No subsequent calendar year has yielded quite the same abundance of brilliant new music as 1988 did. Looking back, I could barely keep pace with it all, and neither could my student grant. It seemed an altogether more adventurous time, more creative. Everywhere bands seemed to be taking risks, determined to outdo one another in their inventiveness – artists who sounded very diverse musically, seemed connected by some invisible thread of inspiration. Daydream Nation, Surfer Rosa, Blue Bell Knoll,16 Lovers Lane, Miss America, It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Hairway To Steven, Tender Prey, Bug, The House Of Love, Bummed, House Tornado, California all nuzzled up beside one another on record store racks itchy with expectation.
But even these terrific records sounded little more than the next natural step in the artistic evolution of their creators. Two other albums – by contrast both radical departures – would deliver a more significant sonic leap forward: Isn’t Anything by My Bloody Valentine and Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden. And then there was Sixty Nine, the only debut album of ‘88 whose vision reached as far as, and possibly even beyond that of its contemporaries.
And yet, upon first listen, Sixty Nine was for me a major disappointment. Often the most adventurous albums elicit that initial impression. It certainly did not sound as I had expected it would, but in hindsight that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
They weren’t wilful obscurantists, but intrinsic to AR Kane’s mission was the desire to break with convention, defy expectations. It is unsurprising, given that Alex Ayuli had been the brains behind successful creative PR campaigns for Saatchi & Saatchi, that he and Rudy Tambala were savvy in their dealings with the music media, presenting as much or as little as they felt expedient, carefully nurturing their own enigma in the process. To begin with they were two black London boys reared on a diet of dub, jazz and dance music, who were making ‘rock’ music seemingly tailored for the indie market. If that sounds like a crass or racist comment, this was most certainly out of the ordinary in 1988. Their name was somewhat obtuse too, even if on closer inspection it could be at least partially decoded; thirdly, rather confusingly, their first three EPs were each on different labels (One Little Indian, 4AD, Rough Trade) – were these guys petulant, demanding, awkward to deal with?; then there was the collaboration with Colourbox on the MARRS single ‘Pump Up The Volume’, which seemed a bizarre move (it wasn’t really – AR Kane were responsible for the flip side – a very different proposition from the runaway chart-topper); finally the music itself – hazy, nebulous, fluorescent, ecstatic, whether drowned in feedback or shrouded in dubby experimentation – was almost impossible to categorise. So Alex and Rudy were left to do that themselves, coining the term ‘dreampop’, and inventing a new sub genre into the bargain. It was an apt definition in the sense that their career followed the logic of a dream, each move they made unprecedented, sometimes downright confusing to the point of being frustrating, but never what one had the right to expect from them.
If there was sufficient thematic unity in those early EPs, with a few instantly recognisable touchstones (The Cocteau Twins, The Jesus & Mary Chain), yet there was always another dimension to their sound, as if they were reaching beyond the infinite. The Up! Home EP was a case in point, and had critics near tongue tied in their loquacious commendation. Still, no one could have anticipated what was to come next, possibly even Alex and Rudy themselves. And that is the point. The pair’s “fragile but telepathic” sixth sense ensured the process of composing and recording the album would be an organic one, spontaneous, unpredictable, as they indulged their love of jazz, dub, world musics and the avant garde. With the resources at their disposal from their recently acquired 16-track studio (for AR Kane always a crucial instrument in itself), which they embedded in the basement of Alex’s mum’s house, they sought to capture on tape the pearls of inspiration issuing freely from their collective imaginations.
The opening track provided scant indication of the almost polymorphic iridescence which would follow. That’s not to suggest ‘Crazy Blue’ is a conventional rock track. It was anything but, the bass (courtesy Ray Shulman, ex of prog band, Gentle Giant) providing almost all of the melodic content, the main guitar line gently metronomic, with the second pealing like a hundred broken bells clanging inside an aluminium cage. The elasticism of the bass becomes more taut on ‘Suicide Kiss’, sucking into its vacuum washes of feedback as guitars seeking an escape route eventually burst the walls of the dam and suddenly we’re left with Hendrix submerged beneath the waves bashing out an orgiastic version of ‘If Six Was Nine’! It was this kind of noise which gave rise to the description ‘oceanic rock’.
‘Baby Milk Snatcher’ (read Thatcher – in ‘88 edging towards her last moments as PM) successfully harnesses together the archetypal (Wobble-y) bottom end (this time by regular bassist Russel Smith) and the band’s flight towards the stars. There are little sonic shoots sprouting all over the place, and here, the feedback which drowned the version on the Up! Home EP is absent allowing the band’s masterful use of space and dynamics to take centre stage. Lyrically, like in much of their work, there was no overtly political sentiment, in its place vaguely erotic inferences (“Baby suck seed slow slow slow”), which often seemed a by-product of the prevailing atmosphere of playful experimention.
If those two tracks are definitively left field, the brief acoustic wriggle of ‘Scab’ threatens to rein the weirdness back in again, but we are soon reassured by arguably the least reassuring piece on the album, ‘Sulliday’, which closes the first side. One imagines the preliminaries to have included a discussion around how many different sounds guitars can make. It captures what sounds like a lengthy experimental (de)tuning of their instruments, sewing sounds on top of this static industrial heartbeat, while a madman sings gentle lullabies to himself. It’s, shall we say, ‘out there’.
If ‘Sulliday’ takes us close to the abyss, then ‘Dizzy’ drags us kicking and screaming inside the corridors of the asylum itself, the solitary cello solemnly soundtracking Alex’s deranged call and response. It’s a disturbing noise, recalling Beefheart’s hysterical wails over Jeff Cotton’s lead vocal on ‘Pena’. In complete contrast, ‘Spermwhale Trip Over’ is surely the prettiest thing here. If the template is undoubtedly Robin Guthrie, yet the waltzing rhythm and wiry fluorescent guitar shapes take us into even more blissful territory. It may be wise for novices to begin here.
Until now the album has had something of a schizophrenic feel: blissed out but chaotic, unsettling but narcoleptic. But now it’s time to throw caution to the wind, and with painstaking concentration enter once and for all into the void. From this point forward Rudy and Alex elevate Sixty Nine onto a higher plane altogether. This is not some embracing of art for arts sake, but a total surrender to the moment. In truth, I’ve no idea how they created the astonishing sounds on ‘The Sun Falls Into The Sea’ and I wish I’d asked Rudy when I had the chance, but those shimmering uncoiling filigrees of guitar are like the ultimate aural benediction. “Cast your shadows like dreams and whispers/And I can see your breath/The sun is on the sea” sings Alex, enraptured, possessed, but what are words anyhow? For now they are meaningless.
The penultimate track, ‘The Madonna Is With Child’ is just as gorgeous – a patient spiral of piano, injections of shrieking feedback and Alex, lost to the muse. Then, finally, a doff of the cap to Miles Davis with the aquatic abstraction of ‘Spanish Quay’, its eddying guitar pattern returning us safely to the harbour,
AR Kane’s very next move was the Listen Up 12-inch, which saw them more openly incorporate their dance roots. A flawed but ambitious double album (‘i’) would follow in ‘89. It was poppier if less intense but showcased an even broader range of influences. Their profile then dipped significantly – with sporadic recordings until the mid-‘90s – although many bands have cited them as a formative influence, including Bark Psychosis, Seefeel and Slowdive. Over the past few years, Rudy has been working once again under the name AR Kane. I spoke with him about the early days and in particular his recollections about the making of Sixty Nine. (JJ)
Interview with Rudy Tambala (January 2018)
Your early EPs invited comparisons with The Cocteaus and The Jesus & Mary Chain, yet you claimed at the time all you were listening to was Miles Davis! Were you just playing with the press?
“Not sure we said that. From the start, we cited CTs as a big influence; they made us want to start a band. But it was as much their spirit of newness, experimentation, as it was their actual sound. We were not indie fans, didn’t even know what indie was. We were very much into Miles and Coltrane and Sun Ra, and similarly, more for the spirit than the actual sound. Although we loved the sound too. As for JAMC, I remember Alex getting the album because someone that’d seen us live said we sounded like them, so we played it one evening when we were song writing and decided to approach one song with some of the elements, specifically the feedback layers of noise and the big reverbed drums. That was our first single, but not really anything after that. Oh, and the attitude. I would say that Cindytalk and Joy Division and Bowie were just as much an influence at that time. I had been to university and been exposed to so many different musical styles from people I met. Likewise, Alex was out in the big bad world, getting influenced by stuff. So yeah, maybe playing with them a bit, the writers, but there was a core of truth; our main musical influence was a free kind of jazz, and experimental music, like the dreamscapes you hear on the 80’s ECM label, that Manfred Eicher sound, a kind of jazz rooted in a European tradition, as opposed to, or maybe complementary to, the African blues root.”
The Up Home! EP was in many ways a blueprint for the Shoegaze Scene, albeit much more than that. Simon Reynolds hailed it as rock’s “Antarctica – its final petrifying spell”. When you read reviews like that, how did you respond at the time?
“We laughed. Sometimes we rolled on the floor crying with laughter, reading bits to each other aloud between hysterical fits. It was a way of coping I guess. It was so over the top, like these writers were competing with each other to compose the most pretentious and absurd prose, but absurdity as art. We knew what was happening; a symbiotic relationship with Simon and a few other intellectuals. We, as people on ‘the scene’, and our sound, for a while, defied categorisation, and so this gave them a big space to play in. At the same time it was amazing, to be found interesting, at that level; these were not blogs, they were music fans’ weekly bibles. People we knew, so-called friends, were freaked. Envious. They didn’t see the humour in it all, and they didn’t get why the press loved our sound so much. We made it look easy, to get in the press every week, but we were not actually doing it. We knew we were not in control of it, so we decided to just enjoy the trip. It encouraged us to go even further out there. That was the best effect.”
Hearing Sixty Nine was a real shock at the time. It wasn’t like anything else you’d done. Had that always been the plan – to create something quite different from the EPs, or did the sound and direction develop organically in the studio? On first listen, it sounded quite formless?
“There were some things that we figured out early, one being that the studio is itself an instrument. Growing up with dub music this was natural. We recognised that in the pro recording studios we were limited in the level of experimentation we could achieve. We were treated like proper musicians. We never thought of ourselves in that way, it was quite limiting, and always a struggle “no, you can’t do it like that, it won’t work, this is the way it’s done…” and that kind of crap. Kill the idea before it wreaks havoc. Don’t get me wrong, working with Ray Shulman, Robin Guthrie, John Fryer; these guys were gods to us and the EPs we did with them were sublime, but we could not have done 69 with them, in the that familiar studio setup. We didn’t want to fight for our ideas, and we didn’t want to seek approval or ask permission. Even the subtlest of implied resistance would have killed the vibe we needed, the playful experimentation. We needed to understand how it all plugged together, how and why things were used. Then we needed to fuck it all up. We needed our own studio.
So we took a small advance from Rough Trade and bought all the gear necessary for a 16 track studio, with a sequencer and a sampler and a drum machine, reverbs and fx boxes, a quirky ½” tape machine that gave the mixes a fat, warm and bright sound. Set it all up in Alex’s mums cellar underneath 53A Romford Road, Stratford, E.15. We hung old carpets over a couple doors to make a vocal booth. It was cramped and damp and smelly, but when we shut the door, it was like a starship to us. Lift off! We recorded and learned at the same time. Only way to do it. Without pro engineers, producers and pro attitudes, we were set free. We were in a state of extreme excitement the whole time. We were able to freely experiment and play. Yeah, playful freedom. Kids in candy store. We never had a particular structure in mind until it came to mastering the album. We went from one song to the next, without pause. Sometimes we brought in an idea, a guitar part, some words, whatever. Other times we just hit record and did stuff. Compiling the songs for the master is where the final structure started to crystallise, and we took the tapes to Abbey Road to do this. We expected the engineer to say it sounded shit, technically I mean, but he was really cool and said it sounded fine and didn’t really need much tweaking. I think we were influenced by records like Pink Floyd’s DSOTM, the idea of three-machine cross fades, to blend tracks, one into the next. To create something seamless, and let the narrative emerge. And welcome happy coincidences. Songs take on a different meaning, and the listener experiences things in a more holistic way. Great for tripping to, or so I am told. Might try that before I die. Just before.”
I always detected in there elements of PiL, Basement 5 etc. Were those influences conscious, subconscious or would you not acknowledge them at all?
“PiL for sure. Alex owned everything they created, I had a couple LPs. The Jah Wobble bass, Levine’s Guitars, Lydon’s weird charismatic genius – this was to us a high standard. A very high standard. Basement 5 less so, although we knew some of their stuff, I think it was too obvious in a way, not the same spirit. I wonder if you pick them because they’re black and punky? Anyway, The On-U sound was a big influence too – Playgroup, New Age Steppers, etc. A Certain Ratio Sextet LP – still play that. The punky reggae vibe but very much out-there kinda thing I guess.
Can you describe what the atmosphere was like in the studio during the recording? How long did it take to complete and who made key contributions apart from yourselves?
“Kinda already touched on that. Experimentation. The willingness to try an idea, go with it or kill it, quickly. The willingness to be surprised. A degree of discipline – we both had a strong work ethic – would start in eve’s after dinner and work thru till sunrise. Weekends we were like monks; locked away. H.Ark! Studio was out of bounds to girlfriends and old friends. We never recorded on drugs, but when we felt we had a mix we’d spliff up, sit back, hit the lights and have a proper mashup listen. We probably took a month to get all tracks down, but I’d need to check the masters for all the dates. We had several contributors. Russel Smith played bass on number of tracks. As did Ray Shulman, who doubled as mentor and technical guru. Billy McGee played cello. Maggie Tambala sang backing vocals. Stephen ‘Budgie’ Benjamin, clarinet. We’d just ring people and say, hey wanna come and play some shit on this, or what? Sometimes they gave us the ‘or what’. We were a bit stroppy. We upset a few folk. This was because we put the music above people’s feelings. If they weren’t cutting it, we said so. Without the least bit of tact. Listening to ‘Crazy Blue’ over Christmas, I remembered singing the bass line to Ray and saying, I want it to sound like that Weather Report sound. He played it in one take, with improvisations. Fucking amazing. Russel, our bassist and third member at the time arrived while Ray was laying. He was really pissed off. I think he may have left the band that day, but it’s al a bit of a blur. I must ask him. Russel was, in person, quite edgy. Nervous. Unconfident – is that a word? – in many ways. Hilariously funny, in a dark way. But when he picked up the bass he was a rock. Solid, calm, perfect feeling, tone and timing. I badgered Russel to bring in songs of his own for 69, but he never did. I remember he had a 4-track set up in his living room, with guitars and effects, and he was working on a version of ‘Golden Hair’, it was extremely far out. Would have been interesting if that had been on 69. He completely got us, and mentored me with hot knives and Sonic Youth, Syd Barrett, Butthole Surfers, Swans, and such things. He brought some real avant-rock knowledge into the band, without which I think we would have been less out there. Maggie would drift in, do her part, float out again. Spacy chick.
Alex and I argued all the time, on every subject. We had been friends since we first met at primary school, aged 8. Our arguments were silly, like “Genesis are better than the Sex Pistols because …’, anything really. We enjoyed this exchange, and in retrospect I see we were just exploring and challenging each other, sharpening our wits. From this we developed our own language and a point of view. It was a clique of two. Sometimes, in a very cruel way, we would turn our wit onto others, and pick them apart, like pulling the wings off a fly. We could be horrible. But anyway, I digress. The point I’m getting too, the relevant bit, is that over two decades we became very close, connected, to the point that when we discovered music, we no longer argued. We poured all that energy into discovering sounds, pushing each other further, supporting each other’s efforts. We hardly ever spoke when we were in the basement. It became a kind of telepathy. A trust. Very intense, but in that focused way you see when children are building something or drawing. As soon as it was right, good enough, we moved on. We instinctively avoided over doing it. We knew that we needed to leave imperfections.”
With something like ‘The Madonna Is With Child’, did it only last 4 minutes or was it culled from a longer improvisational piece?
“That was pretty much it; a fade at the end but not much edited out. Interestingly, a cool US producer and fan offered to remix the entire album for the 30th anniversary, and I was wondering if it could be longer or different. Recording this weekend, a new song, and remembering how the experimentation works, I kind of felt it would be pointless to try and remix it. It is what it is. Was what it was. Of its time. It could be fun though.”
The album got a lot of good press – how did it do commercially?
“It did pretty good. Number 1 in the indie charts. Can’t remember where it was on the pop charts. I remember around 60,000 units moving in the first year, across all formats and territories. I guess that’s OK for something so uncommercial sounding. If everyone that bought it played it right now, at full volume, it would make a right bloody racket. I don’t think we even thought about how ‘well’ it would do while we were making it. I listen to the radio from time to time, or hear music in shops and eateries, and always feel sad that once great pop songs that sold millions, for example from Motown, sound so worn out now, flat, like when you’re waiting for someone and can’t see the world around you. Guess I’m glad we made ours sound fucked up. Still sounds fresh. So yeah, commercially, did ok. When Rough Trade went down the pan in the 90’s, Brian Bonner from the pressing plant, and One Little Indian, swooped in like carrion crow and picked up our entire catalogue for pennies. They have sat on ‘69’ for 20 years and done nothing with it. I tried to get them to release the rights back to the band but they refused, they are a nasty bunch of artistic slavers. The contracts bands signed in the 80’s were a complete sham; so-called right on indie labels were worse than the majors, where at least they were upfront about raping you. These indie labels that coerce young talent into these deals are con men, dressed up as ‘the alternative’. They have no scruples, and little business talent, so they can only cut it by ripping off the artists. So, 69 and the rest of ‘our’ catalogue has been pretty much shelved, except an awful digital copy on iTunes that has completely lost the dynamics of the analogue master. OLI are threatening to re-release it this year on vinyl – they do not have the masters so it will probably be CD to vinyl. For Fucks Sake! This might be the saddest end to our story I can imagine. I personally will not endorse this. Our plans to play 30th anniversary shows this summer and re-release 69 ourselves from the original tape masters, are dead in the water. Rough Trade and OLI sold us down the river, to quote the prescient lyric of ‘WOGS’.
You always had one foot on the dance floor, with the MARRS project and it was no surprise to hear more of a rhythmic dimension to the sound on ‘I’. Did you and Alex see eye to eye on this? Was it your very eclecticism which caused things to unravel in the end or were there other factors?
“We both grew up on dance music and clubbing, not indie rock, which is the whole fucking point, n’est-ce pas?. By age fourteen we were clubbing in the West End, doing bank holiday soul weekenders, vibing to jazz funk, funk, soul, ska and reggae, and the emergent electronic sounds from UK and Europe, Chicago and Detroit. Both feet solidly in the fucking dance floor. Alex and I were completely in sync about this, he would sing a melody to me, and I’d say wow, that’s like MFSB, we need strings, or I’d play a guitar chord and he’d send it to the Copycat tape echo to get that rythmic dub effect. Even in the more rocky songs, we tried to add a groove element, with beats or a deep bass. Sometimes it might just be implied, like on ‘Scab’. This is essentially what separated us from the indie bands, alienated much of the white indie crowd, and endeared us to other musicians, DJs and producers, like Andy Weatherall, David Byrne, Saint Etienne etc. I’ve said this before, about the ‘unravelling’ as you put it, that A.R. Kane was two people acting as one. Like when you are deeply in love. The telepathy, the connection, the intensity, all were necessary, and all were fragile. These essential ingredients did not survive physical separation, and so when Alex moved to California, A.R. Kane became A & R Kane. The connection was lost. We began to argue in the studio about the music we were supposed to be creating together. This was exactly like those moments of insanity in a relationship, when instead of fucking, you fight. You watch it happening, it’s unreal, like watching a bad moving with awful actors. The music suffered, it was less spontaneous, less honest. We didn’t so much forget how to do it, we could no longer, ‘sense’ how to do it. A shared sixth sense was lost. We used to call the actions derived from that sixth sense, ‘Kaning it’. If a track was slightly off, we’d say ‘let’s Kane it’, and it shifted us into a different way of working. Like a magic spell. Alex might turn his amp to 10, and chuck his guitar on the floor and attack it with a screw driver, or I might sample a door slamming and use it as the kick drum, or we might cut up the lyric and randomly rearrange the words, then start screaming them through a massive reverb, while I did a poor imitation of Theolonius Monk on the piano. There would be no discussion, just set it up quick, hit record, see what happens.”