Category Archives: Origin Story

The Meaning of Life or Get Down With The Randomness, Baby

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Tbe meaning of life is that great philosophical, existentialist and ethical question that mankind has preoccupied itself with since the birth of rational thought.

Once the human animal acquired conscious thought, it was going to start overthinking things. There had to be a reason for everything. Nothing was going to be left to chance from then on. This new logic thing in our brains couldn’t handle luck or randomness. Everything had to be explained step-by-step from our perspective.

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It is a combination of man’s mental acuity and self-importance to try and attach any meaning to life. Why can’t we just be an extremely fortunate life form randomly hurtling through space on an ideally-positioned rock? If life has any meaning, it is the basic biological one of passing on our genes to the next generation before we die. However sophisticated we are or imagine we are, it really doesn’t get more complicated than that.

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The first cave paintings were early man taking a step back from himself and seeing his world one step removed (we do this today with all forms of art). He was observing himself, seeing how his society operated, explaining what he could and posing new questions to himself that needed answers (some believe these paintings were the first attempts at speech by the human animal. They were also probably the first attempts at interior decorating too).

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We set out to explore the world: a thirst for knowledge backed by a lust for domination, power, land and gold. It only threw up more questions – who were these alien peoples we encountered and how could God have created them? God, of course, was the perfect explanation that man sought. This deity ticked all the boxes. With a wave of his mighty hand, the world and humanity, the beings he made in his own image, were there.

Science then came along and upended the theology apple cart. It gave us evolution and natural selection, both structured adaptations to random scenarios. The dinosaurs lost the evolutionary lottery by getting wiped out by an Act of God. It could happen to humans too but that is too difficult for us to contemplate. We need information fed to us piecemeal to formulate opinions, Doomsday is too hasty for us. It isn’t logical.

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Of course, we look for endless reasons for our existence – psychological, philosophical, theological. We even invented religions to explain our existence back to us (most of the world’s religions were founded as offshoots of another because of disagreements to the theological direction being taken. “All roads lead to God” as one quotations goes. “There are many roads in Monotheism” might be a better way of putting it).

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Albert Einstein in a random moment

Albert Einstein, the very figurehead of the concept of genius, had his say in 1935 on The Meaning of Life:

“What is the meaning of human life, or, for that matter, of the life of any creature? To know an answer to this question means to be religious. You ask: Does it make any sense, then, to pose this question? I answer: The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life.”

I’m not saying that life is meaningless but random – chaos theory, if you like (the problem is that some of us can’t see meaning without structure, the curse of that logical mind of ours). The Fractal Foundation defines Chaos Theory thus: “While most traditional science deals with supposedly predictable phenomena like gravity, electricity, or chemical reactions, Chaos Theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, and so on.”

Talking Heads had a witty take on where we’re headed with their 1985 hit “Road to Nowhere.” It dares to suggest that we’re all just making it up as we go along and nobody really knows where we’re headed, even if they can’t or won’t admit it to themselves or others. Twist your melons around that, you overthinking homo sapiens!

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes writers should be paid for their work, you may donate here.

To read more of my writing, check out my short story Nightfall and my novel The Vorbing.

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Rats Rhapsody: The Road to Live Aid and Beyond

It was Halloween night, October 31st, 1975. Two parallel and seemingly unconnected events were about to take place in music history that wouldn’t cross streams until a decade later.

Queen were about to release their magnum opus “Bohemian Rhapsody. Written by Freddie Mercury, it would enter the UK chart at number 17 on November 15th 1975, reach number one on November 29th and held the top spot for nine weeks until January 24th 1976. Bo Rhap, as Queen fans call it for short, was taken from Queen’s album A Night at the Opera, the title of a Marx Brothers comedy classic movie. Appropriately, Bo Rhap would deny Laurel and Hardy’s tune “Trail of the Lonesome Pine” the number one spot and hold them at number two for two weeks.

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Bob Geldof, Esq.

Also that October 31st, an unknown singer and former music journalist named Bob Geldof made his debut at a Dublin school Halloween dance. His group The Boomtown Rats were rookies who knew nothing about set lists and ended up doing a three-hour performance of mostly dodgy cover versions. Geldof claims a girl approached him during the interval and offered to “give me one.” He said he knew he was in the right job there and then: “You try getting laid in Dublin in the 70’s!”

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The Boomtown Rats in chin-scratching thoughtful mood

Geldof would make it big fast. Less than three years after that inauspicious debut, the Rats had their first UK top ten hit with “Like Clockwork” in the summer of 1978. Four months later in October 1978, they had their first number one single with “Rat Trap.” The Grease soundtrack had dominated the charts in 1978 and Geldof took great pleasure in hiding behind a John Travolta poster on Top of the Pops before ripping it in two to reveal his yawning face as he began to sing.

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Freddie Mercury celebrates at his $200,000 New Orleans midnight Halloween party, 1978

Queen celebrated Halloween night 1978 with one of the most infamous parties in rock history in New Orleans.

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Those two seemingly disparate events in music history at Halloween 1975 would coalesce in Geldof’s Live Aid spectacular at Wembley Stadium on July 13th, 1985 and result in the greatest live performance of all-time. Geldof announced Queen’s participation in the event before they’d fully agreed to it along with many other big name acts like The Who and David Bowie.

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He’s got the whole word in his hands – Bob Geldof welcomes the media to Wembley Stadium to announce Live Aid

Once their hand had been forced, Queen set about preparing their unforgettable set with military precision. The clocks in the orchestra pit of the theatre where they were rehearsing (put there by their roadie Ratty) were just the start. Queen’s sound designer Trip Khalaf took the limiters off the sound at Wembley Stadium meaning that Queen were automatically louder than every act who’d played before them that day. They moved the goalposts certainly but as I always say, no one remembers how you got a chance, they only remember what you did with it. Queen smacked this one out of the ballpark for the home run of home runs. Geldof reacted immediately to Queen’s sound: “I was actually upstairs in the Appeals box in Wembley Stadium, and suddenly I heard this sound. I thought, God, who’s got this sound together? and it was Queen.”

What was the first song in Queen’s set? “Bohemian Rhapsody,” from that long-forgotten Halloween night that launched Live Aid’s founder and gave the stars of his global jukebox their biggest-ever hit and opening number on the day.

Geldof was adamant in his praise of Queen and their astonishing rise to the occasion on his big day: “Queen were absolutely the best band of the day. They played the best, had the best sound, used their time to the full. They understood the idea exactly, that it was a global jukebox. They just went and smashed one hit after another. It was the perfect stage for Freddie: the whole world. And he could ponce about on stage doing ‘We Are the Champions’. How perfect could it get?”

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Freddie Mercury (left in red) and Bob Geldof (far right) at the Live Aid finale

Just over six years later, the great Freddie Mercury was taken from us by the dreaded AIDS virus. However, the band he founded with Brian May and Roger Taylor continued on in various guises without disgruntled bass player John Deacon.

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Queen Mach 2 – Paul Rodgers (foreground), Brian May (midground) and Roger Taylor (background).

In 2004, Queen began a collaboration (and released an album) with Free and Bad Company frontman Paul Rodgers to mixed results. Rodgers exited the regal vehicle in 2009 and Queen faced the prospect of never touring again until fate favourably intervened yet again.

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Bob Geldof shares a joke with Queen’s Roger Taylor and Brian May

It is here that the paths of Bob Geldof and Queen cross yet again. Queen were no longer touring and, as usual, Bob was only too happy to offer his opinion. Since the turn of the century, Geldof had been suggesting that Brian May and Roger Taylor “find a kid with Freddie’s range.” There seemed no one around who fitted the bill at the time. Whether Geldof’s prophecy became a self-fulfilling prophecy for Queen or not is anyone’s guess, but luck would be more than a lady, it would be, as Brian May dubbed him – Madam Lambert to the rescue.

This was the era of reality TV shows like X-Factor and American Idol. While most of the contestants promised great things, precious few went on to have any career let alone a long one. On American Idol, a contestant named Adam Lambert with a unique voice and vocal range unleashed his extraordinary interpretation of Bohemian Rhapsody. Word got back to May and Taylor and they played with Lambert on the semi-finals of American Idol. An invitation to perform at the MTV Europe awards and the resultant ecstatic reaction and Adam Lambert became Queen’s new lead singer and the third (and final, Taylor says) incarnation of this mighty band was underway.

The Boomtown Rats didn’t play live from 1986 until 2013 when they surprised everyone by going back on the road for a UK and Ireland tour in support of their fifth greatest hits album “Back To Boomtown: Classic Rats Hits.”

Today, July 8th, 2018, the seemingly eternally-intertwined paths of Bob Geldof and Queen cross once more as The Boomtown Rats support Queen + Adam Lambert at Dublin’s Marlay Park. There is much grey hair in evidence in both camps with Bob Geldof turning 67 in October and Roger Taylor turning 70 next year and Brian May the eldest at 71. It is probably the end of the road for these two legendary bands and the era of rock they came from.

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Castle Street, Dalkey and The Queen’s pub to the right – the exact spot where I saw Bob Geldof in ’88

I saw Bob Geldof once in the street in Dalkey in Dublin in July 1988. He was (unsuccessfully) looking for the way in to The Queen’s pub on Castle Street. He tried to gain entrance through the graveyard and then peered myopically through dusty old windows as his entourage shouted “Bob! Bob!” at him. My friend at the time, for reasons best known to himself, shouted over “Bob Marley!” to add to the confusion. Little did I know that exactly 30 years later I’d be seeing Mr Geldof perform at Marlay Park. The feeling of fate and destiny being fulfilled appears to apply to me also as well as Queen and The Rats.

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Bobby Boomtown in all his glory giving it socks

Beyonce has her Sasha Fierce alter ego, Bob Geldof has his Bobby Boomtown persona in his ubiquitous snakeskin jacket. His punky venom will get an airing later today. So let us revel in the majesty of Queen and The Boomtown Rats once more. We will never see their like again.

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

Queen crest copyright Queen Productions Ltd

If you’re a generous person who believes writers should be paid for their work, you may donate here.

To read more of my writing, check out my short story Nightfall and my novel The Vorbing.

An Immigrant State of Mind

World Refugee Day

Today is #WorldRefugeeDay. While I’ve never been a refugee, I have been an immigrant in two countries. I was born in the United States, the son of Irish immigrants. We moved back to Ireland when I was three years old and everyone called me “Yank.” So I’ve been an immigrant in both the countries that compose my nationality.

Being an immigrant is not a status but a state of mind. It doesn’t stop when you “assimiliate” or “integrate” or when you go from being an “outsider” to an “insider.” It is what you think of yourself. You only really stop being an immigrant when you reject other immigrants and try to slam the door in their faces when they try to emulate you.

People will always surprise you if you give them a chance. We’re too quick to impose limitations on ourselves and others based on age, gender, race, colour, creed or whatever. The list is endless. The potential of others is never immediately apparent to us and yet we leap to illogical conclusions repeatedly. Change is scary and immigrants and refugees are the personification of that change. It is easy for these newcomers to internalise the aggression shown towards them when it is not personal. They are not hated for who they are personally but for what they represent to the beholder, however incorrect or irrational that may be.

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Irish Famine refugees, reduced to disease-ridden, illiterate peasants under brutal British occupation were despised on their arrival in the United States. Not only were they feared for the Third World diseases they carried but also for the Catholicism that the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants viewed with suspicion and disdain. Now, the Irish are fully integrated into American society. Approximately 44 million Americans claim Irish ancestry. The St Patrick’s Day parades there are the biggest in the world. Irish-America has been an amazing success story and a PR bonanza. Those refugees changed America for the better and brought their traditions, music and humour and placed them at the heart of the American dream. Halloween was one of the many things that went from being an Irish tradition to an American one.

On World Refugee Day, let us remember the amazing capabilities of our fellow human beings and not the negative things that scare and divide us. Compassion must be at the heart of every decision made in their treatment. All human life originated in Africa, so we are all immigrants and refugees to everywhere else on earth really. The human animal is at its best when it helps its own kind to prosper and respects all others forms of life. For just as the immigrant and refugee has unrealised potential within them, so we, the guardians at the gate, have untapped potential for kindness and tolerance and acceptance within us too. If we’re not striving as they strive, we fail ourselves and them too. We need to come out from behind the flags and banners and start treating each other as human beings. Then, and only then, are we fulfilling the potential of those first humans who left the cradle of civilisation so very long ago.

Great leaders lead by example, not by making an example of others Stewart Stafford quotes

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

Queen – One Of A Kind of Magic

On June 3rd, 1986, “A Kind Of Magic”, the twelfth studio album from Queen was released. The European Magic Tour supporting the album began four days later at the Rasunda Stadium in Stockholm, Sweden.

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A cartoon figure from the “A Kind of Magic” cover inflates on The Magic Tour

It was the first Queen album I’d purchased as a Queen fan, the others being purchased after Live Aid and after this album (by early ’87, I had all Queen’s albums on vinyl and still do.)

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With Queen contributing many songs from this album to epic fantasy film Highlander, there was a sort of return to thematic elements of Queen’s early albums minus the quirky, Tolkienesque lyrics about ogres, titans and fairy fellers. This was Queen doing a concept album 80s-style with syths and Highlander’s immortality theme playing into the tragic reality about to engulf Freddie and the band.

Highlander star Christopher Lambert explains how Queen’s involvement grew:

 “Highlander coming out was a very exciting time for me. What was also very interesting is that Queen were meant to do only one track – it was the opening credits, ‘Princes Of The Universe’, that was the deal. So they sat down for a private screening for them in a movie theatre and Freddie Mercury when he came out, he said all excited: “I’m doing the whole fucking album! This movie is too fucking great!”. They went and wrote the songs in four weeks and went into the studio and it was one of the biggest selling albums of their career. So you know it’s strange, it’s like nobody ever thought that Highlander was gonna be, thirty years later, still a cult movie, music included. About Freddie… there are many good singers, but to be really great it’s not enough just to sing correctly. You have to do it with the heart and he is the best at it.”

Although it was hard to imagine during Queen’s post-Live Aid second wind, “A Kind of Magic” would be the end of an era for them in many ways. It would be the final album before Freddie’s HIV diagnosis in April 1987 (“Innuendo” would be recorded under time constraints and Freddie’s increasing availability issues due to illness). The Magic Tour would be Freddie’s last with the band.

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Queen with producer Reinhold Mack

It was also the last time they worked with German producer Reinhold Mack. Mack first worked with Queen on “The Game” album in 1979 at Musicland Studios in Munich. He had produced some of Queen’s biggest hits including “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “Another One Bites The Dust”, “Under Pressure”, “Radio Ga Ga”, “I Want To Break Free” and “One Vision.” Brian May said that Mack had been “quite a find” for the band. He was responsible for a different, stripped-back Queen sound, the antithesis of the elaborate, complex sound of previous Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker. With Baker, Queen played every track in the studio until the take was perfect. Mack said they didn’t have to do that and that he could drop in snippets of different takes. This surprised the band and saved them a lot of time. Mack even persuaded Brian to drop his Red Special and play a Fender Stratocaster belonging to Roger on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

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The great Mr Mack today

“A Kind of Magic” would also be the last time Queen would do several songs for a movie (here’s hoping the James Bond producers giver Queen + Adam Lambert a shot at the next theme tune).

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Larking about shooting the “One Vision” video

“A Kind of Magic” is a very listenable album. I can listen to it all the way through unlike some of the late seventies albums which were a smattering of big hits and filler. As with Queen’s concerts on The Magic Tour, the album kicks off with the extended version of “One Vision” which teases out the intro superbly until Freddie’s ethereal vocal cry echoes across the synths just before Brian’s euphoric riff kicks in. “A Kind of Magic” the single follows.

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A John Deacon song “One Year of Love is next and it’s the kind of classy, smoky ballad that Sade did so well at the time (saxophone courtesy of the guy who played on “Careless Whisper.”) “Pain Is So Close To Pleasure” is a rare sojourn into Motown stylings for Freddie Mercury (“Cool Cat” on “Hot Space” and B-side “Soul Brother” would probably be the closest tracks to this).

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“Friends Will Be Friends” ends side one. Even though it’s a self-conscious attempt to repeat “We Are The Champions” and didn’t make the UK top ten, I still like it as a song.

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Who wants to live forever? photo shoot

Brian’s “Who Wants To Live Forever” starts side two and, from here on in, it’s all songs from the Highlander soundtrack. Seal and Ronan Keating said this song made them cry the first time they heard it and it is a very beautiful song with lush orchestral accompaniment. It worked well live on The Magic Tour too, although it was still “a new song” as Freddie said and hadn’t found its place among their other hits with the audience yet.

Oh well

Brian Blessed’s Vulcan says “who wants to live forever?” in the battle scene near the end of “Flash Gordon,” Queen’s last big fantasy soundtrack outing. It’s possible Brian unconsciously remembered that line from the previous film but it’s a perfect iteration of Highlander’s themes.

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Brian May playing a flying V guitar – a Washburn RR-V

Brian’s rip-snorting “Gimme The Prize” erupts with a cascading Brian May solo, it reaches a crescendo and a sound clip from the film Highlander kicks in (a news reporter comments on one of the many decapitated bodies in the film: “A head, which at this time, has no name.” Clancy Brown’s Kurgen responds with “I KNOW HIS NAME!”). “Here I am!” Freddie declares, “I’m the master of your destiny” (one reviewer at the time compared him to Alice Cooper on this).

Roger’s unsurprisingly drum-heavy “Don’t Lose Your Head” pounds in. It began life as the B-side to the single “A Kind of Magic” under the working title “A Dozen Red Roses For My Darling.” Some thought this was filler (black singer Joan Armatrading pops up to say “Don’t Lose Your Head” over and over for no apparent reason, maybe an attempt by the band to counter negative publicity over their Sun City shows in Apartheid-era South Africa around that time.) It does get a little repetitive but I don’t hate it.

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Queen with Christopher Lambert at the video shoot for “Princes of the Universe”

Then we come to the final track on the album – “Princes of the Universe.” It’s Freddie’s only solo writing credit on the album (almost hard to believe considering he wrote most of Queen’s early albums single-handedly). The title is outrageously camp but the song builds up an incredible head of steam. With Princes, “One Vision” and “Gimme The Prize”, “A Kind of Magic” is probably the closest version to a heavy metal version of Queen we ever got. The single of “Princes of the Universe” was released in America and the video featured Highlander star Christopher Lambert crossing swords and sawn-off microphone stand with Freddie.

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The Highander Vs The Messenger of The Gods

It would be three years before the next Queen album was released, the longest gap there had ever been between albums up to that point. There followed a frenzied period of activity to get new Queen material out before Freddie’s inevitable demise. So “A Kind of Magic” is a demarcation point between what went before and the beginning of the end of Queen Mach 1 (two more would follow with Paul Rodgers and now with Adam Lambert.)

© Stewart Stafford, 2018. All rights reserved.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

 

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.

Further Reading

Nightfall by Stewart Stafford

The Vorbing by Stewart Stafford

Stewart Stafford’s Quotes

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.)

Capone Scar

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).)

De Niro Capone

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.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

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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Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

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.

Further Reading

Nightfall by Stewart Stafford

The Vorbing by Stewart Stafford

Stewart Stafford’s Quotes

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, Bram Stoker’s birth and exactly 50 years before he 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.

Here are the two very interesting versions of her Wuthering Heights videos:

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.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.

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.”

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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.

If you’re a generous person who believes this writer should be paid for his hard work, you may donate here.

To read more of this author’s work, check out his short story Nightfall and novel The Vorbing.