Armagideon Time

There are a number of topics I keep meaning to write about yet never manage to get around to actually doing so.

One of these is an annotated playlist of the “naughty” pop songs that inspired countless giggle fits during my formative years. I’m talking about tracks where the “double” part of double entendre was the the flimsiest of pretexts — a transparent dodge meant to preserve the chances of getting played on the radio and avoid sales-killing sanction.

It was a tricky line to walk. If pulled it off correctly, though, it could spin the vicarious transgression into solid gold.

(This category of songs should not be confused with the separate-but-related class of tracks whose lyrics could be easily adapted for maximum scatological hilarity. I have the fondest of memories about busting a gut to my pal Artie’s rendition of “Don’t Go Making Me Fart” — with appropriate flatuential sound effects — but it was no “The Stroke.”)

Maybe it’s just a case of temporal bias, but my childhood years seemed like a boom time for suggestively smutty pop songs. Eventually I’ll get around to compiling a proper list, but today I’m going to single out one with particular resonance for the spooky season.

Recommended listening: Fred Schneider – Monster (from Fred Schneider and the Shake Society, 1984)

Besides the fact he’s not-so-subtly singing about his hyperactive Wonka Bar (to use some North Woburn slang from my kiddie days), the song is especially remarkable for how perfectly Schneider mimics the cadences of playground chants.

There’s a monster in my pants
And it does a nasty dance
When it moves in and out
Everybody starts to shout

…could’ve been composed on the fly by some recess Rimbaud at any elementary school in Reagan’s America. It’s the distilled essence of the form, the notion of (no pun intended) pulling a performative fast one for some easy chuckles.

If had an earlier release date, “Monster” would’ve displaced AC/DC’s “Big Balls” in my transgressive thrills pantheon. By the time 1984 rolled around, though, I’d already graduated to a wider world of manic pop sleaze.

I had an ambivalent relationship with spooky stuff as a kid. It was equal parts fascination and terror, and favored bite-sized doses over longer-form material. I didn’t have the patience to read novels or watch a full-length movie, so most of my chills and thrills came from various Scholastic Book Club anthologies, various clip shows, and movie trailers that my impressionable mind would extrapolate into something far more disturbing than what actually made it onto the screen.

Real-life horrors had a particular allure to me, conveyed in factoid (and highly fanciful) form through the Book of Lists or themed omnibus editions covering things like shark attacks or shipwrecks or the paranormal nonsense that became a mass mania during the Me Decade. A 2500-word M.R. James story written in dense, affected English or a 100-word entry about a poltergeist attack that “really, truly happened” — it’s pretty obvious which one a TV-damaged six year old is going to gravitate towards.

That didn’t change until I hit early adolescence and started reading Twilight Zone Magazine on a regular basis. The initial draw was a monthly/bi-monthly assortment of short stories, but the book reviews and articles eventually goaded me into expanding my horizons a bit. Even so, the first book TZM convinced me to buy was Stephen King’s Different Seasons (a collection of novellas) followed up by his Night Shift anthology.

My movie viewing habits followed the same track my reading ones did. The main vector for spooky-themed material was Channel 56′s Creature Double Feature, which ran on Saturday afternoons and thus forced some serious kid-level introspection about time management. Time spent in front of a TV was time not spent tooling around the neighborhood with friends or accompanying my indulgent grandparents on their weekly shopping trips.

The decision was made easier by the quality of the material featured on the program — lesser kaiju flicks and slow-moving monochrome jobbers from the Fifties and Sixties. In both cases, the promised spectacle was buried under long budget-sparing scenes of folks spouting expository gibberish in the confines of some office or similar meeting space. Even when I did make an effort to watch an enticingly titled offering, there was a fairly good chance I’d lose interest and wander off to more diverting pastures before the first commercial break.

The few films I did watch from beginning to end were in the company of my mom, who had a unexplained fondness for old-school giant creature romps. She was a big fan of both the import and domestic forms of the genre — Godzilla and Rodan as well as various Harryhausen and Bert I. Gordon flicks. Her favorites were Earth vs. The Spider and The Deadly Mantis (which inspired her to keep a praying mantis as pet when she was a kid) but the one that stuck with me was 1955′s It Came From Beneath the Sea.

In Young Andrew’s world, sea creatures occupied the same psychic space that dinosaurs occupied in other obsessive tykes. Picture books of whales, sharks, and other marine animals filled up a good portion of my playroom bookshelf. The books also had a decent number of vintage illustrations featuring giant cephalopods in fierce battle with other creatures or dragging hapless vessels and persons beneath the waves with their suckered tentacles.

I knew Dracula wasn’t real, but I’d seen real-life octopuses in both an aquarium tank and on PBS wildlife programs. And they freaked the living shit out of me. A giant stop-motion incarnation of one of those strange beasts was able to snare my attention where other monsters failed.

It has been decades since I last watched the film and my memories of it have all but evaporated, apart from the a scene where the monster unfurls a tentacle and crushes a line of pedestrians. It gave me nightmares for weeks and made me keep well clear of the shoreline when my dad dragged me along on one his fishing trips shortly afterward.

Recommended listening: Syd Barrett – Octopus (from The Madcap Laughs, 1970)

The Fiend Folio was the first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons hardcover I owned, thanks to the local Kay-Bee store marking it down to a quite affordable four bucks. As my initial foray away from the basic D&D box sets, it occupies a special place it my heart and it set the tone of my campaigns for straight through — and even into — my transition into Warhammer Fantasy Role Play a couple of years later.

The Folio’s off-beat assortment of (mostly UK fan-created) creatures populated scores of dungeons, and remained my primary resource for monstrous adversaries even after I picked up the somewhat more staid pair of Monster Manuals. I was enraptured by the utter weirdness of the entries, which made them stand out against the usual rogues’ gallery of orcs, ogres, and dragons.

I had a particular fondness for the Folio’s host of bizarre undead monsters, a fascination fed by my EC-reprint-and-VCR-fueled transformation into an adolescent gorehound. This was a good decade and change before zombies became big business, back when renting Dawn of the Dead from some mom ‘n’ pop video store was akin to joining some mystery religion.

Of all the freakish corpse-things the Folio had on tap to terrify player characters, my favorites were the Sons of Kyuss.

The creatures were rotting corpses infested with writhing worms eager to spread their necromantic contagion, and thus hit the perfect sweet spot for an aspiring edgelord’s will towards tryhard transgression. They were also great fun to throw into some underground passage, where my lurid description of their foulness would end up being the most detailed narration of the entire adventure.

“Um, it’s a long passage. It’s, um, dark and stuff with a dirt floor. Further down you can hear a something that sounds like someone slapping raw meat against a stone. It gets closer and now you can hear SOMETHING squirming around like a beetles beneath and overturned stone. Then you see it. A half dozen rag-clad figures, their flesh hanging in rancid tatters and thick wet maggots crawling in and out of the figures’ eyes and mouths. ROLL FOR INITIATIVE!”

The era also marked the height of my artistic ambitions, where I opted out of freshman earth science (and any chance of becoming class valedictorian) in favor of taking an art class. The instructor singled me out as one of her most promising students and granted me my own work area and incredible latitude to pursue whatever I wished.

In terms of direction, I was highly conflicted. On one hand, I felt I had to live up to my mother’s and paternal grandmother’s legacy of doing “serious” art. On the other hand, I was a fifteen year old boy who thought flaming skulls were rad as fuck.

Oddly enough, my instructor tended to encourage the latter tendency. When the time came to enter something into the school’s combined art & talent show, I picked a drawing I’d based on a Nat Geo shot of San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was a single-point perspective street scene, but I did the buildings in silhouette with the various signs in detail.

I was proud as hell of it, and my heart leapt when I was told I tied for first place in the show. Then I discovered the winning picture was another one of my drawings my teacher had stealth-submitted — a sketch of a giant skeleton gorilla picking mushrooms in an underground cavern that I had knocked off one afternoon to look busy.

So, where do the Sons of Kyuss tie into this?

A segment of the class involved clay sculpture, which I was not great at and “wasting” clay was seen as a sin in a time of steep budget cuts. One of my inelegant attempts in the medium was a human figure sculpture, resulting in a grotesque crime against basic anatomy.

To cover up my failure, I used a garlic press to squeeze out a mass of worm-like strands of clay and used them to cover my creation’s shame. Then I flattened its face, stabbed a rough approximation of skull holes into it, and pleaded a fit of artistic inspiration.

My sole objective was to avoid getting yelled at. My teacher entered it into the Globe Scholastic Art Contest. (I didn’t win, or even make it past the initial cut.)

I held onto my ad hoc Son of Kyuss sculpture for years. First on my dresser and then in the back of the cabinet on top of my dresser, where it continued to shed broken bits of ceramic maggot-mass until I accidentally dropped it while clearing space for some Warhammer 40k figures.

Recommended listening: Alien Sex Fiend – Mine’s Full of Maggots (from Maximum Security, 1985)

The year is 1973 and the place is that little Italian place off the main drag. You know the one I’m talking about — where everyone is convinced the owner has mob ties, there’s a framed photo of Ol’ Blue Eyes hanging behind the bar, and in fifteen years it will mysteriously burn down and be replaced by a Blockbuster Video store.

On this night, the linguini with clam sauce is being served with an extra side of romantic angst. After receiving a proposal of marriage from her square-jawed beau Tod, the ginger-haired hottie Maura feels obligated ‘fess up about her hidden diabolic lifestyle. Y’see, Maura is a practicing witch, and worries that might not make her acceptable wife material.

Fortunately for Maura, this is the early Seventies and necromantic dabbling isn’t the dealbreaker it used to be in more uptight eras. Tod is totally groovy with his lady being pledged to the Horned One, and even agrees to tag along during her official swearing-in ceremony where she summons a foul denizen from beyond and makes her mark in the Devil’s ledger.

The newlyweds barely recovered from their skyclad honeymoon antics before Maura’s mother Hester swings by their arcane lovenest for a visit.

Hester is also accepting of Maura’s witchiness, though she wonders why her daughter won’t use her mystical powers to “put Tod in his place” and rule the domestic roost. “Witchcraft must be better than women’s lib,” she says, while the hapless Tod sports a worried frown.

While Maura is reluctant to use her powers in such a manner, she eventually gives in to Hester’s relentless hectoring. When Tod refuses to turn off the big game to spend time with the two women, Maura conjures up her own version of the dreaded “Blackout rule.”

Maura feels intense remorse after witnessing Tod’s reaction to this magical betrayal, but that doesn’t stop her from unleashing further whammies on her hubby at Hester’s request. His patience at its end, Tod finally forces the issue by asking Maura to make a choice — him or Hester.

With her mom sent packing, Maura has time to reflect upon her vulgar displays of hellborn power and regret the pettiness of her actions. A distraught Maura tells Tod that she regrets ever becoming a witch, as she seems incapable of controlling her powers.

Todd, being an understanding spouse, decides this is the correct time for him to reveal his little secret.

“Isn’t it great, honey? The one bit of empowerment and agency you felt actually came entirely from me! Not only do you get to live under the cultural confines of traditional gender roles, but also magical ones as well! And, by the way, I actually look like Martin Landau’s creepy cousin and each one of my eyebrows has its own ZIP code! Now make me a goat tongue sandwich with extra eye of newt, sweetcheeks.”

Forget witches and demons and mother-in-laws. When it comes to Bronze Age funnybook stories, gender politics are the real monster.

(from “When You Wed a Witch!” by Carl Wessler and Romy Gamboa in The Witching Hour #36, November 1973)

Recommended listening: Electric Light Orchestra – Strange Magic (from Face the Music, 1975)

More arcane mysteries from the Me Decade.

On days like today, when faced with real-life horrors perpetrated by real-life monsters, it can be difficult to indulge in silly frivolities about ghosts and ghoulies. I’ve whistled past plenty of graveyards in my limetime, but the sheer enormity of events can overwhelm even the most centered (or jaded) of us.

I start wondering “what right have I” and feel pangs of intense guilt before I arrive at the same answer I always do on these occasions — “because it’s what I do.”

Halloween is a cultural coping mechanism, a sanctioned celebration of primordial fears whose remnants linger to the present day. In olden times, it was the last hurrah before the Long Cold Dark returned, rejoicing the harvest bounty while acknowledging the former half of the seasonal cycle of death and rebirth.

As a New Englander, I feel its rhythms acutely. The turning of the leaves, the longer nights, the slight chill in the air all trigger responses so habitual they border on hardwired. Summer gives way to a riot of harvest color gives way to the skeletal solemnity of the pre-solstice stretch. It’s bracing and intoxicating and downright magical, and always marks a shift in tastes and behaviors.

Even when I got a slight taste of it a month back, I put aside the summer playlist of party jams and pulled out favored selections from my piles of goth rock and postpunk LPs.

I’m not alone in this. The spooky season has been seeing something of a renaissance over the past decade and change. You can’t make it to the second week of September before folks start chomping at the spectral bit. It would be easy to pass this off as an effect of the every-lengthening holiday retail cycles, but I suspect there’s more to it than just a marketing push.

We live in a legitimately terrifying age. Halloween takes the edge of those fears by offering more fanciful and familiar ones. I’m past the point of being convinced there’s a monster outside my bedroom window or compelled to hide behind the couch during a Creature Double Feature showing of an old Hammer flick, but I can still remember those old fears and bask in the residual thrill.

At best, it can strengthen one’s fortitude against genuine horrors. At the very least, it’s a nostalgically fun distraction.

Recommended listening: Bauhaus – In Fear of Fear (from Mask, 1981)

Setting a new bass line for terror.

Can you feel it, fellow children of the night?

The chill in the air? The disturbing whispers on the wind? The unexpected quickening of your pulse?

It can only mean one thing — the return of Armagideon Time’s annual Halloween Countdown, thirty-one days of tricks and treats exhumed from the dankest depths of popcult hell.

This marks my twelfth go-round on this dark carousel, which is pretty darn scary in and of itself.

Recommended listening: Destroy All Monsters – You’re Gonna Die (from a 1978 b-side)

A cheerful little rave from the grave to kick off the festivities.

Goes great with anything

September 29th, 2017

TV Version: Perennial wallflower Sarah Jones was having a tough time getting used to life in wild and woolly Akron, but a chance encounter with an old crone has turned her life upside-down! Now, whenever shy Sarah puts on the strange headband the crone gave her, she becomes magically transformed into the vivacious and outgoing Sasha! Comedic hijinks ensue as Sarah/Sasha tries to manage her double life and deal with her confused-but-smitten co-worker Dale Drylook and disapproving landlady Mrs. Bluenose. Coming this fall to NBC!

Movie Version: What could turn an innocent co-ed into an DEMONIC FORCE OF BLOODY VENGEANCE? Learn the horrible truth — IF YOU DARE — in THE HEADBAND where MURDER is the ultimate fashion accessory. Now available from Vestron Video on VHS and Beta formats.

Comics Version: The Disco Dazzler has battled some of the toughest customers in the Marvel Universe, but she hasn’t faced anything quite like The Headband. Who is this unstoppable foe and what connection does she have to Dazzler’s troubled past? Discover the shocking truth in Dazzler #8!

Music Version: The platinum-selling powerhouses behind “Physical” and “Working for the Weekend” have teamed up to release what could become the season’s blockbuster single! “The Headband” is a masterpiece combining the best Olivia Newton-John and Loverboy have to offer. Also available in a picture disc version. (Contact distributor for details.)

Estate Sale Version: “How about two bucks?”
“I’ll give you fifty cents for it.”

Looking back at my RPG purchases from that year, 1989 was apparently “The Year of the Expensive Hardback.” I bought three of the damn things during those twelve months, each one wielding an outsized influence that went beyond the gaming table.

While I underwent a good deal of buyer’s remorse over Realm of Chaos and Rogue Trader, I had no qualms about plunking down a stack of bills for the third major acquisition of the year –

– the 4th edition Champions rulebook.

I didn’t really follow the RPG fan press (apart from occasional back issues of White Dwarf) at the time, so I had no idea the massive tome was in the pipeline until I spotted a copy at the Compleat Strategist in the late summer of 1989.

Champions was the first superhero-themed role playing games I ever played, and remained one of our gaming group’s few constants amidst a giddy churn of one-offs, non-starters, and quickly abandoned Hot New Things. The game was creaky and complicated to a fault, but its subject matter and robust character creation mechanics kept us coming back to it. In short, I was an easy mark for this new iteration of the game, especially in the form of a classy (and weighty) hardbound edition that sported some sweet cover art by the legendary George Perez.

The buy-in was pretty steep for my cash-strapped self — the money from my time in split-shift food service hell was long gone — but I managed to mitigate it by offloading my set of 3rd edition Champions rulebooks onto by buddy Scott for fifteen bucks.

After sitting down and skimming through the book’s salient parts, it became clear that 4th edition Champions was intended to be a consolidation and clarification of the existing game instead of a radical revision. The core rules and combat mechanics were largely unchanged from the 3rd edition, apart from some small “quality of life” fixes and the codification of ubiquitous house rules. Bonus hand-to-hand damage, for example, became a distinct power instead of a workaround where’d you buy ranks of energy blast then apply the “no range” limitation to them.

Despite the branding, the revised Champions rules were designed to serve for the entire “Hero System” in general. The power levels and tiers of abilities could be scaled and adapted to cover anything from dungeon-crawling fantasy to two-fisted pulp adventure to epic space opera. The idea was to consolidate the various Hero System games into a single comprehensive rulebook, and the designers mostly succeeded in that task. (Eventually the core “meat ‘n’ potatoes” rules were released in a standalone paperback edition, though I’ve never met anyone who has ever used them to play anything but superheroic campaigns.)

The fourth edition of Champions was less about revisions to the rules and more about how to approach them as a player or gamemaster. The bulk of the book consists of guidelines, suggestions, and rationales for effective character creation, scenario design, and campaign planning. In earlier editions of the game, power levels were an ad hoc and eminently exploitable affair where characters could (and did) load up with an excess of ludicrous disadvantages in exchange for more points to purchase abilities. The tendency spread though and/or was enabled by officially published supplements, in which the most disposable adversaries were inflated into archfiend levels of power.

The 4th edition attempted to dial that back by setting baselines and recommended maximums for base character point pools and disadvantage totals — for example, a typical superhero was fixed at 100 points to start with a maxmimum 150 additional points through disadvantages. This put a greater emphasis on “frameworks” — discounted bundled deals for thematically related or limited powers — which in turn encouraged players to think in terms of character concepts instead of raw advantage via exploits. Various example characters were provided to illustrate the potential of the approach, and what it was capable of accomplishing.

It was a necessary and long overdue step towards reining in Champions‘ tendency towards “metagaming” absurdity — which was rapidly tossed aside in subsequent supplements.

This behind-the-curtain stuff captured my attention more than anything else in the book, and boosted my enthusiasm towards re-starting our sporadically ongoing campaign. Lil Bro and Scott reworked their Captain America and Iron Man analogues (“Patriot” and “Armor X”) using the new recommended power limits, while my buddy Damian remained true to form by creating an original character who absolutely wasn’t a carbon copy of Strider Hiryu from the Capcom arcade game. The campaign lasted for a half-dozen sessions, which was a remarkably long streak for us as this stage.

More importantly, the book’s in-depth discussion about things like pacing and character development stuck with me on a deeper level. It was fairly rudimentary as far as practical criticism went and leaned heavily on unquestioned fandom, but it did (alongside the similar parts of Mekton II) open my eyes to the idea of genre as both a construction and a convention governed by certain expectations. These shallow revelations paved the way for more intensive forms of observation and engagement. Because they involved things I actually gave a shit about, these basic lessons found easier purchase than anything gleaned from listening to a bored English teacher drone on about A Separate Peace or Johnny Tremain.

In the short term, it inspired some truly awful superhero fiction from yours truly. Over the long haul, however, it helped attune my perception towards weightier questions to come.

Do K-Tel #18: Modern Dance (1981)

September 26th, 2017

Because of the ominously impending Halloween Countdown, this will be the last installment of this feature until November. That’s kind of a lucky break for me, though, because it also happens spotlight the only K-Tel compilation in my stack that hasn’t yet been discussed.

I’m hoping to replenish the reserves during the break. If that doesn’t happen for whatever reason, at least we’ll be ending things on a spectacular note.

Modern Dance is a 1981 compilation spotlighting the post-punk “club music” scene that was taking the UK by synthesized storm. The album never got a US release, though import copies of it did find their way to this side of the Atlantic — thanks to savvy retailers who saw the sales potential of the MTV-driven buzz for all things Brit and bleep-bloop.

The album is one of K-Tel’s better regarded efforts, earning praise even from more high-minded audiophiles who tend to turn their noses up at the label’s dodgy recording quality and Procrustean approach to cross-fading. Even if the end product was slightly chopped and somewhat tinny, it provided a handy one-stop gateway into an exotically future-facing scene for kids seeking something a little more slick and stylish than Foreigner or REO Speedwagon.

The “scene” in question is often described as the “New Romantic” sound, though it doesn’t fully apply to Modern Dance’s timeframe or song selections. At best, the fashion-conscious pop sounds of the Nu-Ro crowd composed a single circle in the comp’s Venn diagram, overlapping with another one labeled “postpunk synth.” Both scenes eventually blended together to create the general “synthpop” template of the early eighties and beyond, and Modern Dance provides an excellent survey of its emergence.

A1 Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – Joan Of Arc
A2 Japan – Quiet Life
A3 The Human League – Love Action
A4 Heaven 17 – Penthouse And Pavement
A5 Depeche Mode - New Life
A6 Simple Minds - Sweat In Bullet
A7 John Foxx – Europe After The Rain
A8 The Cure – Charlotte Sometimes
A9 Gary Numan – She’s Got Claws

B1 Visage – Fade To Grey
B2 Landscape – Einstein A Go-Go
B3 Fashion – Move On
B4 Japan – Visions Of China
B5 The News – A World Without Love
B6 Simple Minds - Love Song
B7 Heaven 17 – Play To Win
B8 Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – Enola Gay
B9 The Human League – Open Your Heart

The tracklist reflects its evolution in progress. On one hand you have a past-prime effort by synthpop pioneer Gary Numan, and on the other there’s Depeche Mode fumbling their way toward the scene’s future.

Several artists are represented by multiple tracks. Two songs from the Human League’s Dare made the cut, yet neither was the band’s breakthrough hit (and I’m absolutely fine with that). I’ve never been particularly enthusiastic about Heaven 17, but their selections fit just fine within the contextual whole. The pair of Simple Minds track are mope-tastic reminders of just how great the band was before they embraced Big Pop stardom…and that goes double for OMD’s twin offerings.

For some reason, neither of the scene’s apex artists made it onto Modern Dance, but the album makes up for their absence by having John Foxx fill in for his former bandmates in Ultravox and Japan’s “Quite Life” more than sufficiently fill the Duran Duran-shaped hole.

The remaining slots are filled out with ancillary and other associated acts, including the baffling inclusion of “Charlotte Sometimes” by The Cure. Don’t get me wrong — I love the song, but it doesn’t fit the overall vibe Modern Dance tries to convey. That space probably would’ve been better occupied by Spandau Ballet’s “To Cut a Long Story Short.”

All in all, Modern Dance is a fascinating artifact of its time that also happens to be a pretty remarkable album which still holds up pretty well after all these years. It’s also a strong contender for the favorite K-Tel compilation in my library, depending on my prevailing mood. It was an absolute bargain for the twenty bucks (ten for the LP, ten for shipping) I paid some German mail order place to obtain it.

Staring in the early Nineties — on the heels of the “Superstar Artist” boom — department store began offering bundles of funnybooks in their holiday catalogs.

The stuff was never foregrounded among the most kid-coveted items of the year, but relegated to the back pages jumble of coin and stamp collector kits and magic sets. The comics weren’t marketed as reading material but as investment opportunities for the budding collector.

Sometimes the comics were offered as standalone bundles. At other, more heady times, they were offered alongside as part of an accessorized starter pack including abbreviated price guides, bags ‘n’ boards, and absurdly re-branded shit bought wholesale from a office supply store.

At the height of the craze, the Big Two released their own official “collector’s kits” gussied-up with fancy trade dress and packed with various extras. They also liked to toss the phrase “out-of-print” around quite a bit, in an attempt to twist a core aspect of periodical publishing into a selling-point.

Even with the “individual titles may vary” caveat, the comics displayed in the catalog were the same ones I passed over in the local quarter bins — unsold and otherwise unsaleable surplus inventory bundled up and marketed to a fresh (and less savvy) demographic.

The were they type of gift you’d get from a great aunt with vague memories of you reading an issue of Batman during a family gathering. The one set I do remember receiving was a random assortment of Comico books (but no Mage, Grendel, or Robotech) stuffed into a fancy slipcase that was worth more than the individual comics it contained.

A slightly better gift than a job lot Inhumanoids hoodie that was three sizes too small for me, I suppose.

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