For many fans of Spacemen 3 and the various side projects linked with the band Soul Kiss is the key post Spacemen 3 album. It has stood the test of time with ease and after over 20 years it dawned on me that a comprehensive piece on the album has never been written. After a little discussion with Pete Kember in late 2013 we arranged to spend some time chatting about the record, the musicians and many other things that were important at the time Soul Kiss was written and recorded. So on a bright December afternoon we sat down in Rugby and went through some of the finer points of the record, a discussion and interview that proved both rewarding and fascinating. Pete’s memory for that time is remarkable. The detail he was able to produce on so many aspects of the recording process and the music itself was astonishing. Our conversation begins with some talk about how the first 2 Spacemen 3 albums sound as they approach their 30th anniversaries. Read on for an absorbing view on how the Soul Kiss album came to be.
Would you rework Sound Of Confusion somewhat? In terms of the way it was engineered? The sound isn’t as it should be.
Mmmmm… It was what it was what it was…
It’s documented that the wrong person may have been in charge there.
Ye-ah, hmmm… It’s possibly true. Bob Lamb was cool and everything but people just didn’t figure it out. The guys there, they were like ‘really? Someone is paying money for these mutts to fucking come and get stoned in my studio? They even brought some fucking idiot with them from Northampton – the Jazz Butcher – rolling joints!’ They would say ‘Seriously? Seriously? We’re actually making a record here?!’ He wouldn’t let us touch the desk was one of the odd things, which on some levels I understand but there’s 2 ways it works in a studio – people who don’t let you touch the shit and people who do. For me at that point I was only prepared to work in ones where we could. But you know it was our first album and we felt lucky to be able to record it in a proper studio with any kind of producer. He was on no list of ours for production although I do think he did good work on ‘Signing Off’ by UB40. I think that’s great and the dub stuff from that period as well. I actually really liked it.
I never thought of you as a UB40 fan!
I’m not a UB40 fan but the first stuff – Food For Thought – it’s cool, it’s my era, when I was 14 and part of all the different new wave and punk that was around at the time. I have to say it was head and shoulders above the other stuff that was around.
Sound of Confusion is still a great record but it would be a good one to remaster.
It was a weird vibe. We recorded Walkin’ With Jesus and scrapped it from that. There must be recordings of it somewhere. But it was ditched – I don’t think we even recorded a vocal for it it was so bad. We didn’t hit it on that one. My memory tells me we recorded that album in 2 days… I think we had 5 days in the studio. That’s insane. I wouldn’t even want to make a fucking single in 5 days! I wouldn’t want to mix a single in 5 days!
Spacemen 3 – 2.35 (from Sound of Confusion)
What about Perfect Prescription? The notes on Forged Prescriptions say those versions didn’t come out on Perfect Prescription because it would have been too ambitious to recreate live.
Yes. You know what though…. If that was the case, when I went back to do the mixes for Forged Prescriptions there was less excess stuff than I remembered. That means we may have wiped it and used the tracks for something else, which on 15 track and 1 sync for the MIDI (a digital control language for synthesisers and effects) is possible… I’m pretty sure there are mixes which will have been done because we’d take away cassettes every day practically with the work we’d done that day, so we could check it out.
Spacemen 3 – Walkin’ With Jesus (Forged Prescriptions version)
There’s no master tapes now?
Actually I have those tapes. Those are the only ones I do have – Transparent Radiation and Perfect Prescription. I also have all the notes for it. When I went back to do the Forged Prescriptions I went to the same studio – it had moved as the guy was in a smaller space but he had exactly the same equipment. He’d not bought one thing new or even sold one thing. And when I opened the tape box there were all the settings for the desk, for all the EQs for each track, all the effects… because we used to do it at the end! I would write and Jason would read or vice versa. We’d split half an hour and take the settings because the desk would be all fucked up by another session in between so I’d read across from the top either in ‘o’clock speak’ or, if it was accurate enough, ‘9 ½, 7 ½, 6 ¼, 4, 0, 0, 0’, and then you’d go down row after row after row. It doesn’t take as long as you think to do it if there’s 2 of you and you’re organised, one reads, one notes. So I have the settings and was able to pull up the effects, everything. We had the settings for everything which is kind of unheard of, because studios never have the same stuff!
Do you think Forged Prescriptions sounds better?
Oh yeah, sure enough! Well, no surprises as that was done 10 years or so ago versus 25 years ago! I can mix better!
Could you not polish Perfect Prescription? Maybe even remaster it?
Yeah, it could be done. I wasn’t doing mastering back then but if I mastered it with what I know now and the skills I now have from the dozens of things I’ve been doing… Possibly. And technically I could put out a CD like Forged Prescriptions (which is all different versions of the stuff from Perfect Prescription) of the Soul Kiss material. I don’t think they’d be subject to the same sort of copyright laws. It’s weird – you can release different versions of the same song! It’s weird the way that works…
How did you first meet Richard Formby?
I don’t know how we started working together but Richard plays on some of the tracks on Recurring so I obviously knew him in the Spacemen 3 days. I think I got hooked up with him through Pat Fish, the Jazz Butcher. Richard had been in The Jazz Butcher group – he appeared on the Condition Blue album I think.
Was Richard in the Pale Saints before that?
No I don’t think he was ever actually in The Pale Saints, but I think he might have done some studio stuff like their first single maybe, but I’m not sure. I know he did a lot of Telescopes stuff too.
As in playing with The Telescopes?
No – he did a lot of studio production for them.
So the Soul Kiss sessions was when the band Spectrum was actually formed?
Yes. There was no band ‘Spectrum’ before that.
What about the song writing process? When did the songs date from?
When Spacemen 3 split up I don’t think I had any of those Soul Kiss songs at that point. Normally I would do the music first and the lyrics later. I would have lyric ideas but I wouldn’t actually write the lyrics then. Most people – if they are writing in the studio – tend to write the lyrics later in my experience. You get into this cycle where you are trying to release an album every two years and promo it and tour, and then maybe have some sort of life in between it, so you end up having to write in the studio. Most bands don’t for their first album – surprise, surprise – as they actually have time to do it, but it changes.
So that material for Soul Kiss was written during the recording process?
Oh absolutely. God yeah! (laughs) Written? It didn’t exist before! Richard definitely brought Drunk Suite with him, as well as Sweet Running Water and Capo Waltz. So initially we had Richard’s songs, and then I probably brought How You Satisfy Me and Waves Wash Over Me. Those were the initial songs we had. I had Lord I Don’t Even Know My Name fairly early as well.
Richard took the lead with his tracks?
He brought those songs. He didn’t write the lyrics for them but he had demos of those fully formed pretty much. We might have expanded on The Drunk Suite thing in a bunch of ways but he basically had that track already.
Spectrum – The Drunk Suite (version 2 from Soul Kiss)
The clack sticks sound on Sweet Running Water can be heard on Sun Arise!
Do you know, I don’t remember knowing Sun Arise back then – I mean I must have heard it as I was a kid when it was popular. I remember Two Little Boys and Jake The Peg and all his other hits. Sun Arise? Hmmm, less so. It’s an Aboriginal traditional folk thing that was rewritten.
Rolf Harris – Sun Arise
How did you first hear Sun Arise?
I pretty sure it was my buddy Tim Morris played it to me. He was the first drummer in Spacemen 3 but he’s not on any of the recordings. It may even have been Pete Bain who played it to me, I’m not sure, but I think it was Tim. I seem to remember him having the album it was on – and the rest of it is shit! Tim was into car boots and records and he used to buy loads of stuff really cheap just to see what was going on. Sometimes he’d just luck out. I think that’s where I heard it and that’s definitely later on.
What about the other guys in the band?
Geoff Donkin – he was drummer from that band from Leamington, Beautiful Happiness. Mike Stout of course, who used to live with Richard.
That was a short-lived line-up.
Yes it was. Richard didn’t stay that long.
I saw a gig with My Bloody Valentine where Spectrum – featuring those musicians – supported. Do you remember that?
Yup, I do. In fact that’s the only tour Richard did. He didn’t want to do any touring, I’ll be honest. And after that tour he said ‘I won’t do any touring’.
It’s a shame though isn’t it? The gig I saw with that line-up was tremendous.
Yeah. You know, it wasn’t a big surprise. Didn’t surprise me at all that he didn’t want to tour. I mean if he wanted to tour he’d still be in The Jazz Butcher group. He did an American tour with them. But then sitting in a van for six hours every day… waiting around for six hours every day… You know…
What about the other musicians on the album? Sean Cook is on it at some point.
Sean Cook’s there, usually on the harmonica.
But then you’ve got strings and all kinds of bits going on.
Yeah those were some random dudes from I think the Musician’s Union. That was fun actually. I do remember one of them was the Musician’s Union rep for Leamington (laughs). He brought along some kid with him with a Michael Jackson ‘Bad’ t-shirt on, and he was good actually. The old guy is classic old-school strings and those guys can’t play to a beat. They can NOT play to timing – it goes against everything they’ve ever done! Whereas the kid, who obviously had two perspectives, one which is the very blurred orchestral timing, and also the other Michael Jackson thing which has got modern timing – super-locked stuff which most stuff is these days. So they came along and I did my usual thing where I wouldn’t let them listen to the music until they’d played on it, and then I didn’t even tell them! I’d tell them the sort of thing I was looking for – some vibe, you know. This is usually my style, and I’d go ‘OK, can you play for a little bit, get us some level’ and we’d record that, but without it being played to the music. They would always want to get it set up their way, so I’d say ‘OK, we’ll do one run through so we can check it out and then we’ll start’, and that first take – nearly always there are gems in it. Yet you might not use that take, but you can refer back to it and say ‘this bit here, this bit’s fucking horrible, this bit’s great’ and then they are like ‘Oh, OK – I get what you want’ and they’ll go in and they can’t get the same vibe again!
Isn’t that a little like recording the Neil Young way? Where the band would do a quick run through and then say they were ready but Neil Young would say ‘no, that was the take’
I think there are a lot of people who use that as a technique. Quite often when people think they are being recorded they rarely give the best performances. Also if you play someone something and they are just playing to it and you don’t record it… you regret it, because you can never get back to that moment when they haven’t heard it and they are just trying to figure it out and find stuff. You can go through it and work out parts and take all the time in the world you want for that, and you can do it over and over again, but you can’t ever go back to that moment where they don’t really know it. It’s the er… (pauses)…
Yeah! And it’s the ideas that they come up with at that point. Once people figure stuff out they think they know it. Often what they think they know is right isn’t necessarily right but their initial instincts were right but then they somehow filter and override it and they say ‘I need to go and work out these parts’. It’s ‘demo syndrome’ really – when people are relaxed the quality might not be there but the performance is nearly always there on demos because people are coming at it from a really fresh angle. They are really fresh on it. It never sounds the same. You might get better clarity, quality, timing and all the rest of it, but rarely do you get the vibe. Also in those days you were doing it all on tape – you didn’t have the luxuries of modern recording with editing, copying and pasting… Dropping in and out was even a big deal. Dropping in you had to hope you didn’t get a ‘click’ on it. You’d play along with what you were trying to swap over with – they’d swap you in and you’d hope. Then it’s impossible to do a drop out – even if you were playing along with what was underneath it when you drop out – it always clicks so you can’t do it. You have to drop in and go as far as you can and then you have to drop in again. You will end up with a click from stopping recording when the tape is moving basically. And that was using a high end 24-track system. You had to work in a really different way.
What about the idea of Soul Kiss being a concept album?
I think it is. I think it always was – right from the start we wanted to make a ‘song cycle’ record. Richard’s very influenced by Brian Wilson – as am I – as well as Van Dyke Park’s stuff and the Smile stuff. Now it’s released and people know it, but at that point of course Smile was still unreleased although I have to say I had 3 or 4 different versions of it on CD.
There were a lot of CD bootlegs floating about back then. I have a Japanese one.
Yeah, there were a lot of bootlegs, a lot of variations. Richard probably had some different ones again, but we were both massive fans of that album. I think you can hear the influence of it on Playing With Fire right the way through. That was when I started listening to that stuff particularly. But I guess some of the stuff that’s on Smile turned out not to be from Smile – the bootlegs had stuff from elsewhere of course.
Some of the material on Soul Kiss has more leanings towards Playing With Fire than Recurring. It has more of that vibe.
Well what vibe does Recurring have? It’s a weird record in many ways.
I think it’s a great record.
It’s a very… well, it’s not even schiz-ophrenic…. It’s like quad-rophrenic or something. And then there’s two different versions of the record too. It’s kind of a confused record all round that one.
I love a lot of the songs on that album – on both sides of it.
I don’t think there’s anything that wouldn’t have been gained by doing at as one album rather than two sides…
Whose idea was it to do it like that?
Well that’s debatable, but I suggested it, as in ‘tell you what, this is that ridiculous we might as well do one side of the record each’, so very sarcastic. And Jason was like ‘yup – brilliant, great. That’s what I want to do’ and I was like – ‘really? This kind of bears out my whole point…’ I think I’d rather be in the Partridge fucking Family by this point. It was almost Spinal Tap and kind of made me cringe (laughs).
Soul Kiss came out the same year as Lazer Guided Melodies. There are inevitable comparisons.
They were recorded partly at the same studio!
VHF in Rugby?
Yeah. One day I called Paul, the guy who ran it and who I spoke to every day. Because I wanted to touch base. I’d been working with him the day before and I said ‘is 6 o’clock good tonight?’ and he goes ‘oh no, I can’t – I sold the studio’. So I’m like ‘what? This is a little sudden since last night isn’t it?!’ And I guess that the reality was that he was caught in the middle of… …bullshit basically and he had booked out the studio to Spiritualized but hadn’t told us that. We had initially only booked a 6 week period or something, and then I said to him ‘we’ll have the next month as well because you haven’t got anything in, right?’ and he said ‘no I haven’t got anything’. But he did. He had Spiritualized in and he knew it, but it was all like ‘sshh – don’t tell Pete – top secret’ sort of shit. That was before the album really got going and we were working on ‘How You Satisfy Me’ and maybe one other track at that time. It was mostly ‘How You Satisfy Me’ as we spent a lot of time working on that. Then I phoned him on that one day and found out what was going on, and thought ‘this is weird, I’ve got nothing else to do, so I guess I’ll just rock up to the studio’ just to see how fucking ‘sold’ it is, and of course I turn up and there’s Spiritualized loading their gear in! That was before Anyway That You Want Me Came Out. In fact I think it was before Recurring came out.
Really? That’s back to 1990?
Yeah. It’s possible, it’s possible.
The solo LP was before that of course.
Jason plays on that. We weren’t particularly on bad terms then. When did Spiritualized release Anyway That You Want Me?
It would have those sessions then. My memory tells me a lot of working on How You Satisfy Me happened at Planet Studios too. We did some at Planet in Coventry and then another place in Birmingham – Earth Studios, which was a reggae studio.
Did you hear any of the Spiritualized stuff around then – when it was being recorded?
I didn’t hear it til it came out on record.
There were no tapes doing the rounds?
Hey – you forget dude! Jason hasn’t spoken to me since then! He also made it pretty clear – ‘you’re friends with Pete or you’re friends with me’ – in no uncertain terms. And I certainly got to know who my real friends were, that’s for sure!
What about the idea that Soul Kiss is the last gasp of Sonic Boom’s Spacemen 3 vision?
I don’t agree with that, I don’t see that really. That’s just reading too much into it and has nothing to do with it. To The Moon and Back is a follow on from Just To See You Smile and Honey. There are other songs like that.
How about the artwork? It was pretty outrageous.
Well, with both of those Silvertone records they just said ‘you can do whatever you fucking want’. They said it to the wrong person basically!
Oil pack CD
Original packaging of Soul Kiss LP in oil-filled sleeve (after over 20 years the fact it is still intact is a miracle in itself!)
Detail of oil sleeve
My oil pack is still intact!
Yeah, some of them are! I don’t think I even have one of those. No one thought it through. The people who really should have thought it through were the people packing the fucking records in with all the other records.
The Manic Street Preachers tale is a good one from then!
(oil packs of Soul Kiss were allegedly transported in the same boxes as the Manic Street Preachers new single Motorcycle Emptiness and as many were dropped and ended up an oily mess the resultant lack of Manics 12″s available is said to be responsible for their failure to get to number 1 in the charts)
Whose artwork was it? Yours?
I put it together but some of the stuff – the geometric patterns – is copyright-free stuff.
I’ve seen other sleeves using similar images.
Yeah. … This guy – Hagi Mayoishi (looks through various books). It was from a book Richard had, much like this one (shows A4 book filled with Soul Kiss type graphic images). You’ll probably find some of the bits from the sleeve in this book. This guy does loads of these things. Some of them are regurgitated in different ones to these.
Well, yeah. Op-art! (picks up another book) This one might have some of them in as well. They’re basically copyright-free and I just took different layers of them and then did different layers in different colours. To make the ‘stained glass’ sleeve for True Love Will Find You In The End we just took loads of these different patterns overlaid in different colours. If you put filters on it you could break it down into the layers again. It’s all this sort of shit and Richard had a book of it and I really liked it. (finds pattern in book) Look – that’s really similar to the back of one of the sleeves. I’ve got a few books like this – it’s good stuff!
It must have cost Silvertone a fortune!
It cost me a fortune! What they call a ‘packaging deduction’, which means that if the record company so grant the power to do this fucking sleeve that you’d really love to do you basically pay for that out of your royalties! So I gave away my royalties on all those records. That’s why I technically still have a debt with those labels! I mean they are non-recoupable from me but need to be fully recoupable before I would ever earn a penny from them.
Did you ever consider making it a double album? It’s a long record.
I’m sure we must have done. It’s an hour long give or take a minute I think.
It’s a lot to squeeze on to one disc.
It’s the most you can get on to a record without totally sacrificing volume and fidelity. It depends very much on what’s on there. If you’ve got a lot of pumping bass and bass pedal rolls or something, that are really loud, it eats all the vinyl. It needs more space to cut it apparently. Luckily a lot of the Soul Kiss material is really light and whooshy. There are one minute sections, two minute sections and four minute sections which are just whooshy. There’s not bass even on some of the tracks! We didn’t have a full-time bass player. Some of Highs, Lows too. Forever Alien doesn’t have any bass on it either – in terms of it doesn’t have traditional bass as it has piano doing it or just some bass tone.
You talked about lengthening the tracks by using ‘mind wind’ in an earlier discussion.
Oh yeah. Basically the reason why I worked at these two studios is that people thought that we were a little odd and retarded back then, especially people we had to work with… There were very few people I could actually work with because if people questioned what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it I felt I shouldn’t be paying someone to question me. I was paying them to fucking do it. Do you know what I mean? There were a couple of guys who I’d asked to do stuff and they’d scratch their heads and look at me but they’d go ahead and do it. And importantly they wouldn’t go ‘you can’t do that – that’s not the way that is meant to be used’. As far as I am concerned the thing that defines the way something can be used is that you can do anything with it unless it breaks it. If it does something to sound and that process isn’t breaking it then it is meant to be used like that and I don’t give a fuck, do you know what I mean? (laughs) So luckily this one dude at Earth, whose name was Spears, had a reggae and dub background and he understood it. He got sacked half way through the sessions and I stopped working there because he was the only dude that I could actually work with there. He was young and of West Indian heritage. He liked it that I had plenty of weed the whole time! He was like ‘Ok – I’ll work with you!’ but also he wouldn’t question stuff although he would look a little ‘gone out’. For the mind wind I asked him to get three of four of the effects units and then bring them up on the desk where they had their stereo channel for each effect, and then also use the ‘send’ auxiliaries where you can send the signal from those as well as them coming out. I could also send them to the other effects which I could also send back to the other effects. So basically I created this like feedback hook-up where things would go from one effect to another to another and then back into itself and then I could control it with the faders so you could ride the feedback and ride the way that the effects were working. I don’t believe there’s any signal being sent to them at all – it’s just them all freaking out with each other… I think I actually did that more than once, in a couple of different studios with different equipment and stuff, and got quite a different result.
Was that easy to set up?
Yeah it was pretty easy. I could do it again now as it’s not a complex thing. But some people would go (affects dumb voice) ‘you can’t DO that! This equipment wasn’t MEANT for that!’
Has anyone else used that technique?
Um….. There’s few things that haven’t been done somewhere by someone sometime… And with the internet now – obviously you can find out about it. But I don’t know – I suspect they have. You’d often have all your effects up on send anyway, and when once you’ve got your effects coming up through the desk there’s a chance anyway that some of those are on the auxiliary buses. On a good desk you might have 4 or 6 knobs where you could say OK, I have reverb on this one, echo on this one, so you have a vocal that wants some echo, just as simple as that. So if you brought your effects back on the same style channels. I’d be amazed if it hasn’t been used a bunch of times by a bunch of people but I don’t know anyone. It’s no great leap for anyone I don’t think.
Which tracks did you use that technique on?
Phase Me Out Gently has it throughout. It has it all the way through the album on and off – every time it whooshes (makes whoosh-sh-sh-sh sound) and takes off.
Some of it sounds like rain sticks – did you use those at any point?
I don’t remember if we used a rain stick on that record… I doubt those noises are rain sticks actually but I can’t say for sure! It’s more whooshes of sound I’m talking about. It sounds like what effects sound like, or what delays and reverbs can sound like when they’re fed back judiciously. It has to be controlled because it starts to just go crazy otherwise. We probably recorded at least an hour of it and then just took all the best bits out of it.
A lot of those tracks are kind of collages. Various bits are carefully assembled to create an effect.
They refer back to each other, the songs. There are things that are specifically in more than one song. Drunk Suite recurs for instance.
On tracks like Neon Sigh there are bits where it breaks down and almost ceases to be music and turns into ambience…
That’s that stuff – that whooosshh…
There are all those tiny bits of string and cello, fragmented moments. Did you just record all those sounds and then just pluck a certain recording and place it carefully in line with everything else on those more ambient tracks?
I don’t remember exactly but I would tell them something like ‘I want it to sound like police sirens or air raid sirens’, and that ‘you can’t play notes that haven’t slid from somewhere else’… The pizzicato thing, almost certainly would have come from the first time they were going through the thing. The cello player was probably doing that to hear how it sounded.
The ‘pizzicato thing’?
Yeah – the little ‘ping’ sound on the strings – which is probably a cello, or a viola which I think is what the other guy played. But the dude has whacked it so he can hear above what is in his headphones – his sound and to hear if he’s in tune. He didn’t mean to play that, he did that when he was just checking he was in tune you see, so I’d keep all those bits and then fly them in where we wanted them. We had DAT by then so often we could either take stuff and put it onto DAT and then fly it in somewhere else which is a real drag – it’s real ‘suck it and see’ and ‘it fits where it touches’ territory, but at least it was available to be done. And then all that whooosshh stuff would have been recorded to DAT because it’s way, way cheaper than recording onto tape. To record an hour on tape is three reels so you’re probably talking like… well, if you’re using multi-track it’d probably be like £300 for an hour whereas you could probably get 3 hours on DAT for £15 or something. I still have all the DATs and make up stuff for all that. I don’t have the master tapes because… well, I bet they’re lost to be honest. That’s usually what record companies do with them.
That’s happened to lots of master tapes from the Spacemen catalogue I think.
Yeah, I have very few master tapes, very few.
You use a lot of backward echo on the vocals on Soul Kiss.
It’s very prominent, and it’s very effective. Is that a favourite technique?
Yeah. It is, it is. It’s even harder to do now than it was then as well which is even better as people don’t figure it out! If you think about it and you know what you’re doing it isn’t so hard to do but there’s a little bit of art in it. You get luckier at some times with that than others. I love that effect though. There’s a Rolling Stones track – I think it’s on Tattoo You or Emotional Rescue that has that effect, and I really like it. And of course ‘Feel Flows’ by The Beach Boys from Surf’s Up has that on it. It wouldn’t surprise me if it appears on Smile somewhere as well. People sometimes use that effect where you might not expect to find it – like 10cc would use it just on a couple of lines on something…
Onto the album itself. It starts with How You Satisfy Me which came from that Evie Sands track ‘Can’t Let Go’.
Right. I used to drive Richard and myself over to the studio in Birmingham or Coventry every day, and we’d listen to stuff – Lee Perry stuff, other stuff… Can’t Let Go was something we were listening to as well. I seem to remember having a loose tape recorder in the car. I didn’t have my own car back then and Silvertone rented me one for month after month after month. It’s the way it was with record companies back then – the money they would spend on poxy little projects was unbelievable really.
Evie Sands – Can’t Let Go
So that was one of the songs effectively written during the making of the album?
Yes. It’s credited to Kember/Formby because Richard did a lot of work in figuring out that part. We were playing the record and I loved it and I want to take this middle 8 part and basically make it like the whole song. So basically keep using this middle 8… All those parts are sort of technically on the record Can’t Let Go which was written by Chip Taylor and sung by Evie Sands.
It’s an amazing way to open a record but in somewhat stark contrast to the rest of the album don’t you think?
Yeah, it is. We didn’t come up with anything else like that. Sometimes it’s the way, you know – we just lucked out!
There’s a good throb here – and that satisfying rush of the chorus.
We spent a lot of time on that. It accelerates during the choruses! We actually had it so the BPM takes off during every chorus, and then when it goes back down to the verses it drops down but not as far back as it was. So that record gets faster and faster as it goes all the way. We spent ages actually mapping it out. Technically that’s how a band would do it. On those bits you naturally pick up a bit. It’s only a couple of BPM but when you put the brake on to come back… I hear it from drummers all the time. It’s the natural way that music’s meant to be. And as we were doing it all totally sequenced and using MIDI for all the keyboard stuff most of it was fired live. The whole time we were working we never actually recorded the MIDI keyboard sounds and used an Atari computer that was synced to the tape and then that would play all the keyboard parts. I mean, we’d play it and record the MIDI, and edit it and get it all right and everything and the computer would play it every time.
How You Satisfy Me collection – 12″, 7″, CD, 7″ test pressing and rare promotional sheet
You made a video for it.
We made a video for it indeed!
Yeah. It’s super low budget video though!
Very effective, the constant cutting and imagery.
It looks maybe a little better with age for its kitsch curiosity. It didn’t look particularly good at the time and looked a little low budget! All our videos were super low budget! And actually even when they weren’t low budget the people who made them did low budget jobs on them! Not the How You Satisfy Me dude though! The fucking Hypnotized one is cut up from Revolution footage!
That’s right – there are bits that appear in both!
We were away when that came out. Gerald (Palmer) juggled and created all that. Mirrors, bike chains and smoke…
Next comes Lord I Don’t Even Know My Name
It’s an ‘I Believe It’ sort of thing.
Very much harking back to the classic Sonic Boom structure.
It’s kind of the real opener to Soul Kiss…
I think How You Satisfy Me is a cool opener.
But Lord I Don’t Even Know My Name is more in keeping with the rest of the album though.
Yeah – but I think the record’s pretty good for tag teaming. Each song is pretty well tag-teamed with the next one. I feel the relay between them is good. There’s wind pipe on that track too.
‘Wind pipe’? You’re talking about those corrugated tubes you used to get in the 70’s?
Yeah! I’ve still got one upstairs, a pink one! The organ sound on Lord I Don’t Even Know My Name is one of those. It’s a sample of one going ‘wooo-ooo-oooo’ and I then I play it polyphonically, play the chords.
Ha! It’s got a fluty sort of sound in it. It might appear on another one as well but the sample is definitely on Lord I Don’t… It’s played as a keyboard sound. It sounds like a Hammond organ through a Leslie when it’s an octave higher and played in chords. We were trying to get airy, breathy sounds. It sounds pretty sick.
It sounds exactly like a Hammond organ!
Well it’s one of those tube things! We had what I think was an Akai S850 or might have been 900 or 950 and it did lo res – I think it was 12 bit – sampling. It wouldn’t spit back at you exactly what you put in it so it wasn’t very good for using to patch up vocals – which we did do, like sometimes I’d use a line I’d got really good and fly it in from the sample. You can hear – well I can anyway – that I might sing something 4 times and the 3rd one sounds crunchy and it’s actually the 1st one being thrown in again. You probably don’t notice it unless you’re being tweaky…
Spectrum – Lord I Don’t Even Know My Name (live at Hospice Havre, May 2011)
Song sequences have always been important, and that can be said for the Spacemen 3 records too.
I do think it’s really important. I’ve always thought about sequencing. If it needs saying I’ll say it to people when I’m mastering stuff as well and raise the point by saying ‘do you really think this track should be opening the album?’ etc.
Particularly on this album when you think how many songs bleed into one another and therefore become vital components for each other. Each of those songs will have something which connects it to something in the following track.
Yes there’s usually something in common between the two of them. And that’s often because of some dumb luck like we’d record tracks next to each other on the tape and you didn’t want to waste tape – God forbid, it’s expensive – so you might have left a minute at the end, and then the first person who records goes over by 10 seconds and then next person who records isn’t quite sure and so they go over a little bit and then before you know it you’re up to the next track. And sometimes things go up to the next track and usually the engineer, or whoever is doing the recording, will look at it. We used to make strips for each of the tracks where we’d stick some tape on the desk and divide all the channels and write them in so we knew exactly what was where, and then we’d also have them stuck up on the door or the wall so you could refer to that too. So if you were recording on say channel 4 a good engineer back then would make sure than on the next track it didn’t come in on channel 4. He’s like ‘yeah, there’s some backing vocals that come in on the end of the song’ so there was no danger of recording into it. People understandably get very pissed off if you record over their stuff they just spent 2 years recording and which they’ve sweated over! I have to say Alf Hardy was very good at keeping things lined up. He might sit rolling joints on the desk all day long but he’s very good at keeping things straight in his head on that sort of stuff. Sometimes things would go into the next track or sometimes we’d do stuff like we’d have all the MIDI playing different keyboards and the sampler and different stuff. So that was all the settings – we’d have little floppy discs for everything. We’d have a cluster of discs that were this song, a cluster were that song… So when we’d do the next song we’d load up all the discs so when the MIDI came from the computer that we’d recorded it would play all the right sounds. But sometimes we’d just run it anyway with the sounds of what we’d been working on previously just to see what the fuck it did and it would take all the wrong sounds and play them in all the wrong places and sometimes it was magical. And because it had come from the previous song… that one element that it was doing… well, you couldn’t have written it better.
Almost like the chaos theory?
Well, sort of Syncrondipity. It’s somewhere between luck and recognising when it’s worth keeping I think.
Did you tend to just leave the tape running? Or was it not economically viable to do that.
No. You can run DAT like that, but no, we didn’t run background recording of anything. It’s only really big sessions where you bother to do shit like that.
Following Lord I Don’t Even Know My Name we’ve got The Drunk Suite which appears a couple of times on the album. There are other versions of that as well… The first version here is like an intro.
There was always going to be a bit of a theme to the record.
Even during the short first version of The Drunk Suite there is a fairly tripped out feel. That short breathless vocal – ‘aaaaah’ towards the end.
(sings in the same way as on the track) ‘Aaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh’
It’s all really influenced by The Beach Boys. There’s a track by them on Smile called Mrs O’Leary’s Cow which was definitely influential.
Is that the one that goes round in circles with the whistles?
Yeah yeah! I can’t figure out which Spectrum song it was, but I’m sure it was a Beach Boys vibe to do that sort of singing. Wordless vocals. Often in some ways stuff without words is more psychedelic than stuff with, as it can be trippier.
The Beach Boys – Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow
There was an earlier b-side – My Life Spins Round Your Every Smile – which has elements of Neon Sigh.
Yes. Yes it does. Neon Sigh is more of that improvised stuff. Actually Neon Sigh wasn’t called that originally. I’m pretty sure that that came from someone at the record company mis-transcribing when they sent a copy back to me. I think it was called Neon Sign originally and they mis-read it. I thought that was a way better title! So someone inadvertently came up with that. I like malapropism – it’s useful.
Spectrum – My Life Spins Round Your Every Smile (b-side to How You Satisfy Me)
There’s a lovely focusing cello motif in Neon Sigh that appears elsewhere too.
Yup. With tracks like that where nothing is synced and it’s all just free-flowing we probably have taken bits and used them again – the same cello bits for instance do appear in different songs. Things like glides, noises… we probably threw them onto DAT and I would have just flow it into other songs. We knew right from the start that we wanted to link the song cycle.
The long ambient track, one from the end – Quicksilver Glide Divine – is one of the first drone tracks of its type.
That’s one with lots of whooshing in it!
It focuses particularly on one drone. Was that the beginnings of E.A.R.?
Yeah – well, it was the start of E.A.R. I mean Phase Me Out Gently, the long track at the end with all the sax, has Kevin Martin playing on it. I was so into what we were doing then. Phase Me Out Gently originally was recorded as an E.A.R. track and I was really into it. Again it uses that effects matrix shit as its main body and then it’s Kevin improvising to the ‘mind wind’. It was for his label as well and I said to him ‘I know you’re not going to be into this but I’d like to use this on my new Spectrum record’. And he was like ‘yeah, that’s cool, it’s OK, but you should really do a whole album of this stuff and put it out’. This LP is the one with the clarinet-type sound except it’s a saxophone. I tried to get Pat Fish to play – and he’ll curse me to this day for it – the sax like a clarinet! He was warming up on it and messing around and then he played it like a clarinet and I said ‘that’s the way you should play it for the whole thing – it sounds really cool!’ and he was like ‘oh my God, that’s gonna be really quite hard!’ He said ‘that’s kind of like a fault in it and you’re trying to make me do the fault consistently’.
Kevin Martin suggested the E.A.R. LP?
Yeah, it was him who commissioned the first E.A.R. album, and it was him who hooked me up with Eddie Prevost… Actually the first E.A.R. album that came out was Mesmerised but that wasn’t the first album to be commissioned – that was ‘Beyond The Pale’.
Experimental Audio Research – D.M.T. Symphony (Overture To An Inhabited Zone) (from the Mesmerised LP/CD)
Mesmerised is pretty different though. Far less edgy than Beyond The Pale. And even Phase Me Out Gently is quite sinister at times!
Yeah, it’s funny but different people hear different things in it! For some people you can play exactly the same piece – Phase Me Out Gently is a very good example – and people will say ‘oh that’s like being in the womb’ and someone else will go ‘oh that’s my idea of hell!’
Was Neon Sigh recorded in the way a conventional piece of music might be recorded?
So a band couldn’t just perform it?
Oh yes, it would be very easy to do it live. Once you’ve got your system set up and with feedback there are usually semi-critical sweet points where the way its feeding back on itself starts to inter-modulate the sound in a cool way and there are usually these semi-magical spots. And once you figure out where those are and the more effects you have in the matrix – delay, feedback, echo, delay, feedback… you have to suck it and see and sometimes it’ll make things light up and distort and sometimes it won’t. We’d usually record way more than we needed and then just wipe all the shit stuff and then see where we were.
A chap called Peter Atack played cello.
I think he was just 18 or something. All the tracks those guys played on were all done I think in the same day, or maybe it was over 2 afternoons.
Did you stand there like a conductor with those kind of musicians?
Sometimes. It depends what the track is. On those tracks I think no, I wouldn’t conduct. I will bob in time to shit if it’s appropriate. I think having people in the studio actually being into it and appearing to be really into it is beneficial when people are doing takes. If people just sit there talking to each other and you can see them through the window of course it’s not a great atmosphere. The vibe that you are around when you record is important. I spent a lot of time on the vocals on that album. Sometimes I’m singing through my hands like this (cups hands in front of his mouth) or whatever it would take to get the right sort of presence.
Waves Wash Over Me comes next – you mentioned some unusual vocal technique for that song.
Yes, there’s a whisper track all the way through so (whispers) if you whisper a lyric and then put it with the final one (talks normally) it exaggerates that part of the theme.
You put the whisper on top of the vocal track?
You double-track the vocal but you whisper it on one of the tracks. You get really nice sibilance if you do that. It was for a mood on a track where I wanted it to sound as if someone was actually whispering in your ear.
Waves Wash Over Me a very dreamy song.
Yeah I’m pretty into that one.
Spectrum – Waves Wash Over Me
In the vibe of Just To See You Smile. You took that mood onto the next album too.
Actually Just To See You Smile is much more complex in the way it’s written.
Spacemen 3 – Just To See You Smile
But it’s harking back to that feel isn’t it?
Yes. I was impressed at how simple a riff I came up with on that. If you play that riff forwards it’s just like a 12 bar. I think it’s like… (picks up guitar and plays the riff from Just To See You Smile) instead of (plays riff from Waves Wash Over Me). It’s my Fleetwood Mac moment!
I love that song… (keeps playing the Waves Wash Over me riff) That’s all it does. I don’t think it sounds like a 2 chord riff on the song though. I was impressed with how I got away with that! Immediately I found that, I realised that it was a really sick riff and thought ‘let’s see where it goes…’ And then once other people starting playing on it I saw that once it has other parts on it that do change it sounds really nice. Waves Wash Over Me is one of my favourite songs from Soul Kiss.
You carry the vibe onto I Love You To The Moon and Back.
All the backwards effects are pretty psychedelic there.
Yeah, and it has a good intro that one. I like a good intro!
There was a gig freebie 7” of that song.
Yeah, like an instrumental demo version.
With Capo Waltz on the b-side.
Gig freebie 7″ – with rare sleeve given away with issue 1 of Spacemen 3 fanzine The Outer Limits
Acetate for rejected pressing of gig freebie
The way I Love You moves into My Love Never Died… That particular sound that links the 2 tracks is something of a signature of yours.
It’s called a ‘repeat percussion’. Back then there weren’t that many different effects basically. Nowadays there’s hundreds of different cool effects that people have come up with, both software and hardware versions. There are also hundreds of people making them. Back then just to find a half-decent fuzz was a fucking labour of love! Ditto wah-wah, ditto anything else. So when I found a guitar that had all those effects built into it and all the effects sounded super-sick….
(points at the legendary Teardrop guitar which sits in a corner) You mean that one?
Vox Starstreamer – the ‘Teardrop’ guitar
That’s a thing of beauty, and also something of a signature of yours.
Yeah. Luckily no one was famous for playing that model so I sort of lucked out with that. And with the Fender Jaguar I was fairly lucky too. I mean Elvis Costello used one but how many people in recent history are known for using Jaguars…?
What about the model you’ve been using recently. (points at guitar) Is that it?
That’s the bass version of it actually. That’s an Airline. Canadian.
Sonic Boom plays an Airline guitar
It’s quite modern looking for you.
No, no, it’s from the fifties! The Flying V is from something like 1959! Did you know that?
Yeah, it’s insane! The original dudes who used those were blues guys. (picks up a Gibson guitar) This is Gibson’s version of the Jaguar and Fender considered this similar enough to the Jaguar to sue them! Gibson made a lot of really whacked-out designs that just didn’t really catch on. I mean the Flying V didn’t catch on for years! Lightning Hopkins used to play it, people like that. Bo Diddley would have maybe rocked it.
It’s not a guitar design I’m that fond of. It looks a bit too glammy.
The Flying V? You know what? When I bought the Teardrop the guitar I was going to buy…(pauses dramatically)
Surely not a Flying V?
Yeah! One of the original fifties ones! One of the wooden ones, and you can sit down with them because they have strip of serrated rubber so it doesn’t slide off your knee, or it’s not meant to anyway. But then I thought ‘no, I don’t think I can do it’ because they were known for being a metal band guitar. I’m not a big fan of Gibsons anyway – they don’t suit my style. When the dudes who had the Teardrop found it they didn’t really want to sell it – they said ‘we don’t know if it’s for sale – we rent it out for videos a lot’.
Videos? But the sound is lovely!
(hesitates) Ye-ah… The effects they put on it serve as to fix it because it doesn’t sound that nice when it doesn’t have effects on it… but once you put effects on it it rips!
Isn’t that same with most guitars?
Yeah but that guitar is particularly bad with no effects, and is particularly good with effects. If you want that really ‘rubber band’ 60s sound you can definitely get that out of it. It will deliver that all day long. It has a wah built into it as well. ‘Repeater’ is literally just playing 3 of the same note through the fuzz, the repeat percussion and slowly going through the wah, and then slowly back again of course. That song is pretty much written by that. The other thing is that, although no one had trademarked it visually, no one had found much use for that sound. I’ve hardly found it on any records.
Spacemen 3 – Repeater (How Does It Feel) (live)
That ‘Repeater’ sound?
Yeah. Organs have it on quite often. It makes the organ go ‘tchang-tchang-tchang-tchang-tchang’! It’s meant to sound like mandolin, you know ‘ticka- ticka- ticka- ticka‘… It’s reiteration.
So you just slowed it down?
Yeah. It goes so slow it’s like ‘ZOINK! ZOINK!’ and Vox were the only company who were whacky enough to think that anyone was ever going to use this. And I guess I was the only person! I haven’t found an example of anyone using it like that. And then of course I use it backwards a lot, where it goes ‘zip zip zip zip zip zip zip!’. It is a trademark sound and I’m pretty stoked to be hanging five with it. (laughs) It’s a good one!
Back to Soul Kiss. The next track is ‘My Love For You Never Died Away…’
It’s another sister song to ‘My Life Spins Round Your Every Smile’. I think it was done by holding down one key on the Casio and then flicking through the setting that makes it be keyboard, bass keyboard, organ, chord, and then it’s just me going ‘zing zing zing zing’ through that. It’s one of those ones which doesn’t have any lyrics but the title kind of says it all. A pretty intense title! Hee-hee!
Where did the title come from?
Hee hee! I don’t know! My soul gave out and withered! Everyone just liked it. Like Soul Kiss – the album’s title… There is actually a guitar pedal called a Soul Kiss, which I didn’t realise. There’s several Spectrum synths and pedals and God knows what, but there is a Soul Kiss pedal that Electro Harmonics made that I didn’t know about. But I read some graffiti in Germany that said ‘I’ve been smoking spider webs, kiss my soul’. And I thought ‘that’s good – soul kiss… brilliant, perfect!’ And the ‘Glide Divine’ bit was because it was already meant to be this thematically linked thing, and that matrix whooshing stuff is the ‘Glide Divine’ basically. A sort of mood encapsulating sound.
Then comes Richard’s lovely ‘Sweet Running Water’. What’s that noise at the very start? That clicking buzz that sets it off?
Does it go like ‘cgcgcgcghhhh’ (makes clicking buzzing noise!)
It’s an ass’s jaw bone.
Yeah! You take the jaw bone of an ass which looks a little bit like a wishbone but with teeth in it. The teeth, when an ass dies, don’t fall out. The gums and everything go but the teeth remain in but loose, and if you hold one side of the wishbone that is the ass’s jaw and smack the other side it makes all the teeth rattle – ‘cgcgcgcghhhh’ (makes clicking buzzing noise again!).
And you are not actually kidding here?
(laughs) NO! It’s not a proper ass’s jawbone, this one, but it’s used in South America where they use it a lot in maybe… samba, salsa or something.
Does it appear elsewhere on the album? I didn’t see anyone credited for ‘ass’s jawbone’!
It’s a sort of Güiro type thing… I don’t remember exactly without listening to it.
So you just found it in the studio?
Um… No, and I don’t believe that one was a proper ass’s jawbone but that’s what that instrument is called – it has some crazy South American name.
And you can buy those?
You can actually but those! There’s a very, very good percussion store in Chicago which sells them for sure, but they also make things that make that sound which are made out of mock mosaic or something. There’s a lot of flavours of percussion…
Sweet Running Water has a very Spacemen 3 feel to it, guitar-wise. Many people are surprised that didn’t come from you.
Yeah, Sweet Running Water is in that style. I guess because Richard was on some of the Spacemen 3 songs he knew about a bunch of droney stuff. He’s a few years older than me – maybe 5 years… He had a different load of sounds I didn’t know. Rolf Harris’ Sun Arise for example – I didn’t know that but he probably bought that when it came out!
There’s a glorious bit where the guitars and feedback all seem to align together.
You mean the solo?! (laughs) There’s a windpipe solo in that as well going ‘woooooooooooooooo’. I play that solo on windpipe! It’s really a motherfucker to get those high notes because you have to whirl it so it’s like ‘wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii’
Spectrum – Sweet Running Water
Touch The Stars is another ‘jump forward’ to Highs, Lows again…
I wrote that and played it before I recorded it at my sister’s wedding. On a real poxy old church organ… It was fucking hard work!
Did you write it for your sister?
No, I don’t think I did but she asked me if I’d play something and I decided that that would be the one to play. And since then one of my best friends, my buddy Nick Kramer, when he got married and I played that song as they walked to the altar.
Spectrum – Touch The Stars
That’s nice. It joins beautifully with Quicksilver Glide Divine.
Yup. Again – there’s that whoosh stuff again. It keeps coming down to the whoosh – I still use something similar to that when I play live. I have like a whoosh going that I bring up and it’s there between a lot of the tracks.
You achieve a perfect drone on that track – real clarity, almost like a mantra.
Yes, that’s right.
Spectrum – Quicksilver Glide Divine
Then we have the ‘proper’ Drunk Suite which goes into something like a waltz by the end.
Yeah. A little rond at the end.
Might that track have influenced Panda Bear? I can hear his style in this.
You’d have to ask him! He seems to like the Sonic Boom ‘Spectrum’ album but I guess he’s heard Soul Kiss!
This is also a track that shows similarities to some of Jason’s work at that time, particularly slower building songs like ‘Feel So Sad’.
Hmmm, interesting. It always had that feel from the drunk/stoned/slurring vibe from the guitar part. It’s played where there’s no attack in the guitar so he’s playing early and then fading it up. That was a fun one and was meant to be non-serious and silly. People always think I’m very po-faced and serious and because some of the stuff is intense and depressing I understand that. (laughs) I got booed a couple of times playing with Kurt Vile! The reviews said I was sandwiched between these 2 sunny jingly-jangly pop bands.
The album closes with your long ambient piece, Phase Me Out Gently. It goes on for a long time.
Yes. I guess it needs it. It makes a statement. It takes a little while to get in the mood really, to get deep in it. I’m not sure now but it seems easy in retrospect to have shortened that by a few minutes to make the vinyl cut better. We cut it on direct metal mastering which was a luxury not easily granted. It tended to make things sound a little brittle and tinny, but I knew we were going to lose some of this from it being coloured vinyl and it being an hour long. With normal mastering they really don’t want to do an hour on vinyl as they think 45 minutes is the absolute goal, which it isn’t as you can get more, but with direct metal mastering, because of the precision of the cutting into copper discs instead of acetate you can cut an hour easily. It’s a shame but nearly all those machines have gone now – we used them on the last Panda Bear album but it’s hard to find somewhere to do it.
Are they just out of date?
Well they’re not really out of date but no one pressed vinyl for 15 years so people stopped cutting records which meant all the fucking cutting rooms went and all the machines too. And often you’d have one lathe for your regular cuts and you have to have a special lathe for direct metal mastering – or there always seemed to be a separate lathe anyway. So it was the first thing to go and then you’d have some sort of little digital editing suite instead. In that time period computers were coming in to mastering as well so music wasn’t being mastered from tape anymore. It was all being thrown straight into a computer – initially they used to charge more for a session using Sonic Solutions but then they realised that the sessions took half as long.
Who were Sonic Solutions?
They were an early software company who made audio/editing software. So you take your tracks, you throw them in, you cut out your gaps… you know? You cut silence off the end of the track… Mastering is making sure everything like the gaps are right, the cross fades are right and the sound is locked down so it sounds good on as many systems as possible is the best way I can put it.
Direct Metal Mastering sounds worthwhile if you can do it?
It is. It’s just, as I say, that the systems are all fucking gone, and then if you can find one – there’s one at Abbey Road – they say ‘yeah but we can’t get copper discs at the moment’. I said ‘why don’t you keep them in stock?’ and they said ‘we can’t because it corrodes and oxidises and with the price of copper at the moment…’ So it’s pffffffffffffffff…..
There are some other tracks hanging over from the sessions that appeared elsewhere like the Sympathy For The Record Industry double 7”. Taste The Ozone?
Ha! I don’t remember that one!
There’s a version of Don’t Go – wasn’t that originally by The Crying Shames?
I think it’s older than that. I don’t know who wrote that but it might have been The Drifters who had the first hit with Please Stay. Actually I was trying to record a Nick Lowe song called Endless Sleep, and it was a really sick song that I played to a few people. I played it to David J and he was like ‘I want to record this song’ and I told him I was already planning to…
The Drifters – Please Stay
David J from Bauhaus..?
Yeah! I was working with him for a while in the early 90s. I eventually said it would probably take me ages to get round to it, so he did actually record it. It was on the Bowi EP Nick Lowe did – where he does the spoof of ‘Low’ by Bowie. So it’s ‘Bowi by Low’ and he spells Bowi without an ‘e’ because Bowie spelled ‘Low’ without an ‘e’! Ha ha – I thought that was really humorous! Anyway it’s on that EP and it’s a really pretty track, and I tried recording it and that’s the music of ‘Don’t Go’. I couldn’t hit some of the notes in the song to do it justice so I was like ‘fuck it’, and then I was just riffing on it and ended up singing that Crying Shames stuff on it. So ‘Don’t Go’ kind of came out of that and it just happened to fit. So the music technically is meant to be Endless Sleep by Nick Lowe! It’s a nice song.
Nick Lowe – Endless Sleep
Spectrum – Don’t Go
Do you like Soul Kiss less than Highs, Lows?
You know, I never listen to them but if I do hear bits of them I usually really enjoy it. So I can’t really say.
Do you rate those albums?
Yeah I like all my records I have to say. That sounds like ‘well, of course you would wouldn’t you’, but after recording them the more distance you get the less the faults, mistakes and problems… you basically forget all that – it’s human nature you know? Goldfish syndrome kicks in and you just remember the good stuff!
The afternoon has turned to early evening and our interview is over. It’s been an intriguing discussion and Pete’s enthusiasm for the music he made back then is obvious. Afterwards we listen to Soul Kiss all the way through and remark on many of the things we’ve been talking about – mind wind, wind pipes, and even ass’s jawbones. The album sounds fantastic, but the atmosphere is certainly heightened by the idea that I am listening to it with the man largely responsible for making it.
The next morning he’s on a tight schedule working on Panda Bear’s latest music, and I leave Rugby feeling very pleased with the information Pete has given me. Inevitably I play Soul Kiss on the car stereo at top volume on the drive back to Leeds. That might be the best it’s ever sounded…
Endless thanks to Pete and Sam Kember for their generous hospitality and allowing me to take up a good half day of their busy lives and occupy their sofa for several hours.
Mark, April 2014
Jethro Tull. The very name conjures up images of a disheveled Scotsman wearing a mac, knee high moccasins, standing on one leg playing a flute or flailing around the stage while the band behind him plod away at self indulgent progressive minstrel rock that noodles aimlessly for hours.
Fair enough, Tull get beat up by many as they wore out their welcome. They also became the very thing that Johnny, Sid and the punks hated. But, I’m here to state that before they went down that pretentious pomp rock path the band recorded several killer singles and three excellent albums that are as good, if not better, than anything else that came out at the time. Not only could Tull rock as hard as Zeppelin they also had clever wit and an intellect to their songwriting that required their listeners to think.
Tull started out as just another blues band that flirted with some psychedelia on their first single (“Sunshine Day”/”Aeroplane”). However, by 1968 the band were beginning to put the touches on something far different than your ordinary blues rock band. Having secured a residency at the Marquee Club they developed a following and word quickly spread about their wild flute playing singer and great, energetic rocking band capable of whipping an audience into a frenzy. Tull eventually secured an opening slot for Pink Floyd at their Hyde Park show on June 29, which led to a barnstorming performance at the Sunbury Jazz and Blues Festival in 1968. Tull’s reputation for red-hot live shows helped seal the deal for a record contract with Island Records.
By all intent and purposes the first album, This Was, is fairly standard blues-rock. It’s a decent first attempt but only “A Song For Jeffrey” hints at the direction the band were headed. It is a fantastic tune that highlights Anderson’s superb flute playing, great harmonica and a hard driving rhythm from the rest of the band. The success of the first album and more scorching live shows brought them to the attention of The Rolling Stones who requested Tull’s company for their “Rock & Roll Circus” to be filmed in December 1968. Tensions, however, were brewing within the band and after one final recording session, the fantastic “Love Story” single, guitarist Mick Abrahams left the band to form Blodwyn Pig. A young Tony Iommi briefly joined Tull in ’68 for some immediate live dates and the eventual filming of “Rock & Roll Circus” (yes, that is pre-Sabbath Iommi playing guitar in the film!). Iommi soon left to form his own band and Davy O’List of ‘The Nice’ temporarily joined the band before Martin Barre eventually became their permanent replacement.
Barre’s first recording with Tull was on the single, “Living In The Past” B/W “Driving Song”. Both are superb non-album tracks with the former being one of their most memorable songs. The song highlights Anderson’s burgeoning songwriting talents and by the time their second album, Stand Up (1969), was released it had moved into a category all its own. The album is housed in a beautiful gatefold sleeve featuring a fantastic woodcut of the band by artist Jimmy Grashow and pop up figures that “stand up” when opened. The songs on the new album were also more diverse than the previous record ranging from pummeling sludge rock (“A New Day Yesterday”, “For A Thousand Mothers”) to a reworking of Bach’s “Bouree in E-minor”. The album showcases not only savage riffs but there are also many beautiful, delicate guitar moments from Barre. The delicious fuzz on “We Used To Know” being just one of many moments where Barre takes control of the sounds around him allowing the song to explode off its canvas. Stand Up also incorporates Anderson’s perfectly timed flute and creative lyrics ranging from the ridiculous (“Fat Man”) to the autobiographical (“Back To the Family”) and touching (“Reasons for Waiting”, “Look Into The Sun”). This is an outstanding second album from a young band that were only beginning to find their own voice.
Next up for Tull was Benefit (1970), a devastating collection of ten hard rocking tunes. The album kicks off with the blistering “With You There To Help Me” that is amongst the finest songs they have ever written. It is 6.5 minutes of a slow build eventually erupting into a cacophony of maniacal laughter, wispy flute and a head crushing sonic assault. This was one of Tull’s greatest and most vicious rock songs, yet. It also sets the scene for what is to come and highlights a band that had found its rock and roll chops. While not all tunes thereafter have the same eviscerating effect as the opener, every song on the album is still a gem. Side one closes with the sublime ballad “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey, and Me”. The name “Jeffrey” appears a few times in Tull songs as a nod to ex-member, Jeffrey Hammond, who would later re-join the band. By the time the song arrives at its chorus it veers off and becomes a gentle ode to Mr. Collins, the forgotten astronaut on the Apollo 11 who stayed in the modular command ship while Armstrong and Aldrin walked themselves into history.
Rock is what Tull do on this third album and side two opens with, “To Cry You A Song”, yet another smoking hot riff burner. Clive Bunker pounds the skins heavier and harder than ever and Barre continues to bend his strings and make his guitar wail like never before. It is, however, the subtle bit of controlled feedback at the 1’20 mark of “A Time For Everything” that, for me, sums up the album. In these few seconds of sheer genius a gorgeous white light of noise flows over the listener in a liquid bath of electricity. This minor moment that most listeners would probably overlook, symbolizes the creative spark that the band would hit with its next album, Aqualung.
Before the end of 1970, Tull released another fantastic single, “Witches Promise” B/W “Teacher”, which charted very well. The band soon returned to the studio and began work on its new album. By December ’70, bassist Glenn Cornick had left to form his own band (Wild Turkey). Past member, Jeffrey Hammond re-joined for the new album, as did John Evans (piano).
While both Stand Up and Benefit are brilliant and skillfully played rock albums what came next would arguably be Tull’s magnum opus. Aqualung (1971) is, in every definition, a masterful rock album that blends creative and often profound songwriting with inspired musicianship. The record tackles tough subjects such as homelessness, a teen prostitute, visiting a parent in their dying days and, the heaviest subject of them all…religion. It was the start of what would come, and in many respects, it was also the end of Tull. Anderson had always been a dominant figure in the band but his ego, creativity and wanting to tell stories moved the band away from more traditional “songs”.
Conceptually and musically Aqualung is a huge album. Side one begins with Anderson’s dirty, creepy, tramp whose “snot is running down his noise” and is “eyeing little girls with bad intent”. It is a raw, visceral song that delivers a punch. “Cross Eyed Mary”, another bruising hard rocker follows and leads to the lovely autobiographical, “Cheap Day Return”, written after Anderson visited his ill father. The medieval fanfare of “Mother Goose” tells a surreal story of bearded ladies, chicken fanciers and a chap named, Johnny Scarecrow. It leads into the lovely “Wond’ring Aloud” only to close with the full blown heavy rock of “Up To Me”. It is a tremendous side of music that gets even better as one flips the record over.
While side one spun around the theme of “Aqualung”, side two took on God and religion. Opening with the seven minute, cerebral “My God” it was clearly headed into uncharted territory. The song starts off with a gentle acoustic guitar intro weaving a thick tapestry that includes piano, heavy slabs of guitar, a flute solo and Anderson asking…
“People what have you done
locked him in his golden cage
made him bend to your religion
him resurrected from the grave.
He is the god of nothing
if that is all you can see.”
As the song continues it is clear that nobody is spared from Anderson’s barbed tongue…
“So lean upon him gently
and don’t call on him to save you
from your social graces
and the sins you wish to waive.
The bloody Church of England
in chains of history
requests your earthly presence
at the vicarage for tea”
It is an intense, emotional song that demands its audience to question their own faith and image of god. It is followed by another hard rocking track, “Hymn 43”, that continues down similar territory. Amongst rolling piano, heavy distortion and muted guitar chords Anderson wails…
“If Jesus saves
well, he’d better save himself
from the gory glory seekers who use his name in death.”
But, both of these songs would only hint at Anderson’s final nail in the coffin of organized religion, which would come later. The gentle ballad, “Slipstream”, moves into the hard grinding “Locomotive Breath”, which chugs heavily towards the album’s marvelous closer. If the listener has any question about where Anderson stands regarding faith and religion, “Wind Up” answers them loudly…
“When I was young and they packed me off to school
and taught me how not to play the game,
I didn’t mind if they groomed me for success,
or if they said that I was a fool.
So I left there in the morning
with their God tucked underneath my arm —
their half-assed smiles and the book of rules.
So I asked this God a question
and by way of firm reply,
He said — I’m not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.
So to my old headmaster (and to anyone who cares):
before I’m through I’d like to say my prayers —
I don’t believe you:
you had the whole damn thing all wrong —
He’s not the kind you have to wind up on Sundays.
Well you can excommunicate me on my way to Sunday school
and have all the bishops harmonize these lines —
how do you dare tell me that I’m my Father’s son
when that was just an accident of Birth.
I’d rather look around me — compose a better song
`cos that’s the honest measure of my worth.
In your pomp and all your glory you’re a poorer man than me,
as you lick the boots of death born out of fear”.
Not one to win themselves many fans from the religious right in America! Despite protests from the heart of the Bible belt, “Hymn 43”, “would become a hit and Aqualung would go on to sell several million copies worldwide. It is a powerful album that mixes perfectly heavy rock with quiet acoustic numbers. The ballads work beautifully as a bridge between the album’s heavier, longer songs. Anderson’s songwriting is also outstanding on the record and as inspired as the previous albums were, Aqualung is a truly astonishing work of art. It is every bit as expressive, introspective, imaginative and skilled as a great painting or sculpture. The album demands its listener to think critically and at a higher level. As with any great work of art, one can find something new upon every listen.
After the mighty Aqualung album and lengthy touring, more line-up changes ensued. The band would release one last decent 45 – the five track, maxi single; “Life is a Long Song”/”Up The Pool”/”Dr. Bogenbroom”/From Later”/”Nursie” (1971) that would be their last interesting breath. By 1972, Tull had moved on to Thick As A Brick, an entire album mocking the very critics who lauded Aqualung as a “concept album”. Thick As A Brick is, to be frank, a boring record with a long list of ideas all jam packed into one long meandering, self-indulgent art/prog rock song. After TAAB there were many more forays into theatrical concept rock or music played with both rock and classically trained musicians. Of course, this later era of Tull has many fans but by then, I had lost interest in the band and jumped ship.
My purpose in writing this essay on early Jethro Tull was to point out to both wary and unfamiliar listeners that, given a chance, there is some extraordinary music on those early Tull albums as well as their various non-album singles. To those who know Jethro Tull, but haven’t listened in a while, it is also my hope that this article will make you re-discover the band and these three great records Not only has the music lasted the test of time but these are records that can, and should be, heralded as amongst the very best from rock’s golden age.
– Michael, July 2013
In my opinion, these are the essential Jethro Tull LP’s that should be in every good record collection:
Stand Up (1969)
Living In The Past (1972) – A double album that compiles all their great singles and non-album tracks ’68-71.
Magazine’s second album looks like a reasonably ambitious release on the part of their label Virgin. A luxurious gatefold sleeve finds the band members pictured skipping across the road in the rain in casual wear – smart jackets, trim jeans and barely a hint of their previous wilder selves, with John McGeogh’s leather jacket the only evidence of what came before.
The sounds had moved on too. The original target to produce their second album, somewhat curiously, was John Barry, but this would have meant the band relocating to the States which the budget simply wouldn’t stand. Next choice was David Bowie sidekick Tony Visconti, but this too proved financially difficult. So the role was given to young recording engineer Colin Thurston who’d previously worked in the studio with Iggy Pop and Bowie. It was his first production job and he captured the band in sharp creative focus and used their new sound to the max. You can hear what Thurston had brought with him from his time working on Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ LP so krautrock and even a decent spot of prog find a fine home here – something that infuriated a few members of the press once their reviews appeared. Elements of the band’s former selves appear only occasionally but the urgency and frantic pace of songs like ‘Shot By Both Sides’ and ‘My Mind Ain’t So Open’ are gone, replaced by an ambitious yet cold mood that is present on all nine tracks, and much of the album sounds as if it was recorded in some winter wasteland. The band’s maturity is obvious and over 30 years later the album has survived very well indeed unlike many of its contemporaries. Rather than the bright pace of new wave one gets a frosty and somewhat desolate landscape – there’s tension, monochrome sounds and more than a hint of claustrophobia on some songs. It shouldn’t work – in fact the whole project should be one that’s slipped from memory – yet somehow Second Hand Daylight’s cool nature is in part its triumph. Not everything here is so chilly – the atmosphere thaws with the likes of upbeat songs such as ‘Believe I Understand’, ‘Rhythm of Cruelty’, ‘I Wanted Your Heart’ and ‘Talk To The Body’, but essentially this album is grey rather than dayglo…
In John McGeoch Magazine possessed a guitarist or truly remarkable talent and a musician that is often thought of as one of the very best to come out of punk. With that in mind it could be expected that Magazine would craft their music around his sound. He is indeed absolutely crucial – in fact Second Hand Daylight rates among his very greatest achievements, but rather than lead guitar being pushed to the front of proceedings McGeoch’s sound is mixed surprisingly down so he is more of a rhythm player a lot of the time. Initially he struggled with the new synth guitars used on the album and one instrument was smashed by the frustrated guitarist as he tried to get to grips with it. The effects used on his guitar go from standard electric to some thoroughly psychedelic treatment not dissimilar to Keith Levene’s mangled sound on PiL’s ‘Theme’ and he sounds very comfortable with his role. No surprise that John Lydon chose McGeoch to work with PiL in 1986 where he remained for six years. Despite the man’s talent, rather than being a guitar-based record it is largely Dave Formula’s extraordinary keyboards that are the alpha instrument on the majority of the songs. Although this was nothing new – Formula’s work on Real Life is central to what was happening – his exploration into further areas of weird sounds on Secondhand Daylight is key to the content. He simply grabs everything and drags it in his direction when opportunity beckons, and the variety of effects at his disposal at times make him a sonic magician in the way Del Dettmar or Dik Mik were for Hawkwind at their peak. But his role is more than squeaky noises as he embraces everything from classical piano sounds to squelching synthesisers. It’s no surprise that it was Formula who was the catalyst for the 2009 Magazine reunion – he’s certainly brimming with inspiration and ideas here.
When examining a genuinely great album it’s important to look at the parts that make it up – in this case four excellent musicians backing a vocalist at his creative peak. Howard Devoto could never be described as the world’s greatest singer – many of his lyrics are almost spoken in the way a poet might – but what he contributes to the mix is vision, mood and, of course, powerful lyrics. You can feel his desperation at times such is the effect he has on the music. He is key to every track here and his vocal style is perfect against the band’s backdrop. Barry Adamson’s rubber bass sound – what is it? Phase? Flange? – is absolutely sensational and never has he sounded so good. The frequency is so low at times it’s sometimes a rumble you can feel in your stomach as he stretches notes that wobble like a water-filled balloon. Drummer John Doyle – far more a motor than his predecessor on ‘Real Life’, Martin Jackson – is also essential as his beats not only keep the pace going when required but often bring proceedings back when a song starts to break down. His sound is snare and floor tom led – almost drum machine sounding at times – with hi-hat being almost muffled to a discreet fizz so the drums add more than just percussion and give the overall sound of Second Hand Daylight a steady buzz. The rhythm section of Adamson and Doyle are so in sync they occasionally find themselves holding things together in the mix as Devoto, Formula and McGeoch go off on a wander.
The scene is set from the word go with opening track ‘Feed The Enemy’ steadily emerging from the silence like dawn breaking in the Arctic Circle, with a slow keyboard tick-tock and McGeoch’s down-played saxophone adding atmosphere. Adamson’s astonishing bass soon booms into view and the pieces slowly fall into place as McGeoch switches to guitar and Howard Devoto’s fragile vocal picks things up. There’s a big sense of space throughout, beautifully absorbed by McGeoch’s wonderfully expressive sax solo.
Things then switch gear and ‘Rhythm of Cruelty’, the obvious single, increases pace and eases the anxiety set up by ‘Feed The Enemy’. It borders on pop, with a pulsating rhythm and defined riff. McGeogh’s guitar is centre here – a neat growling sound that keeps hold of the central riff with Formula adding the peaks and thrills.
We move through ‘Cut-Out Shapes’, an innocent enough sounding track but one which suddenly veers into somewhat psychedelic territory as guitar and keys collide, into two fantastic upbeat songs, ‘Talk To The Body’ and ‘I Wanted Your Heart’. Irresistible guitar motifs float above drum patterns that have had the shine deliberately taken off them and Adamson bounces around in delightful fashion. Formula’s grand piano sounds are particularly effective on ‘I Wanted Your Heart’ as he adds crisp corners to McGeoch’s treated guitar sounds. It’s a part of the album where you’ll find more smiles than elsewhere – these songs are brighter and more positive. We’re given a somewhat false sense of well-being despite Devoto’s lyrics becoming ever more warped – ‘you were laughing like the goon squad in my heart’ – and he’s mumbling nonsensically at times.
Side 2 returns us to the dimmer overcast skies with instrumental Pink Floyd-esque ‘The Thin Air’. Massively atmospheric with echoing Rick Wright style keyboards glinting across the sound. McGeogh’s back on his sax and what a fine performance he puts in as the various pieces of synthesiser drip through the hazy soundscape. We really are into progressive areas now – you won’t find music from the band’s prior catalogue that sounds anything like this. Surprisingly this piece was actually McGeoch’s creation – an interesting fact considering the general lack of guitars on the track.
Album showstopper ‘Back To Nature’ is simply astonishing. Devoto is back to spoken lyrics – echoed piano opens to massive synth chords which then push everything tumbling over the edge of a cliff and McGeoch’s pronounced guitar bursts away amid throbbing bass rhythms. This is Adamson at his very best and he sits in the centre, bumping bass notes around so that the rest of the band can use him as a springboard. It constantly sounds like it could burst at the seams, Devoto’s lyrics tormenting McGeoch into screechy responses (‘Back to nature/A trip that I can’t take’), and inevitably it does, with the pace hurtling away as before.
There’s a hint of sunshine in the magic of peunultimate track ‘Believe I Understand’, possibly the finest of the poppier tracks on offer. Devoto, after an uncharacterisc ‘whoop!’, announces ‘here is the love of your life’ and ‘here is the lie of the land’ with such authority he’s simply stating facts. How producer Thurston achieves McGeoch’s guitar fuzz is hard to say – it’s like a thousand bedsprings playing in tune and has a nature that buzzes and fizzes in fine fashion. Light but with huge presence. But it’s a team effort as the whole band sound fantastic. Formula is back to adding clean notes to guitar phrases, Adamson nails every note required and the climax of the final verse – ‘so tell me your troubles again’ – is spine-tingling, as everyone builds into a huge rippling crescendo before things close.
The final song on Second Hand Daylight rates as one of McGeoch’s finest moments. His intense guitar fuzz is thick and bristling with attitude from the start – blatantly psychedelic – yet he keeps it superbly controlled when the temptation to run wild must have been strong, although he does take full control by the end. Here he is allowed the space to push himself to the centre and his guitar motif is both menacing and powerful. Formula’s dazzling keyboards are a willing accomplice and together they trip the sound out completely so by the time McGeoch’s anguish-filled guitar wail takes over you’re thinking stuff like the Butthole Surfers Paul Leary in 1988. McGeogh’s notes are angry and harsh, full of paranoia, and he deliberately drags the emotion down so he’s almost strangling his sound. At the time Adamson and Doyle were astonished as their band mate delivered his incredible solo. Doyle commented that he and Adamson were ‘instantly blown away… all we could do was gawp.’ He remembers that the solo was ‘possibly one take; I may be wrong about that but it was so unusual, so ethereal. There was utter silence after it, everyone was speechless.’ The entire song in fact produces a deep sense of foreboding and sounds particularly sinister. Devoto’s lyrics are more worrying then ever – ‘I will drug you and fuck you on the permafrost’ – and his diction is heavily pronounced. As the last few notes of feedback are flattened by Doyle’s final cymbal crashes the song fades out with Formula squeezing shrill wobbly squalls out of his equipment. There’s no way to top that and Permafrost is an immense and fitting way to end the record.
Not everyone was impressed. In fact most journalists were the opposite. If truth be told Magazine’s relationship with the music press was admittedly strained. Devoto’s patience with some journalists had already reached a difficult stage. A famous incident took place after a highly insulting Sounds review of the ‘Give Me Everything’ single by Dave McCullough appeared. McCullough described Magazine as ‘The Muppets in disguise’ and the single itself as ‘dreadful – the lyrics proving more cringeworthy even than usual’. In response Devoto sent him a cheque for £10 with a note to say ‘your review of Give Me Everything was so unbelievably sympathetic, was so to the point that this £10 of my enthusiastic and shrieking money must go to you’. Celebrated oaf Garry Bushell, also writing for Sounds, in his review described much of the album as ‘regurgitated fifth-rate ‘Low’ period pieces’ and ‘secondhand—and second rate secondhand at that…’. One must remember that Sounds was totally immersed in oi and punk at that time so the very nature of Second Hand Daylight was unlikely to have made any sort of mark in their offices. Completely missing the point of the music Bushell dismissed the record in brutal fashion, saying Magazine had turned their backs on punk, somehow managing to forget that the very reason Devoto left The Buzzcocks was because of his dislike of being labelled as part of the punk scene. Bushell had scathing words for Devoto himself, describing the singer as a man who ‘consistently fails to communicate anything save his own undoubted superiority over the rest of the human race.’ The irony of this statement is rather wonderful of course. James Truman of Melody Maker stuck to his view that the album was ‘pompous’ and was also critical of Devoto’s vocal technique, suggesting ‘a course of singing lessons would still seem to be the best solution’ and accused the band of being ‘self-conscious art-rock/future-shock poseurs’. The NME was more favourable with Nick Kent’s oft-quoted line ‘where previously there was half-realised potential, there is now an austere sense of authority to the music. Magazine are a force to be reckoned with’. At least someone came close to the truth, but the fact remains that it has taken many years for the album’s true worth to be realised. The poor reviews were very disappointing to the band as they knew they’d made a very fine record, and it made them doubt producer Thurston’s role, something Melody Maker’s Truman highlighted, describing the sound as ‘overbearing and needlessly extravagant’. He accused the producer of ‘effectively burying the songs in layer upon layer of icily dramatic textures’. Virgin consigned the young Thurston to the list of unfavoured producers, yet ironically he found fame as producer of the first two (highly successful) Duran Duran albums. In fact Virgin was largely hesitant in their overall opinion of the album. Even the running order caused consternation to the point where one of the label’s founders, Simon Draper, expressed concern at the very idea of Feed The Enemy being the first track, describing the song as ‘like a downbeat thing’. But Devoto stuck to his view that the song was ‘serious’ and insisted it stay as the album’s opener. Adamson was baffled by the reaction of the music press and dismissed the journalists quite simply: ‘They’re idiots. They don’t get it’. He says that Second Hand Daylight is his favourite Magazine album, describing it as ‘quintessential Magazine’, and tipped his hat to Devoto who he says was ‘really on top of his game’, but also says that the singer was devastated by the reviews in the press. It was the work that followed, ‘The Correct Use Of Soap’, which is often referred to as Magazine’s greatest album as fans and critics fell all over it yet major commercial success still eluded them. It’s a fine record but has dated more than Second Hand Daylight, and it’s also a light-hearted album in comparison with some bright pop songs and a far less intense feel. Good – but not in the same league as its predecessor.
McGeoch soon departed for Siouxsie and the Banshees – who never released anything that could even compare to what Magazine had to offer – and later joined PiL. He tragically died in 2004 but is still widely respected by musicians such as Johnny Marr, Radiohead, Jane’s Addiction and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Magazine recruited ex-Ultravox guitarist Robin Simon and toured the US and Australia releasing the much underrated live album ‘Play’ in 1980. A final studio album, ‘Magic Murder and the Weather’ appeared in 1981, partly with Simon on guitar on some tracks and Ben Mandelson on others. But the magic had gone and Devoto left the band before its release. Roll on almost three decades and a reformed Magazine, with Luxuria guitarist Noko in place of McGeoch, toured to wide acclaim before Adamson left the band. Despite this a further studio album, ‘No Thyself’, was released in 2011 with Jon ‘Stan’ White on bass, and are active to this day. For this author the band will always hold a special place, and with Second Hand Daylight they produced a record of exceptional quality and an album which continues to force its way onto my playlist regularly.That situation seems unlikely to change.
Mark, June 2013
Being the teenage punk fanatic I was in the late 70s, and having absolutely loved the debut single from John Lydon’s new Public Image Limited project, I bought the debut PiL album – Public Image or First Issue depending on which takes your fancy – as soon as it was released in late 1978. I remember being delighted as I cycled home with the glossy sleeve which pictured a clean-cut Lydon with a somewhat sinister looking chap pictured on the rear cover. The photos of the other band members – none of whom I knew – were also puzzling. A blonde guy in a glittery jacket and some fresh-faced bloke not wearing a shirt. I was 14 and didn’t really ‘get’ the stylised imagery the band was trying to portray. I was firmly into punk and these individuals – Lydon included – didn’t really match my spiky expectations. Prior to this I had seen a photo of the group looking quite punky and scruffy so these new images were a little confusing, but I was confident – after all, the 7” they’d released was amazing so what could go wrong?
The moment when I lowered the needle onto the vinyl and waited expectantly for something along the lines of the single to appear was memorable. The opening sounds of Lydon’s death-like scream, followed by outrageous bass, a brief drum roll and then that guitar sound erupted from the speakers. What. Was. THIS? The completely unhinged sound of ‘Theme’ was practically unlistenable – it wailed, screeched and sounded like the devil running his fingernails down a blackboard. Lydon’s repeated howls and screams of ‘I wish I could DIE….’ combined with the intense psychedelic nature of the music terrified me. Of course I had heard the b-side of the debut single (‘The Cowboy Song’) with its excruciating short wave radio electronic squeals, a piece of music that used to freak out my mum and dad’s dogs such was the pitch of the distortion, but I dismissed this is a b-side joke of some sort. A mistake it seems. I didn’t really know what psychedelic music was – I certainly hadn’t heard any – and certainly whatever this monstrous sound was it wasn’t either what I expected or what I wanted. But of course I’d spent my treasured pocket money on this record so no way was it going to beat me so on I went, into ‘Religion I’ and ‘II’. The cold, almost spat out delivery of the spoken word ‘Religion I’ was very amusing to my ears back then, and I liked the ‘part 2’ version with its big chords and cool guitars. I also really enjoyed ‘Annalisa’, the last track on the first side, and that song became a favourite for months. ‘Public Image’ itself opens side 2 – and what a timeless cracker it is – with 2 much more punky songs, ‘Low Life’ and ‘Attack’, following. This was much more like it – harsh guitars and something I could jump about to in my bedroom. The closing track ‘Fodderstompf’ was even more confusing than ‘Theme – in fact I wonder of anyone really gets it to this day, but I found the chatter of the band members that accompanied the huge dub rhythm rather entertaining as I played the album over Christmas and New Year 1978/9. ‘Theme’, however, continued to be sinister and downright scary so most of the time I had to start the album either on side 2 or by skipping straight to the Religion tracks. Indeed my vinyl copy contains a noticeable amount of surface noise just after ‘Theme’ as that’s where I used to let the needle drop.
One abiding memory I have took place during a humanities class at school which was taught by a reverend who quite fancied himself as one of the kids and went for a trendier stance than many religious teachers I can remember. We were split into pairs and instructed to make up a church service complete with sermon and music arrangements. For some inexplicable reason – even more inexplicable now I look back – I thought it was a good idea to include ‘Religion I’ as the sermon and duly made up a cassette with my colleague, and recorded the PiL track in the middle of the service. I remember playing the tape to the assembled class and grinning as Lydon’s ‘stained glass windows keep the cold outside’ introduction began. What on earth had I done? The track – not that long at under 90 seconds – rolled on its anti-Christian glory. The reverend sat still, expression fixed, as the tape kept playing, while all that stuff about sucking your host, fat pig priests, bibles full of libel and the final insult regarding ‘a sod in heaven’ played merrily to the astonished classroom. As it finished he said in a thin voice that sounded only just under control but which contained a noticeable shake ‘what is this please?’ I told him and he just nodded slowly, not looking happy. This was not long after the time when the Sex Pistols were THE band that scared most mums and dads and were regarded by many as an offence to society in general. I can’t remember what mark I received for this project, but I know it wasn’t good, yet somehow I stayed out of trouble although my form teacher did have words with me later.
As I got older my interest in punk evolved into a far wider spectrum of music so I discovered sounds from the 60s, krautrock, I got into psychedelic music big time and I also realised how glorious roots reggae was. Of course many of these ingredients were crucial in PiL although I hadn’t realised that in the late 70s. I hadn’t played the debut album for years as my musical tastes had moved on from a lot of the punk I’d loved as a teenager. It was in about 1995 when I came across a CD of the album and stuck it on, kind of forgetting how I felt about its opening track. My reaction on this second discovery of First Issue was totally different and one I will always remember. ‘Theme’ sounded absolutely incredible. Keith Levene is completely mind-blowing and produces one of the most psychedelic guitar sounds I can think of and I really was amazed. I had a moment of clarity as I realised just how advanced PiL’s debut album is and I dived right back into it for many days. No wonder I didn’t get it when I was 14 – this was music that really needed to be thought about. Intellectual and complex, atmospheric and spacious. My appreciation of reggae led me to admire Jah Wobble’s extraordinary bass which was pushed so far to the front it seemed to envelope everything. Lydon sits in the middle running the whole operation while the music manoeuvres itself around him. The band took control of production which is deliberately basic so the guitars clash like sheets of metal and more than a hint of echo is attached to pretty much everything.
Coming out of the Sex Pistols this was a highly ambitious record and the risk it carried was considerable, particularly after the vibrant pop nature of the Public Image single. It’s now in its 35th year and actually sounds very much at home in today’s climate. Many bands have taken the Levene guitar sound and others have used the super-deep bass employed here so First Issue is also a highly influential album, and although ‘post punk’ was taking hold PiL never really attached themselves to any scene at all with subsequent albums going in all sorts of unexpected directions.
Despite listing 8 tracks First Issue is really only 6 proper songs – ‘Religion I’ is spoken word and ‘Fodderstompf’ is… well, ‘Fodderstompf’. ‘Public Image’ itself continues to be regarded as one of the finest singles ever released – it’s almost timeless with a freshness that makes it sound up to date even today. Lydon’s passionate vocals are fantastic but again it’s the remarkable qualities Levene brings to the table that make the song what it is. Powerful and glorious chords are thrown around and bring a melody that effortlessly worms its way into your head and is hard to shake off. This was the era when ‘track 1 side 2’ actually meant something rather than a list of songs on a CD, and Public Image is a wonderful way to kick off the second part of First Issue – it sits far better on side 2 than as an album opener as there’s no way ‘Theme’ could have found a more suitable home than at the start. Its monstrous presence swirls around the listener and Levene’s fondness of scraping down the neck of his guitar before he wrestles another gigantic chord from his instrument is just superb. The closing section, with fingers-in-the-ear glints of feedback, is closed with Lydon’s spoken monotone final line of ‘terminal boredom’. Quite.
The three pace-driven tracks – ‘Annalisa’, ‘Low Life’ and ‘Attack’ manage to find newer territory than simple punk chords, and on each the a battle for space is obvious and Lydon has to howl to be heard. ‘Annalisa’ is a pumping, snarling exercise with Jim Walker’s drums increasing in intensity until the final climax which sees him battering his kit like the Muppets drummer Animal, with Levene and Wobble doing what they can to push him aside, and he positively takes things over by the end with a battery of incredible energy and power. ‘Low Life’ is similar to some extent – Levene growls away, and Wobble’s bass occupies every bit of spare space available. ‘Attack’ is claustrophobic with a more flattened sound and Lydon’s shrill vocals given layers of echo. Levene’s guitar delivers far punkier chords than elsewhere on the album, something the Pistols fans would receive with gratitude.
The last song here (song?!) is the thoroughly bonkers ‘Fodderstompf’, a spaced out wander amidst a gigantic rhythm sound. Lydon and Wobble’s ‘we only wanted to be loved’ mantra is screamed and wailed with occasional mindless and often inaudible chatter mixed in. The 2 band members muck about and twitter away about cigarettes and punk rockers among other things. At one point they seem to be taking the piss out of the engineers behind the glass studio window, and towards the end Wobble spots a fire extinguisher which he lets off at the microphone. Despite its obvious filler nature (“We only wanted to finish the album with the minimum amount of effort, which we are now doing very suc-cess-fully” monotones Wobble) ‘Fodderstompf’ is curiously enjoyable. That bassline is just brilliant – a massive fuzz-coated throb set against a basic drum loop. In fact the band had largely run out of money and found themselves in Gooseberry Sound Studios, a place Lydon had previously recorded some Pistols demos in, where they were trying to complete their album without it costing them too much. For some bizarre reason ‘Fodderstompf’ became a cult hit on the New York hipster scene, particularly at Studio 54 where it became a DJ favourite. Not bad for a disposable filler track.
With a glossy deluxe reissue due from American Light In The Attic label First Issue deserves a thorough revisit, something I’ve been doing for a few days. It has a certain quality that is hard to shake off, from its cold attitude to its engaging rhythms and wonderful guitar sound, and its best moments sound surprisingly modern. The initial Pistols audience may have been confused by the album, as I confess I was, but this was down to the simple fact that I just didn’t understand the record. Now I do it’s become a regular soundtrack, and this remastered edition will prove more than interesting, as will the Lydon interview that accompanies it.
As a post script it’s worth noting that most PiL takes some time to absorb. Metal Box is even more confusing than First Issue yet I also bought that on release, with its decidedly cool looking circular metal cover. I didn’t get it at all and it was consigned to the shelf although I loved the box it came in! About 25 years later a chance DVD viewing of the band performing ‘Careering’ from Metal Box on Whistle Test in 1980 had me racing back for the album in full. Again I was truly astounded by what I was watching in this BBC footage – the level of psychedelia had been cranked right up with Levene playing indiscriminate keyboard notes that were left to shriek while he hopped about before hitting another random key, all the time adding little guitar chips. Wobble steps and stoops about in an over-sized blue jacket with his customary massive bassline rumbling throughout. The visual aspect is treated so the images trail in proper psychedelic fashion and the whole effect is remarkable. It’s an extraordinary performance that clearly moves presenter Annie Nightingale and is essential viewing if it has evaded you.
Mark, May 2013