Playing With Fire

Original Fire LP (images from Discogs) and Space Age CD
Back covers of the HichHyke, Vogue and Bomp! LP issues, together with some (but by no means all) of the Bomp! coloured vinyl issues (images from Discogs)
Various inlays from the Taang! CD issue
Inlay from the Fire cassette issue

Personnel
SONIC – vocals, vox starstreamer, fender jaguar, vox super continental
JASON – vocals, fender telecaster, rickenbacker
WILLIE – bass vibrations

Releases and Tracklistings
Relased on Fire Records, February 1989. LP (FIRE LP16). Early copies in embossed sleeve.

  1. Honey (Kember)
  2. Come Down Softly To My Soul (Pierce)
  3. How Does It Feel? (Kember)
  4. I Believe It (Kember)
  5. Revolution (Kember)
  6. Let Me Down Gently (Kember)
  7. So Hot (Wash Away All Of My Tears) (Pierce)
  8. Suicide (Kember/Pierce)
  9. Lord Can You Hear Me? (Pierce)

The Fire CD (FIRE CD16) and cassette (FIRE MC16), issued simultaneously, have the same tracklisting, plus:

  1. Suicide (Live) (Kember/Pierce)
  2. Repeater (How Does It Feel?) (Live) (Kember)

Also issued on LP in 1989 under licence to Rough Trade (Germany, LP RTD 107), Vogue (France, LP 506203, CD 600231, MC 706203) and Hitch-Hyke (Greece, LP LIFT 022), with the same tracklisting as the Fire LP.

Issued by BOMP! in the US in 1990, on LP (BLP 4032) in a huge variety of colours, including (but possibly not limited to) black, blue, green, red, yellow, clear and multicoloured vinyl, and on CD (BCD 4032). Both issues have the same tracklistings as their Fire counterparts.

Reissued by Taang! Records in 1995, with a suitably firey cover, on 2×10″ (on orange vinyl), CD and cassette, all with the same catalogue number, TAANG!97. Tracklisting follows the Fire CD/MC issue, plus:

  1. Che (Rev/Vega/Kember, arr. Kember)
  2. May The Circle Be Unbroken (Trad, arr. Pierce)

The vinyl issue places ‘Che’ at the end of side 2, between ‘So Hot’ and ‘Suicide’. The vinyl edition was re-released in 2009 on both black and white vinyl.

Reissued on Space Age Recordings, March 1999, on 2xLP (ORBIT 011LP, some on orange vinyl) and 2xCD (ORBIT 011CD). The first LP and CD follow the tracklisting of the Taang! reissue (with Che placed in the correct place on the LP), and include these extra tracks on the second LP/CD:

  1. Honey (Demo) (Kember)
  2. Let Me Down Gently (Drum Mix) (Kember)
  3. How Does It Feel? (Alternate Version) (Kember)
  4. Suicide (Alternate Mix) (Kember/Pierce)
  5. Lord Can You Hear Me? (Demo Vocal) (Pierce)
  6. I Believe It (Alternate Mix) (Kember)
  7. Che (Maracas Mix) (Rev/Vega/Kember, arr. Kember)
  8. Any Way That You Want Me (Demo) (Taylor)
  9. Girl On Fire (Demo) (Parfitt)

‘Any Way That You Want Me’ was re-recorded as the first Spiritualized single. The demo version released on the Spritualized remix 12″ is this one. ‘Girl On Fire’, originally titled ‘T.V. (Girl On Fire)’, was a 1988 single by The Perfect Disaster, and is also included on their album Asylum Road; Josephine Wiggs of The Perfect Disaster (and later The Breeders) plays cello on the Spacemen 3 version. The Space Age LP and CD have been issued various times.

Reissued by Superior Viaduct, May 2018, on LP only (SV151), following the original Fire LP tracklisting, featuring liner notes by Marc Masters and including a download code.

Other Information
Produced by Sonic & Jason. Mixed at VHF Sound Centre Rugby. Cut by G. Porky Peckham. Photography by Phil Nichols. Space Age re-release adds: Michael Bentham – violin. Josephine Wiggs – cello. Photographs by Steve Double. Engineered by Paul Adkis, Graham Walker and Pat. Digitally remastered at Serendipity. Artwork by Andy at Tundra.

Recording of the third Spacemen 3 studio album began at ARK Studio in St Austell, Cornwall, in June 1988. Following the European tour of January and early February, Rosco had quit as the band’s drummer, a position that was still to be filled when the album recording began. Pete Bain remained with the Spacemen for a dozen more UK shows, with the drumming performed first by Dave Morgan from The Weather Prophets, then by Martin Langshaw of The Perfect Disaster, and finally by Rosco returning for a couple of gigs to see the band out of a hole, including a gig at ULU on 20 May which would be Pete Bain’s last. The studio was a converted cottage owned by members of the band Webcore, who Spacemen 3 had played with on a few previous occasions. Pete and Jason had laid down some basic tracks before being joined by new bassist Will Carruthers and later drummer Thierry Bernardon, although Will suggests in his book Playing The Bass With Three Left Hands that the only contribution of Thierry’s that was used were the maracas on ‘Che’ (to be fair, there are not many tracks on the album that feature drums in any case). Thierry played one gig with the band on 20 July before his short stint was over.

Relationships with the studio engineer Pat deteriorated over the weeks, not helped by the accidental wiping of some tracks while the band were away on a break, and the tapes of the unfinished album returned to Rugby with the despondent Spacemen. Relocating to their old base at VHF Studios, the album was completed and mixed in the more sophisticated environs they had become accustomed to, ARK having been an 8-track venture compared to VHF’s 16.

Playing With Fire is the first Spacemen 3 album to have songs indiviually credited to either Kember or Pierce, with only ‘Suicide’ credited as a joint composition after some disagreement over the possibility of other songs having a similar credit.

There were plans for Alan Vega to record vocals for ‘Suicide’, and a studio was booked for this to take place following Suicide’s support slot with Siouxsie And The Banshees at the Brixton Academy. On the night, Vega declared himself too tired to do this, and the plans were dropped.

Initial promo cassettes for the album have the tracks sequenced in quite a different order to the final album.

Reviews

Reviews from NME (on realease, in summary, and in the end of year album poll), Melody Maker (on release and in the end of year poll), Sounds, offBEAT, Lime Lizard, EB Metro-Nom (Germany), Spex (Germany), Howl (Germany), Strange Ways (Germany), My Way (Germany), Beat (Norway), Bergens Arbeiderblad (Norway), Arbeiderbladet (Norway)
Text of EB Metro-Nom review

Komm’, lass’ uns noch einmal in die Hölle sehen! Denn daß Himmel und Hölle dicht beieinander liegen oder vielleicht sogar ein- und dasselbe sind, wissen wir ja längst. Andernfalls liefern uns Spacemen 3 den Beweis. In sauberer Klangqualität (die manchmal ja tatsächlich notwendig ist) dreht hier die Psych-Orgel wieder ihre Kreise (it loops more than ‘Loop’ ever looped!), und obwohl die ruhigen und sehr ruhigen Stücke überwiegen, kann diese Platte bei richtiger Lautstärke bis zur Hörsturz-Grenze vordringen. Fast schmerzende Höhen wie auf “Suicide” (den gleichnamigen Kollegen gewidmet), dieser konsequenten Weiterführung von VUs “European Son”, nehmen alle Sinne in den Würgegriff. Die Bässe auf “Let Me Down Gently” erfreuen Fensterscheiben. Klar, auch diese Platte verfolgt die alte Psych-Tradition, nach einer halben Minute die restlichen 9 des Stücken zu kennen und wird dadurch leise abgespielt zum absoluten Langweiler. Aber laut und in Grenzsituationen (wann sonst?) gehört, zermalmt sie ganze Krater im Schädel zu Puderzucker (Vorsicht, mit ‘Bewußtsein-serweiterung’ hat das nichts zu tun, eher mit Bewußtseinsvers chrottung! Anm. D. Bundesgesundheitsminsters).

Translation of EB Metro-Nom review

Come on, let’s see hell one more time! Because we have long known that heaven and hell are close together or maybe even one and the same. Otherwise, Spacemen 3 gives us the proof. In clean sound quality (which is sometimes actually necessary) the Psych organ turns its circles again here (it loops more than ‘Loop’ ever looped!), And although the quiet and very quiet pieces predominate, this record can up to advance to the limit of sudden hearing loss. Almost aching highs like on “Suicide” (dedicated to the colleagues of the same name), this consequent continuation of VU’s “European Son”, put a stranglehold on all senses. The bass on “Let Me Down Gently” pleases window panes. Sure, this record also follows the old Psych tradition of knowing the remaining 9 of the pieces after half a minute and is played quietly and becomes an absolute boring. But heard loudly and in borderline situations (when else?), It crushes whole craters in the skull to powdered sugar (caution, this has nothing to do with ung expansion of consciousness ’, rather with the destruction of consciousness! Note by the Federal Minister of Health).

Text of Spex review

Die Band aus Rugby, einer mittelenglischen Kleinstadt, in der einst das gleichnamige Spiel erfunden wurde… has finally arrived. (Gähn. Na sieh mal einer schau.) Für Spacemen 3 bin ich ja immer gewesen, live gar, man steht still da, glotzt und denkt und fühlt sich wie ein Laib Brot im Regal ode rein Tesafilm über dem A. Nein, Spaß sofort beiseite – gute Platte. Seit ich mir aus Versehen Loop angehört habe, die ja nur eine Spur dröhniger und lahmarschiger das verwalzen, was Spacemen 3 bis jetzt auch machten (rumloopen, wie der Name schon sagt), habe ich mich genau das gefragt, was sich SP3 anscheinend auch gefragt haben: Warum zum Henker macht man sowas eigentlich?

Das entwurzelte Treiben im leeren Raum um Rugby, ohne Label, ohne Drummer hat mit dieser Platte ein Ende; in dieser Zeit mußten Jason und Sonic wohl viel beten, beten und ihren schlaffen, indolenten Gott anmeditieren, er gab ihnen dafür die Erleuchtung zirpenden Hippie-Gospels, “Take Me Higher” – das ist Extase in bequem gelagerter Haltung. Was ist der Sinn? Die Zeit totzuschlagen, und zwar so, daß man selbst keinen Schaden davonträgt. Der NME gab dafür 8 1/2 Punkte von zehn. (Zehn wären White Light/White Heat von Velvet Underground oder What Goes On von Marvin Gaye oder das Weiße Album von den Beatles, zum Vergleich.) Jutta kam aus dem Nebenbüro herüber, um mir die Zeitungsmeldung “Mädchen verktaften laute Musik besser als Jungen” zu zeigen, nachdem ich ihr zum zehnten Mal das erhabene Surren von “Revolution” rübergeblasen hatte, aber der Rest der Experimente auf dieser Platte spielt sic him leisen und lieblichen Bereich ab: wie tie fist ein Raum, in den ein Ton mit soundsoviel Geschwindigkeit abtropft? Wie breit ist ein Raum, in den sich gleichzeitig übermüdet-atmosphärischer Sprechgesang verflüchtigt? SP3 sind weniger Stumpf als Loop, weniger enigmatisch als AR Kane und weniger gut als Opal (Gitarre spielen, produzieren, singen etc.), die man sich in einem halben Jahr auch mal wieder anhören könnte. Sie bescheiden sich mit friedvoll an- und abschwellenden akustischen TÖNEN, mehr ist da wirklich nicht, mit kleinen Soundwellen, die, versehen mit dem gewissen angenehm abstrakten Touch, eigentlich dastehen wie verschrobene Intros, auf die einige der bekanntesten und beliebtesten psychedelischen Saftakkorde folgen sollen, oder eine elegante Hippie-Country-Nummer, oder eine wirklich satte Ausbeute interessant-scheußlicher Musik, mit Ringemulator und Kolbenpfeife erzeugt… Oh, ich höre sowas wirklich gerne, aber selbst wenn man sich fühlt wie ein Brot, sollte man nicht vergessen: diese Platte kann dich am ausgestreckten Arm verhungern lassen. Ohne jede böse Absicht natürlich.

Translation of Spex review

The band from rugby, a small town in central England where the game of the same name was invented … has finally arrived. (Yawn. Well, look, have a look.) I’ve always been to Spacemen 3, even live, you stand still, gawk, think and feel like a loaf of bread on the shelf or sticky tape over the A. No, fun right away aside – good record. Ever since I accidentally listened to loops, which are just a bit more boomy and slow-paced, what Spacemen 3 have been doing up to now (rumloopen, as the name suggests), I’ve been wondering exactly what SP3 apparently also wondering have: Why the hell do you actually do that?

The uprooted hustle and bustle in the empty space around rugby, without a label, without a drummer, comes to an end with this record; During this time Jason and Sonic had to pray a lot, pray and meditate on their limp, indolent God, he gave them the enlightenment of chirping hippie gospels, “Take Me Higher” – that is ecstasy in a comfortable posture. What’s the point Killing time in such a way that you do not suffer any harm. The NME gave it 8 1/2 points out of ten. (Ten would be White Light / White Heat by Velvet Underground or What Goes On by Marvin Gaye or the White Album by the Beatles, for comparison.) Jutta came over from the office next to the newspaper to read the newspaper report “Girls are better at getting loud music than boys” to show after I had blown the sublime whirring of “Revolution” over her for the tenth time, but the rest of the experiments on this record are in the quiet and lovely area: how deep a room drips into which a sound drips with so much speed ? How wide is a room into which tired, atmospheric chanting vanishes at the same time? SP3 are less blunt than Loop, less enigmatic than AR Kane and less good than Opal (playing guitar, producing, singing, etc.), which you could listen to again in six months. They are content with peacefully rising and falling acoustic TONES, there is really nothing more, with small sound waves, which, provided with a certain pleasantly abstract touch, actually look like quirky intros, which are supposed to be followed by some of the most famous and popular psychedelic juice chords, or an elegant hippie-country number, or a really full bunch of interesting-hideous music, made with a ring emulator and piston whistle … Oh, I really like listening to that, but even if you feel like bread, you shouldn’t forget: this record can starve you to death on your outstretched arm. Without any bad intent, of course.

Text of Howl review

Wohl die Reaktion, um die Epigonenschar ins Leere laufen zu lassen. Den Fuzzpegel gegen Null zu drehen und erstmal mit zarten Songgewächsen aufzutrumpfen. Bei einer Musik, die größtenteils aus der monotonen Vervielfältigung von einen bis zwei Gitarrenriffs besteht, gelingt der Kurswechsel weg vom Noisepegel der eigenen Frühwerke hin zu leisen Akustikschlenkern erstaunlich gut und sicher. Dabei zeichnete sich diese Entwicklung durchaus schon auf “The Perfect Prescription” mehr oder minder ab.

Von den Drogen zur umfassenden Liebe transzendiert, wodurch die Lyrics fallweise schon gospel-anklänge (“Lord Can You Hear Me?”) erkennen lassen, was in Statements dann kurz und knapp mit der eigenen Religiösität begründet wird. So bleiben schlußendlich nur zwei richtige laute Kracher, “Revolution” und “Suicide”, übrig, mit denen nich mal kurz daran erinnert wird, wie schmerzhaft monotone Phaserschleifen strapazieren können. Bandkommentar zur ihren Einakkordwundern: “There is both a purity and accuracy involved in doing one chord songs, otherwise they’d just be freeform jazz… or Hawkwind!”

Translation of Howl review

Probably the reaction to let the epigones run into the void. To turn the fuzz level towards zero and first show off with delicate song plants. With music that largely consists of the monotonous duplication of one or two guitar riffs, the change of course from the noise level of one’s own early works to quiet acoustic dodges succeeds surprisingly well and safely. This development was already evident on “The Perfect Prescription” more or less.

Transcended from drugs to all-encompassing love, whereby the lyrics sometimes have gospel echoes (“Lord Can You Hear Me?”), Which is then briefly justified in statements with one’s own religiousness. So in the end there are only two really loud hits, “Revolution” and “Suicide”, which don’t even briefly remind you of how painful, monotonous phaser loops can be. Band commentary on their one-chord wonders: “There is both a purity and accuracy involved in doing one chord songs, otherwise they’d just be freeform jazz … or Hawkwind!”

Text of Strange Ways review

Überrascht war ich nach dem ersten Durchhören der neuen Spacemen 3-LP. Im Gegensatz zu den Sachen von der REVOLUTION-LP und der Live-Auskoppelung “Performance” vom letzten Jahr sind die neuen Stücke weitaus abwechslungsreicher, gefühlvoller und interessanter. Der wah-wah-pedal-Exzess der letzten Platte ist passé. Mit “Come Down Softly To My Soul” und “Lord Can You Hear Me” befunden sich sogar zwei Balladen auf einer Platte, die die vier Londoner weit entfernt vom üblichen Lärmschichtenstapeln sehr viel verspielter als in vergangenen Tagen widerspiegelt. Erst nach öfterem Abspielen eröffnet sich einem eine Vielzahl von feinstens miteinander verstrickten Song-Bausteinen, die einen mystisch-verklärten Gesamteindruck hinterlassen. Empfehlenswert. Ragt auf jeden Fall aus dem monatlichen Veröffentlichungs-Schrott hervor.

Translation of Strange Ways review

I was surprised after hearing the new Spacemen 3-LP for the first time. In contrast to the things from the REVOLUTION LP and the live release “Performance” from last year, the new pieces are far more varied, soulful and interesting. The wah-wah-pedal excess of the last record is a thing of the past. With “Come Down Softly To My Soul” and “Lord Can You Hear Me” there are even two ballads on one record, which reflect the four Londoners far more playfully than in the past few days, far from the usual stack of noise. Only after repeated playback does a multitude of finely intertwined song components open up, leaving behind a mystical, transfigured overall impression. Recommendable. Definitely stands out from the monthly release crap.

Text of My Way review

Dies ist die fünfte Platte der “Spacemänner”. Wer die Single-Aus kopplung “Revolution” kennt, wird beim Hören von “Playing With Fire” überrascht sein. Eigentlich bietet nur “Suicide” einen ähnlich dynamischen und krachigen Klangbrei wie “Revolution”. Die restlichen Sieben Stücke sind sehr ruhig. Die zitternden Klangcollagen klingen verspielt und der ruhige und helle Gesang von Jason und Sonic machen ein Stück schooner als das andere. Nicht mehr so aggressive wie frühere Werke, dafür experimenteller und verträumter. Interessant.

Translation of My Way review

This is the fifth record of the “Spacemen”. Anyone who knows the single “Revolution” will be surprised when hearing “Playing With Fire”. Actually only “Suicide” offers a similarly dynamic and noisy mash of sound as “Revolution”. The remaining seven pieces are very calm. The trembling sound collages sound playful and the calm and bright singing of Jason and Sonic make one piece nicer than the other. Not as aggressive as earlier works, but more experimental and dreamy. Interesting.

Text of Beat review

Spacemen 3 har bade velo g lenge sutret over at bandet Loop har fått så mye mer oppmerksomhet enn dem, og har sogar gått så langt som till å hevde at Loops gitarspetakkel ret tog slett er et Spacemen 3 – rip-off. For å settee n stopper for enhver diskusjon slår Spacemen 3 til på en – om ikke sensasjonell – så iallfall høyst overraskende måte.

Fra de første forsiktige orgeltoner brer seg helt i starten av Playing With Fire, hviler det en religiøs stemming over plata. I stum overraskelse lytter jeg til de to drømmende komposisjoner som åpner Spacemen 3’s fjerde album, og behages ytterligere av den nesten 10 minutter lange minimalistiske “How Does It Feel?”, som fortoner seg som den reneste new-age musikk i mine ører.

Singlesporet “Revolution” kommer som en forløsende energiutladning helt til slutt på side 1, og åpner med sitt anarkistiske budskap opp for langt mer interessante tolkninger av de øvrige – tilsynelatende uskyldige – låtene på albumet.

Etter no ken stillferdig og avdempet åpning på side 2, fører Spacemen 3 oss med “Suicide” – en infernalsk instrumental som tar opp ca halvparten av platesida – langt ut i det ytre rom, for så avslutte med en stille bønn i “Lord Can You Hear Me?”. Et album nesten fritt for trommer, og i store perioder også fritt for elektriske gitarer, som så langt har vært Spacemen 3’s musikalske hovedingrediens. Et svært uventet, men modig trekk.

Det som bidrar til å gjøre Playing With Fire til så fascinerende lytting, er at hver låt star så godt til den som kommer før og den som kommer etter. Den innbyrdes låtrekkefølgen er godt gjennomtenkt, og så godt avstemt er de ulike komposisjonene i forhold til hverandre, at stillheten som skiller dem nærmest virker forstyrrende.

Spacemen 3 har aldri lagt skjul på at de finner stor interesse i å utprøve ulike narkotiske stoffers virkninger. Jeg finner grunn til å spekulere i om denne LPen er et resultat av slik prøving, og at bandet nå har nådd så langt ut at de er i ferd med å tippe over, eller om Playing With Fire (man kan lese mye i denne album-tittelen) er et utslag av bevisst musikalsk eksperimentering for å finne en personlig platform. Der Spacemen 3 befinner seg nå lager de iallfall særegen, spennende og ikke minst vakker musikk, som plasserer dem i en helt annen kunstnerisk divisjon enn band av f.eks. Loop’s kaliber.

Translation of Beat review

Spacemen 3 has both whined and for a long time whined that the band Loop has received so much more attention than them, and has even gone so far as to claim that Loop’s guitar spectacle is quite a Spacemen 3 – rip-off. To put a stop to any discussion, Spacemen 3 strikes in a – if not sensational – so at least highly surprising way.

From the first gentle organ tones spread right at the beginning of Playing With Fire, a religious mood rests over the record. In dumb surprise, I listen to the two dreamy compositions that open Spacemen 3’s fourth album, and am further pleased by the almost 10 minute long minimalist “How Does It Feel?”, which seems like the purest new-age music to my ears.

The single track “Revolution” comes as a redemptive energy discharge at the very end on side 1, and with its anarchist message opens up for far more interesting interpretations of the other – seemingly innocent – songs on the album.

After a quiet and subdued opening on side 2, Spacemen 3 leads us with “Suicide” – an infernal instrumental that takes up about half of the record side – far into outer space, and then ends with a silent prayer in “Lord Can You Hear Me? ” An album almost free of drums, and for large periods also free of electric guitars, which so far has been Spacemen 3’s main musical ingredient. A very unexpected but brave move.

What contributes to making Playing With Fire such a fascinating listen is that each song suits the one who comes before and the one who comes after. The mutual song sequence is well thought out, and the different compositions are so well coordinated in relation to each other, that the silence that separates them almost seems disturbing.

Spacemen 3 has never hidden that they find great interest in testing the effects of various narcotic drugs. I find reason to wonder if this LP is the result of such a test, and that the band has now reached such a point that they are about to tip over, or about Playing With Fire (you can read a lot in this album- the title) is a result of conscious musical experimentation to find a personal platform. Where Spacemen 3 is now, they at least make distinctive, exciting and not least beautiful music, which places them in a completely different artistic division than bands of e.g. Loop’s caliber.

Text of Bergens Arbeiderblad review

40 minutter med hemningsløse lydbilder malt sammen og presentert under betegnelsen musikk. Spar oss. En time med øret ved side nav et kompressorborr er bedre.

Translation of Bergens Arbeiderblad review

40 minutes of unrestrained soundscapes painted together and presented under the name music. Save us. An hour with the ear next to the hub of a compressor drill is better.

Text of Arbeiderbladet review

Fire Records er Londons kanskje mest spennende og fordomsfrie plateselskap for tiden. De satser på band som tar sjansen på å søke seg fram mot noe eget, framfor å tilfredstille kravet om umiddelbar hipphet.

Spacemen 3 er de mest ekstreme av disse fem of Fires største suksess så langt. De tre rommennene strekker seg etter ytterpunktene, og selv om det ikke er klassiske verk de kommer fram til, har de en vitalitet og frekkhet som slår. De strekker seg fra stillestående lyrisk rom-stemning i “How Does It Feel?” og “Let Me Down Gently” til skurrende rock ‘n’ roll-støy i “Revolution” og “Suicide”. Aldri likegyldig. Er du i slett humør kan det være direkte jævlig. Spennende, morsomt, noen ganger nervepirrende – men hvor skal de gå herfra?

Translation of Arbeiderbladet review

Fire Records is perhaps London’s most exciting and open-minded record company at the moment. They focus on bands that take the chance to seek out something of their own, rather than satisfying the demand for immediate hip hop.

Spacemen 3 is the most extreme of these five of Fire’s greatest success to date. The three Romans extend to the extremes, and although they are not classic works, they have a vitality and audacity that strikes. They range from stagnant lyrical space mood in “How Does It Feel?” and “Let Me Down Gently” to the jarring rock ‘n’ roll noise of “Revolution” and “Suicide.” Never indifferent. If you are in a bad mood, it can be downright damn. Exciting, fun, sometimes nerve-wracking – but where should they go from here?

Other Pictures

Ad from offBEAT issue 7, ad from Norwegian magazine Beat, two images of a promo cassette that show that the tracklisting was changed late in the day, a live ad for the Suicide support gig after which Alan Vega was supposed to record vocals for ‘Suicide’, three images from a Cisco Systems mailout advertising a seminar that I received professionally in the 90s and is clearly based on the album artwork

My Take
In terms of the level that they operated at, Playing With Fire was Spacemen 3’s breakthrough album. Up to this point, they had been a very marginal proposition in the UK alternative music scene, but following the glowing reviews for this album in the pages of Melody Maker, Sounds and the NME, they would henceforward be a familiar name to readers of the alternative music press, and were seen as an important and serious act. Retrospectives usually point to this time as the band’s peak, and Playing With Fire as their most significant achievment.

It might be the praise heaped on Playing With Fire, especially in the context that this was a band who had shown no promise up to this point (the NME review, with the opening line “What we are dealing with here – and no other word will do – is a miracle” was not intended so much as awe at how good the album was, but more as shock that Spacemen 3 had made anything approaching a decent album at all) that makes me less keen on it than I would like to be. As Pete pointed out in several interviews at the time, Spacemen 3 had not long since made The Perfect Prescription, which they certainly didn’t perceive to be any lesser an album than Playing With Fire, and it is hard to agree wholeheartedly with the good things said about the latter when it is contextualised as being at the expense of the former, my favourite album. It is also the case that, compared to their practically flawless previous LP, there are elements of Playing With Fire that find the Spacemen making a few missteps. ‘I Believe It’ is probably the weakest link, having insufficient musical “oomph” to carry its insubstantial content, and featuring an under-par vocal performance. Its sequencing after ‘How Does It Feel?’ doesn’t help – eight minutes of repeated guitar effects need to be followed either by something either devistatingly powerful or more melodic.

In fact, I must take issue with the review in the Norwegian magazine Beat that identifies the album’s sequencing as a strength; I find that, on the contrary, it makes Playing With Fire a difficult album to appreciate as a whole. The songs authored by Kember and Pierce are so different, and are recorded in such contrasting ways, that no attempts to encourage them to get along by placing them next to each other could be successful. Added to which, the production on Jason’s songs is frustratingly soft and whispy, with insufficient separation of the individual parts making them up – all of the ingredients are there, but these three tracks sound in need of a complete remix.

It pains me to reveal the extent to which I find Playing With Fire an unsatisfying overall listen, because there is no doubt that much of it is excellent. Staying for the moment with Jason’s songs, the direction he is heading in is well signposted here, as he continues to quieten things down and develop his songwriting, saying such a lot with a few well-chosen words. ‘Lord Can You Hear Me?’ is a particular triumph, and while it may suffer from the aforementioned fuzzy production, it is by far preferable in this gently understated form to the bombast of the version Jason would later record with Spiritualized. Pete’s quieter songs also show significant development from his earlier work, with ‘Honey’ the undoubted highlight (although some of the extra effects on the version found on Losing Touch With Your Mind make that a superior mix). ‘Let Me Down Gently’ is not far behind, a rare one-chord song dripping in atmosphere with some lovely bass work from Will that enhances the mood greatly, as does his playing on much of the album. ‘How Does It Feel?’, here evolved from the occasional live offering ‘Repeater’ with the addition of a vocal line, is satisfyingly absorbing and by no means the endurance test some reviews suggest (it could easily be longer without diluting its impact).

Then there are the rockers. I have been so exposed to ‘Revolution’ that I could probably survive without having to hear it again for some years, but on the occasional listen when it takes me by surprise, I remember quite how powerful it is, a concise distilation of all of the full-on guitar assaults from the Spacemen live experience. But it is ‘Suicide’ that is the kernel of the album. The mixture of textures, the clashes of rhythms that shouldn’t go together, the harsh effects and outrageous feedback guitar; played loud, this is a serious contender for the definitive Spacemen 3 experience.

So while the content is mostly great, with some songs among the very cream of the Spacemen 3 catalogue, the attempt to make a coherent whole from songs of such different styles, combined with the uneven production, leads me to enjoy listening to Playing With Fire less than the band’s other albums. While it may be the case that the songwriting here is slightly stronger than that on Recurring, the clear separation of the material of the two primary Spacemen on the last studio album makes for a less jarring experience.

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