Category Archives: Origin Story

Aliens – The Best Sequel Ever Made?

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Ridley Scott’s Alien was released in 1979 and was a big hit. By 1986, it had faded away into the eerie mists of time somewhat when the sequel Aliens was unleashed by Twentieth Century Fox and writer/director James Cameron.

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Hot off The Terminator, Cameron was just the right guy to take on this sequel. He loved the original and had the sci-fi and technical know-how to push the franchise forward into thrilling new territory. Aliens was a huge hit that summer and earned Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nomination for Best Actress (unheard of for a science fiction movie at the time but indicative of the performance Cameron pulled out of her on set.)

Aliens, like all the best sequels, takes the original concept and expands upon it, deepening the meaning of it. We learn that Ripley’s first name is Ellen and that she had a daughter back on earth who died while she was drifting in space for 57 years (with nothing left for her back on earth, the traumatised Ripley is forced to return to the depths of space and confront her old alien enemy like the Minotaur in the labyrinth of legend.) We learn the name of the Alien species – the Xenomorph (interestingly, both Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender are using that term to describe the Alien in interviews promoting the new film. James Cameron pulled off a similar trick in Terminator 2, another contender for best sequel of all-time, naming the liquid metal T-!000 a “mimetic poly-alloy.” T2 is making a welcome return in summer 2017 in a new 4k 3D version supervised by Mr Cameron.) The original Alien life cycle was based on an African wasp which lays its eggs under the skin of humans before the hatch out. Cameron expands this concept by making the Alien species a hive organism with a giant queen laying eggs at the apex of the hierarchy. Cameron even names the Alien planet LV-426. (They’re on LV-223 in Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott again paying homage to the superior sequel Aliens.) The weapons and futuristic forklifts the space marines use delighted audiences with their ingenuity.

The film was shot at Pinewood Studios in England and the British crew gave Cameron a hard time as they thought they were making an inferior sequel to a British director’s classic original. They even dubbed Cameron “Grizzly Adams” at one stage. Cameron said: “The Pinewood crew were lazy, insolent and arrogant. We despised them and they despised us. The one thing that kept me going was the certain knowledge that I would drive out of the gate of Pinewood and never come back.” If you’re wondering why Cameron painted the Brits in such a bad light in Titanic, now you know.

 

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It was also a difficult shoot for Sigourney Weaver using flame-throwings, shooting weapons and having to carry two heavy guns strapped together and the child Newt on her hip. Weaver injured her back from it and you can tell from the way she struggles to run from the Alien Queen near the end.

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Jim Cameron was responsible for so many shoot-‘em-up moments in the 80s; The Terminator’s single-handed destruction of a police station, John Rambo’s single-handed destruction of the Viet Cong, the Soviets and the team of Nixonian American mercenaries who double-crossed him and left him for dead. He does it again in the finale of Aliens when Ellen Ripley lets rip with flame thrower, machine gun and grenade launcher to decimate the hated Alien Queen and her precious eggs. (Ripley has lost her daughter and denies the Alien Queen the right to be a mother also, a perfect and clever fusing of character arcs by Cameron.) Strange that by Avatar in 2009, Cameron’s heroes are a blue Smurf-like race worshipping a glowing tree like hippies on another planet. (There are FOUR sequels to Avatar coming in the next decade, folks. So prepare to make more love and not war, man!)

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As with the team of mercenaries in Rambo: First Blood Part II (co-written by Cameron), the team of colonial marines in Aliens are a bunch of arrogant jerks that get taught a lesson later in the film. The late, great Bill Paxton, back with Cameron again after a brief Terminator appearance, adds so much humour and energy to the film, even ad-libbing the line “Game over, man, Game OVER!” (his voice cracking with emotion on that last line brings the house down.) Most actors would try to steal scenes by being macho; Paxton does it by being a hysterical (and hysterically funny) coward. It’s a brilliant performance from a fine actor. RIP, Bill.

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Another Cameron regular, Michael Biehn, is a commanding presence and potential love interest for Ripley. He replaced James Remar not long into shooting and is a welcome addition to the film.

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In 1992, a director’s cut of Aliens appeared adding 17 additional minutes to the running time.

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That was the same year we got the shoddy Alien 3 and those extra 17 minutes were a soothing balm to seething fans of the franchise. All the characters we loved from Aliens were callously and stupidly killed off in the opening minutes of the third film. It immediately threw away any chance of being a worthy follow-up right then.

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Concept art for a possible fifth Alien movie

(Neill Blomkamp has proposed a fifth Alien film which ignored the disappointing third and fourth entries and continues where Aliens left off. James Cameron has approved the concept while Ridley Scott has shot it down saying it will probably never happen. Meanwhile, Ridley continues with his perplexing and unnecessary prequels. Not many people want them, they want the sequel that should have been but it seems as if it will never happen now. Fox need to give the audience what they want instead of forcing them to accept the opposite. Scott is doing what George Lucas did with Star Wars essentially; he directed the original but the sequel is better as with The Empire Strikes Back. Now, decades later, he is unwisely returning to direct a series of unwelcome prequels that only serve to remind us how great the first trilogy was and make us long for it again.)

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I’ll go see Alien: Covenant, but I’m not holding out much hope for it or the franchise. The prequels seem to be explaining too much about the Alien, robbing it of its mystique. We don’t need to know the xenomorph’s backstory, it’s a slimy monster that’s going to get you. That’s all we need to know. Fear of the unknown is the key to great horror films, but movie studios are determined to squeeze every drop of cash out of a franchise. Let’s hope they see sense and give us the one we really want – Neill Blomkamp’s Alien 5.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

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Scarface: The World Is Pacino’s

“The most popular movie I’ve ever made is Scarface (1983), all over the world. It’s amazing to me. It’s wonderful. We sometimes forget that it was Oliver Stone who wrote it. He is a political creature, and I think that is an undercurrent in the movie. And the combination of him and Brian De Palma made for this kind of fusion or explosion. It worked.”

– Al Pacino

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Brian De Palma’s Scarface is a remake of a 1932 Howard Hawks film of the same name.

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Paul Muni as Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932)

It was a fictionalised version of the life of real-life Chicago gangster Al Capone whose nickname was Scarface. (Tony Montana has an unhealthy obsession with stopping his sister being with other men. It’s possible screenwriter Oliver Stone based this character trait on the brother in the Capone story below, directly connecting it back to the origin of the nickname Scarface.)

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By the early 1980s, Universal started to revisit the works of Howard Hawks to remake them. John Carpenter’s The Thing was first out of the gate in 1982 and was hated by critics and died a death at the box office.

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Scarface was next on the agenda. Pacino had seen the 1932 original in a cinema a few years previously and was amazed at Paul Muni’s performance as Tony Camonte, the Scarface of the title. He went outside, called producer Martin Bregman and told him he wanted to star in a remake. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro had also planned a Scarface remake but Pacino got there first. So the wheels of production started. (Four years after Scarface, director Brian De Palma would tackle the real-life Scarface’s story with Robert De Niro playing Al Capone in “The Untouchables” (1987).)

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Scarface is quite Shakespearean, something Pacino, a stage-trained actor and renowned aficionado of The Bard, must have noticed. Tony Montana murders his way to the top of the Miami underworld just as Macbeth murders his way to the Scottish throne and both men pay dearly for their immoral actions. As in Hamlet, everyone dies in the end (imagine how many bodies would litter the stage at the denouement if Scarface were a play!).

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The over-the-top nature of the film and its characters has been called “operatic” and I believe this is the correct way to look at its excesses (particularly that ending where a cocaine-fuelled Montana raves and rants while being shot to pieces from all angles by a hit squad like he’s demonically-possessed). Opera gets away with it though as its arty, Scarface with its gaudiness, drugs, f-words and blue collar aspirations was given none of that slack. (It’s surprising that nobody has thought of doing Scarface as an opera yet, I can see it now.) It was attacked by everyone. Critics found the ultra-violence deplorable, particularly the chainsaw lobotomy scene in the shower during the botched drug deal. In the film’s defence, Colombian cartels did use chainsaws to savagely dispose of enemies and rivals. So Oliver Stone was merely holding a mirror up to society and reflecting back an uncomfortable modern truth that he discovered in his extensive research. Cubans took the depiction of Montana as a slur on their people and the director and producer of Scarface began getting death threats and switched the shooting schedule from Miami to Los Angeles.

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Pacino outlined how he prepared to take on the role of Tony Montana: “I worked with an expert in knife combat, with a physical education guy who helped me get the kind of body I wanted for the part. I used the boxer Roberto Durán a little bit. There was an aspect of Durán , a certain lion in him that I responded to in this character. And I was very inspired by Meryl Streep’s work in “Sophie’s Choice” (1982). I thought that her way of involving herself in playing someone who is from another country and another world was particularly fine and committed and… courageous.”

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Like Brando’s Godfather, Pacino disappears inside his character in a way he rarely has before or since (he mostly plays thinly-disguised versions of himself with big, shouty moments.) Like Brando’s Vito Corleone, his Tony Montana has instantly recognisable lines (his “Say hello to my little friend!” is up there with “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”) and mannerisms (do an impression of Scarface or The Godfather and people know virtually straight away who it is, even if they haven’t seen the movies each character comes from.) Both Vito Corleone and Tony Montana are immigrants to the United States who set about establishing crime empires on the east coast (Corleone in New York, Montana down south in Miami, Florida). Both endure assassination attempts and both fight back ruthlessly against their enemies to retain control. The Godfather belongs to a timeless, monolithic, mythic storytelling tradition, Scarface was compared to a spaghetti western by critic Pauline Kael, she called it “hot and raw.” With its 1980 fashions, hairstyles and Giorgio Moroder disco score, Scarface seems more dated than The Godfather, even though it was made eleven years later.

Al Pacino remembered the shell-shocked reaction to Scarface after its premiere: “We couldn’t show our faces after it opened. I was at a party after a screening at Sardi’s. I walked in and the faces looked like those in a wax museum. People were sitting so still. Liza Minnelli was there. She hadn’t seen the movie. She came up to me and said: ‘What did you do to these people?’ And yet it survived.”

Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, another Howard Hawks remake that was mauled, Scarface eventually found an audience on home video and a cult reputation began to emerge. Eventually, it became a part of popular culture, even being referenced in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective by Jim Carrey. The black rap community took Scarface to their hearts (you’d be hard-pressed to find an episode of MTV Cribs featuring a rapper who didn’t flash a DVD of Scarface at the camera as it went through their home.) Universal even wanted to release a remixed version of Pacino’s Scarface with a new rap soundtrack at one point but director Brian de Palma refused to allow it.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) was a western that was a remake of a Japanese film called The Seven Samurai (1954). Recently, we had the remake of the remake with the studio recycling the old cowboy movie again instead of having, say, seven mercenaries protecting a village from a Taliban warlord or ISIS. Pacino’s Scarface was a remake of the old Howard Hawks 1932 film. Now we’re getting the remake of the remake again and it appears they’re just going to recycle the 80s Cuban druglord story again instead of, say, having Montana be a criminal mingling in with the Syrian refugees flooding the world now. (Sure, you’d have the PC brigade down on you for that but so did Pacino and Co. in the 80s. They took risks that paid off spectacularly. They took an old story, updated it and made it ultra-relevant again. Studios now only want safe bets. You won’t see them taking huge risks on new stories and talent as they did in the 70s now.)Pacino Diego Luna

Diego Luna has been cast as the new Tony Montana and he has his work cut out for him already having to go up against Pacino’s monstrous Tony. I don’t know how you could top or even match that performance. It’s epic scenery-chewing.

I give every remake the benefit of the doubt. Nobody liked Pacino’s Scarface, but it’s now looked on as a classic. They’ll release new versions of the 1983 Scarface to coincide with the release of the remake too, it will probably get a 4k scan and new extras on disc. Another reason to welcome the remake, even if it seems unnecessary. The world is and always will be Tony Montana’s, whoever plays him.

© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Loving The Alien

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Star Wars is the fairy story and I was going to do The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction,” said director Ridley Scott about Alien (1979).

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Director Ridley Scott on the set of Alien with Sigourney Weaver.

There were vague suggestions in the script as to what the creature looked like. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon gave Scott a 1978 book by Swiss conceptual artist H.R. Giger titled Necronomicon. Giger had an incredible and unique surreal style with pages and pages of grey, suffocating, biomechanical erotica. When Scott saw one of the many creatures in Giger’s book, he knew he had found his monster.

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Hans Ruedi Giger at work

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The creature collapses many of our darkest sexual fears into one beast; its phallic head and tail, its erectile teeth and slavering mouth with two sets of jaws that recalled the vagina dentata (the folk myth of toothed female genitalia that goes back as far as Ancient Greece). So the creature was at once alien yet oddly familiar in subtle, subconscious ways.

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The alien has a life cycle straight out of a biology book. The creature begins life as one of the many eggs Kane (John Hurt) finds on the alien planet, the face-hugger leaps out of the egg, wraps itself around his head and implants its seed inside his throat (the first of several oral rapes in the film; Ash the android later malfunctions and tries to shove a rolled-up porn magazine into the mouth of Sigourney Weaver’s heroine Ripley). The writers apparently based this on a species of African wasp which lays its eggs underneath the skin of humans. The alien “foetus” grows inside Kane until it explodes out of him as the chest-burster and hides out in the ventilation shafts of the vast Nostromo spacecraft. The alien rapidly sheds its skin like a snake and grows in size to become the eight-foot tall adult.

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Perhaps because Ridley Scott is British, there’s a class element to the hierarchy on board the Nostromo spacecraft. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee says Scott uses “stepdown imagery” in the living quarters to make it seem blue-collar; mementoes like the shot glass with the toy bird pecking in it and family photographs show us a crew of interstellar truck drivers light years from home, missing loved ones and complaining about pay and conditions.

It has been said that Alien, like the slasher movies that were popular around the same time, stole the plot of Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians where a group of characters are confined in one place and get bumped off one by one. Where the slasher movies and Alien inverted that structure was a plot device called The Final Girl – the female survivor who outlives her peer group and kills the monster or appears to. Ripley is the final girl in Alien. The key difference is that slasher films are set on earth with friends, family, neighbours or the police to call on for help. Ripley is totally alone in the depths of space and working for a company who think she’s expendable. There are no humans around for millions of miles and no one to hear her scream, which made it infinitely scarier.

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Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley is credited with creating the genre of science fiction with her 1818 novel Frankenstein. The feminist theme of that book is that when men create life, they create monsters and Alien essentially has the same theme as the creature is born of man. So Alien is a very clever reworking and reinvention of basic horror and sci-fi themes for a modern audience.

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© Stewart Stafford, 2017. All rights reserved.

Star Wars – Empire Under Construction

Narrative theory is the academic idea begun by the Russian scholars Todorov and Propp and continued later by the American Joseph Campbell, that the same archetypes and story motifs and narrative structures appear repeatedly in fairytales and folktales in every culture.

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With Star Wars everywhere in the news this week following the release of Rogue One and the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, let’s take a look at narrative theory through the example of Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope. It was written and directed by George Lucas and released in 1977. It’s a science fiction film even though it takes from every genre; Arthurian legend (the Jedi knights are similar to King Arthur’s knights of the Round Table, Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Merlin-like figure who gives Luke a laser sword similar to Excalibur), Japanese Kurosawa movie The Hidden Fortress (1958) (Lucas said: “The one thing that really struck me about The Hidden Fortress was the fact that the story was told from the [perspective of] the two lowest characters. I decided that would be a nice way to tell the Star Wars story, which was to take the two lowest characters, as Kurosawa did, and tell the story from their point of view, which in the Star Wars case is the two droids.” Darth Vader’s helmet is also supposed to resemble a Samurai’s.)

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Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952) and Harrison Ford in Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars also evokes American Westerns (Han Solo is dressed exactly like Gary Cooper in High Noon minus the cowboy hat.The raucous, violent canteen is like a Western saloon and the destruction of Luke’s home and family is very like The Searchers) and World War II movies (Darth Vader’s helmet also resembles a Nazi helmet, the Empire’s troops are called Stormtroopers just as Hitler’s were and the dogfights in outer space are like Second World War aerial battles. Lucas even edited World War II dogfight footage into an early rough cut of Star Wars as a guide before the special effects were ready.)

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Lucas had tried and failed to secure the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie, yet he retained the opening exposition crawl from the start of the old 1930s Buster Crabbe/Flash Gordon serials for Star Wars.

Here are Propp’s archetypes in Star Wars:

Hero – Luke Skywalker

Donor – Obi-Wan Kenobi gives Luke his lightsaber.

Helper – Han Solo, Chewbacca and the droids

Princess – Leia

Her Father – Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader

False Hero – There is no obvious false hero in the Star Wars – Episode IV. It appears to be Han Solo, who selfishly refuses to take part in the crucial assault on the Death Star but he redeems himself in a last-minute twist by saving Luke’s life and neutralising the threat of Darth Vader which gives Luke time to destroy the Death Star.

Dispatcher – I believe it’s Leia; she puts the distress hologram inside R2-D2. This sends the droid on his mission which reactivates Obi-Wan who activates Luke as the hero.

For me, the structure is this;

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Act I – Hidden Fortress meets The Searchers

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Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in Where Eagles Dare (1968)
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Han Solo and Luke Skywalker similarly dressed as the enemy in the Death Star

Act II – Where Eagles Dare (Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton disguise themselves as Nazis to infiltrate a German fortress on a mountaintop just as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker disguise themselves as the enemy to get around the Death Star)

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Act III – The Dambusters (Lucas hired British cinematographer Gil Taylor to shoot Star Wars and he had done special effects photography on the 1955 British film The Dam Busters. The assault on the Death Star at the end is a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the bombing of the German dams at the finale of The Dam Busters.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

Star Wars © Lucasfilm Ltd.

       

Wuthering Heights & Its Influence on Vampire and Popular Culture

Wuthering Heights, the only novel by author Emily Bronte before her death at 30, has been highly influential on popular culture. It was published in 1847, the year of the great Famine in Ireland and exactly 50 years before Bram Stoker published Dracula.

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The book begins with the narrator Lockwood coming to stay at Wuthering Heights. He is given the former room of Catherine Earnshaw. During the night, he dreams that the ghost of Catherine or Cathy Earnshaw comes to the window, grabs his arm and begs to be let inside. Lockwood informs Heathcliff, the landlord, who opens the window to let the spirit enter but none appears. This supernatural appearance at the window is similar to how Dracula gains entry to the bedrooms of his victims, except he uses his mental, physical and/or erotic power to get in. In some vampire stories, it is necessary to invite a vampire in for them to gain access. It would appear to have at least partially originated in this standout scene from Wuthering Heights.

The story of Wuthering Heights is then told in flashback (Stoker also uses narrators to tell the story of Dracula but in the form of letters and journal entries). Heathcliff as a child is discovered wandering homeless by Mr Earnshaw on his trip to Liverpool. (Liverpool is a port and, as with Dracula, Heathcliff seems to have arrived in England by ship although that is never stated in the book. Judging by the ethnic description of him though and the location where he was found, it is a strong possibility.) The boy is described as “a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect.” Earnshaw names him Heathcliff and brings him home where his presence stirs up jealousy from Earnshaw’s son Hindley and infatuation from his daughter Cathy.

Heathcliff, like Dracula, is the mysterious, dark foreigner bringing his obsessive, destructive and ultimately lethal love to England’s stuffy upper classes. The theme repeatedly used in Wuthering Heights about eternal love even after death was one Bram Stoker would return to in Dracula five decades later.

Although they appear destined to be together, Cathy and Heathcliff grow up and marry other people and their relationship turns jealously masochistic with fatal consequences. Only after their deaths do they appear to fulfill their destiny and become soulmates at last.

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Sir Henry Irving
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Irish author Bram Stoker

Dracula author Bram Stoker was the manager of actor Sir Henry Irving. Irving was a fearsome figure who dominated Stoker. Many believe him to be the inspiration for Stoker’s vampire count.

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Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff (1939)

Not only did Irving serve as inspiration for Bram Stoker but, indirectly, for actor Laurence Olivier who played both Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and Van Helsing in Dracula onscreen.

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Olivier as Van Helsing in Dracula (1979)

When stuck for ideas on how to play Shakespeare’s Richard III in the movie he was directing, Olivier said: ‘I’d always heard imitations of old actors imitating Henry Irving. And so I did, right away, an imitation of these old actors imitating Henry Irving’s voice. That’s why I took that sort of rather narrow vocal address.’

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Olivier as Richard III (1955)
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Ralphie Glick returns as a vampire

Cathy’s ghost appearing at the window echoes the victory over death and return from the grave in vampire lore. Stephen King’s 1975 novel Salem’s Lot was inspired by Dracula. One night over supper, King mused what would happen if Dracula reappeared in the-then 20th century. Again, King makes the connection between Dracula and Wuthering Heights explicit when dead boy Ralphie Glick comes to his brother’s window after being preyed upon by the master vampire in the town. He also wishes to be let in as Cathy does.

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Kate Bush in the video for Wuthering Heights

In 1978, Kate Bush reached number one in the UK charts with her song Wuthering Heights. It was directly inspired by a 1967 BBC adaptation of Emily Bronte’s novel that Kate Bush saw when she was 18 (she even shares the same birthday as Emily Bronte). Bush specifically chose Cathy’s appearance at the window in the book to structure the song around and wrote from her perspective: “Heathcliff! It’s me, your Cathy, I’ve come home. So co-o-o-old, let me in at your window.” She definitely played up the scary, supernatural side of the scene and wasn’t afraid to potentially frighten away record buyers. Her bravery paid off with her first and only number one to date.

Kate Bush’s mother was from Ireland. With her high-pitched wailing and scary eyes in the video, it’s tempting to imagine Kate Bush shifting the setting of Wuthering Heights to Ireland and the ghost of Cathy becoming a Banshee coming in from a misty bog in the Irish countryside. Journalist Clive James famously stated in 1978 that he wasn’t sure ‘whether Kate Bush is a genius or a headcase, but she is definitely something else.’ Her ethereal, otherworldly performance spooked some people just as the original scene in Emily Bronte’s book had.

You can watch the two very interesting versions of her Wuthering Heights videos here;

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It just demonstrates how, when an author hits upon a striking and powerful image, it can permeate down consciously and unconsciously through many forms of artistic expression for decades and even centuries to come.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

The Vorbing vampire novel by Stewart Stafford

A Hobbit, Four Beatles, a Queen and a Led Zeppelin: How Tolkien Influenced British Music In The 1960s and 7os

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Allow me to elaborate on my quote, dear readers. In the Second World war, Britain and Germany were gleefully bombing each other’s major cities into oblivion day and night. In the myopia of war, they thought they were engaged in a conflict to strengthen themselves, but were, in fact, destroying each other as major world powers. This created a vacuum into which stepped the new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.

In the aftermath of the war, Britain was devastated physically, financially and mentally. Rationing was still in force and luxuries were unheard of for a whole generation of children. The war was before their time but the impact and implications of it were a daily fact of life. Ruined areas called bomb sites still pockmarked the land and the new kids played on them, including a young David Bowie.

Bowie’s biographer Paul Trynka kicks off his excellent book Starman with this illustration of grim post-war austerity from Peter Prickett: “Everything seemed grey. We wore short grey flannel trousers of a thick and rough material, grey socks and grey shirts. The roads were grey, the prefabs were grey and the bomb sites seemed to be made of grey rubble.”

Behold the constraints of reality! Glam Rock in the 70s was going to be the antithesis of all that childhood drabness and deprivation. First though, Tolkien would unleash the beast that was The Lord of the Rings. Despite being written in stages between 1937 and 1949, three volumes were published over the course of a year between 1954 and 1955 (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and the Return of the king). There was a sudden glut of Tolkien product in the marketplace at just the right time. The books were manna from Heaven for a generation starved of good food, new ideas and hope. For the first time, they had in their hands an affordable escape and a template for a way out of their difficult situations. It was like the scene in the Wizard of Oz where the world goes from monochrome to eye-popping technicolor as Dorothy reaches Oz. John Lennon was one of many British kids who became a fan of Tolkien’s.

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The Beatles turned everything on its head when they shot to fame in 1962. As well as topping the charts with monster hits on both sides of the Atlantic, they also made some remarkable films including A Hard Day’s Night, Help and the surreal, Pythonesque Magical Mystery Tour. Kicking around for ideas for a new Fab Four flick, John Lennon suggested an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Peter Jackson directed both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogies. In 2014, he said “The Beatles once approached Stanley Kubrick to do The Lord Of The Rings and he said no. I actually spoke about this with Paul McCartney. He confirmed it. I’d heard rumors that it was going to be their next film after Help.”

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It wasn’t just Kubrick who rejected The Beatles: “It was something John was driving, and J.R.R. Tolkien still had the film rights at that stage, but he didn’t like the idea of the Beatles doing it. So he killed it,” Jackson added.

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Lennon had published two books himself, A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write, his love of wordplay being evident in the titles. Lennon was fan of Lewis Carroll as well as Tolkien and his writing has been compared to Carroll’s, particularly I Am The Walrus.

 

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It is arguable that many of the prog rock concept albums of the 70s were an attempt to transfer Tolkien’s epic fantasy imagery to the album format. Rick Wakeman played piano on Bowie’s Life On Mars and was the keyboard player with Yes. Wakeman did a 70s concert at an ice rink with skaters playing knights on horseback jousting to the music he was playing. He admitted recently that he had gone too far but it was excess-all-areas in the 70s.

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Lord of the Strings

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin was a serious Tolkien nerd, liberally sprinkling references to the books in his songs. Take these lines from Zeppelin’s Ramble On: “Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair. But Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.”

Freddie 1974

Queen, in turn, were big fans of Led Zeppelin. They played Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song during soundchecks and Plant turned up at The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 to perform Innuendo and Crazy Little Thing Called Love. It’s possible that Freddie and the boys imbibed some of Zeppelin’s Tolkien imagery by osmosis. Seven Seas of Rhye was Queen’s first hit. It came out in 1974 and was written by Freddie Mercury. Rhye was a fantasy world that Freddie had created with his sister Kashmira. Freddie sings of “the mighty Titan and his troubadours” in Seven Seas of Rhye. On other Queen albums there was “Ogre Battle” and “Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke.” The imagery of Brian May’s The Prophet’s Song on A Night At The Opera is very Tolkienesque, although the images came to him in a dream. Queen would also go on to do the music for fantasy films like Highlander and Flash Gordon.

Tolkien was probably horrified by the bands and music he inspired but that would have been a typical reaction from his generation. None of it was intended for him. He was unable to foresee the consequences of publishing his books but it is interesting to see how one creative act can inspire many similar and dissimilar ones, spreading out like ripples in a pond. We pass the torch of inspiration down the generations, it is not ours to keep but ours to maintain and pass on.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

 

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest Legacy?

“I’m not just a boxer!” Muhammad Ali once said. He wasn’t. He was so much more than that. Apart from his fluid, balletic boxing skills in the ring, he was one of the first sportsmen to use psychology to wear down his opponents before a punch had been thrown. He was fighting some of the toughest, hardest-punching men in the world but he cleverly figured out that they had built up their bodies but neglected their minds. So he used words like weapons, chipping away at his rival’s psyche until they were beaten men and didn’t even know it. That tactic certainly worked with the brutish Sonny Liston in the 60s. Just watch the old black-and-white press conferences as Ali fires one verbal missile after another and world champion Liston can’t believe what he’s hearing from this cocky young pup.

Ali I Am The Greatest

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay. He changed his name for this reason: “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God – and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.” He grew up in a time when black Americans were third-class citizens. He won the Light Heavyweight gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, came back to America, and, when they refused to serve him in a restaurant because of his colour, he went outside and threw his gold medal in the river. Even after becoming Olympic champion for America, no one believed in him. So he believed in himself. He could use words to attack but he could also use words to pump himself up. He called himself The Greatest until he and the world believed it. It gave him the confidence, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, to make his dreams a reality against the tide of begrudgers who wished him ill.

He used words to taunt but he also wrote poems, told jokes and gave speeches to inspire. Some credit Ali with being the first rapper and creating hip-hop music.

Ali Handcuffed Lightning

In 1974, Ali had perhaps his most famous fight, The Rumble in The Jungle in Zaire, Africa against George Foreman. Nobody gave the ageing Ali a chance. If you watch the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings, you’ll see the extraordinary mental process Ali engaged in to psych himself up for the fight. He begins at the first press conference asking who thinks he can win the fight. Nobody does and he seems down. Then he goes on the attack against his critics. Then he starts working on himself: “Everybody’s scared…there’s nothing to be scared of!” You can see he doesn’t quite believe what he’s saying yet but he keeps going. He turned to his religion for reassurance: “All I need is a prayer because if that prayer reaches the right man, not only will George Foreman fall, mountains will fall!” Ali refused to watch Foreman training, even when they passed each other in the gym. He blocked out his fear. Then Ali tried a different form of psychology on Foreman, a similar brute to Sonny Liston. Ali was 32 then, his speed had left him and he needed a new tactic. He called it rope-a-dope in which he would go to the ropes and absorb punishment before launching a surprise counterattack when the other fighter was exhausted.

Ali Foreman

When fight night came, Ali started throwing right-hand leads at Foreman. As in any battle, doing the thing your opponent least expects usually ends favourably. A right-hand lead has to travel twice as far across the shoulder to land and it’s hugely disrespectful to any fighter especially the champion of the world to catch him with one let alone twelve as Ali did. Foreman, enraged, punched himself out in the blistering African heat and Ali shocked the world by winning back his world title at the past-it age of 32.

Ali Knocks Out Foreman

Ali was a political figure too. He became a black Muslim and changed his name, that was a political act. He was involved in the Civil Rights struggle with Malcolm X, that was a political act. And he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army to go fight in Vietnam, there is no greater political act than that. He said: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people while so-called negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” Ali was stripped of his titles, boxing licence and was out of the ring for four years in his prime. He didn’t sit around and mope but went on a tour of American colleges to get the young people on his side (and against the war) with his wit, charm and intelligence. Another political act.

Ali He who is not courageous

Those four years out of boxing cost Ali huge sums of money. Financial pressure and his enormous pride made Ali continue fighting long past his prime. His last, disgraceful fight came three months before his 39th birthday. An ailing, flabby Ali was easily outclassed and hurt by his old sparring partner Larry Holmes. It was an undignified end to an incredible career.

Then began the next great fight of his life when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome and the verbose Ali was replaced with a trembling, whispering giant. He still managed to light the Olympic flame at the 1996 games, a highlight for anyone who remembers it. His condition worsened in recent years until he was unable to speak. For the last 30 years, this has been his frail public image. If any good comes from his death, it will be that all his classic clips will get aired again so today’s youth can see what the man was like in his dazzling pomp.

joe_frazier

Ali had a dark side too. Fellow boxer Joe Frazier helped Ali out financially when he was banned from the ring. Ali later turned on Frazier, ruined his reputation by calling him an Uncle Tom and a bitter feud developed between them.

Frazier Drops Ali Bigger

It resulted in Frazier breaking Ali’s jaw and knocking him out in their epic Madison Square Garden encounter in 1971 (that resulted in Ali being out of the ring again for a good while). Despite having a white Irish great-grandfather named Abe Grady who’d married a freed slave out of love (not slave rape as Ali conveniently claimed), Ali said some nasty, racist things about white people including: “The white man is The Devil!” He even compared the white race to poisonous snakes. Pretty distasteful stuff but typical of the hardline rhetoric he was absorbing from radicals around him at the time. In 1972, Ali went to Ireland and received a rapturous reception from a then all-white country. Jose Torres, journalist and former world light-heavyweight champion who accompanied Ali to Dublin, said: “I want to tell you something now: I think that it was his experience in Ireland that reminded him of the goodness of white people and he began easing his attacks on the white man after that. It was when he began to take out of his dictionary the talk about the white devils. How could he think bad of white people when every street he walked down in Ireland, he had all these white people loving him?” In 2009, Muhammad Ali journeyed to Ennis in Ireland (below) where his great-grandfather came from and everything came full circle.

Ali Ennis Boxing Pose

Like Shakespeare’s King Lear, Ali is “a man more sinned against than sinning.” History will be kind to him.

Muhammad-Ali-quote-on-Elvis

When Elvis Presley died in 1977, the Soviet news agency Tass granted him American icon status along with Mickey Mouse and Coca Cola. Muhammad Ali has more than earned that status too. So long denied recognition, Ali forced the United States to overcome its prejudices and acknowledge him and his people. That is perhaps his greatest victory and a lasting legacy that will inspire people of every race, colour and creed for generations to come. May he rest in peace.

Ali How I Would Like To Be Remembered

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

5-Star Vampires

The latest 5-star review of my novel  # hails it “a classic in the vampire genre” with “incredible imagination.” Get it here and see for yourself; getBook.at/TheVorbingAmazon

The Story Behind David Bowie’s “Heroes”

“The lowest point in my life was in 1975, when I was 28, living in Los Angeles. I really did think that my thoughts about not making 30 would come true. Drugs had taken my life away from me. I felt as though I would probably die and it was going to be all over. My assistant, Coco, got me out of it. Thanks to her, I got myself out of America to Berlin”

David Bowie

So he did and that is where the genesis of his classic song “Heroes” begins. Germany has an oddly influential place in popular music history. Elvis was stationed there in the army in the 50s. The Beatles went to Hamburg and learned their craft and lived it up in the early 60s. Bowie recorded his Low, Heroes and Lodger albums there and Queen recorded several albums in Munich, including their best-selling album The Game. U2 would record Achtung Baby there in the early 90s. David Bowie played a concert in West Berlin in 1987 that could be heard over the Berlin Wall in East Berlin. Earlier this week, when news of Bowie’s death broke, the German Foreign Office tweeted: “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.” Praise, indeed.

The album “Heroes”, the second of Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy”, was recorded at Hansa Studio by the Wall in what was then West Berlin. It was produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti with Brian Eno playing a key role in it also. (Bowie credits Eno with shifting the emphasis of his career away from the creation of characters like Ziggy Stardust to the music itself.)

The song “Heroes” was recorded using a noise gate technique. According to Wikipedia, a noise gate is “an electronic device or software that is used to control the volume of an audio signal.”

It goes on: “The invention of a technique, called multi-latch gating by Jay Hodgson, common in classical music recordings for years, is often credited to producer Tony Visconti, whose use on David Bowie’s “Heroes” may have been the first in rock. Visconti recorded Bowie’s vocals in a large space using three microphones placed 9 inches (23 cm), 20 feet (6.1 m), and 50 feet (15.2 m) away, respectively. A different gate was applied to each microphone so that the farther microphone was triggered only when Bowie reached the appropriate volume, and each microphone was muted as the next one was triggered.

Bowie’s performance thus grows in intensity precisely as ever more ambience infuses his delivery until, by the final verse, he has to shout just to be heard….The more Bowie shouts to be heard, in fact, the further back in the mix Visconti’s multi-latch system pushes his vocal tracks [dry audio being perceived as front and ambience pushing audio back in the mix], creating a stark metaphor for the situation of Bowie’s doomed lovers shouting their love for one another over the Berlin wall”

(Tony Visconti recently admitted that the he and his mistress were the couple seen kissing by the wall.)

Bowie played the sax solo at the end of “Heroes” and even recorded a version in German called “Helden.”

Helden

The video for Heroes

When released on October 15th 1977, the song only got to number 24 in the UK charts a far cry from smash-hit Ziggy Stardust mania just a few years earlier. Even his appearance on Top of the Pops in a plain shirt with a less-harsh remix of the song seems muted compared to his culture-changing turn on the same show with Starman.

Heroes on Top of the Pops 1977

The noise gate technique the shouting Bowie had to resort to did result in a harsh-sounding vocal that wasn’t exactly radio friendly at the time which perhaps accounts for its low chart-placing. (Queen’s “We Are The Champions” was released the same month and became an instant classic anthem when it reached number 2 in the charts.) While “Heroes” remained a favourite with his fans, in the general public’s consciousness the song quickly faded from the charts and into obscurity. It remained there until eight years later, when Bowie had the inspired idea to include it in his set for Live Aid.

Bob Geldof had christened his Live Aid charity extravaganza “The Global Jukebox” and told the artists on the bill to give him hits, hits and more hits to keep viewers watching and donating. While “Heroes” wasn’t one of Bowie’s biggest hits on first release, it is one of his best songs and the idea of being heroes for a day was the perfect tagline for Live Aid. So it proved, the song went down a storm. Everyone in Wembley Stadium got swept up in the idea of their generation changing the world in that place at that time. Bowie told the Wembley crowd: “You’re the real heroes of this concert.”

Heroes at Live Aid

Queen had ended their legendary Live Aid set earlier with “We Are The Champions.” That day, “Heroes” joined “We Are The Champions” in the pantheon of inspirational anthems that are often played at sporting events. When a documentary was made about the Live Aid concerts by the Band Aid trust later in 1985, a montage of the artists that performed was cut to the sounds of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”

The rehabilitation of “Heroes” reached its apotheosis at the London Olympic games of 2012 when “Heroes” was playing on loop in the background at each medal presentation. It even featured in the closing ceremony.

Who knows, perhaps “Heroes” may even become a posthumous number one for David Bowie, such is the popularity and poignancy of the song now. That would be a fitting close to the remarkable journey the song has taken in the unforgettable life of its creator and in the lives of us all.

© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.

(Stewart Stafford’s novel “The Vorbing” is available here)

Vampires In The Brain: The Genesis of The Vorbing

The only comment at the end of the first report card I ever got from school at age five said: “Stewart writes very interesting stories.” I can remember having a discussion with my headmaster in front of the class about the Watergate situation. He was impressed that a five-year-old even knew the word Watergate let alone the political and judicial situation. That was my dad’s influence; he treated me like an adult from the start and made me aware of things. My mother’s side of the family had a lot of performers. She herself had the rare gift of having one of those pure singing voices that brought an instant hush to the noisiest party. Such a shame the world never got to hear it as she is no longer with us.

As all children at the time did, I was into comics. Yes, the paper ones. Ones from England like The Beano, The Dandy, Buster (my brother’s comic of choice that I read when he was finished with them) and Whizzer & Chips. I particularly liked the cut-out masks of Guy Fawkes that came with them around November 5th as we don’t celebrate Guy Fawkes Night in Ireland (The Gunpowder Plot being an infamous part of British history) Look-In was my favourite kids magazine with articles on movies, TV shows and music. When Star Wars came out, I did buy the Star Wars comic too and enjoyed seeing characters from the movie spinoff into different adventures. There was even a Laurel and Hardy comic out then and a Popeye one as well. To this day, I can still draw a pretty good Popeye in under 60 seconds. (Today’s kids don’t do tangible. They’re mostly gamers, especially boys, and their first experiences are visual and online and remain so. There are phenomena like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games that give hope that the younger generation are keeping up literary traditions and forging their own path.)

Television gets a bad rap these days with some parents refusing to let their children watch it, but that’s a mistake. There was an excellent news show tailored for children on the BBC called John Craven’s Newsround. I watched that from Monday to Friday for years. Through that, I began to form opinions about things. I started to agree with one thing but not with another. Even just the awareness of what was going on around the world at that time like The Cold War shaped my world view. Denying children access to that is closing them off from reality and knowledge. Reading about something is one thing, seeing it happen in front of your eyes makes you a witness to history (all of that culminating in 9/11, a day I’ll never forget). Of course, there is selective editing from the journalist and news corporation’s viewpoints but the gist of it is yours to decipher and absorb. You come to an understanding of that later in life. An opinion makes your writing specific and different from others.

I saw the old Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movie The Hound of The Baskervilles on television one afternoon when I was around nine and was fascinated (you could argue that its Gothic influence is all over my novel The Vorbing). I saw the book on sale for 99p in my local supermarket and snapped it up. The book was even better than the film and a love of reading was born. I did endure an unfortunate Sherlock Holmes-related incident when I got a book on the Holmes movies from my local library. I returned it on time but received a threatening card in the post from the library saying the book was overdue. I told them I had returned it but for three years the threatening communiqués kept arriving. Not a nice experience for a kid who had done nothing wrong to go through. Finally, they copped on that the book was in fact back with them in the library just as I had told them all along.  I never got an apology only an admission that they were wrong. That experience put me off libraries and I usually buy the books I read now. It’s also probably why I can’t stand unfairness and bullying and will stop it as no one did that for me.

My school library proved to be a much more lenient and fruitful experience for me. The books were stacked along the windowsill of the classroom and they had a wide variety of texts. I read Rudyard Kipling, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and even The Iliad by Homer. There were books of ghost stories that I was just entranced by (even better if they were true, I always hated the endings of Scooby Doo cartoons when the ghosts weren’t real). A documentary came out at that time about the Bermuda Triangle and I was lucky that my local cinema actually screened documentaries. I urged my dad to take me to it and he did along with my brother. As with Sherlock, there was a book of the movie by Charles Berlitz. It was my dad’s birthday soon after the film opened, so I got him the book knowing that I could read it if I wanted to and I did. I remember one dull, wet morning our teacher was late or absent and I just took out my Bermuda Triangle book and lost myself in it. The rest of the class were getting louder and louder with unsupervised boredom. I heard none of it. I was off the coast of Bermuda searching for Flight 19 and various other missing planes and ships. I went further in that area by buying a magazine on the paranormal called The Unexplained. It covered not only the Bermuda Triangle but also Bigfoot and even things like spontaneous combustion with graphic photos that earned me major brownie points in the schoolyard.

In later years, I came across the work of James Ellroy, my favourite fiction writer. He has written L.A. Confidential and other noir thrillers. There is a great, obsessive rhythm to his work. It is expletive-ridden and gloriously politically incorrect. His attitude is, if you don’t like something he’s written: “Fuck you, put the book down.”

I also discovered the works of Antony Beevor, my favourite non-fiction author. In recent years, he has released one definitive text on World War II after another, his masterpiece being Stalingrad. The numerous awards it has won and the seemingly endless ecstatic blurb quotes by big names aren’t there for nothing. Again, The Vorbing is steeped in warfare and the influence of Beevor’s minutely-detailed but heart-wrenching battles scenes bleed into my vampire novel. My dad was also a soldier and so war has always been there in the background.

So now I come to put my own first book out there in October. It is surreal to think I will soon see a book with my name on it, in my hands and on the internet. To think someone could hopefully derive pleasure from something I have written is a thrill beyond words. Perhaps I could even inspire someone else to write something the way my heroes directly and indirectly inspired me. That is the literary baton we pass from generation to generation going right back to the oral tradition passed down the generations around the campfire and hearth. Long may it continue.

© Stewart Stafford, 2015. All rights reserved.

(This blog was first published on my website earlier; http://thevorbing.com/2015/07/vampires-in-the-brain-the-genesis-of-the-vorbing/)