Star Trek: Discovery

I’m in a strange position when it comes to Star Trek — it’s not a series that I consider myself a fan of, but I am a fan of the *idea* of it. I love the utopian post-racial post-scarcity series its fans talk about, I *absolutely* love the idea of trying to build drama on something other than character conflict, I love many of the characters in the series…

It’s just that when I look at the actual series, it very rarely lives up to the fans’ statements about what it should be.

This is not to say it’s a *bad* series — I genuinely love the good episodes of the original series (roughly speaking, those ones that Gene Coon was in charge of) and the first few films, Deep Space Nine could be good when it wasn’t about entitled men sexually harassing their co-workers until they gave in and slept with them, and Voyager had a lot of good moments (and despite fan-lore was probably the most consistently good of the various series). I own all the films (up to Nemesis) on DVD, own several books on the series, and have watched every TV episode (except the last two seasons of Enterprise), but it’s a concept that seems to me to work far better *as* a concept than as an actual, tangible, work.

(Incidentally I have many ideas about why this is, and about why I find much serialised work from the last couple of decades almost unwatchable and unreadable, which I’m thinking of writing about later.)

So my comments on Discovery should be taken with that as the baseline — I’m someone that an average person would think of as a “Trekkie”, but that someone who calls themselves a Trekker instead would look at as a casual.

I went into the series with a certain level of anticipation, but also some worry. The credits tell their own story — Bryan Fuller had been the original showrunner, and he plotted the series and co-wrote the first couple of episodes. Fuller’s take on Star Trek would be one I’d love to see — he started his scriptwriting career on 90s Trek, before going on to make some genuinely excellent series — but Fuller left the series early on, and the two people who co-wrote the first script with him, and who have been in charge of the series since his departure, Alex Kurtzman and Akiva Goldsman, have been responsible for some of the worst films ever made.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Meyer has been involved as a consultant, and my own opinion of Meyer is rather different from that of most Star Trek fans — while most people think the three Star Trek films he made are the peak of the series, my own view is that his scripts largely consist of people saying to one another “isn’t this situation we’re in just like that in this famous piece of classic literature?” “Why yes, it is. In fact I’d go so far as to say that it’s *very* similar, and that must mean that this is a thematically deep piece of film, not just some B-movie schlock, and so the people watching this are very clever people.” “Do you think we should trust these very clever people to pick up on that thematic deepness?” “No. As Shakespeare said ‘Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt'” — but that said, Meyer does at least know how to make an action-movie plot work, and how to do the kind of comedy that Star Trek does at its best.

So, the possibility existed of the series being great, but it also had the possibility of being dreadful. And after the first two episodes, the series still seems to be existing in that superposition of states.

On the plus side, the series looks fantastic — it clearly looks like Star Trek without being imitative. The acting is uniformly excellent (apart from a couple of the Klingons, who seem to be reciting their Klingon-language dialogue by rote), and it was nice that both the principal characters were women of colour. The idea of having a human protagonist who has been raised Vulcan is a genuinely good way of ringing the changes on the Spock/Data/Seven of Nine archetype, and the story has clearly been conceived as a serial, rather than having a “story arc” retro-grafted onto standalone episodes (which is a mistake too much 90s Trek made, and which ends up with the worst of both worlds).

On the negative side… well, there’s the treatment of race, which is surprising since the main criticism the series has been getting is from the kind of men who think that the existence of women or black people is a personal insult to them, who’ve been complaining about the series “bringing identity politics into Star Trek”.

The Klingons have always been uncomfortably racialised, and the redesign of them for this series could have been an opportunity to rectify that, taking them away from the appearance of any particular human race. Instead, they appear to have gone for an almost minstrel-show boot-polish black skin — and then they introduced an albino Klingon, who is an outcast from Klingon society for his white skin, but who is proved to be braver than most of the other Klingons. All of which gives a deeply disturbing impression, apparently without ever intending it.

But that’s not the thing that bothers me. Rather, the part of the show that seems to me right now, based only on two episodes almost to be bordering on far-right propaganda is its treatment of Klingons as a parallel to Islam. T’Kuvma’s attempts to unify the Klingon Empire, fractured into disparate Houses, under a fundamentalist version of the teachings of Kahless, seem deliberately to parallel the attempts of ISIS and similar organisations to reunify the Ottoman Empire under fundamentalist Islam. And there’s actually a fair bit of insight in the way this Klingon fundamentalism is put together and who T’Kumva attracts to his cause — it’s written by someone who understands the appeal of authoritarian nationalism and fundamentalism (though the way all the Klingon leaders almost immediately convert to T’Kumva’s cause is one of the points where you can clearly see the joins in the script). The theme of the Klingons being Muslim-standins is set up even by the pre-story teaser, set on a desert planet with characters wearing pseudo-Arabic SF clothes a la Dune or Star Wars.

The problem is that Michael Burnham (the protagonist, who is apparently female despite the name) argues that the Federation need to attack the Klingons first, as it’s the only language they understand (or words *very much* to that effect). She says it’s “in their nature”. Another character questions her about this:
“Considering your background I would think you the last person to make assumptions based on race.”
“With respect it would be unwise to confuse race and culture.”

This is, of course, the line that is used by every single racist demagogue and outright fascist at the moment. It’s the line used by Farage and Trump, by “Vox Day” and Scott Adams, by anyone who wants to claim that “those people” are inferior. And it’s used by even supposedly progressive, and left-wing, people who write chin-strokey arguments in the Guardian and the New Statesman about how it’s not racist to hate Muslims because “Islam is not a race”.

Now, Burnham’s actions are definitely depicted as being unwise, and as leading to deaths of people she cares about and to her own fall from grace, and it’s entirely possible, even probable, that the series’ overarching story will lead to her realising the bigotry inherent in her position. But *right now, as of these episodes* it’s still the case that we’re being invited to sympathise with her and to read the Klingons as being the baddies. Right now, we’re meant at worst to see pre-emptive war on the basis that “it’s in their nature” and “it’s not race, it’s culture” as justifiable. Our protagonist is expressing views that put her on the side of the worst elements in humanity right now.

But again, that’s not *what the show is*, and I wouldn’t tell people not to watch it based on that. There’s enough that this series is doing right — like the Kelpiens, an alien race created for this series, who are an intelligent domesticated prey species, bred by predators to be more fun to hunt (an idea that sounds very Fuller), who may be the best idea for a new alien race Star Trek has ever seen — that I’d thoroughly recommend that anyone who enjoys Trek even at the level I do should watch it (the true fans will of course already have seen it). Cackhandedly and problematically dealing with hot-button social issues is itself part of Star Trek at least as much as anything else is, and if it *hadn’t* messed that kind of thing up I’d have been rather worried I wasn’t really watching Star Trek.

This is a series with great potential, and it’s the first ever Star Trek series where the pilot is actually a good piece of TV rather than something completely unwatchable. There’s a lot to like, and even to love, about it. I’ll definitely be watching next week.

But just as past series of Star Trek don’t quite live up to the praise of its most ardent fans, this one doesn’t yet quite live up to the attacks of its enemies. Here’s hoping it gets there.

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Off To Thought Bubble…

I’ll be with some of the other Mindless Ones at Table 79 in the Cookridge St Marquee at Thought Bubble this year. Unfortunately, this year I didn’t think I’d be able to go until a few weeks ago, so had no time to pull together another book on comics (or on geek media stuff like Doctor Who), and having a big pile of unsold books always depresses me, so I’ll be bringing only two copies of each of three of my books — An Incomprehensible Condition, Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!, and Fifty Stories for Fifty Years — because I happen to have a few copies left over from previous years’ conventions. You’ll have to ask for them specially if you want them, though, because I’m not wasting table display space on them as they’re unlikely to sell.

Feel free to stop by and have a chat, though, and to buy the great comics that we’ll be selling by the other Mindless Ones.

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On New Political Strategies

This post is a political one, and discusses party strategies, but I think it has more applicability than just to Lib Dem partisans (which means that unlike the internal-fighting posts of last week, I’m going to charge for this on Patreon).

One thing last week’s Liberal Democrat conference showed was that, to the leadership of the Lib Dems at least, being in the moderate centre seems to be an idea that has a great appeal. It doesn’t appeal to me, and so I have an instinctive dislike of the idea, but I also think that right now it’s the wrong idea from a purely strategic point of view, and I think the other parties are starting to realise this.

The problem is that right now there is no centre of British politics, at least in any way that we would have talked about the centre a decade ago. And what centrist politicians of all parties have to realise is that, in the long term at least, and while we have the system that we do, that is the case more often than not.

British politics has had, in the last hundred and twenty years or so, roughly three stable periods in which it was sensible to talk about a political centre. In the period up until World War I, all the parties were, roughly speaking, in agreement on ideology — they were for imperialism, for a franchise limited to adult males, and for a hierarchical world-view in which white English rich men were the apex of the human pyramid. There were, of course, differences in ideology between the Liberals and the Tories (and the new Liberal Nationals and the tiny Labour party that was just starting to become known), but to anyone from outside that paradigm the differences look non-existent.

The same thing happened again in the period from roughly the end of World War II to the late 60s/early 70s. There, both the Tories and Labour were agreed on the philosophy known as Butskellism. This involved a mixed economy with high levels of taxation on higher incomes, most major industries nationalised, a strong welfare state, and the country run by what amounted to a three-legged stool — government, capital, and the unions all having roughly equal decision-making power, and government being by consensus among those three powers. Civil liberties, in this period, were slowly increased, though with a rather paternalistic aspect to this in which the lower classes needed to be educated in the responsibilities that came along with extra rights.

And then from about 1990 until very recently there was neoliberalism — the policies put forward by Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, Clegg, and Miliband. With some differences in nuance, all of these believed in low levels of taxation of income, even lower levels of wealth taxation, and that the role of the government in the economy should be that of a contractor, with all implementation to be done by private organisations paid by the government. There was also a rough consensus that international movement of capital and goods was a good thing, and that immigrants should be made into the scapegoats for any problems caused by other problems. All parties with any kind of power were also agreed that civil liberties were completely unimportant, and that universal rights could be abolished (though rights could still be granted to particular groups, so in this time life became immeasurably better for gay men, for example, than it had been pre-1990). In general, more even than the previous periods of time, those things which led to corporate profit were valued, and those things that didn’t were considered anathema to the political consensus.

All those periods of consensus definitely created losers, but they all sort-of worked for enough people (in Britain — they all caused a great deal of harm to other countries), and on the whole even though they harmed some people, most people in the UK were OK with them for a reasonable period.

However, all those periods of consensus came to an end in gigantic crises — first came the ongoing crisis that was World War I, the Depression, and World War II, during which time the Liberal Party fractured and almost died, the Labour Party rose, fell, and then rose again, and everything about British society changed irrevocably.

The second crisis period lasted, again, about twenty-five years — from roughly the time of the devaluation of the pound in 1967, through the three-day week, the OPEC crisis, the Winter of Discontent, and the Miners’ Strike, and probably coming to an end around the time of the Poll Tax riots. Again the major progressive party of the time (Labour) fragmented and almost died, again everything about British society was irrevocably changed. By the 1992 election — and certainly by the 1997 one — there was a new consensus, a new reality tunnel through which anyone with pretensions to political respectability would look at the world.

And this pattern — a shake-up that involves the two main parties going to wide extremes, and then slowly converging on a “new normal” that lasts about twenty years or so — is built into the biggest-loser electoral system. The system incentivises false binaries and clustering when something seems to be working, and it also incentivises getting as far away from “the other lot” as possible when something stops working. It *also* means that when things stop working, it takes so long for the electoral system to respond to them that only catastrophe will cause a response.

And the introduction of referendums into the system, which managerialist centrists who think that everyone “really” agrees with them and that the system is really OK thought would be a sticking plaster that would fix this problem, only makes it much, much worse. The Brexit referendum accelerated the latest catastrophic shake-up, which had already been coming since the crash of 2007, which had proved that the neoliberal system was broken just as effectively as the OPEC crisis did with Butskellism.

The elections of 2010 and 2015 saw all three main parties led by people who were fervent believers in the old system, but we haven’t had an election with a decisive result since 2005, and don’t look likely to have one again any time soon. We’re in the part of the cycle that happened in the early thirties or the early seventies, with parties fragmenting and reforming, and with ambiguous election results and Prime Ministers relying on other parties to get their agendas through Parliament.

Now, for all progressives of whatever party, this isn’t a good thing even were the current government not doing everything they can to exacerbate the current crisis. Conservatives tend to dominate these periods of uncertainty, partly because they tend to prize party discipline over everything else, and partly because they’re willing to throw away any principles at all for power so adapt better to new electoral landscapes.

But the problem at the moment is that no-one is even putting forward a workable idea of what the next paradigm might be, and we can’t even begin to move on from this catastrophic system until someone does. Theresa May’s Conservatives are rapidly heading towards full-on fascism and becoming a party of the ethnonationalist right. It’s my worry that the whole country will end up going for that by default, but I don’t think we will so long as there is at least a semblance of Parliamentary democracy, because fascism offers easy pseudo-answers, but it doesn’t actually work.

Labour at least seem to have settled on a strategy, give or take some argument about whether they should also be incredibly racist or not. The problem is that the strategy they’ve settled on is basically to return to the Butskellite system. This is a less bad strategy than many in my own party would like to think — that system *did* work, and work well, for a time, and there are plenty of lessons that can be learned for it for whatever new consensus is reached. Just because a system eventually failed doesn’t mean everything about it was bad.

But it’s still, ultimately, a retrograde step. That system was designed for an economy based on heavy industry, two-parent families in which only one person worked, a demographically young population, and pre-existing strong unions, and a world in which most of Asia was still pre-industrial so couldn’t compete. There are lessons to be learned from it, but it won’t work without those conditions, and much of the Labour leadership seems to me to be too intellectually incurious and inflexible to adapt it to the world as it is today.

They do, though, have a decent (though incomplete) analysis of what’s wrong. They’ve pointed to some of the problems, even though they haven’t yet suggested good solutions.

And this is the problem for centrists, whether those be Tory centrists like Anna Soubry, Labour centrists like Owen Smith, or the centrists in charge of my own party. In times of crisis, centrism is a reactionary position to be taking. It’s defending an old, broken-down system, not looking for a new, better, one.

Of course, this is sometimes necessary, because there are things about the old order that definitely need to be retained. The EU would be a prime example, in my view. But if centrism at its best is something like the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society, “Preserving the old ways from being abused/Protecting the new ways for me and for you”, at a time of crisis it seems to centre the former, when the latter is more necessary.

This is something that, for all his faults as a leader, Tim Farron realised — he gave a great speech to conference in, I think, 2014, in which he outlined most of this and said the Lib Dems should be in the forefront of developing new political thought. And while his reaction to the EU referendum was, ultimately, the cowardly one of favouring a second referendum (which is basically just the “denial” stage of the stages of grieving, hoping that maybe everyone will come to their senses), he did prioritise trying to come up with radical new ideas.

Unfortunately, the snap election put paid to that, and we are now once again pivoting back to centrist defence of existing institutions, rather than radical rebuilding of them. The criticism the Lib Dems made of the other parties’ leaders during the election was the largely accurate one that “Theresa May wants to take us back to the 1950s, Jeremy Corbyn to the 1970s”. Unfortunately, we too have succumbed to the Boomer-led gerontocracy fad, and we have a leadership that wants to take us back to the 1990s.

Personally, I’d rather go back to the 1990s than the 1970s, and rather the 70s than the 50s, but if I had a choice I’d rather get into the 2030s. I’d quite like us to cut out the decade-plus of flailing around making bad choices and harming everyone that political history suggests lies ahead (optimistically taking 2007 rather than last year as the start of the crisis period). And we will only do that by accurately diagnosing the problems that led us to this place. We should not accept the false solutions of Brexit, austerity, and racism, and nor should we lazily push for ever more binary referendums based on false premises.

The Lib Dems were the last party to accept the neoliberal consensus (cleverly doing so right at the point it broke) and have historically always been the party of constitutional radicalism. And one of the few bright points of a fairly depressing conference was hearing Vince Cable say what the current Boomer gerontocracy deems most unsayable — that house prices need to fall.

One of the things I’m hoping to do as my Prometheans series progresses is to come up with some very precise definitions of the problems we’re facing (albeit from the unusual angle of looking at old science fiction books). I’m also pushing within the Lib Dems for more radical solutions to problems, through things like working with the Radical Association (join us!) But for everyone on the side of greater equality, greater freedom, and less conformity — whether in the Lib Dems, Greens, Labour, SNP, or Unaffiliated Other — there’s a task ahead, to try to define and shape a new political reality. We should not be shirking the task by pretending the problem has already been solved.

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Destroyer: Chapter 16

A week later, Fleming was beginning to think that he’d made a major mistake in giving the papers to Driberg. No-one – literally nobody – had heard from Driberg since that moment.

He was no longer answering his phone, his door had gone unanswered when Fleming had visited his home, and telegrams and letters had gone unanswered. His column in the Express had turned up as normal, but it had read like the kind of column a writer puts in a desk drawer in case it’s needed in the future, and a call to the editor had confirmed that Driberg had not spoken to him, either. The column had turned up in the post, with no return address.

In short, it appeared as if Driberg had vanished off the face of the earth. This was not entirely unusual for Driberg – he was not the most reliable of men at the best of times, and was likely to act on a whim without thought for the troubles to which it would put others – but still the coincidence of the timings nagged at Fleming. Perhaps something had happened to Driberg?

But there was no time to worry about Driberg’s health and wellbeing – not that the subject would have overly concerned Fleming anyway – as he had arranged to meet up with Wheatley at his club once again, to discuss ideas for dealing with the Hess problem.

Wheatley’s reaction to being told of Driberg’s disappearance was to give a look so withering that Fleming could almost feel himself cringing.

“You really risked state secrets with that buffoon Driberg?”

“I didn’t have a great deal of choice. Anyone in those circles would know that you or I were too sensible. We needed someone a little unpredictable.”

“Still. Couldn’t you have thought of anyone less likely to disappear on you?”

“Anyone less likely to go AWOL would also have been a less convincing infiltrator. My options were rather limited, you know.”

Wheatley nodded. Fleming had a point.

“You do realise that this is almost certainly the work of Aleister Crowley, don’t you? We may never see Driberg alive again. He’s gone over to the other side.”

“The other side? Crowley’s on our side, isn’t he?”

“On the contrary, Crowley’s never on any side but his own. He’ll take any opportunity to cause mischief. He and Driberg are alike in that respect, at least. Probably more, if the rumours about Driberg being a queer are true.”

“So what do you think Crowley wants with him?”

“Well, it depends very much on what particular hideous practices he’s up to at present. I’d be very surprised, though, if this wasn’t Crowley’s plan from the start. Driberg’s a Bolshevik, isn’t he?”

“Well, not exactly…”

“Oh come now, don’t play games with me. We’re not pissing about with definitions here. He’s a bolshie.”

“He is, but he’s also a patriot.”

“No such thing as a patriotic socialist. Their only loyalty is to their cause – and right now their great Man of Steel says that the cause is on the side of Adolf.”

“Be that as it may, Crowley’s no socialist.”

“No. He’s after power for himself, and he’ll be working with the reds and the Germans to get it in whatever way he can.”

Wheatley paused to sip his brandy and continued.

“You do realise, don’t you, that the Nazis and the Communists are both just faces of a single conspiracy – one that has been meddling in man’s affairs for centuries?”

“In man’s affairs? What do you mean?”

“I mean that they are both tools of a higher – or should I say lower – power. The beast known to the Carthaginians as Moloch, to the Jews as Baal, and to Christians as the Devil.”

“You’re joking?”

“I would never joke about such matters. You should know that by now. There are powers in this world which are far beyond men’s imaginings, and which work through the shape of history. We are at a great tipping point in history at the moment, my friend, and the scales are tipping towards the dark.”

Wheatley took another sip, and continued talking. “Crowley, you see, is a most dangerous fellow. He has experience in espionage, and connections with the leadership of both the Nazis and the Bolshies. He’s almost certainly got Driberg involved in his filthy ceremonies. Driberg’s not on our side any more. We need someone else to infiltrate Crowley’s coven. I’d suggest your young friend Alan.”

“Why Turing?”

“Firstly, because he’s a young, naive, head-in-the-clouds type. Exactly the kind of man that was always hanging on Crowley’s every word. Secondly, because we have to keep this known to as small a group as possible.”

Fleming mused on this for a short while, then nodded.

“That makes sense. He does seem the sort that would appeal to Crowley. Someone who he could look clever in front of, but also someone intelligent enough to appreciate that cleverness.”

“And he’s queer, isn’t he?”

“Is he?”

“Oh yes, you can tell a mile off. Disgusting perversion. But Crowley is attracted to that sort.”

“Really? He seems quite manly to me. Wouldn’t have thought him the type.”

“If there is some disgusting, depraved, practice you can conceive of, Crowley will have engaged in it – along with many you find inconceivable.”

“Hmm. Well, you know him better than I do. But I would have said that when I met him he wasn’t capable of anything much more strenuous than drinking a weak glass of lemon squash. But I can see that maybe in his younger days he got up to that sort of thing.”

Wheatley smiled. “One doesn’t lose one’s appetites the second one turns forty, you know. And that goes just as well for his type as anyone else. From what I’ve heard he is still quite active, in his own disgusting way.”

“You talk almost as if you admire him for it!”

Wheatley looked disgusted. “Oh Christ no. This isn’t about what I like. It’s just a fact.”

Fleming nodded. He was still not at all happy with this, but he could see the logic of the older man’s position.

“So that’s it then. We have to send Alan into the den of the Beast.” He took another sip of his drink. “I just hope God – and the PM – will forgive us if we lose him.”


This is an excerpt from my novel, Destroyer. If you like this chapter, please buy the book. It can be bought in hardback from Lulu. The Kindle and paperback editions are available from Amazon (UK) and (US). For non-Kindle ebook versions This Books2Read Universal Link will give you links for your preferred ebook retailer.

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New from me on Mindless Ones

A review of Transrealities, a rather good superhero comic

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What DC Comics Are Good Right Now?

Longtime readers may remember I used to be a comics blogger (and in fact I’m planning on posting a comic review tonight). But I’ve not posted much about comics in the last few years, largely because DC Comics’ Flashpoint and New 52 basically destroyed my interest in their line, and the DC superhero universe was the thing that kept me in the weekly comics-shopping habit. I still go and buy monthlies semi-regularly, but I’ve rather got out of the loop.

However, I’m told that in the last few months, DC has actually done some pretty decent comics, so for those who are following them — what comics are they doing now that I should be reading?

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Spotlight on Nilsson

The first in my series of essays on Nilsson’s music, album by album, like I’ve done with other artists

Nilsson’s first released album was not really conceived as an album. Nilsson had released a number of singles in the mid 1960s on different small labels, usually recording other people’s material, while working a night job as the manager of a bank computer centre. None of these singles did anything much, and they were mostly not very good. However, in 1966 he was introduced by the arranger George Tipton (of whom much more later) to Gil Garfield and Perry Botkin Jr., two songwriter/arranger/publishers who ran their own company. They were astonished by Nilsson’s raw talent as a singer and songwriter, and signed him to a $25 contract as a staff songwriter.

Nilsson was not just talented, but driven – he would work from six PM to two AM at the bank, then make his way to Botkin and Garfield’s office, where he would write songs until collapsing to sleep (and would often also act as office cleaner, climbing out of the third-floor windows to clean them). When woken up by Botkin and Garfield arriving at the office, he’d then make his way round record company offices promoting his songs, before heading back to work.

This continued for the best part of two years, during which time Nilsson collaborated with Phil Spector and made some progress in his career as a songwriter, if not as a singer.

Nilsson wanted to make records, not just be a staff songwriter, but there was a problem – Tower, the label which had released three of his poor-selling singles, still had him under contract and wouldn’t give him up without more material, but nor would they actually pay for any further sessions. The problem was eventually solved by Tipton, who spent his life savings on a session to record four more songs, freeing Nilsson from the contract.

The four new songs were added to the A and B sides of the older singles and released as Spotlight on Nilsson – which, as well as being Nilsson’s first album, was also the first recording to be credited as “Nilsson” – all the earlier singles having been released as by “Harry Nilsson”. It’s a short album, only twenty-two minutes in length, with most songs barely hitting two minutes and none hitting three, and it has none of the sophistication of his later efforts. It’s not an album that admits of much analysis compared with those later records, either – it’s a series of pastiches and attempts at recreating the sound of current hits, done competently but with little inspiration. It’s the sound of an immature talent trying to find a style that works for him, but there are occasional moments where one can hear, however distantly, the sound of the man who would later create some of the best music of his generation.

The Path That Leads to Trouble
Songwriter: Johnny Cole

The opening track is possibly the most generically 1965 LA record ever made, one of a number of tracks from that time which try to bridge the gap between Spector-style teen pop and protest folk rock. The track seems to be specifically styled on the Association’s version of Dylan’s “One too Many Mornings”, which came out a couple of weeks before this track did and was a local hit in LA, and one suspects it was rather rushed in order to jump on a bandwagon. There are other influences there, however – the drum pattern from “Be My Baby” is borrowed, and Nilsson’s vocal (which sounds unlike anything else he ever did) seems to split the difference between Sonny Bono and Barry McGuire.

The track was released as by “the New Salvation Singers featuring Harry Nilsson”, and Nilsson later claimed he’d never been paid for the session, which he’d done as a favour for a business associate.

Good Times
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

The B-side of the preceding song is much more interesting. It’s a gospel rocker with some Motown influence, driven by a rhythmic piano part, playing a riff that sounds more like a guitar riff than a normal piano part – indeed the riff sounds very like the Monkees’ later “Last Train to Clarksville”. Nilsson later offered the song to the Monkees, in fact, and they recorded a backing track for it in 1968, but their version remained unfinished until 2016, when it was released as the title track for their reunion album, as a posthumous duet between Nilsson and Micky Dolenz.

That version is modelled closely on this one, but misses one of the more interesting features of this track, where the backing (which consists only of block backing vocals, heavily reverbed piano, and percussion) drops out the first time Nilsson sings “starting at the county line” and Nilsson holds a falsetto note on “line” for a bar and a half, providing a strange interruption in the rhythm of what is otherwise a very rhythmic track.

So You Think You’ve Got Troubles
Songwriter: Marvin Rainwater

A cover of a song by rockabilly artist Marvin Rainwater, this is an early example of how Nilsson can totally reinvent a song. Rainwater’s original song is very much in the style of Hank Williams and similar artists, alternating between spoken patter verses humorously listing his troubles (“I strained a muscle in my fishing hand and my income tax is due”, “I have every ailment known to man from the African mumps to the dishpan hand”) and sung choruses in which he sings “so you think you’ve got troubles/Brother you ain’t heard nothin’ yet”, and with an instrumental backing of steel guitar, piano, and fiddle, ending with the punchline “so I’m puttin’ me a bar in the back of my car and driving myself to drink”.

Nilsson takes the chorus and the verse lyrics, changes the structure of the song, turning what had been two long spoken verses into four shorter ones, drops the punchline altogether, and reworks it into the style of the Coasters (it resembles several of their singles, most notably “Little Egypt” and “Love Potion Number 9”). The verse melody is all his, and the final result bears only the most distant resemblance to the original, while still keeping its self-pitying humour.

I’m Gonna Lose My Mind
Songwriter: Johnny Cole

A simple twist-beat twelve-bar blues, with call and response backing vocals and Hammond organ, this is generic early-sixties pop filler – there’s a touch of Ray Charles in the backing vocal sound, but it’s closer to “Let’s Dance On” by the Monkees and similar proto-bubblegum. Pleasant enough, but not very interesting.

She’s Yours
Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and J.R. Shanklin

This is a track that seems to be a bit of a failed experiment in putting together bits of wildly different songs. Each of the three sections on its own is perfectly fine – there’s a slow, quiet, verse which is all tinkling harpsichords and sustained strings, a much louder, shouty, dance-rhythm chorus with a Spectoresque feel to it, and an extended twenty-bar waltz-time middle section which points forward melodically to things like the middle section of “Without Her”.

The problem is that none of these three sections really go together, and the transitions between them are abrupt and make little musical sense. I see what they were trying to do, and it’s the kind of musical collage that would become immensely popular not long after this, but it’s not quite there.

Sixteen Tons
Songwriter: Merle Travis

Another utterly rearranged country cover. Here Nilsson takes the classic song made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford, gets rid of two of the four verses (including the famous opening verse “some people say a man’s made of muscle and blood”), changes the rhythm utterly (again to one reminiscent of some of the Coasters’ material, although there’s also an element of slick LA recordings like “Secret Agent Man” here), adds call-and-response girl group backing vocals, and rewrites the melody. The result bears almost no resemblance to the original song, to the point where when I first heard this recording I assumed it was a different song of the same name until half-way through the chorus.

It’s an interesting take on the song, but Nilsson’s tenor vocal pyrotechnics seem disconnected from the song – he doesn’t sound “another day older and deeper in debt”, he’s got far too much energy and enthusiasm for that.

Born In Grenada
Songwriters: Harry Nilsson and John Marascalco

Can Harry get a witness? This is just a straight soundalike of Marvin Gaye’s classic “Can I Get A Witness?”

Nilsson’s vocals are great, and the performance is slick and tight apart from an inexplicable moment at 1:52 when the horns come in at the wrong point, but this is just an attempt at copying a recent hit.

You Can’t Take Your Love (Away from Me)
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

This track may well be inspired by the breakup of his first marriage, which was happening during the time he was working for Botkin and Garfield – one reason he spent so much time working was that his marriage was collapsing.

The track combines a verse/chorus that sounds very Spectoresque, with a pseudo-Latin rhythm, with a slick Vegas feel for the middle eight, and has a lot more of Nilsson’s fingerprints on it than many of the other originals here, but it’s still fundamentally a piece by someone learning his trade, and the lyrics, while heartfelt, seem to be strung together largely from cliches.

Growin’ Up
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

One of the better originals here, this has some melodic resemblance to “Save The Last Dance For Me”, but Tipton’s arrangement, with its arpeggiated guitars, high strings, and glockenspiel, takes the song in a very different direction, and at times this sounds almost like early Scott Walker.

While the lyrics aren’t great – it’s a simple song about how little children play with toys but when they’re grown up little boys need love from little girls and vice versa – Nilsson’s vocal, for perhaps the only time on the album, connects properly with the sentiment of the song, and he eschews vocal pyrotechnics and just sings it straight. While his vocal embellishments would often be wonderful on later recordings, many of the vocals so far have prized technique over emotion, and this one doesn’t.

Do You Believe
Songwriter: Harry Nilsson

And the album ends with one of the better tracks, an uptempo R&B track with more than a little Ray Charles influence. There’s no real song here, but the track has a nice groove to it, and here Nilsson’s vocal swoops and melismas are entirely appropriate – a track like this is meant to be all style and no substance. The main criticism here is that the track is rather short and underdeveloped – there are a couple of verses and then it fades quickly.

And that’s much like the whole of Spotlight on Nilsson, really – a short, underdeveloped album which fades from the listener’s mind as soon as it’s finished. An album by a vocalist who’s clearly hugely technically gifted, but hasn’t yet found a style that suits him, or material he can connect with. That would soon change…

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