54. THE BEACH BOYS – SUNFLOWER (1970)

Lairs of Harmony

The customary Liner Notes of the 1960s and early 1970s album demonstrated little variation. Usually they were insipid, vain attempts by unfeasibly witless record companies to promote their artists (Check out the US ‘Meet The Beatles’ issue: ‘You’ve read about them in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times. Here’s the big beat sound of the fantastic phenomenal foursome. A year ago the Beatles were known only to patrons of Liverpool pubs. Today there isn’t a Britisher who doesn’t know their names…’) Occasionally some aspired to be more meaningful or poetic, although sometimes pretentiously so. For The Beach Boys ‘Sunflower’ album however, a novel approach. Neither witty nor poetic, they serve a quite different purpose. Forgive me for reprinting them in their entirety:

‘This album was recorded at the studios of Brother Records and utilizes the most advanced recording techniques in the industry today. All original recording was done on a special 3M 16-track tape recorder, supplied by Wally Heider Recording Inc., of Hollywood, using 2-in wide tape. Microphones used include: Neumann U67, U87, KM-85, RCA DX77, DX44, EV 666, and RE-15. A custom-built 30 position mixing console, manufactured by Quad-Eight Corporation, provided extreme flexibility and special effects for this album. Tape to disk transfer was done at Artisan Sound Recorders, Hollywood, using the latest Model Neumann computer controlled mastering lathe, equipped with a Neumann SX-68 helium-cooled, dynamic feedback cutterhead. The songs on this record were recorded in true stereophonic sound; they are not 16 monophonic signals placed somewhere between the right and left speakers blended together with echo, but rather total stereo capturing the ambiance of the room and the sound in perspective as heard naturally by the ear. Although more difficult to perfect, this type of recording is far more satisfying to hear, as will be demonstrated upon playing this album.’

And there we have it. No sanctimonious homage, no empty promise that the record will change your life – instead we have a convoluted itemisation of the sound engineering and recording equipment which will make this ‘a more satisfying’ listening experience. Of course in one sense, these are liner notes to be avoided altogether, but if you, like me, have over time, nurtured a tremendous fondness for this album, you just may find yourself returning to them to contemplate what it is precisely about the music on ‘Sunflower’ that makes it sound so incredibly fresh 45 years on? Perhaps the SX-68 helium-cooled, dynamic feedback cutterhead? Or surely the addition of the KM-85? (Those old KM-84s were useless, everyone knows that) The latest model Neumann computer controlled mastering lathe possibly provided the crucial ingredient. Those Germans are very efficient you know. Your eyes may be drawn to that EV-666 – which certainly sounds suspicious. Could those nice Christian boys have struck a deal with Satan? After all, isn’t he supposed to have all the best tunes? On the other hand, these liner notes could be the best – or at least the most honest – ever written. For ‘Sunflower’ does exactly what it says on the tin.

I have played ‘Sunflower’ with greater frequency than almost any other album I can think of, since I first purchased it second-hand on vinyl from a small, oft-forgotten Glasgow record shop called Rebel Records in the late spring of 1988. I distinctly remember the occasion as I handed over my £1.99 to Stuart Murdoch, later of Belle and Sebastian fame, who was serving at the till that day. The shop, located right at the very top of Renfield Street, was often deserted and didn’t stay in business long. Presumably, he would have had more than adequate time to nurture his budding songwriting skills while spending endless hours gazing around his deserted environs listening to his favourite tunes. Time would be kind to young Stuart, while in 1988 The Beach Boys were not as fashionable as they were to become in the early to mid-1990s, perhaps due to the monster Brianless (nope, no spelling mistake) comeback US chart-topper ‘Kokomo’ from 3 years earlier.

I hadn’t heard of the ‘Sunflower’ album before I spotted it in Rebel Records. I treasured ‘Pet Sounds’ of course and had the ’20 Golden Greats’ compilation – the blue one with the surfer on the cover. I figured that was all anyone needed of The Beach Boys. As I perused the sleeve, interiorly debating the wisdom of a potential purchase, the only date visible that I could see was 1980, although the puzzling back cover portraits (Mike with his Maharishi toga ‘teaching the children’, Al – minus only the obligatory lederhosen – decked out for a Munich beer fest; Bruce in a wedding chauffeur costume) suggested an earlier incarnation of the group. It may have been prudent to exercise caution for, if truth be told, when The Beach Boys recorded ‘Sunflower’, they had more or less been written off as an antiquated relic from a distant past. It turned out the album in my hand was a later reissue – and was in fact from 1970, in some ways a forgotten period of The Beach Boys story. The reason ‘Sunflower’ doesn’t feature very often in The Beach Boys story is not simply because it wasn’t a big seller (it reached only #151 on the Billboard Album Charts) but because it dates from a time when Brian was no longer undisputed director of operations and for many people, Brian Wilson is The Beach Boys. If any of that post-‘Smile’ stuff was worth listening to, it may have led one to the dangerously heterodox conclusion that there was more to the BBs than Mr. Brian Wilson. But while it would be more than a little foolish to question Brian’s pre-eminent position in The Beach Boys, that is a pill too difficult to swallow for some, for whom any acknowledgement of a positive musical contribution from Mike Love is a concession akin to climbing into bed with Beelzebub. I’m by no means the defence counsel for Mike Love, but that pantomime villain stuff is just plain silly.

Like it or not, ‘Sunflower’ is undoubtedly the best whole group album the band recorded. From around ‘The Beach Boys Today’ through to the ‘Smile’ debacle, the other Beach Boys were really worker bees, buzzing around their consecrated and dominant queen. Brian had been touched by genius – he had outmanoeuvred The Beatles, and out-Spector’d Phil, but his walls of sound were about to come tumbling down. Subsequent post-meltdown albums (‘Smiley Smile’, ‘Friends’, ‘Wild Honey’ ’20/20’) were decent if unspectacular, but there is a sense that the slide in the Beach Boys popularity in the late 1960s was less attributable to any significant artistic decline than with changing fashions. A mere three years after being the only other band to be voted NME Readers’ Vocal Group of the Year (1966) during the imperious reign of the Fab Four, they found themselves suddenly unhip, passe, their angelic harmonies incongruous with a world of blues heavy guitar heroes and rampant hippiemania. But it is to their credit that they remained aloof from changing trends and watched as those around them burned themselves out like comets as the furious rapacious progress of pop fashion devoured many a bright new thing and spat them out, yesterday’s heroes.

From the mid-1970s onwards, The Beach Boys did not exactly cover themselves in glory, producing material almost unspeakably corny and banal (don’t go near the Light Album – the vomit-inducing title is enough) but the period between 1970-1973 is truly a golden one for the band; a new label (Reprise/Brother), a marked growth in the songwriting of the other group members, particularly Dennis, and three exceptionally good albums: ‘Sunflower’, ‘Surf’s Up’ and ‘Holland’ (‘So Tough’ credited to Carl & The Passions, doesn’t quite reach the same peaks) – the former two the best back-to-back classic pairing of their career (‘Smile’ wasn’t released, remember?) The secret? Well, the liner notes give us a clue. And then there are those harmonies… If Bruce Johnston’s melodramatic ballads are too saccharine for some tastes, it is important to remember that The Beach Boys career is laced with such moments – even ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ (at least lyrically) is prime Camembert, but that doesn’t inhibit our affection for ‘Pet Sounds’ – in fact, it’s all part of its innocent charm. Brian and psychedelics, despite some intriguing results, was ultimately, an ill-judged marriage. And the lyrics – despite Van Dyke Parks best efforts – were always secondary to the music. It’s the harmonies that lure you in. So, in keeping with the spirit of the album’s Liner Notes, allow me to illustrate some of its harmonic brilliance with a few technical notes of my own.

Hear the boys soar on the opener ‘Slip On Through’ at 0:50 – a rushing flood of airborne voices almost as if, like an unstoppable force of nature, they had burst through the studio doors, a human tsunami. Or consider for example, the incredibly complex construction that is ‘This Whole World’; it has a career’s worth of hooks packed into its sub-two minute duration – it is difficult not to succumb to those layers of litany between 1:18-1:31, and the mesmerising ‘Thiiis Whoooole Woooorld’ group harmony at 1:41. For an even more impressive exposition, give ear to the remarkable ‘All I Wanna Do’, where the densely echoed production between 1:25-1:45 almost beggars belief. The song has been afforded the dubious credit of being a virtual blueprint for the Chillwave genre, but really deserves a greater accolade. I would rate it one of the greatest pure pop songs ever written. Remember too, that it was co-authored with Brian by Mike, who sings lead beautifully. Whatever you think of Mike Love, he deserves great credit for this little gem.

Vocal duties are shared out evenly on the gorgeous ‘Add Some Music To Your Day’, a perfectly structured beaut, showing tremendous love and care (check out the little vocal flourish between 0:31-0:37), but the great harmonising and string accompaniment through 1:14-1:31 makes it a showstopper and Carl’s flawless solo gives way to heavenly hums at 2:15. Carl shines too on the luscious ‘Our Sweet Love’ and takes the lead on Dennis’ driving frenzied ‘It’s About Time’ which closes Side One, showing that the boys could rock with the best of them… Meanwhile, Dennis himself, with newfound confidence, takes centre stage with the raunchy R&B of ‘Got To Know The Woman’, while on the wistful ‘Forever’ he creates one of the band’s most tender and perfectly realised love songs – hear the harmonies build irresistibly from 1:05-1:16. If Bruce’s gorgeous ‘Deirdre’ is really top tier MOR, it has a melting Bacharach chord change at 1:01, while his ‘Tears In The Morning’ with cloves of Gallic accordion, features an exquisite coda on grand piano which sounds like it’s being recorded in the room upstairs. Even on Al’s slighter ‘At My Window’ the harmonies at the end are breathtaking. The finale, ‘Cool Cool Water’, salvaged from the ‘Smile’ sessions is both a breeze across one’s forehead and somehow playfully buoyant, providing the perfect vehicle for showcasing the mastery of chief sound engineer, Stephen Desper, who conjures miracles from the mixing desk throughout the record.

I once read an interview with John Cale, where he was asked if he would rather have been a Beach Boy than a Velvet Undergrounder. With delicate Welsh diplomacy, he sidestepped the question, but confessed to owning a complete set of Beach Boys albums upon which he struggled to heap a sufficient complement of praise. In particular, for Cale, like many others, ‘those harmonies were unbelievable’ and he recalled listening to the albums endlessly when he relocated temporarily to California in the mid-1970s. Well, if those harmonies are given a greater exhibition on any BBs album other than ‘Sunflower’ then I for one have not heard it. And I’m pretty certain I’ve heard the lot. In Jim Miller’s original Rolling Stone review, he praised the album’s flawless production, noting it possessed ‘a warmth, a floating quality to the stereo that far surpasses the mixing on, say, Abbey Road.‘ He was right, and wise to overlook the lyrical deficiencies in favour of a total surrender to the music. If the Beach Boys did not have a lot to say – aside from cars and girls and surfing – they had a whole lot of love to give in their music, and they let it shine as brightly on ‘Sunflower’ as anywhere else. When Carl belts out the sublime cry ‘music is in my soul’ on ‘Add Some Music To Your Day’ I suspect few will remain unconvinced by his impassioned declaration. (JJ)

Advertisements

53. TELSTAR PONIES – IN THE SPACE OF A FEW MINUTES

Sometimes I think the nineties was the worst decade for music to date. The twin behemoths of grunge and brit-pop may dominate any retrospective reviews of the decade but left very few albums that stand the test of time (to these ears) twenty plus years on. There were of course many other interesting things going on, the rise of electronica and dance culture and the global take over of hip-hop even as these genres blanded out and became the mainstream. Looking back now it is the bands that remained underground and retained credibility in the face of the music industries last hurrahs that I continue to return to and which only seem to improve as time passes. Before the internet removed record labels influence and wiped out the music weeklies.

1995 was the year of the jolly ‘oliday that was britpop. While some see the mid nineties as the time when independent music finally went overground to dominate the mainstream, in truth most of what made the charts was at best a watered down version of the music of the past ten years with particular emphasis on the type of bands who wanted to relive the sixties. As bands began to see the charts and major label deals as a viable option, edges were knocked off and sounds blanded out.

In Scotland however the best of the bands that emerged in the middle of the decade made it with their rough edges intact. While Bis, The Delgados and Belle and Sebastian refined melodic indie pop into new shapes bands like Mogwai and best of all the Telstar Ponies took inspiration from across the pond in the previous ten years of American alternative rock. Ignoring the barely disguised sub-metal that was most of the bands that exploited Nirvana’s success, these bands took inspiration from Sonic Youth, a little of the dream pop of Galaxie 500 and Mazzy Star, and the disturbed sounds of Slint and Codeine, and forged their own sound

While Britpop dominated the music press, it’s easy to see why the experimental post rock of Telstar Ponies might not sit well next to Wake Up Boo, Country House et al. But while contemporaries Mogwai (who they shared more than just a drummer with) continued to bigger and bigger stages, the Telstar Ponies folded after the release of the flawed second album Voices From The New Music. In The Space Of A Few Minutes, however is a downbeat, edgy and intense masterpiece. It’s a restless music that can’t seem to settle, it’s the sound of those too hot city summer nights when you can’t sleep, the windows open to street sounds, the sound of frayed tempers and lovers quarrels, its walking home under orange streetlights anticipating confrontation. It is also tender, frightening and ultimately hopeful.

The songs are split between Brendan O’Hare and David Keenan (five each) and Rachel Devine (three), but there is little to separate them. The songs on this album sit together as a perfect whole. The opener The Moon Is Not A Puzzle, is a tense duet between David and Rachel building and building as she repeats “If you stay then I will go”. The vocals are mixed low so you find yourself leaning in, trying to catch what is going on (a couple of songs – Two’s Insane and Maya the vocals are almost indecipherable). Lügengeschichte (tall tale) is a helter skelter descent with heavy nods to from Neu! 2’s Super to, well, Neu! 2’s Fur Immer with great lyrics (I have no thoughts of self control) and ends with some crazy phasing. The single Not Even Starcrossed (taking its title from a line in a Codeine song)is a doomed romance of a song (wishing on a star, never should be wrong, when you got nothing)building to a beautifully elegiac chorus of “I’m in love with you”. Maya always reminded me of the atmosphere of Tom Verlaine’s Words From The Front.

Right in the middle of the album is a magical re-working of Patty Waters “Moon, Don’t Come Up Tonight” re-imagined as a gorgeous torch song. Sung by Keenan, importantly he doesn’t change the gender of the songs subject (these things matter sometimes). It was hearing the records of Telstar Ponies that led me to investigate Patty Waters, Shizuka, Albert Ayler.

Monster is all anguished pounding before erupting at the chorus. Best of all is “Side Netting” which just aches, heaving under a narcotic drift of guitars like The Only Ones Inbetweens. The menacing Her Name (“Me and her won’t sleep tonight”)  and Innerhalb Weniger Minuten as Rachel Devine intones a mystery tale over a brooding soundtrack . It all ends on a hopeful note with I Still Believe in Christmas Trees.

The Ponies managed one more album. The following years Tales From The New Music may even reach greater heights than the debut, but lacks the consistency of sound of their debut. After that there was the odd single released, but nothing else. Some members released further music under various guises, some of it great, all of it interesting, but not reaching the heights of what was achieved here.

As for the 1990’s, it is only when you start adding up the bands that released classic in that decade (Luna, Low, Teenage Fanclub, Mercury Rev, Bardo Pond, Pastels, Spectrum, Dead Moon, Primordial Undermind etc) that you realise it wasn’t all bad. And In The Space Of A Few Minutes is one of the best. (TT)

52. A BELL IS A CUP – UNTIL IT IS STRUCK – WIRE (1988)

A BELL IS A CUP – UNTIL IT IS STRUCK – WIRE (1988)
Firstly, a health warning – listening to A Bell Is A Cup… has been known to make one of my TNPC colleagues feel unwell. I can relate to this – hearing (Shambeko! Say) Wah!’s Remember can still, more than 30 years after the event, resurrect the waltzer-induced nausea I felt the day I bought it, coming straight from the Kelvin Hall carnival. However, Wire’s fifth studio album – and the second following their 1985 reformation – is a record I’m fortunate enough to be able to listen to without the need for Anadin or a damp cloth on the fevered brow.
Not sure if the same can be said of Wire themselves. Their decision to reunite has since become pretty much expected eventually of all bands that part company ( including some that should absolutely never have added their unnecessary footnotes – this means you Beatles, Velvets, Pistols). At the time, it was highly unusual; rarer still was their flat refusal to play any of the music that had made them such a thrilling and infinitely challenging proposition in their first incarnation of the late ’70s.
They’ve since relented to some degree and their live sets are now speckled with returns to these years but this can’t be taken for granted – a plea for Outdoor Miner (or Outside Miner, as the hapless heckler named it), the closest they’ve ever had to a hit, was studiously ignored when they played King Tut’s in Glasgow in 2013.
But this wasn’t wilful perversity – while many would characterise it as such, it was simply Wire doing what came naturally to them. Genuinely uncompromising, they had little or no interest in going back over the same ground once it had been seen and done, leaving the past to be dealt with by the Ex-Lion Tamers, who would now be lost in the thickets of the dubiously-named tribute band industry but in the mid-’80s had only the Bootleg Beatles for company as they supported the no-rear-view Wire. How quickly a high-concept idea can become mainstream…
And anyway, Wire had unfinished business, having come to an inconclusive halt in 1980, and by 1985 , their prodding and goading of the commonplace was needed more than ever. While it extended possibilities and created a new language – and Wire were more responsible for this than most – punk ultimately “destrrrrooooooyed” nothing, at best knocking some things temporarily unconscious. It would be fatuous, simplistic and, in fact, wholly inaccurate to describe it as any kind of cavalry charge but there was much rejoicing at their return and the manner of their returning. Their name was being heard in unlikely but intriguing places, cited as an influence by REM and the Minutemen. It seemed odd that this most British, European and bluesless of bands found such favour in America but these bands were part of a thoughtful and open new breed who were as intent on slaying predatory old rock beasts as Wire were themselves.
But Wire had to adapt to new surroundings to an extent. Wilson Neate’s comprehensive band history, Read And Burn, tells of a fraught and fractious process in recording their “second debut,”  The Ideal Copy, in Berlin, with old tensions reignited, particularly between Colin Newman’s penchant for pop hooks and the proclivity of Graham Lewis and, especially, Bruce Gilbert for more challenging, abstract sounds. Certainly, the results were uneven – Madman’s Honey (which Neate scorns with pitiless adjectives like “egregious,” “sickly,” “polite”) is, to my ears, a mesmerising work which resembles little else in popular music; conversely, Ambitious is lyrically intriguing (it donates the album’s title and its avalanche of acronyms – “CIA, DNA, KGB-” cements the notion of the band resembling a crack research group or a deep-cover spy cell. Musically, though, it’s something of a mess, Lewis’ roar of “Are  you hot? Are you hot? I FEEL AMBITIOUS!” veering uncomfortably close to another Anglophiles’ favourite, Basil Fawlty and the whole thing feels dated in a way no Wire music ever should be.
A Bell Is A Cup… arrived the following year as a far more rounded and cohesive statement, with a consistency of tone which creates  not  monotony but instead a sense of Aristotelian unity of time, place and action. In turn, it’s their most monochrome album since their 1977 debut, Pink Flag; by 1979’s 154, they were deploying texture and colour at Matisse level but A Bell Is A Cup… seems sketched in pencil. In keeping with this, Q’s review opined that it appeared to be “based on maths,” which, like the horse’s head sculpture on the cover, brings us back to ancient Greece, a time  and place where maths was not a trial for school pupils but a branch of philosophy, bound up with extensive thinking on the human condition – something Wire have always been pretty good at.
Take Kidney Bingos which, in the practice of the times, appeared as a single a few months earlier. It’s the final panel of a triptych, begun a decade earlier with Fragile and continued with Outdoor Miner, of unfeasibly melodic yet lyrically labyrinthine songs. Words, phrases are tossed out, making by turns no sense and perfect sense (“Dressed pints, demon shrinks, bread drunk, dead drinks”) intoned by Newman in the angelic voice which came to the fore on Chairs Missing and gradually superseded his “other” droll, simulated Cockney tones which are more or less entirely absent on A Bell Is A Cup.The verse, the solos, so sublimely tuneful, and: chorus! “Money spines, paper lung/Kidney bingos, organ fun.” The code is cracked and revealed as a macabre Twilight Zone fantasy (only just) of vital organ jackpots and severe medical economics, as the melody reaches an exquisite peak. At the end of 1988, I declared it my single of the year, in the face of competition ftom The Mercy Seat, You Made Me Realise and Gigantic. Depending on the mood of the day, I  can still find myself standing by that decision.

Second single Silk Skin Paws kicks off the album and is sterner, more unblinking but still entrances. Like Kidney Bingos, it has a surefooted gait driven by the ultra-minimal but vastly inventive drumming of Robert Gray, aka Gotobed (his pared-down kit of snare, hi-hat and bass drum attracted considerable attention at the time; he would eventually be usurped altogether by programming before returning post-millennium). It’s steely and gossamer in equal measure, sighs as much as it hisses and has the elegant precision of a sculpture. It did not chart. But it was a very pleasant, albeit unexpected, surprise, to hear it given an outing at King Tut’s earlier this year.
Worthy of particular attention are the two closing tracks. Follow The Locust is one of Wire’s  most purely exhilirating moments, hurtling on a bullhorn-force bass synth riff as Newman delivers a quizzical account of travel that resembles perpetual motion and continues their exemplary record for songs about insects. Its barreling momentum hints at some of the more uncompromising moments of their, by then, labelmates Depeche Mode and is a harbinger of One Of Our Girls Has Gone Missing, the gloriously evocative gem Gilbert created the following year with Wire associate and sometime video director Angela “AC Marias” Conway.
Closer A Public Place stands out for its stillness and air of desperate calm fending off unbearable tension. The actions switches, verse by verse, from a vignette witnessed late at night in King’s Cross railway station to the absurd but all too present menace of “privet hedge pissers” and “village boy wide men” and the strange but compelling image of “broken promises/drifted into the shape of footprints.” Meanwhile, the lead guitar soothes, the rhythm guitar snarls and a synth drone hovers like a sentry. It’s rhythmless, apart from the clatter Gotobed goads out of found percussion, similar to what’s heard on Pink Flag’s Strange (covered by REM a few months earlier) but this is no nostalgic, and certainly not an ironic, wink tipped to the past – it’s Wire finding the late ’80s every bit as “not quite right” as the late ’70s and delivering a sombre but eloquent verdict as only they can.
Nostalgia, you say? Wire’s reconvening would have been utterly pointless if that’s what it was about but this is how some would have had it; the reputation of their ’70s output is secure, close to inviolate, but their second incarnation has many detractors. I can’t help feeling that many of these misgivings relate more to a general  disdain for the trappings of the ’80s, which were manifested in some of the more misguided production choices on The Ideal  Copy and in Lewis brandishing a headstock- free bass and the hairstyle that no one actually called a mullet until around 1994 (“footballer’s haircut” seemed to be the preferred term at the time).
True, by ths time of their second cessation around 1992, they were at risk of becoming the dry laboratory exercise they’re seen as by some who fail to detect the drama, mystery and magic at their core. But what makes A Bell Is A Cup… such a strong candidate for reappraisal is how fresh, undated and, in fact, contemporary it sounds. It’s also makes one of the strongest cases for Wire being a vast, yet almost completely unacknowledged, influence on Radiohead. I’ve never known Radiohead themselves, or even any critics, to trace their lineage back to Wire but, in the shared values of manipulating traditional rock forms to unconventional ends, applying advanced technology to those newly mutated forms and making shrewd political observations couched in oblique terms, as well as unlikely popularity in America, I find the comparison glaringly obvious and the influence incalculable.
It was only at the time of A Bell Is A Cup… that I properly discovered Wire. I’d been aware of them first time around, catching desultory hearings of Practice Makes Perfect and On Returning on John Peel, but the only song of theirs I was truly intimate with was I Am The Fly. But the repeated citations and the quality of A Bell Is A Cup… meant that this was one of those rare occasions, as with the Velvet Underground and REM a few years earlier, when my eagerness to delve into a back catalogue came with a sure and well-founded conviction that I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Now in their third incarnation, they’re still adding to it – even without Gilbert and with the remaining original members all over 60, they’re capable of being as abrasive and compelling as ever. Just keep some of that Anadin handy (PG).

51. SPACEMEN 3 – RECURRING (1991)

Spacemen_3Divided Souls: Spacemen 3 and The Redemptive Power Of Music

Robert Christgau’s review consisted of three words: “Stooges for airports.” But then again, he awarded one of his coveted A+ ratings to Brian Eno’s Another Green World, which might lead one to presume that Christgau is, in fact, rather fond of music for airports. Of course, I’ve missed the point if all his analogy does, is lead me to contemplate the wonderfully absurd possibility of Raw Power echoing around air terminal departure lounges. But then I’d say Christgau was well off the mark with his dismissive assessment of Spacemen 3’s damaged swan-song Recurring,which I would contend is one of the greatest (and unjustly overlooked) albums of the 1990s.

It took me a long time to feel convinced by Spacemen 3. Dragged along by a few friends, I witnessed a fairly unspectacular set at Fury Murrys in Glasgow in 1989. I was genuinely underwhelmed, but then my expectations had not been high – I didn’t care greatly for the po-faced posturing of their early albums, which often sounded more than a little contrived. I sensed a shallow affectation beneath that ’66 Velvets’ veneer: that, as if by simply wearing the clothes, they would become the man. All the same, this was clearly a band whose heart was in the right place. Their musical touchstones, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, Suicide, latterly laced with a dose of gospel and krautrock, demonstrated a fairly discerning palate.

By the time Recurring, sporting a hideous ‘Зmarties’ technicolour sleeve, hit the record stores in February 1991, Pete Kember and Jason Pierce hadn’t spoken face to face in six months. Some misinterpret Recurring as a hastily compiled contractual obligation album. In actual fact, it was supposed to be the first of a lucrative five album deal with Dedicated records. But in reality, even a new record contract could not disguise the fact that Spacemen 3 as an entity, was already dead. Bruised and battling egos alongside increasing drug addiction, had conspired to create an insurmountable rift between Pierce and Kember, just as they had finally realised some degree of commercial success. Their penultimate album had finally given them a breakthrough of sorts. Critics and (the indie) public alike adored it. Playing With Fire,  embodied a soulful (spiritual if you prefer), as well as a stylistic shift in their sound: a sonic leap at least partially attributable to a key change of personnel – the recruitment of Will Carruthers and Jon Mattock (who would go on to join Pierce in Spiritualized once the disintegration was complete). They replaced Stuart Roswell and Pete Bain who had left to form The Darkside. The results were instant. And while I wouldn’t get into a boxing ring with someone who would claim for it the title of their finest moment, neither could I in all sincerity agree with them. Playing With Fire contains some extraordinarily beautiful songs, alongside the last vestiges of those big power-chord Stooges riffs which characterised some of their earlier work (hear ‘Suicide’ and ‘Revolution’), and a protracted exploration of Kember’s latest guitar pet – the Vox Starstream, on the ten minute ‘How Does it Feel.’

While the Vox Starstream’s repeater function added a vital new psychedelic dimension to their sound, ‘How Does It Feel’ sounded laboured and unjustifiably lengthy – like they were mucking about with a new toy. By contrast, consider the opening track on Recurring, which, while even lengthier in duration, gives the instrument a genuinely worthy exposition. Big City (Everybody I Know Can Be Found Here)’ is Kember’s twin tribute to Kraftwerk and 1960s garage punks The Electric Prunes: a musical homage to the former, the lyrics brazenly stolen from the latter. But it’s metronomic pulse glides lighter than air and the trademark two chord Farfisa organ which creeps into its flesh, is so hypnotic that those eleven minutes feel like four. It could be Kember’s finest moment. Indeed, his half of the album – he and Pierce, by now completely beyond personal reconciliation, recorded their songs separately and were each afforded one side of the album – could be his finest hour. Spacefans often invest considerable energy debating the relative merits of Kember and Pierce’s individual contributions, but I do not aim to ignite the debate here. Indeed, I veer back and forth with my own preference. Depends on one’s mood I’d say.

Kember’s ‘I Love You’ nicks a neanderthal Troggs riff, Can’s fizzing pulse from ‘Father Cannot Yell’ and a shuffling Diddley-esque rhythm, while ‘Just To See You Smile’ (subtitled ‘Honey Pt.2’) prolongs the glistening soulful balladry of PWF, this time borrowing heavily as the band often did, from the ghostly waltz-time inflections of Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle’. (Pierce does likewise on the blissfully gorgeous Sometimes)

There is little poetic or profound in a Spacemen 3 lyric: rather one is left to wonder if – in these seemingly simple love songs – the object of affection is a girl or a favoured pharmaceutical. Or even the music itself. Take Pierce’s majestic Hypnotised for example: “Her sweet touch it dances through my blood/Sets my heart on fire/It’s lit up all around my soul/Takes me higher and higher/It’s got everything and so much more/Never known a love like it before/Jesus, sweeter than the life you lived/Lord, hypnotize my soul.” The title of their posthumous compilation of early demos, made explicit the band’s raison d’être: Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To,  and one is never clear if there was a concerted effort to evangelise about the use of chemicals, or whether when writing, the band were simply chronicling their collective narcotic meltdown. In any case those Ray-Bans failed to conceal their own very real problems, which by the time of Recurring were spiralling out of control.

Pierce’s ‘Feel So Sad’ (later spiritualized with an additional ten minutes) acts as a prelude to the shimmering organ-ic rush of the aforementioned Hypnotised, where the rattling percussion (like a bluebottle stuck in a matchbox) gives way to a layered gospel-inspired wave of a chorus, embellished with Memphis-style sax. After Pierce’s half is over it is a challenge to rejoin the real world; one’s head has been ransacked by the densest suite of ambient space blues ever committed to vinyl – a listless drift which segues nebulously to the albums conclusion. In many ways it is authentically, the first Spiritualized record.

Recurring is a document of disunity that polarises opinion. It was fuelled by drugs, a bitter enmity between its chief protagonists and yes, even more drugs. It sounds tarnished and sullied and yet somehow pure as snow; a slow motion surrender, a wasted eulogy, a sprawling soporific haze. And if it is a sybaritic and decadent confessional, yet it floats like a cloud of mercy and redemption, stretching out through the darkness to find broken souls to mend and heal. In the end, finally, it is Spacemen 3’s perfect prescription. (JJ)