Soft machines

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Seven (1973) by Soft Machine. Design by Roslav Szaybo.

You’re the great, grey man whose daughter licks policemen’s buttons clean,
You’re the man who squats behind the man who works the soft machine.

Mick Jagger, Memo From Turner (1968)

By coincidence this month I’d been re-reading some William Burroughs when I picked up a nice box set of five Soft Machine albums, part of a series of reissues that Sony have been doing recently. They’re very cheap and sound excellent, and also have the additional benefit of being a card slipcase holding the discs in card sleeves so there’s no nasty plastic packaging. The set comprises the Third (1970), Fourth (1971), Fifth (1972), Six (1973), and Seven (1973) albums. I have the band’s first two studio albums already so this has been an opportunity to get fully acquainted with the rest of their output up to the point where the machine started to run out of steam.

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The Soft Machine (1968) with die-cut sleeve. Design by Byron Goto, Eli Allman, Henry Epstein.

Third and Fourth are freaked-out jazz fusion recorded when Robert Wyatt was still on drums; Fifth, which I had for years on vinyl, is post-Wyatt fusion of a more polite variety, great compositions but it sounds lightweight compared to Miles Davis’s On The Corner which was released the same year. Six, which I’d hardly heard at all, is a set of live recordings and four superb studio tracks. Seven is the weakest of the lot but it prompts this post on account of the cover which I always liked the look of when flicking past it in record shops. Seen today it still looks surprisingly advanced for 1973, and the intention behind the design is still mysterious. I used to regard it as vaguely “futuristic” despite knowing that the music was nothing of the sort. The accumulation of abstract symbols contained by a human head implies either a score for some aleatory composition (which again is belied by the short jazzy pieces within), or can perhaps be read as a “soft machine”, especially if one considers that the popular idea of electronics at this time involved patch-boards and banks of flashing lights. Ten years later with synthesizers in common use this kind of semi-cybernetic imagery was a lot more topical.

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The Soft Machine Volume Two (1969). Design by Byron Goto, Henry Epstein.

The first two Soft Machine albums both showed literal renderings of Burroughs’ “soft machine” idea albeit couched in the naked-woman-as-decoration style of the late 60s. Six has a horrible cover with an airbrushed attempt at a soft machine, one of those pictures common to the 1970s that you’re amazed was approved by band and record company.

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V2 by The Vibrators (1978). Design by Roslav Szaybo.

The design for Seven is credited to Roslav Szaybo, an in-house designer at CBS. Looking through Mr Szaybo’s other credits there’s little that resembles his Soft Machine cover until you arrive at the sleeve for V2, the second album by British punk band The Vibrators. This was another cover I always liked for similar graphical reasons to the Soft Machine sleeve; they also share a similar stencil typeface. Musically they’re worlds apart, of course, although William Burroughs’ influence on music carried on into the punk era (another Brit punk band named themselves Dead Fingers Talk) and beyond. It’s an influence reaching from the mid-60s with Soft Machine and his appearance on the cover of Sgt Pepper, into the 1990s with the many recordings he collaborated on or inspired from Bill Laswell, Hal Willner and others. His influence generally may have fallen off since his death in 1997 but it’s still a remarkable achievement for someone who never seemed to care much for music beyond the popular tunes he heard as a boy.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The album covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Burroughs: The Movie
William S Burroughs: A Man Within
The Final Academy
William Burroughs book covers
Towers Open Fire

Weekend links 57

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A 1973 Ballantine edition of William Burroughs’ novel with a cover illustration from Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937) by Salvador Dalí. Via the Burroughs Book Covers archive.

The Sel Publishing House, Turkey, published a new translation of The Soft Machine by William Burroughs in January, an edition which is now under investigation by the Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office following a report by the (deep breath) Prime Ministry’s Council for Protecting Minors from Explicit Publications. The Council lodged a number of complaints, among them assertions of “lacking unity in its subject matter,” “incompliance with narrative unity,” “using slang and colloquial terms” and “the application of a fragmented narrative style.” Details here. Does Turkey still want to join the EU? Because this kind of persistently illiberal bullshit (see the earlier treatment of Orhan Pamuk) isn’t helping their case at all.

• Related to the above: Evan J Peterson reads Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in the toilet of a Seattle gay bar; Ginsberg himself reads Kaddish and other works here.

• More illiberal bullshit: LGBT activists arrested during royal wedding; Queer Resistance released a statement about the arrests. MPs, activists and trade unionists condemn new attacks on the right to protest.

The Dorian Gray That Wilde Would Want Us To Read. Harvard University Press publishes an uncensored and annotated edition of Wilde’s novel. Kudos for using Caravaggio’s Narcissus on the cover.

One weekend in late 1967, they all decamped to a hotel suite in California’s Ojai Valley for a brainstorming session. Amid clouds of pot smoke, they talked all weekend with the tape recorder running. [Jack] Nicholson then took the tapes and turned the conversations into a screenplay; according to Rafelson, he structured it while on LSD.

Revisiting The Monkees’ psychedelic movie, Head.

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Kraftwerk icons for Windows and Mac OS X by Dave Brasgalla.

Robert Louis Stevenson gets his revenge on sneaky literary agent – 120 years later. And Michael Moorcock imagines tales of unseen Mervyn Peake pictures.

Painting doesn’t look so good on the web. It looks better in life. Sculpture looks better in life. What you end up with is just a reproduction. Whereas with film or with sound or with poetry, you get the deep primary experience not the secondary experience. The web delivers those primary experiences very well.

Ubuweb’s Kenneth Goldsmith interviewed.

• Arkhonia’s Another Dispatch in a World of Multiple Veils is now a free download.

• The story of This Is The Sea: An interview with Mike Scott of The Waterboys.

Fairlight: The Rolls Royce of synthesizers.

Haeckel Clock, a free app for the iPad.

What is totalitarian art?

Porpoise Song (1968) by The Monkees | Hope For Happiness (1969) by The Soft Machine | I’m A Believer (1974) by Robert Wyatt.

Michael English, 1941–2009

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left: The Soft Machine Turns On (1967); right: UFO Coming (1967).

This was a bitter blow coming at a time when I’ve been working on something inspired in part by Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, the 1960s design duo comprised of Michael English and Nigel Waymouth. The two artists, together with associate Martin Sharp, are indelibly associated with the London psychedelic scene of the late Sixties. Whereas Sharp’s posters were often loose and dramatically bold explosions of shape and colour, the Hapshash posters were more carefully controlled in their curating of disparate elements borrowed from Art Nouveau—especially Mucha and Beardsely—comic strips, Op Art, Pop art and fantasy illustration. Their work perfectly complemented the very distinctive atmosphere of the capital’s psychedelic scene which, for a couple of hectic years, saw an explosion of new bands (or old bands in new guises) fervently engaged in a lysergic exploration of Victoriana, childhood memories and frequent silliness. UK psychedelia is generally more frivolous than its US equivalent which had the Vietnam War and civil disorder to deal with; English and Waymouth’s graphics captured the London mood.

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top left: Coke (1970); top right: Toothpaste (1974).
bottom left: Leaf Falls (1972); bottom right: Red no. 3 (1978).

In the 1970s English refashioned himself as a hyper-realist painter of foodstuffs and other consumer goods, and his meticulous airbrush style led to work as an advertising artist. Those paintings are beautifully rendered but often leave me feeling slightly queasy. I much prefer his work from later in the decade which depicted equally meticulous close-up views of oil-smeared buses and trains. Paper Tiger published a book collection in 1979, 3D Eye, which gathers the best of his work from the poster art on.

• Obituaries: Guardian | Times
• Hapshash poster galleries here and here

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Look presents Nigel Waymouth
The New Love Poetry

Outer Alliance Pride Day

outer.jpgToday is Outer Alliance Pride Day so let’s begin with a statement:

As a member of the Outer Alliance, I advocate for queer speculative fiction and those who create, publish and support it, whatever their sexual orientation and gender identity. I make sure this is reflected in my actions and my work.

Various members of the Outer Alliance are either posting fiction, or reviewing something or otherwise attempting to fill that declaration of intent. For my part I decided today to do a sketch based on my favourite chapter of The Ticket that Exploded by William Burroughs, the sequence entitled the black fruit which Burroughs wrote with Michael Portman. Ticket was the first Burroughs book I read at the age of 16 or so, having discovered a copy in a local library, and it really felt like something exploding in the head. For a start, the text is some of his least accommodating for an average reader, although I was already familiar enough with literary experiment to cope with that. Far more electrifying was seeing familiar scenarios from science fiction and fantasy infused with a raw and relentless gay sexuality of endless erections and spurting cocks. The black fruit begins with a science fiction scene of lost astronauts encountering alien fishboys intent on having sex; it then progresses through a series of descriptions which read like a pornographic rewriting of similar scenes from HP Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith. In the opening pages of Ticket, Burroughs describes his book as “science fiction” but this was like no sf I’d read; I started to wish there was more like it. There are flashes of similar stuff in The Soft Machine (including an idea borrowed from Henry Kuttner) and elsewhere, and Cities of the Red Night is pretty much a full-on fantasy in its second half, but I’d still like to read more about the fishboys…

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Fishboy and Astronaut (detail).

So here’s an explicitly erotic sketch based on the black fruit (click the picture for the full thing). This should have been a lot better but I’m out of practice drawing at the moment and I didn’t give myself enough time. The scene doesn’t really match the book either, and the astronaut figure is pretty crappy. Feeble excuses aside, Burroughs’ rotting swamp gardens with their marble statues of copulating boys deserve better. And where his fiction leads, I’m still hoping that more writers will follow, not by copying his obsessions but by being as fearless and honest in mining their own.

Previously on { feuilleton }
William S Burroughs: A Man Within
The art of NoBeast

The persistence of memory

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Ballard-for-kids from Lion (1970).

I was never a great hoarder of comics when I was a child, I usually read them then threw them away, so for years I’ve had peculiar half-memories of stories that thrilled me when I was 10-years old but whose titles I’ve invariably forgotten. The web, of course, serves to immediately answer desperately nagging questions such as “Who was the boy in a home-made catsuit climbing all over buildings at night?” (Billy the Cat, and sister Katie), “Which comic did bendable hero Janus Stark appear in?” (Smash and later Valiant), and so on.

British comics nearly always seemed stranger than American ones even though I was a regular reader of Spider-Man and a couple of other Marvel comics. Many of the British adventure titles—all long since expired—were created by artists and writers who drew freely on pulp traditions from the late 19th and early 20th century. Reading through histories of comics such as Lion it’s notable how many of the stories are set in the Victorian era. These tales were invariably hokey and certainly don’t bear much examination now but I can trace later interests back to an early stimulation by these odd strips.

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The evil Ezra Creech.

I’m actually surprised to discover that I was a regular reader of Lion, its list of characters is very familiar yet I don’t remember buying a single issue. Lion is significant for being home to one of my favourite strips of the period, the chilling horror/thriller The War of the White Eyes. I’ve yet to meet anyone who remembers reading this which used to be frustrating when I’d pester comic-collecting friends to try and recall which title it appeared in. The story was fairly standard adventure fare from 1972:

The War Of The White Eyes was a US-type fantasy strip which had our heroes, Nick Dexter and Don Redding, trying to thwart the evil megalomaniac, Ezra Creech, who was baying for world domination by inhaling a deadly gas that transformed him into a ‘White-Eyes’, a creature of superhuman strength and ferocity. At first, Creech wanted to destroy our heroes’ home island of Doomcrag and then go on to world domination, but guess who stopped him?

If you live in a place called Doomcrag you’re asking for trouble. I didn’t remember there being a super-villain involved although someone had to be responsible for raining the globes of deadly gas down on the populace.

Creech could turn people into white-eyed zombies under his control. He had superhuman strength as a White Eye. He later developed a ray that allowed him to make things grow, giving him the ability to create monsters.

JMB Chemicals developed a new gas as a mild insecticide. However it proved to have unforeseen side-effects. Men and animals exposed to it were transformed into killers of extraordinary strength and ferocity, recognisable by their white eyes. The first evidence of this came when a few glasses containers of the gas accidentally dropped from the back of a van transporting them through the peaceful English town of Wimbering. Those exposed demonstrated an innate hatred of anyone untainted, and set out to conquer the area and kill “the weaklings”. Even the army proved helpless, with White Eyes ripping apart tanks with their bare hands and throwing them around like toys. Even the White Eyes animals joined in, with contaminated birds attacking troops on the ground. It was only through the bravery and ingenuity of local boys Nick Dexter and Don Redding, and the scientist Timms who had developed the gas in the first place (and also concocted an antidote) that order was restored.

This was very much a horror strip for kids—at least as I remember it—with crazed, white-eyed people and animals going on the rampage, and the ever-present danger that our heroes could be infected themselves. The strip taught me very early on that the simplest way to make someone look evil was to blank out their pupils, something I spent the rest of the decade doing in drawing after drawing.

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Kid Chameleon takes off.

Another favourite was Kid Chameleon (not to be confused with a later computer game character) whose adventures appeared in my favourite comic of the time, Cor!!:

Stranded in the Kalahari Desert by a plane crash, a British boy is raised by lizards as a feral child, and weaves himself a skin-tight suit of transparent lizard scales which covers his entire body except the top of his head (to avoid the appearance of complete nudity, he also wears a pair of flesh-coloured briefs underneath). Only one strip shows how the suit comes off. It consists of two pieces: a top that opens at the front, and leggings. The suit allows him to camouflage himself like a chameleon by making the scales change colour, although how he does it is never explained.

Yes, I was eagerly reading about a near-naked boy when I was 10; make of that what you will. Kid Chameleon spent two years tracking down the man who caused the plane crash before returning to the desert and the company of the lizards. This strikes me as a very Burroughs-esque idea now, there being plenty of lizard boys and skin suits in Burroughs’ early novels such as The Soft Machine and The Ticket that Exploded. In many ways, Kid Chameleon isn’t far removed from the various incarnations of the Wild Boys—resourceful, shape-shifting and always a loner. By a curious coincidence Burroughs was in London writing Port of Saints, the sequel to The Wild Boys, at the time Cor!! was publishing Kid Chameleon.

There aren’t any pages online from The War of the White Eyes; perhaps that’s for the best, it would only shatter my vague memories even further. However, you can see a couple of pages from Kid Chameleon here, written by Scott Goodall. The strip was drawn by Joe Colquhoun, later the artist on Charlie’s War by Pat Mills.