The Beach Boys on CD: A Postcard From California

After the demise of his Beach Boys Family & Friends project, Al Jardine went back to his position of least-visible Beach Boy. He played the occasional gig with the bulk of the Family & Friends band under various names, and guested with a band called the Surf City All-Stars (who had been Jan & Dean’s backing band until the death of Jan Berry, and who then recruited Jardine’s son Matt, and often featured Jardine, David Marks, and Dean Torrence as guests).

He also toured with Brian Wilson briefly in 2006, performing what were billed as Wilson’s last ever public performances of Pet Sounds (as I write this in February 2017, Brian Wilson has extended his 2016 definitely-the-last-ever Pet Sounds tour into the late summer of this year…), but didn’t turn up for a European tour on which he had been billed to appear, saying he had to work on his solo album.

This was greeted with a certain amount of scepticism among Beach Boys fans, as Jardine had been talking about a solo album for the best part of a decade already, but in 2010 it turned out he had been telling the truth – he finally released his first ever solo studio album.

Or at least, it’s credited as a solo album. In fact, Jardine surprised everyone by putting out what was in effect a new Beach Boys album. While Jardine takes lead on every song, and is sole producer, the album featured Brian Wilson on four tracks, David Marks on guitar, and one track that featured archive recordings of Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston along with a new vocal by Michael Love. This meant the album featured more Beach Boys than some actual Beach Boys albums, and was the first sign that there was enough of a rapprochement among the Beach Boys that a reunion might happen…

The Beach Boys weren’t the only guests, though. Jardine has never been comfortable in the spotlight, and is at his best as a harmony singer, so the album is full of other guests – his sons Matt and Adam, Gerry Beckley and Dewey Burnell of the band America, one-time fill-in Beach Boy Glen Campbell, David Crosby, Steve Stills, Neil Young, Steve Miller, and, rather incongruously, Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers (who had become friendly with Jardine after using his studio to record and rehearse – according to at least one interview with Jardine, Flea provides not only bass but trumpet) and Alec Baldwin.

The result is, astonishingly, in the top tier of Beach Boys solo records, and shows what Jardine brought to the band. A concept album of sorts, it’s structured to resemble a drive through California, and showcases Jardine’s concern about the environment. The album is lacking in the kind of invention that makes the band’s best work so exciting – half of it is remakes of the band’s old work, and the new tracks are often derivative – but it’s a lovely sounding record.

Jardine was always an underrated singer, but as the other members’ voices started to deteriorate, it’s become more obvious just how great he really was – he has the strongest voice of all of them, and the widest range, and he may well have always been the best singer in the band on a technical level. But there’s a pleasantness, a comfort, in this album. It’s utterly unadventurous, but it’s a work that’s very, very, likeable indeed.

There are several different versions of this album that have been released, all under the same title. There was a promo EP with four songs released early in 2010, then a download-only release of the full album. Soon after that came a print-on-demand CD issue. In 2012, Jardine reissued the album, adding three bonus tracks (one of which, “Waves of Love” was issued in two different mixes, one on the download and one on the CD), and then a Japanese-only version was issued with two new bonus tracks – a third version of “Waves of Love” and a new song, “The Eternal Ballad”.

To be honest, most of the bonus tracks are pretty unnecessary, but the album as originally issued is one that most Beach Boys fans will enjoy. It’s no Pet Sounds or Smile, but it doesn’t pretend to be, and it’s certainly better than anything released under the band’s name between 1979 and its release.

(All songs have lead vocals by Alan Jardine except where noted).

A Postcard from California
Songwriter: Alan Jardine
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine and Glen Campbell

The opening track credits Alan Jardine as the writer, but should really credit Larry Weiss, as Weiss wrote “Rhinestone Cowboy”, from which the verse melody of this song is taken without any acknowledgement (the chorus melody is also extremely familiar, but in seven years of discussion I’ve not been able to figure out exactly where I know it from, and have had to conclude that it merely sounds like it should be something else).

As well as being near-identical in melody, the song’s arrangement also replicates the earlier track’s stop-start rhythm, and most damningly the track features Glen Campbell, who had a hit with the earlier song, on joint lead vocals.

(One could, of course, also argue that “Rhinestone Cowboy” itself is suspiciously similar to “Sloop John B”…)

The song actually seems to reference several other of Campbell’s hits, being structured as a goodbye letter to a partner (like the note in “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”) and having a brief Morse code beep (like the telegraph wires in “Wichita Lineman”). And the song seems to be set in the same late-60s time period as those songs – the protagonist receives a letter typed on an Underwood, and tries to call his partner but has to leave a note as she’s out.

All that said, though, the track is an extremely good opener, with both singers in fine voice – Campbell’s vocal is clearly showing his age, but he was still one of the finest vocalists of his generation, and turns in an exemplary performance, while Jardine still sounds exactly as he did in his early twenties. It’s a derivative track, but a solid performance, and one of the most listenable things here.

California Feelin’
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Stephen Kalinich

This track, on the other hand, is much less good. The song dates to the mid-seventies, and was attempted by the Beach Boys on several occasions then, but not released in a Beach Boys version until 2013’s Made in California box set, although Brian Wilson had released a solo version as the one new track on a compilation of Beach Boys hits a few years earlier.

The original version’s unreleased status had led to it being hugely overrated by Beach Boys fans, with people talking of it as a masterpiece, but anyone who had heard the bootlegged versions could hear that it was a half-thought-out song at best. Wilson’s melody is pleasant enough, but not very well structured, and Kalinich’s lyrics are, like most of his work, bathetic, trying to evoke emotion by merely using words like “loveliness and beauty”.

Of the four versions of the song available legitimately (Wilson’s solo, the two versions on Made in California, and this one), this is by far the best – Jardine’s vocal is absolutely sincere, and the arrangement is stripped down to just vocal and piano, with only a harmonica solo and some faint organ right at the end. Other than the brief block harmonies, this is one of the sparsest things on the album, and its stark simplicity is a much better take on the song than the other versions’ kitchen-sink excess.

The track ends, as many on the album do, with ocean sound-effects cross-fading into the next song.

Looking Down the Coast
Songwriter: Alan Jardine

A song that dates back to 1978, this is almost a prog-rock epic (albeit one that comes in at less than four minutes), with different movements, very much in the same vein as the earlier California Saga.

Here, Jardine plays a conquistador visiting the Californian shore to enslave the “natives”, while also praising the landscape and the animals of the Big Sur area – the eagles, sea otters, and gray whales.

There are two main alternating sections. The first is a verse/chorus section which repeats several times and which is the missing link between “Airplane” from The Beach Boys Love You and Brian Wilson’s much later “Walkin’ the Line” – the second half of the verse/chorus (“and through the eyes of the California condor there/hasn’t got a care”) is almost identical to the “If I don’t get my way this time I’ll die/and that’s no lie” section of the latter, while also resembling “the clouds in the sky…” from the earlier song.

The second section (“this must be Monterey”) is very different – where the verse/chorus is uptempo country-rock with the same “Be My Baby” stop-start rhythm as the album’s title track (a motif that recurs in several places in the album) the contrasting section is much slower and built around some flamenco-style nylon-string guitar, with only an organ pad, some “ooh” backing vocals, and some cymbal crashes (emulating the sound of the sea) to support Jardine’s vocal.

This is definitely Jardine’s most sophisticated and interesting composition, and along with “All This Is That” is the best evidence we have that he had the potential to be a songwriter on a par with his bandmates if he’d written more.

Don’t Fight the Sea
Songwriters: Alan Jardine and Terry Jacks

Lead vocals: Alan Jardine with Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston
This song dates from 1976, and was originally released by Jacks under the title “Y’Don’t Fight The Sea”, and credited to him alone. Jacks had been friendly with the Beach Boys in the 70s (his hit cover version of “Seasons in the Sun” was originally intended as a Beach Boys track, and bootlegs of a Beach Boys version with Carl Wilson singing lead exist), and Jardine had made attempts to record the song during the 15 Big Ones sessions.

This version may contain elements of that track, but the basic backing track appears to have been recorded around 1980, and then left until 1989, when Carl and Brian Wilson and Bruce Johnston added vocals to the track, which was then put aside again. For the album, Jardine and his son Matt added new vocals, and Michael Love recorded a vocal part separately (apparently recorded in his hotel room on a laptop, while on tour), creating the first new Beach Boys track of the 2000s.

Unfortunately, it’s not very good – Jacks’ original song was bad cod-reggae disco, and a fairly terrible song, and Jardine’s version is a poor yacht-rock track with additional lyrics about a polar bear in a dream telling him to protect the environment. Carl Wilson’s vocal is one of his lazier ones, while Brian Wilson’s is as harsh as most of his recordings from that era. It’s a curiosity more than a decent record.

The track was later released as a charity vinyl single.

Tidepool Interlude
Songwriter: Stephen Kalinich
Lead vocals: Alec Baldwin

A piano playing a simple, repetitive, melody, with ocean sound effects, over which actor Alec Baldwin recites a poem by Kalinich about the Californian coast, with lines like “beautiful majesty moves through me majestically”. Easily the weakest thing on the album, but it’s over quickly.

Campfire Scene
Songwriter: Alan Jardine
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine and Neil Young

This is actually just a short extract of California Saga: California (the “water, water…” section) performed by Jardine and Young with banjo and harmonica accompaniment, as an intro to the next track.

California Saga: California
Songwriter: Alan Jardine
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine and Neil Young, with David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Brian Wilson

A remake of the Holland track, with what sounds like Brian Wilson’s vocal flown in from that recording, this is very similar to the original (apart from a “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” piano intro, and all instrumentation except the banjo dropping out in the second “water, water”, leaving it almost a capella), but Crosby, Stills, Jardine, and Young make up one of the few vocal groups that could seriously compete with the Beach Boys in singing those harmonies, and the song could almost have been written for Neil Young to sing. It’s quite lovely to hear the harmony parts, even if the recording’s not significantly better than the original – and there’s a rather melancholy touch in the last verse, where Young sings the lines about going to the Big Sur festival and seeing Country Joe in the past tense. The hippie dream is long dead…

Help Me, Rhonda
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine and Steve Miller

A much more pointless remake – just how many versions of this song could we possibly need? This is a duet with the Steve Miller Band (plus Flea on bass), and has a certain charm to it – they replicate the arrangement of Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae”, the song which originally inspired this one, and go for a sloppy harmonica-led country-blues feel. But this was never one of the band’s better big hits anyway, and this is an unnecessary version – and one which doesn’t fit the narrative and themes of the rest of the album.

San Simeon
Songwriter: Alan Jardine
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine with Gerry Beckley and Dewey Burnell

Probably the best original on the album, this has a laid-back acoustic feel, and absolutely gorgeous harmonies featuring the two current members of the band America.

There’s a little of “Don’t Worry Baby” in the track, but it doesn’t feel derivative in the way that some of the other songs do.

There’s little substance here, and little to talk about – it’s another song about the California coast and its animals (in this case “making friends with the elephant seals”), but it’s a gentle, pleasant, grower.

Songwriters: Alan Jardine, Stevie Heger and Scott Slaughter
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine,Brian Wilson, Gerry Beckley, and Dewey Burnell

Another one featuring America, along with two of Jardine’s former bandmates (Brian Wilson on vocals and David Marks on guitar), this is a pleasant enough, inoffensive car song, with a slow shuffle beat. Wilson adds some of his better vocals, with a decently humorous reading of some of the later lines, when the song starts talking about how the protagonist can no longer drive because of the price of petrol (and Jardine interjects “BP you’re killin’ me, man” – a last-minute alteration after BP’s terrible handling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill).

Unfortunately it’s let down by the last bridge, sung by America (who take all the verses), where Jardine for some reason decides just to namedrop several America song titles, crowbarring them in and making a mess of the lyric in the process.

Honkin’ Down the Highway
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine with Brian Wilson

A remake of the song from The Beach Boys Love You – an album which Jardine has taken to enthusing about in recent years – this is fairly similar to the original, albeit with a slightly fuller production. Jardine takes the lead, as he did on the original, and the backing is provided by a stack-o’-Brians.

The only real deviation from the original comes toward the end of the track, where a voice (distorted as if through a speaker and backed with a police siren) tells the driver to slow down (“I clocked you at a hundred and forty”). There’s then a short sax solo, a repeat of the lyric from “takin’ one little inch” onwards, and the track ends on a mass, choral, “way with girls” – a great ending, acknowledging both the ridiculousness and the beauty of that little section of melody, always the song’s highlight.

It doesn’t quite beat the original, but this is always a fun song to hear, and one which unlike some of the other remakes has not been overexposed.

And I Always Will
Songwriter: Alan Jardine

A song that dated back to at least 1985, when it was apparently recorded during the sessions for The Beach Boys, this was based on a piece by Chopin (I’m not familiar enough with Chopin’s work to identify it, and Jardine himself hasn’t been able to remember which piece in interviews). It’s a bit schlocky, the kind of thing that could have been recorded by the Carpenters, and the arrangement is a little overblown (Jardine is backed by a full orchestra here), but the vocals are strong enough that this ballad just – just – sits on the right side of the line separating sincerity from sentimentality, and makes a fitting conclusion to the album.

If A Postcard From California had been released as a Beach Boys album, it would have been their best in thirty-one years. Some of the individual tracks are weaker than others, but throughout there’s a warm, organic feeling to the recording and production (quite astonishing given the patchwork way in which some of the tracks were recorded). It’s not as good an album as some of Brian’s solo records, but it’s the only Beach Boys solo album other than Pacific Ocean Blue that I could see recommending to a non-fan without several caveats. It’s not a great record, but it’s a good, solid, one, and much better than one would have expected from Jardine.

Bonus Tracks

California Dreamin’
Songwriters: John Phillips and Michelle Phillips
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine, Glen Campbell, and David Crosby

A very stripped-down version of The Mamas & The Papas’ classic hit, which had also been recorded by the Beach Boys in the 80s. Here Jardine and Glen Campbell trade off verses as Jardine had with Carl Wilson on the Beach Boys’ version, with Crosby adding backing vocals in the third verse. The instrumental backing consists only of acoustic guitar, organ, hand percussion and bongos (played by John Stamos), leaving a lot of empty space for the vocalists to shine. Of all the bonus tracks, this is the only one that truly deserved to be on the album, and it’s quite lovely.

Waves of Love
Songwriters: Alan Jardine and Larry Dvoskin
Lead vocals: Alan Jardine and Carl Wilson

This, on the other hand, is a mess. A song Jardine had been working on for decades, it’s a sloppy, unformed, rewrite of “Help Me, Rhonda”, with some chord changes that just don’t work, and with lyrics that veer from the banal to the new age.

But the worst thing is the inclusion of the recording of Carl Wilson singing the choruses. Apparently taken from a recording of a soundcheck in 1989 when the Beach Boys ran through the song (though he sounds double-tracked), it’s a sloppy run-through recording of a harmony part that’s been promoted to a lead vocal section on a finished recording. Wilson, frankly, sounds drunk, though he may just have been saving his voice and energy. I can understand the wish to use every fragment of Carl Wilson vocals that exists, given that he was one of the great singers of the rock era, but he was also a perfectionist who didn’t allow several perfectly releasable vocals to be released because they didn’t meet his standards. I can’t imagine he’d have been happy with this being released.

Even had it been Wilson’s best vocal ever, though, it wouldn’t have salvaged the song. It’s one that’s clearly important to Jardine – he’s released three radically different mixes of the song on the different versions of this album, and he wanted to work on it again in 2012 during the That’s Why God Made the Radio sessions – but it’s one of the worst things he’s done.

Sloop John B (A Pirate’s Tale)
Trad. Arr. Alan Jardine

This is a rerecording with new lyrics, originally released on a CD to accompany a children’s story-book Jardine had written. The song stretches out to almost double the original length, and outstays its welcome by quite a bit, to fit in Jardine’s story of piratical adventure.

The Eternal Ballad
Songwriter: Alan Jardine

Jardine’s first Beach Boys Family & Friends gig had been at a private event for “Supreme Master Ching Hai”, a new age religious guru and owner of a vegan fast-food franchising company, who Jardine admires. This song sets a poem Ching Hai had written in her twenties to a melody reminiscent of “The Night Was So Young”, but not as good.

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Me Elsewhere

My review of The Lego Batman Movie is over at Mindless Ones

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The Beach Boys on CD: That Lucky Old Sun

(This essay, for reasons I explain in the first few paragraphs, is one I’ve started and stopped writing at least half a dozen times over a period of months. One of the reasons the third Beach Boys book wasn’t out months ago is that I didn’t know how to deal with this. I probably still haven’t got it right, but I couldn’t put this off forever…)

And this is one that I’ve been reluctant to write about…

That Lucky Old Sun is Brian Wilson’s greatest new work since at least The Beach Boys Love You. It is a latter-period masterpiece that almost matches Smile in its ambition and scope, and is to this date the last truly great work from Wilson.

It is also, though, largely co-written with Scott Bennett, a member of Wilson’s band who was, a few months ago as I write this, convicted of rape.

How one deals with that kind of situation when it comes to appreciation of art is a difficult question, and will vary from person to person and from subject to subject. Trying to get to a point where I could sort my own feelings about this out enough to write about the album delayed this whole project a good six months. I’ve written about that sort of thing before, but generally where both art and offence are distanced in time. In this case, given that I committed to write this book before the events in question, my options were limited. To be very clear, though, I do not think rape is ever excusable, and nor do I think one should separate the art and the artist in cases like this.

But on the other hand, Bennett is not the principal artist, and I want to deal fairly with the work of Wilson and his other collaborators.

The best solution I’ve come up with is to try, in so far as I can, to write only about the music on tracks Bennett co-wrote, on the assumption that his contribution was primarily (though not by any means solely) lyrical. I’m not at all sure that an objective assessment of his lyrics is either possible or desirable this close to his conviction, though I’m aware that a lack of that is a flaw in this essay.

So be it.

Anyway, about the album itself…

The album’s gestation began with What I Really Want For Christmas, and with Wilson thinking about classic arrangers who’d worked on other versions of the Christmas songs on the album. He got the version of “That Lucky Old Sun” which Gordon Jenkins had arranged for Louis Armstrong stuck in his head, bought a CD with it on, and decided to work out his own version.

Wilson had also been obsessed for years with “Proud Mary”, and specifically with a version of the song recorded by Ike and Tina Turner, which he wrongly thought Phil Spector had produced. From at least the early 90s he had been trying to record a version of the song, usually with a “rock, roll, rockin’ and a rollin’” vocal part added.

That vocal part combined with the line in “That Lucky Old Sun” about “rolling round heaven all day”, and those two songs between them seemed to become the two poles to which all Wilson’s new songs were drawn.

Wilson was in his most productive period since the late nineties (and to date his last truly prolific period for new material) and he recorded many songs with his band members in Bennett’s home studio. When the Southbank Centre in London asked him to come up with a new song cycle for the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall, where he had performed his first UK solo shows in 2002 and had premiered Smile in 2004, he took the best of the songs and got Van Dyke Parks to write linking narratives, which Wilson recited over music repeating themes from the songs (Darian Sahanaja came up with the music for these sections based on Wilson’s musical themes, and edited many of the songs to fit the structure, while Paul von Mertens orchestrated them).

The result, when it premiered in live performance in 2007, was an absolutely glorious half hour or so of music. By careful selection and linking, Wilson and his collaborators had managed to draw together what could have been a very disparate group of songs, emphasising themes they have in common, and creating a suite that is simultaneously a set of songs about memory and nostalgia, a story of a single day that starts with sunrise and ends at midnight, and a travelogue of California. The whole is greater than the parts, and some of the parts are pretty great.

While That Lucky Old Sun worked best as a live performance piece, the album is still the best new work Wilson has done since 1977, and is in the handful of albums (along with Pet Sounds, Smile, Smiley Smile, and Love You) I’d point anyone to as an example of why people say he’s a genius.

(All songs have lead vocals by Brian Wilson, except where noted)

That Lucky Old Sun
Songwriters: Haven Gillespie and Beasley Smith

The album’s opener is also its only cover version. “That Lucky Old Sun” was written in 1949 by Haven Gillespie and Beasley Smith, who also wrote “The Old Master Painter”, which Wilson had recorded for Smile. The original song is a rather heartbreaking ballad about the myriad tiny ways that work and life can grind one down, and the hope for eventual release from that condition, which has become a standard performed by (to take a few of my favourite versions) Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ray Charles, among many others.

Wilson creates a new group a capella vocal intro before singing the first and last verses only, solo, over a backing of woodwinds, strings, and piano. The effect is to evoke the dawn, with the “up in the morning” opening being reflected in many of the later songs, and to provide a gentle introduction to the album much like “Our Prayer” provided for Smile.

Morning Beat
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

And the opening track goes straight into a vocal chant – “Maumamayama Glory Hallelujah” – which Wilson had first mentioned as a musical idea in an interview in the early 1970s. (On a personal note, hearing the voices come in singing that line at the live premiere of this was the first moment I was sure that this piece would be something special. It was a breathtaking moment.)

This leads into a couple of verses based on a more rock and roll version of the same basic musical idea – a two-chord riff leading into a rising bridge, which is recycled from an unreleased song, “Walkin’”, from the late 60s. This is one of those ideas Wilson often returns to – a very similar musical phrase is also used in his section of the song “Bells of Madness” which he recorded with his daughter Carnie in the 90s. This is all accompanied by crunchy guitars, garage-pop organ, and “rock rock rock” backing vocals, to create some of the most uplifiting uptempo music Wilson had done since Love You.

After three repetitions of this basic musical material (with the melody varied slightly the second time through, making it sound more like a chorus) and a repeat of the “Maumamayama glory hallelujah” vocal part, a totally different section (“hear those guitars gently strumming”) comes in – very strongly reminiscent of some of the “Cherokee trail” parts of “Rio Grande”, before going back into the “Walkin’” riff.

Brian Wilson has often, in recent years, talked about wanting to make a rock and roll album. This track is the best evidence in his solo career that he would be able to make such an album interesting.

Narrative: A Room With A View
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

And here we have the first of several narrative sections. In these, Van Dyke Parks provides rhyming couplets recited by Wilson over music (in this case a simple variant on the “Morning Beat” verse material). Parks’ words are, as one would expect from him, witty, intelligent, and articulate. This one describes a dawn view in LA, the city waking up and human activity starting, as the sounds of nature, coyotes and owls, die away for the day.

Good Kind of Love
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocals: Brian Wilson with Taylor Mills and Scott Bennett

The only solo Brian Wilson composition on the album is also one of the best. It has some of Wilson’s best solo lyrics ever (“he loves her when she’s sleeping/And all the dreams she’s keeping/She keeps them in a jar but not too far from her heart”), and a completely unorthodox structure.

There’s a typical verse (“he loves her when she’s sleeping…”), which is slightly reminiscent of “Our Team”, a 1970s outtake, and a standard chorus (“they have the good kind of love…”), but then the track goes into a long bridge section (“just him and her…” through “They have the good kind of love”) which somehow makes perfect musical sense even though it goes all over the place. There’s then a whole new section (“the sun keeps on shining/it rolls round heaven above”), an instrumental repeat of the bridge, a repeat of the last bridge line, and an ascending piano part which leads into the next song.

It’s absolutely beautiful, somewhat reminiscent of the Zombies’ “Friends of Mine” in the way it celebrates the love of two other people, but with a triplet swing that is quintessentially Brian Wilson.

Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

This, on the other hand, is one of the weaker songs on the album. One of an increasing number of mid-tempo ballads looking back at high points of Wilson’s career that pepper his later albums, this song is supposedly about Judy Bowles, who was also supposedly the subject of the original “Surfer Girl”.

But really, this is just about “remember this song I wrote when I was younger?”, and has little more merit than Mike Love’s similar attempts. It’s only saved because of the album structure, where it links a song about love and a narrative about the beach, and where that California nostalgia is part of the aim of the album. Musically mediocre, it does its job in the context of the album, but it’s not one that really stands up outside that context.

Narrative: Venice Beach
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

“Venice Beach is popping like live shrimp dropped on a hot wok”

Another narrative with Parks lyrics, another picture of an area in LA, this one Venice Beach, with its artists, hucksters, and homeless people all painted exquisitely in a few words.

Live Let Live
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

And this, the only song with Parks’ lyrics, is far and away the best thing on the album. I still remember being in the audience for the first performance of this suite, and my breath being literally taken away by the opening line of this one: “I’ve got a notion we come from the ocean and God almighty”.

Originally written for the film Arctic Tale, where it had different, inferior, lyrics (also by Parks), the song owes more than a little to “Sail on Sailor” – in particular the “live let live not die” chorus is almost identical to the earlier song’s “sail on, sail on, sailor”. But where that earlier song was a heavy, distraught, rock song, this is a gentle, life-affirming, waltz. The impressionistic lyrics about whales, the Pacific ocean, the love of a benevolent God, and the smallness of humanity compared to the vastness of the world, fit perfectly with the simple but catchy melody, to create something that perfectly fits with the album’s recurring themes and motifs (heartbeats, the water, rebirth, California) but transcends them. A beautiful little song.

Mexican Girl
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett
Lead vocals: Brian Wilson with Scott Bennett

This, on the other hand, is generally considered the weakest song on the album by most fans. I can see the argument for it being weak – lyrics like “hey bonita muchacha/let me know that I gotcha” are not the strongest, and the song itself is fairly simple. But there’s a catchiness and joy to this simple exercise in pseudo-Mexican pop that gives it a freshness that’s welcome. Not everything can be a masterpiece, and this doesn’t attempt to be anything more than a frivolous, light, interlude. On those terms, it works.

(Note: I’ve credited the lead vocals here to Wilson and Bennett, but there’s no credit in the album liner notes. Someone other than Wilson clearly takes lead on the “hey bonita muchacha” section, and to my ears it sounds like Bennett – on the live DVD, and in live performances, Wilson sang lead on that section, with Foskett harmonising, but it’s clearly different on the recording.)

Narrative: Cinco de Mayo
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

Another short narrative section, this time about Mexican-Americans in LA, but connecting up to the themes of the next song, about the cinema.

California Role/That Lucky Old Sun (reprise)
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett/Haven Gillespie and Beasley Smith
Lead vocals: Brian Wilson with Scott Bennett

This was apparently originally written in the 1980s, under the title “Wondering What You’re Up to Now”. A ukulele-and-clarinet-driven vaudeville song reminiscent of 1920s pop (with a musical quote in the second verse from “Rhapsody in Blue”), this is another song about the California of the past, and of today. Its catchy swinginess (for the most part just shuffling between two chords) belies a rather downbeat lyric, about settling for something other than one’s dreams. (Bennett sings the lead on the first two verses, with his voice distorted as if through a megaphone, a la Al Bowlly or Rudy Vallee).

This segues into a vocal round, almost gospel-style, based around the phrase “roll around heaven all day”, with only tenuous connection to the song it’s ostensibly reprising (it sounds more like parts of Wilson’s own “Rio Grande”).

Narrative: Between Pictures
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

Another short narrative section. “People fill their tanks with flights of fancy/Actors waiting tables with a method they can’t share”.

Oxygen to the Brain
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

Another song which hits many of the late-Brian-Wilson-lyric cliches – Brian had a bad life, but now it’s good, and exercise is a good thing – but one that works very, very well, partly because of the contrast between the opening verse (sung almost as a nursery rhyme, “open up, open up, open your eyes/time, it’s time, it’s time to rise”) and the upbeat chorus. This is very similar to “Happy Days” from Imagination, but has little of that song’s discordant, jarring, nature. Here the dark past is very firmly past, something to be looked at from a distance, not something still affecting the singer, while the upbeat chorus is immediately catchy. A lovely little minor work.

Can’t Wait Too Long
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

A fragment of the 1967 song, lasting under a minute, played almost exactly as it was originally recorded. In live performance, this was one of the most moving parts of the suite, as footage of Wilson with his dead brothers was projected as the band sang “been…too…long”. It’s still impossible for me to hear this without thinking of that and being deeply moved. How well it works without that context, I couldn’t judge.

Midnight’s Another Day
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

And this one is a song that is definitely improved by the context. A download of the demo was made available on Wilson’s website, and I thought it was a dull dirge with little to recommend it. Coming where it does in the album, though – and with slightly fuller production – this is heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Surprisingly, given that this is such a slow, emotional, ballad, it started life as an uptempo song called “Beatle Man”, in which Wilson asked how Paul McCartney and Elton John were doing these days and what they were up to (sadly, if a demo of that exists, it hasn’t made its way to me…)

However, Bennett felt that the suite as it stood was too lightweight – Wilson was happy, and writing happy music, and the album needed some more tonal variation. He took Wilson’s song, slowed down the tempo, and added new lyrics going over the old ground of Wilson having overcome his mental trouble, as well as adding the piano intro.

As a song, there’s really very little here, and it trades mostly on the emotional resonance of Wilson’s past. What power it has is mostly down to von Mertens’ orchestration and the sparse but effective backing vocals. But as the climax of the album, hearing Wilson singing “all these people make me feel so alone” is glorious. Context is all, here.

That Lucky Old Sun (reprise)
Songwriters: Haven Gillespie and Beasley Smith

Not really a reprise of the song, this is forty seconds of the tag to “Midnight’s Another Day”, with various band members singing “lucky old sun” over it, before Wilson finishes it with “he rolls around heaven all day”.

Going Home
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

And the album comes to what should be its close with this great uptempo rocker, based on a similar riff to “Morning Beat”, and with some glorious honking bass harmonica provided by Tommy Morgan, the Wrecking Crew harmonica player who also provides the harmonica solo.

Another variation of the “rock, rollin’” riff, this had started life as a slow cowboy song in Wilson’s mid-90s sessions with Andy Paley. Little survives of that here, though, apart from the line “I’m going home” and the general melodic shape of the verse. This is much, much stronger, and probably the best uptempo track Wilson has done in the last thirty years. Fuzz bass, organ, layers of backing vocals, horns, all contribute to a great riff, which occasionally breaks off to provide a change of pace with a near-a capella section (“at twenty-five I turned out the lights…”).

This would have been the perfect closer for the album.

Southern California
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

Unfortunately, the album actually ends with one of the dullest ballads Wilson has ever written – if he did write it at all, as several fans have suggested this is entirely the work of Bennett, who sings lead on the demo (Wilson sings lead on all the others except “California Role”), and who we know wanted there to be some more emotionally-heavy ballads on the album.

I don’t think it is all Bennett’s work – certainly the chord sequence for the verses is similar enough to “Love and Mercy”, “Your Imagination”, and half a dozen other Wilson songs that one can imagine this being something Wilson wrote on autopilot. And melodically, the verses are very, very similar to “Christmassy”, which Wilson had written around the same time.

So I think this is just a case of Wilson being less than inspired and knocking out a mediocre ballad which, as the end of the album, has to bear more weight than it can.

But I want to emphasise, this is dull, but isn’t bad. In fact, there’s not a single truly bad song on the entire album. The level of inspiration varies, but even at its worst (this song and “Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl”) the album is more than listenable. And even on this song, the very end (where the band go into another “Maumamayama Glory Hallelujah”) sends shivers down the spine.

And after the song ends, there’s a hidden track – a few seconds of a round based on the lines “roll around heaven all day” and “work, work, workin’ in the sun all day”.

That Lucky Old Sun is, to date, the last truly great work Brian Wilson has put out. And it is a great Brian Wilson album. Yes, Bennett, Parks, Sahanaja, and von Mertens all contributed, and yes their contributions were invaluable, but Wilson has always been a great collaborator, rather than a great solo artist per se. I’ve pointed out flaws with individual songs here, but far more often than not they work as songs, and it certainly works as an album. And what doesn’t come across in discussing individual tracks is how exuberant an album this is. This is the work of a man in his late sixties, but one who has fallen in love with making music again and is as excited by it as he was in his early twenties. It’s an absolute joy to listen to.

Bonus tracks

The album had bonus tracks on iTunes (“Oh Mi Amor” and “Message Man”) and on a Best Buy-exclusive CD issue (“Good Kind of Love”, “I’m Into Something Good”, and “Just Like Me and You”).

These songs don’t have songwriting credits in the album liners, and the credits here are as cited by Andrew G. Doe at

Oh Mi Amor
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

Another exercise in Mexican-flavoured music, this is a rather ponderous ballad that sounds, in both production and melody, like it came from the Imagination sessions (it sounds like a second cousin of both “She Says That She Needs Me” and “Where Has Love Been”), though in fact it dates from 2006 and the same writing sessions that produced the album proper.

It has a slight flavour of “Besame Mucho” to it, and some nice trumpet playing, but it’s overlong and outstays its welcome.

Message Man
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

While “Oh Mi Amor” has a thick, layered, production, this track sounds very like Wilson’s 80s demos – other than some sweetening, there’s little here other than piano chords and some rudimentary drums, and some of the lead vocals are very sloppy. It’s a catchy little thing, and will appeal to those who, like myself, prefer Wilson’s more idiosyncratic songs, but like “Oh Mi Amor” it goes on too long – there’s about one minute’s worth of musical material here, and if it had stayed at just two verses, bridge, and fade, it would be nice. But it repeats over and over, and at nearly four minutes long it needed more ideas than it has.

Good Kind of Love
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocals: Brian Wilson with Carole King and Scott Bennett

During the demo recording process, Wilson invited Carole King, one of his idols, to record with him. This version of “Good Kind of Love” was one of the two results. The basic track is the same as the one used for the album, and the only real notable difference is that King, rather than Taylor Mills, sings the harmony line on the chorus, and the song comes to a hard end rather than segueing into the next track.

I’m Into Something Good
Songwriters: Gerry Goffin and Carole King
Lead vocals: Brian Wilson and Carole King

The other product of the sessions was this take on the 60s classic, written by King with her then-husband Gerry Goffin. This sounds precisely like one would expect a late-period Brian Wilson home recording of this song to sound – bass harmonica, saxes, a sparse production, a shuffle beat, and some minor inventive changes to the song around the edges (an a capella “I’m in – I’m into something” break, and a repetition and key change at the end of the second middle eight). King’s vocal contribution consists of taking the odd line here and there (mostly the title line) and the first middle eight.

A nice, fun, but inessential, track.

Just Like Me And You
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

This song is not especially interesting as a piece of music, but is interesting as a reflection of Brian Wilson’s state of mind in 2006. Because there’s a writer not credited above – Murry Wilson, Brian’s father.

Wilson Sr. had been a songwriter himself, and an unsuccessful one. But Brian had always loved his music, and his favourite song by his father was one that had never even been registered with the copyright office, let alone recorded – a song called “His Little Darling and You”.

That song had started “When a bee loses his queen bee, his days are numbered, it’s true…”. Wilson reworked his father’s song, starting it instead with “when a man loses his woman, his days are numbered, it’s true”. As it is likely that no-one living other than Wilson has ever heard Murry Wilson’s song, it’s impossible to tell how much of it comes from “His Little Darling and You”, but a snatch of that song that Wilson once played on a TV documentary shows the melodic similarity. In his autobiography, I am Brian Wilson, Wilson describes the process of incorporating his father’s song as “one of the ways I was proving that I wasn’t afraid of making new things that were also old things. I wasn’t afraid of the past.”

And that’s as good a way as any of summing up the entire album.

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The Power of the Daleks

Do you think I can ever be secure in that chair while that rabble are still loose? They rebelled against Hensell yesterday. Tomorrow it’ll be my turn. Well, let them rebel. Tell them the guards have taken control. Let them attack, and then we can crush them, utterly!
Several Daleks

So as part of my continued quest to take my mind off the rise of fascism throughout the Western world, I’ve been watching DVDs. The next one after Gurney Slade was another long-unavailable 1960s TV story starring Anneke Wills. This one is about a coup, in which a powerful but stupid man who wants even more power, a populist movement disenchanted with the current government, and a bunch of monomaniacal genocidal racial-supremacists all work together to put the powerful man in power. Each group thinks they’re using the other two for their own ends, but they eventually start betraying each other, and after martial law is imposed in the name of a false security, everyone ends up dead and the whole structure of society collapses. The only person who shows any decency at all is an illegal alien, travelling using false ID. And some of the fascists have an aversion to stairs…


“It may even provide the end to all the colony’s problems!”
“Yes, it will end the colony’s problems — because it will end the colony!”

The Power of the Daleks
is one of many Doctor Who stories which were unconscionably destroyed by the BBC during the mass cultural vandalism which also saw them destroy their recordings of the moon landing, performances by the Beatles, and other such ephemera of no possible interest to future generations. Despite rumours a few years ago, no copies of it are known to exist, but happily for Doctor Who fans people were, from the beginning, making audio recordings of Doctor Who from their TVs. Those recordings have been available on CD for years, with narration to fill in the visual elements.

And for the last few years, the BBC have been animating odd missing episodes in otherwise-complete serials, with mixed but largely positive results. However, up until last year they had not released an entire animated story, believing the demand would not justify the cost. A deal with BBC America for a US TV broadcast, however, meant that they could afford to do The Power of the Daleks.

That story, more than any other, is one that fans wanted to see — it was the first story to feature Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, and one of only two in which he meets the Daleks (the other, The Evil of the Daleks, is also largely missing). It’s also largely regarded as one of the very best stories the TV series ever did.

The resulting animation is a mixed bag. No attempt has been made to be photorealistic, or to reproduce what viewers in 1966 would have seen — the animation is in widescreen, and while the DVD version is black and white, the Blu-Ray version (which I’ve not seen and which is out next week) has the option of colour.

Visually, the backgrounds and the Daleks look absolutely gorgeous, and some of the shots in scenes concentrating on them are utterly superb. However, the character animation was clearly done on a lower budget than it really should have been — the characters are so clearly made up of separately-drawn sections that they look almost like Bitstrips pictures, while the limited nature of the animation reminds me of the old animation of Shada that the BBC did for RealPlayer streaming so long ago that RealPlayer was a thing.

This is particularly galling in the case of the Doctor — Troughton was *such* a visual, physical, actor that even the best animation couldn’t capture him, and this is far from the best animation.

But on the other hand, the animation, even at its worst, is enough to tell the story, and that’s a major success in itself. Before this was released a couple of months ago, the only way to experience this story was either through the soundtrack CD (which was difficult, as the story was obviously designed for a visual medium), or through a particularly bad novelisation written by the inept John Peel (not that one).

If nothing else, at least having the characters visible, and being able to see whose lips are moving, makes following the story *much* easier — almost all the characters in the story are male, and they almost all have the same accent, and while it’s a simple story to follow, it still taxed my patience slightly when I listened to it in audio form.

But, quibbles aside, how does it work as a story?

The answer depends on how comfortable you are with the conventions of 1960s TV dialogue. There’s a certain amount of exposition and info-dumping which would simply not be allowed in modern TV, and which may well sound clunky to people used to today’s conventions. But this *is* a matter of different conventions, rather than of objective quality — I can say with some certainty as someone whose experience of TV over the last couple of decades has been fairly minimal that on the occasions when I’ve watched newer TV drama the dialogue has sounded at least as artificial to an ear that isn’t attuned to it.

And the script is by David Whitaker, which those who are familiar with 60s Doctor Who knows is the cue for stories that use the *words* “static electricity” and “mercury”, but use them to refer to concepts which bear no relation to the things we humans refer to by those terms.

But 60s Doctor Who fans also know that Whitaker, more than any other writer on the show in that period, was a great ideas man, and we have that here. For the first time, we have the Daleks pretending to be friendly to humans, claiming “I am your ser-vant!” and bringing them cups of tea. And rather than the traditional goodies versus baddies rebellion-versus-government story which Doctor Who would do a million times, we have a story that’s about different factions within the rebellion, all hiding their own motives in order to build alliances with people they intend to betray.

Because what we have here is a story that is actually *about* something — something that is rare in Troughton’s Doctor Who. Specifically, it’s a story about identity, about how people’s behaviour can hide their true motives, and to what extent labels matter.

The new Doctor refuses to confirm he even *is* the Doctor to his friends, and starts acting in an un-Doctorish (yet still curiously Doctorish) manner. Yet he happily steals a dead man’s ID and answers to his title of Examiner (and indeed, he spends most of the story examining things). The Daleks say “I am your servant”, but quickly become the masters. Bragen, having installed himself as Governor thanks to manipulating the rebels and the Daleks, quickly discovers that merely saying “I am the Governor” does not make people obey him.

Throughout the story, we are encouraged to judge people, not on what they say they are, and not even on the apparent motive for their actions, but on what effect their actions might be expected to have. We’re led to be suspicious of everyone, and in that context the viewers’ suspicion of the new Doctor (remember that they had no history of other actors playing the role, or expectation of regeneration — “the Doctor” and “William Hartnell” were the same, and the idea that there had been a “first Doctor” and now there was a “second Doctor” wasn’t one that would take hold for several more years) becomes part of a generalised suspicion of everyone — when his actions then result in the Daleks being defeated, while the other suspicious people one by one reveal their true duplicitous natures, it becomes clear that this *is* the Doctor, whether he takes that name or not.

It’s still a story that has, to my mind, been rather overrated by fandom simply because of its importance to the series’ history — I’d rate Whitaker’s other Troughton/Daleks story, The Evil of the Daleks, ahead of it on pure quality grounds — but it’s still one of the better stories of the 60s, and I’m very glad it’s now available in a way that allows viewers to get at least some taste of what the experience of watching it must have been like.

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The Strange World of Gurney Slade

For the last few months I’ve had little ability to do anything much. After Trump’s election, and some health problems with members of my family, I’ve had little chance to do anything other than binge-watch bad 90s TV on Netflix with my mouth half-open.

But my mental health is starting to improve, so I’ve been making an effort to watch my huge pile of unwatched DVDs, and to read my massive to-read pile. One thing I’ve chosen to watch recently was a sitcom from 1960, because nothing in that could remind me of the rise of the alt-right.

A black and white photo of a man standing at a crossroads, with a signpost -- one arrow says

Oh well…

A half-hour television show. Half an hour to put the world right. What can you do in half an hour? I need at least forty minutes

The Strange World of Gurney Slade is one of those TV series which is legendary among aficionados of vintage British TV, and essentially unknown among anyone else. It’s a sitcom — of sorts — from 1960, which was only repeated on TV once, in the mid-60s, and remained unavailable until the 2011 DVD release. It was originally meant to be a centrepiece of ITV’s Saturday night family programming, but the first episode was so staggeringly unpopular that it quickly got relegated to a late-night weeknight slot by ATV, who were embarrassed by its very existence.

It’s also one of the most astonishing pieces of art made in Britain in the 1960s.

A man walking out of shot in a TV studio, with cameras behind him filming a set showing a living room

Anthony Newley, the star and (uncredited) director of the series, was one of the most astonishing talents in British entertainment history, someone who could seemingly do literally anything. He started out as a child star, appearing in David Lean’s Oliver Twist when he was a teenager, and made a name for himself as an actor. He appeared as an Elvis-like teen idol turned soldier in a low-budget film, and one of his songs from that film became a hit, making him for a time a *real* teen idol — he had eleven top forty singles, including a couple of number ones, between 1960 and 62, and was a massive influence on the Kinks and, especially, David Bowie (much of Bowie’s vocal style was just a Newley impression, especially on songs such as “Bewlay Brothers”).

He then decided that rather than just singing the songs, he’d rather write them, and with his writing partner, lyricist Leslie Bricusse, wrote such hits as “What Kind of Fool Am I?”, “Goldfinger”, “Gonna Build A Mountain”, “Feeling Good” (the Nina Simone song), and the soundtrack to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He also continued his career as a family-friendly entertainer, appearing in films like Doctor Dolittle, becoming a semi-regular on Hollywood Squares, and towards the end of his life having a regular role in the soap opera EastEnders.

So far, so all-round-family-entertainer. But Newley was also the writer/director/star of what Roger Ebert called “just about the first attempt in English to make the sort of personal film Fellini and Godard have been experimenting with in their very different ways” (the postmodern semi-autobiographical sex comedy Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? — and I suspect this is the only time anything that featured Milton Berle or Bruce Forsyth was ever compared to Fellini…). He also recorded this, with the electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire:

The Strange World of Gurney Slade is where all these aspects of Newley meet, In 1960 Newley was at the height of his pop stardom, and had made a few TV specials in which he sang and performed comedy sketches. The sketches were written by Sid Green and Dick Hills, who were jobbing writers doing gags for Bob Monkhouse, and who would shortly become the writers of Morecambe & Wise’s first few hit series, with Newley throwing in ideas which they would work up. One of the popular recurring bits in these specials was for Newley and some guests to perform a scene, but to have the characters’ internal monologues, in voice-over, tell a different story.

These sketches were popular enough that the suggestion was made to have Newley, Green, and Hills work up a full sitcom based around the idea. Maybe have Newley have an excuse to sing his latest hit, a few old gags, everyone’s happy.

What the TV company got was something rather different.

A bank of TV monitors, with a hand controlling them

I’m a walking television show. I’m like a goldfish in a bowl. I’m a poor, squirming, squingle under a microscope. Leave me alone. Leave me alone, will you? I’ve got a right to me privacy. I just walked out of this, I don’t want to know. Leave me alone. Switch off…

The series starts off seemingly normally, with a typical sitcom family sitting down to breakfast, a neighbour coming round and introducing himself, and chatter about people’s lives. But Gurney Slade, Newley’s character, sits there impassive, and doesn’t respond to his cue. After a couple of prompts to say his line, he gets up, walks off the set, out of the studio, and down the street. He plays air piano with one hand, and the theme music starts.

What follows over the next six episodes is something like what you’d get if you’d asked Samuel Beckett to write Hancock’s Half-Hour — and Gurney Slade clearly owes quite a bit to The Lad Himself (or indeed what you’d get if you asked the writers of Morecambe & Wise to write six short absurdist plays using minimal or no sets a la Waiting for Godot). Slade walks around the streets of London, his internal monologue philosophising about life and the nature of TV stardom, and has conversations with inanimate objects.

Each episode gets successively stranger than the last. The early episodes seem almost like they could have been scripted as standard family comedies — Slade goes to a farm and talks to the animals, who reply with humorous quips, or Slade goes to a dance and tries to chat up a girl (played by Anneke Wills, who went on to play Polly in Doctor Who) — except that they’re filmed as bleak absurdist dramas, the dance hall is instead an empty airfield although the characters don’t treat it as such, and it’s made clear that all the characters only exist in Slade’s head.

Gurney Slade turning into a ventriloquist's dummy

Gurney Slade turning into a ventriloquist’s dummy

I think you’re asking too much. I mean, a character doesn’t have another life, just the one the author gives them. All fictitious characters are the same. They just do the job the author gave them.

By the fourth episode, Slade is on trial for confusing the viewing public and not being funny, with the possible sentence of death hanging over him. The trial (including a re-enactment of the first scene of Twelve Angry Men, and consisting for the most part of an argument about whether countersunk screws are funny) takes place in an entirely black room, with the judge being a fairy-tale princess and the jury a male voice choir who sing their verdict. In the fifth episode, Slade tries to teach a gang of children to use their imaginations, but they decide they prefer his, and all take up residence in his mind, disappearing from the real world.

And the final episode is quite likely the strangest piece of TV ever broadcast up to that point. It starts with financiers touring a studio, where Slade sits unresponsive, thinking about how he was born there six weeks earlier, and it being explained to the financiers that he’s a performer, one of the latest models. Slade decides he’s going to rebel by not doing anything, but we cut to a control room, where the hand of a director is seen, and the director says that Slade will move. Slade then decides, apparently of his own free will, to do what the director has said.

All the characters from previous episodes turn up and complain that they don’t have full lives, that they only existed for a few scenes and don’t know anything about themselves outside that. Slade argues with them about the nature of fictional characters and what the obligations of an author are, all the while ominously counting down the minutes until “HE comes and gets me”.

Slade eventually gets all the characters jobs in other series or books, and waits for his inevitable demise. Then Anthony Newley enters the studio. Slade begs for his continued existence, with Newley implacably refusing to let him live, as Slade slowly turns from a human into a ventriloquist’s dummy, which Newley picks up as he leaves.

You can see why this didn’t go down too well with an audience who wanted something like The Army Game, but it clearly made a huge impression on pretty much anyone who was interested in making TV or films at the time. One can see echoes of Gurney Slade in the series to which it is most often compared, The Prisoner, but Gurney Slade is a far more adventurous series. It’s also a clear influence on some of the more interesting Patrick Troughton Doctor Who stories (especially “The Mind Robber”, but also “The War Games”), and it does some things that Spike Milligan’s Q and Monty Python would do nearly a decade later.

But its biggest cultural influence was probably on Richard Lester. There are shots in this series, especially in the first episode, which are replicated almost exactly in A Hard Day’s Night (I’m thinking particularly of Gurney walking by the Thames in a manner very like Ringo’s walk by the canal, but also of the whole escaping from a TV studio bit). I honestly can’t imagine that film being the same without this series.

And remember, this is a series from *October 1960*, before Kennedy had been elected, when *Pete Best* had only just joined the Beatles, who had still to meet Ringo, almost a full decade before the things we think of as innovative, experimental, TV of the 60s were made. This is a sitcom featuring Bernie Winters and Una Stubbs, on the downmarket commercial ITV rather than the public service BBC.

It’s not a perfect series, by any means — some of the jokes that are intended to work just don’t, and Slade’s particular Colin Wilson-style bargain-basement existentialist rebellion for angry young white men has dated as badly as everything else of that ilk — and at times it’s more interesting for ideas it tries that don’t work than it is actually good. But it’s good often *enough*, and I can’t imagine any broadcaster putting out anything a tenth as interesting today.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade is available on DVD from Network for only £6.

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A Few Things We In The UK Can Do

I’m not planning on posting much about politics in the next few days, because the world situation and everything about it are so obviously bad that I can’t usefully contribute. Everyone reading this, I hope, knows my views on fascism (if you don’t, for some reason: I’m a disabled working-class Lib Dem whose grandfather was a trade union organiser and who is married to a bisexual disabled immigrant. I went to my first protest when I was so young that I had to leave early because it went on past my bedtime, and I was reading the Guardian before I could tie my shoelaces. You can join the dots…) and it’s not like I have any special analytical powers that let me see something about this horrible situation that isn’t obvious to everyone. So I’ll be posting over the next few days about old 1960s TV shows, books by friends of mine, that kind of thing (expect a post about Gurney Slade tonight).

But there are a few practical things you can do if you want to stand against Trump and Trumpism:

Most immediately, there are protests tomorrow in most major cities. Here’s the Manchester one’s FB page. Links to the other ones should be findable through that.

Three petitions you can sign: One to make co-operation with Trump conditional on human rights, one to stop him making a state visit (phrasing on that one is horrible, but it’s the one that’s gaining traction), and one to ringfence the NHS in any post-Brexit trade deal with the US

If you have a spare room, volunteer to let it be used by homeless refugees (I signed up for this today, to allow short-term emergency use of my spare room, and I’m autistic and terrified of people being in my space. If I can, you can, if you have a room).

Give to the ACLU, who are fighting Trump in America.

Write to your MP using and ask them to raise the issue of collaboration with Trump.

Join a political party that supports internationalism. The Lib Dems are the best in my opinion, but if you prefer another party such as the Greens or the SNP, join them. There is a limit to what can be achieved by traditional political parties, but they achieve *something*.

Donate to Citizens UK’s Safe Passage scheme

If you are able, take part in One Day Without Us, a national “immigrant strike” taking part on the twentieth of February.

And one suggestion from me — *don’t attack anyone for helping, even if you think their way of helping is misguided*. Some people will write letters to their MP, others will engage in civil disobedience, and so on. By all means attack people who are supporting Trump, and criticise anti-Trump people for everything else, but if someone’s doing something you think won’t work, don’t say “you should be doing this instead, people like you are why Trump won”. Taking any action at all is still doing something, and should be encouraged.

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Charles Stross: Empire Games

Empire Games (Empire Games #1)Empire Games by Charles Stross
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Apologies to the few people who follow my blog via its Goodreads syndication, as you will see this review twice…
(This will contain spoilers, not for this book, but for the Merchant Princes series).

Charles Stross is one of those authors whose work I find very variable. Some (for example Glasshouse) is among the best SF written in the last few decades, some (the Laundry Files series) is imaginative but lightweight fun pulp adventure, and some (notably Singularity Sky) I find almost impossible to get into. I read pretty much everything he puts out, though, because when he’s good he’s *very* good.

For a long time, I didn’t read the Merchant Princes series, because it was marketed as an epic fantasy series, and I simply don’t do those under any circumstances — ten million words of collecting plot tokens so that the True Heir to whatever can overcome the Evil Dark Lord (and put in place a new regime with no systemic differences from the old) is just not my kind of thing. I like my books to be about ideas, and epic fantasy is, pretty much without exception, an idea-free zone. So I marked it down mentally as something that was likely to be the not-for-me Stross, and ignored it (something made easier by the fact that half the books weren’t released in the UK).

However, about three years ago, Stross announced that the Merchant Princes books were going to be (re)issued in the UK, heavily reworked into three big books from six smaller ones, and the blog posts he wrote about that process made it very clear that the impression given by Tor US’ marketing was very, very wrong. The books had been written so that at first they would *appear* to be generic fantasy landfill (mostly in order to get round a contract loophole giving another publisher option rights on Stross’ SF work, but not work in other genres), before slowly revealing that they were idea-rich SF books that were also subverting a number of fantasy tropes.
Intrigued, I picked up the first of the reworked books, and read through all of them in about three days flat. The marketing for the series had been utterly misleading — rather than being in the vein of the Wheel of Time or some equivalent, they were instead much closer to Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon or Baroque Trilogy, or Stross’ own Neptune’s Brood. It’s fundamentally a series about economics, and in particular the economics of developing nations with no exposure to Enlightenment values coming into contact with modern Western states (the Clan in the books is clearly inspired by the gangsterish rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia), and one that uses the SF trope of the multiverse to talk about the conflicts this would cause.

Empire Games is ostensibly the start of a new series, which Stross referred to on his blog by the working title “Merchant Princes: The Next Generation”, but in reality it’s pretty much a straight continuation of the earlier series, and I’m unsure how much sense it would make to a reader who had not read the earlier series.

The book picks up seventeen years after the last series ended, in an alternate version of the Earth that’s similar to our own, except that parallel-world terrorists used a nuclear bomb on the White House in 2003 (the climax of the earlier series), and a short nuclear war between India and Pakistan followed. The world portrayed is surprisingly unchanged by this, other than the US surveillance state being turned up approximately one and a half notches and Donald Rumsfeld having been US President for two terms (now replaced by an unnamed female Democrat President (definitely not Clinton, who was killed in the bombing in this universe)). In fact, I’d argue that it’s *too* unchanged — one of the few things to draw me out of the book was that Facebook, Twitter, and Tesla all exist in Stross’ universe in something essentially identical to their current forms, even down to their names.

The action clearly parallels the start of the previous series, with Rita, the biological daughter of the previous series’ protagonist Miriam, being picked up by Homeland Security, informed of her genetic potential, and semi-willingly conscripted into spying on behalf of that timeline’s USA, investigating the timeline where Miriam now lives (one that was at Victorian levels of development, and under a hereditary dictatorship, before Miriam helped instigate a democratic revolution in the previous series, and which is now rapidly catching up to the late twentieth century).

The book is clearly setting up some very important things, including the infiltration of Homeland Security by various groups (notably both the Mormons and the Scientologists — and the Mormon element makes me wonder if Stross’ plan for the series is at all inspired by Heinlein’s If This Goes On…, which touches on a few similar ideas. I’d dismiss this possibility, except that this book is clearly and explicitly intertextual with at least one other classic work of SF, The Man In The High Castle), and there’s a lot of background involving Rita’s grandfather which I won’t spoil, but which is clearly leading to interesting places.

I want to give this book a higher rating than I have — it’s full of exceptionally interesting ideas, and it’s more timely than Stross could have imagined when he wrote it. The book was inspired by the Snowden revelations, and a general mistrust of the US surveillance state, but there is a lot in here which resonates strongly with the recent rise of the Trump/Erdogan/Putin/May/Le Pen/Farage Fascist International and the growing realisation that we are in a new Cold War in which our own governments may well not be on the same side as their populations.
But unfortunately, the book is all set-up. It’s not really a complete narrative on its own terms, and finishes with all the pieces in place for what promises to be an interesting story, but without the story really having got going. It’s the first third of what seems like it’ll be a four- or five-star book when it’s finished, but it’s not a satisfying work in and of itself. I understand the publishing industry realities which mandate this, but that doesn’t make the experience itself any less annoying.

My advice is to wait until 2019 (assuming the world lasts that long — see above re: fascists and cold wars…) and read the whole thing in one go. I’m sure it will work very well then. But as it is, I’d leave it for now.

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