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October 31, 2008

Book Notes - Mark Barrowcliffe ("The Elfish Gene")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange struck a personal chord with me. Like Mark Barrowcliffe, I spent a good amount of my free time in high school playing Dungeons & Dragons (before I discovered beer and girls, in that order).

Barrowcliffe's self-deprecating sense of humor and brutal honesty with his young self brings his youth to life in a book that you don't need to have played Dungeons & Dragons to appreciate.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Barrowcliffe renders all the comedy and sorrow of early manhood, when boys flee the wretchedness of their real status for a taste of power in imaginary domains."

In his own words, here is Mark Barrowcliffe's Book Notes essay for his book, The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange:

This is the list of the my musical tastes as they developed over the period of The Elfish Gene - my autobiography of my obsessive D&D playing years in the 1970s and early 80s. Not all are strictly what you might call cool but I loved them then, if I don’t love them now.

Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band
Jollity Farm

This is the sort of stuff I was listening to aged 12 when everyone else was being cool. The Bonzos are something of an English institution now, sort of a Monty Python set to music but back then it was social suicide to like them at my very working class school. This is a cover of an old 78. It’s not particularly funny to me now but I thought it was brilliant then. Death Cab For Cutie take their name from one of this band’s tracks.

Tyrannosaurus Rex
Child Star

Glam rock never had the profile in the States that it did in the UK, where it was huge. Bolan was its biggest star. This was Marc Bolan’s hippy period, records taped for me by students at the college where my mum worked. No need for drugs, just listen to this. I still think this song is a work of genius, along with much of the rest of his output.

David Bowie
Ziggy Stardust

What can you say? The most influential artist of the 1970s, stealing the glam idea and refining it to something approaching divinity. As a young D&Der the line ‘Like a Leper Messiah,’ very much appealed to me and I had a fictitious band in the Sci Fi game Traveller called Plague Messiah, who used to attack their audiences with thermic lances. After this, their popularity declined. Bring your riffs, Nirvana, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page and stack em up against this one. You’ve got nowt. (Perhaps that’s overstating it, but you see my broad point) For anyone else this song would have defined a career. For Bowie it was just a moment

X Ray Spex
Oh Bondage Up Yours

This girl’s voice was so common, so arresting and so London that you couldn’t help but fall in love with it. This was a f*ck off to the tabloid press who were saying punk rockers indulged in back stage bondage sessions. Loads of energy, a perfect punk moment, particularly the start: ‘Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard but I think…’ A record you couldn’t play in front of your mum just in case she could pick out the words, which she wouldn’t be able to.

Kate Bush
Wuthering Heights

My God! Number one at the height of the punk explosion, this hippy dippy crinoline clad warbler was the weirdest of them all. Intensely passionate, sexy, camp and silly it blew me away.

Blondie
Denis Denis

I can remember my dad seeing Debbie Harry for the first time on Top of the Pops. He had to recast his entire world view. Up until then he had maintained things were getting worse. Here was definite proof that something, in the shape of Debbie Harry, was getting better.

Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath

Is there a more D&D record than this? The opening chilled me to the bone, as did some of Geezer Butler’s less than inspired rhymes. The first line, though, is a classic.
‘What is this that stands before me?’ The Sabs were heavy metal – this is heavy, Symptom of the Universe was heavier, Sweetleaf the heaviest of them all. The slowness of much of the music was what gave it its weight. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath may have a claim for best song ever written. Its claim would be rejected but not out of hand.

Budgie
Bread Fan

Under-rated heavy metal outfit. This song is a blinder. Never knew why they weren’t more popular.

Motorhead
Motorhead

Brilliant fusion of punk and metal. Also a definitive Heavy Metal icon in the band’s symbol. I’ve seen this band about eight times and they have never done a bad show.
Lyrics were great on the first album too, which was my favourite

Saxon
Wheels of Steel

Awful but I loved them at the time, largely because all the other favourite bands were taken. I wanted Hawkwind but someone had them. Sweaty steel workers who knew they were milking their ten seconds of fame. Good luck to them.

Hawkwind
Spirit of the Age

Their big hit was Silver Machine but this is their best song - about someone who goes into space in suspended animation leaving his girlfriend on earth to age. I can’t think of another song that begins with as catchy a line as ‘I would have liked you to have been deep frozen too’. Bob Calvert’s finest hour as a lyricist and an utterly brilliant two chord chug of a riff. The singer’s metallic, manic tones add up to a perfect slice of Space Rock.

Gong
Zero the Hero and the Witch’s Spell

Forced myself to like them because they were ultra weird hippies. Did not like them really.

Van Der Graaf Generator
La Rosa

Ultra wordy, ultra pretentious band who seemed almost designed to appeal to the pseudo intellectual school boy. Prog rock at its worst, or best, depending on your point of view. The singer has a posh accent and uses long words, the band are all classically trained and you get the idea it would kill them to write a three minute song of verse, chorus, verse chorus, middle eight, verse chorus fade. I loved this music when I was 17. I played it the other day and couldn’t listen past a minute.

The Specials
Nightclub

Hated this band at the time, love them now. From my home town and this exactly describes the night clubs when I was growing up. Almost the opposite of Van Der Graaf Generator and all the better for it.

Diamanda Galas
Litanies of Satan

One of my weirder gaming friends used to play this all the time or include it at certain points on compilation tapes he made for me. Three and a half octave or whatever opera singer gives The Exorcist the sound track it should have had. Dissonant and, to me, horrible. Really creepy. I didn’t want to listen to it at all. Too rich for my blood. Interesting that the church got its knickers in a twist about Satanic messages played backwards on records. Here’s one played forwards and no one seemed to mind.
Just looked her up on internet and my computer went wrong. Says it all.

Psychic TV
The Full Pack

Their weird occult leanings made me ignore the fact they were largely rubbish. This song is an exception, great, atmospheric, scary. Not Diamanda Galas counseling required scary, though, thankfully.

Joy Division
New Dawn Fades

Where I went when I got out of my heavy metal phase. Just goes to show you don’t need to be a technically brilliant player to make beautiful music. This is music that makes you feel like a unique individual who may just be the lead character in a Kafka novel.

Killing Joke
Empire Song

Major inspiration to Kurt Cobain. (Listen to Killing Joke’s Eighties and you’ll see just how big). There’s something discordant and off key about the guitars that speaks directly to my soul. A riot of drums, high priest of a cult of one Jaz Coleman (also composer in residence at the EU), spitting out venom over the top. If I play this in the morning, I feel good all day. It’s like taking coke without the urge to bore everyone to death telling them how great you are, or the need to die of a heart attack. It’s a lovely, clean, clear feeling you get, like all your intellectual faculties have been purged and the world is a bright, cold place. Killing Joke Digbeth Civic Hall 1981 (I think) was the single most violent event I have ever attended in my life. The band were brilliant, the audience were taking chunks out of each other and Jaz was screaming ‘here comes the savage day’. I wouldn’t want to go back but I’m glad I went.

Half Man Half Biscuit
Tending the Wrong Grave For 23 years

There is a debate in the UK at the moment on the theme ‘what does it mean to be English?’. This is what it means to be English. Cynical, sarcastic, cruel, hilarious, obsessed with minutiae, totally ambitionless. This band are the best comic act ever to come out of Britain and maybe even the world. This is the story of someone who attends his dead girlfriend’s grave every day for 23 years. He discovers that, owing to a mix up in the placement of headstones, he has been ‘sharing my innermost thoughts with a Kevin McGrabe’. Lyrically unsurpassed.

The Smiths
How Soon Is Now?

If England didn’t exist, it would be worth inventing it just so we could have Morrissey. When I said HMHB are lyrically unsurpassed, Morrissey may actually surpass them. My love for The Smiths marked the end of my D&D years. The two things don’t go together. Music has never before, or since, been better than this.

Mark Barrowcliffe and The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's website
the book's blog
the book's page at the publisher
excerpt from the book

Associated Press review
Canadian Press review
Columbus Dispatch review
Daily Mail review
Enter the Octopus review
Geekscribe review
Publishers Weekly
Pulp Gamer Out of Character review
RPGnet review

Dorothy Koomson writing tips by the author
YouTube video of the author on early Dungeons & Dragons

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)

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