BRING SOMETHING BACK...!
Meningitis, that was the diagnosis. A mental blackout almost a year long. Memories reset: more than seven years of life wiped out. And a whole school year lost, there at Eden Grove. My Eden, my paradise, lost. The other kids would play happily among the rats, on the edge of the Finsbury industrial estate, and me, locked away in those two filthy rooms of our bogless flat, staring at a crack in the ceiling with eyes wide shut. On the radio, those long-haired poofs from Kent were singing: It’s All Over Now. If only it had all been all over then. I would’ve killed the lot of ‘em.
Who knows when I was conceived? My mum told me about certain electric nights with dad. He would come home late from his shift, after a few pints of stout at the pub, after leaving the crane at the depot. She would come home from the neighbour’s house, that schoolmistress, the one with the TV set, after the live broadcast of The Quatermass Experiment. She would come back in all jittery to her Catholic immigrant prayers. The day after, at the corner shop, all talk was of missiles, contamination and space creatures. No. That doesn’t add up. If it had been like that, I would have been born before, maybe in 1954, like Elvis’s Rock ’n’ Roll. No, really – if anything, I was gonna be Rock ’n’ Roll’s tombstone.
A different version of the family saga says that I was in my mum’s tummy – and so I was just a foetus, a missed abortion, a gurgling bloody mess – while she was watching the new episodes of Quatermass II (or perhaps when she was at the pictures to see the film based on the first series). Earth year: 1955. And that adds up better.
To make the ones of the trilogy add up too, I’ll lie and say that the only surviving fragments of my forgotten childhood, a few years later, are the images of Quatermass and the Pit, with those hollow-sounding dig-outs like the gaping building sites in London at the time, from Knightsbridge to the City, all changed by the War. They rose out of the bowels of the bombs, the fossils and ruins of the Empire. Ah, so right at the start of that 1955, the year of my sloppy conception, the RAF was getting its own very first atomic bomb squadron.
Now that I think of it, this whole legend revolves around the atom and the TV. Cathodic bombardment. That of the majestic coronation in Westminster which fucked us up, sold us out, and Americanised the lot of us. From colonisers to the colonised. The BBC antennas on Ally Pally did more damage than the Nazi V2s raining down on the syphilitic East End. TV, the live broadcast, the tele-vision, which is not the vision of what is remote, but a remote vision. Elizabeth, walking down that virtual aisle through everyone’s parlours, shone like a saviour, God save her: people had the world in their homes, while the Johns, in Finsbury, Hackney, Shepherd’s Bush, rotted away unseen.
And yet one of those Johnnies, eyes wide shut, just a kid, had been in deep space for nearly a year. He had come back only because his sick mum was screaming, to the distorted notes of Swan Lake: Bring Something Back...! He came back smelling like teen spirit: with green hair and bad teeth.
Then I ended up right inside the TV. Shit. All those fucking lights, dematerialising you. And even outside, there were already the Christmas lights. It was the first of December when they called us on to substitute for those wankers called Queen (Queen: just a coincidence, right?). We brought along our own gaggle of pretty boys. Some came from Bromley. That boozy cockhead of a presenter – he really used to piss my mum off! – tried to wind us up. He thought he was sitting round at some gentlemen’s club with his whoremonger mates. We laid right into him. I went home on the night bus. I had said: shit. On TV. I was a star. I was a star, and I didn’t even know it. But now, on my skin, in my hair, in my unlimited public image, the mutation was unconcealable. I was the flower blooming forth from that sewer. The Quatermass experiment or who knows what other deviant government service. The undesired by-product, the unwanted side effect of the socio-political concoctions in the wake of the Silver Jubilee. That’s what I thought. London was just town re-planning, out-of-date glam and streams of piss. On their pyrotechnical stages, the usual old dinosaurs played through their endless progressive bollocks. Streets knee-high in rubbish. Invisible toxic fumes spreading across the city from the smokestacks of Battersea Power Station. The white-collared pigs preparing the royal masquerade along the great arteries of the centre or by the riverside. But my missile had landed in those little Victorian tenements of Benwell and there, Pomp and Circumstance sounded as estranged and off-key as a vaudeville jig. An outright rip-off, a great swindle, a clockwork tangerine.
It was nice in the early days. With all those extra-terrestrials in the audience, as the contamination slowly spread. There wasn’t so much difference between the bands on the stage and the folks in the crowd. Catwoman, the lad on a leash, the Nazi nurse. Everyone came up with something: kit, hair, nicknames, ways of dancing. Groups mingled, from the Flowers of Romance to the London SS. But that was just the beginning.
I started to sense that something was going wrong when the first clones started to appear in the audience. Replicas of me: safety pins, creepers, tartan suits, pointy ginger hair, staring (but without the meningitis). I would look away; they disturbed me. It wasn’t just the fear of the lookalike. It was worse. I started to become aware that perhaps my mutagenic agents had been exploited. And I’m not just talking about Malcolm and his vicious calculations. There was something bigger here: who was it that shot me into the void? Who was it that threw out the first space trash? The Russians or the Americans? What had got stuck on to me? What was I spreading behind my own back?
I had become paranoid. Very paranoid. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? In the middle there was 1977: the year of canonisation. And we know all too well how that went.
At the start of the following year, I left everything. Walked out on it all, right there, in America. No fun. California Über Alles wasn’t even being sung yet, and yet I could see the sense of the Thing all too clearly. I saw that the jabs in the veins of my friend with a hamster’s name – one of the Johns – no longer spouted space fluid. It was a nightmare, an exile: and the Queen with her Swastika eyes wouldn’t let me go back. I followed a bus on the road to Nowhere from the poster on the wall, and with a de-civilising stop-off in slave-trade Jamaica, I chose the path of the counter-experiment. I had to tear off that artificial skin they had sewn me into. It would take years, perhaps decades. Or maybe a touch of theatre, à la Richard III.
I came back. I cast my bitter poetry against the planet, sealed off inside a metal box. Locked away in my house in Gunter Grove, Chelsea, with everything that I had left: a delirious nest with shaded windows, a stone’s throw away from the backdoor of the Sex, where first they elected me Anti-Christ and then, like the usual Judases, fucked me over. On the horizon, the jingling cloud that was the ‘80s served to put a stupid grin on the faces of the working class.
In the meantime, the spread, driven by my clones and my public image, replicated ad infinitum, was making its way around the world. The traces of the contamination, like fossils or ruins, would later end up in museums, in glass cases, among the papers of bespectacled observers in universities. The British school system had expelled me, and now look where I was, the subject of dissertations and doctorates.
Cultural studies, subcultures, lifestyles, armchair Dadaisms and Situationisms to bloat the CVs of impostors bleating I-was-there-I-was-there-I-was-there. They hadn’t listened to a word I’d said. Their interest went so much deeper: it must have been the colour of my hair.
Some of those smart-arsed bloodsuckers started studying the Thing. That fourletter word. They said it all started in New York, before. Bullshit. It all began in deep space, in that black hole in Finsbury, in the invisible tangle of the permanent war. And if I really wanted to hunt down a predecessor, tripping over slippery realities, I should go further South-East, into the concrete hell of Thamesmead. Stanley K. had not been far off at all.
And yet, now, re-reading through these tattered lines, even I am getting the suspicion that the Americans somehow had something to do with it all. This turns the tables on me. I look through the other end of the binoculars and see a Swastika flying over the White House and Buckingham Palace. I see Stanley K. looking at the world, and showing it back to us through NASA lenses. The Ramones, one after the other, had been “retired”. And I already mentioned Sid. What was still left of us were getting their kicks with a crook on vocals and a wannabe Martin Bormann on bass.
The nastiest thing I wrote, and I didn’t write it, was about Belsen. A mistake. In Belsen they didn’t use gas. That’s not what we meant. But that it was shit hot. I wish you were here, we would shout. Just a bad taste joke? Or a premonition of the new Belsen? Yeah, in a certain sense. From the extermination camps to the shopping centres. Other holidays. Other gases. They wiped us out. Retired. Substituted.
It all took place in a flash, life in them days. For the luckiest ones, just a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. No, Belsen was not a mistake: we had understood everything. But on the whole, we were completely misunderstood.
Today I look at the map of London, locked in by that great orbital, the M25, and tearing it to bits with my eyes wide shut, just like in a décollage by Jamie Reid, I see the mnemonic layers emerge, obscured by 60 odd years of “reconstruction”. And I think: who knows just where the missiles fell. Who knows why the brunt of the Blitz hit the East End. Who knows why, among those pokey alleyways, there were always sordid stories about the Queen to be heard. Who knows what’s in the water flowing under Farringdon. And who knows why the Nazi propaganda of the Olympic Games chose to obliterate Hackney? Questions of psycho-geographical trivia in the passageways of a derelict city.
Our history, truth be told, started on the other side, in the well-heeled and trendy West End, down there where the long Kings Road suddenly bends, marking that reconstructed area with such an unmistakeable name: the World’s End. Even there, just over 30 years before, the bombs had fallen. A little more than 30 years. The same gap that today stands between us and the early ‘80s, if you think about it. Today, after the same length of time, you young musicians have to come to terms with Boy George or Sigue Sigue Sputnik: we had to deal with bombs instead. Without those bombs, it seems obvious, it wouldn’t have been the same thing. D’y’ kna’at ah mean?
And so, how could the Thing have been born in New York? My mum used to sing it to me: bring something back from up there, this time changing the words to We’ ll meet again. And it certainly wasn’t gonna be a love song.