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“Enthusiasm for the mysterious emissaries of pulp”: an interview with David Britton (the Savoy interviews, part 2a)Author: Simon Sellars • Feb 22nd, 2010 •
The author of Lord Horror.
Interview by Simon Sellars.
This, the second of our three-interview series with Savoy luminaries, covers the company’s musical and spoken-word output. Part 1, with Michael Butterworth, discussed Savoy’s publishing arm, and part 3, with John Coulthart, will cover Savoy’s visual/comics/graphics output. To coincide with this series, we also ran a Savoy/Ballardian Microfiction competition.
This interview is in two parts. In the first, David Britton discusses PJ Proby, Ballard, Fenella Fielding, Ian Brady, Michael Moorcock, New Worlds magazine, Heathcote Williams and his own upbringing. In the second, he discusses New Order, Joy Division, punk, Manchester music, Kingsize Taylor, The Cramps, Zappa, Beefheart and Springsteen. Interspersed throughout both parts are sound clips from Savoy releases [NOTE: sound clips don't work in Google Reader].
..:: Don’t forget Part 2 of this interview!
Excerpt from forthcoming release: Fenella Fielding reading from JG Ballard’s Crash. Courtesy Savoy Records (2010).
IN PART 1 OF THE SAVOY INTERVIEWS with Michael Butterworth, we learnt all the gory details about Savoy Books, “England’s only truly alternative and autotelic publishing company”, founded by Butterworth and David Britton in 1976. The Savoy roster includes many writers who appeared alongside Ballard in New Worlds magazine — including Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, Charles Platt, Samuel R. Delany, Langdon Jones and M. John Harrison — and the company itself has been hit by multiple scandals, including the imprisonment of Britton twice on obscenity charges. But what about the musical arm of this black empire? Savoy Records is the company “responsible” for resurrecting the career of PJ Proby, the trouser-splitting redneck-rock anti-hero from the 60s and repackaging him as a return-of-the-repressed Frankensteinian monster. It’s the company that claimed Madonna guested on one of its records with Proby, singing a song that “glorified sex with young girls”. It’s the company that used a “quote” from Prince Charles on one of its record sleeves, in which the Bonny Prince was alleged to have said: “Only dickheads die from cocaine. The best people used it and are still using it”. It’s the company that turned horrorshow characters from its demented comics into recording “stars”. And today, it’s the company attempting to resurrect (despite her apparent protests) the actress Fenella Fielding’s career, with a covers record of modern-day pop songs and — of all things — her spoken-word rendition of Ballard’s Crash. Nestled like toad in the hole among all that headspinning madness is a brace of great tunes, embracing muscular dance, redneck folk and way-more-punk-than-punk theatrics. Stuff New Order, Joy Division, Ballard, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Prince Charles, Lord Haw-Haw, the Queen, the IRA, Bowie, Phil Collins, Proby, the Cramps, the Stooges and Prince into a blender filled with flesheating worms, and the brown goo flowing from the nozzle is nothing less than Savoy Records. But handle with extreme caution, for the worms will still be alive.
LEFT: PJ Proby and Peter Hook of New Order in Suite 16 recording studio, Rochdale, circa 1984. From the “Love Will Tear Us Apart” sleeve.
Savoy Records seems to anticipate, heighten or subvert certain commercial trends. The work they did with Proby ironically comments on all those cynical marketing exercises whereby old has-beens like Tom Jones re-record hip songs like “Kiss” by Prince. But instead of trying to revive old careers, Savoy amplifies all the reasons why these “has-beens” fell from favour. The furore surrounding the sleeve of the Lord Horror record, with its fake Prince Charles quotes and other unspeakable anti-semitic rants attributed to nasty Savoy characters, seems to say that punk never went far enough. For Savoy, the equation could be something like this: “Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious wore swastikas on their clothing, but it was only for show. They were never really interested in pushing people’s buttons. If punk really wanted to shock with Nazi imagery, this is how it should be done”. Here is a parallel universe where punk was always shocking, and never mere window dressing for clothes horses.
In part 2 of the Savoy interviews, we have David Britton himself to tell us all about the music biz, in what amounts to only the second full-length interview he’s ever given. David is very much a man of mystery — not only does he rarely speak on the record, but to this day, as far as I know, there have been no adult photos of him published. It was with that puzzle in mind that I went to sleep one night in 2008, when I first had the idea of approaching these people for their story, thinking intently about the Savoy empire and what it all meant…
That night I dreamt a very strange dream, which I recall very well. David Britton and Michael Butterworth had invited me to their glamourous beach shack. After a few drinks, they gave me a rather expensive surfboard and, smitten with the board, I excused myself, took my leave and paddled out to sea. But I pushed out too far, and being a hopeless swimmer panicked and turned back. The water was red by the way, but it wasn’t blood — that’s just how it was in this world. On the way back I noticed a crack in the board. I was apprehensive but felt that David and Michael wouldn’t mind, and that they would understand that it was a design flaw rather than my clumsiness that had cracked it.
When I got back to their shack, they had, according to a note from David, decided to go on holiday, although they had left me keys and the note said to let myself in and make myself at home. I remember thinking that although I had met Michael before in the dream world, David always kept himself hidden when he spoke to me, talking from behind doors and curtains. When I opened the door, they were inside after all — they were running late, and were still packing. And I had to catch my breath because there, right in front of me, was the mysterious David Britton! Returning early from the water, I had caught him by surprise, and he hadn’t had time to hide himself from me. In fact, he was frozen in mid-stride like a statue — having heard the door open, he was attempting to run for cover behind the curtain. I took in the sight of something I’d never seen before: David Britton. He turned out to be very tall and lean, although not skinny, more the naturally athletic type, with swept-back medium length hair. He was wearing shorts and had some kind of snake tattoo on his lower legs and ankles. He seemed very graceful and, after he had relaxed from being caught out, said hello to me in a cultured English accent.
Then Michael offered to sell me some books, David some records, and I woke up…
Two years later, I conducted this interview with David Britton by email. I still have no idea what he really looks like.
Prince’s “Sign O’ Times”, performed by PJ Proby. Courtesy Savoy Records (1989).
SIMON SELLARS: David, in our interview with Michael, he said that New Worlds was the inspiration for Savoy Books. Looking back at New Worlds, there seems an obvious rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic through the magazine — a savage blend of experimental pop culture shot though with various rock allusions. Was this in turn an influence on Savoy Records?
DAVID BRITTON: In the 1960s, New Worlds was the literary equivalent of the Beatles. That decade produced some fine magazines, literary ones like Evergreen, Transatlantic Review and Encounter. Only New Worlds possessed the true primogeniture of a rock ‘n’ roll quality. In my mind it sat well with the music experiments of the day, and had a harder edge than the best of the underground magazines — Oz, IT and so on. It was rock ‘n’ roll in literary form, and to me Ballard and Moorcock were as revolutionary and exciting as Beefheart and Zappa. As a boy I’d been very taken with Weird Tales. Its pulp ambience, Virgil Finlay’s illustrations and the writer-triumvirate of HP Lovecraft, Robert E Howard and Clark Ashton Smith held a special appeal. To find a magazine in the 60s that seemed as exciting as Weird Tales must have been in the 30s was a real inspiration. To perhaps overstretch an analogy, you might say that Ballard was the equivalent of Lovecraft, Moorcock was Howard and, at a push, Aldiss was Smith. Michael Butterworth had already made his presence felt in New Worlds. I’d seen advertisements around Manchester for readings he did with New Worlds regulars such as Libby Houston, and I was conscious at the time of being an onlooker staring through a window into a creative world out of my reach. Michael had been at the heart of New Worlds at the peak of its run; I was jealous of that but also inspired that a writer from Manchester had actually made it. When I met up with him in the early 70s, I began to feel that my time might be coming.
LEFT: David Britton’s copy of Passort to Eternity.
SS: Michael detailed in length the influence of Ballard on his own writing. Was it the same for you?
DB: As a teenager, Ballard’s short stories constantly looped through my mind in a way his novels did not. The “compact” novels with their strange, evocative compelling prose were both adult and original. I was familiar with some of them from Ted Carnell’s New Worlds/Science Fantasy magazines, but they didn’t properly come into focus for me until I read them collected together in the Berkley paperbacks — The Voices of Time and Passport to Eternity — which I read while living in my North Manchester home, in Blackley, going to and from work in a rather pointless way.
On my route to the factory to combat the boredom that lay ahead, I played games, giving certain plots of ground “Ballardian” qualities. A grass verge, so nondescript, became significant. The steep incline in Victoria Avenue concealed the approaching ocean from “Now Wakes the Sea”. The dead waters of the Rhodes Wood Reservoir, ringed with poinsettia, twinkled alienly. These internal miseries came to be a ticking clock of my life, a way of measuring the passage of time. Later came the more intense fiction of “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” — Ballard rewriting a hero of mine, Alfred Jarry — and the one piece that really connects to Lord Horror, Ballard’s article “The Alphabets of Unreason”, the first piece I’d read that put a modern finger on the appeal of the Third Reich and Hitler. No moralising, just a recognition of the Reich’s genuinely seductive theatrical power: “The psychopath never dates”; “Hitler is completely up to date”; “Hitler’s revulsion against the Jews was physical, like his reaction against any peoples, such as the Slavs and Negroes, whose physique, posture, morphology and pigmentation alerted some screaming switchboard of insecurity within his own mind”. This was powerful stuff in 1967, and it came courtesy of New Worlds. The only other person whose force of opinion hit me that hard was Professor George Steiner, many years later, talking on The Late Show about Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will. Very eloquently he said that while the appeal of Reifenstahl’s film was beguiling and the imagery of the Nazi state sucked you in, the correct response to it was a very emphatic, “Thank you, but no.”
In my writing, however, Moorcock had been more of an inspiration to me than Ballard, and I played to that influence in the early manifestations of Savoy; you might say Michael Butterworth filled a gap in the Savoy ethos with his own Ballard influence. Our collaboration on Lord Horror came out of the editing partnership on the small press magazines, and developed with the founding of Savoy. M John Harrison worked with us for two years and his presence was probably as much of a catalyst for Lord Horror as my later imprisonment in Strangeways; these things opened the doors to my beginning in writing. Harrison was a friend and an inspiration, I’ll be forever grateful to him for that. It’s frustrating that Lord Horror never appeared in New Worlds; I’d come of age too late to be a part of those wonderful heady days. But the novel is inspired by the New Worlds philosophy. It’s a homage, and an attempt to continue the tradition of Ballard and Moorcock, Harrison and Langdon Jones. The connection was continued when we published Lang’s story collection, The Eye of the Lens, and later hired him to proofread Motherfuckers.
SS: How did growing up in Manchester influence your worldview?
DB: There’s a notorious — to us — moment in the TV interview which Ballard gave to Jeremy Isaacs on Face to Face where he says that his writing career took the imaginative route it had because of his childhood in Shanghai, and he doubted if he would have become a writer if he had grown up in a suburb of Manchester. Well, he’s on record all over as saying the dullness of the suburbs gives birth to anarchy and strange impulses — that’s the entire subject of The Unlimited Dream Company — so, actually, I think he would have faired better than he thought. Though I spent nearly all my younger life trying to escape it, determining that it would not be my limit, North Manchester in the 50s and 60s where I was born and grew up is, in a sense, my Shanghai. By my teens, its terraced slums had been razed and replaced with a nondescript mess growing into a landscape of quiet desperation, a bleak “Ballardland”, artistically and spiritually, that pushed me to make the local library a second home in search of a richer imaginative life. I did escape, finally. But since I have left, its disaffected characters and its underbelly of absurdity, grimness and black humour has risen in significance in my mind, providing an unlikely creative font that I drew on for Lord Horror and all my subsequent books.
Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”, performed by PJ Proby with the Savoy Holman Hunt African Orchestra. Courtesy Savoy Records (1990).
SS: What was the impetus behind Savoy branching out into making records?
DB: Michael had been friendly with Heathcote Williams and his London-based anarchist press, The Open Head Press, in the 1970s. Open Head were releasing records, and one of their 45s, “Sid Did It”, an anti-punk song, was a truly demented parody of the Sex Pistols. That had a big influence on us: a book publisher releasing records. Also, the biography we were meant to be doing with PJ Proby wasn’t getting anywhere, and I began to realise we were being irrevocably drawn into recording him.
“Shoot Yer Load” by Meng & Ecker. Courtesy Savoy Records (1989).
SS: Is there a conscious continuity between Savoy books, records and comics, aside from the integration of characters like Meng, Ecker and Horror?
DB: Rock ‘n’ roll’s spirit is hopefully always with us. It’s the bottom-line inspiration for Lord Horror, Meng & Ecker, La Squab and everything I’ve written. The rhythm of psychomorphic Horror is set to a rock ‘n’ roll beat. Rock ‘n’ roll and Auschwitz spell Lord Horror. To me, there’s inevitability in their blending. The bittersweet euphoria of rock ‘n’ roll with the most perverted campaign of terror in the history of the world. One breeds heightened life, the other depletes the human spirit. Positive and negative in the extreme.
The seeds were all there from the beginning. I don’t know how conscious a process it was, but I didn’t see there were boundaries. We were already mixing genres. It was a mindset we had together, and the multi-media approach unfolded quite naturally. Jack Trevor Story’s novel Man Pinches Bottom has a central character that comes from the world of Fleetway comics. The main protagonist in Nik Cohn’s novel I am Still the Greatest Says Johnny Angelo was a rock singer amalgam of PJ Proby and Elvis. All the threads of Savoy — books, music, graphics — can be knitted together to make a matching coat of its colourful contributors, real or imagined. You could easily place PJ Proby into the Meng & Ecker comics without it seeming contrived. The real life William Joyce/Lord Haw-Haw had been a comic character in Radio Fun in the 1940s, so right there Horror had visual ancestry. During the Second World War, Joyce’s radio broadcasts came from the Nazi station Reichsrundfunk via Radio Luxembourg. Ten years after Haw-Haw, Luxemburg happened to be the station from where young cockney Gus Goodwin, the first English rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey, beamed out his loon-a-tickery to grateful teenagers. Simultaneously, Alan Freed was banging his shoe on the table, also broadcasting on Radio Luxembourg, exhorting his clarion call to “get with it”. Gradually, through a glass darkly, the real and the unreal intertwined. It was a logical if deviant sideways step to have Haw-Haw by way of Horror broadcasting rock ‘n’ roll from Auschwitz into Albion. It doesn’t matter whether they’re from the world of comic, books or music or real life.
The authors co-opted by Savoy — Henry Treece, Heathcote Williams, Harlan Ellison, Ken Reid, David Lindsay, Maurice Richardson — dance to the same magical fugue. As we went along, it became more of a conscious process. We set out to replace what we saw as a bogus mainstream with an alternate reading list. Membership to the Savoy Irregulars was regulated stringently. It was an elite membership, with no room for a “Martin Amis”, a “Bono” or an “Art Spiegelman”. Moorcock probably supplied the blueprint here. Over his career he championed so many eclectic people, joining them together in New Worlds and in his own fiction.
Image from PJ Proby promotional booklet, Savoy 1984.
Iggy’s “The Passenger”, performed by PJ Proby. Courtesy Savoy Records (1995).
SS: What’s remarkable about Proby’s story? What does he signify to you?
DB: Proby’s appearance and general demeanour coincided with the psychology of a particular group of 1950s American actors and singers who appealed to me during my formative years. They conveyed the image of the romantic rebel that belonged to a world so remote from the everyday world of North Manchester. That “Rebel Without a Cause” sneer of Dean, Brando, Dennis Hopper, Rod Lauren and Vic Morrow. The pedigree extends to Lash LaRue, Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe, and is rockabilly’d up further in pre-army Elvis, Eddie Cochran, Johnny Burnette, Gene Vincent and, the honorary overseas member, Vince Taylor. They had a mean-as-shit hero/hoodlum look, the wild kind of chaps that creep through a David Lynch film. The attitude is no better formed than in PJ Proby. When our paths finally crossed, I had a first-hand chance to experience the most charismatic, angry, anguished and flawed man I’d ever encountered.
“A very good friend of ours”: The Beatles introduce PJ Proby in 1964.
PJ Proby: Three-week Hero. Part 1 of a short film about the man himself. Part 2 is here.
Proby was, still is, a very talented individual, who had the top of the showbiz world dangling just out of reach whilst being psychologically incapable of controlling himself. He was a redneck visionary who ran out of his natural decade into another, even stranger one — the 1960s. Nik Cohn’s take on him in Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, the first serious book on rock ‘n’ roll, is a perfect summation, encapsulating what was so great about him. A magnetic ball of self-destruction, a swaggering egomaniac who could have been the greatest star in the world. He either had it all taken away from him by internal psychosis, or he was a joke that misfired. He could have joined the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, taken the Elvis route or, completely at home, sauntered into William Burroughs’s world. He could have been tattooed with William Blake’s The Red Dragon and given Hannibal Lector a run for the aperitifs. He was Dennis Hopper out of Blue Velvet displaced to Manchester and the Yorkshire Moors.
In 1985 [Proby] was living in the Yorkshire village of Haworth, home of the Brontës, when he was visited by the founders of Manchester-based Savoy Books, Mike Butterworth and his partner David Britton, who has devoted his life to blasphemous sedition. Britton wrote the notorious novel Lord Horror, most copies of which were seized, on publication in 1990, by the Greater Manchester Police
“Jim was lying low, after the affair with Alison,” says Butterworth. “We wanted to relaunch his career.”
PJ Proby’s collaboration with Savoy produced a number of intriguing recordings, including his versions of “Anarchy In The UK” and TS Eliot’s The Wasteland.
“I had no idea who TS Eliot was,” says Proby. “But the more I do The Wasteland, the better I get.”
“One day the world will realise what a genius he is, and by then it will be too late,” Britton said. “Proby is a walking piece of art. His talent needs preserving for future generations.”
After Britton’s mother died, the three gathered at her house at Saddleworth, overlooking the scene of the Moors Murders. There, with Proby larking about on the Zimmer frame that had belonged to the deceased, they worked on his single “Hardcore”, which, unless I’ve missed something, remains the most offensive record ever released. (“Everything y’all think is fun,” Proby once said, “I think is boring.”)
Butterworth says Savoy stopped working with Proby, “because he asked for £2,000 to read one poem. I said: ‘Jim: it’s only nine lines.’ He said, ‘Maybe – but you will have my voice forever.'”
Robert Chalmers, “PJ Proby: Could the now-penniless singer be ready for a comeback?”, The Independent, 30 September, 2007.
SS: Proby lived in Manchester — an intriguing prospect. Tell me about it.
DB: By the 1980s, Proby was moving between bedsits and squats and sleeping on pub floors in the same North Manchester streets I’d been born in. How incredibly coincidental is that? What force of fate had dragged him from Texas to 1950s Hollywood, then over to England in 1964 and dropped him twenty years later in the arsehole of England? Mr Teen Spirit comes to Oldham, marching pie-eyed down Brompton Street, once the home of William Joyce/Lord Haw-Haw. Another coincidence. Joyce wasn’t physically a presence during my youth — he had lived around Shaw, Mumps and Oldham in the early 1920s and was hanged as a traitor after the Second World War –– but he was a local legendary bogeyman. What Proby and these kinds of outsiders signify for me has induced much speculation, but a common factor seems to be the need to transcend the normal in all of its ambivalent complexity. These dark pilgrims must fascinate anyone with a fiery imagination, even if in reality you wouldn’t like your life to go down some of the paths they tread. Above Oldham, for example, on the looming moors, lies the everlasting presence of another disenfranchised North Manchester man, Ian Brady.
RE/Search publisher V. Vale & J.G. Ballard, 1982. Photo courtesy RE/Search Publications.
SS: Is it too farfetched to draw a connection between Brady and the environment he grew up in?
DB: Brady lived alongside me. He, and I — as a very young man growing up in the slums of North Manchester (Harpurhey and adjacent Gorton) — never met, but geographically we were separated by only a couple of miles. His world was my world, annexed between factories, offices and abattoirs. Both of us faced a life of futility with few options and seethed together in our impotency, disenfranchised by inclination from what was on offer around us. I lucked in, escaping into books; Ian lucked out, performing the ultimate act of alienation.
Excerpt from forthcoming release: Fenella Fielding reading from JG Ballard’s Crash. Courtesy Savoy Records (2010).
In the first of the Ballard RE/Search books, Ballard commented that he found Brady’s juxtaposed tape-recording of “The Little Drummer Boy” with the cry of a tortured child significant, something new on the annals of crime, the bringing of electronic technology into the act of murder. He believed Brady had subsided into a deep depression, and was totally institutionalised. But nothing could be further from the reality. Over the years, I’ve struck up a correspondence with Mr Brady, and he remains articulate, well informed. He knows who Mr Ballard and Mr Burroughs are, and has come to some kind of terms with the way his life has played out.
A Texas boy, a Glasgow boy, a local boy: at overlapping times we have inhabited the same two square miles of the city, and have all run foul of authority. Lord Horror was banned in the courts, Proby was banned from stage and television, a complete blackout that ended his career, and Brady is in prison for killing children. And Joyce. That a traitor to England, the writer of Lord Horror, the infamous killer of children and a doomed rock ‘n’ roll showman have voyaged through the same miniscule wasteland is a beguiling fact. There’s something of Iain Sinclair’s psychogeographical potency about it.
SS: Do you have a favourite Proby story? Something that sums up the man’s essence?
DB: Jim Proby came up with the best epitaph in the history of the world. When asked by an Irish reporter what he would like engraved on his headstone, he instantly replied, “Rather be here than with you, cocksucker”.
Excerpt: PJ Proby reading from Lord Horror. Courtesy Savoy Records (1999).
SS: What was the approach with recording the Lord Horror reading? How did Proby feel about such extreme material? When he breaks out laughing, is he in character, or is he amazed at what he was been given to read?
DB: He spoke the words to Lord Horror as easily as pulling on an overcoat. When Michael and I were writing Lord Horror I was in weekly contact with Proby, and his personality was a constant in my mind. I attempted to carry his schizoid menace into the book. When Jim reads the dialogue “Move now, or I’ll release you right here”, that gives life to a whispering, serpentine intonation of his that I’d transferred into the book. I rhymed the words, the inflections suggested in them, to mirror his real-life speech patterns. When Jim came to deliver these lines and others, it was no surprise that they sounded exactly as I imagined they would. Nothing over-the-top disturbs PJ Proby. During the recording, which took two days, for sure he laughed often, and welcomed the excesses of the book. It didn’t strike him as being beyond the pale. God bless the man and his good heart!
Fenella Fielding at Strongroom Studios. Photo courtesy Savoy.
PiL’s “Rise”, performed by Fenella Fielding, from the as-yet-unreleased Fenella Fielding: the Savoy Sessions. Courtesy Savoy Records (2010).
Fenella Fielding IS! A 21st Century Goddess of Audio Art and Noise Illusion!
Her Succulent/Velvet-Blue-Saloon vocal tones made me believe I was having Naked Lunch in a Berlin bubble-bath, next to Marlene Dietrich… Somewhere in Berlin, circa 1928-1932.
Hence, we have a message in a bottle, from a 21st Century, Axis Sally/Tokyo Rose: Fenella Fielding.
Bring on the smelling salts! Then give me the Silver-Spoon and Golden Needle, so I can blend into the Wonder-Word Void, where Ms Fielding must surely reside.
Excerpted from Kim Fowley’s liner notes for the as-yet-unreleased CD, Fenella Fielding: the Savoy Sessions. Courtesy Savoy Records (2010).
SS: I think I can guess why you got Kim Fowley in to do the liner notes for the new Fenella Fielding CD… There’s something Probyesque about him, isn’t there?
DB: Kim Fowley is another of rock ’n’ roll’s mavericks, with an appreciation of culture that goes a lot farther than the music scenes to which he’s been attached over several decades. We needed someone who could put Fenella’s Savoy recordings in an imaginative context, and recognise the impulse behind such atypical compositions. There is also a whacky menace to Fowley. You find that in the music which birthed his persona — “Esquirita and the Voola”, “Rockin’ Bones”, “Alligator Wine” — at the head of which is the surreal snake of “Papa Oom Mow Mow”, which he produced. He’s also responsible for the daffyness that is “Alley Oop”.
I’d followed his progress since he came to England with Proby in the mid-60s. Zappa’s first album, Freak Out, used Kim’s spooky vocals. His “Help, I’m A Rock”, was the high point — and the strangest — of a very strange album. A few years ago I downloaded some interviews and part of his self-penned history from Rock’s Backpages. Was there ever a more astute all-seeing chronicler of the rock ‘n’ roll business, I thought? The man could write as insightfully as Nick Tosches and as colourfully as Hunter S Thompson. Kim had another unique quality. He wrote from the inside out, almost without peer, documenting rock history firsthand. In one of the articles he says this: “I’m not a purist.… In other words, I do all this stuff for reasons that nobody else makes records. I think, ‘What would happen if Vera Lynn sang “Louie Louie”?’ Well, I’m the kind of person who’d find Vera Lynn and persuade her to record ‘Louie Louie’ and then I’d make a better record of Vera Lynn doing ‘Louie Louie’ than the Kingsmen would’ve ever done, y’know what I mean?”
We’d approached the Fenella and Proby projects in exactly this manner. When I re-read that quote last year, it was obvious that he was the man for the job.
It’s fairly easy to grasp — if not necessarily empathise with — the inflammatory aims of [Savoy's] most controversial book. Britton was driven, among other things, by a desire to bait his long-standing enemy, the then-chief constable of Manchester, James Anderton. In Lord Horror, one of Anderton’s homophobic outbursts is replicated with the word “homosexuals” replaced by “Jews” throughout. Britton was duly rewarded with a four-month sentence, served in Risley Remand Centre and Stafford Prison. The overall tone of some passages of Lord Horror is such that reproducing quotations in a family newspaper is simply not an option. As I recently explained to Britton, my own preference, if I ever find the copy that is festering somewhere on my shelves, would be to incinerate it rather than sell it for the £300 that the edition now fetches.
Britton says he was interested in the “subtext of menace” in Fielding’s voice. The actress, for her part, says she knows nothing about Lord Horror, but does add, “Historically, I have never thought of the police as great literary critics.”
Robert Chalmers, “The lady vanishes: What ever happened to Fenella Fielding?”, The Independent, Sunday, 24 February 2008.
SS: How did you come to work with Fenella? Obviously, she’s a very charismatic person, but how does she fit into the Savoy story?
DB: It was in the Savoy offices, sometime at the beginning of the new century, a winter fire blazing. “We should do a reading of the ‘Oi Swiney’ chapter from Motherfuckers,” Michael said casually. “And get Fenella Fielding in to do the dirty deed,” I replied. Laughter. Twenty minutes later. “You know, that’s not a bad idea,” Michael eventually says. So that was the start.
I’d heard her on Radio 4 performing Noël Coward, and on BBC 2 providing the narration for a version of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin. Jonathan Meades had also used her voice for one of his BBC films so we knew she had a formidable character. But it took us two years to bargain with her before she came into the studio. Wisely, we decided that “Oi Swiney” was a non-starter for such a refined lady of the theatre and the BBC. We decided it was more appropriate for her to read the first couple of chapters of La Squab, the new Lord Horror novel, more quirky, not as scatological. She came into the studio professionally prepared and did the most magnificent reading — Art Nouveau by way of Wind in the Willows, with a drip of steel in her voice. Totally spellbinding. It sent a chill up our spines and we fell in love with her. How lucky, so late in the day, we were to come into contact with yet another charismatic performer, this time one with such a deep understanding of culture, opera, theatre and literature. Here was an opportunity to take Savoy in a fresh direction and for us to learn new tricks.
Fenella Fielding on the Morecambe and Wise show, 1969.
Her first reading at the Strongroom, Shoreditch, impressed us so much we doubled her fee and proposed a new commission, Eliot’s Four Quartets, which she subsequently recorded. Over the next couple of years we did extracts from various books. Her reading from Love, Moorcock’s forthcoming memoir of Mervyn Peake, was a high point, as were her takes on “Pale Roses” and extracts from An Alien Heat, which opened out the stories and truly capture the prose. We then moved operations to Lisa Stansfield’s studio in Rochdale, and after a further year spent on and off there the Fenella project came to a sudden end. She decided after all that work that she didn’t want a music album we’d done with her to be released.
Even at this late date I’m still not exactly sure what she objected to, but the door is not completely closed.
Excerpt from forthcoming release: Fenella Fielding reading from JG Ballard’s Crash. Courtesy Savoy Records (2010).
SS: But her reading of Crash will be released?
DB: Yes — it’s just a question of timing.
Fielding has the allure of Hollywood about her, while having an eccentric English demeanor, and has what we think is the perfect voice for reading Crash. It took us a great deal of effort to get her to do it. At first, she was cautious, because she didn’t want to do anything that she thought might demean women. After protracted discussion, which went on for about a year, she finally took the advice of an ex-BBC director friend, who assured her that it would be OK. She did the reading, but would not read some of the more violent heterosexual sex scenes involving women.
SS: Michael explained in his interview a little of the circumstances behind the Crash reading. It’s a strange mix, but she pulls it off really well. That steely ambivalence in her voice, especially describing some of Ballard’s more outre passages, seems made for the job. Could you tell us whether you instructed or directed Fenella in any way, or was it just a matter of her voice being suitable for the project as is?
DB: Right from the start, she was on top of the material. We respected her, and encouraged her to go as far as she could. In the end, she went farther than she, or us, thought. Her Crash reading had the same quality as her Four Quartets — it was perfect naked. To put on a musical backing would dilute the words and lessen the power of her reading.
SS: As the author of Lord Horror, do you see any affinity between that work and what Ballard was trying to do with Crash — in the sense of offering a provocation so shocking and alienating, yet one shot through with an undeniable, if undoubtedly perverse, logic?
DB: Shortly after first reading Crash in the early 1970s, I’d seen Dr Chris Evans [Ballard's long-time friend; SS] give a talk at an SF convention. It was quite a revelation: here in the flesh was Vaughan in all his feral erotic intensity. Evans prowled the stage just oozing sexuality. He wore a black biker’s jacket and a blue denim shirt open to the midriff. You might have got into a car with the Doctor, but you wouldn’t have accompanied him up a dark alley. Of his talk, I can’t remember anything, just his physicality remains in my mind. No doubt this subjective observation made by a stranger isn’t a full picture of Evans’s personality, but I’m sure it was this aspect of his friend that Ballard homed in on. Evans had been one of the catalysts for the book, lifted from life and conjured into a deviant Minotaur by Ballard’s imagination. A sweet image to me: Evans and Ballard haunting the motorways of England for auto-sensation.
Crash and Empire of the Sun are probably Ballard’s best books because both are based to a greater or lesser degree on real people: Evans and Ballard himself. In Ballard’s other books, the central characters tend to be ciphers rather than real individuals. They’re still great works but don’t possess that extra quality that gives authority to Crash and Empire of the Sun. Using real people and recreating them as fiction is, of course, not original, but Ballard’s use of Evans stayed a potent one with me. Perhaps it was at the back of my mind when William Joyce — as Lord Haw-Haw — came into focus. Certainly, Crash was the yardstick book for Lord Horror. Ballard showed great courage in following through with a book that has transcended every other English work of groundbreaking fiction. It’s the rock upon which every “dangerous” book published since has foundered. How inauthentic American Psycho and its ilk look next to Crash!
SS: Could you offer any other thoughts on Ballard’s legacy?
DB: His legacy? Perhaps trying to encourage Will Self that he is capable of writing a convincing novel.
..:: Now move on to part 2 of the interview, in which David discusses New Order, Joy Division, punk, the Manchester music ‘scene’ in general, more Proby, Kingsize Taylor, The Cramps, Zappa, Beefheart and Springsteen. Interspersed throughout are more sound clips from Savoy Records releases.
Newer: “Ambiguous aims”: a review of Crash: Homage to J.G. Ballard [NSFW] »