acts with the reference numbers filed off. And unlike, say, Mugstar AMT very much approximate the look, hippie regalia for stage gear, vinyl in colourful gatefold sleeves filling the merch table. But they never treat psychedelic music as something known, a set of dance steps to be mastered. They’re not reproducing it but producing it, creating not more of the same but more.

And one example would be their ability to incorporate different styles. Heavy doses of both Krautrock and funk are blended in. At one point they break into an entirely unexpected bass and drum shuffle. The ever-active drummer in particular never seems to merely keep rock beats. Expect the unexpected. And still you’ll be surprised...

Usually I have to say ‘not from Brighton’ in this but this time, it’s not from Lewes…

Then a few days later, back on the Lewes-bound bus for...

Con Club, Lewes, Fri 20th Oct

The Hawklords were originally a 1978 incarnation of Hawkwind, after they’d somehow lost the rights to their own name. (I like to imagine a late night card game which went wrong, but suspect something more managerial.) However for nearly a decade now they’ve been operating in their own right. Though only keyboardist Harvey Bainbridge was in the original Hawklords, everybody bar bassist Tom Ashurst can claim some prior Hawkwind/Hawklords connection.

They play only a smattering of Hawkwind songs; having just released their new album ’Six’ (their… oh, you guessed) they mostly rely on their own material. But it’s mostly in the style of late Seventies Hawkwind - mid-tempo numbers with glacial synths and intonatory, often choral, vocals. A sound I have some fondness for, being the era I discovered Hawkwind. (My gateway albums being ’Live 79’ and ’Levitation’.)

And I like the idea of myriad offshoots, like all that Hawkwind touched turned to Hawkwind. In fact it being less polished, more rough around the edges than actual Hawkwind nowadays may even be a plus. It makes them more rock’n’roll, less alternative showbiz.

But there’s something of a dearth of the punchy songs Robert Calvert brought to the band. (Their best example being by Calvert, when they encore with the classic ‘Ejection’.) And there were a few too many spacey ambient sections, which came to feel too much like interludes. Plus, while it’s true Bainbridge sang lead on only a few numbers, his voice was not really strong enough to carry them. (They were perhaps hampered by sometime vocalist Ron Tree being absent.)

It’s perhaps not the point to try and compare them to the classic Hawkwind of the Seventies. And they may have suffered from being in the slipstream of the recent Acid Mothers Temple set. But I find myself more pleased they still exist than keen to see them again.

Also not from Lewes...

Saturday, 14 October 2017


Concorde 2, Brighton, Mon 9th Oct

Big Black were one of those back-in-the-day bands I simply loved. But for some arbitrary reason I never caught up with Steve Albini’s successor outfit Shellac. Yet now, some twenty-five years into their existence, they show up for what is bizarrely their first Brighton gig. And as things turn out, if they’re tuned to a different wavelength to their predecessors they’re just as stellar a band. I’d simply been missing out this past quarter century.

In this Quietus interview, Albini states the liberating spirit of punk as the vital thing with those who insist on continually confining themselves to it’s outer style as “stunted”. In the same interview he explained “From the beginning, we decided that we were just going to make records and put them out, and that was it… We were just going to go about our affairs as a band, play shows, make records and let people come across them as they would…. I have a visceral reaction to advertising and promotion.” Which to me means something like “Just build it. Who cares if they come or not?” And indeed they’re still DIY enough to set up their own gear, even packing it away at the end while the bassist continues to thump away at a riff.

However, when Fugazi similarly slipped out of hardcore’s strictures they also (largely) abandoned its love of noise. Whereas Shellac have kept up the same unrelenting abrasive barrage. Though commonly thought of as somewhere between post-hardcore and a noise band, they can employ the heavy riffing of hard rock. But rather than blasting from both barrels their music’s more like one of those maximum ricochet shots marksmen always use in films, unpredictable turns always arriving at their target. Tracks are full of stop-start rhythms and unexpected angles.

Notably every member of the band works it, no-one there just to fill out the sound. Indeed, condensing things down to a trio may have been about eliminating the possibility of on-stage crowd scenes. Drummer Todd Trainer’s placed only marginally further back than the others, with no-one stood in front of him. At one point he even embarks on a (kind of) drum solo, albeit one with the others still chugging away. A rare example of such a thing not causing a rush to the bar.

The band’s own favoured name for their sound is “minimalist rock”. And, as is often with punk music, there’s not just a self-discipline at work but an almost puritan dislike of extraneousness. It’s abrasive enough that Albini attacks his guitar as much as he plays it, with both hands and teeth. But it’s also musical enough that they have a patented method to cover his frequent retreats to retune. At such points bassist Bib Westin ”takes questions” from the audience, the good-humoured humour a strange break from the harshness of the music.

Listening to the blistering force of Big Black was like being run over by a steamroller while it was on fire. Not for no reason was a track called ‘Pavement Saw’. Whereas Shellac are more of a precision instrument. And, though to this day I love Big Black, it’s a welcome change. Big Black were rooted in their Eighties era, holding a truth-telling mirror to Reagan America’s dark underbelly. Whereas Trump’s America wears that dark underbelly on its face, and the last thing it needs is further exposure.

Okay, anyone who’s caught up with Shellac sometime before me, what’s the best album to begin with? The interweb seems to favour ’1000 Hurts’...

The Dome Theatre, Brighton, Wed 11th Oct

In the unlikely event anyone reading this doesn’t already know British folk star Richard Thompson, Stereogum have a reasonable primer here. While I have officially seen him perform solo before, in fact in this very venue, it was sometime in the Nineties, and one or two other things have happened since then. So this feels almost like a first time…

Though I think almost every song must have originally been written with a band in mind, the songs are easily strong enough to stand alone. In fact, with Thompson alone on a bare stage, unhurriedly taking the instrumental sections, it’s a reminder than stripping down gigs doesn’t lighten the tone so much as intensify it. His songs traditionally favour clouds over silver linings. Though proceedings are leavened by the odd humourous number, some laugh-out-loud funny and one leading to a cross between an audience singalong and a game to guess the impending rhyme.

The gig is based around two new releases, ’Acoustic Rarities’ and ’Acoustic Classics 2’. Though the acoustic classics series seems devised to represent the solo show rather than the other way around. With Thompson’s output so vast, I suspect I didn’t know many of the ‘classics’. But I can attest there were more of them than the time before last, when he ran right through his most recent album.

In fact, the only other time I’ve heard him play ’Beeswing’ was after an audience member implored him. And it may be the first time I’ve heard him reach back to the Richard and Linda Thompson era of the Seventies/early Eighties, which he does three times. He proudly introduced ’I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ as his hit, having reached the mighty chart placement of number 39.

He then promised something I hadn’t heard live before – to celebrate their recent fiftieth anniversary, a Fairport Convention number. I admit to secretly hoping for ’Meet On the Ledge’ but, cantankerous soul that he is, he bypassed his own back catalogue for a Sandy Denny track - ’Who Knows Where the Time Goes.’ Still, despite his self-effacing insistence “she sings it better” it was a fine version, evidence to follow. (I was later to discover that ‘Meet on the Ledge’ is considered part of his “average set list” when solo. You don’t win ‘em all.)

And perhaps the choice was fitting, for there does seem something timeless about Thompson. At the age of nineteen he was already writing the songs of someone who’s lived a dozen lifetimes, and at the age of sixty-eight he’s still doing it. Songs often feel set in a timeless era, the human condition recurring again and again. (Though ironically the much-celebrated ‘Beeswing’ is a rare exception, with its giveaway opening line “they called it the Summer of Love”. It is, I’ve always fancied, a song not just set in but about the Sixties.)

All sorts seem to get labelled a living legend these days, which may have more to do with ‘Q’ magazine having to come out every month than anything else. But every now and again, there’s someone for who the overused tag actually sticks.

The promised ’Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, albeit not from Brighton...

Saturday, 7 October 2017


The Hope + Ruin, Brighton, Sun 1st Oct

When the pre-set PA emitted a steady supply of jazz, it was a sign that Mike Watt might not necessarily be returning to his hardcore punk roots that particular evening.

Il Sogno del Marinaio (aka The Sailor’s Dream) are Watt plus a duo from Bologna. The music’s a form of jazz fusion, combining the power chords of hard rock with the fast-fingered restlessness of jazz. There were few vocal numbers, and even when they appear vocals are brief and passing. Rather than aligning with the drums, at the back of the sound, Watt’s bass moves alongside the guitar. Like duo guitarists, except where one was a bass. (If you follow.)

It didn’t do the thing you might fear most. In combining the cool of jazz with the heatedness of rock, you could easily lose the unique qualities of either and end up merely lukewarm. Whereas these waters were too unstill for that. But there were points where the endless turns and tangents lost me. And when freneticism becomes an end in itself it goes nowhere. It was like biting into a stacked sandwich, but unable to combine the tastes in your mouth. Getting only mustard, then only lettuce, then only cheese, then back to the only mustard again.

It’s true, of course, that jazz was an element in Watt’s original band, the legendary Minutemen. But there it was only ever an element, like a secret ingredient slipped in to spice the taste rather than make up the taste itself. 
A little jazz can go a long way, while a lot can just accumulate. 

And it’s true, of course, that Watt’s previous visit to our shores with the Missingmen, performing ‘Hyphenated_Man’ had quickfire changes apleanty. But that felt like a series of musical miniatures compressed within one frame. It was driven by concision, not aptitude.

Yet if it only worked at times, in those times it did work. Highlights for me included an idiosyncratic take on ‘Fun House’ as an encore, reminding us Watt served time in the reconstituted Stooges. And a number whose vocals merely took the form of a war cry, like words were just obstacles to expression.

Not from Brighton (again)…

Sunday, 1 October 2017


...only this time at the new home of 500px after being burnt by those rip-off merchants at Flickr. (And thanks to Dave Horsby for the suggested new home.) This time from Brighton's ever-popular London Road area. For the full set go here.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017


Yes, it seems the tenth anniversary of Lucid Frenzy has now been reached, with the pioneer post posted this very day in 2007. Happy birthday to… um… it.

The entire next decade is of course completely planned out in my head. More immediate aims include…. Well, the Autumn tis the season for gigs, gigs, gigs, so gig-going adventures may predominate for the next two to three months. There's also the matter of catching up on the visual arts reviews, over which I have fallen characteristically behind. They will probably take up the rest of this year even if I don’t go to any more exhibitions between now and then, which doesn’t sound likely. After which it could make a good time to get back on with that British science fiction business.

Saturday, 23 September 2017


The Barbican, London
(Another exhibition reviewed after it closed. This one was about the future, so we can now tell how well it did.)

“Once considered niche, science fiction is now all around us”
- From the show’s opening text

All About Awe

Perhaps wisely, this journey through science fiction does not claim to map every street and alley of the unknown. In fact it’s something of a whistle-stop tour, with most of the making sense of the sights left up to the viewer. So, even more than usual, this essay might be tangential to the exhibition it’s ostensibly about. (Certainly, it will be partial. I’m almost entirely uninterested in seeing film props and costumes out of their context. It’s like hearing a few notes wrenched from their symphony. Worse, the nods to interactive exhibits seem somewhat half-hearted.)

Plus, following an exhibition devoted to science fiction in general, what follows generalises. For every rule it gives there will be exceptions, possibly multiples of them. Nevertheless, what we’re interested in here is tendencies, in following the through line. Exceptions matter, but so do rules. In other words, in an exhibition based on the popularity of SF, what follows largely focuses on popular SF.

In a science fiction show, you might expect things to start with Jules Verne. Though this one never really stops with him. It cites his “dual emphasis on scientific discovery and romantic adventure” as the recipe for the genre, handed down to successive generations. And it’s the recipe’s family secret, that sprinkling of the rational, that gives it the taste.

Later it adds “the genre explores the significant transformations and paradigm shift in society brought on by the Industrial Revolution”. This improves things. We’re never going to get a definition of science fiction which satisfies more than three people, so we’re better off looking to historical explanations. And the statement’s true as far as it goes. After the Industrial Revolution science and engineering saturated our world. Anything before then does seem at most proto-SF.

But is it a useful distinction? Relabel a flying carpet an anti-gravity belt and in that moment you’ve transformed fantasy into SF. As the Doctor says in ’Girl In the Fireplace’, when asked to explain what a “spatio-temporal hyperlink” is - “I just made it up. Didn't want to say ‘Magic Door’.” And SF is essentially a genre for people who don’t like saying “magic door”.

Worse, the arbitrary insistence on science as a required ingredient is often attached to to an arbitrary insistence on ‘proper’ science fiction, with everything discounted that doesn’t fit some narrow schema. It’s like a botanist devising a method to categorise only geraniums as flowers, while claiming it a coincidence they’re the one he likes to smell. The worst thing about this is that the genre gets approached as a raiding party would a storehouse, aiming to seize and make off with it’s greatest treasures, rather than seeing it as having its own ecosystem.

And arguably that relationship is not even being caught the right way up. ‘Alien’ (featured here) was a gothic horror, set in space not so no-one would scream but so no-one would ask awkward questions about where the monster came from. (Even if its own director later became confused about that.) Science fiction grew up under the oppressive shadow of the Gothic, and a recurrent source of tension was whether it would escape its gravity or not.

Arguably its relationship to the Industrial Revolution is most often to the one Gothic had to the Enlightenment. It provides a newly needed haven for irrationality, a place for the now-banished thoughts to go, where cities flew and dinosaurs still roamed if you said they did. That ostensible scientific rationalism, inasmuch as it did anything, offered a quasi plausibility which aided suspension of disbelief. It was putting sweets in a capsule so could pass them off as medicine.

As a child obsessed with science fiction in the Britain of the Seventies, all I wanted from it was an antidote to my humdrum suburban existence. If this is the known, there must be the unknown. If daily life is bound, there must the unbound. Assumptions soon followed by the questions – where can I find it? And then where can I get more of it? A subjective perspective, but one I’m willing to bet is fairly typical.

Jasper Reeves kicks off his Telegraph review, with the ‘Jurassic Park’ clip – and the “sheer awe” on Laura Dern’s face as she spies her first dinosaur (still above). Because of course the dinosaur’s instrumental, a means by which to stir that awe. Science fiction is at root about finding ways to put that face on you. Its magazines were called things like ‘Amazing Stories’, ‘Astounding Science Fiction’ and ‘Science Wonder Stories’. The covers to which were rarely adorned with promises to adhere strictly to Newtonian laws.

In short, science fiction is normally not concerned with being rational but precisely with going mad. One of the cigarette card collection ‘Vignettes Viellemard L’an 2000’ (1901), ‘A Croquet Party’, shows people play croquet underwater. It’s the combination of strange and familiar, the billowing dress with the diving helmet, which makes it winning. Or… well whatever is going on in the cover of ‘Amazing Stories’ 1 (1926, below).

But of course those images are in the show. It’s similar to the Barbican’s earlier ‘Watch Me Move’ animation exhibition in it’s sense of sheer sensory overload – science fiction truly is all around you. Perhaps it even exceeds its predecessor, through not being staged in the cavernous main gallery space but cramming itself into the smaller Curve. Exhibit cases jostle with multi-imaged LED screens, while clips from films play overhead.

Sometimes pressing proximity makes individual exhibits hard to see and hear. But the upside is that this throw-it-all-in approach is carried through to content. Even as we read that restrictive rational explanation, clips are playing of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ and ‘One Million Years BC’. Neither of which are actually science fiction by that definition. But on the other hand, who cares? A journey through science fiction shouldn’t just take you through the respectable suburbs. It’s a genre which encompasses ’Stalker’ and toy plastic robots, and the show does the right thing in spanning that.

Judging a Genre By Its Cover

Compounded to which, the more of this exhibition I saw, the more convinced I became that this was primarily a visual medium. Popular science fiction was about narratives only in the sense that they allowed a framework to insert images. If those pulp magazines were filled with text stories, what sold them was their lurid covers and crazy illustrations. Even John Campbell, editor of ’Astounding Science Fiction’ and seen by many as the bold Martin Luther figure who singlehandedly raised the standards of magazine SF, regularly asked for stories to match the ready-supplied cover art. Once more visual media was widespread – comics, films, TV shows and later computer games – the pulps had their role usurped. But even those successors were still a little too in hock to narrative. SF was best seen in slideshow mode.

Take the classic ‘Mars Attacks’ trading cards (1964, example above). They’re numbered, have brief narratives on their backs and follow a loose trajectory which roughly resembles a story. (There are Martians. They attack us. They unleash torments on us. We counter-attack. We win.) But what their format really allows them to do is cut straight to the next cool image. And frankly ‘Independence Day’ (1996) would have been a whole less dull if they’d followed that lead, and just showed the smashed-up White House while not bothering with those cliched characters and their tiresome sub-plots.

(It’s also a further example, as if we needed one, of how thin a veneer the science is in SF. The Martians, which become the central characters by default, are effectively depicted as skulls in plexiglass helmets. They’re Death in SF trappings. They unleash Biblical plagues upon us. (Including ones of giant flies and another of giant spiders. It’s not clear why the spiders go for us and not their more traditional diet of flies, but there you go.))

Though if SF was about images, there was never a house style. Both Frank R Paul and Virgil Finlay illustrated for the pioneering ‘Amazing Stories’. That’s Paul’s cover up above, and it’s not surprising to see him adorning the first issue. Both in composition and imagery, he’s considered as pioneering if not defining. His penchant was for dramatic depictions of technology, often at vast scale, with human figures marginalised if present at all. You’re not surprised to hear he had a sideline in technical drawing, or that human figures were not his forte.

While his art looks suitably awesome the lack of sophistication also makes it engaging, slightly fannish the better to be engaged with by fans. Whereas Virgil Finlay’s more accomplished work often foregrounded the (human or alien) figure, building it up with stippled contours with an effect nothing short of sumptuous. See his ’Spacesuit’ (1956), above. It made for a great double act.

But the predominant tendency was to sharp, clear-cut images, in some ways the equivalent of the text stories’ direct and functional prose. Brian Aldiss wrote in his SF history ’Trillion Year Spree’ “the stories were built like diagrams, and made clear like diagrams.” And so was the art. Arthur Radebaugh’s newspaper strip series ‘...Closer Than We Think!’ (1958/63, example above) even use descriptive arrows.

Cities Going Up

When the show promises to focus on “where mankind was headed: upwards!” it’s not immediately clear whether they mean space rockets or city towers. But perhaps that’s as it should be, for the future city is a trope just as verticality is a motif of SF. Most obviously the future city is the antithesis of the current city – the congestion and pollution after a Fairy Godmother has waved her wand over it. But more widely the awe-inspiring city is the counter to, and predicated upon, the Romantic evocation of the sublime in nature.

The first skyscraper went up sometime between 1849 and 1885, depending on who you talk to. But any of those dates seem akin, or immediately prior to, the gestation period of classic SF. ‘Metropolis’ originated in a 1924 visit director Fritz Lang made to New York. His reaction, “the buildings seemed to be a vertical sail, scintillating and very light, a luxurious backdrop, suspended in the dark sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize”, described a template which lasted decades. Future cities are often lightly but brightly coloured, as if lit up from within, or even pure white.

Yet even as it builds on something already in existence, the Future City itself starts from scratch. Any actual city you’ve ever been to is an accrued composite of different buildings, almost always an amalgam of different eras. Whereas the future city always has a unified look, any residue of the present done away with by that magic wand. But it often goes further than this. Many of the films shown in this section essentially make the city a character in it’s own right, the pioneering ’Metropolis’ (1927, still above) even naming the film after it.

And the spaciousness of city fits well with the sleek, slipstreamed lines of SF art, for example ‘Clean Air Park’ by Fred Freeman (1959, above). That sheer verticality is sometimes implied to have transcended even gravity. Many of the images up above are unconcerned with natural viewpoints, we’re simply looking in from whatever angle best conveys the scene. Whereas in Freeman’s example, we have three corollaries for our elevated perspective. There’s the plane, the monorail (with passengers’ faces at the windows), but most of all the terrace on the left – those heads’ view-spot almost matching our own. In the future even everyday folk will have a semi-omnipotent God’s-eye view.

Cities are often found not just full of flying stuff but floating in their own right, particularly in ‘Air Wonder Stories’ (“Science aviation stories”, Hugo Gernsback’s sequel to ‘Amazing Stories’, 1929/55). They’re frequently held aloft by whirring rotor blades, like a helicopter but with suburbs. Or failing that they can be under the sea, the better to allow for floating people or equipment.

The show comments how “the idea that the future was linked to commercial innovation led to the concept of ‘tomorrow’ being widely used in advertising… providing the newest and most indispensable commodities that capitalism could imagine.” Sometimes the connection is so oblique as to be confounding. What mind thought the way to advertise Seagram’s Canadian whisky was futuristic cityscapes? But adverts such as Bohm’s ’From Airport to Town Through Monorail’ and Shell’s ’Through the City Of Tomorrow Without a Stop’ (both above) look like SF images with the logo of a company sponsor appended, the future as product upgrade.

Okay, so everything floating, in perfect alignment and gleaming white… if that starts to look a little like paradise, then technological utopianism could almost be defined as turning heaven from a function of space into one of time. And yet the line between utopia and dystopia seemed strangely thin. ‘Metropolis’, which did so much to define the trope, was a clear-cut dystopia. The workers are downtrodden at the same time the walkways are raised. The domineering building in the centre of the still above was called the New Tower of Babel, and the film is stuffed with catacombs, hallucinations and other Gothic tropes.

While a Penguin edition of Orwell’s well-known dystopia ’Nineteen Eighty-Four’ gave it a skyscraper cover (above) which could easily be modelled on the Barbican complex we’re in. As mentioned another time, the future city of ‘THX 1138’ becomes so antiseptically white it becomes dystopian in it’s own right.

Two parallel displays of magazine covers are helpfully labelled as utopian and dystopian. And yet the same gleaming towers are in each. It’s just on one side they stand boldly upright, while on the other they’re being toppled. (See Paul’s cover for ’Wonder Stories’, 1934, above). We can rise. Or we can rise and fall. Those would seem to be the options. Providing fans got their requisite dose of awe, perhaps it didn’t matter much.

Its Roots In Rule

Primitive societies often conceive of the future as behind us, as it creeps up on us unseen. SF takes precisely the opposite tack, insistently setting it firmly in our sights, straight ahead. Yet a list of things SF was by and large unable to predict would be long. It wasn’t even able to foretell its own future, for the most part. It could hold a distorting mirror to its present, that was all. Switch the TV on for a random film, and it’s often easier to date it to an era if it’s science fiction than if it’s contemporary set.

Pretty much every day I go to work among a group of different genders and sexual preferences, and from different races. I expect you do too, and I expect neither of us think about it very much. But that diversity, which we take so for granted, for most of SF’s history either lay unimagined or consigned to the most ruinous dystopia. Women, for example, don’t just not show up in the workplace – they don’t appear at all for much of the time. And when they do they’re mostly (in the words of the 'Mars Attacks' card above) prize captives for aliens to grab. But let’s focus on race, as it has a special place here.

After the Industrial Revolution the show comes up with a second origin story for the genre, which seems more on the money. For science fiction’s roots lie less in the science than the colonialism of the Nineteenth century. The more telling example is ‘An Explorer’ also from the cigarette card set ‘Vignettes Viellemard L’an 2000’ (1901) if somewhat less charming than the previous example. The titular European explorer buzzes above an African village in his propellor plane, frightening the superstitious natives. They’re depicted, unsurprisingly, the standard racist colonialist way. But the plane is futuristic looking, the colonialist image already morphing into something SF.

In an irony, this means a genre so concerned with the fantastical had its roots in actual accounts. Tim Youngs has argued 
“Explorers, missionaries, soldiers, colonial administrators, scientists and others produced accounts of their experiences… Their writings should not be seen as entirely separate from the novels or poetry of the time. Explorers and novelists read some of the same books and one another’s works.” Those accounts were often popular in themselves, such as Henry Morton Stanley’s ’How I Met Livingstone’ (1872) and ’Through the Dark Continent’ (1878), which coined that once popular term for Africa. But they also sparked a rise in popular adventure stories.

The point is less that fiction was being marshalled into cheerleading for colonialism, even if that was often an effect. (Ideology replicates itself without trying, most of the time.) In fact it was driven as much by discovering the ruins of ancient civilisations as it was by encountering living cultures. The point is more that, by opening up and throwing a spotlight onto the liminal, colonialism created space for story settings. So it led to a literature which could place the fantastical on the periphery, while having a ready-made means for encountering it.

It’s contradictory nature was to evoke the strange, exotic and otherly, whilst simultaneously insisting that we had a place there. This is most exemplified by the trope that explorers were taken as the return or the reincarnation of the foretold ancient ones (used in H. Rider Haggard’s first two main books, ’King Solomon’s Mines’, 1885 and ’She’ 1886). Colonialism came with an inbuilt futurism, “we are more advanced” easily eliding into “we are the future”.

But as colonialism was also expansionist that periphery was forever pushed against. Africa, Asia and hazily located ‘lost islands’ were invoked as story settings by the accounts of explorers, only to be surpassed as soon as they returned with their confoundedly complete maps. This didn’t happen in a neat or schematic way. Edgar Rice Burroughs starting writing with a series set on Mars (John Carter) in 1912, followed by the Africa-based Tarzan books later the same year, then another series set inside a hollow earth (Pellucidor) two years later. But it was the general direction of travel, and one circumstances mandated.

Antarctica would prove the last stand. Lovecraft’s ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ (1936, above) locates his Elder Things there, inspired by a South Pole expedition a few years earlier. Yet it’s written with the conceit of being a warning, of deterring further expeditions – which perhaps sums up the irony.

Whereas Arthur Radebaugh’s painting ‘City in Antarctica’ (1960), is not of Lovecraft’s ancient city, strange and foreboding, it’s very existence enough to shake your sanity from you. Conversely, it’s a human centre. A handy label explains how nuclear power dispels that pesky cold. Those liminal spaces where the strange hung out have now become inhabited by us. Yet Lovecraft was already setting up the next step, as he associated his ancient civilisation with aliens. After Earth-based adventures quite literally ran out of space, the solution was… well, space. The colonialist’s pith helmet soon transformed into a space helmet.

But then, to expedite the process, three things happen in parallel. There’s an emerging criticism of colonialism, there’s colonialism itself taking softer forms relying more on economic dominance than naked land grabs. And there’s America, itself a former colonial subject, becoming the dominant global power. So SF’s more metaphorical take allowed for a figleaf; as sensibilities got more delicate, those savage black tribesmen could be recoloured a decoy green or substitute blue. But in the same step science fiction exacerbated the distinction between savage and civiliser, put them more than poles apart.

Dreaming Of a White Future

It should be said that SF scarcely stands alone, much art of this era is whitewashed. If America was a multiracial nation, you wouldn’t know it from its received self images. New York street scenes, for example, are often depicted with all white faces. For a long period music histories tended to assume black people kicked off genres which white folk went on to develop. More in touch with their animal instincts, they could hit on things we couldn’t. But without us those things stayed in stasis. It was us who turned their twelve-bar blues into the more sophisticated rock music, and so on. (This is such blatant nonsense you might wonder how people could ever believe it. But they didn’t, they assumed it.) 

But combining this whitewashing with futurism has a potentate effect. The techno-utopians were dreaming of a white future, where along with pollution and litter black people were consigned to the past.

Which is why it’s a good, if not an obvious, choice to include Sun Ra’s 1974 film ’Space Is the Place’ (1974, still above). Back-to-Africa movements, however understandable, always risked playing along, trapping of black people in the past, while his Afro-futurism did the opposite. The film portrays him both as an alien and as visiting royalty. His UFO takes off again with black folks aboard.

(Reviews concentrated more on Soda_Jerk’s “video cycle” ‘Astro Black’ (2007/10). It’s best conceit was a formal one, presenting the video in two screens to match the twin turntables of the hip-hop DJ. But it’s insertion of SF images into hi-hop videos, such a flying saucers placed behind Public Enemy, became an over-elaborated gag, an overlong YouTube video. The juxtaposition of the musical theme as greeting in ‘Close Encounters’ with Sun Ra, on a nearby film screen, seemed more attention-grabbing for being accidental.)

Friends and Relations

When a show’s on a subject as vast and sprawling as SF, you inevitably come away with a wish list of things you’d have liked more focus on. Let’s focus on just one. What might be the connections to Modernism?

Modernism was, like SF, about fashioning a new art for the future, with one main group in each even calling themselves the Futurists. Modernism, like SF, had a strangely polarised relationship with science and engineering, sometimes embracing it, sometimes actively siding with it’s irrational other. Modernism, like SF, was reliant on colonialism, Picasso for African masks, Gauguin for primitive Tahiti. Modernism, like SF, was a multi-media movement which always seemed to centre visual art even when it didn’t intend to.

You can scarcely look at the clean lines of those future cities and not think of Corbusier’s plans to raze and replace downtown Paris. Or Berenice Abbot and the New York photographers of the Barbican's earlier ‘Constructing Worlds’ exhibition.

And perhaps that’s not surprising when the chronologies run so closely. If we follow the show and take Verne as the start of the classic SF era, then we could reasonably pinpoint his ‘From the Earth to the Moon’(1865) as the starting gun. The first Impressionist exhibition was a mere two years earlier.

Yet, to quote Aldiss again:
“Cubism, Futurism, Surrealism exerted no influence.” Modernism moved away from straightforward depictions of things, even if this wasn’t the linear march into abstraction that some like to imagine. Whereas SF art often moved in almost the opposite direction, a hyper-real slickness which culminates in the endlessly empty grandeur of Chris Foss’ airbrushed book covers. True, the slickness could lend a deadpan quality to the absurd images, like Escher’s etchings. But that was a different path to Modernism.

As ever, exceptions apply. Perhaps the closest connection to SF was not Italian but Russian Futurist art, coming out in the open with the Constructivist look to Protazanov’s ‘Aelita Queen of Mars’ (1924, still above.) But for the most part SF art meets Modernism, and abruptly stops, at Pop Surrealism. For this reason the connection doesn’t seem to be a rich one, as that tween-stool genre so frequently looks simply trite. Their paths cross so seldom you figure they must have been avoiding one another, like two siblings who dislike admitting their attachment.

But exceptions to Aldiss’ rule apply, such as Arthur Radebaugh and Chesley Bonestell’s aerospace industry adverts of 1957/60. ‘Probing Beyond Present Knowledge’ uses almost Suprematist abstractions, presumably to better attract applications from the alpha scorers.

And things became different after the classic era of both traditions, when they were less keen on their own identity. The Sixties ’New Worlds’ featured illustrations by Pop Artists Eduardo Paolozzi and Richard Hamilton. The two most influential SF films of the Seventies, which defined rival aesthetics which remain with us today, were ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Alien’. And both got their looks in large part from Jodorowsky’s abortive ‘Dune’. (Described here dryly as “widely regarded as one of the greatest SF films never made”.) And Jodorowsky was strongly Surrealist influenced, to the point of wanting to cast Dali. Yet his script happily played fast and loose with Herbert’s classic novel, while he cheerfully claims never to have read.

Like There’s No Tomorrow

To go back to that opening text, science fiction is no longer a minority pursuit of geeks and enthusiasts, it’s gone mainstream. (By this point the argument is self-evident. If it hadn’t, there’d hardly be an exhibition about it at the Barbican.) And yet fandom remains.

It goes unremarked on by this show, but in fact fandom was one way SF was genuinely pioneering. It engendered the first fandom, kicking off a concept that then spread to other areas. Nowadays we perhaps tend to focus on the negatives of fandom, seeing it as the possessive lover who doesn’t like their significant other fraternising with anyone else, however casually. (And seeing as we are all fans, there may well be some displaced self-criticism there.) But it can also mean a dynamic, not merely a transmittive, relationship between creator and audience. As such, like the genre it’s a fan of, fandom is not monolithic but multitudinous. But, as with the genre it’s a fan of, let’s generalise a little.

I expect most people reading this will know of the Puppygate farrago, where a bunch of disgruntled far right dickheads tried to game the Hugo awards. (Their claim was that SF had a social justice bias which required correcting. A more accurate explanation might be that, with science fiction having grown up without them, a bunch of man babies threw a tantrum.) And fandom rightly responded to their overt racism and misogyny by collectively stymying them. Which fits with my personal experience that science fiction fans tend to be at least socially liberal.

But fandom largely remains the preserve of white, well-off Westerners. And, as is so common in modern political debates, so furious were the anti-Puppy arguments over racism and misogyny that no attention was paid to class. Which tends to be something of a general blind spot these days. But then that might have a particular truth for fans.

Things have moved on from the days of Asimov’s ’Foundation’ trilogy, where SF was overtly a literature about an intellectual elite for an intellectual elite. But it remains an exclusive club where the alpha brains get to meet. As is common with the privileged, fans are often keener to imagine they got their way through their own efforts than their privilege. And the fact that they were proven to be ahead of the curve, that everyone finally caught up with their once-eccentric interests, is just further proof they were right all along.

As an example of the type SF fandom attracts, many exhibits in this show come from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. And Silicon Valley entrepreneurs notoriously see themselves as Ozymandian types who should be given the freedom to techno-fix the world, while the job of the rest of us is just to get out of the way of their bright bulbs lest we stop them lighting up. And SF is popular partly as a sandbox for their elevated imaginings, where they work out what the future should be so they could let the rest of us know.

These ideas are concerning because, rather than the fantasises of cranks they seem zeitgeisty. Or, to put it another way, “no longer niche”. However what’s curious is that, at the very same time, techno-futurism never seemed on shakier ground. As said over the Seventies return of Quatermass the world of that era seemed contrapedal, which became reflected in an SF endlessly flipping between utopian and dystopian. Now, it seems, that coin has landed. And it’s tails.

Time was, when people would suggest that the Gothic was tied to a particular historical period and that SF had superseded it. But, like the Titans of Greek myth, popular SF has been swallowed whole by its older sibling, Gothic horror. Which then swelled up to apocalyptic proportions. That essential awe can now come only when accompanied by fear and revulsion.

Films are probably the most popular SF medium today. And for every ’Star Trek’ there’s multiple apocalypses of one kind or another. Even Gothic’s quasi-Medievalism is now everywhere, the Breughel painting appearing in ’It Comes At Night’ or the most Medieval laboratory you’ve seen lately showing up in ’Alien: Covenant’ (above). Perhaps that opening quote is wrong. It’s the Gothic which is all around us. Like ’Mars Attacks’ or ’Silence in the Library’ its skull just resides inside that SF space helmet (below).

Which is something of a paradox. We have a self-assured technocratic elite whose interests and assumptions have effectively gone mainstream, where limiting their operations would be widely seen as folly. Yet they operate inside a society that has almost completely given up on the notion of a better future. You couldn’t write a fictional society like that, it would just look like you were contradicting yourself. And yet that society is the one we live through…