Sunday, 30 April 2017

A Clockwork Orange in popular music and culture

Music forms a key component of A Clockwork Orange, both as novel and film. Anthony Burgess was a classical music enthusiast (and a prolific composer), who disdained youth culture and the popular music of the later sixties, as being “based on so little knowledge of tradition” that “it often elevates ignorance into a virtue.” When not terrorising citizens, the central character Alex praises “lovely Mozart, the Jupiter” and proudly boasts “J. S. Bach I had, the Brandenburg Concerto just for middle and lower strings”; he and his fellow teenage hoodlums cause mayhem to the strains of Beethoven. This is contrasted with an intense dislike of pop music, which Burgess regarded as an ephemeral, juvenile art form; he conveys his low regard for the genre via the artists invented for the book – Stash Kroh, The Mixers, Johnny Zhivago, Ike Yard – and “their pathetic pop-discs”.

Despite the author’s vehemently expressed contempt, popular culture enthusiastically embraced the imagery and themes of A Clockwork Orange – especially once Stanley Kubrick turned it into a notorious film in 1972. The distinctive language of the book, which had earlier captivated Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, found favour with David Bowie at the height of his popularity. He used the term ‘droogie’ in ‘Suffragette City’, a song from his 1972 Ziggy Stardust album, while opening concerts with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as used in the film’s soundtrack. Bowie was also among the first to appropriate the look of Kubrick’s version, which inspired his stage costumes of the era. Later in the 1970s, the Korova record label took its name from the novel’s ‘milk-plus mesto’ bar; names taken directly from A Clockwork Orange include those of Sheffield-based bands Heaven 17 (the film has The Heaven Seventeen at number 4 in the charts with ‘Inside’ and, later, Moloko – one of the words Burgess transliterated from Russian, where it means milk. He also referenced the Soviet state record label, Melodia, through Alex, as a record shop: “the disc-bootick I favoured... a real horrorshow mesto and skorry, most times, at getting the new recordings.”


The official soundtrack gave another twist to Burgess’s vision – Kubrick gave it the same prominence and single-minded attention to detail as he had the film’s overall design. He was contacted by electronic music pioneer Walter (later Wendy) Carlos, who he then commissioned to interpret the score on Moog synthesiser. For the main theme, ‘March from A Clockwork Orange’, Carlos and collaborator/producer Rachel Elkind used the choral movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with the vocal part featuring the first known recording of a vocoder. This appeared alongside other electronic re-workings of Beethoven, Elgar and Rossini, which built on the success of Carlos’s earlier ground-breaking experiment in applying modern technology to classical standards, 1968’s celebrated album Switched-on Bach. The original songs on the soundtrack included ‘Timesteps,’ described by Carlos as an “autonomous composition with an uncanny affinity for Clockwork” and which is “still considered one of the landmarks of electronic music.” Not entirely satisfied with the official album which accompanied the film, as it excluded much of what they had recorded, Carlos and Elkind shortly released their own score for A Clockwork Orange, which “brought together all the music that Wendy suggested, arranged and / or composed for this remarkable film.”

Wendy Carlos in her New York studio
 
 
Alex and his marauding droogs have since been portrayed as dangerous and even glamorous anti-heroes; a lengthy list of the most unlikely artists have adopted the film’s visual references for their performances and videos, from U2 to Kylie Minogue, Blur to Guns ‘n’ Roses. No doubt Burgess, who protested that “youth is so conformist, so little concerned with maverick values, so proud of being rather than making, so bloody sure that it and it alone knows”, would be exasperated by the reduction of his novel’s complex themes to a crude shorthand for non-conformity. The ongoing appropriation of A Clockwork Orange – both book and film continue to generate homage and parody in pop culture – demonstrates that there is still no better way to sell products than with a whiff of youthful rebellion, however inauthentic.





The Simpsons, among other representations of A Clockwork Orange



Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The 'Linear City': Imagining Newcastle's Future in 1965

Histories of city planning can give fascinating insights into the built environment of different localities at particular moments in time. Even more tantalising are those plans and developments that never came to pass, the lost cities of the future that are buried in archives and planning departments. There is a distinctly science fictional element to these speculative architectural documents, some of which have been the focus of research projects. Recent examples include My Future York at the University of Leeds and Managing Change in Future Cities at Newcastle University.

A particularly striking idea, drawn from the second project, is the 'Linear City' of 1965 - a visual concept that appeared in the Northern Architect in July 1965. This was the subject of a recent news article, in which project leader Professor Mark Tewdwr-Jones explained that 'the idea was to treat the region as a series of distinct areas - the city, the countryside, the seaside, the lakeside, the hill town - to reflect the different features and asset of the places but all within one region and all connected together by a new fast speedy transport system'. In the image below you can see a visual representation of the monorail system the designers envisaged, which could have been lifted straight off the page of a SF novel.

Linear City Image from Northern Architect (1965) 

Monorail passengers gaze down at the traffic far below and look out over the futuristic city skyline in the next image:

Linear City Image from Northern Architect (1965) 
These design ideas testify to the hopefulness of 1960s Newcastle. Less a concrete plan than a way of capturing the spirit of a time that looked forward to improved living conditions and quality of life for the densely populated city. Alternative futures like this one, brought to light by the Future Cities project, also encourage thinking about alternatives in the context of contemporary urban development, meaning that the city of the future is constantly being renewed and reinvented for the present.

Thanks to Bethany Rex for the link and for drawing my attention to this topic.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Anthony Burgess and A Clockwork Orange

February 2017 marks the centenary of the birth of Anthony Burgess. The Manchester-born writer published over 60 books in a prolific career; a man of many and varied interests, primarily known for his mainstream fiction, he also branched out into biography, linguistics and criticism, film and television scripts, and classical music compositions (including three symphonies and a musical version of Ulysses). Burgess remains best known for his powerful work of dystopian science fiction, A Clockwork Orange


 
This cautionary tale first appeared in 1962, and follows the leader of a gang of young hooligans, Alex, on a violent rampage through a near-future city, to his draconian punishment (through a form of ‘aversion therapy’ known as Ludovico’s Technique) at the hands of the state. Raising questions of criminal rehabilitation and the freedom of the individual, Burgess explained that what he “was trying to say was that it is better to be bad of one’s own free will than to be good through scientific brainwashing.” These dark themes caused a minor stir, leading to the removal of the final chapter from the American edition; however many reviewers bestowed equal attention on the innovative slang, Nadsat, used by the juvenile delinquents. Drawing on his keen interest in linguistics, Burgess created a language primarily based on Russian, which he was learning at the time for a visit to the Soviet Union, but also incorporated elements of Cockney rhyming slang, Romany phrases and Shakespearian English. Terms such as droog (as Alex refers to his fellow gang members, from the Russian for ‘friend’), devotchka and malchick, razrez and tolchock, subsequently entered the fringes of popular culture.

So taken with Burgess’s linguistic invention was Andrew Loog Oldham, manager of the Rolling Stones, that he paid homage in a lengthy sleeve-note for the band’s second album, released at the start of 1965. The influence of A Clockwork Orange was evident from the opening lines: “It is the summer of the night / London’s eyes be tight shut / all but twelve peepers and / six hip malchicks who prance the street.” Oldham also appropriated the novel’s theme of ‘ultra-violence,’ which brought a foretaste of the controversy to come, as he advised prospective buyers of the record “if you don’t have bread, see that blind man knock him on the head, steal his wallet and low and behold you have the loot, if you put in the boot, good, another one sold!” The offending sentiments, discussed in the House of Lords, were first hidden beneath a sticker, then excised completely from later pressings of the record, in possibly the first instance of sleeve-note censorship.


A Clockwork Orange may have remained a curio and a cult novel, had it not been filmed. The American writer Terry Southern first planned an adaptation in the late 1960s, working on a screenplay to be directed by Michael Cooper, and starring Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones as Alex and his droogs. When that project stalled, Stanley Kubrick picked up the option and, featuring Malcolm McDowell in the lead role, his version opened in 1972; its amorality and scenes of explicit violence attracted controversy from the first. A whole series of urban myths grew up around the film on its release, seized upon by the popular press, which accused it of inspiring murder and mayhem, with a series of violent incidents attributed to real-life ‘Clockwork Orange’ gangs. The Leeds University campus was long rumoured to have been a filming location, though it was in fact the underpasses of Brunel University, Middlesex, which were used to depict the urban territory of the delinquents. Whilst Kubrick initially defended the film, it was the director himself who instructed Warner Brothers to withdraw it from British screens a year later. Whether he was prompted by alleged threats against his family, police advice or moral misgivings, Kubrick’s decision ensured its future notoriety – it remained banned in the UK until 2000, after the director’s death. Burgess was reputedly unhappy with Kubrick’s treatment of what he described as a ‘very minor work’, and the sensational coverage of the film, which he felt overshadowed his own career – though he himself freely discussed A Clockwork Orange for the rest of his life, and returned to it in 1987 with a semi-musical theatrical version. His ambivalent attitude was captured in a 1973 interview:

Films help the novels they’re based on, which I both resent and am grateful for. My Clockwork Orange paperback has sold over a million in America, thanks to dear Stanley. But I don’t like being beholden to a mere filmmaker. I want to prevail through pure literature. Impossible, of course.



The iconic artwork used for the film and book tie-in originated with Penguin Books Art Director David Pelham. Though he based the design on imagery from the film – the bowler hat and braces of the main character, Alex – rather than the text, it still captured the central theme of de-humanisation effectively. It was used internationally, and also adapted for a later version of the film poster, to accompany the edited cinematic release. A copy of the book owned by Burgess was found after his death in 1993, with the rest of the facial features drawn in – possibly added as an attempt to reclaim his original vision. Another artist involved in the film’s promotion was Philip Castle, whose invitation to create the official poster came after Kubrick saw his advert for illustration work in The Evening Standard; it was accompanied by the uncompromising slogan “Being the adventures of a young man whose principal interests are rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven.” Castle’s design also formed the artwork for the soundtrack album cover. The artist recalls the Director’s keen, almost obsessive, interest in every aspect of A Clockwork Orange’s publicity and visual imagery, from the furnishings of the Korova Milkbar to the creation of a mock newspaper, The Clockwork Times, for which Castle rendered paintings of images from the film. Kubrick’s interpretation of the book has been described as “arguably the last great pop art masterpiece, an apocalyptic consummation of the consumer imagery of modern life”.


Monday, 23 January 2017

Dr Christopher Evans

Christopher Evans (1931-1979) was a British computer scientist, who worked, in the latter part of his career, at the National Physical Laboratory in London. His name often crops up in association with J.G. Ballard, a close friend of the writer, and an acknowledged influence on him. For example, in his autobiography, Miracles of Life, Ballard writes:

Chris Evans drove into my life at the wheel of a Ford Galaxy, a huge American convertible that he soon swapped for a Mini-Cooper, a high-performance car not much bigger than a bullet that travelled at about the same speed. Chris was the first ‘hoodlum scientist’ I had met, and he became the closest friend I have made in my life. In appearance he resembled Vaughan, the auto-destructive hero of my novel Crash, though he himself was nothing like that deranged figure. Most scientists in the 1960s, especially at a government laboratory, wore white lab coats over a collar and tie, squinted at the world over the rims of their glasses and were rather stooped and conventional. Glamour played no part in their job description. Chris, by contrast, raced around his laboratory in American sneakers, jeans and a denim shirt open to reveal an Iron Cross on a gold chain, his long black hair and craggy profile giving him a handsomely Byronic air.

Important too was Evans' access to scientific ephemera - technical advertisements and pharmaceutical brochures - that were regularly delivered to Ballard in a brown envelope: 'Every week a huge envelope arrived, packed with handouts, brochures, research papers and annual reports from university labs and psychiatric institutions, a cornucopia of fascinating material'. Ballard found inspiration in such material, and referred to it as 'invisible literature', a subject I've written about before on the blog.

However, Evans was also an author in his own right, as well as a successful popular science TV presenter. His book, Micro: The Impact of the Computer Revolution, was turned into the TV series The Mighty Micro, and screened in 1979 shortly after Evans' death.

Here I'd like to briefly re-visit his two fictional anthologies Mind at Bay (1969) and the sequel Mind in Chains (1970), which included short stories by Ballard, M.R. James, John Sladek, Alex Hamilton, May Sinclair and Brian Aldiss. The blurb of the former reads:

In those dim and twisting corridors of the mind, unknown terrors sleep uneasily, needing only the scent of fear to bring them to howling wakefulness. How sure can you be, after all, of your foothold on the perilous tightrope over the dizzying abyss of madness?

Evans was fascinated by the idea of interaction between human mental processes and those of computers and artificial intelligence systems. He was also interested in the ways in which human experiences and expectations could be confounded by SF and horror stories. In the foreword to Mind at Bay, he wrote, 'presumably the world of the interior - and not just the sparking of neurones, or the microbiology of memory - is for all practical purposes limitless, and I think there is little doubt that it is to date poorly mapped'. In a similar vein, in Mind in Chains, he observed, 'adventures of this kind [horror stories] are basically "pleasurable" in an outré and slightly anomalous way - the more so when they are entered into willingly and with the implicit assumption that they can be controlled or terminated at any stage of the game'.

Evans, then, was not only a scientist, but someone who was attentive to the relationship between art and science and the extent to which these realms might productively unsettle one another to generate new insights. Just as Ballard was fascinated by the scientific fictions of medical catalogues and technical manuals, so Evans recognised the importance of literature as a window into 'the phantoms that inhabit our minds'.