So much for British psychedelia: Syd’s Pink Floyd the only enduring body of work from a time when the top of the UK charts was ring-fenced by Englebert Humperdinck, the whole hippy dream lampooned mercilessly by the Small Faces and the best we could do aside from letting the mad genius play, was – apparently – Status Quo. Ok, there was The Beatles – who did it well, sometimes very well – and, ahem…’Their Satanic Majesties’. The odd hidden gem such as The Eyes’ ‘You’re Too Much’ or ‘I Must Be Mad’ by The Craig if you looked a little harder, but as for great albums…nothing much doing. Some might point to The Yardbirds or The Creation and of course there was the plain weirdness and wizardry of The Incredible String Band but arguably nothing besides that to take you to the aural outer limits.
The prevailing perception is that psychedelic music was an historical (largely US) phenomenon which materialised around 1965, peaked two years later on the West Coast, and gradually burnt out thereafter as the decade drew to its unhappy close. The long-playing record was its principal currency. But this perspective is a narrow one. When I first heard those Grateful Dead albums, the promise of their garish dayglo sleeves (so intriguing to a teenager with a 1960s fixation) was quickly nullified by the content within. So this is psychedelic? It seemed to me that the copious use of hallucinogenics led only to overinflated egos and particularly unadventurous sets of extended blues jams. This was clearly not the mind-expanding experience I had so enthusiastically sought. And I, in my youthful innocence, was looking for something which might distort my perception of reality just enough to take me to another world for 45 minutes or so…I persisted with my search and soon found an unlikely source.
The The’s debut album ‘Burning Blue Soul’ was released in 1981. For contractual reasons it was credited to its creator, Matt Johnson. He was 19 years old. Even now, few would classify it as a ‘psychedelic’ album. But let me go one step further. I contend that not only is BBS a great ‘psychedelic’ album but it is possibly the greatest ever British psychedelic long player. It is however a particular species of psychedelia, peculiar to a post-punk UK landscape, one brought about by a failing industrial economy, and an emerging nihilistic moral vacuum.
So what makes this record psychedelic? Perhaps let’s begin with a definition:
Psychedelic (adj): of or noting a mental state characterized by a profound sense of intensified sensory perception, sometimes accompanied by severe perceptual distortion and hallucinations and by extreme feelings of either euphoria or despair. (www.dictionary.com)
Nothing here about ’free love’ and getting it together (maan!) Matt Johnson was not the cheeriest of chaps in 1981. While he often claims that this, his debut album is full of wry humour, it frequently reads like a teenage suicide note.
‘I have no future for I’ve had no past
I’m just sittin’ here pullin’ arrows out of my heart.’
‘…See me dwindle, watch me dwell
In my cut out corner, in my plastic world.’ (‘Icing Up’)
‘Saturday night and I was lying in my bed
The window was open and raindrops were bouncing off my head
When it hit me like a thunderbolt
I don’t know nothing and I’m scared
That I never will.’ (‘Another Boy Drowning’)
100,000 people today were burned
I ‘felt a pang of concern
What are we waitin’ for
A message of hope from the pope?
I think he got shot as well.’ (‘Song Without An Ending’)
Johnson’s dogmatic pessimism – such a contrast to the ridiculously utopian optimism of the 1960s – seemed so beguiling to me when I first discovered this album as a 19-year old in the late 1980s. I was helplessly drawn to this strange otherworldly concoction as I stared gloomily at the bedroom ceiling. Today for some, its self-obsession and sixth form existential angst appear naiive and suggest the author was still a little wet behind the ears. But it is the music that really counts here, and for that we can forgive Johnson his lugubrious self-indulgence. Matt was concerned that people would find his lyrics too direct and worked tirelessly to bury the vocals deep in the mix, and this only serves to intensify the disorientation of the listener.
There are all kinds of things going on here: some have criticised the album’s ‘crude tape-splicing’, rather than appreciate it’s brilliant range of guitar and keyboard treatments. Consider for instance the inauspicious and relatively uneventful opener ‘Red Cinders in The Sand’ where a subterranean tribal drum pattern emerges from a piercing sonar tone before breaking briefly into a middle-eastern raga-type dirge. Then we have what sounds like large metal sheets being thrown unceremoniously onto a truck. A pulverising industrial beat emerges accompanied by shards of feedback and a droning tuba (?). It’s an unnerving sound reminiscent of Throbbing Gristle and pre-empting the kind of territory that would be explored by the likes of Test Dept. in the mid-1980s.Or listen to the feverishly voltaic spittle of guitars over a portentously motoric bass riff on ‘Out Of Control’, which could have served as a fitting soundtrack for the classic lost 1970s BBC TV series ‘The Changes’.
‘Song Without an Ending’ is truly astounding. A bass-driven hurdle over nervy jagged guitar lines with the kind of riff the likes of Hot Chip would sell their souls for. Listen to the swell of the surf-style reverb break in to the relentless groove at 1:14, followed swiftly by a paranoiac backwards guitar accompanied by an expansive keyboard part which, synthesised with the galloping clutter of beats manages somehow to make the song feel simultaneously claustrophobic and panoramic. Quite an achievement.
It’s not hard to detect the sleight of hand of Wire duo Gilbert and Lewis on a few of the album’s more abstract moments. They are at work on one of the oddest of all, ‘The River Flows East In Spring’ where the spiderlike guitar picking of the intro is abruptly assaulted by what sounds like a stampeding fanatical Maoist (?) chant.
And to top it all there is the aforementioned ‘Another Boy Drowning’ where Johnson’s palpable despair sits incongruously with perhaps the most gorgeous melody of his career. It’s written like it was his last day on earth – and perhaps he feared it might have been.
Recently, listening to one of my favourite albums from recent years, the justly celebrated Loud City Song by Julia Holter, I was struck by the profusion of ideas on the record. It’s what set it apart from the competition in 2013. A line from one of her songs seemed to encapsulate this: ‘There’s just no room for all our thoughts’ she purrs on This Is A True Heart. Well, although Loud City Song is a more cohesive and assured record than Burning Blue Soul, by comparison with the sheer volume of ideas on Johnson’s debut, it sounds positively anaemic. There is such a proliferation of mindbending moments on Burning Blue Soul that it’s hard to draw comparisons with other ‘out there’ records. It could be a spiritual cousin of ‘Metal Box’ and rivals the likes of ‘Starsailor’ for sheer inventiveness and ‘Sister Lovers’ as a capsule of psychological meltdown. But while flawed and in some ways a sprawling mess, Johnson dazzles us on BBS with his musical dexterity and with a kaleidoscopic palate, which unleashes a deluge of visionary dreamscapes. If psychedelic has anything to do with loss of ego (the ‘I’), then Burning Blue Soul is a spectacular failure. It’s narcissistic traits leave no room for doubt on that front. But if we go by the definition above – while there may be only sporadically euphoric moments, the songs on his debut album take us on those profound and intense hallucinatory journeys from which our fragile minds will never fully recover…(JJ)