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1983: The High Summer of (Synth-)Pop

From the gender-bending of Eurythmics, Culture Club & Marilyn, to the propulsive synthpop of Depeche Mode, New Order, & the Human League, 1983 was, argues Mark Simpson, a high-water mark for pop experimentation.

(Originally appeared on Out.com, 18 Feb, 2014)

IN 1983, THE YEAR THAT MCDONALD’s introduced the Chicken McNugget and the second Cold War was at its height, the world very nearly ended when huge NATO exercises were mistaken by an extremely jittery USSR for preparations for a nuclear first strike.

More ominously still, compact discs went on sale in the United States and Europe, the first commercial mobile telephone call was made, and the Internet as it’s known today came into existence. Oh, and Carrie Underwood was born. In other words, while the world itself didn’t actually end in 1983, all the necessary means were invented for bringing about something much, much worse: the end of pop music. (Though it was going to take a while.)

Which, rather like the best pop itself, is a bittersweet thought to savor – since 1983 was unquestionably the finest year for pop music eva.

1983 was also — perhaps not so coincidentally — my final year at high school, and instead of studying for my exams and thinking about what I wanted to actually do with my life, I’d taken to hanging around hi-fi shops on my way home, hypnotized by the LED(!) and LCD(!!) equalizer displays on the latest sound systems. I fell head over heels in love with a Technics SL-7 turntable. There were various reasons for its quasi-sexual appeal: The total surface area was no bigger than an LP sleeve, and the turntable had a really cool linear arm tracking inside the lid that was automatically operated with buttons at the front. It was very futuristic; like a giant, clunky, analog CD player, before anyone I knew had a CD player.

But the real reason for my infatuation with the turntable was the 12-inch of Eurythmics’s ‘Love Is a Stranger’ that its cunning salesman slapped on – at full volume. Not only did the otherworldly, drivingly sequenced synth sounds and Annie Lennox’s operatic range superbly showcase the sound dynamics of the product, the lyrics Lennox breathed, seemingly in the back of your mind, were the ultimate hard sell:

And I want you / And I want you / And I want you so.”

Pop music in the early ’80s was a stranger in an open, gilt-edged, glamorous, sleekly designed car, tempting you in and driving you far away. And not only in Eurythmics songs; the Smiths’s second single, and their first hit, ‘This Charming Man’, also released in 1983, featured that same car-driving stranger offering Morrissey a ride (albeit with guitars not synths playing on the radio). This year was a pre-Fall moment when everything and anything seemed possible — because it was.

The neck-strainingly rapid developments in music-making technology meant that no one really knew what they were doing until they’d actually done it. Every record was a revelation. A miracle. There were no rules because there was no manual. Improvisation was king. Eurythmics recorded their smash-hit album, Sweet Dreams, for example, on a simple TEAC eight-track in an attic, without any of the fixtures of a professional studio. The title song was recorded in a single take, with Lennox improvising most of the lyrics on the spot and David Stewart tapping on half-filled milk bottles to produce that chiming sound as Lennox sings ‘Hold your head up/ Keep your head up.’

In this new landscape, record companies had little choice but to indulge their prodigies in their pixie boots with their pixie powers. (Although that didn’t stop ‘Love Is a Stranger’ from being yanked off the air during an early transmission on MTV by executives who confused Lennox for a transvestite.)

This was also the era of the wizard producer: industry legends like Martin Rushent, who fashioned the sound of the Human League, and most famously Trevor Horn, former lead singer for the Buggles, who produced ABC’s stunningly beautiful 1982 album, The Lexicon of Love, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s pounding 1983 single ‘Relax’. Horn, who deftly deployed the dark magic of the famous Fairlight sampling synthesizer, was nothing less than a creator of brave new sonic worlds. (Appropriately, Horn’s 1979 Buggles single ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ was also the first to be aired on MTV when the channel launched in 1981.)

Early ’80s British synthpop — or “new wave,” as it was known in the United States — was madly ambitious and utopian, offering an analog dream of a digital future. And it sounded gorgeous. In fact, it sounded much better than the properly digital future did when it actually arrived, with greater processing power, a few years later. It was also much better than drugs or sex, which turned out to be piss-poor substitutes for pop music when they finally showed up at the end of the decade in jeans at an acid house rave somewhere in a field near Manchester. Synthpop — or “new pop” as the genre was more broadly dubbed by the music journalist Paul Morley at the time — was the glorious culmination of the 1970s’ aesthetic revolts of glam and punk rock. It was pop music at its most fun, its most danceable, its most pretentious, its most gender-bending, and its most fashionable.

The 12-inch single was a mainstay of synthpop, which in many ways carried on where disco (for which the 12-inch was invented) left off after America murdered it at the end of the ’70s. The greater treble and bass response afforded by 12-inch singles demonstrated the new recording, mixing, and lavish production techniques all the better — and made it hip-twitching. Today, if you listen to extended mixes from that era, especially the ones with the long intros with, say, a single sampled snare drum playing for several minutes, you often wonder where people got the time. But back then, before the Internet and mobile phones ruined everything, they were the height of indulgence. They were a way of making the blissful perfection of the pop single last forever, instead of just three minutes.

Our sixth-form common room didn’t have a Technics SL-7, but it did have a battered 1960s mono Dansette record player. Undoubtedly, the most played record on it in 1983 was New Order’s epoch-making, four-to-the-floor new wave disco track ‘Blue Monday’, which was, in a calculatedly haughty gesture, only available as a 12-inch single and infamously not included on the album Power, Corruption & Lies (though with a transporting track like ‘Your Silent Face’, whose final kiss-off lyric is “You’ve caught me at a bad time, so why don’t you piss off?” I wasn’t complaining about the album). It became the best selling 12-inch single ever in the United Kingdom. It’s difficult, in a post-‘Blue Monday’ world, to understand the seismic impact of that New York hi-NRG sound recycled gloriously through Manchester melancholy. We played it so many times we had to weigh the ancient chisel of a needle down with putty to stop it from jumping.

Other 1983 synthpop singles that got played to death either in the common room or in my bedroom included the deliciously silly ‘Blind Vision’, by Blancmange; the surprisingly political ‘Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?)’, by Wham!; the sublimely whiney ‘Everything Counts’, by Depeche Mode; the cutesy-funky ‘Rip it Up’, by Orange Juice; the fantastically pretentious ‘Visions in Blue’, by Ultravox; the hair-prickling ‘Song to the Siren’, by This Mortal Coil; the tantrummy torch song ‘Soul Inside’, by Soft Cell (their last hurrah); the lazy lyricism of ‘Christian’ by China Crisis; the toe-tapping, fringe-flapping ‘Too Shy’, by Kajagoogoo; the plaintively insistent ‘Come Back and Stay’, by Paul Young; the revving synth-reggae of ‘Electric Avenue’, by Eddy Grant; the beating beauty of ‘All of My Heart’, by ABC (released in 1982 but so big that it hogged much of 1983, too); the delightfully absurd synth-goth of ‘The Walk’, by the Cure; the stolen kisses of ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’, by Fun Boy Three; the bitter-sweet ‘Church of the Poison Mind’, by Culture Club; the exhilaratingly obscure ‘Burning Down the House’, by Talking Heads; the lipsticked charm of ‘(Keep Feeling) Fascination’, by the Human League; and, of course, David Bowie’s Nile Rodgers–produced smash ‘Let’s Dance’, a record that manages somehow to be both criminally danceable and strangely austere, like the White Witch of Narnia on roller skates.

With records like that as the soundtrack to our teenagerdom, is it any wonder that we thought ourselves the cat’s meow?

Bowie had, in many ways, made the glamour and swish of synthpop possible; he was certainly the stylistic inspiration for the romantic wing of new wave (many of whom, however, chose to sing like Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry), famously bestowing his benediction on Steve Strange and assorted Blitz Kids in the video for 1980’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’, dressed in a Pierrot costume, being followed by a bulldozer. By 1983, Bowie had finally achieved the stateside success he had longed for throughout the ’70s with his Serious Moonlight tour, becoming part of the “second British Invasion” of new wave acts.

The second British Invasion — which, by the way, was almost certainly the last — was more successful than the first, changing the American aesthetic as well as musical landscapes. Schooled by ’70s Bowie, British new wave acts like Duran Duran were masterful at drawing attention to themselves onscreen and got saturation exposure on the newly founded MTV. Although their hit single ‘Girls on Film’ was released in 1981, it wasn’t until an MTV-friendly ‘day version’ was reissued in March 1983 that the video became a staple on the channel, along with ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ and ‘The Reflex.’

The synthpop sound and kooky styles of those quirky Brits became the hallmark of ’80s MTV, and eventually made its way into the classic ’80s high school movies of John Hughes. British new wave was especially popular on the West Coast and with Los Angeles’s famous KROQ station — and continued to be long after new wave had been rolled back in the U.K. (When I visited Los Angeles for the first time in 1990, I couldn’t quite believe that all this British synthpop was still being played so much — and in such a sunny place.)

It didn’t hurt that many of the Brit synthpop bands were also very easy on the eyes. The women, like Lennox, could be very handsome, and the boys could be very pretty — Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet certainly were, with the possible exception of their lead singers. In the promo for ‘Everything Counts’, the seemingly sweet Essex boys of Depeche Mode look like they’re in an especially twinky Bel Ami video, albeit with clothes.

For my part, I had a crush on the fresh-faced Edwyn Collins from Orange Juice and Bernard Sumner from New Order (it was a long time ago), who I always thought sang like a boy crying in his bedroom with the window left deliberately open. Also Curt Smith from Tears for Fears, who was preposterously pretty, even with those mini pigtails. There was something about the boyish vulnerability and sensuality of synthpop that went with their kind of looks — a sexual ambiguity vibrated in the sequenced air.

Unfortunately for Smith, he also looked a bit like a lad at school I was hopelessly in love with. It was a requited but yet unconsummated affair — which meant, of course, that it was endlessly orgasmic. I listened to the Tears for Fears album The Hurting, particularly the wonderful whingeing of ‘Pale Shelter’ — “You don’t give me love / you give me cold hands” — much, much too much, and heard things that weren’t really there. I even wrote to them via their record label, thanking them for daring to write such openly homoerotic lyrics — and received a diplomatic letter of acknowledgement back from a PR agent informing me that Curt and Roland would be very pleased to hear their music “meant so much.”

And then there was cute Merseyside duo China Crisis, whose video for their single ‘Christian’ was so knowingly homoerotic that I actually missed how much it was at the time. I was, believe it or not, too innocent. Apparently shot in a Roman gay sauna, it features saucy column stroking (c. 0.12), mud masks and Gary Daly and Eddie Lundon gazing into each others eyes through an ejaculating fountain. It’s almost as if they had a bet on with OMD, also from Merseyside, to make an even more homoerotic video than their Brideshead-inspired 1981 promo for their dreamy ‘Souvenir’ single.

But of all of the pretty early ’80s boys — or girls — Marilyn, a.k.a. Peter Robinson, was perhaps the prettiest. A star of new romantic stomping ground the Blitz club when his mate Boy George was working in the coat check there, he finally got a record deal in 1983 and had a hit with the catchy single ‘Calling Your Name’. The pop charts now had a male gender bender who was sexy instead of mimsy, famously describing himself, entirely accurately, as “Tarzan and Jane rolled into one.”

But a line had been crossed. Sadly, the story of Marilyn is also the story of the end of the high summer of synthpop/new wave. We had traveled too far and too fast in that stranger’s open car — the brakes were being applied. Margaret Thatcher, whose much vaunted ‘Victorian values’ were to include a ban on gay propaganda, was reelected by a landslide in June 1983, thanks largely to the victory of the British armed forces over Argentina in a far-flung colonial outpost. Her bosom buddy Ronald Reagan had meanwhile essentially put the West on a war footing against the ‘Evil Empire’, as he dubbed the Soviet Union. And Dr. Robert Gallo had isolated a virus he named HTLV-III, which had snuffed out Klaus Nomi and Jobriath in that same year. We now know it as HIV.

The delicious “art fag” decadence of new wave — or “that queer English shit” as it was probably more often known in the US — was clearly doomed in the militaristic, materialistic, AIDS-terror climate of the mid-1980s. Male vulnerability and sexual ambiguity were now fatal weaknesses.

Marilyn’s second single, ‘Cry and Be Free’, a ballad released in 1984, was doing well until he appeared, pouting, on Top of the Pops in a glittery off-the-shoulder number. There was a visceral reaction as a nation recoiled from its own arousal. His single plummeted. His third, the catchy and ironically prescient ‘You Don’t Love Me’, stalled at number 40 in the U.K. charts. Effectively the career of the most beautiful boy in British pop was over before it had begun.

And so, essentially, was new wave, banished by a mid-’80s counterrevolution of guitar-led rock. Disco sucked again, and it gave you AIDS. And Bruce bloody Springsteen was the biggest thing in the U.K. charts in 1984.

Yes, it’s true that Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s spunktacular dance track ‘Relax’ finally hit number 1 in January 1984, but it had been released in 1983 and was banned by the BBC in 1984. Frankie went on to have more hits that year in the U.K., including, most famously, ‘Two Tribes’, which satirized the threat of the Cold War turning hot, and certainly sold a lot of T-shirts. But for my pocket money they definitely peaked with ‘Relax’.

My school days ended in the summer of 1983, and with them my exquisitely doomed love affair. Synthpop, as it turned out, was also having it’s last big fling. So you see, contrary to what the history books tell you, the world really did end in 1983 — but at least I got the Technics SL-7 turntable for my 18th birthday.

I ended up playing the Smiths on it a great deal — ‘This Charming Man’, with it’s inviting male driver, smooth leather, guitars and yearning, yelping vocals from its awkwardly pretty, skinny lead singer in a woman’s blouse and beads, was released at the end of 1983. Their eponymous first album, released in January 1984, complete with young Joe Dallesandro’s naked torso on the sleeve, was very definitely the homoerotic bonanza I’d mistaken Tears for Fears’ The Hurting for, albeit a celibate one.

In a sense, the Smiths were the ultimate new wave/new pop band, one who eschewed synthesizers for guitars, which lead singer Morrissey, an über fan of 70s glam and punk, professed to hate. This turned out to be a smart move that kept them in business until 1987 — and Morrissey, as a solo artist, to this day. But I suspect the Smiths were only allowed to happen at all because, despite their enormous fame now, they were a very well-kept secret in the ’80s – barely troubling the British top 10 and effectively banned from daytime radio airplay. Which was only right, seeing as they represented a resistance to much of what pop music became in the latter half of the 80s.

The Smiths were essentially semi-underground new wave – otherwise known as ‘indie’.

Gore Vidal Turns Off The Lights on the American Dream

Mark Simpson speaks to the mother of Myra Breckinridge, and scourge of imperialism, monotheism – and monosexuality

(Arena Hommes Plus, Summer 2009)

I”m hearing the last living Great American Man of Letters. He says something else I don’t hear and I ask him to repeat it. Suddenly this 83 year old legend is very loud and very scary indeed: ‘IS “QUIET” A EUPHEMISM FOR DEAD?!’ he thunders in a voice much more Biblical than his old foe the late Charlton Heston was ever able to muster. But then, Mr Vidal is amongst other things, an Old Testament prophet – albeit a Godless, ‘pinko’ one with a very mischievous sense of humour.

***

‘I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess.’ So announces the opening sentence of the 1968 sensational best-seller Myra Breckinridge about a hilarious, devastating, but always elegant transsexual, by the hilarious, devastating, but always elegant Gore Vidal. Myra, a (slightly psychotic) devotee of High Hollywood, hell-bent on revenging herself on American machismo, continues her manifesto:

‘Clad only in garter belt and one dress shield I held off the entire elite of the Trobriand Islanders, a race who possess no words for ‘why’ or ‘because. Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them, as it does all men, unmanning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.’

From the right angle, and in the right light of hindsight, Gore Vidal resembles his most famous offspring. Clad only in his wit – and an armour-plated ego – Mr Vidal has, during his long and prolific career as a novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, (failed) politician, commentator, movie special guest-star, (gleeful) gadfly, and America’s (highly unauthorised) biographer, taken on The Land of the Free’s finest literary and political warriors, who had no word for ‘why’ or ‘because’, but plenty for ‘faggot’ and ‘pinko’.

Vidal broke the balls – and outlasted – tiresomely macho brawlers like Norman Mailer: he compared The Prisoner of Sex to ‘three days of menstrual flow”. Later, when he was knocked to the ground by Mailer, he retorted, still on the floor: ‘Words fail Norman Mailer yet again’.

And also right wing bruisers like William F. Buckley Jnr., whom he famously provoked into threatening him and shouting ‘you queer!’ on live national TV in 1968. ‘RIP WFB – In Hell’ was Gore’s very Christian obituary notice last year. Like that other thorn in the side of America, Castro, Vidal has survived almost all his foes.

In his spare time, piercing, pointed Gore has taken on the Cold War, the American Empire, what he calls the ‘Republican-Democrat’ Party, monotheism, and, even more sacred to America (and, for that matter, the UK), monosexuality. He himself has had relationships with both men and women (and what women! He was briefly engaged to Joanne Woodward). He maintains, like the incurable blasphemer he is, that ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ are adjectives not nouns, acts not identities. Most recently, his impressively unnecessary punking of the venerable, extravagantly charming BBC presenter David Dimbleby on live TV on Election Night – ‘I DON’T KNOW WHO YOU ARE!’ he barked in his best Lady Bracknell –  has become an unlikely YouTube hit.

As he once said: ‘Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.’ Or was that Myra? Either way, Mr Vidal is more of a man than many of his adversaries sadly mistook themselves for – and, perhaps, more woman than any of them could ever hope to possess.

Maybe that’s why, twenty years ago when I was a callow youth, I sent Mr Vidal a fan letter. I also included, as you do, a topless shot: back then, I had Hollywood tits. And who better to appreciate them than Gore Vidal, MGM’s last contract writer? Fortunately for both of us, response was there none.

I put my tits away, and took to writing. But I was probably still writing fan notes to Vidal, even when I scribbled, as I did from time to time, nasty, Oedipal things about him. Re-reading Myra Breckinridge I can see that too much of my own work is just footnotes to this forty-year-old novel which more or less invented metrosexuality decades before the word was coined, strapped it on and rammed it where the sun don’t shine. (Described at the time on the dust-jacket as a ‘novel of far-out sexuality’ it now seems, well, all the way in).

But now I’m actually speaking to Mr Vidal. I feel like Michael J Fox in Back to the Future where he meets his teen mother at High School (save my ‘mother’ is generally agreed to be no pussycat). Am I going to disappear into an embarrassing time-paradox? ‘Please forgive my nervousness,’ I stutter. ‘I’m a Big Fan – though I suppose those words probably strike terror into your heart…’.

Without missing a beat comes the laconic reply, in that measured, unmistakable voice: ‘They clearly strike terror into yours.’

Later, I hand him another line when I gush, not entirely baselessly: ‘To someone like me, you almost seem like the embodiment of the Twentieth Century!’

‘On arthritic days I know I’m the Twentieth Century’.

Mr Vidal is speaking today from his American home of the last forty years in the Hollywood Hills. Vidal in the Hollywood Hills makes sense – it is an LA Eyrie; a place where his back is covered and from which he can spy people coming a long way off. His fortress-like house in Ravello, Italy, which he recently sold, was perched atop rocky cliffs, reached only by a steep, dizzying pathway. But Vidal says he chose the Hills because they weren’t vulgar. ‘Unlike other parts of LA, like Beverly Hills or Bel Air, when I bought this house forty years ago, it did not attract the super rich, wherever they live they build these huge houses. You don’t have many of those up here in the hills.’

‘Do you survey Los Angeles from your window?’

‘Heavens, no! There’s no sight uglier than Los Angeles!’

‘But at night it can be very beautiful.’

‘Well, almost anywhere can be beautiful at night!’

‘True. Even a refinery town like Middlesbrough, which just happens to be down the road from my own somewhat less glamorous home in the UK. The opening aerial shot of a future, infernal Los Angeles in Blade Runner were supposedly inspired by Middlesbrough at night – the director Ridley Scott grew up round there.’

‘Yes, Ridley Scott used to hire my house. I think also during the making of that film. I used to hire it out a lot – mostly to Brits.’

‘You’re regarded very fondly on these shores.’

‘It’s reciprocated,’ he says, almost warmly. ‘The books were read in the UK at the same time as they were in America. Although more easily for the English since, unlike the New York Times, the London Times was not dedicated to attacking me.’

The New York Times, taking ladylike fright at the matter-of-fact way Vidal’s second novel ‘The City and the Pillar’ dealt with same-sex love in the US Army during the Second World War (Vidal enlisted at the age 17), had an attack of the vapours and banned Gore’s next five novels. No minor snub this, since the NYT even more so then than today could make or break you as a writer.

Perhaps the NYT was so shocked because this distasteful dissident was a product of the very heart of the East Coast Elite. A cuckoo in a feathered nest. Born in October 3, 1924 at the US Military Academy in Westpoint, his father an aeronautics pioneer and airline tycoon (founding what would become TWA and Eastern Airlines), his grandfather was Thomas P. Gore, the most powerful Senator of the age – and also blind – his mother was an actress and socialite (and a mean drunk). He was christened Eugene Luther Vidal Jr. by the headmaster of St. Albans preparatory school, a school for the DC elite which he was to attend. He later took the name ‘Gore’ in honour of his grandfather (a leading Isolationist – whose outlook Vidal has remained faithful to), whom he spent much of his childhood reading to, and mixing with the most powerful figures in the most powerful country in the world – just before it was about to become the world.

I’d like to think that Vidal was almost a kind of internal émigré from the East Coast when he arrived in LA in the early 50s as a scriptwriter for MGM. ‘Not really,’ he demurs, ‘I was back and forth between the East and West Coast. I was one of the founders of live drama on television. I must have done a hundred plays during ’54 to ’57. After the New York Times banned me I had to make a living, and there it was: I never wanted to be a playwright but I found out I was one. Theatre work kept me going for many years.’

A number of his plays were made into movies, including The Best Man (1960), starring Henry Fonda as an idealistic Presidential Candidate faced with one who will do anything to win. It includes a prophetic speech: ‘One day there will be a Jewish President and then a black President. And when all the minorities are heard from we’ll do something for the downtrodden majority of this country: the ladies.’ I mention to Vidal it’s being re-released on DVD.

‘Oh, they never tell me,’ he sighs, ‘and I never receive any money from it – it just happens. I mean now I think the rights probably belong to a group of Martian businessmen.’ (Possibly a bitter reference to another play of his, Visit to a Small Planet, made into a movie starring Jerry Lewis in 1960, in which a delinquent Martian visits Earth – the play’s sharp satire of the Washington elite and 1950s American values disappeared in the film version.)

It’s a busy Oscar Weekend in LA, but will Mr Vidal be attending any of the events? ‘I’ve been invited to the Vanity Fair Oscar Party but I don’t think I’ll be going along. I haven’t been to the Oscars for years. I really don’t have much interest any more.’

‘Whatever happened’, I ask, ‘to the uplifting propaganda for the American Way of Life that Hollywood used to produce?’

‘Well, there are no longer studios to generate that kind of euphoria,’ he replies glumly. ‘Money is all powerful these days, and calls all the shots – in Hollywood and pretty much everything else in American life. We watched That Hamilton Woman last night, as it was called in America, the 1941 Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton biopic. It really was a spectacular movie, they certainly don’t make them like that anymore. It was the first time that Vivien Leigh and Olivier had appeared together, which caused enormous excitement. London was being bombed and they were making this movie in Hollywood! With Alexander Korda directing and producing. A superb romantic film and great acting. God…!’ He trails off in an unguarded reverie.

High Hollywood, the period that Vidal grew up with, visiting the movie theatre almost daily, almost religiously, is one of the few things that he could be accused of being sentimental about. In Screening History (1992) he wrote: ‘It occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.’ In Myra Breckinridge, the heroine declares: ‘…in the decade between 1935 and 1945, no irrelevant film was made in the United States. During those years, the entire range of human (which is to say, American) legend was put on film, and any profound study of those extraordinary works is bound to make crystal-clear the human condition.’

No one could seriously accuse most contemporary Hollywood output of being amenable to ‘profound study’. High Hollywood was about money too of course, but movies back then often seemed to be the most aesthetic medium imaginable: fashion, art, glamour. How was that?

‘The early moguls liked art,’ explains Vidal. ‘Like Adolph Zuckor who founded Paramount. He cast Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress, in Queen Elizabeth, his first feature film. Zuckor aspired to the highest standards of theatre. Then of course Hollywood became very successful and money became all anyone was really interested in.’

‘Remember, movies are movies. It’s better to do them out here where there’s plenty of light without going broke over the electricity. Mind you, the reason that Warner Brothers films were often the best movies made in the 1930s was because they looked so dark – the chiaroscuro quality of WB films was priceless. Bette Davies in The Letter was a great one- from the opening gloomy, brooding shot. How did Warner do it? Well it was because the Brothers Warner were very, very cheap! They’d go around from soundstage to soundstage turning the lights down, so halfway through the day every scene was in darkness!’

‘It was said that a British actor, a little on the pompous side came over here for some loot. Addressing some of the old timer American actors he asked: “Isn’t it difficult living in a society so unrooted and uprooted, without tradition of any kind?” One of them answered: “Why the Warner Brothers Christmas layoffs are one of our greatest traditions!”‘ Vidal laughs scornfully.

Vidal is himself a frequent visitor to the UK, ‘When I was younger I always made a point to visit Saville Row Whenever in London – though the last time was 30 years ago.’

‘How long does a Saville suit last?’

‘Forever! I don’t believe in fashion. I have no time for it. Versace once told me I looked a state and sent some of his staff to visit me in Ravello and make a suit. And very nice suits they were too. But it isn’t something I take an interest in.’

Vidal may claim not to believe in fashion, but in Myra Breckinridge he proved a profound observer of male fashion trends, predicting in effect the Twenty First Century: ‘…young men [today] compensate by playing at being men, wearing cowboy clothes, boots, black leather, attempting through clothes (what an age for the fetishist!) to impersonate the kind of man our society claims to admire but swiftly puts down should he attempt to be anything more than an illusionist, playing a part.’

But when I suggest this to him, bringing up his most famous, most prophetic book, he just says quickly, ‘I should read it again.’ Making it quite clear that he doesn’t wish to discuss it. Perhaps the eccentric 1970 film version starring Raquel Welch left a bad taste in his mouth – it certainly left one in the critics’ mouths.

I ask him when he was last in the UK. ‘Just the other week. I had the great joy of addressing the House of Commons in Westminster’s Great Hall courtesy of Third World Solidarity to talk about the matter of Cuba and the United States. It was the venom of the Kennedy brothers who were out to destroy Castro because he didn’t want to be killed by them. Or invaded. Or taken over. And his revolution erased. The vanity of that family!’

Vidal’s vigorous attacks on liberal icons the Kennedys – whom he knew personally – for their warmongering are always value for money, exploding as they do the soft-focus mythology of Camelot. Vidal was one of the few people in American public life to dare to denounce the Cold War as an American invention to keep the politically and economically profitable US war machine turning over after the Second World War ceased trading. ‘The thing about Jack was that he actually believed all that anti-communist propaganda – the previous Presidents didn’t.’ (To which could be added: George W. Bush had much in common with Kennedy’s messianic zeal and frothy talk of ‘freedom’ – he just didn’t have the good fortune to be assassinated in his first term.)

Vidal was vehemently attacked for his outspokenness about the Cold War and particularly for talking and writing about something that was as clear as day: the American Empire. ‘”How dare you!” people shouted,’ recalls Vidal. ‘”We’re not an Empire! We stand for freedom!”‘

‘Recently pretty much everyone has started talking about the “American Empire”,’ I observe.

‘Well, when we started down the Roman Imperial, dynastic way with the Bush family,’ says Vidal wearily, ‘it became quite clear it was all wrong whatever it was. Remember, we didn’t break away from England, we broke away from the King. That’s what the Declaration of Independence is all about. Thomas Jefferson’s brilliant propaganda united the colonists against George III.’

‘We’re the original Evil Empire.’

‘Well, you certainly were then.’

‘Alas, our empire fell . . .’

‘Well, you ran out of money.’

‘Yes. As the US seems to be doing now. Are you surprised by the speeded-up schedule of Imperial implosion?’

‘I was surprised by the speed at which we lost the Republic, and lost Magna Carta during the Bush Dictatorship.’

‘But you see liberal icon Roosevelt as the first American Emperor – decreeing there should be no Empires, save his.’

‘I’ll tell you a story. Roosevelt was having lunch with Churchill. The Second World War was drawing to a close. They toasted the end of the war. Then Roosevelt gave Churchill a radiant smile, and said [here Vidal imitates Roosevelt’s high Patrician voice: he is a great, savage mimic], ‘You realize you’re going to have to give up your precious India, don’t you?’ [imitating Churchill’s jowly tones] “Never!” And they had a quarrel over the lunch table. Many people who happened to be there spread it around. Roosevelt not only won the argument, it was force majeure. Roosevelt said, ‘The days of Empire are over, and I trust you realize this.”‘

‘Churchill said: “What do you want me to do? Get on my hind legs like your little dog Fala, and beg?” Roosevelt said simply: “Yes.” Don’t tempt an Emperor!’

‘Most people in the UK seem not to have realised the real nature of the ‘special relationship’ we have had with the US since 1940.’

‘Why should they? their lives go on anyway…’.

Vidal is a keen historian, but that most dangerous kind: an autodidact. ‘I didn’t go to Harvard,’ he once boasted. ‘I just sent my work there.’ Unlike most historians, Vidal has actually had met most of the key players. Or perhaps the other way around – as he has put it himself elsewhere: ‘People always say: “You got to meet everyone.” They always put that sentence the wrong way around. I mean, why not put it the right way, that these people got to meet me, and wanted to? Otherwise it sounds like I spent my life hustling around trying to meet people: “Oh, look, there’s the governor!”‘ Wouldn’t you want to meet Gore Vidal if you were Jack Kennedy or William Burroughs? Although he is an incorrigible name-dropper, it’s probably because his world has been so filled with names that not to drop them would be the pretentious thing to do.

‘I used to know Nancy Astor,’ he says, launching into a five star anecdote sparked by our discussion of Britain’s rather unlikely Imperial past. ‘And I asked her about her famous trip to the Soviet with Bernard Shaw. “Well, I was just lookin’ out that train window” – she had a Virginia accent – “I was watchin’ the whole world go by. And it was pathetic – he kept readin’ one of his own books!”

In Moscow Stalin was in charming mode, embracing them, one in each arm. He listened to Shaw go on for a while, then pointed to a map of the world on the wall of his Kremlin office and he asked, “How is it that this little island in the North Sea has ended up with all this??” And he pointed to all the pink on the map. ‘”Can you explain that to me Mr. Shaw?” Shaw declined to respond. And so he turned to Lady Astor. “Well, ahh think it is becaauuse it was we first who gave the world the King James Version of the Bible.” I asked her, “What did Stalin say to that?” “He didn’t say anythin’.” On the way out, Lady Astor asked, “Mr Stalin, when you gonna stop killin’ people?”

“Oh, Lady Astor,’ replied Stalin, looking directly at her. “The undesirable classes do not kill themselves.”‘

‘Now,’ says Vidal, ‘that’s a nice story where everybody’s in character!’

My audience with the Twentieth Century is winding down. ‘Do you think,’ I ask, looking for silver linings and sunny endings, ‘the latest Emperor, Barack Obama, can rescue the American Imperium?’

‘The US is a very racist country,’ responds Vidal sorrowfully. ‘He will probably be assassinated. Then Martial Law will be declared. The contingency plans are already in place, I’m sure.’ Like the Brother’s Warner, he’s switching off the lights.

‘Do you think the American Dream can be revived?’

‘No. There was never anything to it. It was always fraudulent.’ Off goes another light.

‘LA was once the city of the future – does it still have one?’

‘No. It’s run out of gas.’ And another bulb dies. We’re now in darkness. Bette Davis had more light in that opening shot in The Letter.

‘Do you think America can survive without the kind of brilliant dreams and illusions Hollywood used to manufacture – or without an Empire on which the sun never sets?’

‘Of course we can,’ he retorts. ‘We’ll just get on with our lives like everyone else.’ And a little no-frills night-light comes on.

All things considered, it was probably for the best that I didn’t mention the topless fan letter I’d sent all those years ago to Gore, glorious Grinch of the Hollywood Hills.

Copyright Mark Simpson 2012

Special thanks to Steven Zeeland and DAKrolak

Fluffy Ideology: The Cold War With Cuddly Toys

Mark Simpson on the Cold War with Cuddly Toys

(Arena Hommes Plus, Spring 2008)

The titanic Superpower confrontation of the early 1980s between the Soviet Union and the United States saw the deployment of several new and terrifying strategic weapons systems, including Cruise Missiles, Pershings, SS-20s, B1 Bombers, and SDI/Star Wars.

But undoubtedly the most powerful, most feared and most sophisticated of these weapons systems was a smiley cuddly toy called Misha.

Unleashed at the height of the Cold War, at the Moscow Olympics of 1980, boycotted by the US and her allies because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Misha the bear cub, or to give him his full, chilling title, Mikhail Potapych Toptygin, left the West completely defenceless. A triumph of art, marketing, propaganda, and plush toys, Misha appeared on hundreds of different badges, in plastic, porcelain, rubber and wood. He was the most commercially successful and thoroughly exploited Olympic mascot ever. It took Communists to realise the merchandising potential and political power of fluffiness.

To understand the scale of the Soviet triumph that was Misha you have to look at (gingerly, through your fingers) what went before: 1968 Grenoble’s Winter Olympics ‘Schuss’ or ‘skiing sperm’ as it came to be known, Munich 1972’s radioactive Wiener dog, and Montreal 1976’s black beaver Amik, a turd tastefully tied-off with a chocolate-box ribbon.

Misha, who became the smiley, irresistibly furry shape of Brezhnevism, was a labour of love. Famous children’s illustrator Viktor Chizikov took six months to perfect him, drawing over one hundred variations. His big dark wide eyes, trusting smile and irresistible cuddliness inverted the Western view of the USSR and Russia as a scary, slavering, lumbering beast. Misha’s humane, friendly face foretold the arrival five years later of that other cuddly Mikhail, the one with that adorable birthmark on his forehead.

The US, understandably panicked by Red Misha, commissioned their ideological department, better known as Disney, to come up with a response to this strategic threat. Sam, a bald eagle, the national symbol of the US (and also of the USMC, which the previous year had invaded Grenada), wearing a natty stars and stripes (Capitalist?) top hat and bow tie, was rolled out as the official mascot for the 1984 LA Games.

Although better than most mascots, Sam was rather less lovable and much crasser than Misha, and in this Cold War of cuddly toys it was generally agreed that the USSR had won.

The end of the Cold War proper shortly afterwards, and the non-ideological nature of the Games that followed, meant that mascots once again reverted to their pre-Misha harmlessness – and tackiness. 1988 Seoul’s ‘Hodori’ looked like Tony the Tiger with tassels. OK, but not Grrrrreat.

Better than most, 1992 Barcelona’s sniggering surreal dog ‘Cobi’ was unloved at first but won many over in the end.

The Sydney Olympics in 2000 featured a Platypus, an Echidna and a Kookaburra that appeared to be a rejected Aussie kid’s TV line-up (and were in fact rejected by the Australians).

Athens in 2004 deployed Athena and Phevos, gods of wisdom and light, who might have been formidable if they hadn’t been rendered in Playdough by an angry two year old.

The undoubted nadir though was Izzy (from ‘Whatizit?’) in Atlanta 1996. An ‘amorphous abstract fantasy figure’ Izzy was an aesthetic tizzy who only symbolised how the post-ideological world had no place for iconography or, for that matter, humanism. The End of History meant not only dreary Olympics, but a wider culture lacking a sense of importance or purpose. Worst of all, it meant really daggy mascots.

But now, eighteen years on from Moscow, another Communist giant is hosting the Games, determined to exploit them for every last scrap of propaganda. Consequently they threaten to be the most spectacular yet. The Soviet Union may have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but the country it taught how to organise a proper flag-waving parade, the People’s Republic of China, goes from strength to strength, dividend to dividend – and wants the world to know about it. Everything, from the Stadium to the stickers, is going to be a huge, fluttering statement.

The Games might officially hark back to the freedom-loving ideals of Ancient Greece, cradle of democracy, but it takes a good old-fashioned totalitarian state to show us what they really mean: Ideology and iconography plus choreography.

And all these things come together in… fluffy toys. Undoubtedly, China’s ‘Fuwa’ mascots for 2008, impish energetic cartoons based on popular Chinese animals, have been given more thought than all the ones since Misha put together. That there are also five of them, the most ever, is a reminder of China’s populousness, its dynamism, and its new-found Capitalist wiliness: five mascots = five times as many sales opportunities.

And you can be sure these mascots, like everything else theses days, are made in China. (They will also be official: China, the home of cheap knock-offs is cracking down hard on Olympic cloning.)

Apparently Beibei the fish symbolises water, prosperity and swimming. Jinjing the Panda: metal, happiness, weightlifting and judo. HuanHuan the (Red!) Olympic Flame: fire, passion and ball sports. Yingying the Tibetan antelope: earth, health, track and field events. Nini the swallow: wood, good Fortune and gymnastics.

A collision of Chinese astrology, Communist ideology and Sino hegemony, perhaps these mascots – with their ‘superpowers’ – symbolise a little too much. Their names also spell out ‘Beijing welcomes you’. Or is it ‘Welcome to a Chinese 21st Century’? The elemental nature of the Fuwa mascots also looks like an augury of the future: given its recent phenomenal growth China may one day monopolise these resources.

The flame of the fluffy marketing and ideological triumph of the Moscow Olympics has been passed on to Chinese Communism – which, unlike the USSR, is still around today only because it effectively went Misha back in the 1980s, now doing Capitalism and consumerism better than the West. Being very, very careful, of course, not to allow the emergence of a Misha Gorbachov: instead at Tiananmen Square the leadership crushed its own people like they were… toys. Rather than granting its people human rights, China set about making everything the rest of the world wanted – and at a snip.

So I predict the Fuwa, or Chinese Spice Girls, will be a great success with kids and adults around the world, and cause China to open a couple of dozen more power-stations, as well as paying for at least another aircraft carrier.

Especially Jingjing the giant panda – Misha with Chinese characteristics.

Special thanks to Jo-Ann Furniss

Copyright © 1994 - 2017 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.