Thursday, 25 May 2017

the sci-fi sound of Joy Division

Joy Division are a pretty sci-fi band. 

((...if you think that’s the most tenuous way I could introduce the fact I’m now brining in pop music to a hitherto sci-fi telly-based blog.... you’d be right))

It’s not that they sing about the sort of themes and subjects you could find in any contemporary literary sf... ALTHOUGH THEY DO THAT TOO... it’s that they SOUND futuristic. They apparently sounded futuristic at the time and they sound so even now. ‘Time travel’, the uncanny (dis)location effect of popular culture as written about in some detail by Jon Savage, centres largely in the Joy Division sound, with shifting, backward-masked and subliminal sounds and delay effects all there in the mix. (delay, as theorised by Pauline Oliveros, is literally time travel, the sound of the past coming forward into the future and both becoming the present) 

It’s music that exists in its own continuum.

This is due in no small measure to their producer, the esteemed Martin Hannett. 

Hannett was a legend in his own lifetime, and posthumously that legend, like that of JD itself, is growing. Whole books can and have been written about him, about his philosophy of sound and his approach to either acquiring new technology or, when this has proved slower than his imagination demanded, inventing his own. Drummer Steven Morris, in the JD documentary film, describes working in Hannett’s studio as being “like some sci-fi adventure”. And well he might. Quite apart from the then-novel profusion of synths, sequencers and drum machines (some of his own devising), there is the use to which all this equipment was put. Hooky may have wanted their records to sound like they did when the group played live; to Hannett’s credit he took the band and sent them travelling off into weird new dimensions. Compare their previous attempts at recording, as Warsaw. The same songs sound... different. More earthly. More normal. Hannett recorded each sound, instrument, vocal pattern and located them at certain points in relation to each other, not for a cheap “ooh, stereophonic sound!” effect but to put the listener of the records into a certain environment, an uncertain psychic/sci-fi space that was the perfect setting for Curtis’ estranged lyrics.

Curtis was certainly a reader with a toe or two in the sf world. Maybe not the pulp sci-fi fiction of previous generations but definitely the 60s ‘New SF’ domain of Moorcock et al. 

Ballard and Burroughs are the two most-cited JD literary antecedents (starman Bowie making up the ‘B’ triad of JD influences). When I first got to hear the first album I always mistook the track ‘Wilderness’ for ‘Interzone’ because the former actually suits the lyric to the latter one better. It is a Burroughsian tour-de-force in which the narrator literally travels through time, witnessing Christ’s death at one point, although that said the (post-apocalyptic?) wasteland of ‘Interzone’  could come straight out of passages in Burroughs’ ‘The Soft Machine’: 
“The town is built over a vast mud flat criss-crossed by stagnant canals, the buildings on stilts joined by a maze of bridges... the whole area presenting the sordid and dilapidated air of a declining frontier post or an abandoned carnival...  Various forms of ritual execution are practiced here.”

As the group metamorphosed, of necessity, into New Order they became much more interested in exploring developing music technology, but were the poorer (in my sci-fi geek estimation) for using it primarily for the purposes OF music, i.e as something to dance to. Without the literary-minded Curtis as quasi-navigator (and don’t forget, as a Kraftwerk fan electronic and dance music IS something JD would have explored more fully had Curtis lived, no doubt about it) there is none of the ‘transporting the listener to a weird new place’ as there was in JD. New Order transported the listener to a place alright but that place was the dance floor. 

No bad thing; just slightly less fun when you’re listening to it through headphones on the bus.

I often imagine what would have happened had New Order collaborated with, say, Afrika Bambata rather than Jellybean as they made their forays into American dance music, but to find that out one would need an actual time machine.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Tribe of Target

An ‘idol’ (sic) dream of mine is to locate a lost tribe in some remote part of the globe, introduce them to the written English word and some basic concepts from our culture (somehow) and then, with this in place, give them a full run of Target ‘Doctor Who’ novelisations (I’m assuming electrical gadgets which show moving pictures and sound would be too overpowering for them to appreciate such nuances as Radiophonic music or Tom Baker walking through doors). Future generations of this tribe, and White European liberals of course, may well curse my name for this act but it would prove interesting, to me at least, because I want to see what their idea of Who would be like just from reading the books. Because they would be reading them AS books, as stories in their own right, and as much as I enjoy the books that’s something I don’t think any Who fan can ever do, or ever really has been able to do, even in the days before we’d seen some of them.

The cliché about the Target books is now well-established and the line is the same in every bloody article about them so let’s get it out of the way now... you may want to join in... in (altogether now) “the days before video and DVD” ((cheer)) they provided a way to ‘repeat’ the most recent stories and to get a glimpse of stories made before we became fans or were even born. But this is something of a fallacy (or a phallusy if you’re reading any story with the Tissue Compression Eliminator). 

The fact is that every fan seems to absorb lore through osmosis. I can’t specify how or where I found out about older pre-Me Being Born stories but somewhere in the jumble of Aunty’s anecdotes, Peter Haining, Dr Who Monthly and the occasional old clip on TV nostalgia shows there was bubbling a list of facts, figures and more than the odd mistaken assumption. Reading the Target books was less a case of Young Me reading a fab new adventure in time and space, it was probably more likely a case of Young Me balancing the story on a tripwire with stuff I vaguely knew about it and trying to see if it held steady compared with that knowledge, and with all knowledge I had about Who as a whole.

In fact another of my fantasies is to go back in time and plug Young Me into some kind of MRI scanner and see what’s going on in his brain as he reads them. (my fantasies perhaps reveal a cruel and slightly loopy bent on the part of my subconscious, but bear with me) 

My guess is that all sorts of weird little blips and flashes, perhaps previously unrecorded in neurological science, would be occurring as I did so. For instance, any time Gerry Davis refers to the Cybermen as hailing from the planet Telos would no doubt send parts of my hypothalamus flashing a peculiar shade of yellow (or gold, which would be ironic), whilst different parts would light up when something like explicit references to other stories pop up in the text (as happened when I tried to plot a narrative using facts gleamed from the book of ‘Monster of Peladon’ and somehow ended up believing that the events of ‘Curse of Peladon’ therein alluded to actually happened to the Second Doctor... a misunderstanding I held for some years).

The sad fact is that on some level any reader of the Target books was conscious they were indeed reading A Novelisation, a translation of a televisual ‘original’. Sometimes these were written done stylishly or with clever and deceptive literary techniques;  sometimes they were limp and fairly atrocious retellings so ‘straight’ and bland that even a ten year old felt they’d been handed a shooting script; but we all came to them knowing they were based on Doctor Who and that we knew what Doctor Who ‘was’ and ‘did’ even if we didn’t necessarily know the specific story in question. 

In fact perhaps these books more than anything in the TV episodes was what drove the generation of fans that became TV professionals. Read the Target books against your memory or knowledge of the TV programme and you effectively become a pseudo-script editor. There’s the ‘where does this story fit amid the background myth’ aspect (probably not that big a deal for any actual script editor before the 80s anyway but you follow my drift); there’s the aspect of ‘wow, how did they even realise these special effects on TV’ or alas its more prominent cousin ‘what did they actually do on TV after realising they couldn’t possibly do this 50-foot high octopus monster I’m reading about believably on screen’; and there’s the ‘hang on, I watched this story and I don’t quite remember it being like that exactly’ thing. Your inner TV professional begins adjusting his trendy spectacles and clicking his red pen as your brain starts highlighting odd inconsistencies.

(A simple example because it’s closest to hand and I’ve just been reading it: in the book of ‘Logopolis’ Adric distracts the policemen who are trying to arrest the Doctor by climbing atop the Tardis and throwing a bicycle onto their car. You read that and, if you’ve seen it, you’re congratulating Chris Bidmead for something more dramatic than what Adric actually did on TV and also working out in your mind why they didn’t film that, i.e practicality, Health and Safety, not wanting to risk Matthew Waterhouse falling and spraining his ankle, etc. You’re also doing the ‘hang on’ thing at the same time. And, if you’re me, wondering whether or not to make a fresh cup of tea now or until you get to the start of the next chapter.)

But, ah, look at my precise wording there... what Adric “actually” did on TV. Both artefacts, the TV story and the book, are fictional but the TV story will always, with the best will in the world, be given primacy over what is after all described on the back cover as a “TV tie-in”.

This is veering perilously close to becoming an article on Canon so let me pull back from that fucking cliff-edge double quick. Returning to my Target-indoctrinated jungle tribe, what would be happening in their brains as opposed to the wired-up-to- MRI-scanner one of mine? 

Well presumably what happens in the brain of anyone reading any kind of fiction. I’m no expert but reading anything seems to be a kind of process where you plonk yourself in the story, or are dragged there, and you have to work out where you are in it even before such considerations as whether or not you like it or if it’s ‘for you’. This is really hard to do if it’s something written in an accessible everyday style, which is why results are so much more dramatic when we’re exposed to something weirder or more outside conventional reading experience (like, imagine if newspapers suddenly imparted their information as if they were detective novels, with clues and red herrings and weird genre clichés... that’d throw us wouldn’t it? And yet a lot of journalism almost implicitly expects an angle we’re supposed to be coming from, be that Anti-Trump, Pro-Brexit or what have you. Realising that newspapers from grown-ups have just as much ‘goodies and baddies’ as anything written for kids can be quite a shock to us and can tilt our own philosophy or worldview slightly). 

One of my favourite English lessons in Sixth Form college was a class where everyone had to read an excerpt from Burgess’ ‘A Clockwork Orange’. I smugly had the upper hand because I’d read it shortly before Burgess himself died in 1994 but it was interesting to read the expressions, and to hear the confusion, in my fellow students who were trying to scan a text written in the sort of slang that assumed (on the narrator’s part) the ‘audience’ knew this slang but which the actual writer (Burgess as opposed to Alex) knew full well the ‘real reader’ (i.e us) didn’t... and so had to navigate it and make inferences based on things like context and repetition.

My guess is that all the stuff about Tardises and the vortex and young/old faces and escaping to danger would, remarkably quickly, fall into place. For all the discontinuities in writing styles, descriptions of the Doctor or what order these stories take place in would also just as quickly form a debate amongst them similar to that in Sherlock Holmes fandom since the original Strand publications (such as ‘An Open Letter to Dr Watson’ published in a newspaper during the serialisation of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ which has fun placing the dates and events in ‘Hound’ with hitherto-known ‘continuity’... possibly making it the first Letter To The Editor that spawned an entire publishing industry). Which stories would be more prized? Would annual festivals be held in ‘Doctor Who And the Cave Monsters’’ honour whilst ‘Planet of Giants’ would be only whispered of in hushed tones, or given to intellectually stunted members of the tribe with bad eyesight? Would a form of tribal warfare develop in which local grievances would be settled between factions who believed ‘Doctor Who and the Daleks’ and not ‘An Unearthly Child’ was the One True Genesis?

But, ah, I’m being facetious.