Tag Archives: review

Top 50: the best David Bowie songs of all time, ranked

22 Mar
Bowie Time Out covers

Ch-ch-changes: some of Time Out’s Bowie covers over the years (mine in the centre)

This weekend The Guardian published a list of the top 50 Bowie songs. I mostly loved Alexis Petridis’s choices, but, inevitably, started griping about the omissions. I mean – no Ziggy Stardust?! Anywhere?!?

I heard a voice say to me, “If you think you know so much, why don’t you make your own list?” So I did.

Those who know me know I’m a Bowie nut. I could sing most of his albums (the good ones!) word for word. I spent over an hour interviewing him in a hotel room (for the central Time Out cover, above). I’ve seen him playing Wembley Arena, and I’ve seen him playing to just 20 people when recording Later With Jools Holland. I bought a biography of him in my teens and then tore out the portrait pages to hang on my bedroom wall. He has visited me in dreams.

So whether or not you agree, know that this list is informed by at least dozens and in many cases hundreds of listens to these songs.

50. Various

I was left with a list of 20 “possibles”, from which to choose just one as my No. 50. It’s as random and doomed a task as pinning a tail on the Don Qui-xote at this stage, but I’ll pick… um… oh, sod it. I’ll say The London Boys, Prettiest Star, John I’m Only Dancing, Velvet Goldmine, Time, Lady Grinning Soul, Stay, Fascination, Breaking Glass, Move On, Yassassin, Because You’re Young, Blue Jean, Absolute Beginners, Slip Away, I Would Be Your Slave, Stars Come Out Tonight, 5.15 The Angels Have Gone, Seven Years in Tibet, Loving the Alien, Buddha of Suburbia and Blackstar.

49. Please Mr Gravedigger

I felt I should have something from Bowie’s early years, and chose this over sweet tunes like Love You Till Tuesday or the nearly great The London Boys because it’s a good example of Bowie’s storytelling – and his very dark streak. It starts off as a simple character study of a gravedigger: “He seems to spend all his days puffing fags and digging graves/ He hates the reverend vicar and he lives all alone.” It gets a little darker when the narrator reveals he’s seen “Mr. GD” take a locket of a girl’s hair; and darker still when the narrator reveals why the gravedigger sees him every day standing at her grave: “Mary-Ann was only 10 and full of life and oh-so gay/ And I was the wicked man who took her life away.” There’s one final dark twist I won’t spoil if you don’t know the song… Bowie was just 19 when he recorded this – and 69 when he recorded his final album.

48. Somebody Up There Likes Me

I hope so, David. I do hope so. But Somebody Up There is not in fact a religious paean, as you might think if you listened only to the chorus, rather a warning against charismatic, telegenic, autocratic leaders – “Hugging all the babies, kissing all the ladies… he’s the savage son of the TV tube.” If only US radio stations would play it before the next election. Extraordinary, soulful backing vocals from a trio that includes Luther Vandross, later a huge star in his own right.

47. Jump They Say

Bowie’s sputtering comeback after the failed experiment of Tin Machine is not one I’d play over and over, but its lyrics – “My friend don’t listen to the crowd/ They say ‘Jump’/ Gotta to believe somebody/ Got to believe” – are more affecting when you realise they are inspired by his schizophrenic half brother, who killed himself several years before.

46. Memory of a Free Festival

This song hit the news in 2013 when a fan started a campaign to save the Beckenham bandstand that inspired it. It’s some of Bowie’s best writing: essentially a poem set to music. “The Children of the summer’s end/ Gathered in the dampened grass/ We played our songs and felt the London sky/ Resting on our hands”. And the end: “And we walked back to the road… Unchained…”

45. We Are The Dead

One of the refugees on Diamond Dogs from Bowie’s failed 1984 musical project, this counterpoints garbled dystopian lyrics with some exquisitely tender verses about forbidden love. I particularly love Bowie’s breathy voice and dramatic delivery.

44. I’m Deranged

Bowie’s dreamy, siren-sinister vocals – “I’m deranged/ Deranged my love/ So cruise me cruise me cruise me baby” – sit over typically bonkers Mike Garson piano and a driving beat. The song sticks with me partly because David Lynch used it, in a tougher remix by Trent Reznor, above footage of a night-time road unfurling in the opening and closing credits of Lost Highway, Lynch’s weirdest and most baffling film – and there’s some pretty stiff competition for that title. If you’d like to read my interview with David Lynch on Lost Highway, in which I play “word association” with the director, it’s here.

43. Cat People

I remember this getting hella radio play in North America, where I lived at the time; it’s probably less well known in England. Giorgio Moroder wrote the music, Bowie the lyrics. It was originally released in a superior seven-minute version as the theme song to Paul Schrader’s 1982 horror movie of the same name, and later re-recorded, shorter, for the Let’s Dance album. It was also used over the opening credits of Atomic Blonde (really fun film, incidentally) and, thrillingly, over the arson scene of Inglourious Basterds.

42. Lazarus

Blackstar, Bowie’s last album, came out on January 8, 2016. Two days later, Bowie was dead. “Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen” is how Lazarus begins. It ends: “Oh, I’ll be free just like that blue bird/ I’ll be free, ain’t that just like me.” I don’t know what else to say 😦

41. Fashion/ Fame/ Let’s Dance

Right, let’s get all these out of the way in one go. They’re all big and enduring hits, from successive albums (Young Americans, Scary Monsters, and Let’s Dance). They’re all brilliant in their own way. So I feel I have to include them. And I’m sure they “ought” to be higher. But tbh, after hundreds of hearings, I’ll usually skip past them if they come on. And Let’s Dance, despite the title, you can’t even dance to, despite Nile Rodgers’ best efforts, which pissed me off at the time. Despite their “classic” status, I’ve found them more and more irritating over the years. So sue me.

40. Queen Bitch

Inspired by Velvet Underground (a debt acknowledged in hand-writing on the sleeve of the album Hunky Dory), this is a precursor to glam rock, but the guitar riff also sounds thrillingly like punk – four years early. Great lyrics, too: “She’s an old-time ambassador/ of sweet-talking, night-walking games/ And she’s known in the darkest clubs/ for pushing ahead of the dames.”

39. Hallo Spaceboy

Another return to Major Tom, and to Brian Eno as producer. The album it’s from, Outside, also marked Bowie’s first real return to form since Let’s Dance. That was 12 years in the musical wilderness; 12 years treated as a figure of fun (anyone remember The Heebeegeebies parody “I think that I’m losin’ my miiiind/ I’m disappearing up my behiiiind”?), rather than a chameleonic genius. Something people gloss over, these days. But I remember vividly. I’d become Editor of Time Out, which meant I could realise a cherished dream: meeting and interviewing my teenage icon. But with a star of Bowie’s stature, it would have to be a cover. And I couldn’t in all conscience do that with the dross he’d been putting out. The experimental, baffling, often brilliant pseudo-concept album Outside was the excuse I’d been waiting for. My interview then is now enshrined in the book Bowie on Bowie, or you can read it here. Oh, and check out the Pet Shop Boys remix of Hallo Spaceboy. It’s a banger.

38. Soul Love

My favourite lyric is actually a misheard: “the bleeding hours of morning” brilliantly captures the raw sensitivity of staying up all night till the small hours, mixed with the look of the dawn sky. Years later, I looked up the lyrics and found it was the more prosaic “fleeting hours”, not “bleeding”. I told Bowie this, when I interviewed him. He laughed, agreed that would have been better, and said he’s always delighted when people read things into his songs that he didn’t intend.

37. Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing

Absolutely not a clue what most of this apocalyptic love song is on about, mostly, but it features some of Bowie’s campest, most over-the-top vocal pyrotechnics, some wonderful imagery, and a skirling saxophone (played by Bowie himself) following the closing lines that always send a chill up my spine: “I guess we could cruise down one more time/ With you by my side, it should be fine/ We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band/ Then jump in the river holding hands.”

36. Sense of Doubt

I’ve got a soft spot for an album with an all-instrumental side, like Caravan’s gorgeous The Land of Grey and Pink, or Pink Floyd’s pretentious Atom Heart Mother or (apart from some brief singing) their lovely Echoes, whose seascape Sense of Doubt calls to mind. A repetitive series of four descending piano notes set an ominous tone, washed by simulated waves and the creak of ropes, giving away to a piping keyboard as though shafts of sunlight are breaking tentatively through the clouds. Eno’s ambient influence is clear.

35. It’s No Game

My God what an opener to the Scary Monsters album. In stark contrast to China Girl, co-written with Iggy Pop three years before, which presents Asian women as submissive victims of Western Imperialism, this starts with an assertive woman barking a string of Japanese. The usual dystopian worries follow, except this time it’s clear Bowie is talking about the present day, not some imagined future, and it all ends with a discordant guitar over which Bowie screeches, as to the voices in his head, “Shut up! SHUT UP!” It’s as ballsy as Muse starting Absolution with Apocalypse Please.

34. Quicksand

Pretentious, lui? I like to burst Bowie’s bubble by calling this “The Philosophers’ Song” – after Monty Python. I’m sure I thought it was deep in my early teens, and I got a thrill whenever I came across anything connected with the lyrics, but now I just love those blissful “aaah-aaahs” and Rick Wakeman’s swirling piano.

33. TVC15

The lyrics are hilariously preposterous: they are said to have been inspired by Iggy Pop hallucinating that his girlfriend was being eaten by the television. But it’s got the most extraordinary, tipsy-sounding boogie-woogie piano, courtesy of Roy Bittan of Springsteen’s E Street Band (so, yes: the God-like genius behind the piano on Jungleland and Thunder Road), who says Bowie asked him to play like Professor Longhair.

32. Always Crashing in the Same Car

I was tempted to include Breaking Glass, also from the album Low, but in truth this is the one I’d rather actually listen to. It’s the dreamiest evocation of alienation and isolation this side of Sound and Vision, worth it for the “yeah, oh oh ooh-ooh ooh-ooh ooooooh-oh” alone, which starts anguished and ends as an accepting croon.

31. Five Years

One of the most straightforwardly short-story-like of all Bowie’s songs, this details public reaction to the news that the end of the world is nigh. Which feels rather topical now… There are some detailed character observations and some wonderful lines: I particularly like the meta-ness of “Don’t think you knew you were in this song”, and the self-awareness of “It was cold and it rained so I felt like an actor”. But jeez – “Five years, what a surprise/ Five years, my brain hurts a lot”. Couldn’t someone have asked him for a rewrite?

30. Cygnet Committee

What a glorious mess this is: an overblown, relentlessly building, near ten minutes of pseudo-psychic-revolutionary dystopian babble. The lyrics are preposterous, pretentious, Sixth Form stuff, aspiring to Depth and Poetry and Meaning but never quite delivering, but God I love it all the same, and can sing along to every word.

29. Drive In Saturday

There are some awkward rhymes and lyrics in this evocation of a future world whose jaded inhabitants have forgotten how to have sex (“We’ll try to get it on like once before/ When people stared in Jagger’s eyes and scored”), but the massive chorus more than makes up for it. And I love the line, “She’s uncertain if she likes him/ but she knows she really loves him.”

28. China Girl

Nile Rodgers takes the credit for re-arranging this song, originally co-written by Bowie with Iggy Pop for his album The Idiot, into a commercial hit for Let’s Dance. It’s one of Bowie’s most assured vocal performances, and has some of the most coherent lyrics. The chorus is a straight love song to a man-pleasing Asian girlfriend, while the verses are a warning: “My little China girl/ You shouldn’t mess with me/ I’ll ruin everything you are/ You know it/ I’ll give you television/ I’ll give you eyes of blue/ I’ll give you a man/ who wants to rule the world.”

27. Modern Love

Bowie keeps reinventing himself. Even when dead. This time it’s as a meme that’s been circulating for the self-isolation, social-distancing age, that references Modern Love’s opening: “Bowie knows when to go out, and when to stay in. Be more like Bowie.” Gorgeous harmonies, great saxophone (not by Bowie himself this time). Side-note: I modelled my hair (and trousers) on Bowie’s at the time.

26. Jean Genie

With a blues-inspired riff nicked wholesale by labelmate Sweet on Blockbuster (though all concerned swear it was a coincidence), Jean Genie is a seemingly effortless, throwaway pop classic – the sort that would be a one-hit wonder in anyone else’s hands.

25. Slow Burn

I adore the album Heathen (his 24th studio album including Tin Machine!), and this is perhaps its most commercial song. It benefits from a virtuoso guitar part by The Who’s Pete Townshend, and lyrically returns to Bowie’s comfort zone of unspecified dystopia: “Oh, these are the days/ these are the strangest of all/ These are the nights/ these are the darkest to fall.” His voice on this album is stronger than ever: controlled, abandoning the pretentious pyrotechnics of yore, and justly nominated here for a Grammy for Best Rock Male Vocal Performance.

24. Boys Keep Swinging

A proudly silly song, all strut and swagger and mocking faux-machismo, but I love it, from the opening drum beat to the wandering bassline to a guitar solo by Adrian Belew so crazed it can still make me burst out laughing. I also love the story that, to get the garage band feel they wanted, they adopted a suggestion to swap roles from Eno’s deck of Oblique Strategies cards: guitarist Carlos Alamar played drums, and drummer Dennis Davis played bass.

23. Ashes to Ashes

Uniting ‘80s synth and a New Romantic look in the video with a crisp funk bass and off-beat percussion, the bits of the nonsense lyrics that are comprehensible (Bowie has described it as a “nursery rhyme”) are a dreamy revisit of Space Oddity’s Major Tom. Less “important” than it seemed at the time, it’s still accessibly strange and ethereally beautiful.

22. Where Are We Now?

Just when you thought Bowie had retired into a life of domestic bliss in New York, he comes back, aged 66, with his first album in ten years – crashing the internet by releasing it without any advance warning. This was the plangent, meditative, quietly beautiful single, and with hindsight it sounds like a man who’s heard he’s terminally ill – and is okay with that. The closing lines break my heart: “As long as there’s sun/ as long as there’s sun/ As long as there’s rain/ As long as there’s rain/ As long as there’s fire/ as long as there’s fire/ As long as there’s me/ As long as there’s you.”

21. Everyone Says Hi

A welcome return, on his 2002 album Heathen, to the days when Bowie was a fine short story writer, and not jumbling his lyrics with a computer programme inspired by Burroughs’ cut-up technique. This is incredibly British, with a world of repressed emotion beneath an apparently simple postcard to a friend who has gone abroad. You can see it in “Shoulda took a picture/ Something I could keep” being immediately undercut, as though realising he has been too bold, with “Buy a little frame/ Something cheap”. And, conversely, the platitude of “Hope the weather’s good/ And not too hot” is tenderly bookended by the single line, “for you”. He finally reveals himself in the doo-wop bridge, “If the money is lousy/ You can always come home/ We can do all the old things/ We can do all the bad things… We could do it, we could do it we could do it”, before retreating back into the polite, platitudinous chorus of “Everyone says hi”. <Sigh.> Only Springsteen and Dylan can match Bowie as a storyteller in song.

20. The Man Who Sold The World

Long before Kurt Cobain covered this song, helping to rescue Bowie from the remainder bin of uncool has-beens in which he was then languishing, I was obsessed by it. “We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when/ Although I was not there, he said I was his friend.” WTF? All with Mick Ronson’s hypnotically repetitive riff allowing the bass, unusually, to carry the tune.

19. Look Back In Anger

“‘You know who I am,’ he said/ The speaker was an angel/ He coughed and shook his crumpled wings/ Closed his eyes and moved his lips/ ‘It’s time we should be going’.” That opening line alone justifies the song’s inclusion, let alone the furious chorus and the driving percussion. I bought Lodger when it first came out, and was so baffled by the album that I assumed it was a joke, an unlistenable experiment/contractual obligation like Lou Reed’s recent Metal Machine Music. I took it back to the record shop (which was still a thing, back in the day), and swapped it for Diamond Dogs. Now that’s music, I thought. I say this because it’s hard for younger listeners to realise just how alien and experimental so many of Bowie’s albums were at the time, even to ardent fans – especially after they have influenced subsequent generations of bands and passed into the musical lexicon.

18. Oh You Pretty Things

Youth is wasted on the young, they say. I once conceived of a thriller set in two time periods – teens and middle age. I thought then, I have no idea what middle aged people are like – I’ll shelve it till I’m older. Now I have no idea how I felt back then. Bowie wrote with wry detachment about being young while he yet was, here counterpointing the deliriously beautiful chorus about pretty things driving their mamas and papas insane with the deep thoughts that are actually going through their supposedly pretty little heads.

17. Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

What an extraordinary opening: “Time takes a cigarette/ Puts it in your mouth.” We’re all in front of the firing squad, we just don’t know when the trigger will get pulled. This is probably a song best listened to in your troubled teens, but it stands in good company with the anti-suicide ballads of REM (Everybody Hurts) and ELO (Living Thing) – and in contrast to Blue Oyster Cult (Don’t Fear the Reaper) and The Only Ones (“Why don’t you kill yourself, you ain’t no good to no one else”). But I digress. Bowie just about teeters on the cliff-edge of ridiculousness without toppling over in the “Give me your hands” finale (not helped by the bathetic backing vocals), and that final violin note that ends the whole Ziggy Stardust album is a tribute, I like to think, to the resounding piano chord that closes The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s.

16. Teenage Wildlife

Absurd, camp, overblown, over-dramatic, and utterly glorious. An anthem to all the young dudes who are cut down in their prime, it has moments of real poetry amid the bombast: “You fall to the ground/ Like a leaf from a tree/ And look up one time/ at that vast blue sky/ Scream out aloud as they shoot you down/ ‘No… I’m not a piece of teenage wildlife” still has the power to affect me, with that swirling, keening guitar. Though I could never get my kids to understand why “As ugly as a teenage millionaire/ pretending it’s a whizz-kid world” was a great metaphor. “Why would that be ugly?” they asked, dollar-signs lighting up their eyes. Somehow my friend Frank Wynne and I always end up singing it at two in the morning.

15. The Bewlay Brothers

This is supposedly about Bowie’s mad brother, but really it sounds like the gayest of his songs bar John I’m Only Dancing and Queen Bitch: “I was stone and he was wax so he could scream and still relax – unbelievable. And we frightened the small children away.” “The dress is hung, the ticket pawned, the Factor Max that proved the facts is melted down.” Not to mention “the crutch-hungry dark”. It’s mysterious, tragic and haunting: “Sighing they swirl through the streets like the crust of the sun, the Bewlay Brothers.” Another favourite late-night singalonga with my friend Frank.

14. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore

If Bowie proved anything over a career spanning six decades, it’s that he always has another surprise up his sleeve. But how the hell could a 69-year-old come up with this? Long-time producer Tony Visconti says they were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar, which perhaps accounts for the hip-hop beat; Bowie had long experimented with jazz, hence the chant of the ever-circling skeletal sax; and it’s a fantastic, expectation-defying melody. Every time you think Bowie will soar up, as he so often does, he goes down instead. As to the lyrics, the title obviously comes from the Jacobean tragedy; the second line, “‘Hold your mad hands,’ I cried”, from a 1797 sonnet by Robert Southey; and Bowie has said the song was inspired by the destruction of the Vorticist movement by World War I. Hmm, if you say so, David. I just like “Man, she punched me like a dude.”

13. All The Young Dudes

Sorry, David: Mott the Hoople’s version of your song is way better than when you recorded it yourself. So it’s that one which makes this list. The way John Travolta walks down the street at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever – that’s how Ian Hunter sings this. You can hear the swagger. I particularly love the later remix with added Bowie where, as on Lou Reed’s Satellite of Love, he proves that even as backing singer he can lift a chorus to the heavens.

12. Ziggy Stardust

It was Alexis Petridis’s wilfully perverse omission of this song from his Guardian Top 50 that inspired me to compile my own. I get that it’s “nothing more” than a great classic rock song. It doesn’t innovate musically. But I love every note, down to the loud exhale after the thundering drums of the intro. And it’s a key part of the Bowie mythos: the first time he’d invented a character to “be” (followed by Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke etc), and one that proved strangely prophetic. “Making love with his ego/ Ziggy sucked up into his mind” is pretty much what happened to Bowie in his coke years. “When the kids had killed the man/ I had to break up the band” is just what Bowie did (minus the killing) to the Spiders on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon, much to the surprise and dismay of the drummer and bassist, who had not been informed in advance. Extra points for inspiring the Rosette of Sirius on the forehead of The Mighty Tharg, editor of the sci-fi comic 2000AD.

11. Golden Years

What a beautiful, languid, honey-voiced dreamboat of a song, from the finger-snap, doo-wop opening through the soaring “Nothing’s gonna touch you” to the casually whistled outro – with it Bowie became only the second white guy (after Elton John) to appear on Soul Train. Superficially it’s one of his happiest, most optimistic love songs: “Look at that sky, life’s begun/ Nights are warm and the days are young”… “I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years/ nothing’s gonna touch you in these Golden Years.” But you soon realise he’s pleading, not stating, and that the object of the song is a depressed, past-it diva: “There’s my baby lost that’s all/ Once I’m begging you save her little soul”… “Don’t cry my sweet don’t break my heart/ Doing all right you gotta get smart”… “Some of these days and it won’t be long/ Gonna drive back down/ Where you once belonged/ In the back of a dream car/ Twenty foot long.”

10. Lady Stardust

I so love this song. It’s partly because I read, way back, that it was about Marc Bolan, whom I had a crush on. But also, just everything. The held note on “stare”, the soaring “ooh” in “ooh how I sighed”, the piquancy of “I smiled sadly at a love I could not obey”, the depths hinted at in “Lady Stardust sang his songs of darkness and dismay” (quite at odds with Marc Bolan’s lyrics, that description, but never mind), the top piano note following “he was alright”. Perfection.

9. Starman

I’m amazed by the number of people I speak to who don’t know what this song is really about. So let me spell it out for you. The imminent descent of beneficent aliens is a cosmic chat-up line, an excuse for a young (I hope!) boy to get his end away with a credulous young girl. He tries to convince her that “He told me let the children use it [ie their dick], let the children lose it [ie their virginity], let all the children boogie [‘boogie’, or ‘rock’, is always a synonym in songs for ‘have sex’].” Still not convinced? Try “If we can sparkle he may land tonight/ Don’t tell your papa or he’ll get us locked up in fright.” So there you have it: the most original chat-up line ever committed to music. Have sex with me now, little virgin, or the nice alien man won’t visit. Oh, and the soaring chorus was, famously, nicked from Somewhere Over The Rainbow.

8. Changes

Oh my god, what a delirious chorus, underpinned by that gloriously descending bassline. It never gets old, no matter how many thousands of times I’ve heard it. Some of the lyrics are trite – Bowie was never a good editor of his own stuff – but THIS: “So I turned myself to face me/ But I’ve never caught a glimpse/ How the others must see the faker/ I’m much too fast to take that test.” Later, when David Live came out, I enjoyed the change of lyric from “these children that you spit on” to “these children that you shit on”.

7. Station to Station

This song! This long, long, crazy song! There are fully three minutes of guitars and keyboards somehow coalescing into train noises before Bowie even starts singing. And when he does, what the hell is he on about? Mystical Kabbalah stuff, he’s said in interview. Whatevs, it sounds amazing – that repetitive, slow-building beat, his purring vocals, then suddenly leaping ecstatically into “mountains on mountains and sun birds to soar with”… to hear that for the first time, discovering it in a rented house in Aix-en-Provence not long after release, was one of the most joyful and mind-blowing moments of my life. “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine,” he sings, self-referentially. Oh, but it is, David. It most certainly is.

6. Life on Mars

I admit it. This is finally getting old for me – a few years ago I might have placed it higher. I blame the radio stations who seem to have chosen this as the only Bowie song they will play. But it’s extraordinary, of course. Rick Wakeman’s “marzipan piano”, as Charles Shaar Murray memorably called it… that sudden octave jump in the chorus… and the near-nonsense lyrics of all the crazy stuff going on on the silver screen while the poor girl tries to escape her dead-end life and parents who don’t understand, but can’t – because she’s “lived it ten times or more”… then going all meta when Bowie changes the lyric at the end to “I wrote it ten times or more”. See, it’s not just because of the “take a look at the lawman beating up the wrong guy” lyric that the TV series chose it as a title.

5. Sound and Vision

I love that Alexis Petridis put this short, perfect song at No 1. As he says, “musically it transcends time: completely original, nothing about it tethers its sound to the mid-’70s”. It’s also, as I recently had to explain to a friend, one of the most beautiful songs ever written about depression – a state the song’s protagonist has slipped into acceptingly, almost gratefully, like a warm bath. “Blue blue, electric blue/ That’s the colour of my room/ Where I will live”… “Drifting into my solitude/ Over my head”. Major Tom recurs in several Bowie songs, and here it’s in spirit: the mind-set in Sound and Vision is the same as when Major Tom is “floating in my tin can”.

4. Diamond Dogs

What. The. F. Is this song. It makes more sense when you go to the V&A exhibit, and see the lavish musical Bowie conceived this as a part of. But my God! For a sci-fi obsessed teen, to hear this absurd, overblown post-apocalyptic romp was purest heaven. “Just another future song”, he sings at one point, in a typical meta self-reference. Perhaps, but it’s one of the rockin’est.

3. Space Oddity

In one of the great examples of the squares not listening to the lyrics (see also Reagan adopting Springsteen’s Born in the USA as a “rousing” campaign song), NASA made this its theme tune. It’s so well worn that it’s hard to listen to it fresh, but try: there’s the counterpoint between the urgency of Ground Control in the verse and Major Tom’s dreamy acceptance of his imminent death in the chorus; the pathetic fallacy in “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”; the dig at the tabloids in “the papers want to know what shirts you wear”. The stripped-down, orchestra-less version, which I still have somewhere as a B-side, is well worth checking out.

2. Young Americans

Lyrically one of Bowie’s most coherent and mordant songs. You’ve heard it a million times, but how often do you actually listen? Just the opening lines: “They pulled in just behind the bridge/ he lays her down, he frowns/ “Gee my life’s a funny thing/ am I still too young?”/ He kissed her then and there/ She took his ring, took his babies/ It took him minutes, took her nowhere/ Heaven knows, she’d have taken anything.” It’s all that good. And with backing vocals on the chorus to swoon to. When it came up, uncut, over photos of the Great Depression in the closing credits of Lars Von Trier’s remarkable, brilliant, exhausting Dogville, I could have died of happiness.

1. Heroes

It’s hard enough to whittle Bowie’s songs down to 50 (what other artist could you say that of, except perhaps The Beatles?), let alone pick the very best. But this crowd-pleaser stands the test of time. Where Bowie mostly does intimate songs that whisper stories in your ear, or sonic experiments that assault it, this is an unashamed, fist-in-the-air stadium anthem. The fact that it was inspired by seeing two people kissing under the Berlin Wall gives it an enduring resonance. But though the Wall has since been torn down, making the song sound prophetically optimistic, it is the reverse. The ironic quote marks around “Heroes”, the naked anguish with which he sings “Nothing could drive them away”, and the codicil that they could be heroes “just for one day”, show that the singer knows their love, and their defiance, and indeed life itself, are fragile, fleeting things. Unlike this song, which, 43 years later, still has the power to drag the odd fat tear from my eye on long drives.

Calling Aaron Sorkin’s bluff: Molly’s Game review

13 Jan
MOLLY'S GAME

Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom and Idris Elba as her lawyer in Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. This courtroom scene, with its extended seat-switching gag, is cute on the page, but leaden and ludicrous on-screen, requiring a screwball comedy both performers lack.

Poker does not translate well to the big screen. The drama is mostly internal. Watch a YouTube video of any key hand, and it will last several minutes. For most of that time, one player remains deep in thought: “He bet this, but on the last street he bet that, which means he could have this, but then this player often bets like so, and also he probably believes I have this whereas in fact I have that, and therefore…”

Fellow poker players find this internal drama gripping, because they will be going through the same thought process as they watch. Non-players, ie the majority of the film-going public, just see someone sitting on a chair frowning.

Major movies with poker scenes usually solve this problem by going over the top with preposterous hands and stakes. The classic example is Casino Royale, in which James Bond wins a $115m pot with a straight flush vs Aces full vs eights full vs a flush. Only Rounders remains true to the thought processes and rituals of the game, by means of extensive voice-over to get us into the heads of the players.

Molly’s Game, the directorial debut of peerless screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, ducks the problem entirely. The few poker sequences are filmed in the now hackneyed slow/fast motion style that directors reach for when they want to jazz up a scene and make it look “cool”. As to the rituals of poker that make it so compelling to its acolytes – the secret language of trips, boats, nuts and check-raises, the banter and the unwritten codes of table etiquette – those, too, are sidelined. It’s a particular shame here, as Molly’s Game took place in a world of high-stakes home games open only to the privileged few: we would have liked to peer behind the curtain.

Instead, Aaron Sorkin makes it a character study of Molly herself: a high-achiever with a hard-driving father whose Olympic skiing ambitions were crushed early by injury, and who found herself, almost by accident, running an illegal high-stakes poker game to Hollywood A-listers, hedge-fund millionaires and – her downfall – a smattering of mobsters.

This should be right in Sorkin’s comfort zone. From A Few Good Men through The West Wing to The Social Network, he has made a speciality of fast, intelligent dialogue spoken by fast, intelligent people. That he fails even in this is down to the central performance, or possibly Sorkin’s direction of it. As becomes painfully obvious from the opening voice-over, Jessica Chastain just can’t get her mouth around his script. She rattles it out, but doesn’t own it, like a soap star called upon to do Shakespeare.

As the lawyer who defends her, Idris Elba, too, seems at sea. There is no chemistry between the two, and his American accent is ludicrous. Only Kevin Costner as Molly’s father gives any sense of being a complex, flesh-and-blood person with an emotional hinterland, rather than an actor reciting lines.

In fairness, I should point out that many of my fellow reviewers seem to disagree, praising at least outstanding performances by two great actors at the top of their game, if not Sorkin’s direction. All I can imagine is that they have fallen into a classic poker trap of being influenced by the players’ strong past records, and believed the bluff.

First full review of The Last Jedi (spoiler-free)

12 Dec
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Daisy Ridley as Rey and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

As someone who made a pact with God in my teens to spare my life until all nine films in the proposed Star Wars canon were completed, I watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi with mixed feelings. On the one hand it’s brilliantly acted, often funny, occasionally affecting, and with a climactic scene of startling beauty and grandeur. On the other hand, if I am to be struck down by a bolt of lightning after the next one, I’m not sure it’s entirely worth it.

Let’s start with the good stuff, and I promise to keep this spoiler-free. Daisy Ridley, already good in The Force Awakens, has grown into the role of Rey: she’s not just tough, she’s really funny. It seems like she’s been given all the best lines, until you write them down and realise they’re not that witty; it’s just the way she tells ‘em.

Adam Driver, of course, is a “proper” actor with an impressive indie CV that includes the sublime Paterson, and in this second film of the third trilogy he’s given much more scope to display his range. When he and Ridley share the screen, locked in a Jedi mind battle with a frisson of sexual tension, the effect is electric.

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Kawaii! One of the loveable Porgs in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Benicio del Toro also briefly joins the cast, and enjoyably out-hams the lot with a stutter like Hannibal Lecter sniffing a liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. He plays an incorrigible rogue of no fixed allegiance, which goes some way to filling a Han Solo-shaped hole. Non-human additions include the Porgs, fat birds that have evolved the very sensible defence mechanism of being so kawaii that predators feel too guilty to eat them; the Fathiers, which are like extra fast and strong horses with goat-like faces; and the friendly Vulptices or crystal foxes.

There are some knowing winks to the original trilogy: Kylo Ren spinning briefly out of control in his TIE fighter, as Darth Vader once did; a rather gratuitous sequence in a casino where the score echoes the music during the alien bar scene of the very first film; and Princess Leia’s brilliantly bathetic opener to Luke Skywalker when they finally meet again after many years apart: “I know what you’re going to say,” she tells Luke: “I changed my hair.”

And though some action scenes are underwhelming – once you’ve seen one spaceship chase, you’ve seen ‘em all, and by now we’ve seen dozens; plus there’s a key lightsaber battle that is flat-out badly choreographed – there is one extended scene so breathtaking that it would not be out of place in Hero or House of Flying Daggers. It’s on a planet of salt flats that cover hidden scarlet sands, such that the boundless white plains, when trod by boot or furrowed by laser cannon, become streaked with red. These few gashes, as vivid as a Rothko, by the end merge into a vast charnel field of red, in which a single figure stands alone…

This is a pay-off that has taken 40 years to build, and it’s worth the weight.

And now the negatives. The Last Jedi is busy. Very busy. Aside from some obligatory Force mumbo jumbo between Rey and Luke on “the most unfindable place in the galaxy” (in reality Ireland’s Skellig Michael), it’s all running around without really any place to go. The Resistance forces have no clear or noble goal, beyond trying not to get blown up. They engage in numerous red herring missions of questionable logic. And there are glaring and, frankly, unforgivable inconsistencies in plot and character motivation that I would love to enumerate but won’t (because spoilers). To pick just the biggest, the hot-headed Poe (Oscar Isaac) would in any other army be court-martialled and vilified for gross insubordination with disastrous consequences – not once, but twice! – yet here he’s somehow still treated as a hero. No wonder the First Order are winning.

All the same, massive kudos to writer/director Rian Johnson for taking the best-loved movie franchise of all time and making not just a film that the fans can get behind, but a movie that feels like it’s his own.

 

Raiders of the Lost Art: the singular MuBild exhibition of Frith Powell

2 Nov
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“Playing Field of a Circular Argument”, by Frith Powell

I saw two art exhibitions at the weekend: the magnificent collection of 50 Cézanne portraits and self-portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, and an astonishing retrospective of the work of Oxford-based artist Frith Powell.

Cézanne was termed “the father of us all” by Matisse and Picasso, yet he was at first ridiculed by art critics and achieved recognition only later in life. Though he first submitted work to the Paris Salon in 1863, the first (and last) of his paintings was not accepted until 19 years later.

It made me wonder how many great artists are currently hiding in plain sight, unheralded by their contemporaries.

Later this weekend, I got my answer. One, at least, is living in Oxford.

Stepping into the Barn Gallery at St John’s College, one feels something akin to what those Victorian explorers hacking through the jungle must have felt when the undergrowth suddenly gave way to a lost civilisation. Frith Powell’s major exhibition, “The MuBild of Arte Normale and the Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti”, is not just an extraordinary body of work, previously unseen. It feels like a whole new lost branch of art.

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“MuBild” translates as “nothing art”: “Mu” being Japanese for “nothing”, with “Bild” German for “art”. The term “Arte Normale” stems from a meeting in the ‘90s between the artist and Time Out’s then Art Editor, Sarah Kent, which in fact I helped engineer. Frith Powell says that Sarah looked at his paintings nonplussed, saying that this was not “normal abstraction”.

Indeed it’s not. This “nothing art” is like nothing else. It’s an attempt to make abstraction real: to give symbols and figures from Frith Powell’s id solidity and form, in an alternative language whose rules and syntax seem all clearly thought out but are tantalisingly not quite divinable to the outsider. The connection is made overt with a horned symbol that recurs in many paintings, but which Frith Powell has also given physical form in white marble. The sculpture is exquisite, a thing of beauty and mystery, alternately suggesting devil’s horns, a crown, or a plucked tooth.

Frith Powell himself says that “the essential challenge for me, as an abstract painter, is in creating what could be called a ‘fiction of reality’, something that looks as though it might be real, at first sight, or is at least highly suggestive of reality, but on closer examination is seen to be unrecognisable. Other.”

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“View from the Common Road, Beckley” by Frith Powell

Though the paintings vary in style and medium, having been created over several decades, the whole is astonishingly coherent. Only one work stands out like a sore thumb: “View from the Common Road, Beckley” is a detailed landscape in pen and ink, the perspective perfectly proportioned, the trees just right. One wonders if it is included as a definitive rebuke to the uncharitable viewer who might be wondering whether Frith Powell chooses abstraction only because he lacks the technical skill for representation.

And this is just one half of the exhibition. The other is “The Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti”, which is a collection of sculptures and objects housed in glass display cabinets. The fact that this exhibition is just five minutes’ walk from Oxford’s ethnographic Pitt Rivers Museum gives it extra piquancy. These objects are like the artefacts of some lost tribe – some functional, some religious, some sexually charged.

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“Woodland Deities”, by Frith Powell

The anime director Hayao Miyazaki would appreciate the series of “Woodland Deities” carved from funguses in the remote forests of Northern Scandinavia, or the twisted branches that have been turned into fantastical flutes, or the faces found in or struck from pebbles. Conversely, Frith Powell (or rather his craftsman alter-ego, Fabio Penitenti) has returned civilisation to nature with three acorns that, if you look closely, were carved from Champagne corks, or spiralling Christmas trees fashioned from tin lids.

Also striking (and very funny; much of the exhibition is playful and raises a smile) are a gigantic spoon carved from a massive block of wood, that has a strong whiff of Christian iconography; and the “Poet’s bird feeder hat”, with bird seed stored in its brim for anyone wanting to play St Francis of Assissi for the day.

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Part of the Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti

In the interests of journalistic balance, I must declare an interest: I was at Oxford with Frith Powell’s wife Louise, also an artist, and have known the couple, on and off, for three decades. But I have seen only the odd piece until now. If I hadn’t been impressed, I would have written nothing. It is as a critic, not a friend, that I say this is an exceptional body of work, all the more astonishing for having been hidden from the light for so many years – Frith Powell is now 70.

Will art critics make the trek to Oxford? Are any editors still interested in unearthing fresh talent rather than chasing the clicks of the more established names? Perhaps not. But take my word for it. If you are in Oxford between now and November 16, do visit the Barn Gallery at St John’s College.

Remember that even Cézanne was once unknown.

Why Rogue One is more historical drama than sci-fi – and all the better for it

18 Dec
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Felicity Jones leads the way in Rogue One: a Star Wars Story

Director Gareth Edwards has said he wants Rogue One: a Star Wars Story to be considered a heist movie as much as science-fiction. Actually, it occurred to me it was more like a historical drama.

Of course all the events in Star Wars do play out in the past, relative to our Earth (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”). But Rogue One, unlike The Force Awakens, is also set in 1977 – or rather, whatever vision of an alternative world George Lucas was able to come up with in 1977, which is always dictated by the times. Look at any sci-fi film, and despite the attempts of futurity, you can always tell exactly when it was made. Lucas’s genius was to make his world pre-distressed, so that it seemed relatively ageless  but you’re still aware of the hydraulic whirrs on the machinery, the primitive (by now) recording systems that lie at the heart of Rogue One’s plot, the minimalist colour schemes that (like in Logan’s Run and Lucas’s own THX 1138) passed for futuristic in the ‘70s.

Edwards has recreated this world meticulously, so that it slots in seamlessly with the original trilogy. But just as BBC historical dramas sometimes get straitened and stifled by their corsets, there was always a danger he would follow the template too slavishly, to give us the Star Wars formula with none of the fun.

Instead, it’s a minor triumph. Rogue One is funny, exciting, moving, brilliantly acted, with plenty of surprises, and very much Gareth Edwards’ own.

Arrival: thank God (or alien equivalent) for sci-fi with a brain

13 Nov
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Amy Adams attempts to communicate with the visitors in Arrival

Arrival is that vanishingly rare thing: a major sci-fi release with a brain. When was the last one? Probably Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in 2014, and its brain was pretty small: the whole film seemed based, as I wrote at the time, on a Queen song, while its striking time-dilation planet scene will be familiar to any fan, as Nolan is, of the works of Alan Moore (Halo Jones Book 3 on the planet Hispus, I’m looking at you).

Directed by the awesomely talented Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and based on a short story, it imagines what would happen, and how people would feel, if alien ships suddenly took up position over the earth. Spoiler-free hint: it’s nothing like Independence Day.

I don’t want to give away too much about the film, as ever, but I will just give you one example of why and how it works. Doctor Strange has several striking fight scenes in which gravity is spectacularly upended. They are fun. But they don’t make you think. It’s all just special effects. The moment in Arrival when the heroes realise that gravity is no longer working according to accepted laws is a hundred times more powerful. Communicated through the panicked breath of Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, it feels real. We’re there, with them, as the enormity of the situation takes hold. There really are aliens, and they really are changing the laws of physics.

It’s that level of realism, applied to a science-fictional premise, that makes this a great film. I had thought, coming out of a preview a few months ago, that Amy Adams would be a lock for Best Actress at the Oscars. I’ve since seen La La Land, and without question that will sweep the board, including, probably, for Emma Stone. Nevertheless, Adams is terrific: Arrival rests entirely on her slender shoulders, and she Atlases it. Go see.

David Bowie’s Lazarus musical hits London: first review

7 Nov
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Michael C Hall as Thomas Newton, with (left) Amy Lennox as the woman obsessed with him and Sophia Anne Caruso (right) as his guardian angel, in David Bowie’s Lazarus musical

Does Lazarus, the new David Bowie musical which has just transferred to King’s Cross in London from a sell-out run off-Broadway, live up to the mostly positive if faintly baffled reviews it received in New York? Put it this way: I went with four other people, three of them ardent Bowie fans, one so-so. By the end, I was the only one who hadn’t walked out. And I stayed largely on the basis that, having shelled out £75 for a ticket, I was damn well going to find something to enjoy. Then again, many in the audience gave it a standing ovation, so it hits the right note for some.

The plot – or more accurately premise, since there is nothing so jejune as a plot in evidence – is that we pick up where The Man Who Fell To Earth left off: with alien entrepreneur Thomas Newton trapped in a bare hotel room in unageing anhedonia, living off gin and Twinkies, and assailed by visitations of guardian angels and serial killers. Bowie songs begin and end pretty much at random, without troubling themselves to reflect the action.

The kindest thing one can say is that they demonstrate what a great singer Bowie was, because, delivered in musical style, they mostly sound hideous. Lyrics such as “It’s on America’s tortured brow, that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow” are belted out as though profound rather than tossed off archly as Bowie would have done. Even Heroes, which you’d think was bullet-proof, sounds naff. Changes made me feel almost physically sick.

It’s not all bad: All The Young Dudes, The Man Who Sold the World, Valentine’s Day and It’s No Game work well, and the band, visible behind a perspex screen, are solid. Director Ivo van Hove pulls off the odd coup de théâtre, especially towards the end, making spectacular use of a floor-to-ceiling video screen. Michael C Hall of Dexter fame is in good voice as Newton, though he can’t rescue the bizarrely wooden dialogue. Michael Esper makes a convincing psycho.

But to me it’s all too little, too late, to save a production that feels like it was cobbled together in very little time from a few half-formed scraps of ideas – which, having subsequently read up on the genesis of the show, seems to be pretty much what happened in the rush to put on this “play with music” while Bowie yet lived.

Others will disagree. It’s a polarising, love-it-or-hate-it production. And in that, if nothing else, it’s a fitting testimonial to Bowie’s restlessly inventive and mercurial artistry.

 

 

Siberry the best: an intimate gig from ‘Canada’s answer to Kate Bush’

4 Oct
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Jane Siberry: new album Angels Bend Closer is out in November

“My darlings, arise from your mossy beds, and leave your lichen dreams behind…”

These were the first words Jane Siberry uttered when she got up on stage last night. The opening lyrics to her song Morag were subtly altered to address her audience directly; they were liltingly spoken and not sung, without accompaniment from the guitar hanging round her neck. Instantly the 350-strong crowd gathered in London’s St James’s Theatre Studio – a far more intimate venue than this Canadian superstar would have commanded back home – were drawn close into Siberryland, a place where none of the usual rules of music, performance and even rationality apply.

Jane Siberry is sometimes described as Canada’s answer to Kate Bush, or to Tori Amos, as a way of explaining the reverence in which she is held in her native land. In truth, she has no more in common with them than they do with each other, beyond the fact that they all defy easy comparison or categorisation.

Siberry’s songs are like poems, or fragments of dreams. Her tunes are achingly beautiful but, like a painter who’s never quite happy with their canvas, she likes to mess them about in live performance until they are more perfectly imperfect. Her voice is a softly skirling, whirling bird of a thing, gusting upward on a sudden draught of inspiration and hovering briefly on its flight of fancy, before swooping down again to carry off the fugitive melody.

“Whoops,” she says at one point, smiling and correcting the fingering on her guitar, “I’ve drifted away from the chord.” After nearly 40 years in the music business, she seems more relaxed and at home on the stage with a crowd of strangers than most people are in their living room with close friends.

And she’s funny. After a particularly loud and long round of applause, she says, mock petulantly, “Fine. Chase me away with your clapping.” She introduces her song Dante by saying it’s not about the Italian poet, but named after a horse “who stamped negative energy into the ground”.

Having praised her sometime collaborator, k.d. lang, by saying “for some reason, artists like her and Frank Sinatra, their soul leaks on to their everyday voice”, she immediately undercuts her gushing with an aside, in the serious tones of a doctor delivering a diagnosis: “It could be leaky soul syndrome.” And, finding herself getting too deep about her combative mother, she adds: “I was thrilled when she died, because I finally got her to admit that if she’d been born in my times, she’d have been texting way more than me.”

Siberry has a new album out in mid-November: Angels Bend Closer, her first major recording in six years. On the evidence of this enchanting and enchanted evening, even with 20 previous CDs behind her, Siberry has plenty of magical surprises still up her sleeve.

How 12 days in a cell gave Grace Vallorani The Power

28 Sep
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Grace Vallorani (behind bars) with her captor, played by Constance Carter, in The Power

One of the joys of a film festival like London’s Raindance is you don’t know what you’re going to get: films often arrive with no reviews or advance buzz, which makes any happy discoveries seem the more exciting. I went to the UK Premiere of The Power after a chance conversation with the lead actress, Grace Vallorani, at the poker table (where you meet all the most interesting people!). It was a revelation. Vallorani gives a performance of astonishing power, bravery and openness, completely lacking in actorly vanity, that richly deserves a wider audience.

The film itself is not without flaws: primarily from its mismatch of genres. For the most part, it’s a very successful psychological thriller in which a woman is kidnapped and held prisoner to nefarious ends. Vallorani’s distress is grippingly, viscerally real: as she screams and batters the iron bars of her cell, you genuinely fear she’s done herself an injury.

In fact, Vallorani revealed at the Q&A interview session after the film, she had: “All the bruises, the blood on my head, they were all real. I hit my head on the bars.” Afterwards, she demonstrated how the little finger on her right hand is crooked – she cracked that on the bars, too, without realising it at the time.

The cell scenes were shot over the course of 12 days, with the barest of scripts – most of the dialogue was improvised to seem more naturalistic, which works well. For that whole time, while the rest of the cast were resting in their dressing rooms or tucked up in hotel beds, Vallorani actually lived in the cell: nights included. Her character spends her days trying to scrape out the concrete housing around the metal bars with a single nail in order to escape. That, too, the actress did for real.

It’s an extraordinary level of commitment to bring to a part, which shows in the integrity of her performance. What stops these scenes – the bulk of the movie – becoming samey is her character’s developing relationship with the girl who brings her food. Constance Carter, in her film debut, is excellent as the daughter of a cult leader: initially impervious to argument and parroting the mantras she has been taught, her façade begins to crumble as Vallorani alternately shouts, pleads, flatters, threatens, cajoles, reasons and, finally, befriends her.

The scenes between them are genuinely touching, as Vallorani comes to realise that both women are equally captives: it’s just that for Carter’s character, the bars are in her mind.

If writer/director Paul Hills had fully trusted in his cast, and the strength of the material he had here, he might have bequeathed an intelligent and sensitive psychological thriller. However, it also lurches uneasily into horror territory, with a baby-sacrificing, heart-eating, Baphomet-worshipping cult thrown in. This part is, for me, logistically implausible and psychologically risible, despite the extensive research Hills apparently did into the subject, while the ending contradicts the terrific character work built up over the course of the film.

Even so: perhaps all that will be more to someone else’s taste than mine; and the bits that are good in the film – the vast majority, in fact – are very good indeed.

If you read only one Alan Moore Jerusalem interview, make it this one

22 Sep
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Alan Moore, where his childhood home in Northampton’s Boroughs once stood. Photo: Dominic Wells

I recently spent six hours with Alan Moore. We went on a walking tour of his old Northampton neighbourhood, and stood where his childhood home once stood (pictured above). We discussed Anonymous, Brexit and the nature of time. And Moore revealed how very much more than you might realise in his extraordinary new novel Jerusalem is fact – including a dark family secret which he reveals here for the first time.

This is a longish feature. It needs to be. But it’s nowhere as long as the interview transcript – edited highlights of which I shall release online over the coming days, starting here. So settle down with the stimulant of your choice, abandon your preconceptions, and step into the Mind of Moore.

It’s 1986…

Watchmen is nearing the middle of its 12-issue run. It’s clear already that it’s something special. This ambitious, intricately structured deconstruction and resurrection of the superhero genre has stoked the fame of its writer, Alan Moore, to such fever pitch that at conventions autograph-hunters pursue him even into the toilet. Yet he still finds time to speak to a young journalist with a monthly comics column in London’s Alternative Magazine.

“It’s about time people stopped debating whether comics are art,” Moore tells me combatively, “and just get on with making good art.”

Watchmen will later be the only graphic novel placed on Time magazine’s list of 100 greatest novels, and will create a surge in intelligent comics, which itself will create a surge in comic-book movies, leading to today’s overpowering dominance of the big screen by men and women in spandex. In that sense, Moore is probably the most influential living British writer. Moore will reject the monster he has created, but for now…

In the issue of Watchmen just published when we speak in 1986, a nuclear scientist acquires superpowers and becomes “Doctor Manhattan”. It’s one of those convenient radiation accidents common to the comic-book genre, but Moore does something much more interesting with the trope than turning his hero into a square-jawed do-gooding protector of mankind like Superman. If a man became, effectively, a god, wondered Moore, would he still have anything in common with mankind?

So instead, Moore’s superhuman drifts existentially out of our orbit – indeed, outside of conventional chronology altogether. In an astonishing tour de force, the panel captions of this chapter keep shifting backwards and forwards as we are shown time through Doctor Manhattan’s all-seeing eyes – not as a linear progression, but as past, present and future all happening simultaneously: “It’s October, 1985. I’m on Mars. It’s July, 1959. I’m in New Jersey, at the Palisades Amusement Park…”

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Page from Watchmen. Writer: Alan Moore. Artist: Dave Gibbons. © DC Comics

Neither Moore nor I can know, in 1986, that 30 years later this remarkable notion will have inspired his masterwork, a 1,200-page novel called Jerusalem. But before we meet to talk about that (or is that simultaneously?) our timelines will criss-cross a few more times…

It’s 1996…

“I continually monitor the possibility that I might be going mad,” says Moore. In a London wine bar, we are discussing his first “proper” novel, Voice of the Fire, for a feature in Time Out; the magic rituals that now fuel his creative writing; and the bizarre coincidence that, after he’d written about a dog padding through the streets of Northampton with a severed human head in its jaws, this actually happened in real life. “Did I intuit that, or did I somehow will it into being?” he muses.

It gets weirder. In 20 years’ time, when we meet yet again to talk about his novel Jerusalem, I will recall this earlier chat and see in it another cosmic coincidence. The bar we are sitting in, in 1996, is also called… Jerusalem.

It’s 1989…

At a gigantic comics festival in France, Alan Moore and artist Melinda Gebbie are showing me panels from their nascent joint venture, Lost Girls. Refusing to describe the graphic-novel-to-be as “erotica”, preferring the more honest and working-class label of “pornography”, Moore brings together Alice from Wonderland, Dorothy from Oz and Wendy from Neverland in a pastel-coloured mosaic of polymorphous perversity that won’t be published in full until 18 years later.

And what of Melinda Gebbie? Reader, in 2007, she married him.

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Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s wedding. Photo: Neil Gaiman, from his blog

It’s 2002…

The idea Moore had in Lost Girls of plucking established fictional characters from the straitjackets of their original novels and mixing them together has blossomed into The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a series of comics featuring Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde and Virginia Woolf’s gender-fluid Orlando.

“This planet has a physical geography with which we have already familiarised ourselves,” Moore is telling me, for a feature in The Times. “But since the dawn of the first stories, there is a fictional geography, where the gods and demons live. We have created this big imaginary planet that is a counterpart to our own; and in some cases these places are more familiar to us than the real ones.”

However, the Hollywood adaptation being shot without his approval as we speak will cause him to disown all films based on his work – signing over all his royalties to the illustrators instead. The price of principle must run into the millions of pounds: as well as the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, films of his work will include From Hell, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Constantine, and Batman: The Killing Joke.

It’s 1990…

Moore has rejected the superhero genre he helped to revive. Instead, he’s just released the first issue of Big Numbers – a Northampton-set 12-part comic inspired by Chaos Theory and structured like the endlessly regressive fractals of the Mandelbrot Set. His small ambition, he tells me in his surprisingly normal-looking Northampton living room, is to “re-integrate all the shattered fragments of our culture”, fusing “maths and art, politics and economics”.

Esoteric, yes, but such is Moore’s following that its first issue still sells 65,000 copies. However, after two successive artists buckled under the pressure of illustrating it, Big Numbers never reaches issue 3. Moore’s fledgling self-publishing imprint collapses, as does his polyamorous relationship with the two women he lived with: his wife Phyllis Moore and their lover Debbie Delano.

It’s 2013…

Moore may have rejected Hollywood, but he’s not above creating films on his own terms. In the ‘80s, he wrote a screenplay for Malcolm McLaren called Fashion Beast, and now we’re at a screening and Q&A for Show Pieces, a feature-length series of short films written by Moore, in which he plays a compere in a gentleman’s club of the afterlife who is, effectively, God: striking gold face-paint, snow-white hair and killer Cuban heels.

© 2012 John Angerson.Filming of Jimmy's End - Northampton

© 2012 John Angerson. Filming of Jimmy’s End – Northampton

“I felt I’d more or less exhausted what I could do with my work while remaining in the boundaries of strict rationality,” Moore says after the screening, explaining why he first began practising magic. “One problem with art at the moment as I see it is there is nothing visionary, nothing magical, nothing of the numinous. I believe art is magic and magic is art.”

It’s the afternoon of July 9, 2016…

Thirty years from our very first meeting, at least in the linear fashion in which humans perceive time, Alan Moore and I are holed up in an Italian restaurant in Northampton to discuss the culmination of a lifetime’s work, research and philosophy. “Bigger than the Bible and I hope more socially useful”, is how Moore describes his sprawling magnum opus, Jerusalem, with his customarily deadpan humour.

His Father-Christmas-meets-heavy-metal-roadie’s beard is a little greyer than it once was, the rings on his fingers more ornate, but Moore hasn’t lost the Northampton accent which turns every “I” into an “Oy”, nor the astonishing verbal felicity with which his every sentence emerges fully formed, sub-clauses and all. It’s as though he were writing rather than speaking; or as though he already knows how each sentence will end before he embarks upon it.

Deep into our six-hour talk, somewhere around the dessert (three scoops of ice cream for Moore, hold the whipped cream), the Sage of Northampton is explaining how he came to see the world as Doctor Manhattan does. In 1994, he experienced an “absolute, crystalline understanding” during a magical ritual. Since then, Moore has believed, as Einstein supposedly did, that time is a solid in which our lives are embedded; it is only our perception of it which makes it appear linear.

In other words, everything that has ever happened is still happening. Everything which is about to happen has already happened. We never truly die: the lives we are living now are solid and eternal. That’s all major religions out of business, then.

“The thing is,” says Moore, “we don’t have free will, or at least that’s what I believe, and I think most physicists tend to think that as well, that this is a predetermined universe. That’s got to pretty much kill religion because there aren’t any religions that aren’t based on some kind of moral imperative. They’ve all got sin, karma or something a bit like that. In a predetermined universe how can you talk about sin? How can you talk about virtue?”

This leads to a humanist philosophy that is not without its own morality, albeit one that this is self-imposed and unique to each individual. It means, says Moore, that you should be careful not to do anything in life that you cannot live with for all eternity.

“We’re talking here about heaven and hell, we’re talking about them as being simultaneous and present, that all the worst moments of your life forever, that’s hell; all the best moments of your life forever, that’s paradise. So, this is where we are. We’re in hell, we’re in paradise; both together, forever. I’m saying that everywhere is Jerusalem. That in an Einsteinian block universe, where all time is presumably simultaneous, then everywhere is the eternal heavenly city.”

This is why, as in Alan Moore’s first novel, Voice of the Fire, almost all the action in Jerusalem takes place within a small geographical area of Northampton, but ranging across different historical eras, each centring on different protagonists who end up interconnecting in surprising ways. It took Moore ten years to write – in between multiple other projects – and took me three weeks to read. It’s part social history of Northampton, part thinly fictionalised history of Moore’s own family, part philosophical treatise, part rip-roaring adventure in which a gang of kids maraud through the afterlife in a central section Moore describes as like “a savage, hallucinating Enid Blyton”.

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Book jacket for Jerusalem. Artwork: Alan Moore

As if that wasn’t hard enough to pull off, Moore adapts his writing style to the inner voice of whoever is the chapter’s focus. One is written as a play, in the style of Waiting for Godot, and throws together the spirits of Thomas Becket, Samuel Beckett, John Clare and John Bunyan – all of whom have some connection with Northampton – as they observe and comment on a husband and wife wrestling with a terrible family secret… but more of that particular revelation later.

Another chapter, described from the point of view of James Joyce’s mad daughter Lucia who was institutionalised for 30 years in a Northampton mental hospital, is written in a mangled, pun-filled gibber-English as a homage to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. It was so laborious to compose that Moore took a year’s break after finishing it.

If this makes Jerusalem sound like hard going, it isn’t. It’s gripping, full of stylistic fireworks, frequently laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes terrifying, occasionally frustrating. Could it have been shorter? Of course. But it’s the digressions and bizarre connections that make the book, the nuggets of pure gold that Moore has sifted from the silt of local history through prodigious research and banked in his near-photographic memory.

“Nearly everything is historical fact,” says Moore, before deadpanning: “I’d take all the angels and demons with a pinch of salt. A lot of it is actually 100 per cent materially true, but I think all of it is emotionally true. And also we are not just our bricks and mortar, we are not just our flesh and blood, we are not just our material components. Everything in our world has got an imaginary component. As individuals, we’re always telling people the legend of us. The same goes for our houses, our streets, our towns, our country – there is a huge imaginary component to human life and if in the interests of scientific realism you ignore that, you are not describing reality.

“But science cannot measure the bit that isn’t material. Science is a brilliant tool for analysing our material universe, but science cannot talk about what is inside the human mind: it’s beyond the realm of proof, it’s beyond the realm of science. So I say they should be left to art and magic, which are pretty much the same thing.”

One of the most moving aspects of the book is how Moore exhumes the oral working-class history of Northampton, resurrecting and giving voice to those who had none when they lived, such as a homeless teen who died of exposure, whom Moore makes a key character, or “Black Charley”, who emigrated to Northampton from America. Even the colourful vignette in Jerusalem about a half-drunk zebra tethered outside a pub is based on historical fact.

“Yeah, that’s true,” confirms Moore, “Newton Pratt had got a zebra, which he used to keep tied up on Sundays when he went to the Friendly Arms, and bring it out a half of beer, so there would be this drunk zebra half way up Scarletwell Street. You know – these are the things that need to be preserved. Because they are wonderful. And yet, who cares?

“These things must have happened in every little deprived area, all across the world. But we’re not interested in deprived areas, it’s got to be the history of Church and State and Monarchy – that’s the only history that counts, apparently.  I would say that’s the only history that’s simplistic to keep track of.”

Researching all this was a Herculean task, which continued throughout the writing of the book. In fact, it wasn’t until the closing chapters that he discovered a previously unknown link between a key piece of industrial history and the hymn that gives the book its name…

It’s midday on July 9, 2016…

Before we go for lunch, Moore takes me on a walking tour of Northampton’s Boroughs. This is the area in which Moore grew up, and which forms the geographical boundaries of Jerusalem. I’m instructed to walk on his right: he’s nearly deaf in his left ear. He carries a cane, but doesn’t seem to need it; in his hands it seems more wizard’s staff than walking aid. He is slightly stooped, but not from age – it’s the life-long stance of one accustomed to being the tallest person in the room.

Down a canal tow-path near Northampton station, he shows me what he describes as “the original dark Satanic mill”, as sung about in William Blake’s hymn, Jerusalem.

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Alan Moore at the remnants of the original dark satanic mill. Photo: Dominic Wells

“Here it was,” Moore says, pointing to an unprepossessing stone wall underneath a bridge that’s so low that he has to stoop. “That’s where industry and free-market conservatism were born. It [the machinery] was driving three looms, these looms would work without anybody to look after them, they’d just employ a few children to sweep out the corners and unsnag the machines if they got snagged, and immediately of course all the local cottage industries collapsed.

“So a little while after that, Adam Smith came to visit and he saw these machines working with nobody to work them, and he said ‘oh that’s marvellous, it’s like there’s a hidden hand’, then ‘ooh, that would make a nice metaphor for freemarket capitalism’. And that’s why we have this completely mystical notion that doesn’t exist, this is why Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher said that it was OK to deregulate the banks; we didn’t need market control because there was hidden hand! And now here we are.”

It’s a strange experience, walking the streets with this bearded compendium of knowledge. Every corner provokes a reminiscence, such as the graffiti which he recognises as the work of Bill Drummond of art-pop group the KLF, who came round to his house to show him the film of them burning a million pounds. Do they regret it now, I ask?

“It’s not so much that they regret it, but I think it haunts them. I heard a brilliant definition of haunting: ‘That which haunts us is that which we do not or do not completely understand.’ And I thought, that makes sense. Often we don’t understand our own actions. And certainly, if we’d gone to the Isle of Jura and burned a million quid, we would have a lot of questions!”

Further on, we pass the Black Lion pub, where Moore was photographed in a pram as a baby; a war memorial with his uncle Jack’s name on it, in the grounds of a church built when this was the centre of Mercia, which was the centre of England, and which “would have been visited by Samuel Beckett when he was on a church crawl, while all his cricketing mates were off drinking and whoring”; a wooden statue of a medieval knight in armour, part of new tourist initiative called the Knight’s Trail, which provokes the wry observation, “You know, at the present time, probably putting up celebratory statues of people who are only famous for killing Muslims is not the best idea, I wouldn’t have thought. But that’s Northampton council.”

And then, round a few more bends, “That’s it,” says Moore, “that’s my bedroom.”

And with that, Moore mimes walking up some stairs and stops still, spreading his arms to indicate, here: this spot. As in the poem Ozymandias, nothing beside remains. The house of his birth is long gone, along with the 20 others like it that used to line this now benighted stretch of Northampton roadside; and yet it also lives on – in the past, and in Moore’s mind, and now in his 1,200-page magnum opus.

And how does it feel, to be standing here, on the spot where his childhood self once slept? Moore pauses. “Haunted,” he says simply.

There are ghosts aplenty in Jerusalem, and we stumble across a ghost story of our own, on our walking tour of Moore’s old neighbourhood. We’re inspecting a strange bolted door to and from nowhere on the first floor of Nonconformist leader Philip Doddridge’s church, which Alan Moore in Jerusalem reimagines as a gateway to a fourth-dimensional afterlife world, when a voice pipes up from across the street: “What do you think that door there’s for?”

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Philip Doddridge’s door to nowhere. Photo: Dominic Wells

Moore crosses the street to address the stranger, an ill-shaven rough-sleeper of about 40. “I think it’s got supernatural origins, that’s my theory,” says Moore, happy to chat to anyone about the strange and unusual. “We’re putting that on the cover of the book I’m doing. One of the paperbacks has just got that, with a bolt halfway up the wall.”

Homeless man: “It doesn’t make sense, does it?”

Moore: “There’s a lot of stuff in Northampton that doesn’t.”

Homeless man: “Yeah. To be honest with you, I’m an alcoholic, but I’ve cut it right down to a couple a day, and a couple of days ago… I don’t believe in ghosts, but I saw a woman walking, and just – out of the corner of my eye, and I looked, it was in the rain and I was going to say what are you doing in the rain, and she just… went away. There was nowhere for her to go.”

Alan Moore is so enrapt by this story that he’s unconsciously taken several small steps towards the man, and is leaning in to catch every word. I’m starting to understand that Moore is some sort of Weirdness Magnet.

Moore: “This area is full of ghosts, and actually, being a bit pissed helps to see them. I believe it. It’s why there were so many of them in pubs. All the pubs round here had at least two or three, when I was a kid. So, the pubs have been pulled down, where else have they got to go? Out in the rain with you, eh?”

They chat for a while, the homeless man and the super-successful author who only looks like he could be homeless, about the supernatural and the history of Northampton. Then, in an echo of a scene in Jerusalem so uncanny it makes my head spin, Moore stuffs a crumpled £20 note into the man’s hands.

Moore: “You look after yourself mate, have a good weekend, it’s really nice to meet someone who appreciates the ground they’re standing on.”

Homeless man [suddenly blurts out]: “I enjoyed Watchmen.”

Moore: “Did you?”

Homeless man: “I loved it.”

Moore: “Oh, that’s nice.”

Homeless man: “You and… Gibbon?”

Moore [Northampton accent suddenly stronger in anger]: “Dave Gibbons. Oi hope Oi never see that fucker for as long as Oi live. Oi don’t have a copy of the book in me ‘ouse, but Oi’m glad you got some pleasure out of it, mate.”

Homeless man: “And The Killing Joke Batman, that is a belter.”

Moore: “Well, I threw it out. But glad you liked it, man. Have a good day, won’t you.”

And there, in a nutshell, are the two faces of Alan Moore. On the one hand, he has been so publicly excoriating of Hollywood profiting from his works, and of former friends and co-creators such as Dave Gibbons who he sees as abetting them, that he’s earned a reputation as a grumpy old man: “Get off my lawn, says Alan Moore” was a recent headline in the satirical website Newsthump. On the other hand, he’s unfailingly gracious and loyal to those he feels deserves it.

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A sweet letter Moore wrote back to a nine-year-old fan who’d called him “the greatest author in human history” recently went viral. (Neil Gaiman, author of Coraline, Sandman and Good Omens, goes one further, dubbing Moore “the Greatest Living Englishman”.) Last year Moore sent a cheque for £10,000 to an old friend, window-cleaner Graham Cousins, whose African wife had fallen foul of Home Office rules requiring a minimum income threshold or savings to live with him in the UK.

To cap it all, during our walk, preposterously (and I swear this happened; none of Moore’s legendarily large “herbal” cigarettes were harmed in the making of this interview), Moore even rescues a child’s balloon. As it soars skywards above the crowded shopping street, before anyone else has time to react, he reaches up on tiptoe with surprising agility to grab its string, and returns it with a twinkle-eyed smile just as the bereft infant was preparing to howl.

“See?” I feel like telling the tiny tot. “Father Christmas is real. He just likes to take mind-bending drugs and worship the false Roman snake-god Glycon.”

Round the next corner, it’s Moore who spots a T-shirt slogan on a passer-by that I’d missed: “I see a lot stranger T-shirts these days than I used to,” he remarks. “Did you see that one? It said, ‘Good morning, I see the assassins have failed’.” And then we’re down some steps and into the Italian restaurant, where the manager greets Moore like a long-lost friend and asks him about his books, and once again…

It’s the afternoon of July 9, 2016

I’m asking Moore if, in Jerusalem, he’s had a sex change. One of the key characters in the novel is Alma Warren, an artist. Like Moore, she is a reluctant local celebrity; the exhibition of paintings she is staging have titles which match the chapter headings in Jerusalem (very meta); and her hair is described thusly:  “She’s learned early in life that if she doesn’t brush her mane once every day it will develop knots that in a week will have turned into impacted rhino horn: bolls of mahogany that it will take tree-surgeons, chainsaws, ropes and ladders to remove.”

Strangest of all, there is a scene in which Alma thrusts a crumpled £20 note into the hands of an impoverished friend she meets on the streets – just like on our walk.

Clearly “Alma Warren” is an alter-ego to Alan Moore. “Yeah, well,” agrees Moore, holding up his hands in surrender, “I mean I had to be in the novel, because otherwise there’s no centre, there’s got to be someone for Mike to be brother of, and various people to be the grandmothers of, but I didn’t want to bring all the baggage of ‘Alan Moore’ to it. So I came up with this woman who my daughters tell me is exactly like me. [My friend] John Higgs said that you are going to read a lot of autobiographies that are nowhere near this personal!”

It turns out many of the key characters in the book are fictionalised versions of Moore’s relatives. Take mad Snowy Vernall who, while retouching the ceiling frescoes of St Paul’s cathedral, receives a terrifying angelic visitation from which he learns the secrets of existence and is winched down again with his ginger hair turned white: he is based on Moore’s great-grandfather Ginger Vernon. Snowy’s equally touched sister, Thursa, is based on another ancestor of Moore’s who used to wander round during the Blitz playing the accordion.

As to the small boy, Mike, who, due to a celestial mix-up, “dies” while choking on a cough sweet and spends the mid-section of the book in the afterlife with the Dead Dead Gang (a name that came to Moore in a dream), he is based on Moore’s own brother, who really did stop breathing for a few minutes as a small child while choking on a cough sweet.

And as for Moore’s great-aunt and uncle… that’s a story with a dark secret that Moore will keep to himself until the day is nearly over.

Meanwhile, there is much to discuss. For instance, how does Alan Moore feel about literally creating the face of not one, but three major counter-cultural youth movements?

In the late ‘80s, the Smiley face badge he had popularised in Watchmen became the emblem of Acid House and the illegal raves of the Second Summer of Love. More recently, the V for Vendetta mask of Moore’s anarchist antihero was adopted by both the Occupy and Anonymous movements.

“Well, how do I feel…” Moore strokes down the errant whiskers on his beard as though they were straying thoughts that must be put in order. “I’m glad that they’ve got it, although – they didn’t get it from the comic, did they? They got it from the film, which I have never seen and which, from a position of complete ignorance, I am willing to describe as a total rat’s abortion. But I’m glad it’s been of use to these protestors, because generally I really admire what they do.”

He met the Occupy protesters who’d camped outside St Paul’s when a C4 news crew took him along. As for Anonymous, the closest he came was when someone claiming to be from the hackers’ collective got in touch saying they were planning a Day of Mayhem based on scenarios in Watchmen.

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Alan Moore with “Smiley” riot shield by Jimmy Cauty. Photo: Alistair Fruish

“We got back to them saying, stuff based on comic books, that won’t work; and anyway why are you sending me this? How do I know who you are? In fact, if I was the intelligence services, who had got no idea how to infiltrate the members of Anonymous, because of their anonymity, I might be thinking, why not get somebody who is publicly associated with Anonymous, and get them to sign up to something really stupid, and use that to discredit the entire network? So I said, no thanks.”

It’s a not inconsiderable irony, too, that though V for Vendetta illustrator David Lloyd gets a percentage of the royalties for the mask (Moore having disowned his), mostly the sales from this anarchist rallying symbol fill the coffers of the exceedingly corporate Warner Bros. As for the Smiley face, Moore was recently photographed holding a full-sized riot shield with the famous blood-splattered logo designed by artist Jim Cauty of the KLF, which he says he’s “very proud” of.

The politics of protest is something that gets Moore exercised: this, after all, is a man whose phone was tapped after he was commissioned in the late ‘80s by the Christic Institute to write the graphic novel Brought to Light, based on their extensive research into the now notorious Iran-Contra scandal. Of Brexit, Moore says that “I hadn’t realised how surrounded by idiots I was”, and believes democracy is fundamentally broken.

As an anarchist, he does not vote, but he’s not above the odd direct action – he speaks admiringly of one friend, thinly disguised in Jerusalem, whose many protests included renaming Little Cross Street as Double Cross Street after Northampton’s council had evacuated tenants there for minor repairs, and never moved them back in. The day after the Brexit referendum, Moore himself took to the stage for a piece of political performance art with his face terrifyingly made up as a mandrill. Yes, a mandrill – the bright-blue-and-red-faced relative of the baboon.

What was that all about? Moore smiles conspiratorially: “I can give you the whole thing, if you want.” He leans across the table and, in a deep, urgent and rhythmic tone, starts to recite:

 “We’ll march on ugliness and stupidity, we’ll make loveliness compulsory, and the roar of our orchestra engines will soar evermore in a glorious, annihilating symphony, for the tyranny of beauty is our god-given duty: every child at birth is to be issued with a ukulele, given their own flag and granted absolute and utter sovereignty, and as long as it’s coloured in nicely and has an old woman on, make their own currency. Turn every urban address into a dripping Rousseau wilderness. We’ll keep advancing until there’s nobody not dancing. We’ll put politics in the pillory, put the art back in artillery; we can weaponise wonder, and our voice shall be as thunder… Cometh the moment, cometh the Mandrill.”

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Alan Moore made up as a mandrill after the Brexit vote. Photo: Amber Moore, from her Twitter

And that’s just a quarter of the spiel. In my time as an interviewer, I’ve had Kim Cattrall ask me to dance, Felicity Kendal show me her new tattoo, Richard O’Brien sing Unchained Melody to me from across a grand piano, and I’ve had to ask David Bowie how he feels to be thought of as a tosser. But to be on the receiving end of Alan Moore’s “Mandrillifesto”, seeing my affable dining companion transform suddenly into totalitarian ape, that’s right up there. At the end of the Brexit performance, says Moore, he was swaying to the crowd, with his followers behind him on stage, in black, with armbands, chanting “Cometh the moment, cometh the Mandrill!”

Funnily enough, this is far from Moore’s first brush with playing at being a Messiah (or, at least, a very naughty boy)…

It’s the morning of July 9, 2016…

Before our walking tour we’re sitting sipping tea from polystyrene cups in Northampton’s brand spanking new railway station, which Moore predictably despises, and only ten minutes into our opening conversation I’m being informed that Alan Moore is God. By Him Himself.

Before he became a full-time writer, Moore’s jobs included purveyor of LSD (for which he was expelled from school), slaughterhouse worker, and working for a gas board sub-contractor while the new town of Milton Keynes was being built. Four decades later, this year, he was doing a spoken performance in Milton Keynes, in which he riffed on an article in New Scientist which speculated that because we will soon have quantum supercomputers capable of holding more particles than there are in the entire universe, we will then be able to simulate an entire universe, including all the life forms in it, which will not know they are simulated.

“And if we’re going to be able to do this,” says Moore, “the odds of this being the first time this has happened are vanishingly small. It is much more likely that we are in a simulation, of a simulation, of a simulation, and so on.”

The programmer of the game, therefore, will be God. And if he is at all like the humans he has created, the article postulated, he will want to put an avatar of himself in the game.

“Now he wouldn’t go for something really obvious, like President of the United States,” explains Moore. “Yet he still probably would want to make himself a special person. So what [the article] was saying is, the best thing to do is to suck up to celebrities because they might be God.”

I interject that I’ve found my story headline: “‘Kim Kardashian is God,’ says Alan Moore!” But he has something better in mind.

“Obviously,” he continues, “you wouldn’t want to suck up to just any celebrity. So what I said was, if I was you, people of Milton Keynes, I would go for a celebrity who sounded, and perhaps looked,” here he strokes his own huge grey beard meaningfully, “the way you might imagine the creator of the universe to look!

“But I said even that’s not enough, because that could have you worshipping pretty much any tramp; so I said, you have to ask yourself, does the person who I’m looking at appear to have physically created the environment around me? And I said, in your case, people of Milton Keynes…” He raises his eyebrows meaningfully, and gestures towards himself.

“So, yeah,” he deadpans. “I am still worshipped as a God by the primitive and superstitious people of Milton Keynes.”

It’s 6pm, July 9, 2016…

Lunch is long finished. The second coffee has been drunk. We’ve talked for six hours in all, including the walking tour, and the interview transcript will run to 30,000 words. But even now, sharing a taxi back to the train station, Moore has one big surprise left in store.

As we near a church, he points out the steps where, in one chapter of Jerusalem, a husband and wife are arguing. The reader gets the impression they’ve been arguing a long time. Forever, it transpires. In Alan Moore’s metaphor for the afterlife, we are doomed to repeat our present actions for eternity. What’s that he’d said earlier today?

“We’re talking here about heaven and hell, we’re talking about them as being simultaneous and present, that all the worst moments of your life forever, that’s hell; all the best moments of your life forever, that’s paradise.”

The couple’s argument is over their daughter, who has been acting up. It emerges that the father has been creeping into her room at night; and the mother, for all her furious protestation, finally admits she tacitly condoned it. Eventually, both agree to hush up the incestuous affair – by shipping the child off to the mental hospital.

It seems, when you read it, a bizarre and twisted leap of imagination – except that Moore reveals, in the back of the cab, that he didn’t make it up.

So let’s be clear, I ask Moore: this story of incest, leading to their own daughter’s enforced institutionalisation to silence her, is based on his own relatives?

“That is true. Yeah.”

Is this known and acknowledged in the family?

“No.”

Won’t this put the cat among the pigeons?

“Most of the people are dead. Uh, and they knew anyway.”

He explains how we was researching his neighbourhood through old Kelly’s Street Directories – which house was owned by whom – and was stunned to discover that his great uncle Jack Vernon and great aunt Celia lived on a road on which the young Moore regularly visited a school friend, and yet no one had told him of their existence.

“They’d been ostracised,” he realised. “They’d been banished. And, knowing my family, that sent a little shudder through me. I thought, shit, that was serious. That was, ‘you are dead to us… we know what you’ve done’.”

He did some digging, spoke to some family members, and pieced together the whole sorry story.

“The book is dedicated to Audrey,” he says. “The whole book was an attempt… an attempt to rescue her? A particularly futile and belated attempt, but the best I could do. The only way that I could rescue her was in a fiction.”

With impeccable timing, the taxi chooses this moment to pull into the train station, its brakes bringing the appalling revelation to a full stop. In a few seconds, we will make our goodbyes, and Moore will switch suddenly back to cheery mode as though a cloud had passed: “See you again with my next book in a decade, when we’re both creaking old.”

But before we do, Moore leans across the black leather seat of the taxi, taps me on the shoulder, and adds, with gravity and unusual emphasis: “People deserve to know.”

Jerusalem is out now in hardback from Knockabout in the UK and Liveright in the US. I am also posting edited highlights from the 30,000-word interview transcript, starting with Alan Moore on Brexit, fixing our broken democracy and comforting Stewart Lee. Follow this blog using the button at top right to receive updates.