Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Truth About Victorian Sex

Sappho by Charles Mengin
I remember an old Private Eye cartoon where a man was shouting down the telephone after unpacking an inflatable Margaret Thatcher "No, no, no!" he yelled. "I ordered Victoria Principal not Victorian principles!"

(Victoria Principal was in Dallas, in case you forgot or weren't born then.)

It is hard to know what is less likely to get you in the mood, a inflatable Iron Lady or the idea of Victorian sex.

We all know about the Victorians, they are the anti-Viagra. They are to the erotic experience what lung cancer is to the enjoyment of a cigar.

They covered their piano legs lest the curves offend their delicate taste and recoiled at the sight of their wives' naughty bits. Queen Victorian refused to believe in the existence of Lesbians whilst Prince Albert had an unusual adornment to his physiology. They persecuted homosexuals, whilst in secret they corrupted young girls or visited prostitutes. Their literature meanwhile, is as erotic as Ann Widdecombe.

I must admit I would have signed up to most of those opinions until I read Matthew Sweet's Inventing The Victorians, in which I discovered there was a little more to it than that.

Take the story of the piano legs, for example. There is no record of anyone in Britain actually doing this, but they did make jokes about the Americans doing so. The original story appears in A Diary in America by one Captain Marryat in 1839. The Captain was probably telling a tall tale, but it is true in so far that the Americans of the Gilded Era were regarded as being more uptight on bedroom matters than Victorian Brits.

Or what about Ruskin and his wedding night?

We know that his marriage to Effie Gray was a complete disaster and was never consummated. Why that was though is a mystery, even though everyone at the time was discussing the issue. Ruskin's comments were "though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it." He never explained further.

Effie by Thomas Richmond
As the visible bits of Effie appeared to be quite a turn on to most Victorian males, Ruskin's comments made their imagination turn to less public areas. However it's equally possible that she had big feet, or a curly-out belly button, or maybe Ruskin just found her a really annoying person. Certainly when the nonsense poet Edward Lear visited her some years later he found her dreadfully boring and said "her drawling stoniness disgusted that I don't care ever to see her again", although as Lear was gay we can perhaps understand why he was not taken in by Effie's charm.

Or maybe, trapped in the middle of the biggest sex (or lack of sex) scandal of the century, and with the entire literate world discussing his failure to rise to the occasion, he just said the first thing that came into his head.

The theory that, brought up on a diet of classical nudes and before the advent of the shaven-haven, he recoiled at the sight of his wife's short and curlies dates from 1965, somewhat after the event (or non-event).

Ruskin isn't the only one to be mythologised a century or so later, take Prince Albert's Prince Albert for example. 

The idea that the royal member had a little attachment allowing it to be tucked away out of sight dates from the 1970s and the fertile imagination of one Douglas Malloy, the owner of a chain of piercing parlours.

Spot the Prince Albert (he's on the right)
Had the real Prince Consort been so embarrassed by his German sausage he probably wouldn't have worn such tight trousers whilst courting the young Queen, who seems to have been quite enamoured of the royal lunchbox.

However would Albert have been as free to strut his stuff if he hadn't been heterosexual? Had he been gay, would he have suffered the same fate as poor Oscar Wilde?

But was Oscar Wilde actually gay?

It may seem a daft question as he certainly engaged in plenty of man-on-man action (and a fair bit of man-on-boy action, but we'll come to that later), but if you went back in time and asked him whether this was a biological trait or a lifestyle choice he'd have probably just stared at you, and not because he was smashed on absinthe.

Instead the 1890s world he lived in was just as laissez faire sexually as economically. Many of his acolytes appear to have been solidly heterosexual, if they were sexually active at all, yet all shared his taste in art and nude boys. It appears they existed in a demi-monde in which the choice of gender of your sexual partner was no more important than your choice of sexual position, and of considerably less relevance than your opinion of Pre-Raphaelite art.

If society hadn't figured out homosexuality yet, neither had the medical profession. The distinction between being gay and being transsexual wasn't suggested until 1899. The medical books that pathologised homosexuality are a product of the twentieth, not the nineteenth, century.

But if they didn't medicalise being gay, they did criminalise it, but perhaps not in the way most people think.

She is amused.
The downfall of Mr Wilde, a lot of people forget, came about because he tried to sue the Marquess of Queensbury for libel. He lost simply because the codifier of the rules of boxing was telling the truth.

He was subsequently prosecuted and convicted of 'gross indecency' under the 1885 Labrouche Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

This bit of legislation is itself a subject of myth. That it refers only to acts between men was not because Queen Victoria didn't believe in the existence of Lesbians.

Maybe she didn't, but constitutionally it was irrelevant. Parliament could have passed a law against the Tooth Fairy and she'd have had to sign it, that's how the system works.

The Amendment Act itself was primarily involved with outlawing White Slavery. There is a story here, but we haven't time. Basically White Slavery didn't exist, but the press had persuaded the country it did so legislation was passed. The law also provided powers to suppress brothels and protect children from pimps.

Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas
Added almost as an afterthought was the paragraph about Gross Indecency which, crucially, wasn't defined. Labrouche himself was no puritan and a friend of Oscar Wilde. His only comments on the amendment were that he hoped it would be used equally against 'high and low' so maybe he was only concerned with protecting Working Class boys from aristocratic predators, or maybe the maximum sentence of two years was regarded as a progressive improvement on the life sentence for buggery.

If this was the case then by his sloppy wording he produced an act that allowed the full force of the law to be used against anyone transgressing the sexual norms of the time and which convicted Oscar Wilde, Alan Turing and thousands of others. The road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

But if the Victorians were quick to gaol queers, they turned a blind eye to paedophilia. Or did they?

Rev. Dodgeson with Alice Liddell
Several thousand Twitter users have recently learnt a hard lesson about making accusations without evidence, but posterity still seems to make an exception for the Victorians. Ruskin is one such accused, along with Lewis Carroll and Wilkie Collins.

We can't prove Ruskin wasn't a nonce, or that the Rev. Dodgeson wasn't doing something unmentionable to Alice Liddell by the banks of the Thames, so a certain amount of mud is likely to stick. But for the inventor of the modern detective novel there is a case for the defence.

First the case for the prosecution. Wilkie Collins entered into a long correspondence with an eleven year old girl he called Nannie, and even entertained a mock marriage to her. In his letters he mixed smutty puns such as 'delighted to receive conjugal embrace' and suggestions she adapt to a spell of hot weather by wearing 'a hat and feathers and nothing else.'

Collins; connoisseur of the female derriere
Petty damning evidence. Newsnight would have to put on a specially extended edition if the story broke today, but as I said, not only is there no evidence he touched a hair on Nannie's head - or any other part of her - he has a defence.

Collins, you see, used to order sack loads of heterosexual, adult porn in brown paper parcels from a well know New York photographer. The details of his purchases are on record, along with his correspondence which indicates he was an ass man. All boringly normal I'm afraid.

The only eminent Victorian of whom we can say with any certainty did have sex with minors was the aforementioned Oscar Wilde, although as an honorary Modern he seems to have been forgiven for it.

The bearded novelist's taste for artful smut though brings us to another little known fact about the Victorians. They liked their dirty mags. Indeed, they invented the term 'top shelf magazine'.

Today such titillation is usually associated with newspaper proprietors on the right of the political spectrum, but in Victorian times it was the left that sold sex. Mass market porn was pioneered by, of all people, the Chartists.  Magazines such as Town, Crim. Con. Gazette and Exquisite detailed upper-class sex scandals to raise money for the cause and discredit the Establishment. Perhaps, as Sweet suggests, they should have called them Socialist Wanker.

These days only the Daily Mail publishes those sort of stories. They probably have a different motive, although I have my suspicions.

Pornographer in chief was William Dugdale, who had once been part of the Cato Street Conspiracy to assassinate the whole Tory Cabinet. Not something Richard Desmond ever tried.

When Chartism collapsed he became a full time publisher of adult material. Although raided by the Police on numerous occasions, he continued his trade for more than forty years.

Not that Dugdale was unique in putting adult material in print. For the Victorians, it seems, the printed page really was their Internet, and there was sex everywhere. Even the worthy Household Cyclopedia of 1881 includes, amongst the recipes for devilled kidneys, advice for men who can't get it up. You don't find that in Nigella.

Most discussed of all is My Sexual Life. A mammoth tome, it was published in eleven volumes, possibly to make it easier to hold in one hand. It's a tale of  'firkytoodling', 'gamahuching' and visits to the 'dumpling-shop' and is racy stuff, far too explicit for a family blog like this. That the book could be published and distributed freely should be cast iron evidence that the Victorians were anything but prudish about sex.

Instead though it's taken as proof of exactly the opposite. Some academics seem to be under the impression that this story of a thousand visits to prostitutes is actually gospel truth. As the book was written by a globe trotting businessman who had married into a Jewish textile family, it probably wasn't. He didn't have the time.

Instead the book is almost certainly the work of an over-active imagination and is as useful as a historical document as Fifty Shades of Grey. However it has helped to create the myth that the only way a Victorian man could get his end away was with a lady of the night, although to be fair, this was a myth the Victorians did their own bit to help foster.

The Dancing Platform at the Cremorne Gardens by Phebus Levin
Now there certainly was a lively sex trade in London in Victorian times, just as there is now, but quite how widespread it was is open to question. The Cremorne, for example, was a pleasure garden - a sort of Victorian outdoor nightclub - and was supposedly the place to go to purchase a tart, and not the sort Mrs Beeton baked.

William Acton, a medical Doctor, was sent to investigate. He really was a Victorian stereotype as he thought 'self abuse' weakened a man and women were naturally frigid. However in the Cremorne he found men actively seeking an alternative to the former and women who were anything but the latter, and it was all consensual and non-commercial.

So how did the Victorians become victims of such slander?

Virginia Woolf and her circle have a lot to answer for. After Lytton Strachley, whose book Eminent Victorians had demolished the reputation of four prominent Victorians in a humorous, but not always factually accurate manner, had come round for a bit of posh sex talk she claimed "It was, I think, a great advance in civilisation." On another occasion she said fighting Victorian patriarchy was equal to the fight against fascism.

The irony being that whilst the Bloomsbury Group could discuss Victorian sex lives as they were all out in the open, they themselves remained firmly in the closet. Their friend John Maynard Keynes, for example, was never in the closet himself and kept a rather racy diary, but his biographer chose not to mention this even after he was dead.

Woolf's commitment to anti-fascism was also a little suspect. Her friend, and lover, Vita Sackville-West was married to a member of Oswald Mosley's New Party and edited the gardening page of his newspaper.

John William Godward
However everyone needs someone to look down on. If the Bloomsbury Group were neither as open about their sexuality nor as removed from fascism as they would have liked, at least they could claim they weren't as bad as the Victorians.

None of this is to suggest that all Victorians were broad minded libertines. There were plenty of people then who were bigoted, repressed, puritanical and hypocritical, just as there are now, which is the point.

Pornographers like Dugdale were raided even as the Pre-Raphaelites were painting their 'stunners'. Poor old Oscar Wilde was sent to Reading Gaol, but Bouton and Park, the most famous transsexual entertainers of the era, were found not guilty of buggery despite being as 'out' as it's possible to be.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Some inappropriate, by modern standards, friendships were struck up with young girls, but to date no Victorian Jimmy Saville has been proved to exist.

They had top shelf magazines and sex manuals for married couples. They devoured racy novels and flirted at night spots.

The point is that they were just like us. In fact they are us.

Modern urban life was invented during the Victorian era and has now spread round the world to become the major mode of human existence. They were the first Metrosexuals.

Looking back at the Victorian era, we see the past really is like a foreign country.

They do things exactly the same there.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Why 20 Is Plenty

From Henry's Quest by Graham Oakley

Climate change is on it s way and if that doesn't get us, there's Peak Oil which may or may not be on the way.

We all need to become less dependent on carbon fuelled transportation and getting about in a greener and more sustainable way. Making better use of buses and trains, car sharing and not using aeroplanes is important.

20 Is Plenty

However the greenest method of travel is your own feet, whether in direct contact with the ground or pedalling a bike.

Two things make walking and cycling a pain in England. The first the weather, but there's not much we can do about the first two except learn a bit of resilience. The second is the traffic.

To start things off we want motorists to slow down, at least in residential areas.

The Gory Facts
Now The Good News

It's Not About Speed Bumps  

One thing we can probably all agreeon is that 'traffic calming' is not great. It delays ambulances, increases traffic fumes and fuel use as cars accelerate between bumps and it really annoys drivers.

For the same money you can make 50 miles of street a 20mph zone, with a much greater overall reduction in speed. Once motorists get used to a 20mph default speed limit they don't need the bumps.

The Transition Perspective

Fewer people killed or injured on the road is a good thing in itself, but Transition Towns would want this to be a first step towards people reclaiming the streets.

We would want to see not only more walking and cycling, but street parties, play streets and more imaginative use of urban space.

Join the 20's Plenty Campaign.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: United Artists' "Empire Trilogy"

Just before the Second World War a former Hungarian cavalry officer called Zoltan Korda made a series of films about the British Empire for the United Artists film company.

They weren't meant as a trilogy, but they make an interesting take on how we saw the Empire at a time when it was both at its greatest extent and nearing its end. Unlike the Old West of contemporary Westerns, the Empire was still somewhere you could visit when the films were made.

The last of these films is the best. The Four Feathers had been filmed once before and twice since. Written by a British spy, it is the story of a man, afraid of being afraid, who resigns from the army when his regiment is ordered to the Sudan. Awarded white feathers for cowardice by his fiance and three best friends, he heads off to the desert in disguise to return the feathers and rescue his mates who have been captured by the Khalifa, the successor to the Mahdi, who had led his people in revolt against their Egyptian masters and British allies and created an Islamic state on the Upper Nile.

The film, made on the eve of war in 1939, has something to say about quiet, rather than ostentatious, courage, but the poor old Sudanese just have to accept their lot as victims of colonialism. As an adventure, though, it works and whilst the Mahdists may just be scenery, they look magnificent.

Indeed, the whole film looks great. It was shot in the Sudan, whereas later films about the revolt, such as Khartoum or the Heath Ledger remake,  were shot in Egypt and Morocco due to the current unrest there. Maybe it's a pedantic point, but the Sudanese desert is a uniquely barren place of rock and hard ground, far more alien than the shifting sands further north.

As well as the real Sudan, we get the real Sudanese too. The 'extras' were people whose parents or grandparents would have actually fought against Kitchener's invaders, and allegedly the Welsh Guardsmen playing the British soldiers kept their rifles loaded in case they got a little carried away in the battle scenes. The Sudan may have been colonised in 1939, but it certainly wasn't conquered, and two years later there was to be another revolt and Britain's toehold on the country would consist of a single besieged garrison in Khartoum. Sudan would in turn become the first base for Osama Bin Laden who, like the original Mahdi, had a message of religious war against the West.

Compared to the exotic location and locals, the white cast are depressingly straight laced. Sir Ralph Richardson - the keen biker - does a fine job of going blind and the dinner party scene which bookends the film, where an elderly General tells and exaggerated story of the Battle of Balaclava, is moderately amusing.

All told, this is a film I'd watch again, a film that, if seen alongside Zulu, would make you wonder exactly why the British Empire film never took off as a genre. The answer to that question though, is in Korda's two previous works.

The Drum made the year before, starts well. We are in the Northwest Frontier province of British India, now the disputed Tribal Region of Pakistan where US Drones hunt Al Queda activists.

Things weren't exactly peaceful in 1938, but the film really does appear to have been made on location (even the ever reliable is unsure) and Indian army soldiers certainly look like the real thing.

After that though things go rapidly downhill. We are in a small kingdom where the tame king has been assassinated and his brother has taken his place. This guy doesn't want to be part of the Raj, which we are supposed to believe makes him a Bad Man.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, the late king has a pro-British son. Played by the always excellent Sabu, star of The Thief of Baghdad and The Jungle Book. This character just about makes the film watchable, although you constantly hope he's going to have some sort of epiphany and go off and join the Indian National Congress.

Seeing this film I imagine it is how Carry On Up The Khyber would appear to the Goodness Gracious Me characters who thought Titanic was a comedy and Only Fools And Horses serious drama. I think I did watch it to the end once, but I was off work ill at the time and was unable to move off the sofa. It was truly turgid stuff.

But at least it wasn't grossly offensive, which is not something you can say about Korda's 1935 effort, Sanders of the River. They don't show this very often on TV, for reasons that will become clear.

Set in Central Africa it is based on a 1911 novel by a chap called Edgar Wallace, who was a well known writer once, but is now only remembered for King Kong. The titular character controls a section of colonial Africa by means of a heavily armed paddle steamer, which is what the West used for this sort of job before the invention on Predator Drones.

Production of the film started well, with a Second Unit crew dispatched on a four month odyssey through Africa to record authentic tribal music and dances. They also hired African-American singer and actor Paul Robeson to play Bosambo, a tribal leader allied to Sanders, and founding father of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta in a small role.

Robeson was a political activist who campaigned in favour of Civil Rights and against fascism. His support for the Soviet Union put him on the wrong side of Senator McCarthy and, in a move Comrade Stalin would have approved of, his name was removed from his college's football records. He was undaunted though and his motto was "The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative."

Unfortunately Robeson soon realised that he'd chosen the wrong side when he agreed to work for Korda. He'd hoped the film would help Black Americans appreciate their African roots, but the scenes that would have done this remained on the cutting room floor. Instead, a pre-credit message was put on screen praising "the handful of white men whose everyday work is an unsung saga of courage and efficiency", work in keeping the Africans oppressed that is, and Bosambo became an Uncle Tom, a stooge of the White Man.

Robeson tried to stop the film being released by buying up all the prints, but he failed. Instead the man who was awarded the International Stalin Prize in 1952 found he had just made "the only film of mine that can be shown in (Mussolini's) Italy or (Nazi) Germany, for it shows the negro as Fascist states desire him - savage and childish."

Lest anyone think I'm being a bit harsh here, and that such views went unchallenged in society at that time, I will call in my defence the 1938 Will Hay film Old Bones of the River. They don't show this very often on TV either, but perhaps they should as it's been described as "the most comprehensive trashing of the British Empire ever put on celluloid." Here the Sanders character is a self-important fool who puts Eton collars of naked African children in an attempt to make them into English gentlemen, whilst his white colleagues are busy brewing illegal spirits and selling guns to the natives. If you haven't seen Sanders it does come across as racist rubbish, but it also shows how ideas of the White Man's Burden were antiquated even in the thirties.

I will also call in my defense a film made in the same year as The Four Feathers and set in the Raj, but which manages to be heroic, exciting and pretty much inoffensive. This is Gunga Din, staring Cary Grant, Victor McLaglan and Douglas Fairbanks Jr as Kipling's Soldiers Three fighting off, with the aid of the famous water bearer, a resurgent Cult of Thuggee.

Here we see the Empire as it could have been on screen, a mythical place, like the Old West, where reality only tangentially approaches.

Steven Spielberg tried for just that when he stole the plot for the second of his Indiana Jones films, a movie in which the colonial governor and his Sepoy's, like the 7th Cavalry of legend, rescue the heroes at the eleventh hour.

However unlike the Old West, the British Empire didn't fade away into legend. The war that began a few months after The Four Feathers was released was the beginning of the end for the European Empires, and their passing wasn't peaceful.

By the time the next significant film about the British Empire, Zulu, was made the Empire had virtually gone. Its Directory, Cy Enfield, would probably have got on better with Robeson than Korda as he'd also got on the wrong side of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Robeson would also have approved of the respectful treatment of Zulu rituals, and his strenuous efforts to involve and characterise the real Zulus he used.

I'm possibly the only human being of the last half century to have watched all three films of Korda's, and I'm not planning on repeating the experience.

All told, I prefer Carry On Up The Khyber.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Top Five Fictional Road Protestors

The real anti-roads activists were a fairly colourful lot, and I expect the new lot will be just as cosmopolitan, so you wouldn't really think we needed to invent fiction ones, but that's what authors and screenwriters have been doing for the last thirty seven years.

There have been a surprisingly large number of them too.

I'm going to have to disqualify Bob Louis and David Briggs, alias The Detectives, as they were only undercover police pretending to be protestors. I'm also going to disqualify Laura, the heroine of Laura's Way, a middle aged woman disenchanted with her dead marriage and finds love up a tree house, on the grounds it's sub-Mills and Boon style tosh.

Besides, she doesn't practise safe sex in her treehouse. Everyone knows you need to clip on first.

However that still leaves a number of candidates in the running, so here we go for another highly subjective top five.

5. Geoffrey Lester from Gobble by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman (TV, 1997)

Lester (played by Geoffrey McGiven - the original Ford Prefect) was the unfortunate Minister for Agriculture who, in order to reassure a public concerned about Mad Turkey Disease, fed his daughter a Turkey sandwich only to have her keel over due to a hereditory heart condition.

He then dropped out of politics and took up residence at a local road protest camp. Pleging to "get this anarchy organised", he endeared himself to the protestors by unmasking one of them as an MI5 informer - who in turn outed another as a Daily Mail journalist.

This TV play by Hislop and Newman (he used to write for Spitting Image) is not particularly funny, but was at least slightly prescient. Not about the spying - everyone knew that was going on - but the real Geoffrey Lester, John Gummer, did turn into an eco-warrior of sorts and whilst he never, as far as I know, squatted a tree, but he did continue to turn up at conferences after the Tories had been booted out of office and on occassion had to sit with the Greenpeace delegates as no-one else would speak to him.

4. Kaz from Joining the Rainbow by Bel Mooney (book, 1997)

I don't know if Kaz, a fourteen year old girl from a nice middle class family who joins the protest against a new road running through Twybury Hill, can really count, as she isn't really fictional.

The book is by the Daily Mail journalist, and former wife of Jonathon Dimbleby, Bel Mooney and is based on her experience of the Batheaston protest.  It features thinly disguised versions of real people from the campaign whilst Kaz herself if Mooney's daughter Kitty.

You wonder what happened to Kaz. Probably not in a squat in Brixton living on cold baked beans and pot. Maybe working for a big environmental NGO like many of her Earth First! pals.

Or, like the real Kitty, married to soldier in a wedding featured her mum's paper and working for an ultra-respectable force's charity. Oh well.

3. Spider Nugent from Coronation Street (TV, 1997 to 2003)

In early 1997 Swampy and co. decended on Manchester to oppose the building of a second runway at its airport. Bizarrely he was a hit with the public and local schoolgirls and so perhaps it wasn't too surprising that there was a carry-over into Manchester's most famous soap, in the form of eco-warrior Spider Nugent, played by Martin Hancock.

Spider though didn't spend much time in the trees and instead moved in with his Aunt. One wonders where they got this idea of crusties hanging out with older ladies from. He did do a spot of protesting, trying to save the local park, but eventually sold out and worked for the Benefits Agency.

Hmm, becoming a bit of a theme here.

2. Blott from Blott on the Landscape by Tom Sharpe (book, 1975 and TV, 1985)

Great though the nineties were, everything we did then had been done before, and often better, in the seventies.

And when it comes to TV protests, Blott makes Spider look like the wimp he is.

A former German POW in the book - an accident Communist defector in the TV series - Blott, played by David Suchet, lives in the gatehouse of Handyman Hall.

The Hall, owned by a corrupt politician Sir Giles Lynchman, sits next to picturesque Cleene Gorge. When Sir Giles supports the building of a road over the gorge so he can claim compensation, Blott takes action.

Defending the countryside of his adopted nation with a passion that inspires the locals, he's not exactly fluffy. Concreting himself into his house is all very well, but when he launches a 'false flag' attack on his own gatehouse with guns and explosives he's gone a little beyond traditional None Violent Direct Action.

1. Arthur Dent from Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (radio, 1978; book 1979; TV, 1981; film, 2005)

Blott got his way and Handyman Hall is saved, but our winner had no such luck.

Not only did Arthur Dent get to witness his house being knocked down whilst he popped to the pub with is mate Ford Prefect, he also gets to see his planet being destroyed to make way for a Hyperspace Bypass.

Well, that's how it goes.

Everything I ever tried to stop ended up being built, with the exception of the Mottram-Tintwistkle bypass - and that's expected in 2015.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Top Five Rock Legal Disputes

Rockers are wild, spontaneous and care for nothing but wine, women and song, whilst lawyers are cautious, dull and obsessed with money.

So what do they have in common?

Well I suppose both will screw anyone, anywhere, anytime. But they are also regularly seen in court together.

You may think rock stars would like to solve disputes with a Crossroads style guitar duel, but in reality they call in the suits.

So along with his drug dealer and the team that recover cars from swimming pools, your average musico has his lawyer on speed dial.

So here is my list of the five best, or worst, rock legal disputes.

5. Lou Reed v RCA Records (allegedly)

A multi album deal is what most musicians dream of. But what happens if the relationship with the record label goes sour. Surely they can't force the artist to be creative?

This is what allegedly happened to Lou Reed three records in to a five album deal with RCA records. To fulfil contractual obligations he got "very stoned" and just sat his guitars in front of the amps and turned them up to eleven. The feedback vibrated the strings and the guitars effectively played themselves.

The resulting double album Metal Machine Music makes Slayer sound like Ralph Vaughan Williams.There is over an hour of this and Reed himself has said "anyone who gets to side four is dumber than I am".

According to fans this isn't music, it's art. A German outfit has even produced an orchestral cover version.

Whatever the reason Reed was in more melodic form for his next album Coney Island Lover, a romantic album dedicated to his transsexual lover. His career has always been somewhat eclectic, but he has still never produced anything even remotely similar to Metal Machine Music since.

4. The Beatles v Themselves

In many ways bands are like groups of environmentalists. They start out all idealistic and the best of friends, but by the end they can't stand being in the same room together. The only difference being that eco-warriors usually manage to get on with each other when in court but fall out later, whereas bands are usually the other way round.

Take the Beatles for example.

They may have sung Back In The USSR, but they also wrote Taxman, a little ditty complaining about Harold Wilson's Supertax.

So once they started raking in the cash they formed Apple Corps as way to stop themselves having to pay it. Unfortunately everything went pear shaped for Apple when the band broke up two years later and John, Paul, George and Ringo all sued each other.

The eventual winner was Steve.

Steve Jobs that is, as Apple Corps had also fallen out with Apple Computers, but as the whole thing wasn't resolved until 2010, half the band were dead by then.

3. Matthew Fisher versus Gary Brooker

Revenge is a dish best served cold.

A Whiter Shade of Pale was a 1967 hit for British band Procol Harum. Pretty much their only hit.

Ten years later the band split up, and in the years since keyboard player Matthew Fisher must have held a simmering resentment that vocalist Gary Brooker was getting all the composing royalties from their hit when in fact most of the song was his Hammond organ.

In 2003 the band reunited for the second time and played the Cropredy Festival. I was there and all seemed friendly. Then two years later Fisher decided to get his money back.

The case was initially throw out on the grounds that waiting 38 years wasn't really fair. Fisher persisted and eventually the case became the first rock copyright battle to be heard before the House of Lords.

Brooker defended himself vigorously, arguing that he's written the song before Fisher had even joined the band, but he lost and the keyboardist now gets 40% of the royalties.

Not present in court was J.S. Bach, whose tune Fisher had nicked in the first place.

2. Fantasy Records v John Fogarty

Fogarty was the lead singer of Creedance Clearwater Revival, whose biggest hit, Bad Moon Rising, featured in An American Werewolf in London.

They also wrote A Run Through the Jungle about America's gun culture. When the band split in 1972 the song's rights went to Fantasy Records. Then, in 1985, as a solo artist Foggarty wrote The Old Man Down The Road.

Fantasy thought the two songs sounded rather similar and took Fogarty to court. In effect, suing him for sounding like himself.

Taking his guitar to court, Fogarty showed the judge that he did indeed sound like himself, but that the songs were different. However he had to pay his own costs and it took another hearing for him to get his money back.

1. Geffen Records v Neil Young 

Neil Young has had a fairly eclectic career. 

He's been acoustic and electric. He's been Country and he's been Folk. He's been a happy hippy and a broody misery guts.

Then in 1982 he went electronic and his record company put their foot down. We want rock 'n' roll, they said. Okay, replied Young, if that's what you, and he went Rockabilly.

This was too much for Geffen Records who promptly took him to court for releasing an album “musically uncharacteristic of Young’s previous recordings.”

So whilst Fogarty had been sued for sounding like himself, Young was being sued for not sounding like himself.

His response, and it was a cool and calculated one, was to threaten to play Country music until Geffen backed down.

Faced with a threat as serious as that, they gave in.

And finally...

The Rolling Stones versus The Verve

In 1997 The Verve finally put the boot into Britpop with their seminal album Urban Hymns. The biggest hit on the album was Bitter Sweet Symphony, an immeidate smash hit. Unfortunately for The Verve they had sampled the track The Last Time by the Rolling Stones. The lawyers moved in. The Verve expected a 50/50 split in royalties but instead the court awarded Jagger and Richards 100% of the writing credits, giving them their biggest hit since Brown Suger twenty years earlier.

When asked by Q magazine how he felt about this Keith Richards replied "I'm out of whack here, this is serious lawyer shit. If The Verve can write a better song, they can keep the money."


Monday, 12 November 2012

Five Things Voyager Gave Us

Voyager 2
1977 and The Sex Pistols dominated the Queen's Jubilee, and Morecambe and Wise ruled Christmas.

Meanwhile NASA launched two remarkable space probes, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.

I can chart most of my life by the journey of these two spaceships.

Jupiter and red spot
When they blasted off I was in Primary School. As they flew past Jupiter I was in Juniors. As they passed Saturn it was the summer holidays before I started Secondary School. Voyager 2 passed Uranus whilst I was getting ready for my O Levels and by the time it reached Neptune I had been bitten by the astronomy bug and was studying for a Degree in Astrophysics.

By the time they cease transmitting I'll be pushing sixty and wondering when I'll be able to retire.

But apart from providing a measure of my life, what else did this mission give us?

1. The Grand Tour

The Voyager missions were made possible by the solving of the Three Body Problem.

Newton had figured out the Law of Gravity in the seventeenth century, but when you have a spaceship flying under the influence of two gravitational fields, such as the sun and a planet, the maths is far too tricky to do with a pen and paper.

However in 1965 mathematician Michael Minovitch figured out a way of using a computer to make an accurate guess. He needed a pretty big computer, and was allowed to use the IBM 7090, which weighed in at 275 tons and had a memory of 32 K.

This was actually very impressive for the early sixties and allowed Minovitch to solve a problem that had defied solution for nearly three hundred years. He was able to plot a variety of possible routes to the outer planets, and amongst them was a particularly smart way of getting to Neptune by hitching a lift off Uranus, Saturn and Jupiter. The Planetary Grand Tour.

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Voyager had to fly by 1979 at the latest as the next time such an opportunity would come along would be 2152.

2. Extra Terrestrial Volcanoes

Volcanos on Io
Picking the best of the Voyager pictures is tricky.

For pure artistic merit nothing beats the rings of Saturn. For colour and complexity it has to be Jupiter. For enigmatic beauty it has to be Uranus.

Then there are the moons with their wonderful Shakespearean and mythological names; Ganymede, titan, Miranda and the rest. All intriguing little worlds in their own right, especially Europa and Callisto which hint at having internal oceans.

But for the Wow! factor its Io gets the prize.

On March 9 1979 astronomer Linda Morabito saw something strange on a Voyager1 photo of the Jupiter moon. A strange lump was growing out of the side, which turned out to be a 170 mile high volcanic cloud.

Suddenly these were not dead world's any more.

3. The Message to the Stars

The Golden Record
The Voyager mission was to bring the planets back to earth, but it also took a bit of us out in to space.

The famous Golden Record may never be found, but it will most likely outlast our civilisation.

When we are no more, laid low by Climate Change, Nuclear War or all uploaded onto computers, a record - literally - of what we were in the late seventies will still be drifting through interstellar space.

There was a bit of concern in the 1980s when it was feared we might have accidentally sent to voice of a Nazi into outer space, but it turned out UN head Kurt Waldheim didn't actually do anything too bad.

What I really like about this is that far in the future, when MP3s are considered as old fashioned as stone clubs, there will still be a good old fashioned record out there, complete with stylus, so that if ET takes a fancy he can listen to Chuck Berry as God intended.

4. The Pale Blue Dot

The Solar Family Portrait
In the end only Voyager 2 made the full Grand Tour. For Voyager 1 the team had to decide between Pluto and Saturn's enigmatic moon Titan.

They went for Titan and found, to their disappointment, that the atmosphere was opaque and they saw nothing. It was a bit embarrassing, but if they'd gone to Pluto they'd have found that by the time they got there it was no longer a planet.

The Pale Blue Dot
Voyager 1 was now heading up, out of the Solar System. In due course it will become the first object made by people to leave the sun's protective heliosphere and enter Inter Stellar space. But there wouldn't be much to photograph on the way.

However its cameras were turned back on for one last picture, a shot of the whole solar family taken from 4 billion miles away.

The outer planets look pretty spectacular, but nearer the sun, barely noticeable next to the glare of the sun, is a pale blue dot.


It is a deeply humbling photo, as moving in its own way as the famous Apollo 17 Blue Marble photo.

Here is our planet. Tiny, fragile, almost utterly inconsequential in the universe, but possibly the only planet in the galaxy capable of making something as complex as Voyager.

5. Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan
The man who gave the Pale Blue Dot its name was Carl Sagan.

Sagan had worked for NASA from the beginning, but it was Voyager that gave him a world stage.

He was the face of Voyager, bringing his enthusiasm for the mission to the public via the press conferences and live TV broadcasts. This would be the first time most of us would hear his message of progress and scientific humanism.

In due course his books and TV series would turn may people onto science and astronomy, including me.

Just as the Golden Record was designed to make us feel like one planet, Sagan had a vision space exploration ultimately teaching us as much about ourselves as the universe.

As the two Voyagers head out into the depths of space, I hope they are emissionaries of the sort of species that will survive and thrive in the way Sagan hoped, and not the last will and testament of one that didn't.