how it felt to be alive in February 2020

The correct response to the title here is of course it depends who you are and what you did. But anyway; in a February when the big news story was the alarming spread of coronavirus/COVID-19, which history will tell us is either – (a) a pandemic like none seen since the 1918 flu outbreak which killed between 20 and 50 million people (quite a big ‘between’. that) or (b) an unfortunate but quite normal kind of illness which is causing inconvenience and a certain amount of tragedy but is mainly a media frenzy like SARS or Bird Flu, and will blow over soon – it seems a bit like fiddling while Rome burns to talk about music and books etc. But as everyone knows, Nero didn’t really fiddle while Rome burned, and anyway, the big and relatively thoughtful thing I was writing during the Christmas holidays is no further forward and I mainly spent February writing things for other places than my own website, so there it is.

I just finished reading the newest edition* of Jon Savage’s brilliant England’s Dreaming which is as good as any music-related book I’ve ever read and made me realise how many parallels there are between now and the political situation in mid-70s Britain. Up to a point, that is. It would be hard, even I think for a conservative person, to see the victory of Johnson’s Tories as a return to some kind of sensible order in the way that deluded right wingers saw Thatcher’s victory – which did, it has to be said, render somewhat pointless the extreme right wing groups like the National Front & British Movement that had been growing in strength and influence throughout the decade. As with Johnson/the ERG and their wooing of the UKIP/nazi fanbase though, the reassurance that comes from seeing extremist groups losing popularity is  soured (to put it mildly) by having people in charge who appeal to that demographic.

*the latest revised edition is from 2005, and is the one to get – the excellent introduction, which addresses the ‘Englishness’ of punk within the wider UK setting, is itself quite dated, though more relevant than ever, and this version also contains a brief summary of that most surprising part of the whole Sex Pistols story – the band’s 1996 reunion.

Reading about punk – especially remembering the very tail end of it in the early 80s (i.e. seeing the stereotypical 80s fashion punks and skinheads and reading THE EXPLOITED/OI!/PUNKS NOT DEAD etc spray painted all over the place)  it’s hard to imagine the force the movement had in ’76-7. In my own era, Acid House/rave culture/etc has had an even bigger impact on music and arguably a comparable one culturally, but although it annoyed grownups and upset politicians it was never as deliberately confrontational or as alien and ugly as punk. Its figureheads, insofar as it had any, could certainly be ‘outrageous’ in a way, but Shaun Ryder and Bez swearing on TV was worlds away from the omnipresence of the Sex Pistols in the UK media of the 70s; not least because the Sex Pistols and punk had already happened. Pop stars being obnoxious in the 90s was not a phenomenon – and the Pistols, despite everything, were a recognisable thing – a pop group or rock band.

The public and the tabloids knew about the existence of acid house, and might be alarmed by the ‘acid’ aspect in particular – but as far as signing record contracts, being on TV or playing concerts went, there wasn’t much to report on. An interesting thing about the acid house/rave phenomenon was that, although a musical movement, the music and its makers barely featured in the moral panics that ensued, it was all about the audience. Whether this made it more frightening to the older generation, I don’t know. In the 60s, the Woodstock kids might have been seen as outrageous dirty, drug taking hippies, but maybe the fact that they were being ‘incited’ by Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Country Joe etc in a field (much like the teenagers in the 50s were under the influence of Bill Haley/Elvis etc and punk kids in the streets were being led astray by Rotten & co on TV) gave a clear them/us or leader/followers divide and made it easier to condemn/contain/control them? This is an interesting thing that I should think about more – except that I’m almost certain that there will be a book out there by someone who has thought about it more and knows a lot more than I do about the 90s (the most I can say is ‘I was there’, I wasn’t mostly very interested in acid house etc at the time).

Anyway; certainly the punks were heirs to the hippies (not that they would have welcomed the comparison)  in that the visibility of the punk audience (who, whatever their claims of individuality, were clearly – especially by 1977 – dressing in emulation of other punks, of whom Johnny Rotten was the most visible example) marked them out as ‘other’. And made them a target of the authorities, as well as a flag for disaffected kids to rally to. The subtitle of England’s Dreaming – “The Sex Pistols and Punk Rock” is important. The Sex Pistols may not have the strongest claim to have invented punk, but in a sense that isn’t as true for other foundational bands, they were punk; their career trajectory; form band, play shows, cause outrage, record demos, cause outrage, sign contracts, appear on TV, cause outrage, get dumped by label, cause outrage get banned from venues, release singles, cause outrage, release album, cause outrage, split up, have a member die – within the space of around two years, is a microcosm of UK punk. The British punk scene was born with them and it essentially died with Sid Vicious; everything thereafter is either post-punk, second-wave punk or pastiche. Whether embodying a movement is an achievement as such is hard to say and in a way doesn’t matter, but what Savage documents is the way in which a youth movement – one with many and varied influences and antecedents – absorbed and expressed the anxieties of its time and in turn embodied and shaped them.

Away from that book, I’ll keep up with my pick of the most interesting things to be sent my way in February.

Out in April is a reissue of a noise-rock classic from 1995:

Caspar Brötzmann Massaker
Southern Lord Recordings
Sounding something like The Birthday Party playing noisy free jazz, the Massaker are a brutal guitar-bass-drums (with minimalist vocals) trio; heavy on feedback, tense dynamics and churning distortion, but sometimes almost groovy and (very) occasionally kind of pretty. Home was their fifth album and it’s pretty similar to the only other one of their albums that I know, The Tribe, from 1987. Squally, angular and dark but with insistent percussion, it’s a great palate-cleanser for your ears after too much pop music.



I could say the same about this, very different but equally eccentric record:

JZ Replacement
Rainy Days Records

Zhenya Strigalev (saxophone), Jamie Murray (drums) and Tim Lefebvre (bass) have made a frankly insane-sounding but weirdly addictive record that at different times reminds me of the John Zorn/Bil Laswell/Mick Harris jazz/grind band Painkiller, Ornette Coleman and King Tubby. But it also has the odd moment of funk, breakbeat and drum-n-bass. Nevertheless it’s amazingly coherent and although at times I thought Murray, Strigalev or Lefebvre was what made it so great, subtracting any one element would make it all collapse.  Recording something at once as familiar and peculiar as any song here (‘Guilty Look 3‘ is a great example) is a special skill. Disrespectful borrows from everywhere and yet somehow sounds like nothing else – and really that’s just what jazz is all about.

Prophecy Productions

This Austrian black metal project has a very specific local (Tyrolean) focus, but judging by its Facebook page is the brainchild of Italian ex-pat Fabio D’Amore of symphonic power metal band Serenity; which makes sense – for all its atmospheric/folkish elements (there are some very nice jangly clean parts), this is a theatrical, musicianly album which feels epic and polished rather than dark and brutal. The band’s name refers to a pagan goddess, and throughout the album an odd, witchy narrator pops up declaiming or whispering, who I assume is the woman in the artwork, who the promotional material refers to as “the front woman [who] will sermonize, face-painted in historical black garb with embroidered belt and cast-iron broom …”

Not really my cup of tea overall, which is a shame because I really like the idea of the Tyrolean folklore etc, but it’s extremely well done and has some very good tunes and with the usual excellent Prophecy treatment it will no doubt find its audience.




The Lucky Ones Were The First To Die! The 1980s post-Mad Max Apocalypse

Escape from Mad Max 2

However successful George Miller’s 2015 Mad Max movie was, for a variety of reasons it is unlikely to have the impact of the second (and by extension, the far superior first) one did; the release of 1981’s Mad Max 2 (known internationally as The Road Warrior) coincided with the boom in home video (specifically home video rental; those were the days when to actually buy a movie on VHS cost outlandishly vast sums) and the fact that it was set in a barren landscape with details (cars, clothes, technology) that were recognisably contemporary, but generally beaten-up, rather than gleamingly futuristic meant that its look and feel was easy to imitate on an extremely low budget. The storyline, too, was simple and dynamic in the style of a spaghetti western; requiring only a few key locations, a small cast and some action, it was apparently eminently imitable. Except of course, that George Miller is a masterful director and the pre-Hollywood Mel Gibson was an immensely charismatic and capable actor.

There was also the atmosphere of the early 80s; people may now, on the whole, be more scared than they were then, but the threats of the 21st century are rarely as monolithic and inescapable as the fear of nuclear war once was. The cold war, pre-Gorbachev, created a paranoia that pervaded not only obvious movies like Wargames (US) and When the Wind Blows (UK), but also silly flag-waving nonsense like Rocky IV. Not surprisingly, this is a feature of life in the 80s rarely acknowledged by the nostalgia industry.


Aside from Mad Max 2, the other cinematic progenitor of the 80s post-apocalypse straight-to-video movie was John Carpenter’s 1981 masterpiece(ish) Escape From New York. In fact, so influential are these movies that many of those that follow could (and will) justifiably be referred to as ‘Escape from Mad Max 2’ movies. Most of the classic derivative B movies can be easily identified by the presence of a post-Mad Max/Snake Plissken hero – lone, brooding, grizzled, leather clad, often with unacceptable hair.

Due presumably to it’s powerful final scene, the 1968 classic Planet of the Apes is evoked every now and then, albeit on a less epic scale; even less obvious, but arguably still there, is the distant influence of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, with its vision of a small ‘civilised’ ruling elite (Eloi) living in comfort and bestial devolved humanoids (Morlocks) roaming the wilds. A debased version of this idea; a small group of nice, civilised people terrorised by a group of not-nice, non-local people, helped by a nice, non-local person or people is so widespread in cinema (westerns, samurai movies, Night of the Living Dead etc etc) that it’s hard to say where exactly it originated (actually, probably somewhere quite obvious/well known, but I will look that up after it’s too late for this article).

Since the 1920s, most Hollywood movies have historically tried to sell themselves with a snappy tagline; as you will see, these movies have some of the best ever coined. So here is a selection of worthwhile post-apocalyptic movies that gives an idea of how varied even such a narrow subgenre can be…

Countdown to Apocalypse…

Technically pre-dating the 80s straight-to-video post-apocalyptic cycle (and influencing it?) but definitely worth a mention is

Damnation Alley (1977)
Tagline: You Have Seen Great Adventures – You Are About To Live One

damnation alleyBasically a bunch of TV and B-movie actors driving around the desert in ridiculous Robot-Wars-looking modified vehicles.  Many of the factors that would become clichés are firmly in place here; a shattered, post-apocalyptic world (cheap desert locations), a ramshackle group of survivors (though less fashionably ramshackle than in Mad Max 2 and its imitators), a pretty basic ‘quest’ style theme (in this case a search for fellow survivors).
In terms of general filmmaking competence and originality this, though not great, is far above the standard of the general 80s movie of this type.


Another early entry that sets the tone for what was to follow is…

Ravagers (1979)
tagline: 1991: Civilisation is Dead

ravagersIt really IS dead; in this yawn-apocalypse, Richard Harris tries to find a way to safety through a decaying post-civilisation landscape populated by warring gangs. It is far less exciting than one would think possible.





Post-Apocalyptic Raids

Not surprisingly, the true Escape from Mad Max 2 subgenre was defined by the work of Italian B-movie/exploitation directors. One of the true genre-setting movies, and pretty ubiquitous in video shops back in the 80s is Enzo G Castellari (director of Jaws ripoffs, horror movies and The Inglorious Bastards (1978))’s opus:

1990; The Bronx Warriors (1982)
tagline; The lucky ones were the first to die!


The disclaimer here is that there is no apocalypse as such; but the movie is 100% in the post-Escape From New York genre, with the Bronx declared a warzone and sealed off from the rest of the world, left to the feuding gangs that inhabit its decaying tenements and warehouses.

In fact, the movie is kind of an amalgam of several sources, most notably Walter Hill’s all-time great The Warriors (1979) and it owes as much to Romeo & Juliet and to spaghetti westerns as it does to the usual subgenre films. It is fun, more or less, but it has serious pacing problems (not to mention dubbing issues) that put it firmly in the z-list. The characters too are confusing – storyline-wise Mark Gregory’s ‘Trash’ should logically be the hero or the villain but isn’t really either. On the plus side, though, there is a character called ‘Toblerone’!  This movie was part of a seam of post-apocalyptic movies with ‘Bronx’ in the title, possibly influenced by the depiction of the Bronx as violent no-man’s-land in Paul Newman vehicle Fort Apache The Bronx (1981)? Bronx Warriors itself is followed by the very similar but not-at-all-better Bronx Warriors 2 (Escape from the Bronx). Everything you need to know about that one is on this better-than-the-movie poster:

bronx 2
Another, but better Escape from Mad Max 2 movie is Fred Olen Ray associate Steve Barkett’s

The Aftermath (1982)
tagline; Hell in the Aftermath; who will survive?

the_aftermath_1982Mad Max‘s bizarre mutant biker-gang leader was (strangely yet memorably) called Toecutter. The Aftermath has a gang of mutant weirdo bikers led by B-movie god Sid Haig’s ‘Cutter’. Despite the utter lack of originality, the story (slightly influenced by Planet of the Apes: astronauts return to Earth to find it a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by gangs of violent criminals et cetera) and direction actually make this a very watchable B-movie.





Sadly, the same cannot be said for:

She (1982)
Tagline; Sandahl Bergman tempted Conan and now she is ready to take on the World

Even the truly great Sandahl Bergman (of Conan the Barbarian etc) can’t save this plodding post-apocalyptic updating of H Rider Haggard’s classic adventure novel She. There are lots of excellent and bizarre elements; werewolves, gladiators, mad scientists and so on – but (a key genre fault, this) the pacing is bad and the atmosphere flatter than a dust-swept wasteland. A sad waste of talent, especially since it was directed by non-schlock Israeli director Avi Nesher.






Similarly unambitious but more fun is giallo maestro Joe (Papaya: Love Goddess of the Cannibals) D’Amato’s…

Endgame (1983)
tagline; For An “Endgame” Champion In The Year 2025, There’s Only One Way To Live. Dangerously


‘Escape from Mad Max 2’ again; this film shares many parallels with the later The Blood of Heroes (see below) and looks forward to The Running Man, but is much more fun than either. Telepathic mutants, violent game shows, warriors, what’s not to like?






Similar but SO much better; perhaps the ‘Escape from Mad Max 2’ movie of all time also arrived in ’83, in the shape of Italian exploitation master Sergio (La Montagna Del Dio Cannibale) Martino’s opus…

2019: After The Fall of New York  (1983)
tagline; Mankind will prevail if it can survive the year 2019…


After a nuclear war, naturally, (this film, like John Carpenter’s, actually names the – now alarmingly close – year, rather than giving the usual vague-but-infinitely-more-sensible date of ‘the near future’) society has broken down, technology has failed and gangs of radiation-infected mutants roam the ravaged wasteland blah-de-blah.
In this case, what’s left of society is being led by the evil and repressive “Euraks”, while a rebel Federation fights for the survival of the old ways of life (presumably those same ways of life which led to the apocalypse, but that’s people for you).

In a blatant ripoff of Escape from New York, the Federation hires a mercenary (though not a nothing-to-lose criminal like Snake Plissken) called, somewhat loftily, ‘Parsifal’, who, naturally owes allegiance only to himself and his own survival and *snoooooore* but nevertheless accepts the mission to travel into the heart of New York(!) to retrieve the only fertile female left on earth.
The key to this film’s enjoyability is its utter trashiness, and to be fair, the survival of the human race does seem like more of a ‘prize’ than the life of the President or fuel. Fun, nasty and definitely unboring, like B movies should be.

Speaking of ‘Escape from Mad Max 2’

Stryker (1983)
tagline; After the holocaust, nothing matters but survival also, perhaps better; The Odds are a million-to-one. And Stryker is the one.


Uninspired taglines for an uninspired movie; Filipino exploitation master Cirio H. Santiago (TNT Jackson, Nam Angels) directs this opus in which, after the inevitable apocalypse, the world is running out of water (of course), and a group of Amazons guard the last known freshwater spring but are attacked by a gang of blah blah blah, until moody, monosyllabic tough guy “Stryker” turns up to help them out. You know the rest.



more of the same in….



2020 – Freedom Fighters (1984)
tagline; When earth becomes an arena… murder becomes a way of life.

2020 Texas Gladiators_

Joe D’Amato again, but on much weaker form, this super cheap plodathon tells the story of a band of grizzled warriors fighting against fascism in post-holocaust Texas.










Business as usual in Bobby (The One-Armed Executioner) Suarez’

Warriors of the Apocalypse (1985)
tagline: They turned paradise into hell!

warriorsAlthough firmly in the Escape from Mad Max 2 mould, there is a welcome flavour of heroic fantasy in this movie. After civilization has inevitably been wiped out by nuclear war, a ridiculous leather-clad adventurer leads a group of wanderers on a search for the fabled Mountain of Life, on the way encountering mutants, pygmies, ladies in fur bikinis etc. FUN.





A very welcome if sadly very bad addition to the genre is…

Robot Holocaust (1986)
tagline; It’s machine versus man in the ultimate battle for the future!


Finally, someone (in fact Tim Kincaid, director of Bad Girls Dormitory and gay porn) realised that there might be robots after the apocalypse! In this timeless masterpiece (as much heroic fantasy as anything else) a ‘drifter’ called ‘Neo’ and his rusty robot sidekick battle evil authorities who are using slave labour to run their power station, with extremely low budget results.





More typical (but less fun, and shockingly an even weaker premise) is…

Steel Dawn  (1987)
tagline; there are several, none great. Best is probably In this frightening time, one man makes a difference


In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, an evil gang are menacing a peaceful group of survivors because they want to steal their water. *YAAAWN*, and then a ludicrously bearded warrior in the shape of the late, great Patrick Swayze(!) arrives to sort everything out. Yep, it’s ‘Escape from Mad Max 2’ again, only more good-natured and much less fun.

But what happens when you cross ‘Escape from Mad Max 2’ with the superior 70s sci-fi movie Rollerball, I hear you ask..?


The Blood of Heroes (ridiculously aka The Salute of the Jugger) (1989)
tagline; The Time Will Come When Winning Is Everything


The second half of the 80s produces especially threadbare variations on the post-apocalyptic straight-to-video movie and this is one of the worst; in this future, the ragged survivors of nuclear war aren’t looking for fuel, Presidents, ladies or even water; they are playing a nasty yet somehow extraordinarily dull version of football. ‘The Time Will Come When Winning Is Everything’ – hopefully not for a while yet though.






Fred Olen Ray got a brief mention earlier, and it would be strange if one of the ultimate Z-movie directors of the era hadn’t dabbled in a (presumably lucrative) straight-to-video genre: of course he did!

Warlords (1988)
tagline: He came out of nowhere. A stranger, a soldier… and maybe a saviour


Seriously cheap (though less so than Olen Ray’s Lovecraftian yawnathon, Phantom Empire) this endlessly boring Escape from Mad Max 2 movie has a cast of maybe 10 people, several of whom play handily-masked mutants that hero David Carradine despatches every 10 minutes or so. The ‘plot’; Warlord (Sid ‘the Cutter’ Haig) kidnaps a girl and takes her into the mutant-ridden wastelands. David Carradine rescues her. Even the fairly formidable quantities of gratuitous nudity that 80s B-movie directors revelled in fail to make this watchable to post-adolescent people.


Almost too late, but just about worth a mention is

World Gone Wild (1988)
tagline; 50 years after the end of the world the only ones left are nuked-out, zoned-out burnouts. The wildest adventure of all is about to begin.


Actually it really isn’t. A small role for Adam Ant as a bad guy is perhaps the most memorable thing about this ‘ragtag bunch of survivors protecting dwindling water supplies’ movie, but it is more-or-less watchable and fun.







More-or-less watchable and fun’ may be a modest achievement, but it is but an unattainable dream for the most recent additions to the genre. There are (leaving aside ‘big’ movies like The Road and The Book of Eli which, whatever their faults, are not B-movies in the usually accepted sense) comparatively few these days, but those that there are (that I have seen) are on the whole not even as enjoyable as the lamer entries here, and in some cases (Doomsday (2008)) fall into all of the old ‘Escape From Mad Max 2‘ cliches, without even the excuse of cashing in on a recent, fashion-changing blockbuster. And then there is the new Mad Max. But if Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy and actually being released in cinemas just seems too commercial, there is enough of the 80s apocalypse out there (if not available on DVD, let alone Bluray) to keep even the most hardened leather-clad mercenary busy for some time...