Barbara rUFO

For the last 12 years, every four years, I have made music about a mythical place called Barbara Island. This year sees the fourth and last chapter, titled Barbara rUFO, and I would like to tell the whole story of how it came to be, and why it finishes in 2018. This is a longish story, but don’t worry I’ll keep it tight.

We could start late in the last century, when I found two painted wheat bags on a telegraph pole outside my house. One of them looks like this:


At the time 2018 seemed a long long time away. But time speeds up.

Over Barbara Island

In 2006 the National Art School held a fund raiser. I was asked to contribute a live performance, and I said yes. The school is housed in a very old prison with small stone cells, but the show was to be held outside. As it was winter, they would supply tiki lamps. I thought ‘tiki lamps!’ and started to make something a little Martin Denny and a bit stormy. As it turned out the night was very stormy itself, and the show had to be held in a small jail cell. Not very exotic.

At the time I was making what was to be the last Severed Heads album, called Under Gail Succubus. This was a silly band name I had come up with years before – I always thought it worth using someday. I added the live show to the main album as a bonus, and thought it would fun to call it Over Barbara Island. And so – Gail and Barbara.

It was the last full Heads album (although many years later some shorter special projects went out under that name). In 2008, the band was lowered into a grave.

A funny side note is that a local agency tried adapting some of Barbara for a Coca-Cola advert. Three attempts did not get run-it-up-the-flagpole, and so sadly Things did not Go Better With Barbara.

Return to Barbara Island

In 2010 the body was exhumed for the Sydney Festival, and as a consequence I was asked to perform at another charitable event – this time for Rainforest Rescue. Again, yes, and again it seemed a good time for palm trees. This event was more bumpy bumpy and so Return to Barbara Island is a lot more streamlined that the volumes before or after. I made videos for each track, but the screen was a gaggle of hexagons and so no one really saw what I was showing. And like the previous event I don’t think there was too much benefit for the Rainforest, but I got an album out of it.

Around this time I wondered of there really is a Barbara Island, and there is. It’s very cold, but maybe not forever.

Barbara Channel Three

In 2013 Severed Heads played the Adelaide festival. We were both dead and alive, an echo, and I was desperately trying to come up with new material with which to move on. But being a full time academic, delivering a computer game for the festival, and being carer for an invalid spouse I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t going to happen in time.

It was 2014 before this material came together, and here was the four year cycle demanding that it be obeyed. So it was to be Barbara again. Channel Three refers to radio and there are many radiophonic touches – but much of what appears to be shortwave is actually synthesisers. I’d regained a hardware sound studio, including some of the gear I had owned back in the 1970’s, so there’s some familiar old sounds in there. But to buy the gear I needed the job that meant I never had time to use the gear.

When the UK magazine The Wire requested some music from ‘Severed Heads’ it was a horrible dilemma – this was me, Tom, not Severed Heads. But without the old name there was no interest. I had to supply them with some of Barbara, which mean ‘moving on’ was yet again defeated.

This is around when I pulled out my wheat bag with the UFO message. 2018 was four years away, and it dawned on me that there must be a Barbara FOUr, actually a Barbara rUFO in this year. I needed to go back to the wheat bags.

Barbara rUFO

By now I knew of the UFO Man, Alan Philp. I had seen him standing out in the mall, sun hat on and wheat bag around his neck. But by this time he had faded from the collective memory and needed to be brought back. In 2017 Severed Heads toured on an image that recalled his message.


But it was only in 2018 I found his image on a older blog site. This is Mr. Philp.


We must respect the message that he gave us for decades. When the UFO comes this year, what will it want? Will be a handshake or a spanking? Will we end up gods, or meat Popsicles? This is what Barbara will tell us I hope.

Since 2014 I have become successfully underemployed, the band continues, the bad times that ran through all the previous chapters have faded away. I have just finished Barbara rUFO today. It is the last Barbara, and perhaps, UFO willing, the last normal album I do. It is time for change.

I hope you will like it, but please also hear the earlier chapters, they do not cost. I will let you know when the UFO lands.

Try remember how to individuate.

For some time there have been things that have pissed me off, yet in denouncing these things I have often failed to translate my personal distrust into a coherent, communicable reason for such curmudgeonly thinking. Although you wouldn’t know it, I’ve been held back by the worry that I’m quite possibly just an old git and no better than the infinite number of stupid people online (there I did it again).

Tonight something twigged. It’s a wonderful moment, possibly like for a UFO believer if a flying saucer were to land in front of the UN building. Bear with me while I flick through some old ideas again – I hope to offer a shareable joy.

Google has released a little application builder for their Android mobile phones. It’s more BASIC than C++ and the ‘professionals’ are already deriding it as the source of more fart pianos. But, I thought to myself, at least people can make their own fart pianos, which is more than I can do on my iPhone. At which point the whole thing that pisses me off went klunk.

You see, I’ve been hanging around the community for GameSalad, which is a game authoring tool for the iPhone. This was the tool my students used in my Intro To Game Design class. The GS community has become a tedious place where all the talk is about how to get on the App Store, how to make money on the App Store, who is selling the most on the App Store blah blah blah – as if it’s a musicians’ forum where everybody talks about stocking shelves all day. The conversation has been defined from above by the way the entire iPhone ecosystem is set up.

(Stop press – latest addition to GameSalad – in-game advertising. OH right, of course – no arrays, no string parsing – let’s have ADVERTS first. Because it’s not about game design it’s about money. Not teaching this tool next year – their capitulation to Jobsism is complete.)

Instead the Google application builder lets the phone owner slap together something only they might want and without it having to be stocked. It’s a Do It Yourself process – something that has been missing for some time – something which was once a given feature of computing.

Not just the BASIC language of old computers but more recent tools like Bill Atkinson’s HyperCard on the 80’s Mac, or 90’s AmigaVision. These tools served one user as well as they served many. They were part of the personal computer revolution – a revolution that is now being dissolved in “clouds” and “spaces” – the smiley face return of mainframes. A centralised marketplace has (by constant reinforcement) become axiomatic in computing and that is what the rabid social science people call ‘a violence’. I kind of like that. ‘A violence’.

Aligned words from Dale Dogherty on the iPad:

… I am just pointing out the lack of really good tools available for amateurs and professionals to use to create new kinds of applications for the iPad. HyperCard was not only used by The Voyager Company; it was used by teachers to create coursework; or students to prepare a report; it was used by individuals to develop novelty applications like recipe databases…

… If the iPad is just another consumer platform for consuming and not creating content, then it will just be another way to watch TV …

Which is exactly what it is supposed to be.

Following the Android page leads to MIT’s Scratch project which I’d looked at before and decided wasn’t suitable for teaching game design. But another look, particularly reading this article (warning PDF) has led to clarity. As the MIT crew explain they are trying to inspire creative programming of the sort that’s been missing since the old home computer days, empowering people and reversing a tendency to passive social networking (“I have X friends, I have X cows”). Justifiably proud of their achievements they may have neglected some other people working on the same problem – e.g. Microsoft’s SmallBASIC which leads up to Visual Studio Express or HyperNext which is a free HyperCard replacement. And GameMaker which has just hit the Macintosh.

All of these initiatives are politically important. You can see what happens when in the case of GameSalad the whole dialogue becomes one of seeking approval from a gatekeeper. It’s like the old idea of ‘broadcast standards’ that kept control of television with the major networks. Of course the majors broadcast rubbish in the way the App Store stocks fart pianos – the idea of ‘broadcast standards’ is not about the worth of the programming but control of the programming. Or use the example of bands and record labels if that’s your concern. Recent malarkey with the terms of use in the App Store simply yanks the chain to cause anxiety, break dissent and remind the community of where the power lies.

But along with this self policing governmentality comes a smokescreen of limited and directed dialogue – where arguments are merely about brand allegiance and ‘fanbois’ line up to defend the people that exploit them. A more pathetic version of the way the lower middle class can be whipped up to vote for the controlling upper classes by controlled media.

wonderful great amazing

If you have previously bothered to read this blog you will recognise old themes I have tediously covered many time before. The change is that a coherent protest is starting to form – which therefore promotes a coherent response. And given I am responsible for teaching digital media it is my responsibility to go over this again and again trying to form the most helpful and liberating ideas.

Try to remember how to individuate, to rebel. There are infinite ways – that’s the key – there’s not the correct way. The person that uses FaceBook to coordinate their Friday nights with their real friends should lecture me, who looks at FaceBook like a poisonous snake. For my part I begin to understand why I instinctively took on the teaching of game design. The computer has become a projection, a kind of idol with which we’ve become intertwined. As more and more people have adopted a computer as identity (an avatar, a persona, a mediator) there’s been a push to make it an appliance and therefore an aid to what Foucault termed ‘technology of the self’. This constantly connected, linked to a mainframe, rights managed consuming device serves as a very poor role model – to individuate it to run unique, self serving, (even if badly written) applications is healthy for individuating our minds.

I can sum it up: D.I.Y.
Make software for the self and not the marketplace.

In the way that ‘indie’ was a term introduced to dis-empower independence and ‘alternative’ was adopted by the major labels to market rock, the use of ‘my’ and ‘i’ by the new major broadcasters is an obvious signal of the intention to remove the real ‘I’ and ‘My’ from our creative palette. The only way to regain these is to know the difference and exercise it.

To program, and perhaps to programme to entertain ourselves, not mediated by a marketplace, is effective (and fun) dissent.

UFO Style: Cigars VS. Hubcaps

Never mind the Mac vs. PC stoush. Holden vs. Ford lags. Beatles vs. Stones – who cares. The real stand up ‘take it like a man’ is Cigars vs. Hubcaps.

Once was Cigars were everywhere. You’d look up in the sky and have equal chance you’d catch a cigar or a hubcap.

Cigar dude 1870

Maybe even more cigars. Who knows. But something happened around the 1960’s where the hubcap was The Man.

Bad ass hubcap guy
There’s no doubt, Cigars were out like fins. I don’t know what it was that made all those alien invaders suddenly get with the round, maybe there was a TV campaign in outer space.

Of course there were a few oldsters getting around:

Total Squaresville

Just like he doesn’t care. He probably wore a safety helmet and everything. ‘Damn Kids’.

But progress can’t wait for oldsters. The hip were getting with the scene

Cow Prankster!!!!1

Like this one’s totally doing the cow prank. Imagine doing that with the Cigar. No Show.

The ones I really like, they just do their own thing. I mean no one is going to say WTF is the story with this guy.


Hey kid, nice whatchmacallit you got there.