Sunday 31 May 2015

15 Sleeves For the Child Within, circa ’70-’73*...

The passage from childhood to adulthood, or rather, from comics to vinyl, was made smooth in the early seventies by the fact that comics and vinyl both looked very much the same, and employed the same imagery, and occasionally used the same artists. Sometimes comics (by which I mean superhero comics) and vinyl referenced each other, as when Country Joe hymned the Marvel Group with ‘Superbird’, and Stan Lee returned the compliment by having Nick Fury, Agent of Shield, assassinated at a Country Joe & The Fish outdoor gig at Madison Square Garden. And remember Arlo Guthrie immersed in Mighty Thor on the back cover of Hobo’s Lullaby? With typical confidence and swagger, Marvel Comics briefly introduced the slogan ‘Pop Art’, whilst, at around the same time or not much later, record sleeves expanded from single sleeve to gatefold, and from three colour to multi-colour. As the sixties careened to a halt, and we entered that enjoyably messy decade, the seventies, the retentions of childhood were everywhere – sometimes referenced ironically, and sometimes nostalgically. Innocence was in short supply at this time, unless you happened to be 12, which I was in 1971 (born late '58). 

1. The Groundhogs – Who Will Save the World? The Mighty Groundhogs 
Artist Neal Adams was familiar from his work on The Green Lantern, the coolest superhero in the DC firmament, mainly because of Neal Adams. Ostensibly self-aggrandising, the sleeve is in fact knowing, sardonic and clear-sighted about the usefulness of counter-culture heroes as superheroes, as well as a beauty to behold.  

2. Emerson, Lake and Palmer – Tarkus 
A bionic hybrid of armadillo and armoured tank, trundling around in a flat, skeleton-strewn plain,  is an apt depiction of the music, which tends towards pomp and bombast. Ah, but we loved it at the time.   

3. John Entwhistle – Whistle Rhymes 
The Who bassist had a fairly macabre imagination, and this evocation of a child’s wonderland gets less ironic the closer you look at it. I don’t know what the album is like, but the cover is classic.

4. Simon Finn – Pass the Distance 
A poorly drawn knock-off of a poster ad for, what was it, Clark’s Pathfinder Shoes? Such wholesome associations stand in stark contrast to the music: a relentless assault on the senses on what is unquestionably the most bonkers, wayward and freakiest outpouring in the entire psychedelic canon. This is saying something, I know, but hearing is believing. 

5. Donovan – HMS Donovan 
As rich and strange as Bruegel, as intricate and fine as as Flemish tapestry, and a perfect visualisation of the winsome nursery rhymes and acid-tinged playground songs performed by the man-boy in the Edwardian sailor suit. H.M.S. Donovan comes between Patrick's designs for The New Humblebums and Can I Have My Money Back by Gerry Rafferty. Indeed, Patrick became the resident cover artist for Rafferty, an old friend from Ferguslie Park, and was immortalised in the latter's song, 'Patrick'. Under his given name of John Byrne, he wrote the definitive TV rock ’n’ roll exposé, Tutti Frutti. (Available here is a short film, In An Old-Fashioned Picture Book, with songs from H.M.S. Donovan and animations by Patrick)   

6. Spirogyra – Old Boot Wine 
The textured and preternaturally fragile sleeve is a true work of art and invokes Arabian Nights-style magic. Perfect for  singular acid folk of Spirogyra (the term had not yet been coined), which manages to exude crystalline purity and anticipate wild, scabrous punk at one and the same time. Possibly the most accessible of the matchless original vinyl trio by Cockerham, Gaskins and Co. Pete Rhodes is the artist.     

7. King Crimson – Lizard
Gatefold majesty, indebted, I’m sure, to Pauline Baynes, the genius illustrator of the Narnia books, but not actually by Pauline Baynes. Gini Barris, in fact. I could as easily have chosen In the Court of the Crimson King, a brain-fried homage to William Blake, and surely one of the most distinctive and iconic sleeves of all time.  

8. Peter Hammill – Fool’s Mate 
A surreal vision, rich in incident and detail. Makes a convincing case for the LP sleeve as a work of art in itself, though part of the pleasure lies in spotting the literal and imaginative allusions to the songs within. The album is a masterpiece too, incidentally. Paul Whitehead is the artist responsible.   

9. Genesis – Nursery Cryme 
Ha! Paul Whitehead again. Indeed Paul Whitehead is to early Genesis what Neon Park is to Little Feat. This is rougher in handling than Fool’s Mate, and has the proper English morbidity, straddling the line – to an endless horizon! – between surrealism and outsider art. Whitehead designed one more Van der Graaf masterwork, Pawn Hearts, but fatigue was definitely setting in with Foxtrot

10. Jackson Heights – Ragamuffins Fool 
Ragamuffin is the innocence to the experience of its successor, Bump n’ Grind.

11. Cat Stevens – Tea for the Tillerman 

No album was so profound or sensitive as a Cat Stevens album in 1970, and no sleeve illustration was as innocently enchanting as Stevens’ own painting for Tea For the Tillerman

12. Yes – Fragile 
Roger Dean was by this time literally creating and destroying worlds, the Galactacus of rock cover art.

13. Caravan – In the Land of Grey and Pink
The fairyland panorama was a popular stand-by of  prog-rock, and this is one of the better examples. 

14. Tyrannosaurus Rex – My People Were Fair 
A tender embarrassment, which we might overlook for a mint copy. This is outside our time frame, 1968, but included because it still resonated in school playgrounds circa ’70-’73, partly due to the all conquering success of T. Rex. Too callow to comprehend the scale of Marc Bolan’s archness, we gaped in wonderment at the full title, My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair… But Now They’re Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows, and marvelled at the matching profundity of the cover art, which looks singularly cack-handed now.    

15. Khan – Space Shanty
Something to do with Steve Hillage. Space was definitely the place in 1972, and this served well enough until I discovered Sun Ra several years later. 

Are You Strangely Silent or Silently Strange??? The Thor Letters

Here’s something which surfaced when I was deleting some old files to make some space on a cluttered hard drive. It arises from an exchange of emails – dated February, 2004 – with a friend, newly arrived in China, on the theme of the superhero comics of our youth. At one point another mutual pal pitches in, although a lot of his contribution sadly had to be excised on the grounds of decency. It picks up with Mick’s response to an observation that Flash is a rubbish superhero, and a confession…   


I would never admit to selling off my comic stash for an Emerson, Lake and Palmer LP…Even if it was true! Halcyon days! Full of hope and sunshine.. But hey, they are not over yet... No sirreeeeee!!!! 

Yes, I agree that Flash was a particularly crap superhero…I certainly wouldn't want my daughter to marry him. 

And Antman too, although he does for the Incredible Hulk in #26 of the Fantastic Four (‘Enter the Avengers’), and he did try to redeem himself by becoming GIANTMAN – but to no avail, size isn't everything… He kept getting dizzy spells every time he grew over nine foot... He was also called Henry Pym which sounds like a Junior Minister for Crap Super Heroes. Yes, a contender indeed. However, the biscuit is taken by none other than the Man from Mars, Johnner Jozz, who had a crap costume and had all of Superman’s powers, but as he came from a cold Planet his one weakness was heat!!! As soon as a bad guy lit up a Lucky Strike he got a dizzy spell and fainted… 

What about Crap Super Villains????? 

Yesterday we got the bus into town (10p flat rate any distance) and Cindy wanted to explore a large building before going to the supermarket. Actually she saw a throng of people outside a building and wanted to join a queue. Well, it was a massive bookshop with four floors, with just about everything, mostly in Chinese but with some interesting English sections too and an extensive video section as well. I bought Double Indemnity and The African Queen for 75p each.

But what really got me about this place was that it was absolutely packed to the gills with people actively devouring books. Literally. I saw a family of four all sat down with noses in their books: mom, dad and the kids in rapt attention. This appeared to be normal behaviour.People just stood there reading. I don't know if they had bought the books or not, but they were engrossed. The queues for the cashiers contained lines of thirty or forty people each with three or four books... It was wonderful to behold and I instantly started to warm to the Chinese people.

* * * 


The path from comics to records was smoothed by the likes of Roger Dean, and then there was that Neil Adams cover for Groundhogs. I won't mention the tank/armadillo on the cover of Tarkus by ELP, because the memory causes pain. [15 Record Covers For the Child Within, circa ’70-’73, off the top of my head…

Talking about crap superheroes, it's salutary to think that the greatest of them all, the Mighty Thor, started out as a very crap superhero indeed, with a completely rubbish origin story. A reprint brought it all back. Do you remember? The lame (in every sense) Dr Don Blake is holidaying in Norway when his rest is disturbed by a race of Stone Men invading from Saturn. It happens all the time. Fleeing from the beasties, Dr Blake takes refuge in a cave and comes across a cane which, on accidentally striking, turns him into Thor, the legendary Norse God of Thunder. 

In short, Stan Lee grafted an implausible origin story onto one of his hackneyed space invader plots. 

The exact relationship between Thor and Dr Blake was always a bit fuzzy. The first tale suggests that Thor is an alias of Dr Don Blake, as Batman is to Bruce Wayne, but a bit more reflection reveals glaring metaphysical holes. I remember puzzling over it as a kid. Did Thor exist before Don Blake struck the cane? If not, then how to explain all those Boyhood of Thor stories that were such nice extras in the comics? Where was Thor when Dr Blake was fulfilling his medical duties? Or, alternatively, where was Dr Blake when Thor was jousting in faraway Asgard? 

Anyway, Dr Blake, having served his role in the hospital romance subtext (dare he reveal his love to nurse Jane Baxter, now that he is immortal and omnipotent?) quickly becomes a shadowy figure and an embarrassment to his creator, and the revenant soon takes complete possession of his host.   

[Only the day before last, I was having lunch and noticed a woman on the next table so completely absorbed in her reading that she took about two desultory bites of her buttie in the time I took to finish my meal. Being nosey, I had to see what the book was. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, in fact. It gladdened the heart to see, and is much more rare in the UK than in China.] 

* * * 


Checked out eBay and, well it’s just a frigging market BUT saw the cover of FF#25 (‘Hulk vs Thing’) and “all the Luminous Past came back tenderly”. Also blow me down, but wasn't old Dr Don just a figment of ODIN's imagination and DID NOT, repeat, DID NOT EXIST before being the conduit for Thor’s exile into Shame which throws up an even BIGGGER philosophical conundrum: what happened to all the lives that met and interfaced with Dr Don when he became The Mighty Thor [TMT]?! Later he also became doppelganged with a SIGURD but this seems to be after my time...

Oh Well, as Peter Green once said!!!!!!! 

A Bit Drunk and in love with our memories

* * * 


I’m working my way through Thor's adventures in the reprints in chronological order, and I'm not yet past The Crap Years. Stan Lee’s default position, it seems, was to bash alien invaders and, on a bad day, he wouldn’t even be bothered with the metaphor, he would just go bashing Commies directly. There's a doosie in Thor's second adventure, ‘Thor vs The Executioner’, when Dr Don Blake goes on a mercy mission to help victims of an epidemic in San Diablo (which closely resembles Cuba) and it’s leader, The Executioner (who closely resembles Castro) sends war-planes to sink the unarmed medical ship. For why? The answer is contained in a speech balloon coming from a war-plane. 'THE EXECUTIONER DOES NOT WANT THE PEASANTS TO BE CURED! HE WANTS THEM TO REMAIN ILL SO THEY WILL BE UNABLE TO OPPOSE US!' 

This crude propaganda comes from 1962. It wasn't until, oh, 1968 or so that Marvel developed a social conscience, reflecting the change in public mood and the wave of protests against Vietnam. I haven't got there yet.   

Talking of splendid sixties survivors, I saw Joan Baez last night. She was inspiring actually. Joan is a true star. She manned the barricades, sang to Martin Luther King and screwed Bob Dylan. In other words, she went a lot further than most were prepared to go. 

• • • 


I seem to remember that Loki was a puny sort of eternal God in the beginning, often hiding behind boulders and plotting. A right sneaky bastard, as I think we said at the time. Come to think of it, Thor underwent a course of steroids in the latter half of the 60s. Or was this when Jack Kirby became fully responsible for the flaxen haired wonder? I remember the Hulk vs Thor as if it were yesterday (or was it the Avengers?). The Hulk even lifted the Mighty Hammer off the floor!!! A feat no one but Thor was thought capable of. You can imagine the trouble we had with the pronunciation of Mijonnir [Mjolnir] or whatever the bloody thing is called. Yes, yes, I still have problems pronouncing and spelling it today. 

The FF underwent similar changes during the 60s. Notice the way the Thing changed appearance after about issue 9 and the personality of Ben Grimm was given a higher profile. Also the shedding or absence of side-kicks, a popular storyline in many earlier superhero mags. 

Remember the Action Comics’ ‘What If’ Superman stories? There was one where Superman was exposed to Red Kryptonite and split into two people, one in an all blue cozzy and the other in an all red one. This enabled him to cure the world’s problems and find a cure for cancer. It also enabled him to lawfully marry both Lois Lane and Lana Lang, famously rivals for the Man of Steel’s affection. At the end the editorial announced “This is just a fantasy story and did not really happen”!!!

I should be working but I could go on like this forever!!!


Joan Baez… but didn't she turn Robert E Lee into a steamboat in her version of 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"?

Greetings Fantasy Lovers

Alstuglen writes:

Just got back to Blighty after a few days in Barcelona and was delighted when Glen opened her box (e-mail) to reveal some real cultural statements. Your correspondence is however getting rather bitchy lads - more Cowpen than Bullpen. Poor old Flash surely deserves an accolade or two for his dress sense alone. Even in his early yellow incarnation he cut a dashing (excuse the pun) figure. Once the man went into his overdrive with his new scarlet cossy his rivals looked positively dated. Not till years later did the sartorial supremacy get challenged by Daredevil (who else?), in my opinion the Oscar Wilde of S.Heroes! However I digress. 

Admittedly Flash didn’t have much else to recommend him and if it were not for my own elemental leanings towards being well heeled (Flash’s little wings were just perfect) I might join you in putting the old boy down. Zero charisma as DD (that’s Denis Docherty) might say. 

Auberaughn Parry, the Peter Wimsey of S. Hero worshippers. Flame On!!!

• • • 

Nothing like a trip down memory lane to get the gander up. Flash wasn't exactly my worst superhero but often you can rate a superhero by his adversaries, and I don't recall Flash having too many memorable villains. 

There have been many great superheroes of course, but there was one that nearly always stole the show as a guest and that was Hercules, a silver tongued Lothario of incredible proportions who always left Thor fuming with frustration and jealousy.

Can you remember the various effects of the Kryptonites? Green = death. Red = a temporary alteration of comic/cosmic reality. Gold = total PERMANENT loss of all powers. Thats all I can remember. 

OK gotta go. Flame OFF!!!!!!!

PS Good to have you on board old chap and glad you enjoyed the Barce, a wonderful place. Named after the Barca family from Carthage famous for Hamilcar and his son HANNIBAL..check out Salambo by Flaubert, nothing to do with Barcelona. It’s just a good read. I may be making this up but I hope I am not. My brother Macca and his good wife came to Qingdao last weekend and it was rather spiffing!!!!

OK got to teach.

Lovage Mick xxxx  

• • • 


I might revisit DC after my Marvel binge. I have a residual fondness for Superman. Although Marvel were always light years ahead, DC had a weirdness beyond the sweep of Marvel. Whereas the Marvel cosmology was always consistent, DC were all over the place. So it would announce intriguing plots on the cover, and invariably disappoint with implausible twists and clunking anti-climaxes. Yet there was more genuine eccentricity in DC, and their ineptitude is more charming than Marvel's slickness, if that isn't too heretical coming from a Thunder God worshipper. 

Yes, Hercules was fab. The characterisation was really developed by this time, and the contrast between Hercule’s Dionysian hedonism and Thor's uptight Puritanism was striking. It's the difference between the Mediterranean and Scandanavian sensibilities. I thought I had a giant-size reprint of the epic where Thor and Hercules fight to win Jane Foster, and Hercules signs a Hollywood contract, he thinks, but is really signing his soul away to Pluto, God of the Netherworld. Now that I have most of the original comics [from eBay] you can have the reprint if I can find it (I might have loaned it out to someone). 

But for all of Thor's earnest prissiness, he's the god for me. Indeed I might instigate a revival of Nordic Paganism here in Manchester. It’s less messy than the Inca option, and there’s something about thunder and rain which really chimes with Manchester. 
Flame ON!!!!!!

• • • 

Hi Mike, 

But hey you showed me the issue of the Thor and Hercules meeting in Scarborough when we were there.You said that you had discovered an old pile of comics and this was included. It is one the funniest issues ever. The difference between a Maurice Chevalier and Ingmar Bergman is apt. Maybe you left it at Al’s.

Yes you are spot on about DC and especially the wild lurid covers of Action Comics. One memorable one showing Superman in an arena sweating with fear as improbably proportioned beasts get ready to devour him. Then you noticed that the Sun was RED in which case, as everyone knew, Superman lost all his powers. There are whole stretches of the Universe that are off limits to him. Another "what if". 

It all got a bit out of hand… Superboy was OK, but Supergirl/Dog/Cat… I ask you!!!

One DC bright spot during the 60s ascendancy of Marvel was the Green Lantern who was very popular with some of my mates at the time. He sort of reminded me of Dr Strange. In the early 60s when just getting into comics I remember listening to the Beach Boys and Roy Orbison. Gosh we are OLD!!!!!

Flame OFF!!!!!!!


Hi Mike, 

It’s Friday, f*** work, this is the important stuff... 

Remember the early DC groupings of the Justice League of America... Mon El who fainted in the vicinity of LEAD plus a load of well, erm, pretty unmemorable so-called heroes (safety in numbers, my arse.) And wasn't there a group of Metal Men whom I rather enjoyed...Tin Man, Gold, Lead etc. They all had their Chemical symbols on their chests. Elastic Man was also a fore-runner of Dr Reed Richards, pre-cosmic rays. 

The thing about Marvel heroes was that they had an originality of character and depth rarely matched by DC. For instance Reed Richards and Dr Doom, his arch enemy, had a shared history which explained his bitter wickedness. Peter Parker was an adolescent who had to look after his aged aunt and reflected all the insecurity and arrogance that only the young possess.

The reader usually identified or at least recognised this while reading a cracking good story. The characters also evolved in personality and looks/physique just as we did through our teens. Further, Marvel did something that DC couldn't manage, and that was to get in tune with the Times. Christ!! Thor had long blonde hair and could have been in the Lovin' Spoonful, or more aptly The Pretty Things!!! Captain America used to suffer prolonged bouts of self doubt usually after a ragging by anti-War demonstrators….”Maybe they are right!!!! Maybe it's my values that are at fault.!!!" It also became manically self referencing – "See #17 FF”, which of course you just had to get and know about. In addition they came up with good snazzy catch phrases,"Nuff Said" and "Flame On!!!" Also genuinely good Super Villains – Doom, Magneto, Green Goblin, Submariner etc. Some like the Hulk and Namor straddled the fence between good and evil. And... they came along in the 60s, when we were looking for something new, and accepted just about anything no matter what its failings...

OK OK I guess I ought to do some work....

Nuff Said....Flame Off!!!!


Sunday 24 May 2015

Matt Owens: The Aviators’ Ball (All Made Up Records)

The Aviators’ Ball, as conceived, composed and arranged by Matt Owens, co-produced by his backchatting muse Kirsty Almeida, and executed by the finest musicians and singers from Manchester environs, is a masterwork that outstrips genre. There’s nothing as transcendent as a melody, and Owens is a gifted melodist and arranger. As a jobbing bassist, he’s the anchoring presence of song-based jazz trio The Magic Beans and the rock steady heartbeat of Baked a la Ska. The pieces on his long awaited debut as leader are as indelible as the merry melodies of pop, come arrayed in the colours of the chamber orchestra and are executed with jazz freedom. Naturally, jazz soloists go where they will in their bravura way, whilst the classical players remain tethered to their music-stands. This is the first law of jazz/classical crossover. 

‘Raindrops On Our Rooftop’ is a sprightly opener and sets the tone: quietly exultant with a hint of drollery. The music is an extension of the man, being benign, sanguine and without a hint of angst. You feel that Owens observes the world with indulgence and gentle pleasure, and these are just the qualities he induces in his listeners. On ‘Raindrops’, Neil Yates’ tin-whistle soars above woodwind and tuned percussion like a bell ringing in the empty sky. It’s very shakuhachi, and very Manchester. The music nicely evokes the feeling of being warm indoors as rain patters outside.

These tunes and arrangements were aired as far back as the 2009 Manchester Jazz Festival and an advance copy of the CD has taken pride of place on my shelves for several months now. An alternative title (not so eloquent as The Aviators’ Ball) might be Matt Owens’ Greatest Hits, it’s so familiar and consistently excellent. There are three superb songs. Yes, songs. This is more than most contemporary jazz albums can muster (where the custom is to include a single song among the difficult stuff as a sop to the masses, and it’s usually horrible) and a better tally than most Greatest Hits collections. 

Tom Davies’ ‘Mouse Song’ celebrates togetherness even as it acknowledges its difficulties. It focuses on the domestic side of the dream of love, with the lover cast as interloper, perhaps analogous to a mouse, lightly raising the dust and unwittingly intruding into private spaces. The composer’s delivery is tender and expressive, as his voice meshes into a shifting kaleidoscope of woodwind. It’s adventurous and witty, and errs on the sweet side of bittersweet. And Rioghnach Connolly’s interpretation of the traditional ‘Black is the Colour’ stands comparison with those other great interpreters of that song, Margaret Barry and Nina Simone. These are two very disparate artists, and Rioghnach Connolly – so steeped in the Irish tradition that her vocal melismatics slip seamlessly between folky embellishment into bluesy paraphrase – is unique in her ability to combine the qualities of both. Add a Gil Evans-like arrangement, with Neil Yates invoking Sketches of Spain with a lorn trumpet, and the spell is complete.    

‘Going Back to the Village’, has carolling, creamy voices and a piano poised between precision and passionate abandon. This is the wonderful Edward Barnwell, whose ease at straddling the worlds of classical and jazz make him mutually simpatico to Owens’ aesthetic. Happiness is notoriously an elusive emotion to capture in music (and other rarefied art forms), but this is a trick Owens manages time and again. Owens and pianist John Ellis shadow each other in unison on the pretty, courtly ‘Every Wish Is For You’, until Neil Yates’ cuts through with a trumpet that is surely deeper and more sorrowful than required. 

Owens knows his musicians’ strengths and characters intimately, and is as keen as Ellington to devise settings that show them to best advantage. Sometimes a cameo is succinct but telling, as when a stratospheric lap steel guitar-lick from Billy Buckley puts the seal of joy to the bustle of ‘The Peanut Train’, a homage to Charlie Brown, or, particularly, to Vince Guaraldi. 

And the elegiac charm of ‘The Aviators’ Ball’ is a natural fit for Steve Chadwick’s cornet, always elegant, replete with warmth and composure, and moving. Chadwick’s lyricism ignites Barnwell to give his best, and Barnwell’s best is astonishing. Formally, ‘The Aviator’s Ball’ is an achingly beautiful waltz: it serves as a poignant salute to lost aviators and lost pioneers from a vanished world (the video does it full justice: you can find it here – Owens, it seems, has saved his best writing for the title track. 

Actually ‘Monsoon’ (the third of the immortal song trio: ‘Going Back to the Village’, being wordless, doesn’t count) is a candidate for that honour too, with the woodwinds in full spate on a dramatic ballad, that oscillates, like its moods, between major and minor. This is surely the most accomplished song yet to spring from the pen of Zoe Kyoti, an extremely personable jazz singer who here unleashes elemental forces, and waxes philosophical: “Nothing comes for free, even freedom itself…” This must be the nicest expression of the paradox since ‘Me and Bobbie McGee’. 

‘Violet’, the album closer, sweetly restores the balance of equanimity and wonder. 

An album refreshingly free of narcissism and angst (not counting Kyoti’s compelling contribution, that is), and, incidentally, a recording of stunning audio clarity, ‘The Aviator’s Ball’ works as program music, jazz, pop, whatever. It’s chiefly a pure expression of a unique sensibility, one wonderfully sympathetic to his fellow musicians. Was ever tunefulness more tuneful, or charm more graceful? 

The Complete Chris Ackroyd vs Vladimir Putin 1-61

Chris Ackroyd, who manages to lead a fulfilled life without a computer, asked if I could send a message to the world. Well, I sometimes have...