WordPress.com is being completely useless and timing out any time I try to do anything on the back end of this site (and yes, it’s *definitely* the site, and not anything at my end). I did do a linkblog today, but wordpress ate it.
In other news, I owe a lot of people emails. If you’re one of them, you’ll get a reply… eventually. Sorry.
The Kinks’ first album for RCA Records is perhaps the last one that can be seen as an unalloyed artistic success. While the Kinks, and Ray and Dave Davies as solo artists, would occasionally produce great work after this point, usually the quality of the work was in inverse proportion to its artistic ambitions. Where Ray Davies came up with long, complex, narrative works, these fell flat, but the band could still create great pop songs as late as the mid-1980s and Come Dancing.
Muswell Hillbillies, on the other hand, has a unity of theme and form that makes the album as a whole work better than the individual songs on it. While not a ‘concept album’ in the sense that many of the band’s later works would be, it is an album that has a definite theme, with every aspect of the record subordinate to it.
This is the most political work that Ray Davies ever created, and I have to say upfront that while sympathetic to many of the concerns in the album, it’s from a different point-of-view from my own, and that will necessarily come out in my reaction to the record. Davies’ argument (insofar as it’s a coherent argument rather than a set of contradictory emotional reactions) in this album is that eccentricity and difference are being crushed by an excessively interfering government, and by social planning that destroys communities.
While I can agree with that, my viewpoint is fundamentally liberal, while Davies’ argument appears to be a reactionary one — that all attempts to change people’s lives are necessarily for the worst, and that the old ways were always the best. Davies then contrasts the shattered, depressed lives of the British working classes with a rose-tinted view of the USA as filtered through film and TV, implicitly arguing that Britain in the early 1970s had had all its spirit crushed, to the point where even its dreams had to be imported from elsewhere.
For Britons of Davies’ generation, America had a totemic power it perhaps lacks today. While Britain went through austerity and rationing in the 1950s, when Davies was a small boy, and much of the landscape had been devastated by bombing during the Second World War, America was experiencing unprecedented prosperity, and this was never more evident than in its cultural exports. From the UK, it was very easy to ignore the horrors of segregation, the pressures to conform, and the growth of what President Eisenhower referred to as “the military-industrial complex”, and see a country that was youthful, energetic and growing, while Britain appeared to be in terminal decline.
Musically, the album reflects this with its use of very British versions of American musical idioms. At its base this is a country album, but it’s overlaid with trad jazz, courtesy of the latest additions to the band’s line-up, The Mike Cotton Sound [FOOTNOTE The Mike Cotton Sound started out as trad jazz group The Mike Cotton Jazzmen in the 1950s, before becoming a beat group and later a soul group in the 1960s (Jim Rodford, the bass player with this line-up, would become the Kinks' bass player from 1978 to 1996, between being a member of Argent and of The Zombies). By this point, though, Cotton had dropped the rhythm section and vocalists from his band, becoming solely a horn section.].
Trad jazz is an odd musical form, which had enjoyed a brief flowering of popularity in Britain in the 1950s and early 60s. It was an attempt to slavishly recreate the music of 1920s jazzmen like Sidney Bechet and Bix Beiderbecke, but much like the later British blues bands (many of whom had their roots in trad bands) it grew into something distinct, with only a nodding similarity to its influences. Musicians like Humphrey Lyttleton, Acker Bilk and Chris Barber had been huge stars in the UK while the Davies brothers were children (and indeed Ray Davies’ first paying musical work was as a guitarist in a trad band) and so trad jazz perfectly encapsulated the album’s themes — a rather shabby British attempt to imitate the past glories of the US, itself now almost forgotten, but one which nevertheless had a power of its own.
The album also features a chorus of female backing vocalists — and like the Mike Cotton Sound, this would be added to the band for both tours and records over the next few years.
Unfortunately, while this album is much better than Lola Vs Powerman, it had no standout singles like Lola or Apeman, and it essentially marked the end of the Kinks’ career as a commercial force in their home country, even as they were slowly getting noticed in the US.
20th Century Man
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
The opening track sets out the blatantly reactionary tone of the album most clearly. Over a lumbering acoustic- and slide-guitar riff similar to the music the Rolling Stones were recording at the same time, Davies denounces the twentieth century and the very notion of progress, saying “You keep all your smart modern writers, give me William Shakespeare”, attacking the welfare state for “rul[ing] by bureaucracy”, and blaming the government for taking away his privacy and liberty.
Now, one’s reaction to this song will be almost entirely based on to what extent one agrees with Davies’ complaints, and I can sympathise with some of them, especially the concern for individual liberties (and if Davies thought that the early 1970s were a time when civil liberties were being eroded, what must he have made of the ensuing few decades?) but I also think it’s far easier to criticise the welfare state if you’ve lived your entire life with the knowledge that free healthcare and unemployment benefits were available to you if you needed them, than it was for the generation before Davies’, who had to fight for these things.
Possibly the line that sums the song up the most is “Whatever happened to the green pleasant fields of Jerusalem?” — Davies agrees with William Blake that industrialisation has a demeaning, degrading effect on people, but where Blake’s poem was a revolutionary call to arms — “I will not cease from mental fight/Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand/Til we have built Jerusalem/In England’s green and pleasant land” — Davies’ song is more of a Daily Mail leader.
However, we must not necessarily assume that this song represents Davies’ views exactly — the first few songs on the album, at least, seem to be connected and in character, sung by someone who, like the Mr Pilgrim of Lewis’ essay, is driven mad by a compulsory purchase order against his home, something that encapsulates the themes of the album, both an attachment to place and a resentment of unfeeling bureaucracy.
20th Century Man was released as a US-only single, in a much tighter edit (with two minutes lopped off the running time) but did not make the Hot 100.
Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
And here we see Davies lightly (self-?)mocking the obsessions of the previous song’s narrator. Over a honky-tonk background that sounds almost like the Lovin’ Spoonful, with some lovely touches from the new horn section, Davies repeats the complaints of the previous song (“the income tax collector’s got his beady eye on me” and “the man from the Social Security keeps invading my privacy”) but here the previous song’s passing mention of being “a paranoid schizoid product of the twentieth century” becomes the theme of the entire song. Along with the bureaucrats, the milkman, grocer and woman next door are all watching the narrator, who has been diagnosed with “acute schizophrenia disease”.
While the song is done with a light touch, it’s actually a rather scarily accurate portrayal of mental illness. I worked on a psychiatric ward for several years, and one patient, who fancied himself a songwriter, wrote songs which are very, very close to this, both in the expression of paranoia and the self-mocking acknowledgement that these are symptoms of illness rather than events in the real world.
Given Davies’ own well-publicised mental problems, one wonders just how tongue-in-cheek this actually is…
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
One of the best things on the album, this seems to be written from the same point-of-view as the previous two songs. A superficially cheery song about a holiday, sung by Davies with a cigar in his mouth, this becomes darker when you realise the narrator has been “sent away” on his holiday, rather than having gone voluntarily. Given the protestations (“I don’t need no sedatives to pull me round/I don’t need no sleeping pills to help me sleep sound”) and the narrator’s claim that he “had to leave the city ‘cos it nearly broke me down”, maybe this “holiday” is to some kind of beach-side hospital.
The narrator tries to make the most of a holiday which sounds like most of my experiences of beach-side holidays (“lying on the beach with my back burned rare/And the salt gets in my blisters and the sand gets in my hair/And the sea’s an open sewer…”) but he’s clearly distressed and lonely.
Musically, as well as in the device of the unreliable narrator, this seems to owe a lot to some of Randy Newman’s music, with the simple chord sequence (most of the songs on this album are far more harmonically simplistic than those on earlier albums) played on piano with horn backing having a very New Orleans feel.
Skin And Bone
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
A wonderful little song, this seems to have started as a parody of the Newbeats’ Bread and Butter, which has a near-identical chord sequence (both songs have a I-V-I-V chorus in G, though Skin And Bone’s verse also has a IV chord and a passing IV# which aren’t in the earlier track) and whose lyrics (“I like bread and butter/I like toast and jam…She don’t cook mashed potato/She don’t cook T-bone steak”) are very close to those of this song (“She don’t eat no mashed potatoes/She don’t eat no buttered scones”). The similarity is most pronounced on the choruses, when there is a falsetto harmony, low in the mix, which sounds very like the Newbeats’ vocalist. Davies has combined that song with a touch of the old spiritual Dem Dry Bones to create this song.
Lyrically, the song is a paen to what is now referred to as Health At Every Size, telling of a woman (“fat flabby Annie”) who was “incredibly big and weighed about sixteen stone” before being put on a diet by “a fake dietician”. The result? “She used to be so cuddly…but oh what a sin, now she’s oh so thin” and she’s “living on the edge of starvation”, has “lost all the friends she had” and “looks like skin and bone” and “looks as if she’s ready to die”.
It may seem that this song has little to do with the wider political themes of the album, but in fact it fits them very well. The diet is portrayed as a new-fangled foreign import (Annie’s also started to “do the meditation and yoga”), and the subtext is that one should remain true to oneself, not go trying to change, and especially not try to change to be more like a foreigner.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
Musically a beautiful mixture of hard rock and Kurt Weill, this song tells the story of an adulterous, drunken wife-beater and blaming every problem in his life on the women rather than on him. The Weillesque music manages to put this lyric in inverted commas, enough that it is clear that even though the song has a third-person narrator, he is still singing from the protagonist’s point of view.
Davies’ own relationship with the ‘demon alcohol’ apparently informed this song. Davies is apparently a very light drinker, but alcohol affects him very badly thanks to the pain medication he takes for his bad back. Unsurprisingly, then, the alcohol in this song is more like a force of nature than something that people willingly consume.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
Of all the songs on the album, this is the one that speaks to me, at least, the most. A simple three-chord country blues song with some nice slide guitar from Dave Davies (whose slide guitar tone is incredibly similar to his singing voice), this is one of the few songs on the album that look at the downside to the anti-modernist attitude Ray Davies takes for most of the record.
Our protagonist visits the doctor, complaining of “a pain in my neck, a pain my heart, and a pain in my chest”, and is told he’s ill from the stress caused by the complications of modern life, and that he needs to simplify his life considerably.
So far, so standard Ray Davies, but here the protagonist stops seeing women, drinking, going to work, exercising or doing anything else that causes him stress. And the result? He becomes unemployed and unemployable, has no food, has bills he can’t pay, and is more stressed than he was to start with.
It’s one of the few laugh-out-loud songs on the album, and one of even fewer to acknowledge that “the simple life” is not a panacea — and that makes the almost suicidal chorus of “life is overrated…got to get away from the complicated life” all the more easy to relate to. Yes, 20th (and 21st) century life is hard — but it’s hard precisely because the alternatives are even harder so we’re trapped in it.
In this song, by acknowledging that while he can see a problem he can’t necessarily see the solution, Davies redeems the album — it’s not just a political polemic for a return to an imagined golden age, but a work of art that’s trying to engage with the complexities of the real world.
Here Come The People In Grey
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
Musically, this is a chugging 12-bar blues in C, patterned after the work of bands like Canned Heat (the lead guitar part references their Let’s Work Together), with little to distinguish it.
Lyrically, it’s a story of one man’s descent into madness, except that he’s not going to be taken away by “the men in white coats”, but by the more sinister, because duller, “people in grey”.
Our protagonist’s house is scheduled for demolition by the government (a recurring nightmare of the middle class Englishman in the mid-twentieth century — see the first episode of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, or the Mr Pilgrim referenced earlier). And like all good liberals he doesn’t want to fill in a load of forms that the government are forcing him to fill in in order to legitimise this destruction.
But his response is to go and live in a tent with his “baby”, refuse to pay any rent or rates, and to take a gun with him to use against any policemen. Once again we see Davies’ main theme in this album — that the impersonal forces of bureaucracy are putting so much pressure on anyone who wants to be an individual that they’re likely to snap mentally.
Having not lived through this time period myself, I can’t say if that was actually the way things seemed in the early 70s, but while this is nowadays the lament of the Daily Mail reader, it does seem to have been a common complaint right across the political spectrum in the 70s and 80s (see the aforementioned Hitch-Hiker’s Guide, Terry Gilliam’s marvellous film Brazil, the work of scriptwriter Robert Holmes, Yes, Minister and so on — the perception was of a world governed by unimaginative little men who would gladly cut bits off people in order to make them fit the box they were meant to fit into).
Have A Cuppa Tea
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
One of the slightest songs on the album, this is very much a cousin of Harry Rag, this time singing the praises of tannin rather than nicotine. For most of the song it’s a three chord paen to the healing properties of tea (“It’s a cure for chronic insomnia/It’s a cure for water on the knee”), but it once again quotes another song (a recurring motif in this album is the reuse of bits of old popular songs), Sugartime (a hit in the US for The McGuire Sisters, but Davies probably knew either Alma Cogan’s UK hit version or Johnny Cash’s cover version). The “tea in the morning, tea in the evening” bit is a direct quote from the “sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening” refrain of the earlier song.
This is Davies trying to go back to the style he was using on Something Else and Face To Face, for the last time for many years, but it doesn’t really work — at that time he was concentrating on sophistication in his music and lyrics, while this is an album that generally eschews artifice in favour of emotional honesty.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
A dark story song in the tradition of Big Black Smoke, this tells how the protagonist’s girlfriend fell in with a ‘spiv’ who framed her for a crime he’d committed. Musically, it’s a rewrite of the old blues song St James’ Infirmary, but with an incongruous line from the Everly Brothers’ Bye Bye Love (written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant) thrown in — compare the lines “She was a lady, when she went in” and “She was my baby, til he stepped in”.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
An absolutely lovely song, based around a repeating piano figure that almost acts as a drone, this ties together all the themes of the album in one beautiful, simple song — the monotony of British working-class life, and the dream of the America of films (and particularly in this case the America of film musicals) as the closest thing to a dream of heaven permitted in a society where even dreams are commercialised.
It’s just a touching little song about a woman who dreams of being “in Oklahoma U.S.A./With Shirley Jones and Gordon McRea”, but it’s quite, quite beautiful. There’s almost no harmonic movement in the main piano part (which for the most part plays simple arpeggios in A, D or E) but there’s a lot more implied in the interplay of the various instruments and the vocal lines — just as there’s more implied than said in the lyrics. The repeated line “All life we work but work is a bore,/If life’s for living then what’s living for?” in this context is absolutely heartbreaking.
On the next album, Davies would return to this theme in Celluloid Heroes, widely regarded as one of his best songs, but that song sounds like a less-good attempt at writing this, the emotional heart of this album.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
Another simple three-chord song, this one is about the Davies’ brothers’ uncle Son, who was apparently an active socialist, but one who felt let down by leaders of all sorts.
While this album is conservative, by the definition used in this very song — “Liberals dream of equal rights/Conservatives live in a world gone by/Socialists preach of a promised land” — it’s a very strange, anti-authoritarian conservatism. Nowhere else I can think of would one get the reactionary overall feel of this album coupled with a chorus like “Bless you uncle Son/they won’t forget you when the revolution comes”.
With a verse like “Unionists tell you when to strike/Generals tell you when to fight/Preachers teach you wrong from right,/They’ll feed you when you’re born, and use you all your life”, Davies seems, in sentiment if not in satiric skill, to be writing from much the same type of anger as Jonathan Swift — as Orwell described it in Politics vs Literature, “Politically, Swift was one of those people who are driven into a sort of perverse Toryism by the follies of the progressive party of the moment.”
Davies seems to have a real anger against authority, to be almost physically pained by the destruction of working-class communities, and over and again in this album talk of revolution or armed insurrection comes up. Yet in the end (as we see especially in Complicated Life) he feels this is hopeless — the revolution is just another dead end, and all that is left is a retreat into the past, or into dreams.
Which is not a position I can agree with, but it’s one with which I can definitely sympathise.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
And we end with yet another three-chord song (actually six chords, but only because there’s a key change up a tone after the first chorus), this time seeing the slum clearances (when people were moved out of rough, often dilapidated or war-damaged, poverty-stricken areas of inner cities into newer suburban or small-town areas which quickly became even worse to live in than the original slums) as an attempt “to build a computerised community”, but our narrator vows “they’ll never make a zombie out of me”.
Meanwhile, the narrator’s “heart lies in old West Virginia” — while he’s never been to America, he sees the America of the cinema, and particularly the Wild West, as a symbol for the freedom that is being denied those who are being “put…in identical little boxes”.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
Another song with vaguely calypso rhythm, a la Apeman, but performed more in the style of Creedence Clearwater Revival, this isn’t a particularly good song, but probably should have made it to the album proper anyway. That’s because it paints America, the promised land of so many songs on the album, as being exactly like the Britain he described in the other songs — here a couple who live in the mountains have their home taken from them by the government so they can build a hydroelectric power station, and get moved to the thirty-first floor of an apartment block.
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies
This song has more chords in it than almost the entire rest of the album, and shows that Davies was making a very deliberate choice to limit himself harmonically. While it’s a sloppy performance, which sounds like a quick demo, the combination of Dave Davies’ slide guitar against the ninth chords in the piano is very effective.
The lyrics are possibly slightly too literal — “Never been to Kalamazoo/Never been to Timbuktu…Making up tunes in hotel rooms/’bout places I’ve never been to” — and they make the themes of the album a little too explicit, but it’s still a decent song.
If I’ve apparently given short shrift to many of these songs, it’s because as individual songs they don’t all stand up especially well — this is a much, much simpler set of songs than anything the band had done in years, and musically is much like the “back to our roots” sound that had dominated 1968-9 with albums like John Wesley Harding and the Beatles’ Get Back project. As ever, the Kinks were just a little behind the times. There’s a lot less to say about a three-chord blues song than there is about something as artfully constructed as, say, Autumn Almanac.
But that doesn’t mean that Ray Davies had lost his talent — this is meant to be heard as an album, not as a set of individual songs, and the cumulative effect of the album makes it much better than the sum of its parts. Other than the Something Else/Village Green/Arthur trilogy, this may be the best album the Kinks ever made.
Of course I didn’t buy it. What do you think I am?
I torrented it, of course. And if DC want to complain about me taking their copyrighted work, the work that talented artists put time and effort into, and using it without their permission, well…
they started it.
In an ill-tempered conference call on 3 April between some of these advisers and a group of Liberal Democrat bloggers, the advisers could not comprehend why the party was up in arms about internet snooping. They sought solace in the excuse that grassroots anger could be attributed to a problem with ‘messaging’.
How have we got into a situation where the party’s policy advisers seem to have no liberal instincts? Why are we being ‘advised’ by people who think politics is all about ‘messaging’? Why has Nick Clegg surrounded himself with people who have little or no grasp of liberal values or grassroots campaigning?
Simon Titley, “Meet The Linos”, Liberator no. 353, June 2012
Ever since Before Watchmen was announced, its defenders have had only one mantra. “while you may question the decision you can’t question the quality of the product and the quality of the people behind the product.” That’s a quote from Dan Didio, one of the three co-publishers at DC
Comics Entertainment. It’s one that rather spectacularly evades the point, of course.
It’s also an incredibly arrogant statement. I think it would be perfectly reasonable, for example, for anyone to ‘question the quality’ of J Michael Straczynski, a man who has two notable achievements as a comics writer — writing a story where Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend secretly had sex with the Green Goblin, and starting a Superman story where Superman acts callously and immorally and refuses to use his super-powers, before giving up that story in a sulk half-way through and leaving it to a better writer to finish off.
(That better writer has since left DC “Entertainment”, because he believes the way they are behaving over Before Watchmen is morally despicable.)
What would be horrendous, and DC could legally do it, would be to have Rorschach crossing over with Batman or something like that, but I’ve got enough faith in them that I don’t think that they’d do that. I think because of the unique team they couldn’t get anybody else to take it over to do Watchmen II or anything else like that, and we’ve certainly got no plans to do Watchmen II.
Dave Gibbons, 1987, The Comics Journal
But DiDio’s argument is, and always has been, that we should judge these prequels as a piece of art.
Which is odd, because the rationale for their existence is precisely the argument that art doesn’t matter. Make no mistake, there is a reason that this series has stirred up more argument than any of the various other creators’ rights issues that plague the cesspool that is the modern comics industry. The treatment of Jack Kirby, or of Siegel and Shuster, or of any number of other comics creators, is unconscionable, as everyone with the slightest shred of decency knows. There is no real way I can morally justify my continuing purchasing of DC comics (Marvel don’t put out enough titles that I want to really register here). I continue doing so simply because you can’t fight *every* battle, and if I only engaged economically with companies that I approved of morally I’d be homeless, jobless, naked and dead of starvation.
But Kirby, S&S and the rest created their works as ongoing serial characters, with an expectation that they would be worked on by other hands. As awful as their treatment has been, one can imagine a purely moral Superman comic existing that is written and drawn by people other than Siegel and Shuster. Watchmen, though, was conceived as a self-contained piece of work. Everything about it screams that it has a finite, symmetrical structure, and everything about it exists because it is an expression of the world views of two people — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Diversion – Dave Gibbons
Incidentally, one of the justifications for why DC screwing over Alan Moore is ‘okay’ that some people have used is that Gibbons is OK with these comics, and that he has as much of a right to a say as Moore does.
This is of course correct. But one can’t help but think that their situations may inform their opinions, somewhat — Moore has created many, many masterpieces. He may not be a wealthy man, but he can make as much money as he chooses. He is artistically and financially as secure as he wants to be.
Gibbons, on the other hand, has never before or since done anything to match Watchmen. That’s not a criticism of Gibbons, any more than it’s a criticism of Tony Asher to say that Pet Sounds is the only album he’s written great lyrics for. Some people only have one masterpiece in them, and it’s still one more than the vast majority of humanity will ever achieve.
But it means that Gibbons’ financial future and artistic legacy is entirely wrapped up in the decisions that DC makes about Watchmen, in a way that Moore’s isn’t. And one might well believe that when everything about your creative and financial life is in the hands of a company that is acting like a psychopath, the choice you make is to do whatever it takes to keep them happy.
Just as Moore’s anger does not invalidate Gibbons’ acquiescence, Gibbons’ approval does not lessen the injustice that is being done to Moore.
What Didio is trying to do is have his smiley-faced cake and eat it, too. He wants us to judge these new comics as art, but the only reason they exist is because… well…
“if we mined it properly we could stay close to the core material”
“might be something people are willing to buy into”
“we had a group of four core writers who were able to handle all the products”
“in a logical sense that’s true to the original product.”
“that’s what makes the Before Watchmen product exciting”
“I’m more concerned about the reaction to the actual physical product when it gets created.”
“If we went out there and announced this property”
“we are doing the best we physically can with the property right now.”
(all quotes from this single interview)
Dan Didio there, making quite clear just what his priorities are.
But still, let’s take this entirely on the terms they’re setting out. They’re saying to us “Ignore the morality of taking a self-contained work that revolution1ised the industry we work in, and for which we managed to con the rights out of its creators, and creating inferior knock-offs that cheapen the original work while deeply upsetting the man to whom we owe our livelihood and our industry’s continued existence. IS IT A GOOD FUNNYBOOK OR NOT?”
And, well, it’s possible that a good sequel to Watchmen could be created. We know it’s possible, because one was.
Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis are both people who understand comics storytelling in a way that Didio can only dream of. And they realised, reading Watchmen, what any quarter-literate person would. They realised that no-one *actually* wanted a new story about Rorshach. (The fact that plenty of people now *do* want new stories about Rorshach tells us more about comics fans than we would really like to know). The characters in Watchmen were not, of themselves, interesting — they were Superpowerfulman, Gritty Vigilante, Hero With Gadgets, Sexy Lady and so on.
DeMatteis and Giffen (and the artists they worked with, notably Kevin Maguire) took the pre-existing characters that those characters had loosely been based on — Captain Atom, Batman, Blue Beetle, Black Canary — and did their own comic with them. One that was very clearly inspired by Watchmen, especially in its use of the nine-panel grid to give the comic a rhythm, but which is its own thing. It has as much of Giffen and DeMatteis’ voices as Watchmen does Moore and Gibbons’. It’s totally different in feel — it’s a sitcom rather than an apocalyptic conspiracy thriller — but it’s worth reading.
And it’s worth reading precisely because Giffen and DeMatteis did their own thing (within the limits of working on corporate-owned comics characters). It doesn’t call itself “Watchmen II: Bwa-ha-hatchmen”.
So it can be done.
So let’s have a look at Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen: Minutemen 1 shall we?
There’s a possibly-apocryphal story (aren’t they all?) that several years ago Alan Moore asked DC Comics (as they then were) to stop sending him comp packages — the packages of free comics they send all their writers — because he didn’t like the company and didn’t want to read their comics. The person he spoke to said “I know you don’t like them, but I’m going to keep sending you just one. You’ll see why.”
The comic that was sent was Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier.
Moore said “Okay, you can keep sending me that one”.
Cooke is, as an artist, the utter opposite of Moore in every way, but he’s the only person involved in this who has anything like the talent that Moore does. DC are putting their best foot forward with this.
Oh, and one more thing — about seven years ago, DC decided that they didn’t like the Justice League comic that Giffen and DeMatteis had done, and killed, raped, or raped then killed, almost every character that had featured in it. This trend reached its peak in a comic called Countdown To Infinite Crisis, co-written by Geoff Johns, commissioned by Dan Didio, and with cover art by Jim Lee, in which the Blue Beetle, a whacky lovable superhero who got into humorous scrapes with his friends, was shot in the head by one of those friends, with lots of lovingly-rendered blood coming out of Beetle’s head.
Johns, Didio and Lee are the new co-publishers of DC Entertainment, and doing a Watchmen prequel was one of their first decisions.
But let’s look at the comic. Is it good enough to erase the moral problems?
The whole thing seems determined to say “DC has other great comics that aren’t Watchmen“, in the hope that by making Watchmen seem less special it will seem less disgusting when they make tenth-rate knock-offs. Unfortunately, DC *doesn’t* have all that many other great comics — at least not ones that will appeal to the conservative Cooke while also being of undoubted artistic merit while having sold enough copies that the audience could reasonably be expected to catch a reference to them, and which aren’t written by Alan Moore. In fact, it has two.
So we start with the page above — a reference to the opening of All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, but horribly overwritten.
(And Morrison is the other ghost at this ‘feast’, his absence felt as keenly as Moore’s. I could write a blog post as long as this one on what Morrison *not* writing this series means…)
Where Morrison uses eight words to set up a situation we’re all familiar with, Cooke uses 120. Where Morrison’s are clear and simple, Cooke’s are newage gibberish.
But Cooke moves on from Superman… to Batman.
Most of the comic is a ‘homage’ to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One, in look and feel, which sort of makes sense since this is more-or-less Nite Owl: Year One.
The problem is that this means that this comic is now inviting comparisons with three acknowledged classics of the medium and genre, when it can’t even stand up to comparison with any one of them.
Where Watchmen, All-Star Superman and Batman: Year One have first issues packed with incident, this is a typical first issue of a typical superhero team-up comic these days, which means we have little unconnected vignettes introducing all the characters — Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Silk Spectre, Nite Owl, Hooded Justice, Captain Metropolis, The Comedian and Mothman.
These little bits show us aspects of the characters that were already there in Watchmen, but with a hammering lack of subtlety that reads as if Cooke had never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell”. Worse, they do nothing else — we’re expected just to be happy to see these characters again. Which would be OK if the characters weren’t obvious ciphers. Wanting to read more stories about Hooded Justice is the same sort of error of thought as wanting to read more stories about Mr Worldly Wiseman and Giant Despair. They’re not built to be characters, and if you want to tell a story about them you have to turn them into characters.
Which Cooke here fails to do. It’s POSSIBLE to do it — you *CAN* write a story about Hollis Mason and the rest of the Minutemen, but you’d have to take the attitude of Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. You have to put characters in where none previously existed — you have to remake them totally into something that can hold the weight of a story.
But this is too ‘reverent’ a comic to do anything like that. It’s ‘paying homage’ to Watchmen, and of course in comics one pays homage to works of unbridled creativity and imagination by having absolutely no original ideas of one’s own. As Jack Kirby was meant to have said when someone told him John Byrne was doing Fantastic Four ‘in the style of Jack Kirby’ “If he was doing it in the style of Jack Kirby he’d have invented his own characters.”
And of course ‘paying homage’ has absolutely nothing to do with respect, or even basic politeness. One request Moore has made over and over about Watchmen and his other work-for-hire is that his name be removed from it. He doesn’t want to be associated with this product in any way.
Even if you’re the kind of sociopath who dominates the discourse in modern comics fandom, who thinks that the people who write and draw the comics you read are of no importance compared to the trademarks and the multinational companies that own them, who thinks (and I’ve seriously seen this opinion stated by people who intended it to be taken seriously) that Geoff Johns is a better writer than Moore because he allows action figures to be made of his characters, you’ll still find nothing worthwhile in here. Cooke’s art is always good, but without any kind of a workable story to tell, there’s nothing much for his characters to do, and it degenerates into lifeless poses, with nothing to say about anything.
If you read Watchmen and it fired up your brain and made you start thinking “I want more of that!”, then the best thing you can do is buy a copy of Andrew Rilstone’s phenomenal short book about the comic, Who Sent The Sentinels?. Rilstone’s book — like Moore and Gibbons’ comic — is a structural masterpiece, but one whose surface cleverness conceals a wonderfully touching emotional core.
But as for this?
[HORRIBLY unhappy with the prose here -- this needs totally rewriting when I come to publish the whole thing as a novel -- but I've posted it because it's an important plot point for those who are following the story. The next bit is better-written]
Charlie, meanwhile, was having to do P.E.
Now, I quite liked P.E. at school myself — have a bit of a kickabout, bit of an ogle of the girls in their short skirts, that sort of thing — but you’re a reader, so you probably hated it. Charlie was a proper sporty type, captained the local five-a-side team and all that, so he didn’t have any problems with it, and for the first time that day felt like he could relax a bit.
The nerdy kid, however, looked petrified in the changing rooms. He came over to speak to Charlie.
“You’re new here, too, aren’t you?” the nerdy kid asked.
“Yep. Just arrived in town from Liverpool yesterday. You?”
“Yeah, my parents died and I’m staying here with my aunt.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry…”
“Don’t worry. It was a while ago. Toby Cartwright.”
“My name. Toby Cartwright.”
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Charlie Briggs.”
“I hate P.E.,” Toby said, taking off his shirt to reveal a skiny, scrawny, torso, and pulling on a T-shirt that was two sizes too big for him. “Mr. Dawson’s a real bully.”
“Him? But he seemed harmless.”
In truth, Dawson still seemed ineffectual to Charlie, being one of those P.E. teachers who tries to jolly the pupils along, rather than one of the musclebound cretins who pick on the smallest or fattest kid to boost their own egos. But even so, he could still see why Toby thought of him as a bully. Toby was so utterly inept in everything, and Dawson so ‘encouraging’, that almost every sentence he spoke was along the lines of “Oh come on Cartwright, you can do better than that!”
After about ten minutes, it was very obvious to everyone that Cartwright couldn’t do better than that — that the poor lad was just useless at sport — but Dawson kept pushing him on. He came last in the hundred metres sprint, he almost dropped the shot putt on his own foot, and he barely hit the sand on the long jump.
Charlie, of course, was at an unfair advantage against the kids — when you spend your days chasing after escaping crooks, you get pretty good at sprinting, and Charlie was in pretty decent shape — and won everything comfortably. A bit too comfortably — he decided he’d have to do much worse at the javelin, in order to avoid standing out any more than he already was.
Just as the children were about to start the javelin throwing, Charlie noticed Mr Simpson, the sarky bugger who’d been picking on him earlier, walking up to the edge of the field and watching the kids intently.
Toby picked up the javelin — he’d decided to go first, so no-one would be able to compare his throw to any better ones that came before — and threw it.
And as he threw it, Simpson pushed his glasses up his nose and muttered something.
Toby tripped as he threw, and the javelin went flying out of his hands, much faster than anyone would have believed possible, right at Charlie’s chest.
But just as it was about to hit him, it dropped to the floor, as if it hit an invisible wall. Charlie realised three things very quickly — someone must have cast some sort of anti-magic defence on him, and the javelin itself must have been enchanted for the anti-magic defence to work.
And most importantly, his cover must have been blown. Whoever the dealer was who’d been selling fairy dust to little kids, they must have realised Charlie was a copper.
Mr. Simpson strode off, his face red with fury, as the children clustered round Charlie.
It doesn’t smell of pasties, except when near a Greggs.
Likewise, it doesn’t smell of fish.
It has no bits of unspoiled natural beauty that are only viewable from the tops of enormous steep hills, which look exactly like the other bit of unspoiled natural beauty that you just saw on top of a different enormous steep hill.
It has shops which sell things which have neither a pirate theme nor the words “A present from St Ives” written on them.
It has roads which are wide enough to drive cars down, and which have pavements near them on which people can walk.
These roads also go in a line from the place you are to the place you’re going, without taking a detour over four hills.
But you don’t have to go far on them, because things are near other things, rather than everything being in a tiny village five miles away from the other tiny village that you’re currently in.
The skies are a proper grey colour, not this weird shiny blue nonsense.
People don’t say things like “This train stinks of tourists”
You can sleep past 6AM without seagulls making a horrible screeching caterwauling sound outside your window.
There are kebab shops and fried chicken places, so if you want some food at midnight you can go across the reasonably sized road that isn’t made up entirely of sharp corners it’s impossible to see round, and get some.
There are many more, but that’s enough to get started with, I think. I’ll be home in a few hours, and very glad of it.
Before I start this, a brief note — my opinions on Beach Boys records often change *drastically* in the year or so after I first hear them. This is not my definitive word on this album, and I’ll revisit this when I write volume three of my Beach Boys book. This is just what I think now.
Next week, the Beach Boys release That’s Why God Made The Radio, their first album in twenty years (other than 1996′s Stars And Stripes Vol 1, a collection of remakes of their old hits with country singers on lead vocals). The signs for the new album have been very mixed — the ‘reunited’ band is a line-up that has never actually played together before, and is a sort of Frankenstein concoction of surviving members from different line-ups, consisting of Brian Wilson (who led the band throughout their most commercially and critically successful period, but has had little involvement with the band since the early 80s and none since 1996), Mike Love (the nasal-voiced lead singer, lyricist on many of the hits and only continuous member for the band’s whole fifty year career), Al Jardine (who was on the band’s first single in 1961, quit, rejoined in 1963 and remained until 1998), Bruce Johnston (who joined in 1965, quit in 1971, and rejoined and remained in the band from 1979), and David Marks (who was in the band from 1961-63, rejoined from 1997-99, and briefly rejoined again in 2008). Jeff Foskett (a falsetto vocalist with the Beach Boys in the 80s and with Brian Wilson’s touring band from 1998 on) is a de facto sixth member, covering the high vocal parts that were covered in the past by either Brian Wilson (who’s lost a lot of his voice) or his brother Carl (who died in 1998).
The problem with this line-up, of course, is that other than Brian Wilson the two most talented members of the band were Brian’s brothers, Dennis and Carl Wilson, both of whom are now dead. This means that what we have here is the combination of a visionary genius with three collaborators he knows well but who are musically very conservative, along with Marks who is a genuinely great guitar player but has no real track record as a singer or songwriter.
Luckily, then, this album was made the way that the best Beach Boys albums always were — Brian Wilson and his chosen collaborator wrote the songs, with Mike Love adding extra lyrics to three, and produced the tracks without the involvement of any of the band, and the band then sang parts that Brian told them to, with little or no creative input. Thankfully, the reports of new songs by Jardine, Johnston and Marks being added to the album proved false. Jardine and Johnston have both written the occasional decent song, but both are at best occasionally semi-inspired journeymen. Mike Love gets to add a few lyrics, but in general is also kept on the sidelines.
The instrumental tracks were cut first, then Wilson would sing the vocal arrangements to Foskett, who would record every vocal line, and then Wilson, Love, Jardine and Johnston would drop in replacements, line by line, for their parts. Essentially, this is a Brian Wilson solo album by any other name, with the Beach Boys acting as his hired vocalists in a way they haven’t since at least Pet Sounds.
Unfortunately, though, Wilson’s chosen collaborator for the album was Joe Thomas. Joe Thomas had previously produced the last Beach Boys album (the country music collaboration) and had also produced Brian’s 1998 solo album Imagination. While he was chosen largely because everyone involved knew and liked him, he is not the most artistically sympathetic of collaborators. The best way to describe him is to list the other collaborators he brought in to work with Wilson and himself on the songwriting — Jim Peterik, who wrote Eye Of The Tiger for Survivor, Larry Millas, who played in a band with Peterik in the 60s, and Jon Bon Jovi.
The result is a curate’s egg. It’s definitely the best Beach Boys album since at least 1979, but that’s the very definition of ‘damning with faint praise’. The garage band I was in when I was sixteen with a bass player who couldn’t play bass at all sounded better than most of what the Beach Boys have released in my lifetime. Vocally, this is superb — modern recording technology allows Brian Wilson to create vocal arrangements he couldn’t have done in his prime, with many, perhaps most, of the ‘solo’ vocal lines actually being unison vocals by two or three band members but with one more prominent — but which one is more prominent can change on a syllable-by-syllable basis, creating a perfect “Beach Boy” lead vocalist with elements of several of the band. And the instrumental arrangements, by Wilson and his longtime collaborator Paul Von Mertens, are often as good as anything the band have done.
But sonically, this is stuck in mid-90s AOR, but with the occasional intrusion of processing horrors, like autotune-as-effect, that will date this album as badly to precisely this moment as a Phil Collins drum sound would date it to 1983. Lyrically, the songs are inept, ranging from banal at best to unbelievably bad at worst. And the compositions vary in quality, but never rise to the heights of Wilson’s recent best work.
The songs apparently date from two different bursts of composition — one from 1998, during the writing of Wilson’s mediocre solo album Imagination, and one from 2010 and 2011 — and the later material is in general (with one or two exceptions either way) far superior, suggesting they may have been better just scrapping the old material and starting fresh. Capitol apparently signed the band to a three-album deal, so if albums two and three are fresh material, they may be significantly better.
Beach Boys fans will buy this and cherish it for what it is — a half-decent record by a band that haven’t even managed a half-decent record since the Carter administration — but there’s absolutely no need for anyone who doesn’t know and love everything the band’s previously done to buy this.
Track by track:
Think About The Days, the opener, is based on a piano instrumental by Thomas, with Brian adding the wordless vocal melodies. Jardine takes lead (I’m told by Someone Who Should Know that Someone Else Who Should Know says it’s Brian Wilson, but if it is then there’s a new ProTools plugin, the Jardineifier, which makes people’s voices sound exactly like Al Jardine) and Johnston is prominent in the harmonies. Had I listened to this without the songwriting credits I would have *sworn* this was written by Johnston on one of his better days. Nice french horn at the end by Probyn Gregory, but this is a little too Enya for my liking.
That’s Why God Made The Radio This is remixed from the single version — much less compressed, with a better vocal balance and what sounds like an extra keyboard line, though I’ve not A-B’d the two versions. It sounds *much* better, but it’s still fundamentally unoriginal, being pieced together from bits of the old Beach Boys songs Your Summer Dream and Keep An Eye On Summer and the John Barry themes You Only Live Twice and Midnight Cowboy, along with a rather jarring 80s AOR bridge (which I am informed sounds more like Journey than Survivor). This one was written by Wilson, Thomas, Peterik and Millas, and is mostly sung by Wilson and Foskett in unison, with Foskett taking several of the more prominent vocal lines and Johnston and Jardine taking the occasional line. It’s grown on me, and is actually quite pleasant now, but is nowhere near the masterpiece people were claiming prior to its release.
The genesis of the song also seems rather convoluted. It was written in 1998, and Millas has claimed it was written by him, Thomas and Peterik. Wilson, when asked in an interview who wrote it, said “Joe Thomas”, while Thomas, in this very interesting interview, said the title and chord sequence came from Wilson.
Isn’t It Time This is the best thing on the album by miles, and the second single. I could believe that this dated from Wilson’s collaborations with Andy Paley, but in fact it was written last year by Wilson, Thomas, Peterik, Millas and Love. The arrangement is almost like something from the Smiley Smile era — just a ukulele played by Peterik, two basses and some percussion, with everything else done vocally. Lyrically it’s drivel, but it’s a fun pop song, so lyrical drivel is acceptable. Wilson, Love and Jardine take the lead vocals, though as with all the songs on this album it’s hard to claim there’s a specific ‘lead vocalist’ in any traditional sense.
Spring Vacation, on the other hand, is horrible. This dates from 1998, and was originally a ‘gospel’ song called Lay Down Burden, written for Carl Wilson to sing. When Carl Wilson died, Brian Wilson and Thomas reused that title for a song on Imagination, and so this has new lyrics by Mike Love.
Joe Thomas has talked about being amazed at how quickly Love wrote the lyrics, and people have laughed at this because the lyrics are doggerel — “Spring vacation/Good vibrations/Summer weather/We’re back together”, but truthfully the lyrics fit the terrible music just fine. This song sounds like it was written for the title sequence of a bad mid-90s US sitcom, and conjures up images of Greg Evigan and Joey Lawrence hanging out with their wacky neighbour in an unfeasibly large apartment, with a credit at the end saying “Executive producer Linwood Boomer”. Just pitifully poor.
The Private Life Of Bill And Sue is another one from the new writing sessions, and is much better. This is a vaguely tropical song (sounding exactly like a Boney M record, I can’t remember which one, apart from the first few bars which sound just like a song by Carolyn Edwards, a friend of Brian’s band) about a couple of reality TV stars who fake their own disappearance to boost their ratings, starting with the perfectly Brian couplet “The private life of Bill and Sue/Can you dig what I’m telling you?”. Joe Thomas apparently wrote the chorus, a Mike Love style listing of place names (“California to Mexico/Everybody’s just gotta know/Dallas Texas to Monterey/Wasting time on a summer day”) which doesn’t really fit the song lyrically but meshes perfectly musically. This is cheese, but it’s prime-quality cheese, a good strong stilton or gorgonzola.
Wilson and Foskett sing lead.
Shelter is another new Wilson/Thomas song, with Wilson singing lead on the verses and Foskett and a heavily-processed Love on the chorus. This has a very retro-fifties feel, with a lovely chorus, and a verse which is just a straight lift from Save The Last Dance For Me, but the bridge, while pleasant, doesn’t really connect all that well with either verse or chorus — you can see the joins on this one. It’s the most obviously Beach Boys sounding song on the album, and one of the better ones, but it sounds like it needed some more songwriting work.
Daybreak Over The Ocean is the only non-Brian-Wilson song on the album. This is one that Mike Love wrote in the late 70s, and this recording is the one that Love made for his unreleased 2005 solo album Mike Love Not War, with a thin layer of Beach Boys backing vocals added to the pre-recorded track, featuring poor falsetto vocals by Adrian Baker (who was the falsetto singer in Mike Love’s touring Beach Boys band at the time) and some rather nice vocals by Love’s son Christian, who sounds spookily like the late Carl Wilson (his father’s cousin). The song itself is drivel, though, and it has an even worse drum sound than the rest of the album.
Beaches In Mind, by Wilson, Thomas and Love, is shit. “We’ll find a place in the sun, where everyone can have fun fun fun”, apparently. Love sings lead (like you couldn’t have guessed), and this is essentially where he disappears from the album to all intents and purposes, having no particularly prominent vocal lines for the rest of the record.
Strange World, by Wilson and Thomas is one of the more interesting songs, and I’m not yet sure if I like it. It’s a weird combination of different types of bombast — bits of Beethoven in the string arrangement, Phil Spector dynamics and a general 80s AOR feel — with lyrics that sound very like Brian and reference the It’s A Small World song from Disneyland. It’s either awful or a masterpiece, and I’m honestly not sure which. Wilson sings lead, and takes about three separate vocal parts — the other Beach Boys are barely there. This one was started in 1998 and finished last year.
From There To Back Again is another new song by Wilson and Thomas, and is one of the most interesting things on the record. Al Jardine sings a great lead (though sometimes it’s a little robotified by the autotune effects), but the song sounds more like Paul Williams than like Brian Wilson. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Paul Williams is a great songwriter — but it’s odd. This is very much in that early-70s soft-pop feel, with a lovely orchestration by Mertens, but it’ll take a few more listens to decide if the song (which has multiple different sections) is great or all flash and no substance.
Pacific Coast Highway by Wilson and Thomas is essentially just a link track between the two songs either side of it, which make up part of a suite Wilson’s been working on. “My life, I’m better off alone/My life, I’m better on my own”, he sings.
Summer’s Gone by Wilson, Thomas and Bon Jovi, was originally a single verse by Wilson written in 1998, intended as ‘the last song on the last Beach Boys album’, and was apparently expanded by Bon Jovi to its near-five-minute length. To be honest, it probably would have worked much better as a single verse, as its nursery-rhyme simplicity and the plodding backing track pall halfway through. Literally everyone else I’ve seen talking about this song describes it as the best thing Brian’s done since Surf’s Up in 1967, but on the first couple of listens it doesn’t have a thousandth of the imagination and interest of that song, though it’s still in the better half of the songs on this album. Maybe it’ll grow on me — Midnight’s Another Day, the highlight of Wilson’s last album of original material, took a few months before I realised how good it was, even though everyone else was raving about it straight away.
If you like the Beach Boys’ material from the 1980s and early 90s, this is the same sort of thing but done much better, but the pre-release quotes from Jardine and Johnston saying this sounded ‘like Pet Sounds‘ or ‘like Sunflower‘ are sadly off. If it turns out to be the band’s last album — which given that they’re all in their late sixties or early seventies seems sadly likely — it’s a much better way to go out than Summer In Paradise was, but if they release any more albums it’ll quickly be thought of as ‘one of those later, less good, Beach Boys albums’ and only listened to by the hardest of the hard-core fans.