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Posts Tagged ‘Orion Books’

Front cover of Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe by Mick WallBlack Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall (Orion Books 2013)

The big three of British hard rock are Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. The difference between the first two and the third is simple: Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple have influenced individual bands, whereas Black Sabbath have inspired entire genres. Rock history would probably look very different without them: various trends would have started later, slower or not at all. Or without three-quarters of Black Sabbath, anyway: in descending order of importance, the guitarist Tony Iommi, the bassist Geezer Butler and the drummer Bill Ward. The vocalist Ozzy Osbourne is more like a mascot, in my opinion. He isn’t a good singer and I’d like to re-run Black Sabbath’s early days with someone else from the Black Country on vox: Sean Harris of Diamond Head.

But Harris was too young for that: all four original members of Black Sabbath were born in 1948 and seemed destined for the same circumscribed lives as their parents and grandparents. Then rock’n’roll came along and gave them a chance to escape boring factory jobs or careers as petty criminals in Birmingham. But with money and fame came drugs, alcohol and the chance to misbehave in much more spectacular ways. Not that they made as much money as they should: they were promoted on their first American tour as “Louder Than Led Zeppelin” (ch. 3, “Bringers of War”, pg. 72), but they definitely weren’t as well-managed. Or as well-received: despite creating much more interesting and innovative music, Black Sabbath didn’t receive the respect or critical attention they deserved until long after Led Zeppelin.

Mick Wall was one of those who gave Led Zeppelin that attention, in When Giants Walked the Earth (2009). He’s also written biographies of Metallica, AC/DC, Guns’n’Roses and Iron Maiden, so he’s well able to give Sabbath the credit (or blame) for their central role in heavy metal. Unfortunately, he’s also fond of rock journalese, hyperbole and mixed metaphors. This book has a nice cover, so it’s a shame about some of the prose:

Twenty years later groups like Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden and, in particular, Nirvana, would excavate the same heaving-lung sound to delineate their own scorched-earth policy to a music scene even more elaborately formulaic than the heavy rock scene of the early Seventies – and be rewarded with critical garlands, heralding a new genre they called ‘grunge’. In 1971, however, Sabbath and their new, planet-heavy sound were simply dismissed as dimwitted, offensive and beyond redemption. (ch. 4, “Pope on a Rope”, pg. 81)

But that second sentence is okay and a good summary of how Black Sabbath were treated by the rock press. They were a bad joke for decades. Not that they helped themselves, at times: Ozzy says that he didn’t find Spinal Tap funny because it was too close to the real thing. And it was partly inspired by Black Sabbath, who also went on the road with a Stonehenge stage-set. A very big one, with a performing midget. However, Wall doesn’t manage to mine much of the comedy in the Sabbath story. There’s a lot there, both intentional and unintentional, but Tony Iommi’s ghosted autobiography Iron Man (2011) is both funnier and better-written than this book. Iron Man isn’t as detailed or as objective, though: Wall knows how important Black Sabbath are, but he praises them only when they deserve it. They’ve recorded some bad albums too and Wall describes in detail how and why they went astray in the 1980s.

Re-uniting to play Live Aid in 1985 was a one mistake, for example, but I like the commemoratory photo, which is included in the last of the three photo-sections here. It’s one of their unintentionally humorous moments: Ozzy is harking back to his “Homo in a Kimono” get-up on the cover of Sabotage; Geezer is wearing red trousers and pointy red shoes; Tony is in shades and black-leather-with-dangly-bits; and Bill is looking like a rock-goblin, complete with beer belly, bandana and dirty red baseball boots.

I like that in a rock star, but I wouldn’t like to have been anywhere near him on one of his drinking-bouts: I’d prefer not to have read the story of a plumber turning up to Bill’s Parisian hotel-suite in 1980 to clear drains “clogged with his vomit” (ch. 7, “Neon Nights”, pg. 165). And I wouldn’t want to be near Ozzy whether he’s drunk or sober, stoned or straight. He’s entertaining and endearing, but I assume that he’s best appreciated at a distance. He departs Black Sabbath part-way through the book, but Wall stays with him and tells the story of his solo career, including the tragic death of his guitarist Randy Rhoades in a plane-crash. Wall also describes the success of Ozzy’s reality TV show, The Osbournes, and his various returns to the Black Sabbath fold, in between Ronnie Dio, Ian Gillan and the other vocalists whom Tony has recruited down the decades.

They have their stories told too, as do the Sabbath manager Don Arden and his daughter Sharon. Black Sabbath have had a long history, have crossed paths with a lot of other musicians and have influenced even more, from Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, as Wall notes, to the Melvins and Sunn O))), as Wall doesn’t note. The respect they now enjoy is a fitting tribute to their talent and their originality. This book could have been much funnier and easier-to-read, but it’s a detailed guide to an important band by a journalist who has known them – and even worked for them – since the 1980s. And it’s got an index, which is good. But a discography would have been good too.

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Front cover of Conan the Indomitable by Robert E. HowardConan the Indomitable, Robert E. Howard (Orion Books 2011)

This collection contains probably the best Conan story, “The Scarlet Citadel”, and certainly the longest, The Hour of the Dragon. It was also one of the last: the Texan Robert E. Howard would kill himself a few months after the final part appeared in the April 1936 issue of Weird Tales. He was only thirty, which means that he may one day have had more readers than he lived seconds (60 x 60 x 24 x 365 x 30 = 946,080,000). If re-readers count towards the total, he’ll get there a lot quicker: Howard is a writer you can return to again and again. He’s one of the Weird Tales Big Three with H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. He’s the least intelligent and imaginative of the three, but he’s a better writer than HPL and a more stirring writer than CAS:

“Again, nay!” snapped Tsotha, swinging down from his horse. He laughed coldly. “Have you not learned by this time that my brain is mightier than any sword?”

He passed through the lines of the pikemen, and the giants in their steel caps and mail brigandines shrank back fearfully, lest they so much as touch the skirts of his robe. Nor were the plumed knights slower in making room for him. He stepped over the corpses and came face to face with the grim king. The hosts watched in tense silence, holding their breath. The black-armored figure loomed in terrible menace over the lean, silk-robed shape, the notched, dripping sword hovering on high.

“I offer you life, Conan,” said Tsotha, a cruel mirth bubbling at the back of his voice.

“I give you death, wizard,” snarled the king, and backed by iron muscles and ferocious hate the great sword swung in a stroke meant to shear Tsotha’s lean torso in half. But even as the hosts cried out, the wizard stepped in, too quick for the eye to follow, and apparently merely laid an open hand on Conan’s left forearm, from the ridged muscles of which the mail had been hacked away. The whistling blade veered from its arc and the mailed giant crashed heavily to earth, to lie motionless. Tsotha laughed silently.

“Take him up and fear not; the lion’s fangs are drawn.” (“The Scarlet Citadel”, 1933)

Like Alistair MacLean, Howard is good at describing violent action and at painting powerful word-pictures. The wizard’s full name is Tsotha-lanti, which is an unusual invention for Howard: unlike CAS and HPL, he usually drew on real history and mythology for his names. This is part of why “The Scarlet Citadel” is probably the best Conan story: its wizard really seems part of a mysterious ancient world, many thousands of years before the present. It’s a pity the story contains borrowed names too: Set, Ishtar, Rinaldo, Pelias and so on. “Conan” itself is taken from Irish history, for example, in tribute to part of Howard’s own ancestry. Like his talent, his early suicide and his popular appeal, Howard’s ancestry links him to Kurt Cobain, the lead singer and guitarist in the band Nirvana. And would Howard have been a rock-musician if he’d been born later in the twentieth century? Maybe. He’s certainly contributed to rock music: by helping to shape sword-and-sorcery, he influenced heavy metal and its imagery.

His stories have the incongruity of heavy metal too: heavy metal uses advanced technology to sing about sword-and-sorcery, Howard used modern English to write about sword-and-sorcery. His archaic vocabulary is decorative, not fundamental, and his prose is too direct and efficient to truly evoke otherwhen and elsewhere:

Through the black arch of a door four gaunt, black-robed shapes had filed into the great hall. Their faces were dim yellow ovals in the shadows of their hoods.

“Who are you?” ejaculated Thutothmes in a voice as pregnant with danger as the hiss of a cobra. “Are you mad, to invade the holy shrine of Set?”

The tallest of the strangers spoke, and his voice was toneless as a Khitan temple bell.

“We follow Conan of Aquilonia.”

“He is not here,” answered Thutothmes, shaking back his mantle from his right hand with a curious menacing gesture, like a panther unsheathing his talons.

“You lie. He is in this temple. We tracked him from a corpse behind the bronze door of the outer portal through a maze of corridors. We were following his devious trail when we became aware of this conclave. We go now to take it up again. But first give us the Heart of Ahriman.”

“Death is the portion of madmen,” murmured Thutothmes, moving nearer the speaker. His priests closed in on catlike feet, but the strangers did not appear to heed.

“Who can look upon it without desire?” said the Khitan. “In Khitai we have heard of it. It will give us power over the people which cast us out. Glory and wonder dream in its crimson deeps. Give it to us, before we slay you.” (The Hour of the Dragon, 1935)

The Hour of the Dragon would make a good computer-game: it’s a detailed but fast-moving quest-story, with Conan pursuing the great gem that has resurrected an evil wizard from the far past. But if it were made into a computer-game, I wouldn’t want to play it. Writing is still the strangest and most mysterious of the arts: black marks on white paper can conjure an infinite variety of sights, sensations and emotions. Hour isn’t concentrated Conan like “The Scarlet Citadel”, but it’s a lot of fun and I enjoy it every time I re-read it. Howard doesn’t transcend his genre, so he can’t be placed at the level of Clark Ashton Smith. And he didn’t have Lovecraft’s subtlety, invention or sly humour, so he never wrote anything to match “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or “The Call of Cthulhu”. But he deserves to be one of the Weird Tales Big Three and this collection proves it.

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