slave-girl-leia1Why wait till New Year’s Eve when everybody will be out anyway? I’ve already done my ‘review of the year’ for what it’s worth, stuck together when this blog marked twelve months online at the beginning of December; it was when compiling it that I realised Lemmy actually passed away during the dying days of 2015, despite the fact that every roll-call of the Grim Reaper’s chosen ones in 2016 seems to have included the Motorhead frontman. Somebody please sort this out. It’s getting bloody annoying now.

Mind you, it’s no real surprise Lemmy keeps getting lumped in with the astonishing catalogue of pop cultural kings and queens that have bitten the dust this year; the body count has been so extensive that it seems hard to conceive of anyone who mattered passing away in a year that wasn’t 2016. Since the last post just over a week ago, notable names like George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Rick Parfitt have joined the Choir Invisible; all three suffered from largely self-inflicted health problems in recent years as a result of youthful excesses, though the demise of the ex-Wham heart-throb still felt like a surprise.

Too old and the wrong sex to be a Wham fan in the 1980s, I nevertheless liked the exuberance of their debut hit, ‘Young Guns (Go for It)’ in 1982, and ‘Wham Rap’, their first release (which became a top ten hit when reissued in 1983), anticipated everything Paul Weller was poised to attempt with The Style Council albeit without the po-faced preaching that marred the Jam man’s second chart project. Too poppy for me at the time, the rest of Wham’s output wasn’t something I cared for much, and when Michael capitalised on the 1984 solo success of ‘Careless Whisper’, his decision to offload the spare part that was Andrew Ridgeley saw his reinvention as a Serious Artist. His timing, coming as it did in the wake of Live Aid and the swift decline of the lightweight pop he and his contemporaries had been pedalling during the first half of the 80s, was spot on.

This persona, which carried him through to the beginning of the 90s, portrayed him as a rather pompous individual yearning to produce Art and acting as though he already held a season ticket for the pantheon of The Greats. As his work-rate slowed down in the early 90s (partly due to a court battle with his record company), it took until 1996 before the release of what was perhaps his finest album, ‘Older’. Though overall both lyrically and musically melancholy, he seemed to have achieved a balance between his poppy instincts and his desire to be recognised as an Artist; one of its singles, ‘Fastlove’, was luminously funky, though its sorry story of casual sex was hardly celebratory. But it was the promo video for ‘Outside’ in 1998, whereby a public convenience is transformed into a kitsch disco full of gay cops, that showed Michael had a sense of humour, coming hot on the heels of his arrest for importuning and final belated emergence from the closet.

His last few years included one more album of new material, a string of singles that combined social commentary with his distinctive flair for toe-tapping grooves, and several non-musical incidents involving illicit substances when at the wheel of his car as well as further adventures in public conveniences. It was often easy to forget what George Michael was actually famous for. His death on Christmas Day aged just 53 was accompanied by the usual initial online sensational speculation before being superseded by refreshing revelations of his quiet generosity, something he relented from using as a marketing tool in contrast with many of his ilk. He rarely seems to have been a happy man, but it would appear he managed to make others happy, which isn’t a bad legacy to leave behind.

Rick Parfitt had a good fifteen year chart start on George Michael; as rhythm guitarist with one of the UK Top 40’s institutions in the 70s and 80s, Francis Rossi’s Status Quo sidekick occasionally took microphone duties, though his role was usually as contributor to the band’s no-frills approach to hard rock, one containing enough memorable melodies to make them ‘Top of the Pops’ regulars for three decades. Although Status Quo began to take on cabaret qualities from around the time original bassist Alan Lancaster departed in 1984, their best work demonstrated a rare ability to successfully walk the line between Metal and Pop, an achievement few others (with the possible exception of Thin Lizzy) managed in the 70s.

Parfitt’s prodigious cocaine and vodka intake at the height of the Quo’s success left its mark on his body; he endured a quadruple heart bypass operation in 1997, though it took further heart attacks before he adopted a more sober lifestyle. Alas, his one-time residency in the fast lane finally caught up with him the day before George Michael’s body was discovered, and 2016’s litany of musical casualties had acquired another recruit. When Parfitt’s death was announced late on Christmas Eve, the day had begun with news that actress Carrie Fisher had been admitted to hospital after suffering a heart attack; for a few hours, it seemed she would be next on the hit-list, though she hung on for a couple of days before the inevitable.

Although not a musical figure, Fisher’s role as Princess Leia in the ‘Star Wars’ franchise made her a pop culture icon on a pop music scale, something she eventually (not to say reluctantly) came to terms with. A product of showbiz parents in the shape of Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher’s acting career had an impressive start when she played a spoiled Hollywood brat alongside Warren Beatty in 1975’s ‘Shampoo’, yet it was being cast in the first instalment of George Lucas’s space opera series that branded her in the public eye thereafter. Returning to the role of Leia in the two initial ‘Star Wars’ sequels, the part and the phenomenon overshadowed her other work, though the success of her semi-autobiographical book and screenplay, ‘Postcards from the Edge’, won her plaudits by highlighting the same dedication to drug use that similarly afflicted the two other names to predecease her over the festive period.

In recent years, Fisher became noticeably resigned to the fact she would never escape Princess Leia and ironically her final acting performance was as the same character in the next yet-to-be-released episode. As with both George Michael and Rick Parfitt, she came across in interviews as a likeable person in possession of a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour; whether or not one will miss this trio depends on where you stand as regards their work, but the world will seem a less colourful place without them – and don’t we need colour right now?

© The Editor


yodaIt doesn’t quite carry the same dramatic weight as an evil intergalactic empire, but the forces of the Jedi have been vanquished…by the Charity Commission; that august institution may not be headed by a heavy-breathing psychopath in a black cowl and cape, but it has successfully rejected desperate appeals for Jediism to be registered as a religion. And this is despite 177,000 people listing that as their faith on the 2011 Census – more than listed Rastafarianism, which itself took decades to be accepted as a religion (something many still dispute).

There are many ways of looking at this demand on the part of ‘Star Wars’ devotees. It could be viewed as one more dispiriting example of ‘Kidult-hood’ and the clinging to the totems of childhood in a wilful reluctance to grow up rather than finally stashing the toy-box in the parental attic; it could be viewed as a characteristically quirky prank on the part of agnostic Brits refusing to take such a question seriously; or it could be viewed as evidence that even if orthodox religion has been rejected by vast swathes of the population, the need to look up to the stars for some form of salvation still exists; just as the mythology of Ancient Greece and Rome, the Norsemen, Christianity and Islam provided comfort in the past (and continues to in the present where the latter two are concerned), the craving for celestial beings to worship seems to be an instinctive human desire.

Prior to the release of ‘Star Wars’ in 1977, science fiction as a cinematic genre had, as with most others in that last Golden Age of Hollywood, a distinctly adult feel to it. Movies from the first half of the 70s with a futuristic or sci-fi slant, such as ‘Soylent Green’, ‘Rollerball’, ‘The Omega Man’, ‘Westworld’ and ‘Logan’s Run’, reflected the maturity of sci-fi that came in the wake of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Even George Lucas himself had followed the trend with his 1971 directorial debut, ‘THX 1138’, another in a long line of Ballard-esque Dystopian views of the future that bore little relation to Lucas’s wish to revive the ‘space opera’ serial of the 30s, ‘Flash Gordon’.

Lucas’s failure to acquire the rights to ‘Flash Gordon’ resulted in him developing his own equivalent over a three-year period, and when ‘Star Wars’ finally arrived at cinemas, the absence of competition in terms of big-budget adventure films for all the family enabled the movie to clean up at the box-office. In the mid-70s, it was only really the ‘disaster’ strain of cinema that pulled in the punters, with the likes of ‘Earthquake’, ‘The Towering Inferno’, ‘Jaws’ and the ‘Airport’ series; but the craze had run out of steam by 1977 and Lucas’s timing was perfect.

It’s undeniable to see now that the revolutionary blend of a simplistic B-picture plot with cutting-edge special effects created the formula that remains with us today where the ‘Blockbuster’ picture is concerned; the only real difference is that, almost forty years on, space Cowboys & Indians have been superseded by superheroes. The crucial distinction between ‘Star Wars’ and the franchises that have pursued the same path since 1977, however, is that almost from the very beginning there were some who took the lightweight fun very seriously indeed.

News footage of the queues outside the cinema when ‘Star Wars’ arrived in Britain at the end of 1977 shows a sizeable proportion of young men in their late teens and early twenties present as well as the expected children (who, like me, had received advanced warning of this event via promotion in American Marvel comics); the presence of over-18s suggested an audience that George Lucas hadn’t anticipated. I remember going to see the film as a ten-year-old in early 1978 and it defined that year for me as a childhood fad. The merchandise swamped the shops, from bubblegum cards, comics and stationary to the ridiculously expensive action figures, though I never owned any of the latter.

By 1979, I’d moved onto something else, as tended to happen with me then; I was actually becoming more interested in pop music and the 99p seven-inches assembled into their chart positions on the wall of my local Woolies. I did go to see ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in 1980, an eleventh hour childhood moment on the cusp of adolescence, but by the time ‘The Return of the Jedi’ hit cinema screens three years later, not even Princess Leia’s slave girl outfit could tempt me back; my prepubescent fascination with the George Lucas universe has never been rekindled.

I realise my experience as a brief ‘Star Wars’ fan is not necessarily the common route many have taken once exposed to the saga. Imaginary worlds such as those created by Tolkien already had a dedicated adult following of largely male fanatics before ‘Star Wars’, but Lucas’s invention has spawned even greater fanaticism to the point whereby some use it as a design for life; attempting to elevate the cult of the Jedi, the movie series’ monastic Samurai-like warriors, to the level of an actual religion, is perhaps taking things a little too far. Although the man-made mythology of the Jedi is no more fantastical than that of actual bona-fide religions, one can’t help but wonder why the world needs another religion when the ones we’ve had for thousands of years have hardly left a legacy of peace and harmony.

The decision of the Charity Commission to turn down charitable status for the so-called Temple of the Jedi Order seems like a victory for common sense, though when one studies the myths and legends of the ‘legit’ faiths that have far more followers than the Temple of the Jedi Order can boast around the world, there’s not much to separate them. Until some bright spark invents genuine light sabres, the Jedi’s capacity for violence would at least be subdued in comparison to the competition; and Jedi Jihadists remain restricted to a galaxy far, far away, which can’t be bad.

© The Editor