Category Archives: Books

The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds by John Higgs

The KLF - Chaos, Magic and The Band Who Burned A Million PoundsWhere does one start with telling the story of The KLF (variously known as The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, The JAMs, The Timelords or The K Foundation)?

That is exactly the question that John Higgs starts with in his 2012 book exploring the story of the musical career of Bill Drummond (King Boy D) and Jimmy Cauty (Rockman Rock) between the mid 1980s and mid 1990s.

What he chooses to do is something rather akin to what the pair did in their careers and ignore any past conventions of their chosen form to create a narrative representative of them and their inspirations while also, it seems, getting to the heart of the matter far more than a basic list of facts might.

The band are intentionally shrouded in mystery and, through an exploration of their work that touches on everything from magic thinking to Discordianism to straight forward journalism, Higgs at once tells the story from their early theatrical and musical endeavours to the titular act of ‘burning a million quid’ via being a chart topping dance act.

John Higgs

John Higgs

While the basic story is fascinating and engrossing, where the book really succeeded for me was in its revealing of things i hadn’t previously been aware of, but now am quite fascinated to explore.

For a start there’s the somewhat confusing back catalogue of The KLF (and their various alter egos). While officially deleted by the band themselves, a lot of it is on YouTube and the like, though even there navigating it feels at best randomly chaotic and you’ll likely find a few songs far more easily than the rest – particularly their unlikely team up with country legend Tammy Wynette.

Then there is Illuminatus! the book that inspired, or was it inspired by, the Discordian movement that itself grew out of the counter-culture movements of the American west coast in a way that, going by accounts here, is fabulously impenetrable to almost the point of not being worth bothering with – which just makes it all the more interesting.

The KLF

The KLF

As well as that it asks far bigger questions about the state of our place in the universe than any other band biography I’ve read before, with a real focus on the act of destroying money and the relationship that has to everything that has happened since and then there’s the introduction of magical thinking…

So, while this book is full of wilful contradiction and what feel like flights of fancy that one suspects are closer to the truth than one might think possible, it also feels like a great evocation of The KLF both in terms of their literal story but also their philosophical outlook.

Or maybe it really isn’t…

Either way it’s a great read mixing pop philosophy with the tone of an extended article from the NME in a way I’ve never previously encountered and if you’ve any interest in either the band or pop music on any level, I’d heartily recommend diving in and seeing where you end up.

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It by Stephen King

It by Stephen King book coverStephen King’s sprawling epic is one of the stories that has become ingrained in the popular culture of the last three decades. A big part of that will be down to Tim Curry staring TV adaptation and the more recent movie version, but also thanks to the sheer scale and relatability of the novel.

Even by King’s standards It is a sprawling tale that comes in three-fold fashion. Set in the town of Derry, Maine in both the late 1950s and mid 1980s it traces a group of youngsters who become a group of friends in the 50s, while also charting their reunion in the 80s and mixing in the mysterious history of the town at the same time.

In many hands this could easily be done through obvious flashback or just become an absolute muddle, but King weaves the three threads together expertly and actually plays up on the switching time frames to great effect in a few of the novels more intense passages.

This method makes it a unique exploration of the divide between childhood and adulthood and, while It certainly features it’s fair share of gruesome terror, it is this that is the crux of the story – like the best horror tales it takes a real world experience and explores it through heightened metaphor, in this case the titular beast, dubbed by the characters simply, It (seen most famously as Pennywise The Dancing Clown but having as many faces as there are people to see it).

Stephen King

Stephen King

In this way its astonishing to think any would ever try to make a film of It. Much like The Shining, King’s particular vision is so ingrained in what the written word can do and a film can’t that it’s genuinely refreshing to read, even more than 30 years since it original publication. Again like The Shining this really comes to the fore as the book heads towards its climax, but is present throughout.

Across the two main timeframes King creates a true ensemble of characters, seven in the heroic gang and a group of antagonists and side players, all of whom are brilliantly drawn and created to give them all real purpose and individuality.

In the 50s passages this grows into a real coming of age story that goes far beyond anything you’re ever likely to see in the cinema, and likely to read anywhere else, particularly in a later scene that has caused much discussion but, to my mind, is handled well enough to fit the story (even if it is a little gratuitous).

Meanwhile in the 80s all these characters are clearly explored developments of the same people and, while at first several appear possible a little too coincidentally successful and the lead being a horror writer veers towards the possibility of King echoing himself, it’s not long before they all make sense and the two time zones link up perfectly.

Added to the coming of age story, where It could represent several aspects of that process, the mysterious and evil presence in Derry grows in the adult sections to represent more grown up troubles and again King balances this, whether its visions of domestic abuse or addiction or more in a way that is never heavy-handed but laced through within the individual stories of the characters.

It original cover

Original cover

What I think really makes It stick in the mind though, beyond even just being a thrilling ride of a story, is how it marries aspects of ancient legend, folktales & fables and pulp horror, again echoing the three-fold aspect of the setting.

In doing this it feels like a story that has always been there; clowns have always had a slightly scary edge, children always play in the places adults think scary and wrong and, as children at least, we all know that something lurks just beyond what we can see, waiting to do whatever unspeakable acts it might be there to do. While as adults we have to deal with other monsters unknowable in youth but strangely echoing.

This all comes together to create one of the most compelling novels I’ve encountered that has more depth than its reputation suggests and is at once both chilling, gruesome and thought-provoking in equal measure and I think contains enough substance to have something different in each of those aspects for everyone – I am also now even more confused how they make the rest of the story into the second part of the recent film.

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Zone 1: The Guernsey Comic Book Anthology

Zone 1 coverIn 2015 the Guernsey Literary Festival expanded its programme to incorporate ‘graphic novels’ for the first time with a focus on the islands links to a revelling of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs in that form.

As part of that a workshop was held with the writer and artist who adapted Hugo’s novel, David Hine and Mark Stafford, and they inspired a group of writers and artists to put together the first comic book anthology from the island, Zone 1, which was released through Black Moor Press in mid-2017.

Prey by Mikal Dyas

Prey by Mikal Dyas

Consisting of six short stories, they vary in tone and style about as broadly as is possible without heading directly into superhero territory and are by turns darkly disturbing, interestingly poignant or just downright baffling.

Prey by Theo Leworthy and Mikal Dyas

The first story has the feel of a bad dream as we join a father and son on a hunting trip that goes wrong.

While the story is fairly simple, the artwork amplifies it into truly horrific territory and, while it never quite comes entirely into focus as a whole, it finishes in a shockingly memorable moment that feels like it wants to say something but isn’t really sure what.

Heavenly Body by Hugh Rose

Heavenly Body by Hugh Rose

Heavenly Body by Hugh Rose

One of the nicest things about this collection is that it doesn’t lean heavily on being from Guernsey with this really being the only story with a suggestion of a local link, though not dealt with in the way it often is, as it is a tale of evacuated children during the Second World War.

The artwork is simple but evocative with an oddly playful sense despite the potentially serious nature of the story. The whole thing ends on a lighthearted note to defuse the situation that does a good job of bringing a child’s sense of wonder to a potentially rather different tale.

Meek The Mighty by Kit Gilson

Meek The Mighty by Kit Gilson

Mighty Are The Meek by Colin Ferbrache and Kit Gillson

While only brief, the highlight of Mighty Are The Meek are the cartoonish goblin designs of Kit Gillson. If you follow Kit on Instagram you might be familiar with his cartoon designs and they look great here.

Unfortunately beyond this the strip feels a little too much like an unfinished sketch but the ‘to be continued…’ at the end offers the suggestion that it could grow into quite a charming, comic strip style, piece.

Fimbulwinter by Llewellyn Van Eeden

While Llewelyn Van Eeden’s tale drops us into one of the most complete settings and slickest looking art of the anthology, as a whole it feels a little too clichéd as it tells what feels like the first part of a story focussing on a fairly stereotypical Norse blacksmith and his village.

Fimbulwinter by Llewellyn Van Eeden

Fimbulwinter by Llewellyn Van Eeden

While I could see it developing nicely with a few hints of mystery, based on this the characters feel a little too stock and the art while smooth and sleek, doesn’t stand out as well as the other pieces.

Urbane Paria by Adam Gillson

While this painted story starts out in mysterious fashion with what sounds like a gruesome death it soon becomes a little lost and confused.

This isn’t helped by the fact that the artwork, while interesting and expressive in one sense, does little to help provide character or a consistent setting and the whole thing veers a little too far from the standard comic book or murder mystery conventions to properly work.

The Race For The Black Gate by Russell Wicks

The Race For The Black Gate by Russell Wicks

The Race For The Black Gate by Jonathan Dawe and Russell Wicks

Probably the most conventional tale in the collection comes with the last, though even then it throws its own spin on things.

With something of a hard-boiled, murder mystery aspect combined with a paranormal element, the basic story and the shadowy cartoon artwork combine to create the collection’s most complete feeling piece.

With enough detail revealed to draw the reader in it leaves things on a mysterious cliffhanger that I hope means there’s Zone 2 on the way to continue the tale. 


Urbane Paria by Adam Gillson

Urbane Paria by Adam Gillson

While Zone 1 is, expectedly, a mixed bag, there’s a lot to enjoy from striking visuals to intriguing stories to various attempts to subvert comic convention and, while a few may miss the mark and come off as trying a little too hard to be clever for the sake of it, there’s certainly enough to recommend to fans of comics beyond the Marvel and DC mainstream and I hope it isn’t just a one-off.

Note: apologies to the artists for the slightly ropey reproduction of the images but I couldn’t find any online

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Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen coverBruce Springsteen, The Boss, Born in the USA and Born To Run, the man who brought the New Jersey blue-collar ethic into the world of the New York rock scene. Certainly he is all of these things, but, in his autobiography, Born To Run, he does a great job tempering a tale of success beyond the realms of almost anyone else, with a personal story that is genuinely emotionally effecting and shows how, even in his position, there can be a darkness that could bring it all crashing down like the most perilous high wire act.

Unlike most of the other autobiographies I’ve read, that of Springsteen is something a little different as I am not as wholly immersed in his work as I have been that in that of Laura Jane Grace or Kurt Cobain, for example.

That said, and somewhat appropriately, the work of Bruce Springsteen falls into a category I’d best describe as ‘my dad’s music’, with the likes of Born in the USA soundtracking many road trips down through France in my youth, so a lot of the music is familiar to me on at least a subconscious level.

For two-thirds or so of the book it is much as you’d expect from any musician’s life story charting his career from first picking up a cheap guitar  all the way to playing shows to tens of thousands in stadia around the world.

Bruce Springsteen in 2016

Springsteen in 2016

As with many such stories for me the most interesting part is in how he first became, The Boss. Growing up in working class New Jersey, playing in various bar bands and then how he translated that into his early commercial success.

Along with that comes, of course, the story of The E Street Band. This is something a little different, as is their career, as Springsteen makes it clear throughout while they are his backing band, they are at the same time more than that. Some are given more time than others with ‘Little Steven’ Van Zandt and ‘The Big Man’ Clarence Clemons particularly featured, but all given at least their moment in the spotlight.

There are points in this, and in the discussions about Springsteen’s other work, where his style of band leading borders on a kind of egocentric arrogance but, through his descriptions at least, it always lands just on the right side of the necessary confidence for his role (though it’s clear not all his band mates have always shared this opinion and he doesn’t hide away from that).

The E Street Band

A late 1970s version The E Street Band

This is all as interesting as one would expect from such a career and as he goes through albums song by song it is a fascinating insight into the themes and thoughts that have created one of the most successful musicians and performer forms of the last 40 years and, while more light is shone on the bigger songs and records, it seems like everything is given an appropriate time and space, no matter the commercial success it received.

The other third of the book though is where Born To Run genuinely becomes something more as Springsteen focuses on his family and, as it goes on, more specifically his father and their shared mental health.

In its early stages it seems as if Springsteen senior is at once a huge presence but a massive emotional absence in young Bruce’s life and as it goes on this has clear emotional resonance on the growing musician. In the second half of the book this shifts as Springsteen explores not only his father’s mental health problems but begins to address his own.

Bruce Springsteen - Asbury Park

Springsteen in Asbury Park

This leads to what are the most interesting parts of the book as Springsteen discusses his own depression in the most frank and lyrical manner I’ve possibly ever heard or read. As well as the more factual side of his conditions he doesn’t shy away from describing the more day-to-day side and the way it makes him feel in relation to his own life, something often skipped in my experience of stories like this.

What this does is make what could have been a perfectly serviceable autobiography into something far more and, crucially, something that could be of huge importance to much of its audience who, traditionally, are the least likely to address mental health issues.

Also of course the other sign that’s it’s done it’s job is that I do now want to more consciously explore Springsteen’s back catalogue with the extra context that it seems is crucial to understanding it all and that makes much of it just as fitting in the current political situation as it was when it was written up to nearly half a century ago.

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Undaunted (selected poems 2014-2016) by Attila The Stockbroker

Attila The Stockbroker - UndauntedFor over thirty years Attila The Stockbroker has stood as one of the primary forces in the movement of ranting poetry. Grown from the same place as the second wave of punk in the early 1980s, the ranters were often found on the same stages as their noisier contemporaries, but, like the bands, over the years most have fallen by the wayside in one way or another.

Not so Attila. Following his fascinating and frank autobiography last year comes a new set of his poems, his eighth since 1985, suitably titled Undaunted.

Coming from the same scene that gave us the likes of Crass it’s not surprising that much of Attila’s reputation comes from his rabble rousing rebel ranting, and that is firmly in evidence here.

As up to the minute as it’s possible to be he takes on the targets you’d expect, Trump, Brexit, Farage and May in particular, in his own scathing, satirical and down to earth way.

While the titular poem, one of the books longest, is a more serious affair than many, elsewhere it is Attila’s streak of (appropriately) crass humour that makes this more than an ‘angry old leftie’ having a go with Rock ‘n’ Roll Brexit, Farageland, Theresa The Appeaser and Corbyn Supporters From Hell (a play on one of his earlier works) as highlights.

Attila The Stockbroker on stage with Barnstormer

Attila on stage with Barnstormer at Vale Earth Fair 2014

Along with these though we get another side to Attila, one that has always been there but seems more poignant as he moves on with life, poems that, in many ways, feel they really be credited to John. In these he takes a look a life, death and football in a way that is genuinely poignant.

It would be easy for his words on these subjects to become a bit cliché or over-processed like so much bad food, but his manner and style of writing and description just makes them feel real as in Candid Camera, Auntie Rose and the hugely effecting My Ninth Birthday.

Throughout all of these Attila’s politics still feature whether it’s championing the NHS or highlighting how past Conservative governments have caused tragedy for working class communities but in a less direct way, so it’s My Doctor Martens that pulls the two sides together and exists as a macrocosm of the rest of the collection.

Attila The Stockbroker

Accompanied by some excellent illustrations by Dan Woods (guitarist with Attila’s band, Barnstormer) and (I guess i should admit my involvement) a rather nice photo by yours truly taken at the Vale Earth Fair a few years back, Undaunted see Attila The Stockbroker continue to do just what he’s always done; speak his truth loud, proud and clear with an honesty, wit and humour many he ridicules could do with learning a thing or two about.

Much like his great inspiration John Cooper Clarke, Attila’s work may be best experienced read live and loud by its author but none-the-less the written versions remain hugely effective and effecting and it doesn’t seem there’s any slowing down this undaunted veteran yet.

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Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt by John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper Clarke - Ten Years In An Open Necked ShirtWhile I generally don’t have too much bad to say about the education system I went through, there was one thing throughout my studying of English that they never quite managed to transmit – that poetry really is at its best when read aloud.

Certainly some poetry is a written medium with clever use of form, style and language to make its point, but, much like music, the stuff that really grips me is the performed sort… So enter ‘The Bard of Salford’, Dr. John Cooper Clarke.

First published in 1983, his debut printed collection Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt takes the cream of Clarke’s early work, from his days as a pioneering ‘punk poet’ and captures them in text.

While it’s clear throughout that this stuff was written to be read out loud and, even better, performed, if read with Clarke’s harsh, biting accent in mind it works just as well on the page as beat and bop meet punk and pop in a surreal satire of life in northern England in the 1960s and 70s that, in many ways, still rings true today.

Supporting punk bands in the late 1970s, as he came too early for the alternative comedy movement he no doubt helped inspire, gave Clarke’s writing a certain political position but, in reading it, it is vividly apolitical. In this it allows the reader to get an image in their mind and, at times, create a political context for it of their own, while at other times simply get lost in a flight of surreal fantasy that captures an aspect of the popular culture of the time.

John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper Clarke (circa 1982)

A couple of specific examples of this could be the triumphant Beezley Street which presents the feel of a hellish nightmare (but probably more realistic) version of (long running soap opera) Coronation Street and it’s sort of opposite Kung-Fu International, obviously capturing the early 70s kung-fu trend through Clarke’s harsh, street level filter.

Throughout things move from bleak to hilarious, often within a verse or stanza, let alone from poem to poem, but all come with a feeling of something that could only have emerged when it did – with The Goons and Spike Milligan clearly as much of an influence as Ginsberg or Kerouac, or Rotten, Vanian, et al.

Along with Clarke’s words the book features some great illustrations by Steve Maguire that work in a similar way to Ralph Steadman’s work with Hunter S. Thompson, though in a less brutally graphic way, but they too capture the mix of surrealism with intense social realism that is a hall-mark of the collection as a whole.

Unlike later punk poets (a trend that really took off in the 1980s) John Cooper Clarke is not a posturing and ranting presence, though he no doubt inspired those and they have their place in the form, but a remote observer. In reading his words you get the feeling he’s been there and done that but this is the view of it from the outside, through those ever-present dark glasses, and in that he timelessly captures life in a way any other media or style couldn’t quite manage.

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Pic by Jack Kerouac

Pic by Jack Kerouac book coverWhen I finished The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac I hadn’t intended on reading Pic right away, but as the short novel was included in the same book I thought why not. While I’m not entirely sure why the two are combined, other than both are at the shorter end of the novel spectrum, there is at least one level on which the two work together.

Pic was Kerouac’s last published novel, being finally published after his death, but the majority of it was written around the same time as The Subterraneans as he was constructing On The Road. It tells the story of a young boy from North Carolina called Pictorial Review Jackson, aka Pic, and his journey from his late grandfather’s shack in rural NC to New York City with his brother Slim, and onto Oakland in California.

While in many ways it follows a similar structure to On The Road, being mostly about the journey Pic and Slim take, it varies from all of Kerouac’s other novels in that the lead character is not a direct avatar of the author. It also takes Kerouac back into the territory of representing black characters, which is where the comparison to The Subterraneans lies.

Much like his portrayal of Mardou Fox there it’s hard to escape the fact that most of the characters here are somewhat simplified.

Pic is understandably a young, not so well-educated child from the rural south but as we meet more of his family and then his brother its hard not to feel that this floats on the edge of being a somewhat racist portrayal, with the black characters constantly enthralled (and potentially in thrall) to the more mysterious, more intelligent, more wealthy, white characters.

This comes across as potentially more problematic given that it was written by a white author for a largely intellectual audience – though Kerouac always makes a point of his immigrant (French Canadian)/Native American hybrid roots and has spoken of himself in ways that make Pic somewhat more of a representation of him than may be at first obvious.

JOYCE JOHNSON AND JACK KEROUAC PHOTO BY:JEROME YULSMAN/GLOBE PHOTOS, INC

Kerouac in New York (Photo by Jerome Yulsman/Globe Photos inc)

The setting and first person viewpoint do alleviate the problems of the portrayal to a degree but it still feels slightly too stereotypical to not be need of mention, though based on his other writing I don’t think explicit racism would have been the intent.

Much like a lot of Kerouac’s work the story itself rattles along at a pace and while his use of Pic’s colloquial dialect in the first person sets it apart from his spontaneous prose, Beat, style, it shares some similarities.

This again allows something of a sense of honesty to come through from the characters as we are swept along with Pic’s somewhat naive view of the world and it’s easy to get caught up in the wonder of everything for the first bus ride out of North Carolina to the dilapidated grandeur of mid 20th century Harlem.

Unfortunately, just as it feels like the story is hitting its stride and Pic and Slim and set off to make their epic journey to ‘Californy’ something of a deus ex machina occurs and it all gets tied up neatly in less than a page. Looking into the history of the book it sounds like this was when Kerouac got inspired to write On The Road and he only returned to add this final ‘ending’ to Pic years later.

All this means that, while an easy to read and quick distraction, Pic is something of an anticlimax and feels more like a sketch than a complete novel, though if On The Road is what came at the expense of this lesser vision then it’s hard to feel too disappointed.

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The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac - The Subterraneans coverIn recent years I’ve read a number of works of the Beat Generation, and of Jack Kerouac in particular; Big Sur, The Dharma Bums and of course the centrepiece of Kerouac’s career, On The Road. Partly this exploration was out of an interest in outsider movements, partly the history of San Francisco and partly for its sheer post-war Americana.

While it shares many similarities with much of Kerouac’s, work The Subterraneans has something of a different feel.

Published following On The Road in 1958 (but written in the autumn of 1953) there is much directly similar as we meet an avatar of the author (here named Leo Percepied) in North Beach, San Francisco surrounded by the same characters (just with different pseudonyms).

However, while On The Road told many smaller stories but as a whole dealt with a broad sweep, The Subterraneans goes in-depth into a period of a few months of the author’s life, centred on a love affair with Mardou Fox (in the real world Alene Lee), one of the titular group (themselves it seems an alter-ego of the Beats), and the ups and downs of it.

Jack Kerouac in New York

Kerouac in New York

While the original events occurred in New York City the way Kerouac paints his image of North Beach and Market Street and their surroundings is utterly real and the story casually races around this town within the city at a frantic pace, charged by a mixture of new love (and/or lust) and, as it goes on, the lead character’s increasing paranoia and ever-present need to be part of a party of one kind or other.

In this even the lover herself, Mardou, is at times relegated to a broadly drawn background player in Percepied’s paranoiac whirlwind, leaving a few issues in the depiction of her race. In a way this makes the story a hard one to digest but gives it all the more sense of honesty on Kerouac’s part – something that seems to be his intent.

Stylistically Kerouac ups his spontaneous prose of On The Road even further. Written as this was in one big glut, with asides and diversions liberally sprinkled throughout, The Subterraneans paints Percepied/Kerouac in exactly the way he describes himself, as a narcissistic man (and, as with much of Kerouac’s work, the ‘man’ is crucial) with many issues.

This makes it at points rather hard to read and sometimes near impenetrable, but, while not entirely successful, it feels like a natural peak of the free-jazz style of writing that Kerouac strived for and, if not created, developed to a kind of conclusion.

William S Burroughs and Alene Lee

Alene Lee (the real Mardou Fox) with William S Burroughs

Ultimately, while not on the same level as some of his other work, The Subterraneans stands as a very real feeling document of an event many of us may have experienced, albeit one hopes not in quite such a frantic and heightened way, and is a demonstration of how the Beat style can be at once hugely evocative but incredibly challenging with it.

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A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel by Slim Jim Phantom

A Stray Cat Struts by Slim Jim PhantomWhen I look at musical biographies I’ve read in the past, from Laura Jane Grace to Tony Iommi to Ginger Wildheart to Frank Turner amongst others, it’s fairly obvious that most have focussed on frontmen or band leaders.

This seems to be a fairly standard trend so, coming to the autobiography of Slim Jim Phantom, most famously the drummer from The Stray Cats, I expected something a bit different, and that’s just what I got.

From the start Phantom makes it clear that his book won’t be a mudslinging ‘needless to say I got the last laugh’ type affair but a look at the positives that his life as a rockabilly musician of note has brought him.

That isn’t to say that it’s all saccharine sweet though as he and his various band members go through their share of problems but, for the most part, Slim Jim finds the good in all the situations, one way or another.

With this approach he makes it clear early on that he won’t engage with the potential fallout of the split of The Stray Cats, so when that comes it’s not a surprise (though later he sheds a little light on the relationships between himself and fellow Cats, Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker).

The Stray Cats

The Stray Cats

Up to the split of that band the book moves in, largely, chronological order tracing Phantom’s life from Massapequa, Long Island, New York to London where the Cats first found fame, through meetings and tours with The Rolling Stones and the kind of encounters and happenings that are genuinely amazing to hear given the speed with which they occur following the trio’s arrival in the UK.

In this we begin to meet some of Slim Jim’s ‘true pals’ who become a major feature of many of the stories and many are household names from the world of rock ‘n’ roll. While this could easily feel like name dropping par excellence, it actually comes across as if our humble narrator is as surprised by many of these encounters and friendships as we might be, including his marriage in the mid-1980s to Britt Ekland!

As the book goes on the stories focus more on specific subjects so there are chapters on Lemmy, ‘The Killer’ Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison and other rock ‘n’ roll heroes as well as Phantom’s endeavours in film acting, nightclub ownership and life on and around the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

Through all of these what makes the book so engaging is the manner in which Phantom writes. It’s as if he is telling you these stories one-to-one, and his enthusiasm for his music and extraordinary comes through strongly in every passage regardless of what he’s recounting.

As the book goes on he becomes more reflective as his hard partying days subside to watching game shows while on the phone with Harry Dean Stanton, spending time with his, evidently equally rock ‘n’ roll, son TJ and later charity mountaineering trips to Kilimanjaro and Everest.

Rockabilly music is never far away though and it’s clear this remains what makes his heart beat and its worth having YouTube handy to look up some of the Stray Cats performances he mentions just to revel in the same things he is.

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

What I think this accessibility and enthusiasm stems from is something he highlights and I’ve noticed in my own life that, in a majority of cases, drummers are the members of the band most happy to let down the facade of rock ‘n’ roll life, connect with others and generally are more open and sharing.

Using this Slim Jim lets us into his world in a far less self-conscious way than many other musicians making for a fascinating and easy read that may have a few rough edges tidied but feels honest and true in the way that the best things in rock ‘n’ roll should be.

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Hello America by JG Ballard

Hello America by J.G. Ballard book coverIt seems that the notion of The American Dream is one that keeps cropping up in my reviews recently, most notably with La La Land and Straight Outta Compton, so it feels natural, if strangely coincidental, that I now look at a book that seems to take that dream and turn it into a kind of twisted nightmare.

While J.G. Ballard is well-known for his dystopian science fiction visions from the likes of High-Rise and Crash, Hello America was not one I was familiar with when its blurb and cover caught my eye, but from the off its clear that it bears certain resemblances to the story of Lang in the tower block.

Here our hero is Wayne, a young stowaway from a back to basics Europe of the 2100’s, who has snuck aboard a vessel sailing for an evacuated USA. It’s 100 years since North America was abandoned in the face of an energy crisis as oil ran dry and the once most powerful nation on Earth was laid to waste by climactic devastation.

Arriving in this New World wasteland Wayne and the members of the expedition head off from a derelict New York to Washington DC and beyond.

The journey and the relatively mysterious lead male protagonist are certainly familiar from High-Rise, though Wayne feels far more sympathetic than Lang and the eventual arrival of the equivalent to Royal reveals a far less sympathetic antagonist. Along with this the general sense of growing disaster as the story goes on is similar to High-Rise but on a far grander physical scale.

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

What sets it apart is a sense of optimism, particularly in the first half, where Wayne’s vision of ‘The American Dream’ is infectious and really sucked me into the adventure, much as it does some of his fellow travellers, and the way Ballard paints the landscape of the ‘Great American Desert’ is masterful and hugely visual.

The first half of the book builds the tension to breaking point with what feels like a climax in the depth of the desert before Ballard throws a marvellous curve ball that almost resets things but goes on in eventually more disturbing and absurd ways as Wayne’s dream becomes a real American Nightmare – to say much more would be too much of a spoiler.

The fact that Wayne dreams of being 45th president of the USA is particularly pertinent given recent real world events, but that’s just a ‘happy’ coincidence, but there is clearly a political message at the heart of Ballard’s writing coming as this did at a time when a former film star had recently entered The White House.

Hello America original artwork

The cover of the first edition of Hello America

As well as the politics there is an ecological message which is writ large and obvious throughout though has lost none of its necessity and power since the book was released in the early 1980s and some slightly heavy-handed consumerist points add another layer.

All of this does make Hello America‘s purpose a little unfocused but it is certainly trying to say something and, generally, succeeding.

Where it doesn’t succeed quite so well is in the second half of the story that almost becomes too absurd to take seriously, though it just about holds things together as it reaches a hugely tense and surprisingly cinematic climax – I’m amazed no one has twisted this into a big budget blast-a-thon blockbuster.

This makes Hello America a book that, while easier to read than High-Rise, less physically controversial than Crash and a little unfocused, is none the less enjoyable and bridges hard sci-fi ideals with readable adventure in a very satisfying fashion.

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