Even Stranger Things

Originally published January 2017

The Netflix series Stranger Things is a loving homage to American pop culture tropes of the 1980s, especially those seen in Spielberg-related films like ET, The Goonies, and Poltergeist: Nerdy kids on BMX bikes, sleepy suburban towns, supernatural creatures, and shady government organizations (the 2011 movie Super 8 was a similar tribute).

I’ve been thinking that it would be a great idea to do a British version set in the 1970s that was influenced by creepy kid’s TV shows like The Tomorrow People, Children of The Stones, the Jon Pertwee Dr Who, and the scary public information films of the era.

In this version the kids would have adventures while riding around a dingy London on Chopper bikes. Fueled on greasy chips and Fanta, they would fight toxic rubbish monsters that emerged from disused canals and rusty old fridges on bombsites. The mean old lady who lives in the crumbling, dark house at the end of their street would be a pagan witch who enslaved children when they climbed into her back garden to get their football back.

The Stranger Things soundtrack also reached back to the 80s with throbbing analog synths straight out of Miami Vice or a John Carpenter film. In my imaginary show the music would be influenced by the eerie themes of those 70s kid’s shows. They still sound scary today, especially if you were an impressionable kid when they were first broadcast.

The Tomorrow People Theme – Dudley Simpson (mp3)
Children of The Stones Theme- Ambrosian Singers (mp3)
Dr. Who (Original Theme) – BBC Radiophonic Workshop (mp3)
Maneche (Theme from Picture Box) – Jacques Lasry (mp3)

Think I can get Netflix interested?


Make Mine Marvel

Originally published May 2011

One Saturday afternoon in 1972 my mum came back from the shops with a comic she’d bought for me: the first issue of The Mighty World of Marvel. This was a weekly that reprinted the early (movie-length!) adventures of The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, and Spiderman in glorious two-colour, bringing real American superheroes to us deprived English kids if not exactly for the first time, at least the first time properly by Marvel themselves. It was so popular that it soon spawned a whole family of other Marvel UK reprint titles like Spiderman Comics Weekly, The Avengers, The Titans, and eventually our very own superhero Captain Britain (who was a bit crap really).

Until then my comics reading had consisted of cheeky English funnies like The Beezer, Cor!!, and Whizzer and Chips (I was a Chip-ite, and my sister a Whizz Kid) but these swinging and clobberin’ superheroes seemed far more exciting to 10-year-old me than Colonel Blink and The Bash Street Kids and I pretty much gave up all those and started getting the Marvel UK titles every week.

The character that seriously grabbed me was Spiderman whose alter ego Peter Parker was a bit of a loser despite his super powers: his family was poor, he was shy and hopeless around girls, and he was often picked on at school (mostly by that twat Flash Thompson) — just like me! In British comics, on the other hand, it was the bully or the bad kid who was usually the hero and the weedy, bookish kid was the figure of fun who was laughed at, kicked in the shorts, or shot at with a pea shooter.

I never wanted to be Dennis The Menace (who now seems like a bit of an arsehole, a thug with a nasty dog) but I really wanted to be Spiderman and would daydream about having his super powers so I could beat up whatever knuckle-headed bully was picking on me at school at the time. I got quite emotionally invested in Peter Parker’s personal life too and, I have to admit, I cried when his girlfriend Gwen Stacy was killed. I think I was more upset by that than I was by Ian Curtis dying a few years later.

Back then we had to get our Marvel fix through these reprints because actual American comics were hard to come by at your local newsagent. Every now and then my mum would see one and bring it home for me and I felt like I had come into possession of some precious, rare document from another world. For a start they were in colour (or “color”) and they were full of ads for exotic things like X-Ray Glasses, Sea Monkeys, a newspaper called Grit, and all kinds of other strange curiosities — even your own nuclear submarine! — what an amazing place America was!

Then I discovered the legendary Soho book and comic shop Dark They Were And Golden Eyed and, when that closed, the original Forbidden Planet shop on Denmark Street, so I was able to stop buying the reprints and get the real thing — which I bought lots and lots of every month, especially Daredevil and The X-Men which were going through classic runs in the late 70s and early 80s. Both places had a similar atmosphere to a record shop (where I was also spending a lot of money at the time), being like secret boy’s clubs with their own cliques and mythologies, and needless to say there are a lot of similarities between comic and music fandom: both are overwhelmingly the province of obsessive young males with insufferably smug opinions, a love of arcane trivia, and difficulty with the opposite sex (though there may be rather more virgins in the comics world).

I eventually stopped reading comics sometime in the mid-1980s, the last one I bought regularly was Love & Rockets which wasn’t a superhero comic at all, but even so-called “adult” ones like that weren’t doing it for me anymore and frankly started to seem a bit pointless — if I was going to read something “adult” why not just read a novel? It might be simplistic to say I grew out of them but I think that’s basically it, it’s the same reason I stopped listening to gloomy post-punk. I sold my comic collection in the 1990s which got me a lot more money than the records I also sold at the time (those Daredevils and X-Men had become quite valuable) and haven’t had the urge to pick up once since.

I’ve actually been into a few comic shops recently for the first time in nearly 20 years because my daughter developed a love for Wonder Woman through watching the old TV series, but I have a hard time finding one suitable for her as they’re all so relentlessly dark and violent now (and expensive — $2.99!) with none of the Pop-Art fun they used to have — even a Supergirl I looked at was as bloody as a Tarantino movie. Personally I think it’s all Alan Moore and Frank Miller’s fault, ever since Watchmen and The Dark Knight they’re all trying way too hard to be grown-up and gritty but to me they seem even more juvenile as a result — only adolescents take themselves that seriously.

Download: Comic Strip – Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot (mp3)

2019 Update: I am actually reading more comics now thanks to my kids, but I’m still a Marvel kid.

A Room of Your Own

Originally published October 2014

I shared a bedroom with my older sister until I was 11 years old and I used to dream that if I had my own room the walls would be painted Chelsea blue with a big white number 9 (Peter Osgood‘s number) on one of them. Sadly, when the glorious day came that I got my own room after we moved to a bigger council flat it didn’t live up to that fantasy and turned out to be a tiny box room with ugly orange wallpaper. But I didn’t care, it was mine!

Having the freedom of your own bedroom is a big deal when you’re a kid because your life is dictated to in so many other ways — what to eat, what time to get up, how long to stay out — and while you might not get to pick the furniture, how it’s arranged and what’s on the walls are about the only way you can stamp your personality on your environment at that age (like making the David Bowie bin on the book cover above). Personal space is even more at a premium when you live in a small council flat and have a sibling.

I wasn’t a solitary kid but I was perfectly happy to be on my own and the room was my very own Fortress of Solitude where I could daydream and let my imagination bloom. I had really bad hayfever in my early teens and spent a lot of hot summer days alone in my room with the curtains closed to ease my sneezy and red-eyed misery caused by the pollen-rich air outside. I think I basically “missed” a couple of summers that way, and though it makes me sound like I was some adolescent Marcel Proust I didn’t write an epic novel but I did draw a lot, read piles of comics, and listen to the radio, often while drowsy from anti-histamines. To this day getting woozy from medicine still gives me a Proustian rush back to my shady bedroom.

Once I got later into my teens the room became an even more important refuge, somewhere to go with all those confused thoughts and raging hormones (if you know what I mean). I’d moon in frustration over some girl I didn’t have the nerve to ask out, stew about how unfair life and the world was, and draw rather gloomy pictures. It was also where I spent nearly every week-night listening to John Peel, which is probably what I’m doing in this photo.

See what I mean about the wallpaper?

Even though it was small a lot of big things happened in that room. It was where my life-defining love of pop music and graphic art developed; where I first heard about the deaths of Ian Curtis, Elvis Presley, and John Lennon; where I first heard “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and most of the other classics that would define my youth. It was also where I got a girl’s bra off for the first time.

I left home in my mid-20s after I graduated from art college and moved into a flat with some mates. My mum finally got rid of the horrible wallpaper, painted the walls blue (10-year-old me would have been very happy) and turned it into a storage room full of junk and boxes. Whenever I went home I’d peek in there and it looked so different I struggled to imagine all the days and nights I’d spent in there and what that room had meant to my youth. All I had was the ghosts of memories of that tiny little space where I became me.

Download: In Your Room – Bangles (mp3)

The Man

He was 95 and had been ailing for a while but losing Stan Lee is still a major bummer.

I’ve written before about the huge part Marvel comics played in my early life ever since my mum brought home a copy of The Mighty World of Marvel for me when I was 10, and it’s safe to say that Stan was one of the major figures in my youth. Those comics fired my imagination, got me drawing seriously, and put me on a road that eventually led to art school and the career I have now. Marvel comics were as important to the direction of my life as hearing “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight” for the first time.

I don’t want to get into the stupid arguments over who did what between Stan, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, because that’s like arguing over Lennon and McCartney’s individual contributions to The Beatles — they were equally important. What I think is beyond dispute though is that Marvel — and comics in general — would never have become the cultural phenomenon they did without Stan. He gave Marvel a singular and hip voice, from the creators nicknames (Jack “King” Kirby, “Jazzy” John Romita), to the catchphrases (Face Front! ‘Nuff Said! Excelsior!), and his chatty Stan’s Soapbox column in every month’s comics which made the Marvel Bullpen seem like the coolest, most creative place to work in the world — today we would call it “branding” and Stan was a genius at it. Reading Marvel comics was like being part of a community led by a groovy, wise-cracking uncle.

But all his marketing skills would mean nothing if the comics weren’t any good and Stan was involved in the creation of some of the greatest ever. They were revolutionary too. His most important innovation was turning superheroes into real human beings with problems. The Fantastic Four were always bickering, having super powers seemed like a burden for the angsty Peter Parker, the X-Men’s powers made them outcasts, and his snappy, slangy dialogue set them all apart from those dull squares Superman and Batman at DC. Anyone who has read the often turgid comics Kirby and Ditko did on their own knows how much the Pop-Art poetry of Stan’s writing brought to the table. He also made comics more relevant to the real world, having characters deal with hot-button issues like racial hatred, campus politics, and drugs.

Because of him — for better or worse — superhero comics are no longer cheap, trashy things read only by little boys before they discover girls and music, but rich, complicated universes that people of all ages enjoy. He changed pop culture forever, and my life too.

Speaking of Paul McCartney, he was a fan too.

Download: Magneto And Titanium Man – Wings (mp3)

The Trendy Teacher

Originally published November 2010

Every school had one, or they used to, the fresh-faced idealist straight out of teacher-training college armed with all the latest liberal ideas in education, determined to relate to the kids. In the 1970s you could identify the male version by their facial hair and corduroy flares, while the women tended to be wispy types given to silk scarves and maxi skirts.

One term at Secondary School we had this young English teacher with scruffy shoulder-length hair who, instead of making us read Shakespeare or any boring old nonsense like that, showed us clips from movies which we’d discuss afterwards. This being the 70s he didn’t show us any morally-uplifting, boys-own stories like Reach For The Sky or The Dambusters (too much like celebrations of the war-like patriarchy?) but instead we were treated to extracts from Hitchcock’s grisly serial killer movie Frenzy and Lindsay Anderson’s radical Public School drama If… Imagine the heap of shit he’d get into now for showing a bunch of 14-year-olds a film where the pupils mow down the teachers and parents with machine guns and bombs. I can’t remember his name now but I like to think of him as our school’s very own Howard Kirk.

He obviously knew the way to a boy’s heart was through nudity and violence because we actually behaved in his class, but that mostly wasn’t the case with the trendy teacher who usually exuded all the authority of a timid hamster, and in the Darwinian jungle of an all-boys comprehensive the kids are savage little sharks who can smell vulnerable fresh meat in the water from a mile away so they usually got eaten alive. Once we had a substitute Biology teacher called Mr. Bone (really!) whose life we made a living hell, and not just because of the comic goldmine that was his name. His first mistake was to tell us he was a vegetarian (the first one I ever met) which led to constant shouts of “have a nice roast lettuce for dinner Sunday, sir?” and trying to engage us in a chat about pop music by talking about Joni Mitchell’s latest album. It was like Cat Stevens trying to deal with a roomful of Noddy Holders. Every time he turned his back on us he was showered with a rain of pellets from the sacks of dried rabbit food in the classroom. He only taught us for a little while and when we asked our regular Biology teacher what had happened to Mr. Bone he told us that he’d walked out of a particularly unruly class one day and never came back. Last he’d heard he’d had a nervous breakdown and was living in a squat in Earl’s Court.

So if you’re out there somewhere Mr. Bone, I’m sorry we were such little shits. But you really should have just hit one of us over the head with a text book.

Download: I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing – The New Seekers (mp3)

I Love Your Live Action

I took my daughter to see English boy-band The Vamps last week, she’s only 11 but this is already the third concert she’s been to (one of which was Taylor Swift which I’m more than a little jealous about). If you don’t have a young daughter yourself you might not be familiar with The Vamps, but they make the same sort of bouncy, bright pop as One Direction (you know them, right?) except they all play instruments like a proper group and weren’t put together by some svengali producer.

I was quite familiar with their records from hearing them in the car and think they’re OK in an inoffensive way, but as you can imagine they weren’t top of the list of bands I’d want to see live. I’d never been to a “teen” show before and the fact that there were also two support bands made me think the evening would be a chore I had to suffer through — but such are the joys of parenthood. I’d take a bullet for my kids so the least I could do was take one of them to a pop concert.

Unsurprisingly the audience was 99% teenage girls (the other 1% their parents) and I was ready to get through the evening with, at best, an eyebrow raised in amused detachment. But that changed the minute the first band New Hope Club came on to be greeted by a wall of ear-piercing screams. Bear in mind that these guys were bottom of the bill but the girls went crazy and also knew all the words to every song they did. This never happens to support acts at the shows I usually go to. It was wild and I found myself enjoying the atmosphere of unrestrained enthusiasm. The screaming only got louder for the next act HRVY who came on with some rather fetching backing dancers which I saw as a nice “One for the Dads” gesture but probably wasn’t.

The Vamps themselves weren’t bad at all, though to my ears a lot of their songs blended together they did have a lot of energy, particularly lead singer Brad Simpson (my daughter’s favourite) who danced around the stage, jumped up on the monitors, and grabbed out-stretched hands from the crowd — always to a chorus of screams. I was actually quite impressed with his skills as a front man.

My sister saw the Bay City Rollers and The Osmonds as a young teen but my concert experience has been mostly grown-up bands so this was a new experience for me, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a really good time. It wasn’t so much to do with the acts — who were all competent and not actively terrible which had been my fear — but everything to do with the audience. The mass, screaming adoration of the girls felt like the very essence of Pop Music itself. It was like seeing it in its purest form — all hormonal energy and enthusiasm — and it made this old man very happy.

So the next time my daughter wants to see another group of singing pretty boys I’m going with her.

Here’s a Vamps tune that always guarantees a sing-a-long in our car.

Download: Shades On – The Vamps (mp3)

Strip Teaser

When I was a kid there was a pub near us called The Salisbury Tavern (now a Tesco Express — sigh) that had a stripper one night a week. So on those nights me and my mates used to go down there and, if we stood on tip-toe, we could just see inside through the non-frosted bottom part of the window and get a cheap thrill. This was long before any of us had ever been close to a naked woman in real life (at least I hadn’t) so it was quite exciting and did all sorts of things to our pubescent hormones.

One time the stripper looked right at me and I dropped down shouting “SHE SAW ME! SHE SAW ME!” and we all scarpered, thinking that any second the landlord was going to come out and give us all a clip ’round the ear or call the police.

I assume pub strippers died out as a thing at some point in the 1980s which is probably a good thing — these days they wouldn’t go too well with your artisanal ciabatta sandwich and craft beer. The only other one I ever saw was at the Chelsea Drugstore one lunchtime early in that decade and I just remember it all being rather sordid and sad.

We couldn’t hear the music inside The Salisbury so I’ve no idea if any of the girls stripped to this record but I doubt it. Even by then it was seen as more of a comedy record that wasn’t at all “sexy”. I do love this though. It’s the musical equivalent of a Carry On or Benny Hill gag and it’s brassy, burlesque swing never fails to make me smile. There’s also something a little cheap-sounding about it which would make it perfect for a sad and dingy English boozer in the 70s.

Download: The Stripper – David Rose & His Orchestra (mp3)

Trivia: David Rose was Judy Garland’s first husband.

Back To The Old House

For the first 10 years of my life my family lived in an old Victorian block of flats in Fulham called Humbolt Mansions. It was knocked down soon after we moved out and in the years since I don’t recall ever seeing a photo of the place and even internet searches yielded nothing — it was like the flats had been wiped from memory. Then recently I found these images at The London Picture Archive and had one of those “oh wow” moments that suddenly unlock your brain and bring the memories flooding back.

Though the building was solid in the way Victorian ones are, our flat was dingy and run down. There was a massive hole in our bathroom ceiling and one night a mouse fell out of it and landed on my mum when she was in the bath. There was also a small hole in the living room floor by the skirting board that a pet gerbil I had disappeared down and never came back. On the plus side it had a long, narrow hallway I could race my Hot Wheels cars down.

Though Fulham wasn’t exactly a dodgy part of London we were burgled twice. The first time I vividly remember coming home from school one day and walking up the stairs to find the glass in our front door had been smashed in. Luckily my Dad was with us (he was still living at home then) so he went inside first to make sure no one was still in there and called the police. They’d didn’t get much except our big old radio and all the money out of the gas meter. Not much consolation though, if you’ve ever been burgled you’ll know how strange it can make your own home feel.

When the building was demolished the entire street block was taken down with it which included an old disused library, a doctor’s surgery, and a junk shop called Abbot’s which we spent a lot of time in as kids. It was a little place piled high with all kinds of stuff and felt a bit like Aladdin’s cave to me — albeit a very musty and dusty one.

I can’t say I have a lot of happy memories of living there, besides the things mentioned above it’s where my parent’s marriage fell apart. I remember them arguing in the living room and crying because I had no clue what was going on and why they were shouting at each other. That’s the sort of thing that scars you for a long time. With my Dad gone my mother was left in a bad financial situation which cast a pall over a lot of our life there. The electricity was cut off at one point, and a creepy loan shark came around once a week to collect on the money my mum had borrowed. Happily, life improved a whole lot when we moved to a 1960s council flat that was brighter and cleaner and my sister and I got our own bedrooms.

45 years later and that whole block is just an empty patch of grass with nothing built on it despite being in what is now a very desirable part of London. Even after all this time I still look at this spot and think there’s something missing. It’s like a big hole where my childhood used to be.

Download: This Is The House (12″ Version) – Eurythmics (mp3)

Steve Strange

The great comic artist Steve Ditko died last week. Along with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby he was one of the principal architects of the Marvel universe, co-creating Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and their cast of supporting characters.

Unlike Kirby’s square-jawed heroes, the characters Ditko drew looked like they needed a good meal and actually lived in our grubby little world. His Peter Parker was gawky and miserable, forever feeling beset by life — just like a real teenager — and the villains he fought were a gallery of grotesques: Doctor Octopus was chubby and wore glasses, The Sandman had a face like the back of a bus, and The Vulture looked like an evil grandad. They were mostly small-time losers who fell arse backwards into their superpowers. This was revolutionary stuff and his and Stan Lee’s most influential work, it certainly had a big impact on me as a kid.

While his Spider-Man was grounded in the real world, Doctor Strange wasn’t tethered to reality at all and Ditko came up with imagery that looked like he was tripping on some very good LSD — he wasn’t, Ditko was very conservative and hated the counterculture. Other, less-imaginative artists might have drawn the alternate dimensions the magician traveled in as shadowy, vague environments but Ditko created colorful, surrealistic worlds with crazy perspective where there was no up or down. Mind-blowing stuff.

Even more dazzling to me was his rendering of the character Eternity who, as the living embodiment of the universe, was almost literally an undrawable concept but he managed to give him form that was brilliantly original — the dude is a hole in reality in the shape of a man. These full-page panels of his battle with the dread Dormammu are just far fucking out, man.

Ditko produced a lot of great work both before and after Marvel but I haven’t got time or space to cover everything he did. This is a good overview of his entire career, including his controversial post-Marvel creations Mr A and The Question who were dour vigilantes given to making didactic speeches about free will based on the philosophy of Ayn Rand of which Ditko was a firm believer.

Even though he hadn’t produced any mainstream work in decades his death still felt like a big loss. With Kirby gone and Stan Lee seeming very frail we’re losing the Gods of the Marvel universe, one of the greatest feats of imagination of the 20th century and a huge part of my growing up, and it makes me very sad.

Download: Strange Magic – Electric Light Orchestra (mp3)