100 Bullets: Brother Lono 5


And now we see the threads beginning to be drawn together, and in a dream, a daydream, we see where I and no doubt many others have expected this story to go since that intial scene, four long months ago.

And as the story turns to ride downhill, towards its ultimate destination, it grows simpler, its scenes flowing from one to another, each scene bringing the four main protagonists towards its centre: Cortez and Craneo, Sister Rose and Brother Lono.

There’s no immediate follow-up on either of last months revelations: indeed the episode begins with a dream, Lono’s dream of a conversation with Christ, who seeks his aid. Yet it is not the aid Lono provides, which is to pull out the nails and help him down from the cross: Lono’s role is to kill Christ. In what sense that would be is lost: Paolo picks up the fallen bottle that has inspired Lono’s dreaming, but the Dog still barks loudly enough to jump him by instinct.

Enter Sister Rose, whom Paolo rejects with anger, knowing she is not what she pretends to be. His reaction to her is so extreme that Lono is at first mystified. But then Sister Rose says something to open his eyes, and the fact that his eyes were not open of their own accord is something that troubles Lono, and brings him back to the Orphanage at night, rather than commit himself to Cesar’s cells. It looks as if that will be a fateful decision.

We see Carneo with his daughter and her baby-mother, we see Cortez talking to the strange, pickled baby in its tank, making explicit what we have understood for so long, that Las Torres support the Orphanage, that it is in some unquantifiable way, sacrosanct, but that it will thrive and grow that much better if they, not the Church, directly control it. Meanwhile, his guest Maddon demands via his pohone that ‘things’ are done his way.

Despite his hostility to all those there, Paolo has remained at the Orphanage. He daydreams of destroying it, of killing Father Manny and Sister Rose, and Brother Lono, a vision that Lono reads too easily in his eyes, having seen it in a mirror (though Lono’s version reserves an alternative fate for the good Nun). He’s watching her now: into town to shop, and back. He laments to Father Manny that he can no longer tell when a lie is being spoken: that, the Father says, is because he has learned to trust. Whilst they talk, Paolo searches Sister Rose’s room and finds what should not be there: a gun.

And it is well that Brother Lono is on hand for Craneo arrives out of the night, offering money to the orphans to do jobs for Cortez. The money tempts, and though Father Manny says no, some boys say yes. But it is not they who are wanted on this occasion: Craneo is hear for girls, for some of the older girls. Sister Rose too says no, emphatically. Craneo goes over her head to the girls, challenging them to decide for themselves.

Which is when Lono steps forward. He tells Craneo to leave: he will leave alone. Craneo disputes this, he revs her car up, brings it in front of Lono. He will not leave alone. Behind the white-clad Lono, his right arm in its sling, a shadowed Paolo raises his left hand. He is holding Sister Rose’s gun.

Los Hijos de la Sangre. The Sons of the Blood.

Whose blood?

A Universe in one Comic Book: Astro City (Volume 3) no. 5


I’ve wondered how best to put this, but it seems the best approach to take is the straightforward one: I don’t particularly like this issue, and I find it very disappointing.

Part of that is down to misdirected anticipations caused by Alex Ross’s cover, ironically so in that it’s by far and away the best cover to date in Volume 3. From the first time I saw it, it set my expectations for a truly historical tale, the oldest tale yet in Astro City‘s existence. I anticipated, indeed relished, the prospect of Busiek and Co’s take on pre-First World War superheroing. Dame Progress. Mr. Cakewalk. Strange names, intriguing adversaries, a fresh perspective

Which made the opening page, revisiting the Broken Man from issue 1, a total let-down.

I’d also better admit that I’m a long way from accepting the Broken Man yet. I can see what Kurt’s shooting for, ‘a riddle wrapped up in an enigma’ (re-demonstrating my point about our predeliction for making aphoristic phrases out of a distortion of original words, here Winston Churchill’s 1939 comment on Soviet Russia that ‘It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’). But there’s something I really don’t like about the Broken Man, and after much thought I’ve defined it as the excessive breach of the Fourth Wall.

That’s not something that bothers me in principle, but the Broken Man raises this to a fetish, purportedly incorporating me in the story as an ally or, given how determined he is to be mysterious and not actually give away anything concrete, as an underling of neither consequence nor use.

Because that’s what this story is: it’s a continuation of no 1 but on a wider scale (I refuse at this point to say ‘greater’). It’s this thing about the Oubor again and about they won’t notice readers of certain issues of Astro City, but we’re being a total danger to everything by reading the first two fragments of story that sneak through due to our failure of concentration. On the other hand, we are allowed the Dame Progress/Mr Cakewalk sequence as a freebie, even though there’s this great mystery drummed up around it about how we can’t possibly be expected to understand it.

What Busiek is doing is building a very large and long story but, unlike The Dark Age, he seems intent on doing it a fraction at a time. Issue 5 is a come-on issue: we get three fragmentary tales in different Twentieth Century times, interspersed with all manner of images that are also relevant to the story, but which we can’t expect to understand. Now I love a good parcelling out of information in judiciously calculated instalments as much as the next reader (I am a worshipper of 100 Bullets, remember?), but this is too much. Instead of getting to grips with the story, trying to find a connection between enigmatic incidents, it’s being thrown in our face as being deliberately incomprehensible. I don’t know about anyone else but being told I can’t possibly cope with a story gets my back up.

No doubt all will become clearer over whatever extended timescale Busiek plots, and I hope that the clues and links can be forged without the Broken Man pointing to them with his purple fingers, shouting ‘Here’s a clue!’, because that’s what this month’s episode has me dreading.

The three fragments are interesting in themselves, although I’d like to have gotten deeper into any one of them, rather than this whistle-stop tour, deliberately interrupted in the first two instances. Fragment 1 focusses on Special Agent Cal Tarrant, leader of the Working Group On Unsettling Anomalies, Classification and Confinement, or WGOUACC (no, actually they’re known as the Blasphemy Boys). They’re a sort of Untouchables of the paranormal and it’s about a case that decimates the team in Baltimore in 1931.

Fragment 2 isn’t even a story, it’s a set-up. It’s set in India, in 1947, where a US Army Paratroop Sergeant deserter has, in undescribed circumstances, become a Kobra-style leader of a religious cult, about to carry out a political assassination. The context for this fragment, in the Broken Man’s workshop places it in juxtaposition to the unjust execution of the Silver Agent, suggesting that this tiny Indian statelet may be connected to Maga-Dhor.

The only ‘complete’ tale brings us at last to Dame Progress and Mr. Cakewalk, and it’s interestingly noticeable that their hero/villain chase through Romeyn Falls is undated. I’d attribute it to turn-of-the-century, with about a ten year leeway either way. Dame Progress is the heroine, Mr. Cakewalk an annoyingly acrobatic villain, but he’s maybe more than that since he helps the Dame expose the dastardly plans of Dr Aegyptus, and gives his loot back.

But this is still a tale of fragments and not-even-hints, because we still have no idea what this story is about, and no context for our multiple historical moments. And we’re invited to take each and every element of this issue as a ‘clue’. This apparently includes the 45rpm single by The Kloo, “Outside Reaching In”. The label is oscured, but not by so much that I can’t recognise it as Warner Brothers’ Records, but there’s no year on it, the songwriting credits are partially blocked (second writer Berryhill) , as are the Publishing company (Great Nameless ?), and I can’t find the Kloo on either YouTube or Google, whilst the only “Outside Reaching In” on YouTube is by a 1980s band, and the Kloo’s name is pure mid/late-Sixties.

More will be revealed, and I’m perfectly prepared to revise my opinion of this issue when I know a bit more of what it’s referencing, but Kurt and Co. will have to do a lot more yet to have me change my opinion of the Broken Man (I gather that a handful of astute fans have correctly identified who he is ‘in real life’, but not me).

So, a disappointment. To come is another one-off in issue 6, then a four-parter centring on Winged Victory, Samaritan and The Confessor in issues 7-10.  I’m sure I will have better things to say about those forthcoming issues.

Breaking the Vibrational Barrier: 1963


Justice League of America 21, “Crisis on Earth-One!”/Justice League of America 22, “Crisis on Earth-Two!” Written by Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky (pencils) and Bernard Sachs (inks), edited by Julius Schwarz.


On Earth-1, the Justice League has called an emergency meeting, chaired by Batman, to handle a challenge issued by the new Crime-Champions, who consist of the Flash’s Doctor Alchemy, The Atom’s Chronos and the League’s own Felix Faust, The criminals plan to rob and vanish with their loot, without the League being able to stop them. The League accepts the challenge and splits into three teams to tackle the crooks.
Meanwhile, on Earth-2, the Justice Society have opened their former meeting rooms for the first time in thirteen years. Doctor Fate explains to the attending members that, under the team’s revised by-laws (i.e., constitution), they are to operate with a rotating membership of seven. Those present have been chosen by lot, and the other members have sent telegrams of congratulations.
The Society has received an identical challenge from three old supervillains, The Flash’s Fiddler, Green Lantern’s Icicle and the Society’s own Wizard. Filled with the rush of nostalgia, the Society split into three teams and rush out to tackle their foes.
Back on Earth-1, Felix Faust easily evades capture by Aquaman, J’Onn J’Onzz and The Atom, Dr Alchemy gets away from Superman and Green Arrow (The Flash mysteriously vibrates into nothingness) and Chronos eludes  Batman, Wonder Woman and  Green Lantern.
We follow the Crime Champions to a giant satellite-like bubble in an inter-dimensional limbo, where they meet their allies, the Earth-2 villains. The Earth-2 trio congratulate their Earth1 counterparts, whilst recalling their own luck in meeting them: having escaped at last from prison, the villains had been surrounded at a deserted crossroads outside Keystone City (where the Flashes cross from Earth to Earth), and when The Fiddler tried to fiddle up an escape, he accidentally took the trio to the Central City Community Theatre on Earth-1.
In turn, the Earth-1 villains reminisce about how they planned to rob the takings but, recognising convict garb, spirited the newcomers away before anyone else could see them.
Learning of the parallel Earths, the sextet have got together to rob in their own worlds and spend their ill-gotten gains in the other world, unrecognised by anyone: except the Flashes, that is, who have had to be captured and caged in traps that automatically neutralise their ability to vibrate free.
The villains go off to have a good time, but the Earth-2 trio, having spent the last fifteen years or so in jail, are tempted by the riches on display. In order to protect their plan, they disguise themselves as the Earth-1 Crime Champions, and set a trap for the Justice League at a casino hotel.
One by one, the eight League members touch ordinary items that the Wizard has magicked to doom them: they are wisked away into a magical trap that confines them in their own cave sanctuary.
Unable to escape, the Leaguers use Marlin’s crystal ball to contact their Flash. They learn the whole story from him, and go on to invite the Justice Society into Earth-1 for the historic first meeting of the heroes of two Earths!
The Justice Society, who aren’t confined by the Wizard’s magic, leave the sanctuary to hunt down their villains. The Justice League are sent into Earth-2, to pursue their villains. The two Green Lanterns team-up to travel into limbo to rescue the Flashes.
End of Part One.

The Justice Society emerge from the Secret Sanctuary and split up to hunt down their foes, who have dropped their disguises. Hourman and the Atom capture the Fiddler, Doctor Fate overcomes the Icicle and Hawkman and Black Canary defeat the Wizard.
The Green Lanterns see something in limbo.
On Earth-2, the Justice League go after their rampaging foes. J’Onn J’Onzz, the Atom and Green Arrow bring in Felix Faust, Batman and Wonder Woman (again!) are too much for Doctor Alchemy and Superman and Aquaman clean up Chronos.
The Lanterns reach the Crime-Champions satellite and find the Flashes, but their vibrational bubbles are impervious to every power ring attack. Finally, the Lanterns realise that air can get in and out so they transform the Flashes and bring them out. But this triggers a pre-set trap that couldn’t be sprung without the additional energy of the Rings: all sixteen heroes are drawn into specialised two-person traps in limbo.
Each cage is specially protected against the heroes’ powers, but this proves the Crime-Champions’ undoing: the Atoms’ cage may be super-dense, preventing the Eaarth-1 Atom from shrinking to subatomic size and slipping out between the molecules of its base, but the Green Lanterns’ cage doesn’t stop them shrinking themselves out.
The Lanterns’ power frees the Flashes, and the knock-on effect enables everybody to free someone else. The two teams head back to Earth-2, where the six villains have gathered.
As soon as they realise what’s happened, the villains know they have no chance. They try to find a way out. If Earth- and Earth-2 exist, there must logically be an Earth-3: can they get there? Not before the avenging League and Society arrive and totally clobber them.
Agreeing to keep in touch to be able to deal with similar incidents, the teams gather their villains and return to their respective Earths.

* * * * *

The first JLA/JSA has always been described as a classic, and it’s deserving of the accolade. It would be a classic in any event, solely for what it was: a completely unprecedented meeting between the pre-eminent superhero teams of the present and the past, between the protectors of two Earths, between the familiarity of the League and the otherworldliness of the Society who, for the overwhelming majority of the readers, would be nothing more than a curiosity spoken of by elder brothers.
If Showcase 4 was the implicit conception of the Multiverse, and The Flash 123 its birth, Justice League of America 21/22 was the moment that it became the foundation of DC Comics.
This first team-up is fascinating on many levels. Whilst crossovers between Earths were only taking place in The Flash, it was enough to describe the two Earths as Barry and Jay’s worlds, but this breakout required a more objective designation, and so Earth-1 and Earth-2 were formally named as such. And, in the light of such later and transformative series as Crisis on Infinite Earths etc, this is the fountainhead: these are the original Crises.
In the light of where the annual team-ups would soon go, ‘Crisis on Earth-One/Two’ seems unusually unambitious. The story is nothing more than a standard hero vs villain tale, on a larger scale. The superhero teams are doing nothing but their everyday jobs, only in greater numbers, and so too are the villains: between nine JLA, seven JSA and six supervillains, there are 22 costumed characters cavorting throughout this double-length story, and the DC-reading kid of 1963 would have been giddy with excitement at page after page of superpowers in action.
In a way, this two-parter represented the end of a phase for Justice League of America. From its inception in the Brave & Bold try-outs, the League – like the Society before it in the Forties – had always put its entire membership out every issue. But the JSA had, according to Doctor Fate, reconstituted itself as a team consisting of no more than seven active members at any time (like that would last), and perhaps that notion – intended only to keep the Justice Society ranks down to manageable proportions – appealed to Schwarz and Fox after such an extravaganza, but from this point forward the League would drop its unwritten rule requiring everyone to attend. Most adventures would feature 5-6 members at a time, with the whole team reserved for special events, which would, in turn, lead to the perhaps unconscious development of a ‘Big Five’ within the League.
I’ve started these series with the intention of looking at the Justice Society’s changing depiction throughout the years, but it’s impossible to ignore that all these stories are taking place in the Justice League’s series They’re the stars, and the Justice Society the guests, and this story was written and drawn in an era where the star was very much the star. Guests were fine, but they had to know their places. The guest could help out, but it was the hero who won the day.
In respect of the final outcome, the Justice Society get to stand alongside their hosts as equals: the Crime-Champions are swept away in a sixteen hero onslaught over two background-less, silent pages, with the League and the Society mixing up their forces to simultaneously knock down each of the six villains.
But that’s not the case prior to that point. In issue 21, the League gets nine pages to tussle with their trio, not to mention a further four against the disguised Earth-2 villains, whilst the Society’s battled is gotten over in three flashback panels, related by their enemies and occupying a single tier on one page. Then, in issue 22, the ‘Earth-Two’ half, the Society get to strut their stuff over eight upfront pages, but the League still get their second round at length, over another nine pages.
And let’s not forget that we’re continually being reminded that the Society are old men (and woman). Though none of them are drawn to look significantly older than the League, there are constant references to the Society being older: references to lined faces, greying hair, and bringing back a clearly distant past.
Which, to be fair, was only the true situation. Excluding their previous cameo in The Flash 137, this is indeed the JSA’s first outing in costume in thirteen years: longer than most of the target audience have been alive.
As far as team-ups go, Fox structures his tale to have the League and the Society operating separately until the end. Even then, there’s little real interactivity: only the two Lanterns get any real conversation, all of it focussed on the job at hand, and the concluding melee is simply six single multi-hero panels.
Not that anyone should or would have expect any emotional underpinning to the story. The JSA’s delight at being back in action, at reliving their old glories is as far as Fox and Schwarz are prepared to go: it is, after all, what distinguishes them from the JLA, But this is an action comic: that historic first meeting is historic only in the captions. It was DC’s formula, especially under the plot-driven Fox and Schwarz. The story was and is all.
It’s slightly surprising that writer and editor devoted as much time as they did to the organisational foundation of the new JSA. It’s also interesting that, despite the same pairing having been responsible for Hawkman announcing himself as the JSA’s former Permanent Chairman, it is Doctor Fate in the chair despite the fact that Hawkman is on the team.
That initial line-up is equally interesting. It includes all four Golden Age originals whom Schwarz had already updated for the nascent Silver Age, plus two further founder members, neither of whom had been seen with the Justice Society, or in comics at all, since 1943 and very early 1945 respectively. It makes sense to include the four characters who would have seemed the strangest to contemporary characters, heroes who now had other, more familiar costumes.
But the Black Canary is a true anomaly here, given that she didn’t appear until 1948, and thus had never before worked with, or even met Fate or Hourman. Not that you’d realise that from this issue. Fox and Schwarz would never have wasted good story-telling time to touch upon that. However, a female Society member was needed, and as Wonder Woman was still in print from the Golden Age, there was no other choice.
Black Canary’s lack of previous experience with her elder comrades helps introduce another aspect to the story that modern readers will have difficulty comprehending. The Crime-Champions kidnap the two Flashes because only they have visited each other’s Earths and could recognise the other villains. This, and the explanation that Barry-Flash gives once the League make contact via their Souvenir Room Crystal Ball, makes plain that, in the two years since his first trip to another Earth, and despite the very public appearance of Jay in Central City as being from another Earth, The Flash hasn’t yet told his colleagues in the Justice League about Earth-2.
But then we would have known that as little kids anyway. This is 1963, and it will be nearly two decades before retcons – ‘retrospective continuity’ – are invented, and in this time, if you hadn’t read it in a comic book, it hadn’t happened. Dinah Drake didn’t meet Kent Nelson or Rex Tyler in that intervening thirteen years, Barry Allen (whose secret identity wasn’t known to anyone except Hal ‘Green Lantern’ Jordan) had never discussed Jay Garrick at a Justice League meeting.
It was a different era.
These two issues were drawn by the art team of Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs, who’d been the JLA’s penciller and inker from the outset. Selowsky is justly noted for his eccentric anatomy, and the curious poses he put his characters through, and his take on many of the characters will look wholly alien to modern audiences. But there’s a key to his success on Justice League of America on page 2, third tier of issue 21, and again on the same tier of page 4.
The first is the stock shot of the Justice League running from their cave Sanctuary to head for the action, the second is a Justice Society equivalent. Both feature the heroes, against a white background, running towards the character in a straight line, and every single figure, across both panels, is moving differently. Batman may look too top-heavy to run at all, but everyone is different.
And it’s like that throughout. Remember that Sekowsky is dealing with no less than twenty-two costumed characters in this story, in multiple combinations, but for all his weird positions and awkward stances, he handles the combinations expertly. Your eyes may pop, but they’ll never go to the wrong place in a Sekowsky page.
Such a pity that Sachs was so unsympathetic an inker, all weak, fussy and scratchy lines, exaggerating Sekowsky’s worst traits and robbing the images of any energy.
Though you can’t help but smile at one point. DC’s artists would often swipe film stars faces for characters, and Sekowsky has indulged himself with the unmasked face of the Icicle (who is somehow moustached in real-life whilst his costumed face is clean-shaven), drawing him in two panels as Groucho Marx, complete with cigar in a characteristic splay-fingered hand. I’m always ready for the panel to start spouting, “When I was in Africa, I shot an elephant in my pyjamas…”
As the choice of villains. The Golden Age was nothing like as big on super-villains as the Silver Age had been from its very start, and certainly not as keen on recurring villains, and whilst The Fiddler had already been seen in The Flash 123, the other two were obscurities. The choice of Earth-1 villains is actually more intriguing, as none of the trio was anything remotely resembling a major villain: when your heaviest player is Felix Faust…
Despite being one of the Silver Age Flash’s earliest villain, under his original nom de crime of Mr Element, Dr Alchemy has never made the cut in relation to the long standing Rogue’s Gallery. There’s an instructive pointer to early Sixties’ DC comics here: after starting out as Mr Element, Paul Desmond discovered the fabled Philosopher’s Stone, which could change one element into another. Giving himself a new costume and title, he fought the Flash, but had the Stone taken off him, and hurled into space by the Flash at a speed in excess of escape velocity, meaning it will never return. It poses a little difficulty about bringing Doctor Alchemy back.
Fox and Schwarz dispose of this inconvenient and fatal incident in a single thought bubble, as Alchemy reminds the reader that the Philosopher’s Stone was hurled into space, but he later retrieved it and changed it into a matter transformer. How easy it was, then.
But it’s Chronos who, for me, is the real let down in this story. In 1963, he was still in the early stages of a criminal career that got started when a petty thief became obsessed with improving his timing. His first move in this story is to crumble the walls of a bank by hitting it with “bottled time” that ages it, but after seeming like a worthy opponent, he starts taking on the likes of Wonder Woman and Batman with a pocket watch, whose hands shoot out to nudge Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth out of the way, and whose face cuts Batman’s batrope. In the big melee, he looks like he’s trying to hurl clocks at people! This man does not belong here, folks!
But let’s get back to the Justice Society of America: seven heroes returned from comic book limbo. The Flash, Green Lantern, Hourman and Black Canary are as they always were (though Fox and Schwarz will go on to muddy the waters over Hourman’s miraclo pills). Not so the other three.
In 1948, after years of being no more than a pint-sized bruiser, the Atom inexplicably developed superstrength, and radically redesigned his costume: he returns in that second costume and, whilst he doesn’t display any especial strength here, future stories will confirm he’s still got it.
But Doctor Fate, as long ago as 1942, lost virtually all his magical powers, and cut back his golden helm to expose the lower half of his face. That development is overlooked: Fate sports his old full-face helm and has all his magical powers again, though the gothic, Lovecraftian approach to the character, whom Fox co-created, remember, is lost for this time, and he’s as normally, pragmatically American as everyone else.
But, though being a purely minor aspect, it’s intriguing to see Hawkman return in that simple yellow cloth hood he started wearing at the same time the Atom changed his costume. The reason is obvious: unlike the other three, the Silver Age Hawkman wears an identical costume to his predecessor, so the Golden Age Hawkman must perforce look different.
It’s just that in The Flash 137, he was wearing a proper Hawk-helm, like the old days…

PS: After Crisis on Multiple Earths, whilst everyone was waiting to see what shape the DC Universe was going to take, there was considerable fan speculation about exactly what out of pre-Crisis history would be held to be still canon. One sector of that focussed on which of the JLA/JSA team-ups were still in continuity if the two teams had been based on the same Earth. No authorised list was ever published, at least not that I was ever aware, but despite the fact that this first team-up depended heavily on there being two Earths, It could have made the cut. It would have needed a lot of revision, but the basic story could be retained by making the Crime Champions into a team of older and younger villains, with the older ones escaped from long imprisonment, and wanting to catch up on their interrupted careers. Score 1 in the positive column.

Pavlov’s Dog – Pampered Menial


The whole point of music is to listen to it, right? (Please, no objections from the dance fans in the background, there). You listen, you like, you buy, or illegally download, an option that has only latterly come onto the table. You may buy the music sight, er, unheard as it were, but this is the case in respect of music that comes from a trusted source, music with a proven background. You don’t just go out, unless you are an eccentric more proven than I, and buy completely unknown music based solely on a single New Musical Express review.
In the case of this album however, that’s exactly what I did.
The credit goes to Max Bell, one of the many mid-Seventies rock journalists who came together in all their sprawling, arguing glory to make Nick Logan’s NME the impossibly wonderful weekly thrill it was in that most elegantly wasted of decades (pre-punk, naturally). He’s less well-known or remembered than the likes of Charles Shaar Murray, Mick Farren and Nick Kent, principally because his focus was more upon the less-bloated, more inventive American music of the decade: Steely Dan and Little Feat to quote two disparate examples.
Indeed, whilst everyone remembers Farren’s legendary ‘Titanic’ article about Seventies music, only those of us there at the time now recall that Max Bell wrote a rebuttal to Farren a couple of weeks later, championing those American based favourites, including Bell’s own, idiosyncratic, short-lived discovery, Pavlov’s Dog.
It began with a record review, sometime around the February/March of 1976, of an import copy of Pampered Menial, the Dog’s first album. Bell loved it, regarded it with a passion close to awe, and in some fashion managed to communicate that to me, leaving me with the conviction that here was an album I was sure to enjoy. If I ever heard it.
Now that’s rare. I’ve read forty years worth of raves about music I didn’t know, and there’s been no more than a dozen occasions when I’ve come out of them with the belief that I will like this when I hear it. And one of those other occasions was Bell’s review of the Dog’s follow-up, At the Sound of the Bell.
Not that I did anything about it. Import album, unknown band, not heard anywhere. I was in my last year at university, Final Exams dead ahead, six month Law College course if I were successful, all on a small grant that my widowed mother couldn’t afford to supplement beyond bed and board. Most of the music I bought was second hand: I wasn’t going to splash out on imports, even if I could have found them. We had a Virgin Records in Manchester, but it was a hole-in-the-wall, authentically underground shop, not the megastores we got used to in the Eighties.
And no-one was playing Pavlov’s Dog. In the whole of my life I think there has been exactly one occasion that I have heard the Dog being played other than when I’ve put it on (which was in that old and tatty Manchester Virgin Records, incidentally, but much later).
Let us move on to mid-November that same year. Bell had written an equally glowing review of At the Sound of the Bell, further cementing my belief that I was going to love this band when I finally got to hear it. I was now at Law College, an afternoon course based near Chester, driving over every day, courtesy of my ex-schoolmate Glyn, who fancied six months home comforts after three years at LSE getting his Law Degree. Forty-five minutes each way on the A556.
I’d just celebrated my 21st birthday and had birthday money to spare. One Friday, I took the bus into Stockport to wander round, before getting back to be collected by Glyn at 12.45. I ended up in a second hand record shop, long since gone, on Little Undergate, a strange place dedicated mainly to much older music than that which inspired me, but which did have a section for pop/rock LPs.
And which had a copy of Pampered Menial for £2, which was the exact amount of birthday money I had left.
So I bought it, caught the bus home and had just enough time to play it once before Glyn would arrive. Once, to find it a strange, curious album of a kind that I was not at all prepared form, despite Max Bell’s reviews. Time only to play it once: but all afternoon at Christleton little bits of the songs, odd phrases, little riffs, snaked through my head in a way that albums more in tune with my then tastes (favourite band at the time, 10cc) didn’t do. I looked forward to getting home and playing it again.
The band, for this album, consisted of David Surkamp (vocals, guitars and most songwriting), ex-Blue Oyster Cult Steve Scorfina (lead guitars), David Hamilton (not that one)(keyboards), Doug Rayburn (mellotron and flute), Sigfried Carver (violin), Rick Stockton (bass) and Mike Safron (drums).
I always loved playing this album to unsuspecting friends: it opens, in seemingly quiet, conventional manner, with Julia, whose quiet, solo piano introduction gives no warning of the moment when, the solo done, an acoustic guitar replacing it, and Surkamp opens his mouth to sing the title word in an unearthly voice like none you’ve heard before and like nothing your mind has associated with the music thus far. Wikipedia describes it as a “high-pitched and quickly wavering vibrato” and Max Bell as “a gopher dancing on a hot-plate”, and whilst the one may be the more practical and descriptive, the other puts an image in your head that forty years still hasn’t dimmed.
It stuns and distracts, but over the course of an album Surkamp either overpowers you with his flexibility and sheer power, or he repels you with his strangeness and difference, and in that deciding is your response to this album.
Julia is a love song, as are many more on this album, and in many ways it’s the straightest song of them all, but it’s a song that, beneath its conventional trappings, is about power in a relationship. And Surkamp is aware from the opening line, explaining that Julia has ‘set the standards for me’, that he ‘couldn’t do much better than you’, a thing that Julia has already ‘said so yourself’. He’s the supplicant, almost the victim, and he confesses, with an intensity rarely invested in words that are a romantic cliché, that ‘I can’t live without your love’.
And the band swells behind and around him, opening up for the first time on this album, as Surkamp’s heart goes into his words and the mellotron swells in that pompous sound that characterised its every use by every band, with Safron’s drums high and hard and Hamilton’s piano, until the chorus dissolves into Surkamp and Scorfina’s acoustic guitar, now supported by the rhythm section, lightly, in further confessions that further tip the balance from understanding this as a love story we’ve previously heard.
Julia is ‘driving me crazy/but I’m a part of your plans’, and this time the band follow, swelling again into force as Surkamp pleads with Julia to ‘see how much you mean to me’. The verse exhausted, the music cools, Rayburn contributing a soothing, complex flute solo that suspends the moment, but only until Surkamp’s passions break through and he’s once more pleading that he can’t live without her love, and rising into a scream, before returning to an endless cycle that we now know will never be broken for him, never be answered or resolved, even in the final surrender of ‘And I can’t live without you, Julia’.
Late November is more characteristic of the band’s sound on this album, developing from a cool sliding riff from co-writer Scorfina that underpins the forward motion of the song. Surkamp’s voice sings from inside the song as the band unleash a slick, swift power. It’s again a love song, but again the perspective is skewed. Surkamp sings about a woman he loves, a woman who baffles him, a woman who has come to him, who ‘wants it badly’, who’s ‘coll, yeah she’s coll/she’s just like lightning’, who ‘held me close/came down from night skies’.
But ultimately he’s only ever singing from outside, because he doesn’t understand her, what motivates her, what makes her leave so easily, doesn’t even know if she understands herself. ‘She just goes to show you never know/What’s in your heart, what’s in your soul’. In the end, is his love love or is it compassion? ‘Take her home, keep her warm/in Late November’?
Strange lovers and strange loves. Scorfina is again to the fore in Song Dance (written by drummer Mike Safron), a song that shifts from phase to phase without ever sounding disjointed as the band, hard and tight, give room to each other. From Scorfina’s beautiful opening solo, to a moments of silence in which the band deliberately builds tension before syncing into a blazing riff, from the crazed violin solo that is Carver’s first chance to show his chops, but mostly its an unstoppable power, a music of fire and energy, over which Surkamp sings paeans to music, to rhythm and rocking, getting ready for a Song Dance tonight: ‘It’s morning now/I want to show you how/
Got to keep on moving, running to the sounds’
He even has the confidence to cool everything down, to almost whisper a confession of love: ‘Teach me a song, I’ll dance for you/ I won’t mind what you’re playing for me’,but is the lover he petitions a woman or the rhythm of the Song Dance?
Fast Gun is lead in by Carver, shaping another powerful, mellotron supported intro into a brief tale about a Fast Gun, a gunslinger, trying to make Surkamp run, thinking he’ll shoot him down. But Surkamp knows he never will. It’s easy to pretend, to wear your guns down low, to dress in black and pull triggers, ‘because the fast gun’s got troubles of his own’ and the guns are a front for a massive insecurity about his relationship with his girl. ‘Would a half breed cowboy lose her/
You never know’.
But if the music of Fast Gun builds into a passion, it can’t yet match the last song on Side One, Natchez Trace, where the band lets loose with a vengeance and Surkamp’s voice soars into even greater realms of power. Just remember what you are listening to, a mid-Seventies progressive band, with all the ills that implies, a band that makes major use of a mellotron, that most stodgy instrument of the progressive era, a guarantee of pomposity instead of the drama besought.
Yet Natchez Trace soars quickly, hits a staggeringly sharp guitar/organ riff and cleaves to that hard and long, decorating its main theme with piano at one point, organ at another but never leaving that spinal theme. Surkamp sings frantically, caught a long way from home, in dangerous surroundings. Nature and ‘one bad woman’ threaten him, and she is ‘waiting by the Natchez Trace/with all her silver thread and coal black lace/and when she puts you in your resting place/would you take my gold or leave my soul unscathed’.
Surkamp sings in fear and fascination, viewing love for yet another of its skewed perspectives, as the band hit the trail for home and ride it, hell for leather. Is this really the progressive music we now recall being so overblown and clever for its own sake?
In the moments between transferring the needle from side 1 to side 2, let me pause to educate our younger readers as to the fabled mellotron. The mellotron – espoused most popularly by the likes of The Moody Blues and Barclay James Harvest – was a keyboard instrument, and a very slow and unreliable one at that. Depressing its keys did not strike or pluck strings, nor unleash the natural or electronic power of organ pipes. The mellotron played tapes: little two to two-and-a-half second long strips of recording tape, installed in the machine, by pressing playback heads down on the selected fragments of orchestral recordings.
The intention was to enable rockbands, at a time when experimental rock/classic fusions were on the rise, to incorporate orchestral sounds into their music without either the cost of hiring a symphony orchestra or the disgust of the orchestra at being called upon to play such simplistic stuff. Unfortunately, with the exception of one band, who managed to integrate the mellotron sound in a grandiose, as opposed to pompous manner – and guess which band I’m talking about? – the mellotron was disastrously stodgy, and cripplingly slow.
But in the hands of the Dog, it soared. It brought balletic heights to a powerful, well-muscled sound, that could raise and lower tension almost at will, a tight, hard sound that Surkamp’s voice surged over, with precision, delicacy and force.
Side 2 starts in fine style, with my favourite track from the album, Theme from Subway Sue, a title that’s puzzled me for more than three decades until I finally learned that it was an in-joke: eccentric violinist Sigfried Carver (who would go on to become a conservative newspaper commentator under his real name, Richard Nadler) kept mishearing the opening line of the chorus as ‘Subway Sue’, instead of ‘Someday soon’ and the gag took.
Once again, Surkamp is consumed with the thought of love. He’s in love, she’s in love, but the relationship is precarious. They’re a long way from elsewhere, watching the mountains, and soon it will be time to move, to ‘take off down the river’. But will he travel alone, ‘if the love that you have for me is going’?
He asks ‘the birds not to show which way I’m going/Tell the leaves to try and hide the way’ because he’s as unsure as she is, but the river beckons, the way forward calls, but what future is it to be? ‘And Someday soon/we’ll take off down the river/someday soon/we’ll find the way/but if the love that you had for me is going/then I’ll see nothing of you at all’.
It doesn’t matter: he sings soft, he sings strong, the band ebb and surge in echo to his feelings, Scorfina ripping out some fine riffs, but the uncertainty is all, in the end, that he possesses, and the fear grows until he lets rip with a scream that is all the more powerful for emerging from that high register and the band raise the rafters as he thrashes in his pain until everything drains out of him and it ends, without an answer.
For a moment, Episode offers tranquillity, a quiet, piano-based ripple, a miasma of quiet guitars, but this is only a false dawn. Surkamp watches his love, ‘walking on a rainy day/toss(ing) some petals into a pool’. She’s to bide her time, and wait for him, but with this declaration the song takes on a stranger turn, the band opening up again, and Surkamp’s lyrics descending into fantasy, until we start to wonder whether he’s lover seeking love or stalker pursuing obsession.
She’s to pretend she’s a dancer or a queen, archers shoot an arrow on past the sun, Surkamp is just her soldier, should she be the keeper of of his mind and heart, ‘or is it best to go unseen’? He projects his fantasies onto her but they are strange and unstable. At the end, when he sings ‘You think you got control, you don’t,/you’ll never know, you’ll never know’, just who is it that he’s speaking of?
A brief interlude follows, a chance to look away, trust only in our ears, as the band sweep through Carver’s brief instrumental, Preludin (the original, 10 minute version of this piece, played live in 1975, is a bonus track on the 2007 re-mastered reissue) and then it is time for the final track, the monumental Of Once and Future Kings.
The album ends in a manner closer to the stereotypical image of Seventies progressive rock, in fantasy and pomposity. Over Carver’s violin, Surkamp narrates a vision of an Arthurian scene: All the ladies of court gather round/Joined in heavenly fair/Gathering promises of future heroes/Young faith it is all as you go/Red light and green light and men in their armor/And fight for the queen if you dare/It’s a long way to go to test out your mettle/Long way to go to go down’
Just as the listener is lost in this dream, the scene and the music change: sudden, fast, skittery. A disaster has swept through, the archaic and timeless vision has had time occur, no quarter has been given because of their art, they are being killed in the wild, their wives and children taken, despite all pleas for forgiveness.
For a moment, the dream is restored, Surkamp paints his vision again in the exact same words, but this time it cannot hold. The dream cracks and breaks,the trip is over, mad necessity floods in a Surkamp screams in pain, expertly riding the furious edge of the band giving it all, a sonic overdose as Scorfina solos frenetically. You better do down, and with a final roll on the piano, the song does, the album does, the experience ends and the music leaves echoes that will never truly fade.
In America, Pampered Menial‘s prospects of success, Pavlov’s Dog being very big in and around their St Louis base, were hampered by it being released, then with drawn, on two different major labels, before finally settling on Columbia Records. In Britain, it was released on CBS. Very few people bought it, but I’m very glad I was one of them.

Rochale, 1978 (coincidences abound)


I’ve just had my annual gas check-up (I passed, thank you for asking).

The guy from the Council has been here to do that before. He’s from Droylsden, and knows of my former interest in the club, though he’s not really into football himself: he supports Manchester City.

We got talking about Droylsden, and FC United, and I was telling him about the coincidence between my two experiences of going to Rochdale, and much to my delight, HE was at Rochdale in 1978 as well! And he remembers more about the game than I do, in particular that the referee had to stop the game twice because of fighting in the ground, once such occasion spilling into the pitch. Not a single bell ringing at that piece of information, not one.

But he has reason to remember that game and for similar but more serious reasons than I, because in a lifetime of going to football, that Rochdale game was the only one at which he got beat up. After the game. He doesn’t remember any hills, so it sounds like a different incident from the one I fled from (and it shows how bloody right I was to flee for my life).

But that just goes to show the power of coincidence, only two days after I’d written at length about the game, i meet a near stranger was also was there.

The Prisoner: episode 14 – Living in Harmony – synopsis


A lone horseman gallops across the landscape, spurring on his horse. An acoustic guitar starts a quiet theme, with horns entering to overlay it.
A man sits behind a desk. He has a Marshall’s badge on his shirt. Suddenly, a Sheriff’s badge is dropped on his desk. He looks up to see a grim, silent stranger, the man we know as Number Six. The Stranger unstraps his gunbelt and leaves it on the Marshall’s desk.
He walks along the trail, his saddle slung across his shoulder. At the top of a hill, he is confronted by a gunslinger, who forces a fight on him. The Stranger beats him, only to find five other gunmen surrounding him. He wades into them but is beaten unconscious.
The title card Living in Harmony, in the Prisoner font, appears on screen, followed by a screen detailing guest stars.
The Stranger is taken to an isolated Western town. The name Harmony is displayed over the wooden arch on the road into town. He comes to, looking around at his setting. An offscreen voice, coming from a Mexican figure, welcomes him to Harmony and suggests he try the saloon.
The Stranger enters the Silver Dollar saloon, a traditional western saloon with tinkling piano, noise, whiskey and bar-girls, such as Cathy, a buxom woman in her late thirties, in an off-the-shoulder dress. The saloon falls silent as he enters. Cathy welcomes him and the bartender slides a shot glass of whiskey down the bar: the first one is free for regulars.
As the Stranger moves to pick up his glass, an offstage voice invites him to sit with him, followed by a gunshot that shatters the glass. Unmoved, the Stranger orders another whiskey, though he hesitates a moment before picking up the glass.
He takes it over to the Judge’s table. The Judge, who has iron grey hair, is dressed in the frilly shirt an dark suit of a riverboat gambler. Stood behind him is his bodyguard, the Kid, and only a look is needed to realise that the Kid is dangerous. He is tall and thin, with a pointed face, and he is wearing high-waisted trousers with braces over a pink, unbuttoned undershirt. He also wears an immaculate, shiny top hat.
The Judge wants the Stranger to work for him as Sheriff in Harmony, but the Stranger has no intention of staying. He leaves the saloon, pausing only to punch the Kid in the mouth, knocking him down.
He tries to buy a horse at the stables, but the owner asks $5,000. As he walks away, the Stranger is surrounded by townsfolk, telling him what a good place Harmony is to live, and how the Judge looks after them all. The Stranger is unconcerned, but the Mexican starts shouting angrily that he has insulted their town. The townsfolk are quickly incited into a lynch mob, and the Stranger has to be rescued by the Judge’s gunmen, who put him in jail in ‘protective custody’.
The Judge is waiting in the Sheriff’s office and repeats his offer. When the Stranger declines it again, he is put in a cell. The townsfolk are still baying outside, so the Judge cynically offers them a sacrifice: another prisoner, Johnson, is dragged from his cell and handed over to the mob, who quickly string him up. Cathy runs from the saloon, crying, but is prevented from interfering: Johnson is her brother.
The Stranger relaxes in his cell, under the watchful eye of the Kid, who is toying with his gun and making elaborate play of lining up a shot. Cathy brings him a bottle of whiskey from the saloon. Though she is clearly older than him, the Kid is equally obviously fixated on her. He prowls around her then clumsily grabs her, trying to kiss her, but she wriggles free and returns to the saloon. However, whilst he has been pouring their drinks, she has slipped the jail keys off their hook and she appears at the cell window, leaving these for the Stranger.
Once the Kid has finished his whiskey and fallen asleep, the Stranger unlocks his cell, steals a horse and sets out on the trail. However, the Pass is guarded and he is ambushed and dragged back to Harmony, and in front of the Judge in the saloon.
The Judge calls for a hearing and the saloon is quickly converted into a ‘courtroom’ When the Stranger asks what charge, the Judge says he faces none: he was in ‘protective custody’. The charge is levelled against Cathy, for helping a prisoner escape. She is found guilty, and goes to jail, but the Judge advises the Stranger that she will go free if the Stranger agrees to become Sheriff.
He goes to the saloon for a whiskey. A gun is slid along the bartop to him but he ignores it. It comes from the Kid, who wants him to fight. When the Stranger refuses to react, the Kid shoots twice, one shot grazing the Stranger’s right cheek-bone, the other the back of his left hand. The Judge breaks things up, ordering the Kid back to the jail. The Stranger slides the gun back along the bartop, telling the Kid he’ll need both to deal with a woman.
With the unstable Kid in the jail alone with Cathy, the Stranger decides to accept the role of Sheriff, but whilst he will accept the badge, he will not accept the gunbelt and gun that goes with it. Cathy apologises to him that she has got him into this but he gallantly brushes this aside.
The following morning, the Stranger goes out with his badge. He is confronted by Zeke, who challenges him over not carrying a gun. The Stranger beats Zeke but is set upon by his two friends, one of whom beats him heavily. But the Stranger hauls himself back to his feet, knocks the third man out and dumps him in the horsetrough.
The Kid arrives in the saloon which is busy. He is looking for trouble. Will, a drunken cowboy, puts his arm round Cathy. The Kid reacts by viciously stubbing out his cigar on Will’s neck. Everybody clears out of the way, leaving the hapless Will facing the kid. Hurriedly, he scrambles out his gun but stands there, holding it foolishly. The Kid draws his gun and shoots Will down. The shot brings the Stranger running, but the crowd confirm that Will drew first. The Kid leaves. When the Stranger follows him, the crowd start shouting at him, that he is the Sheriff, that he should be able to do something about this.
Back at his office, one of the townsfolk approaches the Sheriff offering his help in cleaning up the town. It is not something any of them can do alone. However, the Judge is aware of the visit, and sets his men on the townsman. They beat him to death and leave him in the Sheriff’s office. The Stranger angrily gets out the gunbelt the Judge gave him, but rejects it again.
In the saloon, the Stranger quietly tells Cathy to get her things together and meet him at the edge of town that night as they are leaving. The Judge suggests that someone ought to tell the Kid that the Sheriff is talking to his girl. At dusk, he rides out towards the Pass, where he ambushes the ambushers, leaving them tied up.
Meanwhile, the saloon empties. Cathy gathers her things and prepares to leave the saloon, but the Kid blocks her. She calls him crazy, then tries to run from him in fear. He intercepts her, crushes her in his arms and kisses her, but she bites his lower lip viciously. He wipes the blood from his mouth, advances on her and puts his hands around her throat, squeezing it.
Disturbed at Cathy not being at the meeting place, the Stranger carefully re-enters Harmony. He sees the Kid leave the saloon and goes inside. He finds Cathy’s dead body on the stairs. At dawn, he completes digging her grave and returns to his office, where he tests the gun and ties it on. He leaves the Sheriff’s badge on the desk.
Outside in the street, he is confronted by the Kid. They draw and fire simultaneously. The Kid spins his gun, restores it to his holster, then collapses dead.
The Stranger goes into the saloon and orders a whiskey, which he downs in one. The Judge and his men follow, enthusing about what they have seen. The Judge doesn’t care about losing the Kid since the Sheriff is faster, but the Stranger says that he is leaving. The Judge reminds him that he has Cathy but the Stranger says he doesn’t: she’d dead. This shocks the Judge but he is still not prepared to let the Stranger leave. He can’t work for another outfit: the Judge will kill him first.
He gives the Stranger a count of five, whilst his gunmen spread themselves around the Saloon. At the count of four, the Stranger rips into action. He kills all three gunmen quickly, but finds himself directly in front of the Judge, who has drawn a derringer. He shoots the Stranger twice at point-blank range. The Stranger presses his hands to his head, and collapses.
Number Six awakes to find himself lying on the floor of the saloon, in his Village clothing. He has on a pair of headphones and two other wires. Getting to his feet, he rips these off and looks round wildly. He sees the Judge, with the derringer and lurches at him, only to find he is a black and white cut-out. So too is the Kid’s body, on the ground outside.
Harmony is empty but for Number Six, but suddenly he hears a fragment of music on the wind. He follows a lane outside the entrance to Harmony. It leads him to a position overlooking the Village square, where the Villagers are circling.
Number Six makes his way directly to Number Two’s office. On the threshold he halts: Number two is the Judge and his assistant, Number Eight, is the Kid. By the Penny Farthing a woman, Number Twenty-Two, stands: it is Cathy. Number Six takes all this in and turns and leaves.
Number Two and Number Eight argue over the responsibility for failure. It is apparently Number Eight’s scheme – to dose Number Six with hallucinatory drugs, talk to him through microphones, create a primitive scenario where he faces danger, gets and loses love, and breaks. Number Eight blames the failure on Number Two’s impatience, forcing the crisis too soon, and getting too involved in the scenario.
They are distracted by sobs from Number Twenty-Two. When she realises they are staring at her, she runs from the Office, leaving Number Two to comment that he was not the only one to get too involved. Number Eight looks after her with hungry eyes.
At twilight, Number Twenty-Two returns to the Harmony set. She enters the saloon and lies down on the stairs, where ‘Cathy’ was found dead. A silent Number Eight appears, staring at her through the open slats of the stairs. In a harsh voice she berates him about it being over, and goes to leave. He says her name, and she stops, giving him chance to grab her around the throat.
Number Six has also returned to Harmony. He hears the scream and races into the saloon. It is Number Eight who is screaming. Number Six knocks him down and turns to the fallen Number Twenty-Two, who is dying. Her last words are that she wished it had been real.
The final player, Number Two, arrives by Mini-Moke. His appearance in the saloon triggers the final breakdown of Number Eight. Gabbling about not letting the Judge beat him again, he scuttles up the stairs, leans out over the balcony and throws himself to his death.
Number Two looks aghast at what has happened. Number Six gives him a look of utter contempt before walking away.
The Prisoner’s face races towards the screen. A pair of iron-barred doors slide across in front of it, slamming shut.

Rochdale, 2010


Everybody says that once you pick a football club, it’s yours for life, and you can never stray. Any other kind of inconstancy, infidelity and betrayal can always be defended to someone or other, but the leaving of ‘your team’ is the one fatal flaw that condemns your soul to the hell of shallowness and insincerity, to be spat upon forever.
If that is so, you may now spurn me and walk away without a backwards look, because I’ve not only shared my loyalties between Droylsden and Manchester United over many years, but I have allowed another club to enter my heart, to the eventual displacement of my former favourites, the Bloods.
I speak of FC United of Manchester, the (in)famous Manchester United breakaway club, formed in 2005 in the wake of the Glazer family purchase of United, lock, stock and horrendous mortgages. FC wasn’t solely formed as a response to the Glazer purchase: there’d been growing fan concern over the steadily increasing corporatisation of United and the football experience, including discussions about forming a fan-based club that would be run and owned by the fans and which would adhere to the principles and values that they held dear in a community-based club: the advent of the Glazers was the catalyst that spurred those feelings into concrete action.
I was whole-heartedly in support of the FC ideals, having given up my Old Trafford season ticket in 1999 in large part because of the increasing sterility of the Old Trafford experience, especially when contrasted with the warmth and involvement of non-League. And I’ve cheered FC on ever since, not that I’ve been able to get to more than a handful of games down the years. But when I have, the experience has been fantastic.
For some reason, whether it is a general rule, or something specific to the time or circumstances of FC’s creation, the Club was not permitted to enter the FA Cup for the first three seasons of its existence. The very first FA Cup tie was away to Trafford, and was played at Altrincham’s Moss Lane ground for capacity reasons: FC United got off with a 5-2 bang.
Thanks to its greater than usual support, the club’s early years boomed, and they went from level 10 of the Pyramid to level 7 in three seasons, though their attempts to move up have stalled (three successive play-off final defeats). But in the 2010/11 season, FC won through to the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, in only their third season in the competition.
FC groundshare with Bury at Gigg Lane and, with the League club having a home game on the Saturday, FC’s tie against Conference side and ex-League Club Barrow was held over to Sunday afternoon. Naturally, I went.
It wasn’t until I got off the bus on Manchester Road, in sight of the floodlights, that I realised what I was doing: I was going to a Fourth Qualifying Round game. Me, with my previous record of attended 3, lost 3, who had sworn never to go to another Fourth Qualifying Round tie unless we were 5-0 with four minutes left and I’d sneak in at the end.
On the other hand, that was Droylsden, this was FC. And if the status of the game was an ill-omen, when I sat down with my programme, I discovered a personal omen to sweep my superstitious fears away.
The First Round Proper draw had taken place on TV the previous evening and the draw was printed in the programme. Of all the potential ties that could have been drawn, with 79 other balls to come out of the velvet bag, an FC win would see them playing away – at Rochdale.
With that prospect in mind, it had to be on, and with a 75th minute goal, FC beat the biggest club they’d yet met competitively, and it was on.
Going to Rochdale in 2010 was a vastly different experience from thirty-two years earlier. For one thing, the game was to be televised live, picked out by ESPN because of the interest generated by FC United of Manchester, and moved forward to Friday evening with a 7.45pm kick-off. No leisurely Saturday mornings in Manchester and an easy bus ride for me: I had to leave my Stockport flat at 5.00pm, for a bus into Piccadilly Gardens, a Metrolink tram to Bury and another long bus-ride to Rochdale. I was concerned about where that might drop me in relation to the ground, but the driver reassured me (I was his only passenger for three-quarters of the journey, we got talking) that he went past the ground and would drop me off.
A second major difference was that, with FC’s support being as strong as it was, the ground was segregated, the FC fans assigned the long stand opposite the Main Stand, the tickets limited and on sale through FC only. As a purely casual fan, I had no chance of qualifying for a ticket, but it was clear to me that the ground would not be full, and I would go in with the Rochdale fans on the night: I’d just have to keep my mouth shut.
It was only what I’d done in 1978, but that had been an unsegregated ground. I could stand where I chose, and shout my head off for Droylsden but the intervening years, and FC’s associations, made that an unwise approach. Crowds were more volatile about opponents in their midst, and I had no wish to be thrown out when I was travelling so far just to be there.
The bus stop was outside the end of the ground where Damien and I had stood and sweated throughout that second half so long ago. I hurried down the street outside the FC supporter’s stand, looking for a programme, but missed the last one by a moment: exactly the same as the European Champions League Final in Barcelona.
The best bet was that former terrace where David Taylor had scored for the Bloods. It was long gone, converted into a covered stand, with blue plastic bucket seats and entrances either side of the goal. I joined the queue for the nearer of these, conscious that kick-off was approaching, but I had hardly arrived when a turnstile failure stopped all movement, so I ran across to the other entrance, paid my cash and found myself a seat: to the left of the goalpost, in a row or two of isolation. Gone was the terraces, gone the open air, gone the steep descent to below pitch level. It was unrecognisable from 1978.
Let me say immediately that I cannot recommend going in among the enemy like that at a football match: it’s a curiously flat experience to be unable to react emotionally, honestly, and it;s my one real regret about an evening that turned out to be momentous.
The first thing I noticed was that, to a man, the Rochdale team were all taller and more solidly built than FC’s team, a distinction I don’t remember making when i’d been here before with Droylsden. It was only natural: these were professionals who spent their working life training for strength, speed and stamina, and FC’s players were part-timers, squeezing in training between full-time work (if they were lucky), who had fallen short of the level required for professional footballers by not having that height and muscle to begin with.
They started off at a rush, and within ten minutes were screaming at the referee over a penalty not given: the honest man in me would have had to concur. But FC’s team was playing out of their skins, were holding their own and, in the 36th minute doing very much more than that. The red shirts swept forward through midfield, a gap opened up down the middle of the Rochdale defence, Matthew Wright slid the ball through and Nicky Platt ran on to it, beat the keeper to the ball and lifted it over him into the net.
The whole FC side kicked off, and I couldn’t kick off with them as the Rochdale fans around me were reacting with disgust. It was not fun.
And there it stood at the break: 1-0 up at half-time and only 585 minutes from Wembley.
Within three minutes of the re-start, the situation exploded. FC attacked down the left, Ged Deegan executed a perfect Stanley Matthews feint, dropped his shoulder and sent the defender in the opposite direction. He squared the ball to Mike Norton, twelve yards out with his bank to goal. Norton controlled it and slipped it back into the path of Jake Cotterill, running to the edge of the area, who hit a first time screamer of a left foot shot into the roof of the net. 2-0! And what a Goal! (it was voted Goal of the Round through the FA Website, which it was always going to be, given FC’s support base).
Suddenly, it was like having a foot already in the Second Round: the Second Round? Bloody hell, this was only our third year of trying!
It was just like 1978 all over, with Rochdale pouring forward in waves and FC defending stoutly and repelling everything thrown at them. But their greater height and strength was always likely to tell, and despite all our efforts, it did at set-pieces. First from a free kick, twenty minutes from time, then a corner ten minutes from time, headers were converted to bring the score level at 2-2. It was the same rearguard as long ago, although this time the prize was a replay and a second shot.
Eventually, we got into injury time, four minutes of it, and three used up when FC found room to get away along their left, into the Rochdale half. Matthew Wright, again, carried the ball a long way, then slid it behind the defence into the penalty area for Mike Norton to chase. A defender was moving to block him off, to shield the ball back to a keeper sliding out to collect it. They were beyond the far post, and suddenly, unbelievably, Norton had broken away. He’d rounded the keeper, he had the ball at his feet, he was running into an empty net, he was going to score in the 94th minute and we were going to win, and the noise was building up unbearably as it seemed to take ages to cross that little bit of ground and roll it home and ‘KINELL!!!
There was pandemonium all round the ground, and on the pitch too, where the Rochdale players were furious with the referee (quite rightly too: when I saw the tv coverage the next day, Norton had kicked the ball out of their keeper’s hands). I was stood there doing a pretty fair impersonation of a gargoyle, but then a look of extreme shock served equally well as an FC fan’s delighted approach as it did for a shocked home fan. History had repeated itself, doubly so. The last game I’d attended where the last programme was sold under my nose was the Champions League Final in 1999, and that went to an injury time winner too.
There was barely time to restart, and no time to stop and celebrate, not with something like three hours of travelling ahead of me. I walked round to the bus stop, where I had to wait about twenty minutes for the bus to appear. It was a still night, a November mist gathering in the sodium light. Cars crawled, people headed in all directions, celebrating and arguing. It kicked off a couple of times, one fight crossing the road and barging through the bus queue and almost into the garden behind. But finally the bus arrived: bus to Bury, one of the last Metro trams to Piccadilly, and waiting for the night service 203: only fifteen minutes and not the three quarter hour it could have been. Just before 1.00am, I walked into my flat.
By my reckoning, I’m due to go back to Rochdale in 2042, when I’ll be just about 87. I wonder who I’ll be following then?

(postscript: In the Second Round, FC United got the plum tie, away to League One leaders Brighton & Hove Albion. I watched it on a Local BBC site feed with the most atrociously biased commentary I have ever heard in my life. And FC scored just before the break to take a not undeserved lead: 1-0 up at half-time and only 495 minutes from Wembley. Eventually, with less than ten minutes left, the League leaders equalised, and the bubble burst in the replay at Gigg Lane with Brighton winning 4-0. Just can’t get to that Third Round, either way, can I?)

Rochdale, 1978


Spotland Stadium, but not as it was in 1978

My first phase of supporting Droylsden effectively ended when I went to live in Nottingham for two years, to be an Articled Clerk. After eight and a half years as a regular, leaving Granddad’s at 2.45pm and being in place behind the goal at 2.55pm, a three hour coach journey that I could only afford about once every six weeks made long distance support untenable.
I felt it badly in August, on the first day of the season: Forest, the reigning League Champions, entertained Tottenham Hotspur, a game that also revealed Spurs’ shock Argentinian signings, Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa. Coincidentally, it was the one Saturday in the month that I could afford to visit Nottingham’s comics shop, which was just between the Cricket Ground and the City Ground. I made sure of getting in there and out a good couple of hours before kick-off, but the crowds were already milling around Trent Bridge, and there was that atmosphere that is unique to the first day of the season, that air of anticipation and optimism that’s only possible when, up to the final minute before kick-off, everything is possible.
I missed not having a game to go to, missed it terribly.
Without a Droylsden fixture list, I had no idea when they were at home and had no chance of matching my Manchester weekends with home games, for all I still had Saturday dinner at Grandad’s.
Somehow, I became aware that the Bloods were doing well in the FA Cup again, that for the third time in four seasons, they’d reached the Fourth Qualifying Round. When they beat Goole Town 2-0, their reward was a First Round Proper tie, away to Rochdale.
That was perfectly achievable, and the weekend in question even fell perfectly into my six-weekly schedule. For the whole week in advance, I could talk of nothing else, which drew a lot of pointed banter from my three colleagues and friends who shared the little room at the back of the building that I had nick-named ‘The Pit’.
Saturday was clear and bright, and I was up early and off to Manchester for my traditional wander around old haunts. At midday, I caught the bus from the Arndale Centre Bus Station towards Rochdale, armed with a newspaper. I was still some years from progressing to the sophistication of the broadsheets, but I had already demonstrated my political leanings with the Daily Mirror. I took  note of the panel cartoon in the Sports pages, with its hopeful-but-resigned caption: “1-0 up at half-time and only 585 minutes from Wembley”.
I’d never been to Rochdale before: indeed, my closest prior connection had been buying a copy of Mike Harding’s ‘Rochdale Cowboy’. There were no worries about finding the ground: when I got off the bus, Spotland’s floodlights were easily visible, up on the hill, and I found my way there easily as was re-united with my mate Damien, a younger, red-headed Bloods’ fan who’d been my behind-the-goal mate for a couple of years.
We started on the main stand side, waiting to see which way the Bloods were kicking. In the first half, it was right to left, so we quickly made our way round to the terrace at the right hand end of the ground, to find the equivalent place to our usual position by the left hand goalpost.
I’m trying to remember but I can’t be certain whether that end of the ground was open or roofed. Either way, it was an old-fashioned mounded terrace whose biggest surprise was that its lowest level was some four to five feet below the level of the pitch itself. Anyone standing by the rail would find their eyeline in amongst the players’ boots and ankles. Damien and I went up, and back, far enough to put ourselves on a par with the pitch, though we did feel more removed from the game than we usually liked.
There is a point to this description, I’ve not been this specific just to bore you.
I can only remember one thing from the first half. About twenty minutes in, Droylsden won a corner on their right, left of where Damien and I were standing. The referee took up position almost directly in front of us, on the goal line. The ball was hit fairly low and flat, towards the near post. No-one made clean contact, and it bounced across the goalmouth, a sea of cloying mud, pinballing along the six-yard line as blue shirts tried to hack it clear and red shirts tried to hack it home, until it got to David Taylor, youngest guy on the pitch, opposite the far post. He stuck out a boot and sent it goalwards. Damien and I were on our way up, arms and voices, starting a roar that died in our throats when a last ditch boot cleared the ball off the line.
And then we were up again, as the ref blew his whistle and pointed to the centre circle: he’d given it!
I’m a football fan, and as such I have always adhered to one inviolable law: in any difference of opinion between me and a referee, I am right. Only once in forty-odd years have I breached this principle: this was it.
After all, he was in a better position than I, level with the goal-line, whereas my perspective was several yards back, and at an angle of at least 30 degrees. Just because I saw it cleared off the line, just because my instinctive reaction was dismay and deflation because it didn’t cross the line, didn’t mean it wasn’t actually a goal.
The Rochdale fans didn’t like it. One spent the next five minutes arguing, trying to get me to say that the ball HADN’T crossed the line, as if an admission would then force the referee to overrule himself and declare null and void the five minutes since the restart. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. I cheerfully admitted that I didn’t think it had crossed the line but I sanctimoniously insisted on the referee’s better position than me: the very heavens trembled at such blasphemy.
We were still ahead at the break: 1-0 up at half-time and only 585 minutes from Wembley.
Damien and I made our way round to the other end of the ground. It’s what we all do in non-League Football but Spotland, being a league ground, wasn’t built for such manoeuvres. There was no way past the long stand on the far side, and to get through, we had to climb over the fence and gingerly pick our way down the touchline in front of the Main Stand, holding our trouser bottoms up above the heaving slutch.
This end was definitely covered. It was tight and compact and on a level with the pitch and we stood by the left hand post. It was a nervous half, not only on the field, where Rochdale launched all out waves of attack, but behind the goal, where a thin line of Police had segregated the fans into two camps. The further ones were Droylsden fans, or rather they were United fans who, with the first team away, had chosen this game to congregate, roar and intimidate. We spent as much time glancing fearfully to our right, where the line of yellow would have had no chance if anything had kicked off, as we did watching the game.
The minutes drained away. Rochdale pressed and pressed. The atmosphere grew nastier behind the goal and Damien and I agreed that there would be no lingering in celebration after the final whistle. Which came with us still in the lead: see you in the Second Round!
It was a magnificent moment. Not just reaching the Second Round Proper for the first time ever, but actually beating a League team! There’s not a single non-League club in the country that doesn’t want to have the words ‘Giant Killer’ applied to them at some time, and it makes no different how small a Giant Rochdale may be, we had qualified for that title.
I made a swift detour under the rail to plant my feet on the hallowed turf, then it was out by a gate and flying along the road behind the long stand. I was so buzzed by the win I felt like I could have run all the way back to Manchester!
From Droylsden, I was used to being back for the Results on TV. That was out of the question here, but at the bottom of the road was a newsagents and my out-of-practice throat was ragged from the shouting. I went in to get myself a canned drink and found that they had Radio 2 on a transistor: I waited to hear it read out, the magic words: Rochdale 0 Droylsden 1.
Outside the shop, the adrenal rush had subsided somewhat, and anyway I was at the bottom of a long hill, which I started to climb. Unfortunately, the diversion into the shop had been long enough for the aggression hungry bastards from behind the goal to have got in front, and suddenly a wedge of them turned and raced down the hill towards us, screaming and howling.
By sheer luck, I was at the mouth of a side street. I shot off leftwards, zigging and zagging into the back streets at top speed, until I was cowering in a back entry, hoping nobody had followed the fat sod with the glasses who was a really easy target. After 10 – 15 minutes of anxious hiding, I emerged gingerly, returning to the main road, where all was placid again.
I set off up the hill again, stopping at the top to talk to a couple of Rochdale fans, hanging gloomily about a shop doorway. They were resigned to the defeat: being knocked out of the Cup in the First Round was nothing new, and non-League opposition didn’t make any different. They were going to finish in the bottom four for a tenth season in a row, expulsion and the need to apply for re-Election again, and this time they expected to be given the boot.
I’m happy to report that their pessimism was unjustified: Rochdale’s League membership has been undisturbed these thirty-six years past, and their fortunes have improved since.
By the time I got to Manchester, I was still up enough to want to continue the evening, so I went to the cinema. Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall, which I’d seen in Nottingham almost six months earlier, was doing the rounds again and, on a whim, I went to see it a second time. First time round, I’d enjoyed it but been unmoved: since then, I’d fallen in heavy but unrequited love: this time, I understood the film on a much deeper level, and loved it.
There was also an interesting coda on Monday morning. Heading in to work, I met my friend and fellow Articled Clerk Sharon outside her lodgings. Sharon wasn’t interested in football at all, but I was touched to find that she’d looked up Droylsden’s score, and greeted me with the question, ‘Are you back off cloud 9 yet?’ I allowed that I was maybe down to cloud 7 by now, and chatted about the game as we walked in.
I was last into the Pit, my three colleagues already at their desks. Nothing was said but Good Morning
I twigged it immediately. They’d agreed not to mention the game, to test me and see how long it took me to crack and start on about it myself. But they had got things very wrong if that was what they thought.
Over the weekend, the more the result had sunk in, the more deeply contented I’d grown. What they didn’t realise, what they couldn’t understand from not knowing what it was like to support a team at non-League level, was that the win had been so big a deal, it was its own reward.
I had no need of validation from theirs or anyone else’s reactions. I had seen it for myself: we had done it and I had been there and nothing could make that greater for me. And I’d have sat there the whole day and gone home self-amused if it hadn’t been for Heather – a former denizen of the Pit – sticking her head round the door and asking me if I was going to take them all out for a drink at lunch, to celebrate.
Which, being a generous sort of guy and holding no grudges at their game, I did.
(Postscript: Rather disappointingly, we drew Altrincham at home in the Second Round, a bigger club to be sure, but another non-League outfit. I broke my routine and came home three weeks later for the match. No sooner had I got the programme than I was groaning at the ill-omen: the referee was Trelford Mills, of Barnsley, the same man who’d reffed our only other First Round tie, at home to Grimsby, two years earlier, and who’d disallowed a perfectly good last minute winner. My forebodings were foreborn out: we lost 2-0, though there were no controversies, just Alty being too good for us. They went on to play Spurs, at White Hart Lane, in the Third Round, and got a creditable draw. It was not the last time the Bloods would come close to a prestigious tie).

The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It


John Cleese is famous the world over for his part in Monty Python’s Flying Circus and for co-creating and starring in Fawlty Towers, which is testament to his comedic genius.
But he’s also been involved in less well-known ventures that haven’t gone down anything like as well as those two stupendous achievements, and some of those projects have been written out of most accounts of his career.
One such is The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It. This was a one-off ITV programme, 55 minutes in length, broadcast on New Year’s Day, 1977, a Sunday evening if I recall correctly. It appeared midway between the two Fawlty Towers series and, like the first of these on first transmission, was not well received.
Unlike Fawlty Towers, it was never reconsidered, and disappeared without trace. It was never re-broadcast, and didn’t appear on DVD for thirty years, in a cheap format transferred directly from an imperfect video copy. Currently, it’s only available on an equally cheap three disc set, The John Cleese Comedy Collection, together with the excellent and poignant Romance with a Double Bass, and a pre-Python series of skits under the heading How to Irritate People.
I watched it on broadcast, laughed myself silly, and was surprised at the negative reaction. In lieu of the likelihood of seeing the film again, I bought the cheap paperback script book, which I read a dozen times, trying to fill in the voices as best as I could recollect.
Strange Case was co-written by Cleese in collaboration with Jack Hobbs and Joseph McGrath, from an idea by the latter two. It stars Cleese as Arthur Sherlock Holmes, grandson of the original, Arthur Lowe as Dr Watson, the partly-bionic (nose and legs) grandson of the original and Cleese’s then wife Connie Booth as Mrs Hudson, granddaughter of someone, but not necessarily that original.
The programme also features a handful of well-known actors in Ron Moody, Joss Ackland and Denholm Elliott, plus Stratford Johns as the Commissioner of Police, in supporting roles.
Watching Strange Case again, years on, the critics were absolutely right.
Which is not to say that the programme isn’t without its merits. Cleese’s performance is enjoyable, and Booth’s transformation at the end into the villain, dressed in leather jacket, impossibly tight black hot-pants, black tights and knee-length boots makes you weep for the horrible picture quality: my God, the woman is gorgeous! But the absolute star is Lowe, as the bumbling Watson, all little gruff gasps of ‘Good Lord,’ and ‘Amazing’.
From the outside, Lowe’s casting seems unusual: he is a much older comedy actor, indelibly associated with a far different comedic tradition, but his seriousness incarnates the part of an improbably dumb sidekick, he beautifully judges the downplaying of the innate pompousness of his ‘natural’ character, and the highlight is a scene in which he plays two identical Dr Watson’s: seriously, you would not think it possible to repeat the words ‘Good Lord’ so many times with so many different inflections.
The rest of the programme is very different to speak of. The plot, such as it is, is perfunctory, and in its detail and its performance is firmly rooted in its time. It begins with Dr Gropinger (i.e., Henry Kissinger), in the midst of his famous shuttleboat diplomacy, having his diary stolen from him so that he lands at an Arab airport where, having no idea which country he’s in, he greets the audience with cries of ‘Shalom!’ and ‘Mussel tov!’, provoking them into shooting him dead.
There follows a scene in which a bumbling President gets into endless confusion over what his CIA agents are trying to tell him whilst knocking things over, i.e., it’s the famously uncoordinated and misspeaking Gerald Ford (though I was astonished to discover an on-line review in which the Americans involved are completely unaware – and openly disbelieving – of Ford’s contemporaneous reputation). Apparently, the last descendent of Professor Moriarty (hi, Connie!) intends to destroy civilisation as we know it in five days time.
One Agent goes on to a meeting in London of the Police of Five Continents. At this time, Cleese still hasn’t appeared onscreen, and the script takes a discomfiting turn into national stereotyping and cheap racism. The Chinese delegate is played by Burt Kwouk of course, he being the only Chinese-appearing actor based in England (or so you’d think: incidentally, he was born in Warrington), whilst the African delegate is simply a hideous embarrassment: thankfully, the ‘bonzer cobber’ Australian is shot by a sniper pretty quickly. Horrific.
At last Holmes is brought in, courtesy of a visit by Stratford Johns, better known for his long running role as Chief Inspector Barlow (Z-Cars, Softly Softly). There are some genuinely funny moments in this sequence, most notably when the Commissioner is stabbed in the back: Watson pulls out the knife to make him feel more comfortable, only for Mrs Hudson to admonish him because this now allows the haemorrhaging to start: Watson tries to put the knife back exactly as he found it only to push it in too far and kill the Commissioner.
Holmes, re-entering the room, diagnoses the events brilliantly, to Watson’s perpetual astonishment. ‘How did you know that?’ he asks: ‘I was watching you!’ shrieks the frustrated Holmes.
We shall pass by the delivery of the Commissioner’s body, wrapped in brown paper to avoid payment on the bus, involving as it does another racist performance by Derek Griffiths as a West Indian Bus Conductor (1977: sigh), and switch to another meeting of the Delegates, this time with Holmes.
This is marginally better than the first scene, being less racist, and it does reach the heights of modest farce as the security windows keep going up and down, allowing the sniper to kill everyone but Holmes and the English delegate (seriously: the tea lady gets it). Holmes then produces his big idea: to hold a Detectives Convention. The concentration of so many adversaries will be so tempting that Moriarty won’t be able to resist attacking.
Unfortunately, this only results in a parade of unfunny mild parodies of the TV cops of the mid-Seventies that will be meaningless to anybody born later than 1965. The cops are bumped off by the fake Watson whilst the real Watson is helped to solve the Times crossword by Holmes (a neat little scene where all the answers are puns on ‘Elementary’).
Then Watson meets Watson and the fake is exposed as Mrs Hudson, or rather Francine Moriarty, out to destroy the entire Holmes line (destroying civilisation as we know it is just family tradition). Francine shoots down Watson before pumping something like two dozen bullets into Holmes (the vast majority of which seem to be aimed into Cleese’s groin, leading to unavoidable speculation over the extent to which art imitates life, given that he and Booth were soon to divorce, amicably at any rate).
But Holmes shrugs these off. He’s known Mrs Hudson was Francine since 1964 and so he told Watson to replace the bullets with blanks last night. Holmes continues in his triumphalist vein until an apologetic Watson finally manages to interrupt him long enough to admit that he forgot. Collapse of Holmes.
Francine strides off to end civilisation as we know it. Holmes throws one last dice, setting Watson into action, only for the over-eager partly-Bionic man (this is so 1977) to leap too high, hit his head on the ceiling and collapse unconscious. A final stirring readover from the announcer questioning whether Moriarty can succeed is answered by a brief, squeaking yes, and the screen goes back: it’s all over.
No, Strange Case does rather deserve to be forgotten. It’s awkward and inadequately plotted, too much wedded to its time, an implausible spoof whose highlights come mostly from the performances of its three stars, who are fighting an uphill battle against stiff material. The story credits suggest to me that this was a script derived entirely from Hobbs and McGrath that was in search of a star to lend it credibility: Cleese’s name as third scripter suggests that he probably added better jokes to his sequences, and it’s very noticeable that there are very few laughs when Cleese, Lowe and Booth are offscreen.
It’s slow, cheaply made, with an abrupt ending that tries to borrow off the Python habit of ending sketches that didn’t have a real ending, which might work after six minutes but flops after fifty-five.
And it’s biggest flaw of all is it’s crippling slowness. At least with the script book, I could inject some much needed pace – and energy – into scenes that lack motion and conviction. What I saw in it, I cannot now recall, and unless you’re a Cleese completist, I wouldn’t recommend hunting it out, other than for Arthur Lowe’s brilliant performance, oh, and Connie Booth’s legs.

Breaching the Vibrational Barrier: Introduction


If you’re a long term reader of this blog, you will probably have already picked up on the fact that I am a fan of the Justice Society of America, the first ever superhero team, whose DC Comics roots go back to the early 1940’s.
You’d have thought that, after two long series, I’d have exhausted the number of interesting things that can be said about the JSA, but that is to seriously underestimate the fanatic.
I’ve recently purchased the Graphic Novel Crisis on Multiple Earths Volume 6, the penultimate in a series that represents a generous slice of comic book history, by reprinting a near quarter-century of team-ups between the revived Justice Society and their modern counterparts, the Justice League of America.
Starting in 1963, the two teams met each year, in the summer issues of Justice League of America, to tackle all manner of menaces affecting not just one Earth, or even two, but on several occasions even more Earths, until the annual tradition was swept away by Crisis on Infinite Earths, in 1985.
These were the years of the Multiverse, that sprawling, inchoate, accidental creation that underpinned DC’s history for a quarter century, when the Justice League were the heroes of ‘our’ world, Earth-1, and the Justice Society were the heroes of another world, Earth2, that forever similar-but-different alternative to the established way of things, an annual window into a world of other.
Whilst I liked the post-Crisis idea that the two teams could be the heroes of different generations, could meet and mingle without the whole construction of a reason that involved a translation between realities, this is the JSA of my heart, of my youth, in much the same way that the original Justice Society were to the generation of fans that included Roy Thomas and Jerry Bails
So I’m going to take the opportunity to look at each of these team-ups, year by year: the writers and artists involved, the changing style of superheroics, the change in emphasis from plot to character, the changing JSA line-ups, the context of each year’s team-up..
The series will necessarily be incomplete, barring a sudden acceleration in DC’s publishing schedule to bring out Volume 7 considerably sooner than expected. I don’t have the original issues for the final three team-ups, but we’ll get to that when we get to that.

                                                                    * * * * *
For now, let’s remind ourselves of what preceded the historic meeting of the heroes of two worlds in 1963
Showcase 4 (1956): Editor Julius Schwarz and writer Robert Kanigher create the new, soon to be deemed Silver Age Flash, Barry Allen, for whom his predecessor is a comic book hero. A new, unsuspected era begins, leading inexorably (at least in retrospect) to the Multiverse.
The Flash 123 (1961): Schwarz and Jay Garrick’s creator, Gardner Fox respond to intense reader interest by reviving the Golden Age Flash. To do so, they adopt the SF cliché of parallel worlds. The story, which also revives three Golden Age villains, is a massive success. Though there as, as yet, only two un-named Earths, the Multiverse and all it implies is born here.
The Flash 129 (1962): Fox and Schwarz produce the inevitable sequel to ‘Flash of Two Worlds’, bringing Jay Garrick to Barry Allen’s Earth and pitting the Flashes against two of Barry’s Rogues Gallery. As a teaser, to test the audience’s reaction, they lead off the story with a flashback to the last JSA story, from All-Star 57, showing six more Golden Age heroes in cameo.
The Flash 136 (1963): Having had a positive reaction, Fox and Schwarz give the JSA another cameo in the third Flash team-up, back on Jay’s Earth, this time in-story. An old JSA foe, Vandal Savage, captures all the JSA line-up that imprisoned him after All-Star 37, but the team are freed by Barry-Flash. At the end, they muse about getting back together, to prevent things like this happening again.
This might have been thought of as another teaser to the audience, but Fox and Schwarz were already ahead of the enthusiastic response: a meeting between teams past and present had already been written and drawn before The Flash 136 hit the newsstands. It would appear just two months later, in Justice League of America 21: “Crisis on Earth-1!”