Yarbles! A Clockwork Orange and Pop Culture, Part One of Two

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“‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry” (Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, 1962, p.3).

Oobivat (‘to kill’)
A Clockwork Orange – that is, Anthony Burgess’s novella, first published in 1962 – is understood as a continuation of such dystopian-prophesising literature as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). A disturbing tale to do with gang leader Alex DeLarge (along with his fellow rampaging, amoral Droogs), this apocalyptic anti-hero is offered redemption in the novella’s last chapter. However, come Stanley Kubrick’s screen adaptation of 1971, the film (and, before it, the American edition of Burgess’s work upon which Kubrick’s version is based) fails to include these final – and crucial – closing pages. Either way, though, whilst Burgess’s original is, according to Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian (the 3rd of March 2000), “[p]rovactive, yes … but not incendiary, not an incitement to riot”, Kubrick’s big-screen version, by contrast, was perceived of as inflammatory. For, at the time of the film’s release Alexander Walker of the London Evening Standard said (cited in Bradshaw) “[t]he belief that our children will reproduce us is what has kept the race going, but seeing A Clockwork Orange one’s faith is blasted. From it one brings away the fear that our children will kill us all”.

As such, following Kubrick’s reworking of Burgess’s seminal work – and the resultant carrying out of so-called copycat Clockwork Crimes – the film (that is, more so than the book) was accused of encouraging violence, rape and murder across the early to mid-1970s. Such moral panics, of course, have only ultimately served to highlight that the film (and, as a result, the novella) possess all of the requisite accoutrements of a cult classic. Refusing to acknowledge and accept accusations of being responsible for any perceived upsurge in youth violence (and, all-the-while, determined not to be tarred with the brush of blame), Kubrick subjected his own masterpiece to what amounted to one of the most complete acts of self-censorship in cultural history. As, following its initial showing in cinemas (amounting to a total run of just 61 weeks), A Clockwork Orange – the film – was taken out from all cinematic projectors, from the summer of 1973 onwards, for over a quarter of a century.

No surprise, then, that following Kubrick’s withdrawal of the film, a year-on-year mythologisation of the film (and, in effect, the novella itself) has taken place: a mythologising of the film as, during its banning, it was (officially) unavailable; a mythologizing of the novella as it remained – again, during the film’s ban – the only available format in which A Clockwork Orange could be accessed. However, during the age of the home video, Kubrick’s version did manage to resurface – albeit in an illegal, pirated manner – with the taping after taping of poor-quality bootleg recordings. This illicit act of copying the copy of A Clockwork Orange on video, of course, is all now historical half-myth itself as, in the wake of Stanley Kubrick’s death in 1999 (whereby his estate immediately lifted the auteur’s ban), the critics – such as Peter Bradshaw – rejoiced that “now, for the first time in 27 years, A Clockwork Orange is back on British cinema screens”.

Disc-bootik (‘record store’)
Only very shortly after the release of A Clockwork Orange – the film – there was already clear evidence available of how it, as a pop culture text in itself, brought together the present (that is, the shit-drab ‘decade of no taste’ that was the 1970s) and the future (that is, Kubrick’s characteristic space-age ‘whiteness’): And that was with electronic music as, innovatively-speaking, being ‘the way forward’. James Howard, in the Stanley Kubrick Companion (1999), commented that: “One aspect of the film which did draw considerable attention, was the electronic music score by Walter Carlos, much of it based on classical works by Mozart, Purcell and, of course, Alex’s ‘lovely Ludwig van’ Beethoven” (p.125). A pioneer of Electronica, Walter (later, Wendy) Carlos had already, in 1967, recorded and released the phenomenally successful Switched On Bach, which was not only the best-selling classical record of the 1960s, but a means by which so-called ‘high culture’ was shared amongst, and made palatable to, the masses. Indeed, Carlos’s musical score is in no way incidental music, as, instead, it provided Kubrick’s work with yet another level of seriousness, whilst, at the same time, locating all amid the hauntological that was the film’s early 1970s version of the future.

Krin Gabbard and Shailja Sharma, with their chapter ‘Stanley Kubrick and the Art Cinema’, insist that Carlos’s collaboration with Robert Moog to make the synthesizer a key musical instrument amid the pop culture of the 1970s, meant that the composer had “invited audiences to hear the stuffy old tones of the European canon in a striking new way” (p.103). In fact, this coming together of the new musical horizons of cutting-edge Electronica with the ‘stuffy old tones’ of European high culture, resulted in the long-player, Wendy Carlos’s Clockwork Orange – Complete Original Score (1972, Columbia, KC 31480), which was to become – from the very moment of its release – a pop culture artifact that was both totally of its time yet timeless: classical music and synthesised sounds; retro and yet futuristic. Indeed, it is the album’s specially composed, non-classical pieces – namely, ‘Timesteps’, ‘Biblical Daydreams’, and ‘Country Lane’ (that manage, in themselves, to combine to be a comprehensive piece of 70s pop culture) – that tap into Alex DeLarge’s’s multi-faceted musical mindset. For here is Chris Nelson’s sleevenotes to the 1998 CD re-release of the record: “So my droogs, if you’re feeling oddy knocky or gloop or chocked with chepooka, you are invited to slosh the music of Clockwork and feel horror-show once more. It is all, to quote Clockwork’s “hero”, Alex, “Bliss, bliss and heaven … Hear all proper. Hear angel trumpets and devil trombones. You are invited”.

Neezhnies (‘underpants’)
Peter Bradshaw’s overview of Stanley Kubrick’s version of A Clockwork Orange, was that of a film which, with its almost all-consuming arty sleaze, is a “dazzling, delirious … sci-fi porn and horror comic”. Furthermore, to Bradshaw, it’s ‘pseudo-sexy’ interiors and ‘fashion-shoot’ bright lights “gives A Clockwork Orange elements of an early 70s soft-core sex comedy – with McDowell as a kind of Bizarro-world Robin Askwith, larking about with his mates, picking up birds at the local record shop and getting laid”. So, it is Alex DeLarge’s speeded-up threesome – with more than a bit of ‘Benny Hill’ about it – that locates the film forever in a smut-obsessed 1970s. Significantly, this semi-comic group-sex scene – following Alex DeLarge’s picking up of two teenage girls at the local ‘Disc-bootik’ – that, from a post-Laddish vantage-point, can be viewed as part-and-parcel of such 70s ‘slap and tickle’ as the Carry On films and the more explicit Adventures of/Confessions of series. For, it is with this scene – and, perhaps more so the scene where Alex DeLarge (pretending to be sick), is confronted by his social worker – that places A Clockwork Orange (the film) smack bang within 70s’ ‘sleazy Britain’. As the latter scene, with Alex DeLarge being trailed in a lazy way by an on-the-floor camera, we see this Droog gang-leader (hands behind his back, down his pants, going through his yawning morning ceremony at the same time that he’s scratching his arse), is in keeping with key elements of the British sex comedy of the 1970s. In fact, it is an era-defining moment, as ‘pants’ – according to Leon Hunt’s, in British Low Culture – From Safari Suits to Sexploitation (1998) – “are a central component in 1970s masculinity” (p.60).

Kubrick’s signature take on A Clockwork Orange can be perceived of as reflecting, what Leon Hunt terms, the ‘pornification of Britain’, whereby film, TV, and especially the tabloid press (that is, The Sun especially) – following the permissiveness of the late 1960s, with its culture of full-frontal nudity – brought about the demeaning of both women and the female body. Thus, in many ways, A Clockwork Orange – the film – can be thought as out-and-out women-hating, as it is overstuffed with grossly anti-feminist forms: from Alex DeLarge’s oh-so casual sex with teenage girls, to the Korova’s perverse, full-sized nude women in sexually explicit poses. Whilst Kubrick’s adaptation writhes in the porno squalidness of a 70s world, it also warns of the existence of an ‘Aggro Britain’ of that very decade. So, it is to A Clockwork Orange and the fear of youth during the 1970s, that we now turn.

Krovvy (‘blood’)
Quite crucially, the cross-over between A Clockwork Orange – the original novella – and pop culture was detectable only a few years after its publication. As, come the mid-1960s, Andrew Loog Oldham – whilst then managing the Rolling Stones – envisaged the young Mick Jagger et al. as ideal contenders for a mooted (yet still-born) on-screen Alex DeLarge and his band of Droogs. However, by the end of that decade, it was no longer strutting, peacocking, male pop stars that were desperate to emulate the macho posturing of Alex and his gang, but the twitchy, intimidating, always-ready-for-a-punch-up kids on the streets – the Skinheads.

The Skinheads, evolving out of the gang culture of the so-called ‘hard Mods’, appeared seemingly over-night on the streets of inner-city Britain during the shitty-end of the 1960s, just as Flower-Power began to wilt, and the racist Enoch Powell 70s began to rear its ugly shaven head. Indeed, Chris Welch, in a Melody Maker article in early 1969 – the year in which the tabloids announced the arrival of this ‘bovver’-orientated youth subculture – laid bare their menace: “The sight of cropped heads and the sound of heavy boots entering the midnight Wimpy bars or dancehall is the real cause for sinking feelings in the pit of the stomach … the maniacal, humourless laughter, the bleak staring eyes seeking a victim”. In fact, and just as if Welch is describing a scene from A Clockwork Orange, the Skinheads of ’69, then, were seemingly just as sinister-looking as their on-screen, futuristic doppelgangers – the Droogs of ’71. For Nick Knight, in Skinhead (1982), lists the offensive weapons regularly carried by Skinheads: sharpened metal combs, darts, Kung Fu stars, and – most infamously of all – the Millwall brick, with the brick being “a newspaper folded again and again and squashed together to form a cosh” (p.17). Meanwhile, Paul Du Noyer (in Tony Stewart’s Cool Cats – 25 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll Style, 1981) paid close attention to the distinctive look of the Skinheads, insisting that these ‘new mutants’ were not only working class, but that they took the traditional trappings of the blue-collar worker – industrial-wear boots, braces, and the lice-ridding scalped haircut of the workhouse – “up to the point of parody” (p.104). For, ultimately, the Skinheads’ flocking, in droves, to the screening of A Clockwork Orange, was as a result of the film not only paying homage to their intimidating stance in society, but because it updated their style and – in doing so – provided it with some sort of futuristic sheen, that all suggested a longevity for Skinheads and their aggressive way of life. To the Skinheads, then, A Clockwork Orange promised both a pat on the backs of their Ben Shermans, but and acknowledgement of their place in British subcultural history. Put more simply, by former skinhead Tony Parsons – in Ali Catterall and Simon Wells’ Your Face Here – British Cult Movies Since the Sixties (2001) – “[s]omeone had been paying attention, and we were flattered beyond belief” (p.114).

Inevitably, the early 1970s saw Skinheads mutate into several scene-after-a-scene varieties, So, from Suedehead, to Bootboy, on to Smoothie, etc., all of them were to draw, sartorially speaking, from Kubrick’s just-released big-screen version of Burgess’s novella – in doing so, ushering a series of A Clockwork Orange-inspired street styles that mixed urban toughness with the urbane of the City. For, as Martin Roach – in Dr Martens Air-Wair (1999) – noted, this all amounted to the Suedehead’s stylistic beer shandy “of city gent style and bootboy intimidation” (p.21). In particular, according to George Marshall (in Spirit of ’69 – A Skinhead Bible, 1981), Suedeheads went as far as wearing bowler hats whilst accessorising themselves with City Gent umbrellas that included filed-down tips “to aid and abet a few rounds of fisticuffs” (p.55). So, the bowler hat – as worn by both McDowel/DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange and by the sharp, streetwise Suedeheads – transformed this symbol of respectable capitalist commerce into a sinister subcultural style.

Part Two Coming Soon 
Read 4900 times Last modified on Monday, 13 July 2015 17:43
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