RIP Davy Jones

Some people have said that in my book on the Monkees I’m a little harsh on Davy Jones. It’s entirely possible that I am. But even so, he was capable of some great music, like this:

The thing is, Jones was primarily an actor, rather than a singer or songwriter, which is why he doesn’t come across especially well in my book, because it focuses on the music. Were I talking about the band as *entertainers* though, I would have placed Jones at the top of the list. The man had a stunning stage presence, was effortlessly funny, and seemed a genuinely decent person (as for example in this anecdote from Mark Evanier about an appearance from only a couple of weeks ago)

Davy Jones made my childhood happier with his TV show, and he made my adulthood happier with his work on some of my favourite albums and in one of my favourite films. I feel very, very lucky that I got to see him live on what must now be the last ever Monkees tour.

I have a horrible feeling that my Monkees book will start to sell more, now, for all the wrong reasons. I don’t want to profit off the death of a man I admire, so any profits I make from sales of my Monkees book in March will be given to a Manchester-based charity (since Davy was from Manchester and I live there, I thought that a donation to improve the city he came from would be a good way to go). At the moment, I’m leaning towards the Booth Centre, a drop-in centre for homeless people, but if anyone has any better suggestions let me know in the comments.

Meanwhile, here’s a spotify playlist of some of his best moments as a singer (not all of them — Spotify doesn’t have his lovely version of Nine Times Blue, or the cast album for The Point, or his version of McCartney’s Man We Was Lonely). When he was good, he was *bloody* good, wasn’t he?

Linkblogging For 29/2/12

Just a few links – have not had my brain in the right place for writing for a few days…

Lance Parkin is writing a biography of Alan Moore

Jonathan Calder on Sarah Teather’s ridiculous comments about an ‘educated liberal elite’

Dean Wesley Smith gives advice on pricing self-published books

Anti-authoritarianism is increasingly being seen as a mental health problem

David Brin on possible upsides if the frothy mix wins the nomination

And finally, Mike Taylor has been doing wonderful work over at Sauropod Vertebrae Picture Of The Week campaigning against the Research Works Act, an egregious proposed piece of US legislation. Pop over and read everything there for the last couple of weeks to get a full idea of what’s going on – as well as some pictures of the neck-bones of dinosaurs.

For Those Who Don’t Get My Beach Boys Obsession…

GAH! This originally posted with the worst thing ever, rather than Brian Wilson. I apologise more than words can say for that.

Watch this, then you either will get it, or you’ll know you never will:

(For those who care, that’s Brian Wilson in 2004 performing the song Surf’s Up, from Smile, written by Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. The backing band there are Darian Sahanaja (keyboards,vocals), Scott Bennett (keyboards, glockenspiel, vocals), Probyn Gregory (french horn), Paul von Mertens (flute, harmonica, conductor), Jeffrey Foskett (sleigh bells, vocals), Taylor Mills (vocals), Bob Lizik (bass), Jim Hines (drums), Nelson Bragg (percussion, vocals), Nick Walusko (guitar, vocals) and the Stockholm Strings And Horns. Sahanaja, Bennett, Gregory, Mertens, Foskett and Bragg are all part of the Beach Boys touring band for the reunion tour).

A Beginners’ Guide To The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys are a hard band to get into. When Mike Taylor asked a while back in the comments to one of my posts which Beach Boys albums someone should try, I actually drew a blank. This is because the Beach Boys rarely made consistently good albums. They started their career when singles, not albums, were the important thing, made one big Album As Statement (Pet Sounds), and fell apart before what would have been their second (Smile).

The band’s work after that, from 1967-74, contains some of the best music ever recorded, but also some of the worst, because they were operating as a democracy. Brian Wilson, the songwriting and production genius responsible for their best music, became less and less interested, and the rest of the band tried to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, while Brian’s brother Dennis turned out to be a great songwriter/producer, and their brother Carl was pretty decent, the other band members really weren’t up to much. (They occasionally hit on something listenable, but more by accident than design).

So this means that for one reason or another, all the Beach Boys’ actual albums are patchy, and you have to do a certain amount of digging in order to find the good stuff.

So where does a beginner start?

First, you’ll probably want the hits. If so, the best of the many, many compilations available is one released in 2003, Sounds Of Summer. Amazon US currently have an offer on to get this with a free T-shirt for $20, incidentally. It’s a 30-track collection, with every track being a top 40 US hit. It contains most of the hits you’ll know (I Get Around, Help Me Rhonda, California Girls and so on), and at least some of these hits are also among the band’s best work – In My Room, Don’t Worry Baby, God Only Knows, Heroes & Villains, Wild Honey and Good Vibrations are great records by any standard.

But after this, you’ll want to get into the band’s artier side. There are various compilations that are meant to introduce this, but all are flawed in one way or another. The best thing to do is dive in at the deep end. The box set Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys can be picked up dirt cheap – if you’re OK with MP3s, in fact, you can buy the entire 5-CD, 130-track box set for twenty-one quid from Amazon, which may well be the best deal in the world.

That box set contains all the hits, most of the better album tracks, a half-hour-long selection of the best music from the Smile sessions, most of Pet Sounds, and the handful of decent tracks from the post-1977 albums. It’s not perfect – every Beach Boys fan will have their own list of a dozen or so songs that should be on there – but everyone will agree that what *is* on there is mostly essential, and everyone will differ as to those other dozen songs.

If you don’t want to go for the box set, or if you’ve already got it and still want more, the next step is the compilation Endless Harmony. This is a rarities collection put together as the soundtrack for a documentary on the band, and it says something about the perversity of the band that they would leave some of their best music unreleased.

After this, you want two essential solo albums – Brian Wilson Presents Smile (a reconstruction of a finished Smile album, newly performed by Wilson and his backing band) and Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue (get the two-CD deluxe version of this – it’s well worth it).

After you’ve heard all that, you’ll know whether you want to investigate any further or not. You’ll have an idea of the shape of the band’s career and which albums you should pick up. You’ll know if you want the full Smile Sessions box set, or if Brian Wilson’s version is enough for you. You’ll know if you want to hear more of the R&B-flavoured mid-70s stuff or the whimsical soft-psych late-60s.

One piece of warning, though – the Beach Boys’ albums are available on CD as two-albums-on-one-CD packages. Mostly this is OK, but in the late-70s the bands highs and lows were higher and lower than before. The Beach Boys Love You is one of the greatest albums the band ever did, but it’s paired with the frankly feeble 15 Big Ones. LA (Light Album), the last listenable album the band released, is paired with MIU, an album which is torture to sit through. And don’t buy anything (other than Brian Wilson solo albums) from 1980 on. Those albums (Keepin’ The Summer Alive, The Beach Boys, Still Cruisin’, Summer In Paradise and Stars & Stripes Vol 1) range from soulless competence (The Beach Boys, with its drum machines and Culture Club covers) to soulless incompetence (Summer In Paradise, a good argument that all sound recording and reproduction equipment in the universe should be destroyed, and everyone deafened, just in case they might accidentally hear the song Summer Of Love).

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Why I’m Not Discussing Politics Much Right Now

Posted this to Facebook, but then thought it might as well go here too.

I’m having a lot of difficulty in discussing politics at the moment. The problem is that so often debate is polarised between two false alternatives, and actually trying to even express an opinion makes me either have to equivocate so much the point gets lost or conversely accept framings I fundamentally disagree with.

“Do you agree with the health bill?”
“Well, no, actually, I think there are various problems with…”
“Great! I’ll add you to my Save Labour’s NHS From The ConDems Who Are Destroying It petition, shall I?”
“Er, no… I think the problems with the NHS bill are precisely those areas where it’s most similar to Labour’s policy…”
“Ah, so you’re a Tory bastard who hates the poor, then?”
“No… I think the basic idea of the bill is sound, but making it compulsory for GPs to take on extra admin work, rather than optional, for example is a terrible…”
“OK! I’ll put you down for the End The Evil Postcode Lottery campaign!”
“No, I *like* the idea of localism, and people in an area deciding for themselves what their health priorities are…”
“You ARE a Tory!”
“So I’m a Tory because I trust my GP more than, say, Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust who were rated second-worst in the country and who sacked a nurse for comments related to her union activities?”
“Yes, because she was organising against a trust run by a LABOUR council”

I get so tired with that argument though, and many others like that, that I often end up just saying “Yeah, smash the evil bill”, because I do think that on the whole the health bill is a bad idea (and a missed opportunity when we could have argued earlier in the process for a genuinely liberal NHS) and I end up sounding like the worst kind of authoritarian Labourite. Either that or I just hurl abuse at the person I’m arguing with.

I suppose this is the dilemma of the Liberal throughout the ages — agreeing with Labourites about (some of) the problems but disagreeing about the solutions — but it’s put into focus more when the Lib Dems are actually in government, and working with the Tories.

(This is NOT an invitation for a debate over the health bill, for precisely the reasons above. Nor is it a dig at any particular Labour member, or indeed Tory. If you don’t argue like that, then it’s not about you.)

On Sentient Universes, The Problem Of Evil, Grant Morrison, Doctor Who and other such stuff

Blame Philip Sandifer for this. I meant to write another short story today (I still might).

I thought I’d said everything I had to say about Grant Morrison, and more, between my book on Seven Soldiers and Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!. But then Sandifer (who, if you don’t know, is the writer of the alternately wonderful and infuriating TARDIS Eruditorum blog goes and says something as an aside which starts me pacing around the house like a maniac and saying “Is this just a blog post or is it another sodding book?”

It’s just a blog post, but not because I don’t have enough to say on this subject, but because I can’t justify writing a *third* book that’s mostly about Morrison’s ideas.

Now let’s have a look at the latest post on TARDIS Eruditorum – the one about Lance Parkin‘s book Cold Fusion. In this post, Sandifer says (talking about his own ideas about Doctor Who):

The root idea is, for once, borrowed from Grant Morrison instead of Alan Moore. Morrison has several times suggested that the DC Universe line of superheroes is sentient and has an animating consciousness. My disagreement with Morrison is not on this point, but rather on the implications of it – Morrison seems rather to like this fact, whereas I think that the DC Universe is, while sentient, a dangerous sociopath (albeit one capable of moments of staggering beauty). But the underlying idea, obviously, appeals.

I think Sandifer may be reading Morrison a little too simplistically here (odd, because his reading of Final Crisis as narrative collapse is absolutely correct). And it will surprise no-one who’s read… well, anything I’ve ever written… that I’m going to use Seven Soldiers as a counter-example.

Before I start talking about this though, I just want to say that the idea of a fictional universe being sentient is, while far-fetched, not one that should be entirely dismissed out of hand. Certainly, if one is to make the assumption that neural networks embody intelligence (an assumption made by many, with little or no reason that I can see — the argument appears to be ‘the neurons are the bit of the brain where we can tell some of what they’re doing, so therefore they must be the important bit, not all those glial cells and such’. I exaggerate slightly.) then the collaboration network of Marvel Universe characters has some very interesting features. This is not to say I agree with Morrison or Sandifer — I don’t — but that their contentions are not utterly dismissible, and are at least an interesting way to look at things. The DC Universe, and Doctor Who, are not sentient themselves, but treating them as sentient entities can provide interesting readings.

So — *does* Morrison seem to think that the sentient DC Universe is an ultimately benevolent one?

Certainly, that would be the implication of Morrison’s early work. In The Coyote Gospel we get this:

Borrowing some of the structure from Michael Maltese’s script for Duck Amuck (and incidentally, does anyone else get as annoyed at the attribution of authorship of classic cartoons to their director as I do? Chuck Jones was great, but Maltese scripted and storyboarded those great cartoons), Morrison (and Truog, Hazlewood, etc, but here and from here on I’m talking specifically about the writing) creates a strictly hierarchical set of fictional universes. The Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies universe is lower than the DC Universe is lower than ours, and in each of these, there is a creator who delights in causing pain to the more innocent people in the universe below.

However, this hierarchy of universes has never really fit with Morrison’s thinking, and so later we get to a view more like the one Paul Magrs and Jeremy Hoad use in The Blue Angel (which I’ve quoted earlier):

‘Oh?’ asked the dog, sounding rather withering. ‘Listen, Fitz. Learn to think of all these things as stories. And stories can’t contradict each other because, in the end, they’re all made up. Nothing can take precedence then. All right?’
‘I’m not sure I know what you’re on about.’
‘Well, you reckon the world you live in takes precedence over the world you’re reading about. So you’ve established a hierarchy, yeah?’
‘Of course! I’d be out of my tree not to!’
The dog was looking sceptical again. He gave a kind of shrug and started nibbling the herbs once more. ‘Maybe. But think how happy you might be if you didn’t have to make those choices about what you should invest belief in. Here in the Obverse you can think of it all as a kind of fugue.’
‘Hmm,’ said the dog, chewing. ‘No contradictions anymore. Every story holding equal sway. It means there are always alternatives. And it means no natural ending.’
Fitz took his last drag on his cigarette and ground it out on the window sill.
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘No?’ asked the dog.
‘No. One reality has to be more valid than the other. It has to be realer.’
The little dog laughed and said, ‘Well… what if you found out that the one you’re in was the less real one? What if you found out that you yourself are less than real?’
Fitz laughed and looked at the moon.
‘You’re one hell of a dog. Do you know that?’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Canine primly.

(Incidentally, this view of Doctor Who, as a set of mutually-contradictory, equally-valid stories rather than a single continuous narrative, was one that was only possible when Doctor Who stopped being ‘a TV show’ made by a single creative team at a time and became instead a set of TV shows, books, comics, audio dramas and so on created by different people with different agendas, one which was almost impossible for a single human being to experience in full, just like DC Comics’ universe with its multiple publication per month for 70 years. It may be significant in this light that Ian Levine, the man who in Doctor Who fandom most represents the antithesis of this view, and who holds that ‘if it wasn’t on TV it didn’t happen’, is also the only person in the world to own a copy of *every* DC Universe comic. His admirable work in tracking down so many lost episodes of Doctor Who probably comes from the same basic instinct – of wanting a closed, complete story rather than an open-ended one.)

In fact, Morrison’s later take on the relative positions of the various universes seems closer to Lawrence Miles’ use of bottle universes in his Doctor Who fiction. In Miles’ New Adventure Christmas On A Rational Planet the Seventh Doctor sees the Eighth Doctor living in a bottled universe, but in his BBC Book Interference he has the Eighth Doctor looking into a bottle universe containing the New Adventures version of the Seventh Doctor. (And in Dead Romance a universe very like our own is revealed to be inside another bottle).

Anyone who’s read anything I’ve ever written knows I’m going to get into Seven Soldiers now – or at least the prequel to it in JLA: Classified

In various of Morrison’s stories, he has our universe personified as the infant universe of Qwewq. And in All-Star Superman #10, possibly the finest single comic issue Morrison has ever written, he has this happen (the giant black cube is Qwewq – our universe):

This is a far more nuanced idea of creator and creation than the one in Animal Man. At first sight, the hierarchies have been reversed – Siegel and Shuster’s universe, here, is the one inside the DC Universe. Except that this is absolutely the moment of creation of the DC Universe – the first ever drawing of Superman. And that creation is inspired by the influence of Superman from outside. This is more like a resonance between two universes than a straightforward hierarchy.

But it still seems to confirm Sandifer’s reading – Superman is, in All-Star Superman, pretty much goodness and decency personified, while we are fallen, helpless creatures who need raising up.

But why did we fall? For that we must look to JLA: Classified.

That’s the infant universe all grown up, as Ne-Bul-Oh The Huntsman. The seed of evil he’s talking about there is an infiltration into our universe from the DC Universe by a supervillain. I’ve argued at ludicrous length (40,000 words of it!) that when Ne-Bul-Oh refers to ‘fruit’ here, there’s a deliberate reference to the tree in the Garden of Eden. The DC Universe, in other words, is responsible for original sin.

And time and again in Morrison’s recent work, we see this – the two universes influencing each other, both for good and evil. Ne-Bul-Oh is evil, but only because of the DC Universe – but the people of the DC Universe enter our universe in order to prevent this. When the people of our universe look for inspiration, for heroes, we turn to Superman and Batman (Morrison has admitted that when he was writing JLA in the 1990s, at a time his life was collapsing around him, he was doing it at least partly as a magical working – crying out to Superman and Batman to save him). But when Zatanna is suffering, what happens?

She reaches out to us, the readers. Reaches out even though this story is the one where our universe is inside theirs, and is responsible for the attacks she’s fighting.

I think a close reading of Morrison’s DC Universe work, then, shows that he thinks the DC Universe could have either a good or a pernicious influence on this one – could be great or could be sociopathic – just as this universe could have a similar influence on the DC Universe. The two can either help pull each other up or drag each other down, and it’s up to us, the readers and writers and artists – the individuals – to decide which it’s going to be.

I agree with Sandifer that if we were to look at the output of DC Comics at the moment, or really at any time since about 2003, it would appear sociopathic. Where I disagree is that I think Morrison knows that, and that he’s working consciously to change that.

(I expand on these themes a *LOT* more in two books – Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! (about Doctor Who, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore and the stupidity of ‘canon’, and An Incomprehensible Condition, a book on the themes in Seven Soldiers specifically. If you enjoyed this post, why not buy them from one of the links in the top right hand side of this page?)

A Request To All Readers – Review Books You’ve Bought

I’ve only recently become aware of reviews on sites like Amazon from the point of view of an author, rather than that of a reader.

As a reader, I’ve rarely, if ever, reviewed books I’ve bought from a website. But I’ve decided to change that.

(Before anyone thinks this is a whine, this isn’t about people who give bad reviews, as you’ll see at the end)

The reason is that I’ve seen the effect reviews can have on sales. There are three types of bad review. The first type is from someone who doesn’t like the book. I got one such on my Monkees book on Barnes & Noble. These are fine – people see a one-star review like that, and they either think the criticisms sound valid or they don’t.

The second type is the missing-the-point bad review. I got one of these on the Monkees book, this time on Amazon US. Here, the reviewer just expects a different type of book than the one they bought, and complains when it’s not something it never claimed to be. These can be annoying to an author (I admit to moaning about that review on Twitter and Facebook – gratifyingly but embarassingly that made a couple of other readers go and give the book better reviews) but they don’t do any long-term damage. Sales of my Monkees book on Amazon have actually gone up since that review was posted.

Both those types of bad review are useful to readers. There’s a third type, though, the malicious review. I got one of those on my Beatles book on the Nook store last month – a reviewer just making up lies about the book, saying I admitted my only sources were Alan Pollack’s essays and the Anthology series, for example.

Before that review was posted, I used to sell about one copy of that book per week on Nook. In the five weeks since, it hasn’t sold a single copy. The review *sounds* convincing, but is written out of malice, rather than as an accurate assessment of the book. And it’s putting readers off.

And that’s really annoying, because there are hundreds of people out there who’ve bought that book and enjoyed it. Some of them have said so in comments here, others in emails or tweets to me. If nothing else, the vast majority who bought it have neither asked for a refund (which Amazon will give without question in most cases) or given it a bad review. And I caught myself thinking “Why don’t most of those bastards post reviews? I don’t even want *good* ones, just *accurate* ones would be nice. It wouldn’t take them two minutes”.

But then I realised, it’s my own fault.

I just bought and read Andrew Rilstone’s marvellous book on Tolkien and Lewis. I loved it (though I wish he’d kept the chapter heading “Lipstick On My Scholar” from the blog version). Did I bother to review it? No.

I’ve bought, read and loved every book Greg Egan has written, all in the last year. Have I posted a single Amazon review? No.

In fact, I don’t even remember if I’ve ever reviewed *anything* on Amazon. For all I know, Charles Stross’ The Fuller Memorandum, which I’m currently reading for the third time, is sitting there with a one-star review and no other reviews, and thousands of people who would have bought it otherwise have been put off.

So I’ve decided to make amends. I can’t very well post reviews of every book I own – I have several thousand – but from now on, I will post an Amazon review of every book I *buy*. I’m also going to post, now, a review of the most recent book I’ve bought (The Freelancer’s Survival Guide by Kristine Kathryn Rusch) and a couple of Andrew Rilstone’s books (because he’s a self-publisher (as, actually, is Rusch) and so needs the reviews more).

This is NOT – I repeat *N-O-T NOT* a request to my readers to go off and post reviews of my books. I’m not talking about special treatment – rather the opposite.

I’m asking you to, whenever you buy a book *from now on*, *BY ANYONE* go on to Amazon and give it at least a short review (even if you didn’t buy it from Amazon, it’s the single biggest bookstore in the world). Accurate reviews – good or bad – will help people find what they do and don’t like, and if everyone posts accurate reviews of the books they read, malicious reviewers won’t be able to do any damage (and people who use sockpuppets to hype their own books won’t either).

And if that means I get a ton of *accurate* one-star reviews, so be it.