Let's rise above the grand occasion,
Laugh in time of sorrow,
Stand the day against the wall, its face turned to the morrow.
Starting off his own record label generated its own publicity. There were plenty of journalists around willing to write about a new venture if it was outrageous enough and offered enough free hospitality. Pete Astor's supply of cheap French booze took a bashing on recording and hospitality days at Melody Studios in nearby Cheam, which had a flavour of the good old days when bands had spent hour after hour there, messing about and trying out ideas, instead of rehearsing elsewhere and dashing in and out of an expensive recording studio.
Astor was a sufficiently well-known figure in the industry, and still somewhat notorious after being fired off his tour, that nobody questioned his credentials or his line of credit. At the same time, nobody thought that he was anything other than a front-man for a new organization. Astor preferred to foster the illusion. He saw no point in having to burden himself with bodyguards to fight off beggars eager to get a slice of his remaining millions.
Even though he was fabulously wealthy, Astor had decided to work out-of-town to avoid the over-inflated London studio prices. He could afford them now but he saw no reason to encourage rip-off merchants. Working in Cheam gave his team of musicians and recording technicians fewer distractions and persuaded them to concentrate on getting the job done.
He was under no pressure to get things done economically but Astor had been planning a solo album for years as a personal dream. In fact, cutting his collected works down to one CD had been a long job, which had been full of diversions to draft out second, third and further CDs.
The final selection included a slightly different version of The Portal to open side two of the album – Astor refused to abandon vinyl – and the cassette. Astor had a well planned sequence sorted out for the other numbers, even if that was irrelevant to his crew of experienced session musicians, who could read music and take instructions without getting stroppy.
No one was particularly surprised that the work flowed along between interviews and chats or that Astor was able to announce that they had laid down enough for a preliminary mix by the early part of Friday afternoon. The band had even found time to sketch out a piece with the working title Under Alien Skies based on Kiron's background music, which Astor was planning to release separately.
Astor had already decided to call his band Dead Junkies rather than just using his own name. It was a name that a fair number of people of his own age would recognize and he hoped that it would revive memories of happy times when they had had fewer, or even no, responsibilities. The DJs had never had a fixed line-up. The band had always consisted of Pete Astor and whoever was handy, and he had never been able to land a recording contract for it. Some record company suit-and-tie had always got cold feet over either the name or the content of the band's act.
The rather elusive nature of the band had helped to turn it into a legend. Now, Astor faced the daunting prospect of finding out if he could live up to the legend. He had decided to call the album Pedal To The Metal as a warning that it was a high-speed, roller-coaster ride of ‘in yer face' rock music with no particular reference to BMR, even though it contained strong elements of that genre.
Encouraged by the way work on his album had gone, Astor took the weekend off. Caroline was more than willing to go out on the road again at £100 per day, looking at potential recruits to the Kiron Sounds recording label. Second looks at Pandaemonium and Belfry persuaded him to stop messing about and sign them up. Abandoning natural financial caution was a real struggle. He was still not used to the idea of having enough money to be able to finance a string of flopperoony albums without damage. It was all a matter of believing that if he liked something, lots of others would like it too.
A Black Magic Rock boom was really taking off and the market was growing bigger and bigger. Like punk, BMR was a way of hurling derision at a set of values that the participants refused to share. Magic was their way of mocking religion, science, politics, big business and all the cornerstones of civilized society. Magic was seen as an alternative path to getting something for nothing; the ultimate freeloading trip.
There was plenty of market room for both straight BMR bands like Pandaemonium, and bands like Belfry, which were sending the whole thing up. Having three bands on his recording label, including his own, meant that he had acts available for the opening night at the Astoria even if no one else was interested in the gig. If the recordings went to schedule there would be his own album and début CD singles from the other bands available for sale in the foyer with the inevitable round of programmes, tee-shirts and other bits and pieces.
Astor had considered making the first concert at the risen-from-the-dead Astoria a free gig, but he quickly realized that the place would be swamped by every sponger and deadleg with the initiative to bum a ride to Croydon. He chose instead to make the ticket prices just high enough to cover expenses if they sold the place out and to set the bar prices at about standard pub prices. After all, he told himself, he was living in his own virtual reality, where another win on the lottery was his for the taking if he ran out of money – assuming there was any reality in the whole Kiron business.
James Faucumberg was against giveaway ticket prices and putting no premium on the bar prices initially. So was Walter Merion, an accountant and Mrs. Billington's brother-in-law, whom Astor had recruited as Kiron Sounds' financial director. They abandoned their resistance when Astor explained that any bonuses on top of their salaries would depend on getting the place full rather than on making enormous profits. His managers assumed that Kiron Sounds planned to make the real money out of CD and cassette sales, merchandising and other such spin-off activities. Astor was happy to let them create their own explanations if it mean less work for himself.
James had calculated that completing the work on the interior of their concert hall would take six to eight weeks. He had announced an opening date of the first of October to his contractors to keep them anxious, but he had drawn a mental ring around Wednesday, October 12th as a more realistic opening day. He had been pleasantly surprised to find that Pete Astor wanted to be consulted only on aspects of the design of the new interior and that he had no particular deadline to meet. Getting things done properly took precedence over getting them done quickly.
As the wave of publicity built up toward opening day at the new venue, pushed on by promises of lavish launch parties for the initial releases on the Kiron Sounds label, the inevitable backlash started. Astor began to receive warnings that the gig was certain to picketed by the MX group, which was a loose band of visiting American ‘advisors' to Christian and pro-life organizations plus members recruited locally. Everyone in the MX groups objected strongly to the evil influences of both black magic and rock music.
Astor realized that he had found his gang of busy-bodies; or they had found him. Having made such a huge investment of time as well as money in the Astoria, he found that his instinct was to have the demonstrators assassinated. At the same time, he was reluctant to leave himself vulnerable to blackmail by some psychopath. When he mentioned the problem to Wendy, she told him he should use the protestors for their publicity value.
Astor frowned at her. "Why should I want to give the MX mob publicity. What I really want is a way to make them bugger off."
"No, Pete," Wendy said patiently. "Let them agitate to get you noticed, then expose them as a bunch of frauds."
"What, not Christians at all?" Astor's frown deepened.
"No, wife-beaters, boozers, gamblers, that sort of thing. There are always people like that in these groups, especially if they originate in the States."
"Right! Normal people."
"If you call that sort of thing normal. Which I suppose it is for you. Apart from the wife-beating."
"We're talking giving rope and hanging, you mean?
"You don't try to stop an irresistible force. You deflect it to your benefit. Like making a mighty river flow through turbines at a dam to make electricity."
"Is that New Age Zen?"
"I suppose it's worth a try," Astor admitted.
"And there's less risk of ending up in gaol as an accessory to murder," Wendy added.
Astor chose the second Wednesday in September as the launch date for the first ever Dead Junkies album. He stuck with the traditional Wednesday as a means of getting one weekend safely behind him and putting the next in full view. He was considering another trip to France by the time the last of the vultures had been eased out of a function room in the finished part of the Astoria. If the number of column inches written about Kiron Sounds bore any relation to the amount of food and drink shifted, not to mention pharmaceuticals, then the new venture could count on a good send-off.
The only slight irritation was the number of times he had been approached for a reply to Hellen D'Amnation's recent media outburst, in which she had denied that session musicians had made her newly released album work and had shown her band how to play the tracks. Astor had stuck to a ‘Nothing to do with me, Gov' line to avoid giving even more publicity through controversy to the self-styled First Bitch of Rock, which was supposed to reflect the fact that Hellen D' was a lot harder than any first lady.
Astor got down to more serious business the following afternoon. Asking questions in the right places had put him in touch with the tenant of a modest office in Camden Town. Maddox Inquiries was owned and staffed by a middle-aged and well-worn former detective inspector of the Metropolitan Police, who had taken early retirement just before the questions about corruption, having inappropriate friends and exerting undue influence had become too pointed.
As he sat on a use-slicked wooden chair, breathing in the second-hand fumes of bootleg whisky and smuggled fags, watching the private investigator pretend to be busy with a phone call, Astor knew that he had found the right man for his counter-strike against the forces of light.
Tom Maddox was in his mid-forties. His fleshy face looked a bit sandpapered around the edges. His suit had seen much better days a long time ago. He looked like a man living on just the right side of the ragged edge; like someone who made the occasional windfall, lived it up while he had the chance, and scraped along the rest of the time.
"Right, I'll get on with that," Maddox told the telephone, "and I'll be in touch at the end of the week. Cheers! Sorry about that," he added to Astor as he replaced the receiver.
"I hope you're not too busy for some new business," Astor remarked.
"If it pays enough, I can always bump something. Have we met before?" Maddox put on a mild frown.
"Meaning have you ever arrested me?" Astor put on a patient smile. "Not unless you were ever in the Drug Squad."
"Right! You're that Pete Astor. The guy with the new record label and the place for rock concerts."
"So you may be aware of the threat we're under from the MX bunch and everyone else who wants to ban Black Magic Rock?"
"A bunch of Yanks and the usual big-mouths, yeah. Before you ask, I don't do assassinations or gob-jobs."
Astor frowned. "What's a gob-job?"
"It's where you wait round a corner with a baseball bat and smack some bastard in the mouth."
"Sort of instant dentistry?" laughed Astor. "No, we're not after anything like that. Well, not right now. What we're after is black propaganda. Fire to fight the fire with. Real, genuine skeletons in the closet that we can be indiscreet about when these people have a go at us. You do that?"
"It can cost you, getting hold of that sort of information."
"Okay," Astor took a bulky envelope from his side pocket and placed it on the desk. "Suppose we start you with a budget of ten thousand pounds and see if you can come up with anything worth extending your contract?"
"You sure you don't want anyone killed or gob-smacked?" said Maddox weakly.
"Not this week. You may want to put together a team to do the digging. I'll leave sub-contracting details to you. Suppose you come and see me in a week to let me know how you're getting on?" Astor placed a business card on the envelope.
"Yeah, right." Maddox opened the envelope and gazed at the two bundles of £50 notes as if he suspected that they were forgeries but he was hoping against hope that they weren't.
"The bottom line is that these characters are saying our brand of music is evil and corrupting. What we want to do is show they're as corrupt and as crooked as the rest of us and no sort of good example."
"Routine sleaze-mongering. No problem. There are always some embarrassing hangers-on in these outfits."
"And what you might call the Rules of Evidence don't apply here. Entrapment won't hurt us one little bit, even if they can prove our side led them into temptation. We all know how weak the flesh is, but they're claiming the moral high ground. If they can't stay up on their pedestal, well, that's their bloody fault, not ours."
"Right," nodded Maddox.
"And there are no prizes for not leaking stuff to journalists."
"You want them stitched up good and proper. Okay."
"In ways that show them up as no sort of good example to anyone. The more we can get them on the defensive, without making people sorry for them, of course, the less trouble they'll be able to give us."
Feeling that his various projects were moving along nicely, Astor decided to give himself a day off. Not that he intended to lounge about his house idly, watching television or playing games on his computer. He had a large collection of bits of paper with musical ideas on them – rifs, odd lines of lyrics, sometimes both together. It was time to sort through them and see if he could make anything useful out of them. It would be nice to have some recent material to put on a second album instead of using just golden oldies from his stockpile.
Thinking about performing personally made him wonder if Kiron might not be expecting some sort of progress report. After all, the other-dimensional being had come through on his promise of a lottery win but he had received precious little in return thus far. Astor found himself humming the opening to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony as he looked out his stash of Charm. The words that went with it, of course, were Syd Melchior's.
Toot up your snoot.
Squirt up your snert.
Toot up your snoot.
Squirt up your snert.
Toot up your snoot.
Squirt up your snert.
Toot up your snoot.
Squirt up your snert.
It's all quite unforGETTABOOT!
TOOT UP YER SNOOT!
And then the phone rang to put everything on hold.
"The thing about Pete Astor's music is you get none of the doom, gloom, we're all going to die garbage," a familiar voice told him, clearly reading from something. "What you get is Pete, probably on his own, definitely having a good time and not giving a rat's arse about the rest of the world. Even when the song says he's going to Hell in a handcart, the mood of the music is that he's not got a care in the world because it'll soon be over. Yes, that's it. There's one hell of a huge feel-good factor in Pete's music."
"Got a job as a music critic, Dad?" said Astor.
"They seem to have one on our local paper."
"Oh, they have papers in darkest Devon?"
"They were even round interviewing me yesterday, asking how it feels to be the father of a famous son."
"Famous or notorious?"
"A bit of both, really," laughed his father. "Anyway, I've put a copy of the article and the review in the post for your delectation and amusement. And thanks again for the free CDs."
"Cheers. Bought anything interesting yet?"
"Not yet. But there may be something in the pipeline. I'll let you know if it comes off."
"Right. Look forward to hearing about it."
Astor switched on the answering machine to intercept any further interruptions and warmed white powder in the metal bowl of his pipe. Then he drew in the intoxicating fumes. Soon, the familiar warm rush was spreading through his body. Soon the dusting of white powder was history. Astor switched on his tape recorder and began to mix and match riffs on his Stratocaster, waiting for the spot of bright light to grow in his field of vision.
He began to feel irrationally nervous as yellow shapes and black lines spread to fill his entire field of vision. Making contact with the unknown is always a scary business. Blues and oranges and reds developed with the yellow, angular shapes, flaring brightly then fading, fading. Astor saw a darkness outlined against a glowing background. As before, he found himself straining to impose a form on the presence, to make it more real and understandable in human terms. He was aware of the futility of trying to know the unknowable but that is what being human is all about.
"Yo, Pete," said the voice in his head. "How's it hangin'?"
"Yo, Kiron!" Astor said in his mind. "Have you been talking to some Yanks?"
"My species is in contact with several useful members of your species. And we do tend to find most individuals in a suitable frame of mind in your United States. Unfortunately, most of them refuse to believe that we could be anything other than hallucinations."
"I just wanted to let you know that the music venue opens its doors in less than a month now. On October the twelfth. I don't know if this helps you in your planning at all?"
"Your progress seems to be most satisfactory. And we have had some useful energy spikes from your area over the last few weeks. Small but prolonged, and at varying intensities."
"I wonder if you're picking up something from the sessions for the new album?"
"The ...?" Kiron projected a frown.
"As well as playing concerts, musicians also play in a recording studio for making albums ..."
"Ah, yes. Down-loading data to mechanical, magnetic and optical recording media?"
"If you mean albums and cassettes and CDs, right. So you're getting a bit of a buzz from our sessions, too?"
"Small but useful amounts of energy are released, yes. Mere tokens of the surge to come, though?"
"Yeah, we're looking to blow the roof off on opening night. Not literally, of course," Astor added quickly.
"I think I catch your drift, Pete," said Kiron. "I look forward to your opening night."
His vision began a rapid slide back to normality. Astor realized that he was coming down from the Charm. He went through a brief period of doubt as the familiar surroundings of his home recording studio stabilized around him. In a Hammer film, or something more modern in the way of horror, he would be the mug who was about to unleash global devastation though his ignorant search for undeserved personal power and wealth.
He would be the dupe, who had been bribed to open up a gateway to let in the conquering hordes to ravage and destroy humankind, not knowing of the plan of attack, of course. In an American film, it would be the Christians and anti-black-magic campaigners who would save the world – or some over-paid actor combining their work into the convenience of a single character.
Humankind has always scared itself with imaginings of dark presences lurking in the shadows, Astor reminded himself.
In the meantime, he had another piece of music running around in his head, and it seemed to fit in with another short passage that he had dropped from Under Alien Skies because it had not matched the rest of the piece. Astor began to hope that he could get a second album out of his Charm excursions. The first helping had gone down well with his band of Dead Junkies and Astor himself was really enjoying knocking it into a final shape.
An unexpected knock on the door made him jump. He had imagined himself alone in the house.
"Yo?" Astor called.
Wendy opened the door and looked round it, taking in the guitar and the tape recorder. "Are you busy?"
"Ish," said Astor. "But don't let that stop you."
"Okay." Wendy advanced into the room. "I'm having a party tomorrow night. Are you going to be here?"
"You mean, am I the sort of sad bastard with nothing planned for a Saturday night?"
"Sorry I asked," Wendy said indignantly.
"Actually, I'm sort of semi-sad. I've got a local radio interview on a live show at half-six and nothing after that."
"Is this the new Dead Junkies plugging their album again? I thought you only did that on late-night shows when there's no one listening?"
"You do it when you get the chance."
"I suppose there's going to be the usual jokes about you lot looking like you've had a successful evening's grave-robbing? And are you bothered about Belfry sending up the whole genre of BMR? And you telling them it's only rock 'n' roll music so it doesn't matter if it's serious or a send up?"
"How many of my plugging spots have you heard, anyway?"
"Carly's heard some of them. She listens to that sort of rubbish. No doubt she'll be eager to give you a report on your radio performance at the party."
"Is this you match-making again, Wezzer?" scoffed Astor.
"Hardly," laughed Wendy as she claimed one of the chairs. "I wouldn't want to inflict a weirdo like you on a friend. Even if you are worth twenty-odd million quid. No, she just needs cheering up. It looks like she's going to get made redundant."
"I thought she was on short time to avoid that?"
"The trouble is, the time's getting too short for people to be able to live on it. So it's the old last in, first out style of thing."
"Life's a bitch and then you die."
"What are you wearing a shoulder holster for?" Wendy added with a frown.
"You mean, am I the sort of sad git who plays cops and robbers with a toy gun when he's on his own at home?"
"Or is it for a gun-shaped cigarette lighter?"
"No, it's a holster for my mobile phone. It keeps it handy without having it banging around loose in a pocket. And if you use the headset that goes with it, you don't have it shoving microwaves into your brain."
"You yuppie bastard, Pete!'
"You ought to get a headset for your mobile, mate."
"How do you know I've got a mobile?"
"Jeff told me the other day. That you'd got his and hers mobiles. Is he living here or does he just spend most of the day and most of the night here?"
"Would it bother you if he was?"
"Not if he can afford the rent."
"That's another thing, we're thinking of getting married ..."
"You're what!?" demanded Astor.
Wendy held up her hands. "All right, I admit it, it's uncool and bourgeois and totally against how we've lived our lives up to now. But we've been talking it over a lot recently. And we've even been looking in estate agents' windows ..."
"You sad bastards!"
"So you might just find yourself going to a wedding in due course."
"What, a Las Vegas special? Or something exotic like a para-gliding vicar?"
"Probably just a registry office job with a hell of a party afterwards."
"Right, that sounds more your style. Best of luck if it ever comes off, Wezzer. But I can't imagine you being married."
"You can't imagine it!" laughed Wendy. "Anyway, something else I was thinking, you know this empire you're building? You haven't got a job for Carly in it somewhere?"
"Doing what? My personal chauffeur and chaperon? And why don't you give her a job? Or have you spent your two million quid?"
"I didn't think of that," Wendy admitted.
"Or would being your mate's boss be too embarrassing?"
"Come to think of it, if I had a driver, I could do a bit more boozing and I wouldn't be at the mercy of pirate taxi firms. Maybe I'll have a word with the lady. Have you told her you were going to order me to give her a job, or else?"
"No, I only thought of it just now. So you'll do it?"
"If you insist."
"Great! Okay, I'll get back to my party planning."
Astor realized that his tape recorder was still running and ignoring the fact that his guitar was silent. He switched it off. Then he decided to switch of the rest of the equipment off and go across to Caroline's house to see if she was in.
Caroline seemed genuinely pleased to see him when she answered a knock on her back door. "You're not looking for a driver, are you, Pete?" she asked hopefully.
"What, you mean you'd give up Wendy's party tomorrow just to make some money?" said Astor as he entered the kitchen.
"You don't mean you're not going?" frowned Caroline.
"Only joking. But it would be quite useful to have a driver, if you're interested? Wendy's just told me you're expecting the order of the Spanish Archer from the bastards you're working for. Just like I got."
"I'd need something regular," Caroline said doubtfully.
"Fifty quid a day retainer and another fifty on days you actually have to work. How does that sound?"
"Two hundred and fifty pounds a week, even if you don't need me?" gasped Caroline.
"You're forgetting the weekends."
"I can't believe it."
"Of course, the same rules apply: no booze or drugs when you're driving me. And we'll have to get you a mobile phone so I can give you a yell when I need you. And how do you feel about driving me around in a company van? Like Wendy's; only new?"
"Are you winding me up, at all?" Caroline said suspiciously.
"Something with a custom interior. Decent seating."
"Yes," said Caroline.
"Maybe even an office on wheels. They should be able to do quite a decent job on a Transit."
"Yes," Caroline said louder. "I want the job."
"Okay, you're hired." Astor suddenly found himself being kissed passionately by an attractive blonde. "Maybe an emergency bed in the back," he added when he was allowed to come up for air. "Just in case we get stranded somewhere or you have an uncontrollable urge."
"Sounds good to me," laughed Caroline.
Life as a tycoon, Astor realized, has a lot of up-sides. "One thing more, do you mind if I call you Caroline when we're out on business? It's a bit more business-like than Carly. Carly's a bit of a little girl's name, don't you think? Caroline has weight and dignity. What the legal profession call gravitas. It says, don't mess with this lady or she'll bust yer balls!"
"Really?" laughed Caroline. "You make me sound like one of those strange women in black underwear with a whip."
"Whatever turns you on. Or it could be Mrs. Palmer if you prefer it. Like Mrs. Whatsit in the Avengers repeats."
"Come to think of it, it was my ex who started calling me Carly. And if he's gone, the name can go too. And I think I'd prefer to be Ms Richmore if you're ever being formal."
"I'll try and remember that. Right, I'll see you at Wendy's party, then." Astor headed for home, having increased his private army by one more member.
After a busy weekend spent finishing off the first episode of Kiron's Music, now entitled From Another World, Pete Astor took Wendy and Caroline over to France again at the start of the following week to stock up on cheaper booze. He needed reinforcements for successive launch parties – for début CD singles from his new recruits on Wednesday and Thursday and for FAW on Friday.
Pandaemonium had won the toss of a coin and they had elected to be launched first. The members of Belfrey were too glad to have a record deal to feel like second-placers. Kiron Sounds was becoming very well known to the music press. Astor felt that he was being treated quite well by such a notoriously fickle crowd but he was ready with his alternative plans for when they turned nasty.
No trees were consumed by Farrago & Farrago and Henry T. Smith Productions, 10/12 SK6 4EG, UK in creating this material for Jon A. Gored. Sole © Jon A. Gored, 2001.