Saturday, January 30, 2010

White Dwarf - the Old School journal

I'm currently reading Bob Fischer's rather wonderful memo of the UK telefantasy convention scene, Wiffle-Lever to Full! and having got to the chapter on Discworld and Terry Pratchett fandom, am amused to note the author's bemused/cynical observation of the large crossover between Discworld fans, leather coats and Iron Maiden tee shirts. After admitting that he's not averse to Maiden himself ("the 80's stuff at least. Well, the first two albums really") Fischer skips over to reminesce over his own 80's teenage years of playing Dungeons and Dragons (at an age approximate to mine, and similar years too) and listening to said band. It intrigues me, because if you replace the Pratchett angle with 'low fantasy' and a sort of post-Python mocking college humour, exchange Maiden for any number of NWOBHM/Post-prog music and swap the leather coat for... whatever horrid equivalent couture existed back in 1984, then you'd have some key ingredients to what form my impression of the UK RPG scene.

Certainly pre-1988 White Dwarf seems to fit this bill, staffed as it was by bearded ex-university types, contributed to by... maybe more university types and appealing to the same as well as a horde of younger, spottier types such as myself. I've long held the belief that there's a specific boundary of fantasy literature in the Atlantic, and compared to the loftier 'original' from Wisconsin, the D&D played by British adherents seems altogether more earthy, grubby and less serious. That's a sweeping generalisation, but I believe the mindset's there, and indeed continues in the more recent, longer-lived incarnation of White Dwarf today, as Game Workshop's Catalogue That You Have To Buy (tm).

I've read mocking, condescening appraisals of old WD on the Net, but I love my old issues and will probably never part with them (sorry dear!) For one thing they're in a terrible state and only the most desperate collector would want them, having been pored over countless times for new tidbits from other gaming systems (as WD covered back in the day - Runequest, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu were popular ones) to cannibalise and insert into my D&D games. While the US gaming title Dragon was more product faithful and was certainly worthy in its own right, White Dwarf seemed bigger on the inside, and had a defiant streak of wit in its pages, with a must-read Critical Mass fiction review column by Dave Langford, and Thrud the Barbarian and Travellers, satirical strips by future 2000AD artists Carl Critchlow and Mark Harrison. In fact, so attached to my issues was I that I'd forgotten just how few I really had, having to buy them for the most part during trips down to Dunedin while visiting my brother at Uni. Between freinds and I the numbers swelled to possibly early into the double digits, but again, the great Puritan Burning of Roleplaying Game Stuff in 1987 saw to that, and by then my gaming and White Dwarf reading was itself on the wane. Within months in its parent country the magazine radically reinvented itself and evolved into the survivor it is today. But for posterity, and excluding a few Best Ofs and downloaded copies, here are the issues I have.

Oh, almost forgot the Chris Achilleos covers - how cool were they!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Talkin' Eds: Iron Maiden (14/4/1980)

1980 was a watershed year for heavy metal. Just have a look at some of the important albums that were released in those twelve months; elsewhere future big-hitters are steadily adding to their back catalogue...

• AC/DC - Back in Black
• Accept - I'm a Rebel
• Alice Cooper - Flush the Fashion
• Angel Witch - Angel Witch
• Black Sabbath - Heaven and Hell
• Blue Öyster Cult - Cultösaurus Erectus
• Def Leppard - On Through the Night
• Gillan - Glory Road
• Girlschool - Demolition
• Iron Maiden - Iron Maiden
• Judas Priest - British Steel
• Kiss - Unmasked
• Krokus - Metal Rendez-vous
• Motörhead - Ace of Spades
• Ozzy Osbourne - Blizzard of Ozz
• Queen - The Game
• Rush - Permanent Waves
• Samson - Head On
• Saxon - Wheels of Steel
• Saxon - Strong Arm of the Law
• Scorpions - Animal Magnetism
• Thin Lizzy - Chinatown
• Tygers Of Pan Tang - Wild Cat
• UFO - No Place to Run
• Van Halen - Women and Children First
• Whitesnake - Ready An' Willing

In other news, Led Zeppelin have played their last gig (or at least their last with John Bonham), and the hard rock firmament is shifting with quiet years from contemporaries Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal, or NWOBHM, is now a few years old and becoming less of a groundswell scene and more of a tangible movement - many of the leading names (Motorhead, Saxon, the Tygers, Def Leppard) are included above, and of these Iron Maiden formed five years previously with a greatly different line-up, have become on of THE acts to watch.


L-R Steve Harris (bass), Dave Murray (guitar), Paul Di'Anno (vocals), Clive Burr (Drums), Dennis Stratton (Guitar)

Despite it not being their first release Maiden’s album debut has an embryonic sound, arguably as influenced by punk as early Heavy Metal. Lead man and alleged ‘barrow boy’ Paul Di'Anno carries a boot boy swagger to his vocals in stark contrast to the broader range and polish of his later, more famous replacement, Bruce Dickinson. Despite this, Di’Anno’s approach gives this first album an edge of menace that’s unheard in later albums; teetering on post-adolescent assuredly, but less tendancy towards the cartoonish that befell later albums. This sounds like the band that was said to be punchy and cocksure, and for a band in its youth it’s a fitting style. The signature twin guitar approach is less evident here, possibly because this incarnation of the band is missing the vital Adrian Smith, who would join the set of Killers. Instead, the almost forgotten "d’Ennis" Stratton fills the role – capable, but unmemorable.
Influences range from early 70s hard rock to a healthy dose of prog; there's a break in Phantom that sounds as thoough it owes something to BOC, and Murray's Hendrix adulations is evident as well. On the whole it's varied though, enough to keep the interest up. Steve Harris' bass is, it shall be said, a little understated this early on, and on the whole the production sounds... minimalist, probably as much a sign of its budget as its era - there's a lot of drum and guitar, the bass and vocals play second tier.

The Album

As indicated above Iron Maiden sounds at times like an audition piece for extended guitars, with Di’Anno coming and going with verses in longer tracks (Phantom of the Opera, Strange World) seemingly to break up the noodling. On the occasions where he does get to sing in extended pieces he can be at times shouty (Sanctuary) and surprisingly vulnerable (Remember Tomorrow), embodying that weird dichotomy of young male vocalists in rock – the self-assured rebel who takes no prisoners but occasionally just needs a hug.

I like this album, probably more so than its follow-up. Prowler is a hugely energetic opener with some cool wah-wah lead, and Running Free is the anthem I remembered it to be when I first heard it. Remember Tomorrow drops out when the vocals are tested, but in doing so allows a sort of unstaged vulnerability that is rare in Heavy Metal. Shortly after joining a live version was recorded with Bruce Dickinson's vocals overlaid atop Di'Anno's, and while the new lad can hit the highs his bravura delivery doesn't sui the song. Phantom of the Opera was a Lucozade ad! And the lead-in from instrumental Transylvania to Strange World is pretty and subtle, carrying echoes of (shudder) The Moody Blues. Things sort of peter out toward the end with Charlotte the Harlot (God knows why I liked to sing along to this. I was thirteen) and the title track sounding a bit tacked on. On the whole the production isn’t lavish, but plays loud well enough – it would be an album away (two for full effect) before the masterful hands of Martin Birch would be near the consoles at least.


Eddie makes his debut at his wildest and most unkempt. The location is apparently an East End street, and it fits with the general feeling of the band at the time – a hint of the supernatural and of horror in an entirely suburban (but no less intimidating) setting. The theme continues with the covers of singles Running Free (Eddie in semi-silhouette stalking hapless titular runaway) and controvesial Thatcher-baiting Sanctuary. He's a menace in these early portraits, though the least said about the cover of Maiden's Skyhooks cover Women in Uniform the better, probably. My CD version comes from the 1998 remaster, so Derek Riggs’ Eddie portrait on the cover is also retooled not with the mascot’s pin-point ‘wired’ white eyes, but red glowing points (so wrong) and halos around the street lamps. On the back the band stand against a white wall looking young and brattish, and far from the gods of Heavy Metal they’d be.

Tracks via YouTube

Sanctuary (1998 rerelease only)
Remember Tomorrow (and a version sung by Bruce)
Running Free (historic Top of the Pops appearance)
Phantom of the Opera
Strange World (live recording from Maiden Japan)
Charlotte the Harlot (Live via home video at the Ruskin Arms 1980)
Iron Maiden (studio version only)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Iron without the irony

Okay, so here it is - I like Iron Maiden. In fact, I am an Iron Maiden fan - I have a great affection for the 'legends' of Heavy Metal, and I'm not too fussed about who knows it. In my possession I have all of their studio albums, most of their B-sides and a handful of DVDs. I have owned two band t-shirts, one being from the 2009 New Zealand leg of the Somewhere back in Time world tour. Unfortunately that's as close to the concerts as I got, being otherwise occupied on matters more important and domestic, but for the want of that not so small matter, I'd have a live experience to add to my meagre stocktake.

It wasn't always thus; I didn't own an album of Iron Maiden's until maybe 2000 or 2001, although most of the material I had on that discounted Best Of (The Best of the Beast) I was familiar with; I'd just not got around they buying any of it. They disappeared off my radar by the time I was sixteen, and the 1990s were not a kind decade to the band. By their millennium 'reunion' I was curious and nostalgic enough to dip my toe in, and in 2008 most of their discography had become rather more affordable (and some of it was remastered and relaunched), so that was that.

You see a fair bit of Iron Maiden merchandise around your main street if you look hard enough, most of it either worn by concert attendees or by kids who weren't even alive when the band had broken the big time, let alone formed. To which I say a quiet 'bah', because despite my teenage yearnings for expression through outergarments, there's nothing rebellious about a fifteen year old girl wearing a heavy metal t-shirt of a band she's probably not that into. Or a boy for that matter. 'Irony' is a bit of a dirty word sometimes - I don't want to come across as snobbish, but it looks like I've just been.

Anyway, fair warning - there might be a bit more on Maiden on this blog in months to come!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Middling Earth Miniatures

In the 1980s a handful of miniature figure makers dominated the Fantasy Roleplaying Game scene. Grenadier, from the US, were your top-tier outfit, as evidenced by the lucrative licenses they acquired for merchandising - Dungeons and Dragons, Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu game (these sculpts were snapped up by smaller outfits after Grenadier folded), and Iron Crown Enterprise's Middle Earth Roleplaying, or MERP.

These guys are from one of Grenadier's MERP box sets, the 'villain' set from The Lord of the Rings. In fact, some license has already been taken, as it includes a Vampire, a race which only appeared in The Silmarillion. I don't know whether Grenadier's license actually included this book as Christopher Tolkien has been quite protective of it with relation to Games Workshop's more recent license. There's precious little about these figures on the Internet - surely somebody else must have got them? But here they are anyway, and they are as follows:

Balrog, Warg, Gollum, Uruk-Hai Captain, Ringwraith, Cave Troll.

Not a bad selection, even if the scale is questionable - the Balrog's fine, but the troll doesn't impress with its size (especially after the recent movie version), and the Ringwraith would make an excellent Jawa, particularly as it has some handy 'sprigs' inside its hood, likely for highlighting as glowing eyes. Some of the postures are a little flat, too - the [unpictured] Vampire in particular. Detail-wise it's okay, albeit with a reasonably repetitive cloak and not a lot of opportunity for colour variation, but just standing still with its claws in the air doesn't make for a particularly formidable pose (it needs three other guys doing an M, a C and an A). As it happens, Tolkein's surviving writing is rather vague on what the Vampires (and indeed Werewolves) of The Silmarillion looked like, so I can't be too critical.

With regard to likenesses, my guess is that being sculpted around 1985 the sources for some of these are from the then not-too-old LotR animated movie from Ralph Bakshi. Certainly the Ringwraith, Gollum and Saruman are almost spitting images of the cartoon version, and the Uruk isn't far off it, if a little more detailed than on screen - likewise the Balrog, which is probably alongside Gollum my favourite of the set. I remember having niggles about the remainder - the [unpictured] Barrow Wight (not featured in any movie adaptation to date) is another not-greatly described creature, so here it's just a skeleton with a helmet. The Uruk would have been better served with a shield with Saruman's white hand emblem, although the Eye of Sauron design used here is a nice hat tip to Tolkien's own book cover design, and Grenadier must have liked it as they reused the shield on some undead orcs later, not of the MERP range, as far as I can tell.

I painted these around 1986, and as was customary then the paints were Humbrol enamels. I did the best I could - enamels are great for colour, but clunky to work with, and I much prefer today's acrylic paints for drying time and water-based clean up. The colours used were taken from the animated movie - hence [unpictured - argh!]'Saruman the White' being in red robes (one of the many baffling decisions made by Bakshi's team I suspect). Since taking these photos a few years ago I've stripped the figures down and basecoated them in black enamel for another go - hence the lack of colour pics of some of the guys. I'm still undecided about the palette to use - to adopt the more recent LotR trilogy colours would be more 'correct', but not 'true' to the sculpts, while Saruman, despite my best attempts, will probably still look too much like Santa (guys, what were you thinking?). Mark this up as a potential mini-project for this winter, and if they getdone, you'll get photos properly!

Addenda: I still regret not picking up Grenadier's 'Fellowship' box of heroes, which my old friend Derek did, and surely later purified by fire along with a hoard of other great D&D books and toys after a run-in with The Lord. Thanks to Paul M and Dave I'm putting together a surrogate Fellowship from similar models of various vintage and make. So far I have a Gandalf, Boromir (not the Bakshi 'viking' style, mind) and a Hobbit I'll likely make Frodo. Six to go - the hunt continues...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Just Take a Seat They're Always Free - no surprise no mystery.

[I promised I'd start my blog off with this review. Two years late to the day, but here it is, Paul!]

Foreword: On 'Safari'

In 2003 having not attended a single Big Day Out or UK festival I promised myself I'd focus my efforts on a Big Game Hunt, or 'Safari' of acts reaching NZ. To wit: in order of the Big Five game animals of the African safari, select five sizeable acts of significance I wanted to see before they disbanded. After some shuffling and surrogates I've seen three. The gig below was a surrogate for The Who, who did reach New Zealand in 2009, but no further south than Auckland.

The Police, WestpacTrust Stadium, Wellington 17/1/08

Message in a Bottle
Synchronicity II
Walking on the Moon
Voices Inside My Head /When The World Is Running Down
Driven To Tears
Hole In My Life
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
Wrapped Around Your Finger
De Do Do Do De Da Da Da
Invisible Sun
Can't Stand Losing You
King Of Pain
So Lonely
Every Breath You Take

Next To You (encore)

When I was in my late teens I was a pretty big Police fan - as big as I could be with what limited resources I had in a small NZ town pre-internet. I bought all of their albums - and Sting's - scoured second hand bookshops for biographies on the members and bought the best music book of their songs I could find in an attempt to replicate the layered material that packed their five studio albums and almost posthumous Best Of. In point of fact I was a fan of the band a good while after the band had ceased to be - word was that by then they pretty much hated each other, and the name of the remade single off their greatest hits album, Don't Stand So Close To Me was a pretty apt byline for the state of things in Policeland. And for what it was worth I moved on too, having left town for Uni and discovered more local, accessible bands, or at least bands that were still making music. I didn't think the Police would reform let alone launch a world tour on the back of it. If they had, would I have gone along to a concert? Probably not.

As it turned out all of the above took place, and they even did a two-city tour of New Zealand as well. Here's Paul's entry on the Auckland gig, the second of the two, and the review.

Oh okay, here's the Stuff review of the Wellington gig. I had to go over it to remind myself of what it was like, and it pretty much ties with my impressions.
So... casting my mind back, what did I think of the gig?

Going on safari teaches you a few things about your idols, the main one being that they age, and furthermore they're never going to sound like they did twenty or so years ago on vinyl. The Police proved that - Sting's not hitting the high notes he used to, but that's par for course on long tours, and New Zealand is usually the bum end of those tours, so expectations must be tempered with that in mind on most occasions. I should say that Mr Sumner's range is still quite impressive, and the short-cuts taken are the usual ones a singer makes in a live context, allowing for breathing and the movement of being on stage and so forth. Message in a Bottle was a good and likely opener, and as Paul says, the appearance of a bewhiskered Sting singing/speaking it as an overture seemed strangely apt. The big visual kick was with second song Synchronicity II and the opening up of the stage monitors, giant LEDs that drove the song as much as the band on stage - it was a good rendition for a track that demands a fair amount of pace and energy. Things settled down a bit after that. Walking on the Moon was okay, and to be honest the familiarity of the setlist worked against my appreciation of the event; a risk you have to take if you've stuck so closely to a band's output, and as this tour was essentially a greatest hits set instead of a launchpad for new material I'd have been a fool for expecting anything else.

That said, given the breadth of songs on the list there were some surprise inclusions - Hole in my Life not a song I really loved from Zenyatta Mondatta, sounded great with its shambling bassline, as did the medley of Voices/When the World is Running Down, which given a longer, more improvised sound and jazz diversion that would have been lost on me twenty years ago, but made a bigger impression year later. The biggest impression on the night however was that of the individual band members on me. Andy Summers was aloof, existing in his own part of the stage and frankly didn't surprise - he's the quietest member of the band and the novelty for me was seeing that, despite my expectations, this guy still holds all the guitar work together single-handedly - no session or backing instrumentalists, just a virtuoso and his effects pedals. For the oldest member he had a surprising energy, and the music wouldn't have been lost without it. Sting was similarly distant, his banter slightly too rote and he didn't engage or connect with the audience. A bit of a missed opportunity, really, though the audience who'd stayed past support act Fergie were happy enough, being at least in their late twenties, but for the most part the bad side of thirty and upwards to fifties. During (I think) Walking on the Moon one portly silverback close to us got up and rocked out some air guitar by himself in the aisle - it was that kind of gig and set the mood for the evening. So with the rest of the band in their own space the star of the night was Stewart Copeland, band leader and a man clearly happy in his element behind the drums and percussion set. His skill was the revelation of the night, and I spent Wrapped Around Your Finger just watching him move about his instruments, working what was one of a couple of demonstration pieces of the night, but what a show. During So Lonely Sting seemed to acknowledge this in a set bereft of any significant band banter with the modified "All dressed up and nowhere to go/welcome to the Stewart Copeland show".

So as far as a safari went, that was my trophy - Sting disappointing, Summers cool, but Copeland, the member I'd not paid too much attention to over the years the man of the moment. he'd done the press for the NZ leg as well, so that swung things in his favour as well.

Best Song: Wrapped Around Your Finger, though I still loved singing along to Every Little Thing...
Least Best Song: Invisible Sun/King of Pain. Paul's right on the former - the slideshow didn't match, unlike the closing shots of Copeland's past tour snaps - including Wellington Harbour from 1984, hooray!

Missing in Action: Walking In Your Footsteps (inessential), Don't Stand... (baffling)

Most Missed: My favourite album is Ghost in the Machine, so something more off that would have been nice, especially something written by Summers or Copeland, so Omega Man would have been welcome, or from Regatta de Blanc Copeland's On Any Other Day. As that's rather novelty and throwaway, No Time This Time perhaps, if only to have 'stolen it back' from Anthrax.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Hello, Good Evening, and Welcome to the Blog

So this is my blog, after several years of contributing to a communal space, I've finally made my own. And what will I be writing about?

A lot of rubbish is my guess. But specific rubbish - carefully selected and filtered from the disparate collections and tail ends of past hobbies, obsessions and interests over the years. Jetsam is material that has been jettisoned, but after all this time on the planet I've come to understand that nothing is ever truly thrown away; it all becomes an aspect of what a person is or isn't, what they reject and abandon is as much a part of them as what they keep.

So for better or worse this is me. Or selected bits.
Welcome, make yourself comfortable, and try not to disturb the porcupine.