Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Manchester: the paradise that was punk

Don't believe the contrarians, johnny-come-latelies and non-believers. Punk wasn't invented in Brooklyn by the New York Dolls. Bloodsucking fashion parasite Malcolm McLaren's tacky Kings Road shop had no part to play. Johnny Rotten was still an alterboy at Saint Patrick's Church in Leatherhead on the day it all began.

How do I know? Because I, Paul Morley, chronicler and fan, journalist and journal-ist, so to speak, was there that night, the third of October 1973, in the Dog's Trotter in Rawtenstall when deviant glamsters The Spleen Explodes crashed over, phlegming and swearing, into fully fledged punkdom. In the first eight bars of "I'll kick your fucking teeth in (and you'll thank me for it)" a terrible beauty, a terrible wonderful beauty, a terrible wonderful portentious beauty, a terrible wonderful portentious beautiful beauty, had been born. Manchester, a poor bombed out hulking industrial shell of a city, was remade as a zealously reshaped cultural cradle. Buzzcocks, The Smiths, Joy Division, The Stone Roses, Oasis, all would suck at the teat of mother-Manchester, their creations were born in the fiery furnace, the fur 'n' ace as it were, of the Western World's cultural capital.

- - -

And though there were only nine in the audience that night, what luminaries they were destined to become, as they stumbled out to the kebab shop in their tartan troos and bondage bowlers (McLaren and Vivienne Westwood sucked the marrow from the skeleton of fashion, but it was Manchester's bones they slurped). Like disciples from the foot of Jesus, they rushed off to form the bands which rebuilt civilisation. Howard Devoto. Morrissey. Siouxsie Sue. Ian Brown. Ian Curtis. Zenab Badawi. Harry Hill. Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. And, humbled and awed, me.

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The Beatles have an undeserved reputation as a Liverpool band. But Liverpool, shallow and floppy and Mecca for silly band names, could never have brought forth such genius. No, the Beatles were Manchester through-and-through. John Lennon's cynicism vomited out the humiliations of his days as a bootblack on Bacup High Street. The real life Eleanor Rigby was a washer-woman at Paul McCartney's prep school in Chorlton-cum-Hardy. And what, other than his ancestral streets of Droylsden, could have inspired George Harrison to write the masterpiece that is Here comes the sun?

Ringo was a scouser, though.

- - -

Ian Curtis - sad, lost, Ian - was clinical mastermind, howling vacuum, bawling fool, all of them, none of them, no I think I've lost my grasp of this sentence.

The last time I saw Ian was outside the toilets of a Joy Division gig in the Brickmaker's Guild Memorial Hall in Pendlebury. Three weeks before his suicide, he was already tiptoeing down death row.

'Ian,' I said, 'some see you as tortured genius and revolutionary thinker, some as tuneless, Nazi-fixated mumbler, but I think you're more than that. Aren't you both messiah and traitor, a Jesus Iscariot if you like, who'll both show us the promised land but betray us on the road? Aren't you saver and enslaver?' I grasped him by the lapels. 'Aren't you a God walking the Earth as a mortal? Aren't you? Aren't you?'

'Out of the way, mate,' he said, 'I need a slash.'

Monday, May 22, 2006

Stan Lee's politics: dodgy or what?

Stan Lee's propagandist past is not something we Marvel readers like to dwell on. It's easy to find overt political references in Lee's early superhero comics, with The Hulk and Iron Man being the worst offenders.

Here in Fantastic Four #1, for instance, we find Sue Storm nailing her colours firmly to the McCarthyite right's mast as she unwittingly sums up John F Kennedy's entire space policy.

And here, in Hulk #1, we find a disgruntled Soviet scientist berating Nikita Khrushchev, the notorious shoe-wielding Communist Party leader, for his sanctioning of weapons tests which had temporarily increased his head (the scientist, I mean, not Khrushchev) to eight times its normal girth.

I'd like to think that Lee is slyly criticising the US government here, since the main plot revolves around Bruce Banner being turned into the Hulk after a weapons test disaster. But there isn't much evidence of subtle thinking in the rest of this book, so we're probably safe to savour the irony.

These books, plot, characters and politics, are archaic to the point of kitsch. Communism is gone, but if it wasn't, it's not likely many heads would now be turned by this propagandising, so does it matter?

I think it does. Lee is one of the most loved people in comicdom. For all the complaints about self-promotion, how (allegedly) many of his ideas were those of his collaborators, and his often-cloying writing style, you can't get away from the Man's achievements. If he had written nothing else, the first hundred issues of Amazing Spider-Man would still make Lee one of the most important figures in twentieth century popular culture. Add in the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Avengers, X-Men, Dr Strange, Silver Surfer and Iron Man, and you have a measure of just how much he achieved in the Sixties.

But alongside it, he's producing aggressive political material aimed at demonising a political enemy. In publications aimed primarily at children. Isn't that something to worry about?

There are a few ways we can excuse or condone this politicking.

This stuff is so heavy-handed you can't take it seriously. Irrelevant, really. It's the intent, the reason Lee wrote those stories, that matters. Whether it had any effect on the minds of his readers is a secondary consideration.

It was all a long time ago, America was different then, the country grew up, etc. Regularly used to explain aberrant past behaviour, this explanation often pops up when we see footage of Joe McCarthy and his Senate henchmen destroying the careers of anyone vaguely left-wingish. This was a Pleasantville America, naive and young and given to foolish ways before the sixties revolution woke it up. Personally, I don't buy it. The Second World War generation had lived through the Great Depression, Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Korea. That generation were not, couldn't have been, such political naifs.

Communism was nasty. Even if it was propaganda, the cause merited it. I have some sympathy with this view, as I don't think propaganda in a good cause is automatically bad. But it's difficult to stretch this view to accommodate, say, the Iron Man origin issue, where Tony Stark becomes Iron Man in order to trash an oppressive Vietnamese despot. It's all in the same vein as The Green Berets, John Wayne's laughable 1968 movie where Big Leggy himself saves Vietnam from the evil commy invaders, a plot so far divorced from reality that it appears to have been beamed in from Neptune.

To make Lee's position even worse, a few years later he was producing the Silver Surfer, where an Earth-condemned shiny-headed alien surfed around babbling like a peacenik on the lines of why can't these humans know love? before, this being comics, ramming five hundred thousand volts of Power Cosmic into the solar plexus of the villain-of-the-month. Lee, by then in his late thirties, had apparently experienced a Damascene conversion and morphed into a Haight-Ashbury hippy. Rather coincidentally, so had his readers.

And that seems to be the common thread in Lee's politics. In the censorious early sixties, Lee was happy to write like a right-wing demagogue. The public mood was hostile to comics, and toeing the party line made life easier. As comics readers grew in age and maturity, Lee adjusted his stories accordingly. But what sort of writer propagandises for both sides?

For me, I doubt if Stan Lee was ever the Cold Warrior these early comics might suggest. Without any evidence of Lee's true political views, I guess that he is probably quite apolitical, and it was this lack of belief which led to the opportunism which Lee showed in these storylines and the blatant disregard for the effects they may have had.

Whichever way you slice it, Stan Lee doesn't come out of this very well, and perhaps that's why we don't talk about them much. Because this is Stan Lee, and most of us don't want to say bad things about him.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Moving stuff

Too busy to post. Unpacking boxes. Pulling back muscles. Watching semi-finals of Eurovision Song Contest. Reading old copies of Dracula Lives. Back on Monday.

Monday, May 08, 2006

It's all gone quiet

Moved house, broadband connection died. It's like the Middle Ages over here.

Back in a few days.