Divided 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)