Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Maria Towers / Rohm

Somebody up there seems to have decided that 2018 is the year in which the surviving stars of Jess Franco’s ‘60s films are to leave us, and, following the death of Janine Reynaud last month, I was saddened to learn this week (again via Tim Lucas’s blog) that Maria Towers – credited on screen under her maiden name, Maria Rohm - has passed away.

Probably best known for her intoxicating lead performance in what many consider the best film Franco ever made, 1970’s Venus in Furs, Rohm’s career in film proved inseparable from that of her husband and life partner, the notorious, globe-trotting producer Harry Alan Towers.

Between her screen debut in 1964 and her inauspicious swan song in Massimo Dallamano’s 1976 ‘Emmanuelle’ cash-in ‘Blue Belle’, almost all of the films she appeared in were Towers productions. Looking back over her CV however, it is interesting to note that, despite her striking beauty and obvious screen presence, the majority of her roles were supporting parts or cameos.

Significantly I think, it was only in her collaborations with Franco that she began to move toward lead / “star” parts, gradually edging her way up the cast-lists of the Franco/Towers joints, delivering memorable and sometimes provocative performances in The Blood of Fu Manchu, ‘The Girl From Rio’, ‘99 Women’, Justine and ‘The Bloody Judge’, gradually moulding herself into a powerful avatar of the same super-natural seductress figure who haunts other eras of Franco’s sprawling filmography in the shape of Soledad Miranda, Lina Romay, Alice Arno, or indeed Janine Reynaud.

Rohm finally attained immortality within Franco’s femme fatale pantheon when the aforementioned ‘Venus in Furs’ hit screens in 1970, and, notwithstanding special-guest-star Christopher Lee, she was top-billed for a second time as the predatory aristocrat Madame de St Ange in the same year’s extraordinary ‘Eugenie... The Story of Her Journey Into Perversion’ – the film that, more than any of the other Towers productions, provides the blue-print for the more unhinged, low budget sex-horror productions the director would go on to specialise in during the following decade.

It seems a great shame that Rohm never really pursued the promise she demonstrated in these roles after the Franco / Towers partnership soured in the wake of 1970’s disastrous ‘Count Dracula’, although, according to IMDB, she did put in an appearance in Franco’s impossible to see/quite-possibly-lost post-Towers production ‘Sex Charade’, providing further evidence of the ongoing rapport that clearly existed between the two. (From memory, I believe they both spoke very warmly of each other in interviews, but any insight into their professional relationship beyond that is, like so many things in this area of cinema, now lost to history.)

Thereafter, Rohm / Towers appears to have stayed at her husband’s side throughout the remainder of his long career as an indefatigable independent producer. Even after she ceased to act in his films, she earned ‘associate producer’ or ‘co-producer’ credits on many of the pictures he brought to the screen in the 1980s and 2000s, and, as is usually the case with these things, it’s probably safe to assume her behind the scenes contributions extended far beyond that.

Both before and after Towers’ death in 2009, she proved a resolute defender of her husband’s legacy, attempting whenever possible to direct attention to his achievements in the film industry rather than the unsavoury rumours that have often surrounded him, and overseeing the posthumous publication of his autobiography in 2013. Insofar as I can tell, she remained a warm and dignified voice in this particular dusty corner of cinema fandom, connecting with fans via social media, and her career-spanning interview with David Del Valle, recorded as a commentary track for Severin’s blu-ray release of ‘Count Dracula’, is well worth a listen.

For ‘Venus In Furs’ alone, she will forever remain an icon, but for all her work, she will be missed. R.I.P.

(A memorial page for Maria Towers can be visited here.)

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Two-Fisted Tales:
The Texts of Festival
by Mick Farren

(Mayflower, 1973)

Lurking somewhere to the left of Michael Butterworth’s Time of the Hawklords on my bookshelves, we find another example of the surprisingly fertile cross-over between paperback science fiction and underground rock in Britain during the 1970s, in the shape of Mick Farren’s debut novel, published by Mayflower as a paperback original in 1973.

After he first came to prominence as the frontman for ‘60s proto-punk troublemakers The Deviants, the late Mr Farren (who passed away in 2013) carved out a niche for himself as a key player in the UK’s underground press movement (an on-off editor at International Times, he successfully defended IT’s comix spin-off ‘Nasty Tales’ against obscenity charges in 1971) and subsequently as a writer for the NME, as well as serving variously as an organiser of everything from street protests to free festivals, a doorman at the UFO club, an occasional lyricist for Hawkwind and Mötorhead, and as the architect of a series of bizarre, Zappa-inspired freak-rock/spoken word concept albums, including the seminal ‘Vampires Stole My Lunch Money’. His 2001 memoir ‘Give the Anarchist a Cigarette’ remains essential reading for anyone with an interest in London’s ‘60s/’70s counter-culture.

Somewhere in the midst of all this activity, and perhaps inspired by the example of fellow Ladbroke Grove scenester Michael Moorcock, Farren also turned his hand to genre fiction, a field in which he achieved a reasonable amount of success, with over twenty novels seeing print between the mid-‘70s and early ‘00s, most of them broadly classifiable as science fiction.

As the first out of the gate, and with its intent as a kind of self-reflexive satire on the music world clearly signalled by Mayflower’s back cover copy (if not by Peter Jones’ disappointingly bland cover illustration), one might reasonably expect ‘The Texts of Festival’ to be a pretty wild n’ woolly affair, crackling with a brand of hipster jive and freak scene energy befitting Farren’s background.

That was certainly my expectation, and as such I was quite taken aback to find myself faced with a relatively conventional science fantasy / action-adventure yarn, executed in the accomplished, no nonsense prose style of a long-serving paperback/magazine fiction veteran. (At the risk of drifting into speculation, it’s possible that Farren’s need to turn his writing into a viable revenue stream may have trumped his natural inclination to freak out the squares, on this occasion at least.)

As you will probably have gathered from the back cover copy, ‘The Texts of Festival’ posits a sort of off-the-peg post-apocalyptic future Britain, wherein the scattered descendants of first generation survivors have regressed to a state of neo-medieval primitivism, and in which the flame of civilisation is (barely) kept alight only by the inhabitants of the walled city known as Festival.

Located somewhere adjacent to the ruins of ancient “N’donn”, we can presumably assume that Festival was first established in the aftermath of the unspecified disaster which brought the ‘Great Age’ to a close, instigated by a community whose initial response to the calamity was to head to the countryside and convene a never-ending, self-sustaining variation on a good ol’ hippie rock festival.

Generations later, the descendants of these pioneers battle to maintain the fidelity of an ancient PA system, and gather before the stage on feast days the observe the ritual play-back of their holy “texts” – in other words, the surviving rock records whose words comprise the scriptures of Festival’s embryonic faith. (Oddly, the ability to actually play musical instruments and thus perform the songs contained with these ‘texts’ seems meanwhile to have been lost – an issue Farren never addresses.)

Whereas Butterworth’s aforementioned Hawkwind book inexplicably singled out Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ as an example of the “square” music played by the villains to sap the power of the Hawklords, Farren by contrast was a life-long Dylan devotee, and as such it comes as no surprise that ol’ Bob holds a central place in the mythology of Festival, with numerous characters in the book – Frankie Lee the Gambler, Johanna etc – taking their names (and indeed professions) from Dylan songs;

“Group after group of mummers performed on the wide stage until, just before sunset, a reverent hush fell across the arena as a single figure in a mask with heavily sunken cheeks, a thin jutting nose and a mass of black curly wig walked slowly to the front of the stage as the first of the Great Texts was played. The symbolic figure of the prophet Dhillon swayed gently as the texts crackled from the ancient speakers.”

Fellow prime innovators The Beatles meanwhile receive considerably less favourable treatment, with their work alluded to only in the following passage, in which a character recalls her family being terrorised by a cult of “Christies” when she was a child;

“She had been sitting in front of the cottage when they had stormed up the lane. The memory was so clear and vivid: the sunlight, the dusty earth in front of the cottage where the goat was tethered and the chickens scratched. Then suddenly they had flooded the lane, dozens of them in their dirty white robes, screaming their cursed text.
Screaming ‘All you need is love’, they had kicked her aside and pulled her mother from the cottage.”

Given that ‘The Texts of Festival’ was published in 1973 meanwhile, we must cop that Farren was at least *slightly* prophetic in his decision to posit the gaunt, psychopathic “Iggy” (no prizes for guessing, etc) as leader of the loose coalition of outlaws and barbarous, biker-descended tribesmen who, maddened by the effects of the toxic “crystal” the drug-crazed Ig has hooked them on, ride out to threaten the compromised hippie ideals of Festival.

Though little effort is made to really extend the novel’s pop cultural prognostications much beyond this, we could perhaps – again with specific reference to the publication date – stretch things slightly to include the figure of Lord Valentine, the depraved and despotic hereditary ruler of Festival, whose fey and dandy-ish ways are bitterly resented by the city’s stolid yeomanry.

Naturally it is Valentine’s incompetence that opens the gates (both literally and figuratively) to the incursion of Iggy’s barbarian hordes, perhaps reflecting Farren’s hoary-old-rocker suspicion of the Bowie-spearheaded glam movement, which he may already have perceived as the harbinger of the then-nameless new wave of hate-filled, smack-addled nihilism gathering to wipe out the compromised ideals of the preceding decade’s hippie dream.

(Any suspicion of homophobia regarding the effeminate Valentine character is meanwhile defused by means of making him even more enthusiastically heterosexual than the other characters in the novel – again perhaps reflecting the contemporary belief that Bowie, Lou Reed et al were merely “faking it” in regard to their queer/androgynous affectations.)

But, for the most part, Farren seems surprisingly disinterested in elaborating upon his tale’s SF-as-rock-criticism angle, instead seemingly relishing the opportunity to simply indulge in some good, ol’ fashioned pulp storytelling.

As it goes on therefore, it becomes increasingly clear that ‘The Texts of Festival’ is basically a western. And I don’t mean that in some spurious “Star Wars is really a western” kind of way either. I mean, there are wagon trains, and six-guns, and cavalry sorties dispatched to track down nomadic bands of raiders. There are gambling halls, whorehouses and gunfighters in wide-brimmed black hats, all located within frontier towns defended by makeshift wooden stockades. It’s a western. So much so in fact that there are entire chapters that read almost like they could have been taken from a Zane Grey potboiler, with the details altered a give proceedings a veneer of post-apocalyptic fantasy.

Though it may initially seem odd to see such elements employed in a story ostensibly set in the UK, as things progress it actually begins to make a cracked sort of sense – I mean, how else could a society whose foundation myth is based around the whimsical Americana of Dylan’s lyrics be expected to develop?

Farren meanwhile keeps his story-telling lively by means of rotating POV characters as often as possible. This technique that is established in striking fashion in the book’s opening chapters, each of which begins by introducing us to a prospective lone hero character, who, a few pages later, is unceremoniously killed by a somewhat less heroic character who becomes the protagonist of the following chapter – a neat narrative trick that serves to keep us on our toes, whilst also establishing the ruthless and violent nature of the fictional world.

And, violent it certainly is. Though ‘The Texts of Festival’ never descends into gory detail or hardcore sex, Farren dedicates a great deal of time to the assorted massacres, rapes, mass imprisonments and random incidents of wanton sadism that dot his storyline, expounding on such scenarios with a near unhealthy amount of gusto (again, perhaps commercial considerations were in play here to certain extent, reflecting the grittier, more exploitational turn taken by paperback fiction during the ‘70s).

As part of this seeming attempt to assert himself as a Peckinpah-style bad-ass, double standards of a particular ‘70s vintage are very much in evidence when it comes to the novel’s treatment of women. For much of the book’s length, the only noteworthy female characters are voluptuous whores of one kind of another, and their brutish treatment at the hands of the post-apocalyptic world’s decidedly unenlightened menfolk is outlined by the author so extensively, and with such lusty enthusiasm, that acknowledgement of such concepts as consent soon goes out of the window, even when Farren grants temporary POV status to one of his harried strumpets.

Apparently realising midway through that this isn’t quite cricket (perhaps some post-counter-culture idealist guilt kicking in?), there are some attempts to remedy things in this regard in the book’s closing stretch, as someone makes a comment about “women being reduced again to objects” as a consequence of Lord Valentine’s corrupt regime, and as steadfast figures such as ‘Nasty Elaine’ arise to defend Festival’s stockade on equal terms with the blokes. But, it’s too little too late really to get the book anywhere within throwing distance of what you might term “acceptable 21st century reading”, instead simply placing it in the kind of “have yr cake and eat it” slipstream all too familiar to fans of the era’s exploitation cinema (or indeed, rock music).

Beyond this, the final, epic siege of Festival features few surprises, almost no wink-nod references to the music world whatsoever, and a great deal of rousing, dirt n’ blood soaked, six-gun blasting action. Overall, the book is a fine pulp yarn. Executed in almost militantly unpretentious terms, it represents an extremely confident start to Farren’s literary career, and, though there’s nothing here that will seem remotely innovative to a 21st century SF reader, it must at its time have been fairly unique; if nothing else, it succeeds in prefiguring much of the post-apocalyptic aesthetic forever cemented by George Miller’s ‘The Road Warrior’ by the best part of a decade.

As a final note, as much as I respect Farren’s life and work (Dhillon rest his soul), even his most dedicated fans must admit he was never short on ego, and as such I was amused to note the brief sub-plot in ‘The Texts of Festival’ that sees an obscure, supressed “text” predicting apocalyptic devastation gaining popularity amongst Festival’s citizenship as the barbarian armies approach;

“‘Well, my lord, there is an obscure text which we have come across; unfortunately both author and title are unknown, but the fragments that remain seem to relate very closely to the situation which we are dealing with.’
‘Don’t you think we are takin’ your precious texts a little too seriously?’
Phelge pressed his lips together in a pious scowl.
‘My lord, all matters relating to the..’
‘I know, I know. Just tell me what it says. I don’t need a lecture on my lack of belief.’
‘Well lord, basically we only have a few lines we can pick out. I had them transcribed from the tape.’ He produced a sheet of paper from under his robe. ‘They read:

“The outlaws come flying, out of the west
On their pale lips are framed words of death”,

Then there’s a break an’ it continues:

“Come on everybody, gather round friends,
This is the day civilisation ends.
Let's get together and do death’s dance
And go loot”

The rest of the line is indecipherable.’”

The source of this “obscure text”? ‘Let’s Loot The Supermarket’, track # 6 on The Deviants’ 1968 album ‘Disposable’. Composer: M. Farren.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Psychedelic Sci-Fi Round-up:
Asylum Earth
by Bruce Elliot

(Belmont, 1968)

Not much to say here, other than 1) the artwork – attributed online to Jerome Podwill – is pretty great, and 2) if the back cover copy is anything to go by, Bruce Elliot’s take on life in 1991 seems to have been pretty much spot-on.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Psychedelic Sci-Fi Round-up:
The Star of Life
by Edmond Hamilton

(Crest, 1959)

All those squiggly, expressionistic doodle-lines and the distinctively steel spear-head styled rocket ship on the back of this wrap-around cover clearly identify it as the work of ubiquitous, and frequently quite barmy, mid-century Sci-Fi specialist Richard M. Powers – surely one of the key progenitors of Psychedelic SF artwork?

I like the way that the astronaut pictured here appears to be riding an invisible horse through his own inner-space landscape of doodley psychotropic weirdness.

I also really like Powers’ cover for the first edition of Vonnegut’s ‘Sirens of Titan’, which, for no particular reason, you should check out via Pop Sensation here.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Psychedelic Sci-Fi Round-up:
Edge of Time
by David Grinnell
(Ace, 1958)

Just time to squeeze in a few new editions to this blog’s long neglected survey of psychedelic SF cover illustrations – beginning with two examples of the form produced before the term ‘psychedelia’ was even coined.

Though perhaps only marginally psyched out, this first one – by the “Dean of Science Fiction Artists” Frank Kelly Freas – is flat-out awesome. I’m not sure what else to say really. I mean, just look at it.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Bloody NEL:
Hook: Virility Gene
by Tully Zetford


You know that feeling when you pull a promising looking book off the shelf in Oxfam and think, “what the actual fuck”?

I’m not sure whether the gentleman portrayed on the cover (‘Hook’ himself, presumably) has already been dosed up with some ‘virility gene’, or else is just exalting in the fact that he clearly doesn’t require any, but either way, his hastily sketched lower quarters speak for themselves.

You will also note that he appears to be carrying a model of a gothic cathedral around on his back, but… what this uncredited cover art may lack in terms of SF verisimilitude, it more than makes up for in its dedication to what I suspect was a New English Library editorial edict that, wherever possible, SF BOOKS SHOULD BE PURPLE. (I’d love to pin down this exact shade of ‘NEL purple’ for some future home redecoration project.)

Scanning through the book before writing this post, it actually seems as if it might be quite a lot of fun. Clearly written in a spirit of tongue-in-cheek self-mockery, and with an eye to the ‘70s pulp market’s seemingly unquenchable appetite for numbered action series in which unstoppable, sub-Bond heroes perpetrate blood-curdling mayhem, it’s two-fisted, laser-blasting fight scenes, lusty drunken carousing, bizarre future-slang banter (‘gonil’ appears to be this world’s expletive of choice) and saucy intimations of inter-species hanky panky as far as the eye can see.

Tully Zetford, it turns out, was one of many pseudonyms used by the prolific Kenneth Bulmer, who we last encountered here via his ‘hard-luck spaceman’ yarn To Outrun Doomsday. NEL published four ‘Hook’ novels in 1974-75 (‘Virility Gene’ was the final one), but the indefatigable Bulmer proceeded to knock out a further six instalments in the series under his own name, although curiously, these were published only in German, and all appeared simultaneously in 1988.