I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts) (The Turtles, 1968)

Formed in 1965 as The Crossfires from the Planet Mars, The Turtles were huge by 1967 – their biggest hit ‘Happy Together’ knocked ‘Penny Lane’ from the #1 slot in the USA. Their follow-up album, ‘The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands’, was a concept album in which the band pretended to be a series of different groups, credited with fantastic names like The Atomic Enchilada and The U.S. Teens featuring Raoul.

While ‘Eleanore’ and ‘You Showed Me’ were the big hits, the track ‘I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts)’ is a one-and-a-half minute nugget of mad genius. The band adopt what I think is supposed to be a Hawaiian tribal war chant – but the pounding drums, whoops and call-and-response shouts come off more like the Sugarhill Gang. Later sampled by the Beastie Boys (‘Jimmy James’) and De La Soul (‘Say No Go’), it’s amazing how well it measures up against early B-Boy classics like Incredible Bongo Band’s ‘Apache’.

The transition from ‘I’m Chief Kamanawanalea’ to the sublime ‘You Showed Me’ is a vindication of The Turtles daft multi-persona concept and – is it weird to have a favourite transition between songs on an album? Because that’s mine.

Listen to I’m Chief Kamanawanalea (We’re the Royal Macadamia Nuts) on Spotify.

The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands

The drums from Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (Stevie Wonder, 1970)

While it’s a fantastic song all in all, for me it’s all about the drum track. It’s so unfussy, so methodical and regular, and then so satisfying when the drums break out into a quick rattle at the close of some of the vocal lines. I’ve not been able to find out for sure who the drummer is, but Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers are usually credited so the likely candidate is Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen.

It’s amazing how much he’s able to achieve in the moments that he allows himself to escape from the standard beat, and I love the way that towards the end of the song he lets the rat-a-tatting take over little by little, threatening to transform the song from Stax-esque funk into a wild marching band.

Click here to listen to Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours on Spotify.

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The lead guitar from So Not What I Wanted (Herman Düne, 2002)

David is my favourite songwriter of the Herman Düne brothers but this song by André is an absolute beauty. There are two guitar solos in this song and both are near-identical – I’ve always assumed that the solos were by David, but I’ve had trouble finding out either way.

At 02:10 André’s and Diane Cluck’s vocals drop out and the guitar solo begins – at first confident and clear, but then fading and rattling into uncertainty. As the next verse continues, the lead guitar shimmers in the background, and then at 4:38 the solo returns, this time accompanied by an insistent regular drum pattern, rising in volume gradually.

The lead guitar line’s naive simplicity and repetition mirrors André’s cracking voice and sometimes awkward French-Swedish accent. It’s one of the most perfect marriages of vocal and instrumental melodies that I can think of.

Click here to listen to So Not What I Wanted on Spotify.

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Summertime! EP (The Drums, 2009)

Although only released last year, I like to imagine Summertime! by The Drums as the soundtrack to my end-of-sixth-form summer holiday. It’s sunny, hopeful and nostalgic. Like Animal Collective, The Drums have Brian Wilson as an ancestor, but also mix in Factory Records reverb and melodies that you’d swear were hits back in the 80s.

This EPs one of those rare records that make me sure that whichever track I’m currently listening to is my favourite – but I think ‘Don’t Be a Jerk, Johnny’ has to be top, if only for the coda ‘You used to be so pretty / But now you’re just tragic / Believe in something / You’re full of horseshit’.

There’s a huge amount of buzz around for The Drums – Rose and I will be seeing them live on 23rd Feb and I can’t wait to hear a sample of their first full-length album.

Click here to listen to Summertime! on Spotify.

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The skiing scene in King, Queen, Knave (Vladimir Nabokov, 1928)

In just his second novel Nabokov had begun experimenting with narrative conventions. While it’s maybe not quite as impressive taken out of context, I love the trick he plays in the extract below. Chapter 8 of King, Queen, Knave begins in one scenario with Franz and his lover Martha, but as Franz examines a photo of her husband Dreyer, Nabokov smoothly transitions to the scene within the image, lingers for a few moments, then hops out again. It’s an effect that’s simpler to achieve in film, but in prose it takes you by surprise. It leaves you feeling hyper-aware of each sentence as you begin to suspect that any sentence might spring off on an unexpected tangent.

One such blurry morning, a Sunday, when he and Martha in her beige dress were walking decorously about the snow-powdered garden, she wordlessly showed him a snapshot she had just received from Davos. It showed a smiling Dreyer, in a Scandinavian ski suit, clutching his poles; his skis were beautifully parallel, and all around was bright snow, and on the snow one could distinguish the photographer’s narrow-shouldered shadow.

When the photographer (a fellow-skier and teacher of English, Mr. Vivian Badlook) had clicked the shutter and straightened up, Dreyer, still beaming, moved his left ski forward; however, as he was standing on a slight incline, the ski went further than he had intended, and with a great flourish of ski poles he tumbled heavily on his back while both girls shot past shrieking with laughter.

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Spotify playlist: I Keep Losing Heart (Dec 2009)

Here’s a Spotify playlist that I made at the end of last year. It’s a bit of a mishmash of old 78s, distortion and cheap Beatles pastiches (come on Spotify, surely you can talk the boys around by now?).

1. I don’t want to set the world on fire – The Ink Spots
2. Welfare bread – King Khan & the Shrines
3. So bored – Wavves
4. California girls – The Magnetic Fields
5. rr vs. d – Au
6. I keep losing heart – Electrelane
7. Lesley Gore on the T.A.M.I show – Casiotone for the Painfully Alone
8. The cracks are showing – Vivian Stanshall
9. Shake appeal / Tight pants (live) – The Stooges
10. Red shoes by the drugstore – The Wedding Present
11. Bottle opener – Giddy Motors
12. You can’t catch me – Chuck Berry
13. All my loving – Beatles Rumba Band
14. Living in hope – The Rutles
15. Making plans for Nigel – XTC
16. Two sleepy people – Hoagy Carmichael & Ella Logan
17. Say a litle prayer – Santo & Johnny
18. Barbados – Lord Invader
19. Staging the plaguing of the raised platform – Cornershop
20. Are animals – Au
21. You are the generation that bought more shoes and you get what you deserve – Johnny Boy

Click here to listen to I Keep Losing Heart on Spotify

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Girlfriend is Worse (Ex Models, 2001)

I’m a total sucker for songs with modular, separate elements that eventually come together in surprising ways.

‘I lost my place / In your / Line of vision’ begins the song, the vocal line stop-starting, timing at odds with the lone staccato guitar line. Then on the second vocal phrase the rhythm guitar and drums hit, just two beats for a fleeting moment.

Fifteen seconds in, Shahin Motia emits the perfect phrase ‘I hate my body / I love your eyes’ and the drums thwack again and again, battling the guitar riff with bloodyminded steadiness.

And then, suddenly, the whole band are in agreement. Thick guitars mesh together, the off-kilter drums manage to underpin the melody without appearing to relate to it, and Shahin sings ‘You see, you see me, you see me / Hey, you see me, you see me’. It’s mindless but it feels eloquent, somehow.

The song’s modular, bitty. It never allows itself to reach a stable rhythm. The band occasionally drops out leaving just the knifing guitar, only to appear with a shriek moments later. Past the 50 second mark you feel that the band could fray and dissipate at any moment, and then at 1 min 03 secs it’s all over as abruptly as it began.

Click here to listen to Girlfriend is Worse on Spotify.

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The first 30 seconds of Zoo Station (U2, 1991)

Fair enough, U2 are now profoundly uncool. And on relistening, much of Zoo Station isn’t nearly as special as I’d believed in 1991 – a large proportion of Bono’s lyrics are banal (‘I’m ready to duck / I’m ready to dive / I’m ready to say / I’m glad to be alive’). But the first 30 seconds are magnificent.

The track begins with a barely audible ticking, then a huge formless guitar riff lurches in and drops like a stone. The second time round the riff is followed by an industrial clunking that might be distorted drums but is almost felt rather than heard, like the thump of a migraine. Finally, a percussive tapping begins off-beat, perhaps a spanner hitting a pipe in a vast warehouse space. The riff and percussions repeat, slightly out of phase with one another. For the next few seconds the two patterns compete until they eventually mesh into a cohesive rhythm. The undistorted guitars arrive, Bono ruins the party, and the song becomes more and more conventional as the song progresses… but those first 30 seconds were glorious.

Click here to listen to Zoo Station on Spotify.

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Films of the decade

For the record, my favourite films of the 2000s, in alphabetical order:

24 Hour Party People
28 Weeks Later
Adventureland
Caché
Children of Men
City of God
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Dogville
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Good Night, and Good Luck
I’m Not There
In the Bedroom
In the Mood for Love
Memento
Moon
Mulholland Dr
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Rachel Getting Married
Shaun of the Dead
Spirited Away
The Incredibles
The Last King of Scotland
The Lives of Others
The Royal Tenenbaums
There Will Be Blood
This is England
Traffic

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John Hillcoat on societal collapse

John Hillcoat, director of the wonderful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, commenting on the swift degradation of society after a catastrophe:

To New Orleans, where we have picked up some local crew who are survivors of Katrina, which gives everything an added poignancy. We heard incredible stories: after the hurricane, the first gang that came to loot the shopping mall we were shooting in were all policemen – that was just how quickly the system collapsed.

See Hillcoat’s film production journal here.

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To New Orleans, where we have picked up some local crew who are survivors of Katrina, which gives everything an added poignancy. We heard incredible stories: after the hurricane, the first gang that came to loot the shopping mall we were shooting in were all policemen – that was just how quickly the system collapsed.

The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951)

The Day of the Triffids is often cited as the first and archetypal ‘cosy catastrophe’ novel. The hero, Bill Masen, is one of the few not to be blinded by the sights of a green comet storm as his eyes have been bandaged in hospital – in the first and most memorable scene he experiences a panicked blindness, then removes his bandages to find that the rest of the population is permanently blind. Only a day into the disaster, Masen discovers a society already collapsed, with many of the blind suicidal or frantically looting food from abandoned shops.

John Wyndham performs a couple of sleights of hand in detailing the background to the disaster. The triffids, strange carnivorous plants with an unknown origin, have dispersed around the world several years before the catastrophe and are common enough to no longer concern Western society. The coincidence that the blinding of the population is enough to allow triffids to gain the upper hand is never explicitly linked to the arrival of the triffids themselves – instead, both the triffids and the green comet shower are usually vaguely linked to human experimentation within an impenetrable Soviet Union.

Throughout most of the novel the Triffids present a persistent obstacle rather than a major threat. Wyndham uses the triffids to illustrate the tenuous hold on power that the human race had before the disaster – but the novel is more concerned with various groups’ opinions on the best way for society to survive. Masen meets several groups with differing opinions, from fatalist isolated communities to benevolent dictatorships.

The primary survivor groups are:

  • Miss Durrant’s Christian group who insist that traditional gender roles and morals are preserved;
  • Wilfred Coker’s initial gang allocating one sighted person to lead a community of blind people in looting supplies in London;
  • Michael Beadley’s practical group who recognize that the human race can only be rebuilt with a version of ‘free love’ and a stable community providing education and safety for future generations;
  • The despotic government offering Masen a feudal lordship over a blind community.

Wyndham appears to stress the need for society’s moral code to reflect the circumstances, and he details Masen’s internal conflict about breaking taboos – for example, stealing from shops or sleeping with more than one woman.

As per Jo Walton’s observations (see my first post, below), while many of the working class survive the initial blinding comet shower, they’re generally wiped out through their greed and inability to adapt. Bill Masen and the eventual stable communities are certainly middle-class and the outlook for their Isle of Wight appears ‘cosy’, while still likely to be fraught with the problems of sustaining a benevolent dictatorship. Peculiarly, Masen is the only character looking for a loved one (and even then, someone he’d met after the catastrophe, not before).

Rereading the novel last month for a book group (the brilliantly garish Penguin copy on the right), I was surprised how little of the novel I’d remembered since reading it age 10 or 11. Other than the blindness disaster, the elements that had stuck were the free-roaming sections where Bill Masen steals one vehicle after another and loots shops for food. I hadn’t recalled the role of the triffids themselves, and even now they seem a McGuffin designed to exacerbate the problems facing the survivors. I’ll be interested to see how the BBC’s new TV adaptation (beginning broadcast on December 29th 2009) treats the triffids, as I’m sure it’s tempting to heighten their role at the expense of the general survival theme.

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The Last Man on Earth (Ubaldo Ragona, 1964)

I’ve been thinking about this film a lot recently. What’s striking about The Last Man on Earth (partly adapted by Richard Matheson from his novel I Am Legend) is the sheer tedium of Robert Morgan’s day-to-day existence in the years following the vampire virus outbreak. Vincent Price spends a great deal of the film detailing his routine tasks such as barricading the doors of his family home, collecting supplies of garlic from the supermarket and whittling stakes to clear the neighbourhood of vampires during the day. There are few glimpses of a post-disaster society – Morgan has spent several years alone, hounded by his vampiric former neighbours and stubbornly trying to live as traditional a life as possible in the circumstances.

While the film was reportedly an influence on George A Romero’s 1969 Night of the Living Dead, I think The Last Man on Earth succeeds – and is unique – because it emphasizes the dullness of a post-apocalyptic world, rather than the threats or opportunities.

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Cosy catastrophes

The term ‘cosy catastrophe’ was coined by Brian Aldiss in his science fiction history Billion Year Spree. Cosy catastrophes are stories involving a sudden non-violent event wiping out most of civilization; the cosiness refers to the conceit of a band of survivors left to rebuild society in relative comfort. Aldiss originally used the phrase to describe (with a hint of criticism, perhaps) John’s Wyndham’s novels, particularly The Day of the Triffids.

I think I’ve always been interested in cosy catastrophes, although I didn’t learn about Aldiss’ phrase until yesterday. I read The Day of the Triffids when I was 10 or 11, and while I found the catastrophe itself terrifying (the population watch blazing green comets in the sky, which by morning has rendered them all blind), I was caught by the idea of survivors having free reign over the country, with society in tatters. I’ve since read a bunch of dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels – but I think that the concept of the cosy catastrophe is the aspect that really chimes with me.

But why? I’m starting to think it’s not too healthy an interest. Jo Walton points out that the survivors in the archetypal 1950s cosy catastrophe fiction are from the middle classes (with the working classes conveniently wiped out), and they rarely lose anyone significant to them. This allows the survivors to be nostalgic and yet able to recreate society from a more appealing starting-point.

Is my interest as self-centred as Jo Walton suggests? Maybe. I can think of a lot of aspects of a sudden non-violent catastrophe that appeal:

  • a fresh start
  • a new, clear purpose for life
  • a united background with fellow survivors
  • a need to learn and use practical skills

The final point is the one that often leads me to imagine a post-apocalypse world – i.e. what skills do I have that’ll help me to survive after an apocalypse? (Not many!) For the last few years I’ve been working on lengthy, often meandering editorial projects, so I can see the appeal of immediate and practical work. I guess there’s a self-indulgent excitement about the idea of wiping the slate clean in other senses too, particularly the idea of a less complex post-disaster society.

So, I’ll accept the fact that my interest in cosy catastrophes is a kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy. I think I’m ok with that. I’m keen to think more carefully about fictional cosy catastrophes, partly to understand writer’s wish-fulfilments, but mainly to understand my own.

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Tim Major – writer & editor

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