89. SIMPLY SAUCER – CYBORGS REVISITED (1989*)

   
 I’m due to hear from frontman Edgar Breau next week, so you might think it unusual not to delay TNPCs inclusion of Simply Saucer’s Cyborgs Revisited until after we speak. The thing is, I’ve constructed my own myth around this album, I’ve rewritten rock history in my head, and I’m reluctant to let it go, for surely if rock’n’roll is about anything, it’s about gratuitous escapism – so I’m going to hang on to this movie script for a little while longer…

“What a fantastic movie I’m in / what a fantastic scene I’m in…”

[Scene: Backstage, Velvet Underground performance, Max’s, August 22nd, 1970]

Any similarity to characters real or fictional is…blah blah blah…

DY: What’s the matter with you Lou – that was some hokey shit tonight?

LR: Cuz the whole thing’s fucked you asshole. Your stupid Cyborg obsession – it’s getting us nowhere. What the fuck is a Cyborg anyhow?

DY: Remember when you used to be rock’n’roll? Long time ago. You’re not even a footnote now. There’s stuff out there which is unbelievable Lou – wash out your ears, how can you not hear it? Look at the Ig guy – he’s insane. It’s just pure rock’n’roll… 

LR: Let him go and do his shit. Who’s gonna remember that? They called it right. Stooges!! Just a noise goin’ fucking nowhere Doug…Forty people out there tonight...Brigid snapping awaywho’s gonna want tapes of us playing this shithole?…

[SM (barely audible):hey…someone tell Jonathan to beat it…Jonathan get outta here man, go home…its late…]

DY: Are you outta your mind? It’s not like we’re reaching out Lou – nobody came then, nobody’s comin’ now, nothin’s changed; let’s face it. But til now, at least we’ve been able to hold our heads up man. You know, I’m beginning to think Cale got it right. He got out cuz he knew this lame loser shit was on the way

LR: Hey, I got rid of that asshole… that’s precisely the kinda bullshit I might expect to hear from him!…I mean…avant garde, avant garde?! – thinks he’s John fucking Cage. One letter outta place in the name he thinks he’s a fucking genius. That one letter makes all the difference! He was never gonna be a star and neither are you Dougie boy. I’m a star, just like Andy says, and not for fifteen minutes either…just try to stop me honey.

DY: I didn’t join the band to become a star Lou. You want your face on a magazine cover, that’s your business – I want more. I want people to talk about my music 50 years from now.

LR: Your music!? What are you, some kinda comedian? What’ve you ever done? You’re just hanging on my coat-tails you asshole – just along for the ride! Playing supper clubs for twenty people ain’t gonna pay the bills. Well, what you gonna do after tomorrow, you’ll be on your own…cos it’s over…? 

DY: Asshole! 

LR: No, you’re the asshole…

Of course, as we all know, Lou walked out the very next evening, before Yule dragged Velvets’ devotee Jonathan Richman with him and they, together with a noisy young Rimbaudesque poet called Richard Meyers, went on to blitzkrieg the vacuous coked up pomposity of early 70s rawk, with all its ludes and bad hair and mind numbingly bland guitar solos, via their paradigm-shifting interstellar punk rock…

Or perhaps not… this is only a movie after all. 

…In actual fact, Yule made Squeeze the ‘fifth’ VU album, which nobody recognises as an authentic release – it wasn’t of course, as it featured none of the original members. By 1974 he had done nothing else but add guitar to Reed’s Sally Can’t Dance. He would resurface again with the feckless country rock of American Flyer just as punk was exploding. It turned out Doug Yule was never going to do anything authentically punk. But it was not outwith the realm of possibility that he could have been the prescient saviour of rock’n’roll. After all, he joined the Velvets right after White Light White Heat. The last ‘song’ they recorded before he walked in the door was ‘Sister Ray’. If that didn’t put him off, then it was still a hell of a long way to slide before he got to writing ‘Dopey Joe’… so my guess is he must have possessed a tiny kernel of the punk gene, but he buried it. Somewhere deep. Unless of course, he was, as Lou says, just along for the ride…

So, instead it was left to some scraggy music & sci-fi obsessed teenagers from Ontario to pick up the mantle…their lives would be saved by rock’n’roll and they aimed to save it from annihilation along the way. 

“I like the way that you treat me like dirt…”

Hamilton lies close to the Canadian/US border. The two US cities in closest proximity are Detroit and Cleveland – and if you’re looking for clues as to the origin of Simply Saucer’s sound, you need look no further. While the primary influence was undoubtedly The Velvets, Simply Saucer’s true kindred spirits were Iggy, MC5, Mirrors, Rocket From The Tombs and The Electric Eels, alongside a hearty dose of Krautrock and a psychedelic spattering of Syd’s Pink Floyd and Hawkwind.

The band – Edgar Breau (guitar, vocals), Kevin Christoff (bass, vocals) John LaPlante – aka Ping Romany (electronics) and Neil De Merchant (drums) would hardly become household names; formed in 1973, they only ever released one single (in 1978) before quietly disbanding. It would take another ten years before an album collection finally emerged. Culled from only two sessions – one recorded in Bob and Daniel Lanois’ mother’s home in 1974, the other recorded live in Hamilton a year later – Cyborgs Revisited was the first full length document of their incredible music, and as such is one of the great lost albums of the 70s.

A virulent distillation of acid-fried space rock and brutal urban punk, it comes over as a deranged masterpiece. ‘Instant Pleasure’ possesses the shambolic jerk of the Neon Boys’ ‘Love Comes In Spurts’ although predates it. As Breau pleads “Let me sleep inside of your cage / I want to feel your sexual rage”, Christoff’s impossibly spasmodic bass convulses around Romany’s anarchic theremin noodlings. ‘Electro Rock’s garage riff could be something off MC5s High Time. Delivered in Breau’s slovenly sneer it is laid to waste by a collision of screeching guitar, pummelling bass and some bizarre electro-magnetic loops. ‘Nazi Apocalypse’ degenerates magnificently into a big Ron Asheton wah-wah scorched earth guitar storm and the instrumental ‘Mole Machine’ is like a psychic summons to outer space by a college of math rock guitar freaks beckoning with all their might (and incomprehensible formulae) the descent of the mothership…it succumbs gladly to their invocation.

On ‘Bullet Proof Nothing’ Breau does indeed does sound like Yule having a crack at ‘Sweet Jane’ with The Modern Lovers providing the back up. (“Treat me like dirt, drive me insane / treat me like dirt now, tear out my brain… I’m just bullet proof nothing to you / Point blank target for your waves of abuse.”) Despite the nihilistic sentiment, it’s the most accessible thing on here, and would have fitted comfortably onto Loaded or even Transformer and even ennobled both of them. At any rate it truly is one of the great lost tracks of the 70s.

But it is no exaggeration to say that the live tracks (which comprise Side Two of the album) – recorded on a roof on Jackson Square on June 28th 1975 are just staggering – a revelation. The live version of ‘Here Come The Cyborgs’ is an astonishing sonic assault with more killer guitar riffs than James Williamson could accumulate on the entire Kill City LP. And that’s saying something. It briefly melts down into a blues jam and then knocks satellites out of the sky before the discordant thrash at the tail – a precursor to The Fall’s ‘Hip Priest’. Meanwhile, ‘Dance The Mutation’ is like a Jumpin’ Jack Flash Jagger cranking it out over an unstoppable tidal wave of nuclear moog radiation from Romany which evidently hungers to swallow up everything in its path. And as for ‘Illegal Bodies’ well, it captures on tape one of the most viscerally exhilarating guitar performances ever recorded. Think for one moment of ‘Run Run Run’ – it’s a smack song right? Well, ‘Illegal Bodies’ has that guitar, but Breau propels the song forward with such amphetamine fuelled momentum that, cut loose from its moorings, it spills its guts out all over the place…a sprawling mess of sheer punk adrenalin.
Now imagine if Breau, Romany and co had been afforded proper exposure at the time. Surely rock history would have been rewritten and perhaps punk would never have happened at all. There would have been no need. Julian Cope wrote a genius review of it on his Head Heritage site around 15 years ago – it’s here (https://www.headheritage.co.uk/unsung/albumofthemonth/simply-saucer-cybords-revisited) and no-one has came close to it since, so there may be a chance you’ve tracked it down before now, but if it’s something you haven’t heard yet, then I envy you your first listen. This is the stuff you’ve been looking for. (JJ)

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60. CLUSTER – ZUCKERZEIT (1974)

clusterThe subconscious mind is a powerful entity. When I listen to ‘Hollywood’ the opening track on Cluster’s ‘Zuckerzeit’ LP, I can envisage it serving as a fitting theme tune for the BBC TV series ‘Tomorrow’s World’, studio presenter Raymond Baxter enthusiastically leaning over Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius, to point out the latest technical features of their electronic equipment with his trusty Parker pen. I am then reminded that this ‘vision’ was actualised by Kraftwerk on TW in 1975. I have little recollection of their appearance on the programme. I suspect it must be a vague memory buried deep inside my subconscious since childhood. Nevertheless, one can only imagine how far ahead of its time ‘Hollywood’, might have sounded in 1974. While it’s synthetic drum patterns deliver an irregular asthmatic beat (like Mylar punctured with a razor), those synth lines begin discretely, buried low in the mix, suddenly springing to life in darting oscillating arcs of sound – like aliens weeping. If it is one of Krautrock’s most perfectly realised moments, ‘Zuckerzeit’ as a whole is one of the genre’s least typical albums. Perhaps rather, it is the sound of aliens laughing.

There was often a gravitas about German rock music in the early 1970s. There were many reasons for this (for a greater insight, I would recommend David Stubbs’ brilliant ‘Future Days’ book). The ‘songs’ said nothing, their wordlessness articulated everything that needed to be said, or perhaps left unsaid. ‘Krautrock’ bands were reaching into the future to escape an unspeakable past. If 1968 was German rock’s Year Zero, it set in motion a revolutionary explosion of music which in the UK and US, at least initially, was often misunderstood, even lumped in with the progressive rock bands of the era. One of the distinguishing musical features of Krautrock, what set it apart from the UK/US rock tradition was the lack of conventional storytelling in the lyrics (if there were lyrics at all). Characterised by a patient repetitive minimalism, most bands eschewed any trace of blues and traditional rock’n’roll, far less the climactic guitar solo. While often rhythmic and sometimes danceable, there was nothing to resemble the ‘drop’ used today by contemporary DJs to ignite a club audience. A new Germany required a new musical language, and not through imitating American and British archetypes. As regards Moebius and Roedelius, the only concession to things ‘Western’ was the anglicisation of their name (Kluster became Cluster). But on ‘Zuckerzeit’, sandwiched between the two albums they made with Neu!’s Michael Rother [as Harmonia], they broke the mould completely.

There’s a clue in the title of course. ‘Zuckerzeit’ translated from German means ‘Sugar Time’. The sleeve too, with the title emblazoned in garish bubblegum neon, hints at a prankish spirit. The late Dieter Moebius in particular seemed to embrace this newfound playfulness. There is an air of mischievousness to his compositions. ‘Caramel’ has an effervescent circular bounce and frolicsome theremin-style synth noodling, while on ‘Rote Riki’ we could be hearing some other BBC TV characters (this time The Clangers) hard at work in an iron foundry or some wheezing radioactive industrial plant. ‘Caramba’ has the sort of twang and clang that could be construed as Moebius’ electronic reproduction of the sound of Duane Eddy tuning his broken Gretsch, while ‘Rotor’ sounds like his attempt to create music for primitive computer arcade games.

It is interesting to note that despite what sounds like an almost telepathic musical binary on the album, Moebius and Roedelius actually recorded their tracks in separate rooms in the recording studio. Roedelius’ tracks have a deftness and lightness of touch that suggest he was rather more accommodating of Rother’s influence – but this yielded some extraordinary results. ‘Marzipan’ is the antithesis of ‘Hollywood’ – we could be in a tropical garden or an aviary – while he carves out similar territory on ‘Rosa’ and ‘Fotschi Tong’ which, while more conventional, are incredibly evocative of time and place. ‘Rosa’ in particular reminds me of Boards of Canada (possibly something like Zoetrope) demonstrating that Roedelius has been as much an influence on the music of the Sandison brothers as anyone else. Eno too, would lift some of these sounds for the following year’s ‘Another Green World’. Rother’s influence is clearest on the irresistibly elastic closer ‘Heiße Lippen’ (Hot Lips). Clocking in at a mere 2:22, it’s wonderfully infectious Motorik rhythm and breezy minimalist keyboard line, has one reaching immediately to return the needle to the beginning.

‘Zuckerzeit’ represented a change of direction for Cluster. It sounds as if the doors to a nursery crammed full of toys had been thrown open to 5-year old boys. Until then, their music had been like much of Krautrock, a disorientating kosmische exploration, spacious, proto-ambient, experimental. ‘Zuckerzeit’ trims the fat: while as pioneering as their earlier work, it finds Moebius, Roedelius and producer Conny Plank mastering a new electronic language, and with this little packet of sonic Spangles, having lots of fun along the way. (JJ)

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)