Did a vehicle come from somewhere out there, just to land in the Andes? So sings George Duke on the Mothers of Invention album One Size Fits All, recorded in 1975 and perhaps the pinnacle of this, the very finest of Mothers line-ups. Well, in spite of Erich Von Daniken and Close Encounters, we can be fairly sure that the answer is no, a vehicle did not come from out there just to land in the Andes, or anywhere else. There are plenty of perfectly rational explanations for the Nazca lines, some of which also acknowledge and incorporate a relationship with the Gods/cosmos, albeit one emanating from Earth, and focusing on the entirely understandable need to believe in other worlds/higher powers, rather than entertaining the actual existence of extra-terrestrial or supernatural intelligence.
Personally I don’t care if aliens visited the earth or not. My favourite take on the whole “do they come in peace?” argument can be found in a National Lampoon comic strip from around the time of Close Encounters. A suburban couple are pestered by a succession of door-to-door salesmen, and the husband grows increasingly irate. Meanwhile a spaceship lands, and a group of crudely delineated biped aliens, not dissimilar to Morph in Vision On (or indeed to the claymation figures that take over the Inca Roads video above) emerge with beaming, hopeful smiles. “Let’s see if the people on this planet are friendly,” they say. One of them knocks on the first door he sees. The husband, now seething with rage, yanks the door open and pounds the unsuspecting spaceman into burger. Bruised and disillusioned, ET slinks back to his ship. “How did it go?” his shipmates ask, innocently. “Level this planet,” he replies with a dismissive wave of his arm.
Friendly or not, aliens would carry all kinds of diseases which would instantly wipe us out, or we’d wipe them out, and anyway we have enough problems (economic inequality, global warming, Coldplay) to worry about. Can you imagine Chris Martin writing a song like Inca Roads, a song that uses at least ten different time signatures in fewer minutes, and includes what is for many the finest of Zappa’s guitar solos, recorded live in Helsinki (Helsinki! They have Zappa fans in Helsinki!) George Duke said that he hadn’t ever thought of singing professionally until Zappa convinced him he could do it. Zappa also bought Duke the synthesizer, an instrument the keyboard player disliked at first, but huge swathes of it wash over the track like the whooshes of a passing UFO, and add to the overall effect immensely. Nor does the genius of One Size Fits All end there. Inca Roads is a tough act to follow, but Can’t Afford No Shoes announces a confident shift in gears, from cosmic jazz-funk to brutal, heavy riffing blues (complete with sing-along chorus and stupendous slide guitar bridge). Things quieten down with the instrumental Sofa 1 and the gorgeous Pojama People, before Side 2’s trio of masterpieces, Florentine Pogen, San Berdino and Andy. The quality of singing and vocal arrangements on display here defy belief. To George Duke, add Zappa, consummate showman Napoleon Murphy Brock and, on backing vocals, none other than honey-voiced bluesman Johnny Guitar Watson. The album ends with a second, vocal version of Sofa (sung in German, Zappa’s preferred second language). What’s it all about, you may wonder? A plethora of references to Zappa and the Mothers’ own lives, in-jokes, catch phrases, an obsession with poodles… it doesn’t matter. You either get it or you’re a pojama person. Fortunately, I don’t wear pyjamas. All the same, I love that Von Daniken wrote his silly books and that lots of people read them and got interested in Peru. Certainly it was a mixture of Von Daniken, Zappa, Tintin, and Werner Herzog that led me to Macchu Picchu, and that’s what this post is: a mixture of Von Daniken, Zappa, Tintin and Herzog.
So, I’ve discussed Zappa. We can dispense with Von Daniken, whose arguments don’t stack up, and move on to Tintin, whose storylines rarely stack up either, but they don’t pretend to anything other than fiction. Flight 714 comes late in the series (1968, my favourite year: download and read 68½ – MOVIES, MANSON & ME if you don’t believe me!) and the storyline is utterly bonkers, even by Herge’s nonsensical standards.
Changing planes en route to Sydney, Tintin, Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus bump into their old friend Skut (from The Red Sea Sharks). Skut is now personal pilot for the millionaire Laszlo Carreidas, and Tintin and co are invited to join him on his private jet. This being a Tintin book, they soon find themselves on the wrong side of a plot to kidnap the grumpy tycoon. The plane is duly hijacked by the disloyal crew (although not the uber-cool, eye-patch-sporting Skut) and landed on a volcanic island, where the mastermind behind the plot is revealed as none other than Tintin’s old foe (and sometimes friend – Herge never could make up his mind) Rastapopoulus. Captain Haddock’s villainous old shipmate Allan (first encountered in Cigars of the Pharoah) also pops up as the evil Greek’s henchman, in charge of the mercenary islanders. Tintin and his friends are bound and held in a World War II bunker, while Carreidas is injected with a truth serum which will compel him to reveal the number of his Swiss bank account. Luckily, that ever dependable deus ex machina Snowy helps Tintin and his friends to escape. Then, in a narrative left-swerve the likes of which you rarely find outside of Psycho, or perhaps From Dusk Till Dawn, Tintin is guided by telepathy to an underground temple inside the island’s volcano (did we mention the volcano?) guarded by an astronaut-like statue (shades of Von Daniken). As they go further and further into the underground complex, the group come across a journalist, Mik Kanrokitoff, who works for the magazine Space Week. It is his voice they have been following, transmitted telepathically from a spaceship. Kanrokitiff explains that he is working with the extra-terrestrials, who were once worshipped as gods by the islanders, and that they wish to communicate with the Earth’s scientists. At this point the volcano erupts, but Tintin and his party, despite being INSIDE the crater (!) are able to reach safety. Meanwhile Rastapopoulos and his cronies escape in a rubber dinghy. Kanrokitoff hypnotises Tintin et al and they all escape in a flying saucer. Tintin and his companions are then traded for Rastapopoulos, Allen and the treacherous plane crew, who are whisked away to an undisclosed fate in outer space. Tintin, Haddock, Calculus and Skut awaken but cannot remember anything. Only Snowy, who cannot speak, remembers the alien abduction.
Nuts or WHAT? Von Daniken couldn’t have done better. Thematically, Flight 714 shares much with the earlier Prisoners of the Sun (in itself a continuation of The Seven Crystal Balls, the first Tintin book I read). In Prisoners of the Sun (apart from anything else, Herge always came up with great titles) Tintin, Snowy, and Haddock travel to Peru to rescue Professor Calculus, who at the end of Seven Crystal Balls has been kidnapped. In Peru they learn that Calculus is to be executed for wearing a bracelet belonging to the mummified Incan king Rascar Capac. After the usual adventures, they find themselves deep within the Andes at the Temple of the Sun, a last outpost of Inca civilisation, where they are brought before the Prince of the Sun and sentenced to death – along with Calculus – for their sacrilegious intrusion. The prince allows them to choose the hour of their execution, so Tintin times it to coincide with a convenient solar eclipse and the terrified Incas think that Tintin can command the sun (obviously they weren’t familiar with eclipses, despite the whole sun worship thing they had going on). The three friends are duly set free and return home.
Influenced by the adventure stories of his own childhood (H Rider Haggard etc) Herge concocted storylines that were outlandish and implausible, but his picture research was impeccable, and the quality of art work unsurpassed to this day. My pre-pubescent brain teemed with images from Herge: evil-looking Inca mummies miraculously brought to life, temples of the sun hidden behind waterfalls, spitting llamas, spaceships.
I was nonetheless entirely unprepared for the hallucinatory experience of Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath of God, the opening images of which, filmed at Machu Picchu (more exactly, Huayna Picchu) show a seemingly endless line of pike-bearing conquistadores, chained Inca porters, yet more llamas, pigs and monks snaking round and down the perilous mountain path, into the rainforest below. Among them one eventually notices Klaus Kinski, who looks as if he has been waiting all his life for a part like this (which indeed he had). Aguirre plots to depose Don Pedro de Ursua, who has been charged by Pizarro with finding El Dorado, and – in the most unforgettable line of an unforgettable script and film – aspires “to write history as others write plays”….
Much of the credit for the striking effect of Aguirre, above all the opening sequence, must go to the music of Popol Vuh, the so-called Krautrock band. formed in 1970 by keyboardist Florian Fricke, which in the words of AllMusic “blends pulsing Moog and spectral voices to achieve something sublime… awe-inspiring, overwhelming (and) unsettling.”
Sublime. Awe-inspiring. Overwhelming. Unsettling. That pretty much sums up the film, which prefigures Apocalypse Now in its hallucinatory journey upriver to the heart of madness. A life-size wooden ship appears, perched in the highest branches of a tall tree, one of those WTF moments that only Herzog seems able to conjure. As they drift, starving, on their raft, the last remaining survivors of the mission are picked off by arrows shot by unseen assailants. The raft is overrun by monkeys. Only Aguirre is left, ranting to the monkeys: “I will marry my own daughter (even though she’s dead) and found the purest dynasty the world has ever seen. Together, we shall rule this entire continent. I am the Wrath of God!”
But, to paraphrase Alexander Kluge, the middle of the river is a very dead end. The mistake Aguirre makes is to travel by water. If you stick to the land-locked Inca Road, it will lead you wherever you want, to the secrets of Macchu Picchu, Nazca and Chan Chan; to the Canadas Reales along which Extremenan shepherds still drive their sheep in the great transhumancias, the annual migrations which, to this day, pass through the streets of Madrid and bring the traffic to a halt; even, perhaps, to the hollow ways of Dorset where the nameless “rogue male” of Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel hides from his Nazi pursuers (coming soon to a cinema near you, folks, with Benedict Cumberbatch in the role Peter O’Toole once played). Yes, you either get it or you’re a pojama person…
Dai the Llama’s verdict: I’m not sure what my master is on about in the final paragraph. All normal reason seems to have finally taken leave of him. I mean, who the hell is Alexander Kluge? Dig the photo of my brethren and sistren down in Argentina though. If you want a SERIOUS piece on Inca roads, check out Hugh Thomson’s page: http://www.thewhiterock.co.uk/?page_id=520