When I was young, I guess really up until I was fourteen or fifteen, we used to take our family holidays exclusively within the West Country – indeed, Weston-Super-Mare is about the furthest I can remember us venturing. I suppose that this being the early-mid '70s then the package holiday was only then really starting to come into its own, but it passed us by completely. A lot of these weeks were spent in Torquay, which geographically slightly misses the location of my opening point, but for some reason this generally included a visit to the Somerset town of Taunton, generally on the Saturday of our return home. One of my maternal grandparents had relatives who lived in what seemed to be a fairly big house in the town principally occupied, it seemed, by a not totally tame, house-trained or domesticated rabbit that had the run of the house. The point of mentioning this is that somewhat out of the town centre there was a newsagent type of shop that never seemed to be open on the Saturday afternoons that we walked passed it on our way to the home of these seemingly eccentric relatives but through its darkened, or on reflection almost sepia, windows could be spotted, on a shelf behind the counter, a selection of imported from the US Bantam books that reprinted what seemed to my early teenage years rather dangerous and exotic pulp magazine reprints: Doc Savage, The Shadow, and most intriguingly of all, The Avenger.
Now, Doc Savage and The Shadow I knew about from reprints released over here. Corgi Books issued three Doc Savage novels including the original Man of Bronze story whilst New English Library reprinted four Shadow adventures including one that I still own to this day, The Living Shadow. But to my knowledge neither Corgi or NEL had a go at The Avenger, even though this was the era of lurid paperbacks of US pulp fiction – highly erotic and glamorous covers on editions of Edgar Rice Burrough's Mars and Venus stories, editions of other ERB novels be them Tarzan books or At The Earth's Core type yarns, The Spider and something called Raven with Chris Achellios covers. But never The Avenger – in fact the only other exposure to this character that I can remember in the 70s was seeing a copy of the Jack Kirby version of the character in DC's Justice Inc comic book on one of those rotating wire-rack magazine point-of-sale displays in a newsagents in the fishing village of Looe (more family visiting – my maternal great-grandfather was a sea captain) that seemed to be there every time we visited and never sold.
I read the two-part Justice Inc series that DC published in the 1980s as a spin-off of their radically reworked version of The Shadow – which I rather liked, though preferred Howard Chaykin's four-part miniseries - and then mostly forgot about the character, though I'd occasionally think about the contents of that now, I assume, long-gone Taunton shop either when I'd be in the town or driving past it on the M5. I don't believe I ever entered its doors but it seemed to smell of exotic mysteries and the opportunity to rifle its contents would have been heaven to me in 1974. But lately I've been reading a few of those Bantam reprints courtesy of my friend Roger Neville-Neil who most kindly sent some across from America. Roger is, as most blog readers will know, the chap who contributed lyrics to the Hawkwind songs 'Needle Gun', 'The War I Survived' and 'Heads' and has already influenced this blog by sending me albums by the terrific US band The UpsideDown – but he's also a guy with a quite encyclopaedic knowledge of pulp and noir fiction and characters and a real love of The Shadow, The Saint and all those other great operatives. They seem much less outlandish now... rather formulaic works really (hardly surprising when you consider how quickly and regularly these stories were bashed out), but they still have a certain thrill and a cracking pace to them which make them enjoyable diversions if not living up to the rather thrillingly forbidden image that I'd cultivated of them all those years past.
But, Roger, great guy and I was so pleased to get the chance from him to read those stories at last. Aside from those lyrics for Hawkwind, inspired of course by Robert Calvert who Roger knew and still carries a great admiration for, Roger has contributed lyrics for Farflung and Spirits Burning, along with his long-running sequence of Chandler/noir-esque gig reviews for Aural Innovations styled as the 'Action Man' stories and is a very talented photographer who has snapped many bands both live and in the studio – some of his work appears, with his very kind permission, in my Hawkwind book. Now he's one of the pivotal creators in the latest Spirits Burning album, Behold The Action Man, which is due from Voiceprint Records in the next few months (Don believes it will appear in August) and of which I received an advance CDR copy this weekend from SB's main protagonist, Don Falcone.
I'm a big fan of Spirits Burning, having reviewed this space rock collective's work for R2 and for Record Collector, and having interviewed Don a few years back for Colossus magazine, and Don's again assembled an impressive line-up of collaborators to realise this album. From Hawkwind, SB regular Bridget Wishart along with Alan Davey and Paul Hayles, Nik Turner collaborator Paul Fox, Dr Brown's Kev Ellis, Jefferson Starship's Trey Sabatelli, Daevid Allen, the ever-welcome viper violinist Cyndee Lee Rule, and Don Xaliman from Melodic Energy Commission – amongst others. I do think that the prolific outpouring of the Spirits Burning concept is both one of its strengths – there's a significant regular outpouring from this ensemble and a diversity of writing credits that gives it a wide-ranging outlook and sound – but also something of a downside as well. And that's sort of how I feel about Behold The Action Man on initial listening – there's a lot of it, sixteen tracks in all and it's just something of the 'less could be more' feeling about it. I'm nine tracks in and listening to a really motivating, strum-along rocker called 'The Train', for the second time this month a track that I'm immediately going 'Black Rebel Motorcycle Club' about, one where Don has written lyrics and the music, and its bloody fabulous. On the other hand, I've got to track nine liking what's come before without really sitting up and being thrilled.
I've enjoyed 'Stand And Deliver', lyrics by Bridget and Roger and vocals from Kev Ellis, one that could work really well if ever there's an on-stage coming together of Spirits Burning instead of their across-the-ether modus operandi. I liked 'Straffed By A UFO', which sounds like a Dave Brock solo album track but with a Calvert vocal (provided by Don) and I was engaged with the instrumental 'Crank Up The Vibes', which actually doesn't do what it says on the tin but is more of a mid-album downward change of pace, ready for the tracks to pick up the heat again with 'The Train'.
A complete change of vibe is 'Every Space Opera' which has a bit of a torch song feel to it, accentuated by Catherine Foreman's sultry vocals and Bridge's EWI playing which the liners note as producing Clarinet, Bassoon and French Horn; a lovely piece all told. On the other hand, Roger's private-eye ruminations on 'Obelisk of Fondue' are lost to Daevid Allen's wilfully eccentric reading of the lyrics on the album's only real misfire and I just thought that any point to this one was completely lost in translation. Then again, 'Astral Flight Gassed' has a delightfully '60s/Gerry Anderson opening sequence feel to its music even if the lyrics become a tad 'arch' at times and the play-out 'Underworld Messiah' is a moody, atmospheric, triumph.
To take it as a whole then, as always some very good stuff but it's a little bit muddled, as though there is an interesting concept trying to come through but one that's been sidetracked out of cohesiveness in a way, lost sight of perhaps, so that we are not really 'Beholding the Action Man' but seeing glimpses of him through a haze of other ideas. It's a good record, but it could have been more focused. Look out for it this summer though – there's a lot of very decent material here.
As a curious co-incidence, as I was thinking through this preview/review yesterday I was also watching the Audrey Hepburn / William Holden film Paris When It Sizzles. The Avenger was, of course, the code name for Richard Benson... the same character name as played by William Holden in Paris...