Magic, myth and high weirdness in Highbury
- Alan Moore »
Alan Moore is a curious fellow by anyone’s definition. Born in Northampton in 1953, he can variously be described as a ground-breaking writer, a Blake-ian visionary, a poet, a political activist, a magician, a historian, a ‘drugs guru’, a gothic icon and, almost inevitably given that portfolio, both a genius and a lunatic. He hasn’t cut his hair within living memory and, well, let’s just say he could show that bloke from Queens of the Stoneage a thing or two about REAL beards. He has eyes that appear pitch black and he could outstare Rasputin. His appetite for drugs is legendary. He talks openly in interviews about his experience with Crowley-inspired magickal ritual and his conversations with demons. He probably charges reasonable rates for children’s parties, too. According to those who have met him, of course, he’s also a really nice, down to earth guy, despite the reputation.
Whilst he has tried his hand at various different creative mediums over the years (a prize goes to anyone who remembers his band The Emperors of Ice-Cream), he made his reputation writing comics, and continues to express himself mainly through good old funny books.
Back in the mid-eighties, Moore and artist Dave Gibbons were commissioned to write a 12 part comic book series about, you’ll not be surprised to hear, people with superpowers hitting each other. The resulting series, Watchmen, is now often used as a set text in university English courses. Moore managed to transform a standard tale of superhero hi-jinx into an epic study of power, responsibility and the value of human life, also incorporating a worryingly plausible alternative history of the 20th century, a treatise on schizophrenia, the end of the world as we know it and endless layers of portentous classical symbolism.
Basically, he used a genre usually directed at illiterate geeks to create something that could keep a team of English Lit. lecturers busy for months and completely revolutionised the comic book industry while he was at it. Quite an achievement.
His other major comic projects include V for Vendetta (1988), a tale of freedom and control set in a near-future fascist England, From Hell (1991-96), a 1000+ page account of the Jack the Ripper murders based on exhaustive historical research (currently being turned into a movie staring Johnny Depp and Heather Graham) and Brought to Light (1989), an expose of US government corruption which allegedly caused at least one resignation.
In 1998, Alan Moore’s debut prose novel Voices of the Fire was published. The lengthy first chapter was written in Neolithic English using a vocabulary of only 400 words. Moore remarked in a recent interview; “I loved it but people have pointed out to me since that if I was going to be doing my first novel and the first chapter of my first novel, then perhaps it might not have been a bad idea to do it in English but ah, what the hell.”
Those who weren’t put off by this, myself included, found Voices of the Fire to be easily one of the most fascinating and original books published in the last decade.
So, you’re probably asking yourself by know, what’s all this hype about this guy doing here on this here music-type website?
Well, on the 5th of November last year, Steven Severin’s RE: record label released The Highbury Working: A Beat Séance , a CD which combines one of Alan Moore’s extraordinary spoken word performances with musical accompaniment from a gent by the name of Tim Perkins (who is apparently part of a musical combo called Finality Jack, with whom I admit I am unfamiliar).
The Highbury Working was first performed upstairs at the Highbury Garage in 1997 and is basically an experiment in (wait for it) historical psycho-geography and magickal evocation, in which Moore dramatises events from the past of the Highbury region in an attempt to define the “spirit” of the area and to summon and release it as “The Angel Highbury”.
OK, now anyone who’s stuck with me thus far is probably now thinking “my, that sounds like a load of meandering gothic bollocks” and thinking of some more wholesome activity to fill their time with, but I assure skeptics that The Highbury Working manages to avoid the vast scope for pretension and remains a compulsive, fascinating and, lest we forget, highly unusual listening experience throughout.
Moore mixes straight historical storytelling with an inspired kind of word mangling, which simultaneously resembles both beat poetry and William Blake. Perkin’s music meanwhile, matches the rhythm of the words throughout and only occasionally lapses into freeform noodling, varying from deep rumbling bass noises and discordant power chords to ambient swooshing noises and drum and bass – kind of like ..And You Will Know Us With The Trail of Dead jamming with The Orb.
The real strength though, lies in the fascinating subject matter.
Moore’s novel took the wholly uninteresting town of Northampton and through detailed local research revealed a wealth of legends, traditions, crimes and personal tragedies.
The Highbury Working follows the same formula, excavating events of note from the past of the fairly unremarkable Highbury district, revealing it to be a lot more remarkable than previously assumed.
After the introductory rant “Lady, that’s my Skull”, Moore begins the proceedings by discussing the pagan deities originally worshiped in the area (a reoccurring theme in his work) before moving on to the eventful construction of the original London Underground.
In the next forty minutes or so we learn of Highbury’s remarkable 18th century circus and freakshow, the antics of the Kray twins in the 1960s, the opium inspired visions of both Aleister Crowley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the force-feeding of suffragettes, and even the incident in which the 1925 Arsenal FA cup squad inadvertently invented Acid House (no, really, you’ll have to listen to find out more).
The combination of words and music brilliantly evokes the widely varying atmosphere’s of the different periods, and whether the stories are horrific, tragic, humorous or simply insane, their protagonists are made to seem emphatically human, rather than simply ghosts dredged up from the past for a cheap laugh.
Probably the best track, which deserves to be singled out for individual analysis, is the penultimate one, ‘No.1 With a Bullet’ which chronicles the last few living hours of the infamous record producer Joe Meek, who in 1969 shot his Landlady, and himself, in his London studio after failing to capture ‘the perfect sound’.
Perkins music, easily the most effective on the CD, uses samples from Meek’s portentous last record I Hear a New World (which must rank as one of the freakiest pop songs ever recorded) to create a beautifully understated soundtrack to the intensely sad story.
Moore’s lyrical prose is at it’s best, slowly building a picture of Meek’s mental problems, his abandonment of the real world and his obsession with finding God through music. I dare any listener not to be moved as the tragic tale reaches it’s inevitable conclusion and Joe makes his way to his new world, transformed forever into the perfect sound of the final gunshot. The simplest track, uncontaminated by the gothic bluster which occasionally contaminates the rest, it is truly a thing of beauty.
Proving that spoken word CDs don’t have to consist of hammy Radio 4 voice actors bellowing through shortened versions of bestsellers for people who can’t be arsed to read them, The Highbury Working is a bold and original creation which comes highly recommended to anyone wishing to stretch the boundaries of their listening to include something more thought-provoking.
So, if you’re not instantly put off by the idea having your headspace invaded by an venerable occultist with a habit of going off on a tangent about ‘Namor the Frog-Man’ and ‘The cat in Highgate cemetery that speaks in human tongues’, check it out, and if you like it why not seek out Alan Moore’s other work. You’ll be a better person for it, honest. And even if you don’t like it, it’s bound to scare your neighbors / housemates more than a box full of Norwegian metal records and it’s probably pretty funny to listen to when you’re stoned.
THE HIGHBURY WORKING – A BEAT SÉANCE is out now on RE: records, catalogue number RE:PCD03.
To order a copy direct check out www.stevenseverin.com
To find out more on Alan Moore, www.alanmoorefansite.com