Tuesday, 9 February 2021

3 Wyrd Things: Joe Banks

For '3 Wyrd Things' I ask various creative people whose work I admire to tell us about three oddly, wonderfully, weirdly British things that have been an influence on them and their work - a book or author, a film or TV show and a song, album or musician.

This month: Joe Banks

Joe is a music writer with a résumé that includes Mojo, The Guardian, Electronic Sound, The Quietus, Prog and Shindig.

In 2020 Joe published (on Strange Attractor Press)  'Hawkwind:Days of the Underground' (Buy it here - UK / US) his exhaustive biography of the space rock legends.  Covering the years from inception (1969) to 'Levitation' (1980) with numerous side trips along the way it's a glorious and timely repositioning of this idiosyncratic band as one of the cornerstones of underground music in the UK.  To accompany the book Joe maintains a Hawkwind treasure trove at www.daysoftheunderground.com/

I am really pleased to be able present Joe's choices to you and heartily recommend you follow him on twitter at - JoeBanksWriter   

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TV
Dave Allen At Large (1971-79) 
Buy 'The Best of Dave Allen' here - UK / US.

Growing up in Britain in the 1970s, it was possible to stumble across all manner of unexpectedly strange and frightening programmes on TV, particularly if you were a child of a “nervous disposition” or just easily spooked. Indeed, an entire cottage industry based around memories of terrifying PIFs, Christmas ghost stories and scary kids’ shows has developed over the past decade or so – it sometimes feels as though the perceived uncanniness of the past is being used as a communal bulwark against the divisive, hyper-stimulated present.

But while I experienced plenty of cosy chills watching Doctor Who, and felt genuinely unsettled by ITV’s Quatermass, it was being caught off-guard by something nasty lurking in programmes that were ostensibly light entertainment that affected me the most. For instance, there was an item on early evening magazine show Nationwide that freaked me out for months, the appearance of a werewolf in a suburban house, which I’ve subsequently discovered was connected to the story of the Hexham Heads (Britain had an unquenchable thirst for all things paranormal in the ‘70s, and Nationwide regularly ran pieces on topics such as UFOs and poltergeists). And then there was this scene from a screening of Carry On Screaming, which again completely terrified me.

The board comedy of the latter should perhaps have neutralised the weirdness of that scene, but the context actually ended up heightening my sense of fear. And that was also very much the case with the first wyrd thing I’ve chosen. Irish comedian Dave Allen was a regular presence on British TV throughout the ‘70s, an intelligent and urbane raconteur with a uniquely laid back style of delivery – sat on a high leather chair, dapperly suited and with a tumbler of whisky (actually ginger ale) at his side, he didn’t so much tell jokes as weave stories with occasional laughs, the antithesis of the quip-spouting stand-up. I loved his presentation and the often fiercely irreligious sketches that peppered his shows, for which he’s perhaps still best known.

But along with the Catholic Church, Allen also had a dark fascination for the supernatural, with longer filmed pieces that accurately aped the gothic horror of Hammer, building real tension before the inevitable comic (and often ludicrous) pay-off. The ultimate manifestation of this was the horror-driven monologues that he would sometimes close his shows with, the studio lights darkening and the camera pulling in, as Allen revealed himself to be a master storyteller of the macabre. There was one in particular that really got to me – I remember nothing about it except the languorous, dread-filled tone of Allen’s voice, and the atmosphere in the back room where I was watching it becoming icy with an awful anticipation. And even when the punchline came, the spell wasn’t completely broken – there was still a horrible sense of unease, that something remained hidden in those words, and that this was a bloody odd way to make people laugh.




Book
 
The Unexplained (1980-83) 

As noted above, Britain was completely nuts for anything of a paranormal or supernatural bent during the ‘70s, the floodbanks of credibility having seemingly been washed away by the countercultural enlightenment of the late ‘60s. With the authority of Church and State eroding, and with the country in the midst of both political and social flux, all kinds of strange ideas and belief systems began to creep in from the margins. If traditional institutions could no longer be trusted and/or believed in, then perhaps other, more mysterious, forces were abroad? It’s surprising how quickly and firmly this notion took hold of mainstream culture, with TV and newspaper items on UFOs, ghosts and the Loch Ness Monster vying for space with reports on the latest industrial dispute or IRA bombing, creating a wyrd imaginal dissonance.

This obsession with all manner of mysterious phenomena persisted well into the ‘80s – in fact, it was probably at its zenith when, in 1980, Orbis Publishing launched the ‘partwork’ magazine, The Unexplained. Partwork magazines, where each weekly issue built towards a completed set of large format, binder-bound volumes, were hugely popular during the ‘70s. My dad had bought and assembled an earlier Orbis series about WW2 – I remember poring over these volumes full of battle photography, cut-away schematics of Messerschmitt fighters, and the often disturbing propaganda posters generated by the conflict. I had also recently completed my own, slightly less troubling Orbis series, The Encyclopedia Of Birds.

But The Unexplained was something else altogether. Leaving the joys of ornithology behind, I had plunged headfirst into the murky underside of the everyday and embraced the world of possibility – or more prosaically, and no doubt like many other boys (and girls) of my age, I just really liked the idea of monsters and aliens and weird stuff in general, despite being quite capable of scaring myself witless (see above). As soon as I saw the TV ad for this new series – “How much do we really know, and how much are we allowed to know?” – I immediately badgered my mum to take out a subscription. The magazine looked great, with lots of colour pictures and illustrations, and each issue had five-six articles on an impressively broad range of topics, the first few editions taking in such unexplained phenomena as Bigfoot, black holes, ball lightning, and every child’s favourite, spontaneous human combustion




Despite the conspiracy theory posturing of the ad, the overall tone of the magazine itself was one of open-minded enquiry rather than tinfoil-hatted fanaticism, accessible to a general readership but hinting at a shadowy canon of arcane knowledge for those who wanted to go deeper… As it was, I was quite happy to stay at the popularist level, obtaining classic books such as Alien Animals, The World Atlas Of Mysteries and the frankly terrifying Photographs Of The Unknown, without experiencing any kind of occult epiphany. It was just what I was into, and certainly by the end of The Unexplained’s run, I had moved onto other things, music in particular. Yet The Unexplained remains a classic totem for those times, a window into a different way of looking at the world, and a gently eccentric corrective to the harsh realities of Thatcherite Britain.


Music

Peter Hammill – pH7 (1979)
Buy it here - UK / US.

As I’ve confessed elsewhere on the internet, I was a Teenage Prog Rock Fan. Having grown up in a market town in the East Midlands, it was practically de rigueur that the first genre of music I was seriously into was heavy metal. But after the NWOBHM, the early ‘80s saw a resurgence in that most hated, and downright feared (according to the NME anyway) genre of music: progressive rock. Hard now to convey just what a bogeyman ‘prog’ was seen to be by music’s cultural gatekeepers, but its return, even in a diminished and mostly derivative form, was a cause for much mockery and gnashing of teeth. And yes, we’re talking Marillion here.

However, from my perspective as a young rock fan looking to expand my horizons, neo-prog (as it subsequently became known) was a welcome development. Not only did it lead to me encountering the genuinely wonderful Twelfth Night, but it also sent me back in time to investigate where this stuff had originally come from. And after wading through the likes of Genesis, Yes and Camel, I got to the hard stuff: King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator. VDGG in particular presented a challenge to my rockist mindset, dispensing for the most part with guitars and promoting the saxophone to lead instrument. But I soon realised this was all essentially moot in the face of the band’s driving force and self-proclaimed “Jimi Hendrix of the voice”, Peter Hammill.

Hammill is an extraordinary figure within British music, and a cult hero of the wyrd. He’s capable of both raging with elemental energy and penning lyrics of remarkable sophistication, ranging from coruscating self-examination to meditations on the nature of existence, often with apocalyptic overtones. He’s also been incredibly prolific throughout his 50+ year career, and there’s any number of albums I could have chosen to highlight his unique talents. But for me, 1979’s pH7 is his finest solo achievement, a perfect melding of Hammill’s fiery intelligence, his commanding but never pompous vocals, and a stripped-back, new wave-channelling sound, austere yet utterly compelling. I also have a strong memory of being given a tape of this album just before going to university, and spending those first few weeks sat in my room, listening to it on headphones in the dark.

Its delights are many, and it’s one of Hammill’s most socially conscious, outward-looking albums, with topics covered including biological weapons (‘Porton Down’), disability (‘Handicap And Equality’), political corruption (‘The Old School Tie’) and the end of the world (‘Mr X Gets Tense’). There’s never any sense of earnest hand-wringing here, but instead a direct and visceral engagement with the issues in question. Musically, it’s often thrillingly intense as well: there’s the paranoid, machine-driven stomp of ‘Careering’; the electro-classical ‘Mirror Images’, like something from Wendy Carlos’s score for A Clockwork Orange; and most intriguing, the crunching yet expressionistic setting of ‘Imperial Walls’, the translation of a 9th century Anglo-Saxon poem. A terrific, mind-expanding record, and a great cover too.



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