Nibbled to Death by a Koala

The Damned, Witch and Vacuum at RISING
The Forum, Melbourne, Friday 16 June 2023

Towards the end of The Damned’s tomb-splitting, dead-reanimating set, Captain Sensible jokes that the ‘willies’ of the Forum’s male statues are in a drawer somewhere because the ‘cult’ who previously owned the theatre have hacked them off in an act of mindless puritanism, so he wants to go find them. Dave Vanian, non-plussed by this silliness, declines the offer to join him. And here at the heart of this beautiful vignette is the delicate balance between neon absurdity and grave-black reverence which has powered The Damned whenever Sensible and Vanian are its dual-core creative forces. (The Forum was indeed owned by Pentecostal nutters between 1985 and 1995. They let the gorgeous 1929 landmark theatre fall into disrepair, but it was lovingly restored in 2016 – including, yes, the remodelling of damaged statuary – and reopened in 2017 as central Melbourne’s premier live music venue.)

The faux-outdoor proscenium of the Forum theatre (with statuary)

Based on book publishing alone, 2023 is officially the Year of Goth, with three studies of the subculture being released. John Robb’s The Art of Darkness (March), Cathi Unsworth’s Season of the Witch (May) and Lol Tolhurst’s Goth: A History (September). (I’m currently reading the Robb – it’s wonderfully detailed and brilliantly researched.) This being the case, it makes sense for Melbourne’s RISING festival (finally hitting two consecutive iterations after Covid kiboshed both the inaugural 2020 and the 2021 re-schedule) to celebrate the genre that won’t die with a concert programmed to reflect three of the key strands of goth music: subterranean electronica, angsty post-punk, and doom metal.

Before the first of the double headliners, Melbourne duo Vacuum (Andrea Blake and Jenny Branagan) deliver a short but highly effective set of industrial electro-goth combining loops, hypnotic drum patterns, found sound, live triggers/beats and repetitive spoken lyrics. These intoned lyrics – something of a fad among indie bands a few years ago – are both mesmerising and potent. Reminiscent in terms of vibe and flow of short-lived 80s psychedelic goth magicians Webcore, their dark-side monotonal chants and hell-hound sub-woofer drones hark all the way back to Throbbing Gristle, Hawkwind and the murkier strains of Krautrock. There’s elements of the original electronic mavericks Cabaret Voltaire and gothfathers Bauhaus in there too, as well as psy-trance and trip-hop, while their aesthetic is something like David Cronenberg meets Kenneth Anger.

Witch have been around since 2005 and although they’ve only released a couple of albums, they’ve developed a devoted following with their alt-rock tempered stoner metal. You can still hear Sabbath, Motörhead, Maiden and drummer J Mascis’s (of Dinosaur Jnr.) beloved Deep Purple but these days the band sound more Southern Gothic than ever: their down-revved riffs enveloping you like a Louisiana swamp on Halloween, which, of course, makes them a perfect fit for the overall theme of the night. Being a bass player myself I can’t help but admire Dave Sweetapple’s bowel-juddering growl, created with a Marshall stack, a mid-slung Rick and plenty of pick/axe attack. Sweetapple’s bass and J Mascis’s drums (powered by a minimalist jazz kit) provide the engine room for a set of doomy, swampy grindhouse fug, all played under the watchful eyes of the band’s backdrop mascot: a skull-headed biker. The audience readily forgive them when during their set they grind to a halt after a false start, which only serves to render them endearing rather than demonic (is it just me or is this happening more regularly post-Covid?).

It’s only right that of the two nominal headliners, The Damned are on second, because their combination of punk rebellion, gothic flamboyance, garage pop and 60s psychedelia has influenced countless acts while The Damned themselves, like first-generation post-punk band Killing Joke, are still to receive their due when it comes to their standing in the culture. As with their musical (and temporal) cousins XTC, who have similarly eclectic and transatlantic tastes and influences, the central stylistic tension that has evolved between Sensible and Vanian has echoes of that between Moulding and Partridge.

Back in Oceania after a six-year hiatus (their previous gig in Melbourne was at 170 Russell) this is the last night of a six-date mini-tour of New Zealand and Australia. With a mostly stable line-up since 2017 (Vanian, Sensible, Monty Oxymoron and a returning Paul Gray were joined in 2022 by Will Taylor, who replaced 20-year veteran drummer Pinch) The Damned have, like Dracula at Davos, hit a rich vein since 2018’s Visconti-produced Evil Spirits. With four songwriters in the band, the new material has seen The Damned embrace the entire sweep of their musical history and combine it with an unmatched facility for adrenalised three-minute pop songs honed over 47 years. This line-up’s energy is infectious with Vanian constantly in motion and even Oxymoron coming out from behind his keys for a burst of mad-professor pogoing during the final encore.

It’s heartening that all of Melbourne’s goths appear to be in attendance, from private-club Boomers to Gen Z TikTokkers, with fashion ranging from smart black leather and tattered lace to ghostly face-paint and teased-to-death hair. Launching into set opener ‘Street of Dreams’, the Phantasmagoria title track, with its galloping toms and John Barry chord progression, the band’s four instrumentalists sound better than ever. Gray’s melodic, percussive bass (he’s another Rickenbacker fan) provides perfect counterpoint to Sensible’s trademark high-fret pyrotechnics and architectonic arpeggios; Monty’s keyboard washes and pads provide sonic texture and depth. After the short introduction, Vanian runs on stage in a black outfit accessorised with black fedora and black gloves. It’s always a shock just how slight a figure he is, but his eldritch presence and deepening voice (the baritone is a range which with care can last many years longer than that of a tenor) fill the theatre: ‘And we may be the haunted men / But we will hold our heads up when / We’re walking down the street of dreams.’ The lyrics perfectly encapsulate The Damned’s long and labyrinthine career while Sensible’s two solos are an immediate reminder of how underrated he is as a lead guitarist (I’d argue that the band’s two longest-serving members are UK national treasures both).

The next track is another album opener, this time from the tour’s titular work, the late-career masterpiece Darkadelic (in all the set features six track-ones, testament to The Damned’s commitment to creating a succession of absolute bangers with which to needle-drop their LPs). Akin to The Black Album’s ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ and Grave Disorder‘s ‘Beauty of the Beast’, ‘The Invisible Man’ (penned by Vanian and Gray) has associations with Universal horror and in particular with Claude Rains’s and Vincent Price’s portrayals of that role, but there’s a deeper more mournful quality to the idea of being increasingly invisible in a world of instant gratification and 24/7 engagement. The middle eight brings some levity with Vanian deciding that if you can’t beat them, then best to join them, combining monster horror with blunt-force consumerism: ‘Take some random chemicals anyone could mix / Inject yourself now for a number of weeks / Flesh just fades away till nothing’s left’ (a vibe that matches Hawkwind’s ‘The Beginning’ from their recent The Future Never Waits). A mad-scientist laugh propels us back into escapist gothic melodrama and another chorus. Vanian’s voice is just about holding-up (luckily there was a two-week rest before the band’s Avalon Stage Glastonbury appearance) and his existentially anguished growl on this number is supremely effective (‘Why, it’s part of my plan’; but the plan quickly unravels ‘Look at me, nothing but a faded memory’).

By this point some twat has thrown a beer can at the stage, which hits Dave right on his noggin, (though trouper that he is, he doesn’t react). Kinda mind-boggling that cans are on sale at the bar (especially as there’s no glass allowed and only plastic cups) but thank God one retro idiot didn’t encourage any others, and apart from a couple of empty plastics thrown later, no damage is done (though even a plastic cup can do significant damage if you’re unlucky; Paul Gray was hospitalised by one back in 1996). ‘Wait for the Blackout’ The Black Album’s opening track is both a live perennial and The Damned’s goth manifesto in 60s-psychedelia infused form: ‘The darkness holds a power that you won’t find in the day’.

The same album’s second track, ‘Lively Arts’ follows, and this is another song whose themes have developed enhanced poignancy over the years. ‘And if I got my way, those idle rich would pay’ (that sublime pun on ‘pay’ cutting much deeper 43 years later). The tension at the heart of the song between the band’s working-class background and the agency with which to create art that is increasingly denied to so many from non-middle-class backgrounds is telling. As is the lack of recognition with which artists from working-class backgrounds still must contend (The Damned quite justifiably spending many years feeling they were denied the recognition given to their more affluent, accessible and acceptable peers).

Darkadelic provides the next five tracks, sequenced as on the album (3, 4, 6, 8, 10). ‘You’re Gonna Realise’ is a perfect sub three-minute song about confronting aging and death – and ultimately reaching acceptance: ‘A renaissance of your soul / Doors of perception awaking all.’ Vanian, who wrote the song, is clearly singing from the dark depths of his undead soul and the effect is both mournful and uplifting. Sensible’s ‘Beware of the Clown’ is perfect counterpoint: wry observation on the surface with seething rage underneath. Vanian dons an entirely un-gothic red nose to sing about the endemic corruption of Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and the lethal, grifting Tories. With Vanian removing his clown nose and the Captain having been provided one by a roadie, Vanian delivers the killer lines: ‘Then one day the clown / Is gone like magic / Replaced by a clone / Equally tragic’. It’s The Who’s new boss/old boss for the UK’s post-Brexit catastrophe. The punningly witty and mature detachment of the lyrics sketch an attitude that’s essential for anyone who wants to engage with English politics without going totally insane, but the white-hot anger underneath is palpable (just as the red noses mask righteous fury).

‘Wake the Dead’, a Sensible-Martin Newell co-write was specifically composed to be played at the funerals of Damned fans after the Captain heard that some were using Damned tracks as part of their last rites. It’s a terrific number, full of gothic liminality and pagan-adjacent spirituality: ‘With the ether thin between our worlds / And as we end so we are begun’. Vanian’s voice has the perfect timbre for this evocative rock’n’roll mass: darkest velvet and gossamer lace opening the boundary between the living and the dead so that the two can commune. Galloping drums suggest a hearse-and-horses careening through Black Park in a Hammer horror, while the chorister-style chant of ‘Wake the dead’ is genuinely spooky. Sensible’s urgent chugging, haunted picking and a magnificent, plaintive solo all contribute to what should become a Damned classic and another live staple.

After a trilogy of songs with serious themes, a welcome break is provided by Gray’s ‘Motorcycle Man’ which, as you would expect, is kicked into start by a driving bass riff. It’s sonically reminiscent of both Hawkwind and American garage psychedelia, with some terrific keyboard work from Monty, bringing a Middle Eastern flavour to the bridge. But even here in what is ostensibly a song about freedom and companionship there’s a whiff of the album’s core theme: confronting aging and death. ‘Time passes faster than we know / One day we’re gonna wake up dead.’

Sensible asks the crowd if they dig glam rock. There are a few cheers. T. Rex, Sweet, Slade and Alvin Stardust are namechecked ‘plus the other one we don’t mention’. Though perhaps there’s not enough love from the audience considering the massive influence that glam had on punk and its post-punk spawn. While punk mostly disdained the excesses of prog, which was seen as a middle-class endeavour with its sixth-form common-room fans, classical stylings and top-heavy equipment, punk looked to glam and metal, both of which had a far more working-class provenance (though as we later learned, many key punk and post-punk musicians were in fact massive prog-heads). Visceral, rhythmically primal and intensely theatrical, glam’s uncompromising style and tom-heavy beats influenced The Damned, Adam & the Ants and Killing Joke to name just three. ‘Leader of the Gang’ is both celebration and epitaph but also carries a wonderfully nuanced view of so-called ‘cancel culture’ and the ongoing argument about whether a creator can (or should) be dissociated from their work. On the one hand: ‘…the songs are seldom played / Though they still sound just as great’ but on the other ‘These days it doesn’t seem so fun / Thanks to the awful things you’ve done.’ It’s a mature and sophisticated burst of cognitive dissonance.

The set now takes a giant step back in time to the band’s 1977 debut Damned Damned Damned and ‘Born to Kill’. The first Brian James number of the evening, the song takes on a completely new meaning in context of the rapid rise of the far right, with the lyrics plausibly sounding like they might suggest the song’s protagonist is an American ‘libertarian’ gun-lobby nutter. ‘Love Song’, the opener of 1979’s post-James Machine Gun Etiquette was the track that proved Sensible could pen a sub three-minute classic to stand alongside James’s best (and 44 years later anyone who identified him as a songwriter to watch should pat themselves on the back, as he and Vanian are currently in a purple patch). Here Sensible again – this time somewhat self-effacingly – shows-off his guitar prowess ending with a mic-stand power slide, which provokes Vanian affectionately to call him an ‘egomaniac’.

Straight into Machine Gun Etiquette’s second track, the Scabies-penned ‘Second Time Around’ and Sensible’s guitar almost-quoting the ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll (Part 2)’ guitar riff, in case the Captain’s previous point about glam hadn’t quite sunk in. The audience finally fall into call-and-response lock-step with the band, taking the energy level in the venue up several notches. The track’s now-preferred title is an apt comment on the number of times The Damned have been written-off but have come back stronger, their current renaissance arguably their most engaging yet: ‘Back to haunt you with our sound, second time around.’ Proving the doubters comprehensively wrong yet again. ‘We’ve still got it!’ says Sensible, and one can only nod in awe.

The penultimate number before the encores is the opener of 2018’s Evil Spirits, the Vanian-penned apocalyptic sci-fi mini-opera ‘Standing on the Edge of Tomorrow’, which has only become more terrifyingly urgent in the intervening five years. Cannily re-purposing the widescreen melodrama that drives ‘Eloise’ for the #DontLookUp age, the song addresses our ‘dystopian generation’ with a dire ecological warning. With global heat records being broken on land and sea, flash floods and forest fires, the tomorrow-precipice is already crumbling beneath our feet. ‘This time could be the last time / Maybe the only time to get it right.’ If that time still exists, it is now. Our coffin is very nearly nailed shut.

After pleading for us to avert our self-created demise, ‘Neat Neat Neat’ provides both respite and counterpoint. Although ‘New Rose’ was The Damned’s first single, this live perennial is ground zero for UK punk: album one, track one. And the band deliver a blistering rendition replete with a stonking over-the-back guitar solo from the Captain, an ultra-tight breakdown and a hard out before the band leave the stage to rapturous applause.

The band’s return is punctuated by Vanian casually stating that ‘We’re nearly at the end, you know’, which cuts especially deep in context of the set’s themes of confronting death and climate catastrophe. The next song is pure Vanian-the-showman (covering Barry Ryan’s ‘Eloise’ was a long-standing wish), and first in what seems like another extreme juxtaposition. Sensible again shows off his lead guitar chops with a compact solo in the outro.

This time it’s Vanian with the silliness, as he introduces the next encore as the Captain’s ‘Wot’. Running with this throwaway gag, the Captain tells the crowd that he can ‘still remember the chords’ then asks us whether we’d prefer a rendition of his tongue-in-cheek 80s yacht-rap hit or ‘Smash It Up’. The audience seem evenly split, but by the looks of Vanian’s body language there’s no way he and Sensible are engaging in a rap battle no matter how the vote goes so ‘Smash It Up’ it is, which the Captain dedicates to ‘departed friends Algy Ward and Marc Bolan’ (Ward died in May). This is the song (in two of an-originally planned four parts) that cemented that The Damned were always about more than three-chord tricks and rebellious rage, the song’s multi-part tonal shifts already evincing an extraordinary eclecticism of influence, including foreshadowing of the dark, Lynchian lounge-crooned nightmares that were to gain prominence as the band’s career progressed.

Sensible asks the crowd to cheer as though he’s Ed Sheeran, then takes the opportunity to riff on the theme of ‘Lively Arts’ and slag off Mumford ‘and fucking’ Sons and Ed Sheeran as a bunch of wankers from public schools: middle-class musicians who have it easy (though there’s arguably few musicians as hard-working as Sheeran whatever you think of his songs). If perhaps his targets are a tad too easy, the chip is still proudly on the Captain’s shoulder and to be honest it is fully justified, Vanian confirming that as well as being poor when they started out, they’re still poor now.

The second pair of encores starts with track nine from Darkadelic, Sensible’s ‘Girl I’ll Stop at Nothing’ – a showcase for Monty’s keys and another Damned song that hides deep themes in pop tropes. Impishly kicking-off with three punk chords, it immediately segues into something much more complex. The lyrics sound like another of the band’s anti-love songs, but below the surface is a cry for action and revolution against apathy and anaesthesia, the protagonist singing about how he needs to act now or lose everything rather than about how he’ll stalk her till she comes around. The bitter irony of being lucky ‘to live through times like these’ masks an even deeper level: the existential acceptance that for all the ‘witty repartee’, life remains ‘the perennial mystery’. A valedictory exclamation of hope by Vanian – ‘Darkness must give way to light’– is immediately followed by Sensible joining a shout of ‘ENOUGH!!!’ It’s as much heartfelt plea as hard-slog wisdom. Monty’s swirling keys are front and centre before a breakdown leads into the final number, which is, of course, the band’s (and UK punk’s) first single from October 1976: ‘New Rose’. The Damned’s beginning is an end, but an end is always a beginning.

Killing Joke On Track – A Note on Release Dates

Due to space constraints, this note about release dates was cut from the book. Also, I have discovered a mistake, dammit (see below).

As Killing Joke On Track is primarily a personal/critical review of music and lyrics rather than a band biography or extensive/exhaustive discography, I opted not to do primary research on release dates but rather to use the best available month of release in each case, even in the rare instances where there is consensus regarding an exact day of release (e.g. Killing Joke 1980 on 5 October).

Release dates are very tough to nail to the exact day as records would sometimes go on sale before the original official release date, not to mention there being different release dates in different countries/territories. Official release dates would sometimes be brought forward or pushed back at short notice, with the original official release date still being recorded. Different formats of the same release would sometimes have different release dates, and in some cases the release date for one format has stuck for all formats even though it is not correct for such. The 2008 Virgin/EG expanded remastered reissues have month of release included as part of Tony Raven’s excellent liner notes, but the 2005 remasters do not.

For these reasons, attempting to nail precise release dates is often a thankless task and you might well never be sure that the date you arrive at is correct, even with primary research. This is reflected in the sometimes conflicting (or entirely absent) release dates that are available online on sites such as Wikipedia, Discogs etc. In arriving at a release month, I have in all cases checked the best available month of release against multiple online sources including the UK Charts, which rules out some dates as given by some sources (i.e. a record cannot chart before its release). Consequently, the release months in the book conflict with some dates as given elsewhere, though notwithstanding my mistake below I’m happy that mine are as close to accurate as I could make them with the information available.

Revelations, released in the UK April 1982 (not July)

In creating a calendar for ‘On This Day’ posts, I discovered a mistake in the book, which is that Revelations was not released in July 1982, as I erroneously state. This is due to bad cut-and-paste/version control on my part, as I had the best available correct date already recorded as April 1982 (the album first charted in the UK on 8 May so obviously cannot have been released after that). Immensely frustrating, but there you go. Apologies.

To buy Killing Joke On Track, including the silly mistake above, visit the Burning Shed online store here:

Full Spectrum Relevance

Killing Joke
‘Full Spectrum Dominance’
Released 10 March 2023 (streaming only)

Following the Lord of Chaos EP by just less than a year, this latest single from Killing Joke is in the same vein as that EP’s two new tracks: gargantuan riffs, sophisticated melodic tension, brutal rhythmic power, subtle syncopation, lyrics that again confront our rapidly accelerating dystopia, and a signature Geordie coda to end. Here that coda leads us into the closing bookend: a disconcertingly subtle synth drone that also opens the track, evoking a future Armageddon – or the echo of one that has already happened while we were looking the other way.

Can we stop this apocalypse? Perhaps if we understand its origins and progenitors, so here the Joke apply their advanced sonic weaponry to warn us about powers that already control us with a peacetime version of the US military’s concept of ‘full-spectrum dominance’. This is the idea that a conquering force must dominate the enemy across every element of the theatre – from psychological warfare to the denial of basic resources. But as the Joke have clocked: there is no ‘peacetime’ – our own governments are at war with us, their own citizens.

If the unsettling main motif reminds you of The Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’, that’s because both songs combine the minor key with an Augmented Scale – each having the same root note – to uncannily haunting effect. In the verses, Jaz calls back to the first two Joke albums by conjuring social alienation with the ‘bars of my bedroom cell’, though ‘cell’ also suggests a hive or network of dis-eased automata. We are all infected with pathogens both biological and psychological, spreading our germs as ‘the world turns’. We worship the ‘leviathan’, which resonates with KJ’s ‘Total’: we are controlled by a power so behemothic, so monolithic, that we cannot ever see it clearly, let alone fight it: ‘resistance is futile’. But go deeper and there’s resonances with Christianity (leviathan as devil), Gnosticism (the leviathan as ouroboros keeping us forever separated from the divine) and Hobbes (the hegemony of materialism, and a social contract now so degraded that our governments steal from and kill us with impunity).

Jaz’s voice sounds better than ever: his baritone clear and clean but with a depth and edge grown from 45 years of work – both musical and magickal. And that voice is at its best in the post-prog bridge as Geordie and Youth vamp from B Lydian to B-flat Phrygian (which have the same notes), creating harmonic tension ‘as cabals rise to prominence’ – a tension that’s not quite resolved by the B-flat Lydian chorus proclaiming the unassailable power of those cabals. We are dominated in every realm. The only escape is to remove ourselves from the spectrum entirely. Easier said than done, obviously.

The final two stanzas reference the computer modelling used to wargame the myriad of our possible ends in such a way that an elite always comes out on top. ‘It’s just a game, a grand simulation’ for the rich because they’ll always have what they need. Whoever created this ‘masterplan’ has ensured that a powerful few will survive. This is followed by a sublime juxtaposition of organic and inorganic matter, recalling subterranean strands in the Joke’s thematic DNA: ‘acacia leaves and microwave trees’. Those leaves have an occult allusion: a sprig of acacia signifies immortality in Freemasonry, suggesting that the cabals that control – billionaires and their useful idiots – are aiming to live for a Pharaonic eternity while the rest of us are consumed by the effects of ecological breakdown – if we haven’t already been poisoned by toxic air, water and soil. Big Paul’s annihilation express propels us towards that Geordie coda and our impending doom, cut short before we can properly acknowledge or understand it.

Released two days before they performed their first two albums at the Royal Albert Hall (reviewed here), ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ reminds us that the Joke continue to record new music that is both a natural progression from – and in fractal dialogue with – their earlier work (and Mike Coles’s artwork for the new single deliberately references his cover for 1980’s ‘Wardance’). Wisdom and experience have sharpened rather than dulled Killing Joke’s righteous fury, added new layers rather than undercut those they’ve already laid down. The Joke’s relevance is still full-spectrum.

Pre-order Killing Joke On Track from Amazon in the UK here.

Killing Joke – Full Spectrum Dominance – YouTube

Discord Mirth

Killing Joke
Royal Albert Hall, London, 12 March 2023

When Killing Joke reformed with the original line-up towards the end of 2007, they returned to the first two albums of the three they had recorded together before Youth’s departure in 1982, rehearsing two live sets that would be previewed in Tokyo before the band’s triumphant two nights at the Forum in October 2008. These London concerts (released first as Live at the Forum and then as The Gathering) feature all 16 tracks from Killing Joke (1980) and What’s THIS For…! (1981).

At this point I should probably mention that the Joke’s second LP is not only my favourite album by the Ladbroke Grove jesters but one of my favourite albums by any band, and the promise of hearing it live and entire had been almost too much to bear since the gig – impishly titled ‘Follow the Leaders’ – was announced in June last year (anticipation that was duly rewarded when Youth swapped his signature Rickenbacker for the hybridised fretless which defines the loose, lurking, low-end elasticity of What’s THIS For…!).

Plummet headlong 15 catastrophic years on planet world and that same line-up is still intact, having released three new studio albums, a flurry of live sets, two benchmark remix collections, an EP including two new tracks and, a couple of days before this latest Gathering, a new single. But the gravitational pull of those first two landmark albums is justifiably inexorable and on 12 March 2023 at the Royal Albert Hall, Killing Joke again performed both discs – this time in the original running order. And how fortuitous the date, with the Joke yet again scheduling a magickal ritual just as a major bank went down (this is something of a trend across the band’s career with the Global Financial Crisis and the 2008 reunion happening pretty much simultaneously).

If you imagine this career pinnacle to be an exercise in nostalgia or retirement planning, then you are sorely mistaken. Played at breakneck pace with only one of Jaz’s deliberately provocative song introductions (“There’s going to be a Third World War!”), this was Killing Joke yet again proving that they remain the most vital of the bands that formed in the wake of punk’s magnesium burn. Honed across four sold-out club gigs in the preceding week, this was the band leaner, tighter and more forceful than ever.

Anchored by Big Paul’s megalithic metronomy and Geordie’s dendritic dissonance – constantly branching across multiple scales and modes – Youth and Jaz prowled the stage like the now-wily wolves of the Joke’s classic ‘Pssyche’, here a glorious fourth and final encore. You could even argue that with the Joke in this incarnation – fast approaching a cumulative 20-year mark – it is Big Paul and Geordie who are the rhythm section, holding the surface tension across the band’s occult ocean, while Youth circles in the sonic depths like an anarchist shark and Jaz glides, swoops and dives like a shaman in sea-eagle form: forcing us to confront our fears and self-loathing, and in our catharsis releasing us from the dead weight of deception and apathy so that the shaman can once again resume his human form.

The first album is so well known to Gatherers that it’s almost impossible to conceive of a new approach, but this adrenalised attack pulled all eight tracks into an inexorable charge of the dark brigade, taking in Cold-War dread, the terror of hot war, industrial decay, and social alienation. The second 8 tracks continued this forced march into the abyss, with social engineering, psychological breakdown, and ecological collapse. And it was in these tracks – especially the rarely performed but here thrillingly urgent ‘Who Told You How?’ and ‘Exit’ – that the theme of the evening came into focus: a society spiralling into psychosis while wondering which colour to paint the living room.

The leanness and pinpoint focus of the music and themes were echoed by the sparseness of the staging, with only two simple banners heralding the band’s discord mirth and a single video screen showing a stream of original, found and sampled images from the band’s regular collaborator Mike Coles (who designed the cover art for both of the albums being played).

The first three encores – all from the band’s first year – were the Joke’s very first composition ‘Are You Receiving?’, ‘Change’ (never more exasperatedly direct an edict, or cuttingly ironic a question) and the endtimes dub ‘Turn to Red’. Presciently paranoid 40-plus years ago; outrageously oracular today. There really is no-one better with whom to wait in Armageddon’s lobby.

Pre-order Killing Joke On Track from Amazon in the UK here.

Forty Years On (ish): The Four Films That Made Me

Part Two

(Part One on Life Of Brian is here, including an introduction to the series)

[As is, again, the way of things, this part has now been delayed by almost two years. My original intention was to post each of the four parts on the 40th anniversary of the original UK cinema release of each of the four films, but other things continue to get in the way. Or maybe I should spend less time on Twitter. Expect Part Three by June. That’s June 2023, most likely.]



‘A’ certificate. Not suitable for children under 8 years of age. No dodgyness required!

With ginger Drax and scary Drax recently heading to the edge of space/space—and baby-face Drax not too far behind in person, but way ahead in terms of aspiration—it feels like an apt time finally to post Part Two of this short series about the four films released in 1979 (my twelfth year on planet world) which had the most profound effect on my psychological development. Orbiting Moonraker’s ultra high-concept plot, breathless action and broad comedy are themes and ideas that helped to shape my world view and political identity. Themes and ideas that have stayed with me over the next 42 years.

John Oliver on space billionaires: also the plot of Moonraker.

Moonraker (on balance not only my favourite Bond—just edging The Living Daylights into second place—but one of my favourite films at all) premiered in the UK on 26th June 1979 and was released on 27th June, which also happened to be my twelfth birthday, making it particularly special, especially as I’d been a Bond fanatic since seeing Diamonds Are Forever as a four-year-old (see Part One). As with all of these four films, I saw it at the Sevenoaks Odeon on the first day of release at that cinema, so either on the 27th (which is what I recall) or Friday 29th if the film didn’t go wide till then.

Moonraker also has for me the additional frisson of subsequent location-recognition, due to a family holiday to Venice in the spring of 1980 (more on this in Part Four) during which we visited the glass-blowing workshops (like this one) on Murano and Burano, the trip being something of an inadvertent pilgrimage for me (and the first of many visits to film and TV locations over the following decades).

Add to all of that one of the most underrated title songs of the franchise, a sublime Barry score (it’s no coincidence that superior franchise entries brought out Barry’s very best) and the most gloriously idiosyncratic villain bar none, and you have a film beloved by true connoisseurs, but still mocked, overlooked and misunderstood by both Bond fans and movie geeks.


1. Psychopath billionaires.

“First there was a dream.
Now there is reality.
Here, in the untainted cradle of the heavens,
will be created a new super-race,
a race of perfect physical specimens.
You have been selected as its progenitors, like gods.
Your offspring will return to Earth and shape it in their image.
You have all served in humble capacities in my terrestrial empire.
Your seed, like yourselves, will pay deference to the ultimate dynasty
which I alone have created.
From their first day on Earth they will be able to look up
and know that there is law and order in the heavens.”

Like Musk, Bezos and Branson, Drax is “obsessed with the conquest of space.” Indeed, he has terraformed his own personal Versailles in the Californian desert, both a stark foregrounding of Drax’s psychopathy and a clever misdirect of Drax’s true masterplan. A piano-playing aesthete with a nice line in drollery: “May I press you to a cucumber sandwich?”; “See that some harm comes to him,” Drax, as exquisitely played by the late Michael Lonsdale, is the most prescient precursor of the world in which we now live—and the inescapable gravity of its power structures. As the doomed Corrine tells Bond on the helicopter flight to Drax’s estate, “What he doesn’t own he doesn’t want.” One has to imagine that a small but not insignificant number of people watched Moonraker on first release and thought: Why would I want to be Bond? He has bosses. I want to be Hugo Drax. No-one tells him what to do.

It wasn’t until I was about fifteen that I realised that both the ladies of Europe’s minor aristocracy (presumably the aristocracy proper would have wanted to be in charge) and the new money heiresses to whom Bond is introduced by Drax—pair one, Countess Lubinski and Lady Victoria Devon at afternoon tea in the palace; pair two, Mademoiselle Deladier and La Signorina del Mateo at the pheasant shoot—are not only aligned with Drax’s idea of “perfect physical specimens” but are also perhaps helping to finance his project. At the very least they have been selected for Drax’s masterplan not just for their beauty but for their status. This is so close to the rich and famous buying seats on civilian spacecraft forty years later that the accuracy of Moonraker’s predictions is truly astounding.

It isn’t only millionaires and the landed gentry who are in Drax’s pocket. When Bond humiliates the Minister by taking him and M to the miraculously-vanished Venice laboratory, the Minister’s outrage is expressed in the fact that he has “played bridge” with Drax. The Minister goes so far as to apologise to Drax “on behalf of the British Government.” This is again hugely prescient and politically astute. A nation state in thrall to an oligarch. The US-UK military-industrial complex exploited for personal gain by a state-agnostic billionaire. And that oligarch clearly with power over both governments, while Britain, trapped between forces far stronger than itself, suffers delusions of grandeur. Thank Fleming for soft power!

Unlike Stromberg and multiple other franchise villains, Drax has no interest in playing the US off against the Russians. His ambitions are geoplanetary rather than geopolitical. The issue of tax is never raised—I mean, this isn’t Ken Loach—but you can guarantee that Drax hasn’t paid a cent for a very long time indeed.

Bond causing the British government such embarrassment means he is taken off the assignment and must go semi-rogue on his “two weeks leave of absence,” with M’s unofficial blessing but without official government sanction, arguably the first time Bond goes rogue in the franchise after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (OHMSS), and the only time that Moore’s Bond does this at all (although he is removed from the case in The Man With The Golden Gun (TMWTGG), he proceeds to pull at a different thread).

The earthbound geopolitics of it all—some nation states far more powerful than others, but billionaires more powerful than any nation state—is again underscored in the Brazilian monastery where the bolus assassin explodes the head of a mannequin obviously representative of a South American “dictator”. Britain, always happy to help with regime change. The one moment where there’s cause for optimism is when the American and Russian top brass liaise over a possible existential threat to everyone on planet Earth. Maybe that really is the only thing that will make us stop fighting each other.

You could try to argue that Drax isn’t the best Bond villain, but you’d be wrong. Drax works so well because he is both a forecast of our post-capitalist billionaires and an articulate prophet of ecocide, climate breakdown, over-population and shrinking resources. He’s also smart (vanishing his Venice laboratory overnight), wonderfully dry of wit, and almost entirely unflappable. His villainy transcends both money (SPECTRE) and geopolitics (SMERSH) and has a motivation to which we can all, at some level, relate. Indeed, is there another Bond villain as relatable as Drax? Is there a better baddie zinger—or more effortlessly delivered—than: “James Bond. You appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season.” And he provokes one of Bond’s franchise-best zingers in return: “Take a giant step for mankind.”

Verdict: psychopath billionaires—bad.

2. Ecocatastrophe.

One can make a strong case that Drax is the archetypal wrong-headed antagonist, trying to do the wrong thing, in the wrong way, but for the right reasons. Even better, notwithstanding some obvious collateral damage, his motivations and actions are always perfectly aligned, unlike The Spy Who Loved Me’s Stromberg, who claims to love aquatic life but is quite happy to annihilate millions of innocent sea creatures with nuclear strikes and the subsequent fallout, not to mention that his entire plan to rebuild civilisation underwater is deeply flawed.

Moonraker is clearly a re-tread of The Spy Who Loved Me (TSWLM) in many ways (and the two films make a perfect double-bill, with Jaws as the secondary antagonist both times), but Christopher Wood and Lewis Gilbert have endeavored to close all the plot-holes so evident in their first attempt. Though having said all that, Drax’s love of nature clearly does not extend either to pheasants or to the inhabitants of rainforest rivers, a subtle indicator of his obvious hypocrisy.

Orchideae Negre

The Black Orchid or “Orchideae Negre,” is the most crunchy and layered of all devices used by Bond villains across the franchise, far more interesting and allusive than yet another nuclear device. It’s so wonderfully apt that the destruction of humankind, which has so befouled its own ecosystem and treated its cohabitant species with such utter contempt should come from a flower.

Drax tells Bond that “one must preserve the balance of nature,” something that the fictional civilisation who lived in the city on whose ruins Drax has built his rainforest base failed to do, dying out due to sterility caused by the orchid’s pollen (though Drax has, of course, “improved upon sterility.”). Here again is the Atlantean theme of hubris: like all civilisations the current one will end, even though we believe we are both invincible and indestructible.

Verdict: ecocatastrophe—bad for humans, great for everyone else.

3. Eugenics.

Drax’s plan to repopulate the world with the cast of Love Island: Aristocracy Special is, of course, all rather Nazi, especially in terms of Drax’s decidedly un-Aryan appearance (isn’t it bizarre how proponents of eugenics almost never look like their ideal human?), notwithstanding that Drax’s astronauts are indisputably multi-ethnic, a clever wrinkle that means while he can be accused of eugenics, Drax cannot be accused of racism: unless it’s against the entire human race that is.

Note that all four of the ladies to whom Drax introduced Bond in pairs are present.

There is also clever resonance with the mythically-superior Amazon women when Bond lands his hang glider and follows a white-robed astronaut to an entirely fictional Mesoamerican temple (even though there were neither Mesoamerican or Inca civilisations in what is now Brazil; the temple used is actually Guatemala’s Maya Tik’al Temple). There’s even a von Däniken-esque hint that the gods who seeded ancient human civilisations are now returning to space in order to start the process again (presumably they aren’t happy with the current iteration). Drax’s monologue quoted above has particular thematic complexity when read through this strand.

Stone Temple Pilot

The quasi-Aryan plot strand also foregrounds another piece of clever self-reflexive business. Bond films have a tradition of blonde-haired, blue-eyed baddies/henchmen going as far back as Robert Shaw in From Russia With Love (the Übermensch and homoerotic elements are stark in the scene where Rosa Klebb examines the near-naked Red) and used again to knowing effect in The Living Daylights with Necros (it’s no coincidence that both films were written by Richard Maibaum).

Moonraker takes this trope and magnifies it so that the entirety of the threat to the human race is a quasi-Aryan take-over (led, of course, by an aging villain with brown eyes and brown hair). The way that Bond convinces Jaws to defect to his side due to the obvious lie that Jaws and Dolly—and their offspring—could ever be considered part of Drax’s “master race” is a critical plot beat, without which Bond would fail in his mission.

Verdict: eugenics—definitely bad.

4. Diversity.

Tying directly into the eugenics strand but in direct opposition to it—and clearly the film’s key message: the compassion of the honourable and the humble vanquishes the bigotry of the rich & powerful—another example of Moonraker’s prescience is its trail-blazing and oft-ignored diversity. Especially seen in light of its budget and the consequent risk if the film had failed (its budget was more than double that of TSWLM in actual dollars; Moonraker was the most expensive Bond film in adjusted dollars till Tomorrow Never Dies).

Dr. Goodhead is a bona fide rocket scientist (the name both a gimme to double entendre tradition and a punning observation of Goodhead’s brainiac credentials). It is Goodhead who pilot’s Moonraker 6 into orbit while Bond is literally a passenger. “Hashtag feminism” as John Oliver would say. When Bond first meets Goodhead, he is stunned she’s not a man, neatly puncturing the default misogyny of the late 70s. She’s sharp, dry and witty—a perfect foil for Moore’s effortlessly debonair male entitlement. Bond and Goodhead’s relationship is a guarded one throughout. Even when they sleep together in Venice they each have an agenda. Thereafter their relationship is kept mostly professional till its unguarded consummation in the denouement—which they’ve both surely earned.

The key twist is, of course, Bond’s appeal to Jaws and Dolly, an exquisitely well-written and beautifully played scene. Jaws is smart and Bond respects Jaws enough to acknowledge this. Jaws immediately understands the import of Bond and Drax’s exchange, in which, cunningly provoked by Bond, who plays to Drax’s egomania, Drax confirms that anyone not measuring up to his “standards of physical perfection” will be “exterminated”.

I challenge anyone to watch the moment that follows, in which, after Jaws and Dolly have fully understood Bond’s observation, Drax attempts to command Jaws (“You obey me! Expel them!”) and not be moved by the dramatic and thematic rigour of this exchange. And by the respectively high-impact and wonderfully under-played performances of Lonsdale and Kiel.

Dolly is also very deliberately differentiated from the traditional “Bond girl”. But Dolly is also deaf, and in an artfully paid-off plot turn, her lip reading enables Jaws to free the jammed docking-release system that allows Bond and Goodhead to track the lethal orchid globes in Moonraker 5 and save the day. The fact of their physical difference is never at the expense of either Jaws or Dolly. Indeed, both as individuals and as a couple, they are the emotional centre of the story. The film is, yet again, ahead of its time.

Verdict: diversity—good.


1. Cone and fin.

Moonraker’s opening is one of the best of any Bond film and perhaps one of the best of any action thriller. Taking its cue from TSWLM, by having the opening sequence be the initiation of the current plot rather than the closure of a previous unseen story, Moonraker ups the ante from, as we later learn, Stromberg’s mega-submarine eating smaller British and Russian nuclear submarines (inspired by the real-life Project Azorian recovery operation) to Drax stealing a Space Shuttle—on loan from the US government to the British—right from off the plane transporting it. Plus it features one of the all-time great diegetic film titles. But then we still get a traditional “previous mission” prologue as well, with a pertinent reminder that Jaws is not to be trifled with. Bonus!

The ending, even though clearly inspired by both the climax of Star Wars and early arcade games such as Space Invaders, is still by far the most nail-biting climax of any Bond movie up to that point. And it’s as far from yet another timer countdown as you could possibly get. Also, it’s hugely superior to the static, anti-climactic ending of TSWLM, which is entirely passive, with Bond watching dots on a screen far away from the actual action (notwithstanding he wouldn’t want to be there, though Indy IV proves there is a way to do nuclear safety ‘on site’ as it were).

And as throughout the entire film, this final set piece features Bond and Goodhead as genuine equals, her piloting Moonraker 5 and him firing, then manually aiming and firing the laser. And neither of them is saving the other; instead, together they are saving 100s of millions on Earth down below. As throughout the film, Barry’s score provides seamlessly dovetailed accompaniment. We end with Q’s ultra-dry fnarr and a snappy exchange between Bond and Goodhead, in which it is Goodhead who has the film’s last double entendre. “Hashtag feminism,” indeed. Perfection.

2. Emotional engagement.

Much of this is due to Gilbert, arguably the classic-era Bond director with the most natural talent for drawing the best out of actors (indeed you could argue that Gilbert directing and John Glen editing is the perfect combination). You rarely see Moore’s Bond as vulnerable as he is immediately after experiencing 13G (a scene which also cleverly demonstrates Bond’s obvious fitness for space, even though he’s had no astronaut training).

“Well, here’s to us!”

In giving Jaws his own arc, and making the arc critical to the main plot, Moonraker cleverly shifts the emotional heavy lifting from Bond to other characters, freeing-up Moore to give one of his very best—and most sardonically effortless—performances in the role. That’s not to say Moore can’t do the emotional stuff. In For Your Eyes Only (FYEO), which was originally due to follow TSWLM but was put back so Moonraker could go first, Moore yet again surprises with his most emotionally affecting performance, assisted by the decision to treat the film as a mid-run reboot (what would probably now be called a “grounded reset,” after the space laser battles and broad tonal palette of Moonraker; and of course its huge budget, though FYEO was still the second most expensive Bond film after Moonraker).

It’s also no coincidence that FYEO has so much in common with The Living Daylights, the next time the franchise was rebooted, this time with a new Bond in Timothy Dalton (both films also share the same writers in Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, and the same director in Glen). Next time you watch FYEO, enjoy how the rebooted franchise uses its opening sequence literally to dump its previous baggage down a chimney stack in the shape of a Blofeld-style villain (Eon didn’t have the rights to use Blofeld at the time, of course), clearly setting-out its stall that this is going to be a new type of Bond film: more Earth-bound in every sense.

3. Genre.

Employment terminated.

Moonraker is genuinely exceptional in genre terms. A sci-fi spy action comedy thriller with horror elements and a romantic drama subplot (Dolly/Jaws), it is extraordinary how everything feels organic, from the horror trope of Drax releasing his hounds to chase-down and kill the unfortunate Corrine in the woods after the pheasant shoot (her employment being “terminated”), to the comedy of the coffin-dwelling knife-thrower, the double-take pigeon in St. Mark’s Square and the way Drax calls “dial-a-henchman” after Bond dispatches Chang (part of a supremely elegant midpoint transition sequence).

“What the fuuuuuuuuuck?”

From the climactic (and genuinely violent) space-laser battle (the absence of the Connery-era standard machine-gun battle ironically adding real weight to each death in the vacuum of space) to the dance of trust and deceit between the two lead spies. The film sets out its wide but never broken genre parameters at the very outset with Bond’s thrilling escape from death by free-fall counterpointed with a parachute-less Jaws landing on a circus big top.

Top that!

Add to this Drax as a conscious take on a sci-fi/horror mad professor antagonist—doing the wrong thing for comprehensible reasons—and you have one of the most sophisticated genre blends in the history of popular cinema and a genuine trailblazer. Indeed, without Moore’s Bond—and specifically without Moonraker, the most overtly and deliberately comedic of all Moore’s appearances in the role—we probably wouldn’t have the slew of ultra-sophisticated genre-splicing spy-action-comedy movies of the past few years. It might not be too far a stretch to claim that Moonraker pretty much single-handedly invented the postmodern genre mash-up.

4. Screenwriting masterclass.

The Venice night-time break-in sequence is an object lesson in showing not telling. Bond lock-picks his way into Drax’s building, overhears one of the scientists access the secret laboratory with the five-note motif from Close Encounters used as a keypad entry code, and follows suit, a playful acknowledgment of the franchise jumping on the sci-fi bandwagon (even cuter are the opening notes of Richard Strauss’s “Also sprach Zarathustra” aka 2001 played on a hunting horn at the pheasant shoot).

Inside the lab, Bond leaves a vial of clear liquid precariously balanced when he flees to safety on the return of a couple of Drax’s scientists. The complicit boffins disturb the vial, which falls to the floor and smashes, releasing a cloud of gas. The scientists die, clutching at their throats. But the lab rats in a cage are fine. This is Drax’s entire plan in three beats, but subtle enough not to spoil the reveal for most of the audience: rather it’s a piece of perfectly played subliminal foreshadowing, essential for a plot with such a high concept. Of course, there will be a handful of audience members who will work it out immediately (as an insufferably precocious 12-year-old I did just that) but this is advantageous: it binds them both to the story and the brand (as this post conclusively proves).

Clown shark

In terms of set-ups and pay-offs, I’ve always loved the subtle callback to Jaws falling onto the big top in the pre-credits sequence when he follows Bond and Manuela in a Rio carnival clown costume. It’s perfectly in-keeping with the film’s genre multiplicity that the circus/clown trope appears the first time as broad comedy and the second time as genuine horror (a dark alleyway, a solitary female instinctively covering her exposed neck, a horrific monster trying to bite her). But this little cluster of tropes is even more sophisticated, because the vampire bite also pays-off the coffin-dwelling knife assassin. Magnificent.

Finally, the brilliant head-melting set-up of the space laser in the monastery courtyard in which Q is testing weapons, expertly preparing us for the space battle to come.


It’s no accident that this year’s Black Widow pays homage to Moonraker in an early scene. Natasha Romanoff is hiding out in a remote static caravan in Norway and is not only watching, but quoting along to Moonraker (it’s the scene at Drax’s rainforest temple launch base, in which Bond fights Drax’s pet python). That’s the first and only thing I have in common with Black Widow—the ability to quote the entirety of Moonraker.

There is clearly deep logic to this, with Eric Pearson and Cate Shortland’s film having both the lightness of touch and deep emotional heft of Wood and Gilbert’s masterpiece (both elements sorely missing from other entries in the MCU), in addition to a Bond-style plot, a Bond-flavoured villain, a Bond-flavoured lair (Dreykov’s sky base has clear associations with Drax’s space station) and a protagonist who—while she’s on screen—renders the idea of a female Bond entirely redundant.

Next up, the third of the Four Films That Made Me: The China Syndrome (1979), in which the human-created apocalyptic threat is entirely earthbound, indeed right through to its molten core…


Plague Island Zombies: Covid, The Bullingdon Club and Hammer’s living dead masterpiece

Deep into Hammer’s mid-Victorian set The Plague of The Zombies, villainous Squire Hamilton and the other exclusively male members of his local hunt tease and physically abuse the indefatigably inquisitive Sylvia (though the virulent misogyny on display screams a far darker subtext).

Sylvia (Diane Clare) caught by the hunt

Whenever I see that infamous photograph of Johnson, Cameron and the rest of the 1987 vintage in their Bullingdon Club attire, I’m reminded of this genuinely disturbing scene (you know the photo; for a refresher simply search online as despite permission for its use being withdrawn by the copyright owners, there are plenty of sites still sharing it).

In addition to assaulting young women, the Squire and his landed-gentry acolytes in Plague are exploiting the locals through Voodoo and black magic. They’re killing the village’s inhabitants (the titular plague), resurrecting then forcing them to work in their tin mines as the living dead. Indeed, the death rate is so unnaturally high for the tiny Cornish village, that the local doctor has called his mentor down from London to help (and his mentor’s independently-minded daughter has insisted she tag along).

Alice (Jacqueline Pearce) is resurrected

I’m in something of a unique position regarding what I’m convinced is Hammer’s unassailable masterpiece. Having overseen the restoration of 13 of the studio’s classic films between 2011 and 2013, I’ve probably watched Plague more than anyone except those who worked on the original in post-production. (Other than restoration and grading to restore the film to its original glory, most notably we re-ordered the film’s opening sequence as intended, and reverted to the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, revealing more of every frame. Detailed review of the Blu-ray release here.)

From this perspective, I can justifiably argue that Plague is the most thematically rich of all Hammer’s horror films, combining an overtly Marxist strand (exploited workers) with stark commentary on English feudalism (the landed class abusing the peasants) along with a generous helping of Freud’s “Return of The Repressed”.

The Return of The Repressed

Freud’s concept—the idea that what is repressed psychologically will always ultimately return to wreak havoc—is one of the mainstays of horror cinema and had a profound effect on the generation of North American horror auteurs who arrived then thrived during the 60s and 70s, including most notably George A. Romero, David Cronenberg, Wes Craven and John Carpenter.

Plague was released in both the UK and the US in January 1966, almost three years before Romero’s Night of The Living Dead (NOTLD), the first of the horror master’s Dead sequence. Although the main influence on NOTLD is often claimed as Victor Halperin’s 1932 White Zombie, it’s almost impossible to conceive that Romero was not influenced by Plague also. It is, of course, unarguable that Halperin’s film is the key influence on Plague itself.

Detail of a UK combo quad

In each of Romero’s films, a key element of America’s “repressed” returns as the living dead: in NOTLD it’s slavery and white supremacy, in Dawn of… it’s consumerism, in Day of… it’s US imperialism and Vietnam, in Land of… it’s end-stage capitalism, in Diary… and Survival… it’s the primal instincts repressed by varnish-thin layers of society and technology. In Plague, the repressed that returns is empire, but the location to which it returns (Cornwall) as well as from where it returns (Haiti) are prescient. The Squire and his hench-toffs use Voodoo magic—the fruits of slavery and colonialism—to enslave Cornish villagers.

In fixing the origin of the Voodoo magic as non-British Empire territory, but the location of the exploitation as Cornwall, the film clearly shows the imposition of an empire mindset on England itself: specifically on a part of England that has always claimed its independence from the centre; a part of England which is as much “occupied” by English feudalism as was any part of the British Empire overseas. (For Hammer’s take on the repressed returning from the British Empire itself, specifically British Malaya, watch The Reptile, which was shot back-to-back with Plague by the same director, John Gilling.)

Tin drums

I have long argued that the occupied home nations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have since Brexit been run as a de facto inland Empire, with all that this entails in terms of how the people are abused, exploited and discarded by the ruling class. From the loss of Freedom of Movement to businesses destroyed, from deliberate mass infection to inevitable food shortages, from the summary removal of rights, regulations and protections to the degradation of democracy itself. All enacted against not only the occupied nations, but the non-ruling English. And perpetrated by a small group of ideologues, malignant narcissists and sociopaths at the centre in order to extract wealth and to wield power, it would appear, simply for the sadistic enjoyment.

In a tweet posted on July 19th, Limmy made this irony-laced observation: “This Freedom Day experiment is the sort of thing the British Empire would have done to people in another country, partly as an experiment and partly out of malice. So for Boris to do it to his own, to England, it’s actually quite a progressive move.” Sums it all up nicely.

Work till you die… then keep working…

The kleptofascist project’s in-house newspaper The Telegraph reported on July 26th that the Bank of England advocates raising the pension age, something the Tories have floated several times since Brexit, after already increasing retirement age multiple times since 2010. It really does seem as though our ruling class wants us not only to work till we’re dead, but after we’re dead too—just like Plague’s poor exploited zombies.

LSWF 2018 Session

My LSWF 2018 session on Endings is available on the Private Delegate Network of LSF Connect. Anyone who has attended a full in-person festival should have a login. Go to the video archive, select 2018 and scroll down to find the session. Also available as audio only.

Some Thoughts on the “Hero’s Journey”

“The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life.” Carl Jung

“The map is not the territory.” Count Alfred Korzybski

“There is no spoon.” Neo

Ordinary World:

The ordinary world is indeed absolutely insane. We all need to escape from it sometimes—now more than ever. Stare too long into the abyss without a guide and you’ll go mad. Even with a guide most can’t handle the void’s brutal truth. But when it comes to story there are three ways to effect an escape and they aren’t mutually exclusive. Anesthetizing entertainment has its place—no-one can be “on” all the time. Then there are those creative endeavours that are specifically political/agitational/provocative in nature: but have these really effected any meaningful change in humanity in the long term? And is this because they are attempting to change everyone else, rather than one’s own “Self”?

The third route is what we currently call the “Hero’s Journey”: a non-religious, undogmatic myth of pilgrim’s progress for the post-monotheistic world. Psychologically, it’s an invaluable evolutionary step and enables the reader/viewer to understand and contextualize their own inner journey or quest within that of a fictional character undergoing the same archetypal processes. Consequently, that reader/viewer can lay the foundations and build the temple for real change inside their individual psyche (but, caveat emptor: experiencing this journey vicariously does not in and of itself cause change).

Call to Adventure:

Screenwriters write for many reasons, but a working-through of their own psychology is often the single most important factor (though this truth is usually unconscious—at least to start with). A map that sees the act of writing as a journey equal to the journey of the protagonist is simply a psychological truism. Screenwriters go on a journey every time they sit down to write. And a writer making progress through the mythic terrain of their own psyche can indeed begin to effect change within it.

Refusal of the Call:

Being told that any one template is simply “wrong” can be extremely undermining and unhelpful for any writer, especially if that template has already proven beneficial to them. It’s really not for anyone to cry that any individual map is wrong—especially when there might be specific motivations to cleave to one particular map at the expense of all others.

Meeting with the Mentor:

We all crave the wisdom of those who have experienced what we have not, but there is no one single person who could or should ever be the sole “Mentor” to a screenwriter. Spread your net wide. Absorb everything. Take what works; dispose of what doesn’t. But then keep going around again—and again—because as you change, what works for you will change also.

1st Threshold:

As you progress from neophyte to practising writer, you’ll realise that you’ve naturally osmosed some techniques and maps while you’ve intuitively left others behind. There is no “wrong” or “right”. Accepting this means you’ll absorb the tools and templates that work best for you because you’re open to everything that’s applicable—and maybe even to that which initially does not appear to be applicable at all.

Tests, Allies, Enemies:

The greatest test is to keep an open mind. The more open your mind the more allies you will have—at least intellectually (though it’s also true that blind allegiance to one particular closed-minded system can often offer career advancement). The true enemy of the screenwriter is the closed mind: being convinced that the way one sees things is not just the only possible way to see things but consequently also the only one that is correct.

Approach to the Inmost Cave:

There comes a time when you need to shut-out all advice, theory and maps and simply sequester yourself in your screenwriter’s cave. At this point there are no gurus, systems or structures that matter—only your story world, the characters that populate it and the decisions they make.

Ordeal/Central Crisis:

When you emerge from your cave you will suffer another crisis, so you will be thankful for all the help you can get. This includes every single theory, system and structural paradigm on which you can lay your hands—because sometimes it’ll be the very last lens you look through that unlocks the solution to your story problem. Then you’d best get your ass back into your screenwriter’s cave for the first rewrite. And around and around till…


There is very little reward for being a screenwriter. Hardly anyone makes a living. The work that does exist is shared by a tiny pool of professionals and there’s only ever room for a few new screenwriters from any generation to break in. This means that you need very quickly to understand that screenwriting needs to be its own reward. And one of the most rewarding aspects of screenwriting is working-through a mythic journey (metaphorically one’s own) vicariously through a character. This is as valid—or perhaps more valid—than any other motivation.

The Road Back:

The interplay between writing and life is symbiotic. You’ll be on a constant journey between your imagined world and the real world—with one constantly influencing and mirroring the other. As one moves through life, different stories become more applicable, others less so. There is an ineluctable, biologically-encoded archetypal pattern to life and this has been brilliantly explored by Jung, Campbell, Stevens and Hillman, among others. If you are open to this pattern, the road back is always simultaneously the road forward.


The only true resurrection is the metaphorical one. This is what Jung called “individuation” (though it goes by many other names in many languages) and it’s a process that is never entirely complete. Most of us will never experience this, whether through poverty, ego, greed, psychopathy, psychosis or just sheer bloody-mindedness. Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are among the most effective routes to this unattainable destination, but they don’t work for everyone and most people can’t afford either. Vicarious “resurrection”—the one that happens cathartically through engaging with a fictional character undergoing this process—is often all that’s available. But this process can be heightened if you are writing that process as well as engaging with it.

Return with the Elixir:

Screenwriting is perhaps more about psychotherapy for the writer than it is about an un-evidenced theory regarding the wider benefits of storytelling for the human race. Stories have been told since before language emerged—spoken or written—but humans are still the venal, fucked-up death-worshiping idiots they’ve always been. So much for the civilizing effects of storytelling. Best advice? Work on your own “Self” because that’s ultimately the only self that cares and the only self that will ever really listen to you (though you may have to shout—persistently). And if you attain true wisdom—what Jung called “acceptance”—you might one day be able to help effect this process in another.

Breaking Fad: Why OZARK and BREAKING BAD are not as similar as they first appear…

***SPOILERS*** for all Seasons of BREAKING BAD (except the Jesse movie, which I have yet to see) and Seasons 1-3 of OZARK


With Season 3 of Ozark dropping recently, it’s time to explode one of the most frequent myths about the hit Netflix show: that it’s simply a re-heated Breaking Bad transposed to Missouri. There are indeed some shallow similarities. Both centre on an American family under extreme pressure. Both have protagonists who become increasingly enmeshed in criminal endeavour. Both have Mexican drug cartels as their Big Bad. But beyond these points of comparison, the two shows diverge in just about every way.


In Breaking Bad we first meet Walter White as a High School chemistry teacher. As the title of the show suggests, Breaking Bad is about a character who “breaks bad”. At the outset he may be intensely neurotic, deeply unhappy, unfulfilled and undergoing an existential crisis, but he is following the moral tracks expected by both his society and his family. In contrast, Marty Byrde is a crook at the outset; he’s already laundering money for the Navarro cartel – he just narcissistically assumes he can carry on as things are without his role (and the involvement of his family) either escalating or completely falling apart.


It’s ironic taking into account the respective names of the shows, but Breaking Bad is the show in which the setting (specifically Albuquerque, New Mexico) is fully a character, while the Ozarks, for all its beauty, isn’t a character in Ozark, rather it’s a backdrop, as well as providing the multiple milieus that make the show so extraordinary. Notice how in Season 3 the various trips to Mexico are strictly by edit: cutting immediately to the drama without any filmic location-mood (this is, of course, also a production issue, but necessity and virtue are in total alignment here). This isn’t a deficiency – indeed it links directly to the next element…


In all great writing (and both shows are exceptional) genre, protagonist/s arc/s and theme should be seamlessly integrated and this is true of both shows. Ozark is at core an ensemble drama, albeit one that creates conflict, jeopardy and stakes from its criminal component. Breaking Bad is, at core, a protagonist-centred tragedy, with all of the Ancient Greek and Shakespearean resonances this should evoke, along with the religious, mystical, mythic and horror-toned elements that tragedy demands.

White is a brilliantly clever protagonist name: an everyman in extraordinary circumstances, a psychological archetype onto which the audience can project shared mythology, the disaster who ultimately becomes a tragic hero. The Byrdes by contrast are pretentious to their very core: their believe that, like their country, their very existence gives them licence to take whatever they want, whatever the cost. Marty and Wendy sound like the first names of the protagonist couple in a comedy – again this is entirely deliberate.

Walter’s trajectory is “fall then rise” in that he descends ever deeper into the circles of hell but redeems himself at the end by sacrificing himself to save Jesse. Marty’s trajectory is the opposite: “rise then…” (well we don’t know as yet, but we can make an educated guess). Indeed, if Marty and Wendy are like any Breaking Bad character in an archetypal sense it is Gustavo Fring rather than Walter (with Ruth as their Walter).

Unlike Breaking Bad, Ozark has multiple protagonists all with their own arcs, an element that makes the show so utterly absorbing. So, Wendy is also on a “rise then…” arc and so is Ruth (albeit Ruth more closely equates to the uncarved block of Jesse). Only Darlene bucks the ensemble trend with her “fall then rise” arc. And Navarro, of course, has nowhere to go but down. In terms of genre, Ozark has wonderfully subtle strands of both farce and satire, which are wholly absent from Breaking Bad.


Breaking Bad traverses family drama, crime drama, myth and religion, but ultimately its deepest theme is that of a feature film: that loss of morality and loss of self go hand-in-hand. This is the same theme as a plethora of movies about gangsters. Breaking Bad dives into the dark underbelly of the American dream in the same way as The Godfather or a Scorsese film.

In contrast, Ozark, with its deeply ingrained and immensely subtle layers of satire, is about the American dream as it actually is: a key moment in Season 3 comes when Ben and Wendy are sitting in Wendy’s car in a parking lot, chowing-down on fast food (could the scene be more American already?) and Ben tells Wendy that she should have stayed in politics, “You could still be a big deal! This is America!” (and a Childish Gambino reference to boot).

Indeed, in Season 3 the introduction of Wendy’s brother Ben makes the case absolutely overt: Marty, Wendy, Darlene and Ruth are psychopaths (with only Ruth showing any signs of the capacity for genuine positive change). But Ben is mentally ill. The deliberate juxtaposition is glorious, drawing out both that Ben is the only sane one in a nest of narcissists, and that it’s Ben who must be excised from this snake pit so that the others don’t have to look at themselves in the mirror. The deep theme of Ozark being that America is, quite literally, insane.


In Breaking Bad, Walter’s family are secondary because they are in service to Walter’s arc as tragic protagonist (as, indeed, is everyone else). The only other genuinely rounded character is Jesse and this is, of course, not an accident, as he’s the only other character from whose POV you could reasonably view the drama. “Who changes the most?” as the screenwriter’s rubric goes. Well, Walter redeems himself through death, so it must be Walter, but Jesse comes a close second as, in the show at least, he transforms from an abject loser to someone reborn, with potential for new life.

There’s always a sense in Breaking Bad that Jesse is the son that Walter wishes he had, and the guilt of feeling this only feeds into Walter’s self-hatred. In this sense the symbolic sacrificing of Walter for his archetypal “son” is apt. But this mythic element also means that Walter’s own family really do get the thin end of the wedge dramatically.

In Ozark, the Byrdes could be seen as a single character, so unified are they most of the time (obviously there is much push-and-pull, with at least one of the four pulling at any one time, whether it’s Charlotte’s emancipation, Marty sleeping in a motor lodge or Jonah at the end of Season 3). But the key here is that the Byrdes are ultimately a single protagonist: just a normal white-collar middle-class American family who can’t get ahead by being honest. This only works because individually all four are such wonderfully rounded characters.


There is a surfeit of top-notch female characters in Ozark, in contrast with the almost total absence of anything but foils for Walter and Jesse in Breaking Bad. Wendy, Ruth, Helen Darlene, Charlotte – it’s an embarrassment of riches with a tranche of brilliant performances underpinning them. As I’ve said elsewhere with regard to Gotham, there is no greater honour that writers can give to female characters than allowing them to be as gloriously dysfunctional, as psychopathic, as venal and as violent as the male characters. Ozark sings this message loud and clear (and I’m hoping that the boss of the Lagunas cartel turns out to be a woman too).

Following on from how well-developed Wendy and Charlotte are: as with everyone else who watches it, one often can’t help but watch Ozark as though Ruth is the show’s intended protagonist, with everyone else as her antagonist, either intentionally or by default. It’s no accident that Ben, the madman who can see everything for what it really is, falls for Ruth, the only character other than perhaps Wyatt who has a chance of making it out of the entire run alive.

As mentioned, in this configuration Marty is Fring and Ruth is Walter. Or Ruth is Jesse and Marty is Walter – indeed there is a sense that just as Jesse is Walter’s surrogate son, Ruth is Marty and Wendy’s surrogate daughter, but that relationship is entirely betrayed by the end of Season 3 and it’s hard to see a way back. Lines are now drawn for a locals (Langmores and Snells) vs. incomers (Byrdes) war in Season 4.


It’s hard to believe that Gilligan had anything but the eventual ending in mind for Walter and Jesse as it fits so elegantly with everything that has come before. The plots of tragedies are archetypally delineated and should have an inexorable gravitational pull towards an inevitable ending. This is a double-edged sword, as it means that over multiple seasons, an audience can become exhausted and/or bored waiting for this inevitable climax (and these are understandable complaints about Breaking Bad).

Conversely, due to its genre, character configuration and tonality, Ozark could satisfyingly end in multiple different ways. Obviously, someone has to be disappointed, but my money is on Ruth to beat the house. Roll on Season 4…

BREAKING BAD is available to purchase on Amazon Prime.
OZARK is on Netflix.