Spacemen 3 are about to send some ‘kaleidoscopic angst’ into orbit with their staggering new anthem, ‘Revolution’. Is it a hollow gesture or a hall of mirrors? Did Loop and My Bloody Valentine borrow the band’s spaced ideas or are the astronauts cruising towards the twilight zone? Chris Roberts meets Sonic Boom and discovers there’s methadone in his madness. Blow-ups by Tom Sheehan.
“We may try to persuade ourselves that the complete destruction of communism, or of capitalist imperialism, would also destroy alienation. But an instant of genuine reflection would soon tell us that all such external enemies could disappear from the earth tomorrow and leave us exactly where we were before.” – Northrop Frye: “The Modern Century”… “I drive a Rolls Royce, cos it’s good for my voice.” – Marc Bolan: “Children Of The Revolution”
Sonic Boom meets me at Rugby Station. A brisk autumn afternoon. He drives me to the chemist. On the way he points out Rugby School. It’s big and it’s elegant. When we get to the chemist it’s shut so Sonic Boom tells me we’ll have to come back later, to pick up his prescription. Ever considerate, I ask him if he’s poorly. “Not as such,” he says. “I’ve just got to get my methadone.”
Sonic Boom drives me to his parents’ house. I could weep, like Rosemary, or Nancy, or Flossie, or whatever her name is, in “The Great Gatsby”. (It’s on the top shelf, I can’t reach it.) The one who cried because she’d “never seen such beautiful shirts”. I’ve never seen such a beautiful house. It’s undoubtedly Edwardian, or Victorian, or Tudor, or one of those. Sonic Boom says he could be living in some crappy bedsit just outside Rugby, but while his parents are away (unspecified), he might as well live here. I’ll tell you one thing about Sonic Boom. He’s not stupid.
Sonic Boom, who looks like a cross between Guy Chadwick and Rupert Everett, makes me a cup of tea and moans about Loop, how they’ve ripped off Spacemen 3, how Josh was the office boy at their record company and constantly expressed his fawning admiration. He quite likes Loop, but he’s miffed with Josh for stealing all these ideas, from sound to vision.
Sonic Boom asks me why I suddenly like Spacemen 3 so much when the only time I’ve reviewed a record of theirs I said it wasn’t as wide as Loop and went on about Michelle Pfeiffer and Raymond Carver. I consider explaining that me going on about Michelle Pfeiffer and Raymond Carver is one of the highest accolades known to man. Instead I tell him I’ve heard the new Spacemen 3 single and have seen the light. Spacemen 3’s hour has to come at last. Their new single is called “Revolution”.
Sonic Boom decides to play me the entire Spacemen 3 back catalogue. Upstairs. We go upstairs. We go to the red room.
The red room is magnificent. Now I begin to wonder if I died on the train this morning. On the walls are exquisitely-framed pictures. One is a Velvet Underground poster. One is a Lichtenstein. And one, plum there, tight by where I am most assuredly going to be sitting don’t-try-to-stop-me, is Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn”. Records sprawl everywhere, including every Stooges/MC5/13th Floor Elevators/Suicide bootleg in existence and several more besides. Two lovely electric guitars pout at me. Ashtrays galore. Bung in a few dozen cats and I’d feel right at home.
Sonic Boom puts on the first Spacemen 3 single and indicates we are in for a long session. He rolls a cigarette while I read an American fanzine which tells me Spacemen 3 are obsessed with pyramids and that Sonic Boom is an ex-heroin addict. I can’t imagine how we’re going to top it. (Later, some days later, I acquire a tee-shirt which instantly becomes my favourite. It’s one of those saying: “For all the f***ed-up children of the world, we give you: Spacemen 3.”)
The entire Spacemen 3 back catalogue is a many-splendoured thing. From “Walkin’ With Jesus” through the ethereal “Transparent Radiation” and the glittering pop rush of “Take Me To The Other Side” to the glistening “Perfect Prescription” album, it displays an admirable single-mindedness.
“Cos it’s very minimal, very simple, very primal – we actually went out of our way to show that four people who couldn’t play instruments could make a sound which could be really uplifting, could turn you on. And that anyone can do that.”
Increasingly, this is the scion of the times. As Spacemen 3, Loop, My Bloody Valentine, and the soon-to-be-revelatory God, teeter on the brink of a perfect noise/repetition/sensuous minimalism breakthrough, setting fire to the heels of such half-hearted gotta-be-home-by-midnight pussycats as The Young Clayfoot Gods and Sonic Middle-Age Youth, this new record, this one called of all things “Revolution”, is as close to an anthem as we can still get, given that everything concrete has been said before. “Rock”, waking from a nightmare-fuelled slumber where pop and blondes and pandas and herons genuinely were saying more, doing more, wriggling and shaking and cutting through could conceivably have been galvanised into – if not action – at least a statement of intent. As black music notches up another three-year cycle of whoredom, it’s best bunch of sprinters exhausted but rich, a new white noise which understands the complex, curiously simple, beauty of colour and shade, lurches coughing into the playroom.
“Revolution” is pure as the driven snow, outspoken but inarticulate, raucous but hazy.
“I’m so sick… of people telling me what I can and can’t do with my life,” mumbles Sonic Boom over a monstrous monotone fireworks display of electric guitars, “…and I’m so tired of people who can’t get off their arses… wait a minute, I smell burning! I see a change coming around the bend. And I suggest to you… that it takes just five seconds of decision to realise that the time is right to start thinking about a little revolution…”
Those are the lyrics. They’re not much without the music, actually. Odd syntax, yes, but with the music it’s raw power, kaleidoscopic angst, one of the sexiest – in a sort of Joan Of Arc fashion – records of the year. Storm the Bastille, mes petit enfants! And all that. It sounds like a record made by young, jaded but seething, people. Somehow it’s not crass. Somehow it’s effect is devastating.
Sonic Boom passes the cigarette and I go all funny. Why are you all ganging up on me? Why? Marilyn looks content. I want to take my shoes off but I’m in someone else’s house. Spacemen 3’s back catalogue sounds great. Spacemen 3’s back catalogue sounds f***ing fantastic. I think we’d better start the interview before Spacemen 3’s back catalogue causes me to, like, let it all hang out, and like, freak out. So come on, take a little trip with me… gosh, I’m frightfully sorry, what I mean is – here we go then. Sonic Boom’s name is Peter Kember. I want to know what sort of revolution he wants (though the romantic gesture of calling for one has its own mountainous validity), and if his background has any relevance to it. Sadly I cannot form sentences anymore, so just concentrate very hard now and see if a probing interview doesn’t appear before your very eyes, which are as lagoons. All three of them.
“I think it’s a classic punk record, yeah. Hopefully people will look at themselves more critically, something the English don’t tend to do very much. The English disease is this high opinion of ourselves. We think we’ve still got the empire out there, that the world owes us a living because we’re an island. When you do go over to Europe it’s such a fantastic place you wish they’d f***ing shunt England along and join it on to it. You can learn a lot more from travelling than you can from school…”
Yes. School. Interesting one this, Pete. A lot of people might be surprised that the voice behind “Revolution” attended Rugby School…
“Many people became ‘the f***ed-up children’ because of school. Everyone, when I was there, turned to alcohol. There’s a massive pressure on them to perform – they realised that in the present situation they’re being groomed to be members of Parliament or diplomats, or whatever. But there’s a mix. I enjoyed my time there. Boarding got me away from my parents at 13, which was great cos I could do more or less what I wanted.
“But I was banned from the school for two years after I left; they thought I’d be a bad influence, living so near to the school and having a record for drugs etc, being a bad boy. So as a result I’ve lost contact with nearly all of them. People do tend to be very isolated at Rugby – a lot think they’re God’s gift to society. There is snobbery, but it’s not rife. There are some very aware people there – some were turning out acid on sugarcubes in the science labs in the Sixties. Each house up there gets a music paper, you know, they all read the music press, not “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, while they’re warming the loo seat for the fagmaster…”
Do you consider yourself privileged? I mean, this house is making me nervous. (No, it’s making me feel very comfortable.)
“I don’t speak quite as posh as they all did. That didn’t go down too well: I was an oik. But I assume I learned some discipline there – I’ve always been the one to drive this band on really. I assume that’s from the competitive schooling. The band is my design and the rest are totally into it. The new members… they’re Spacemen, y’know? It takes a certain type of person to be a Spaceman. They’re great. This is now the band we always hoped we could be.”
Is there a difference between a Spaceman and a f***ed-up child of the world?
Sonic Boom chews this one over very carefully. It’s one of the best questions I’ll manage all day.
“No. Not really. No. It’s just… all the people who feel alienated in this world.”
We go over this point. We go over a lot of these points. The interview is cyclic. You’ll see. Sonic Boom answers all the points you’re itching to raise. I wish I could copy down Howard Barker’s wonderful poem “Don’t Exaggerate” here. It would explain everything. About that small thing politics and that big thing consciousness. But it’s 23 pages long.
Oh, get away with you.
Trust the digression not the argument.
So it’s me and I’m saying yes yes yes but what would a revolution entail?
Is there any chance of it happening in your eyes?
“Oh yes. I mean – “revolution” is a kind of a dangerous word…”
An incendiary word, ideally. An inflammatory word.
“It isn’t, like – today everyone grabs their machine guns and rushes out onto the street and it’s the revolution! It’s not like that. It happens over a generation – five, 10, 15, years – where people will change things, just as dramatically as they need to be changed.”
“A lot of laws or rules which are either archaic or just a very badly thought-out joke. The revolution is in people getting together, doing things themselves in different ways in their own medium, to make the world a better place for them and for other people. The present voting system has it as: vote for one side and one half of the people are totally happy and the other half not, and vice versa. But it isn’t like that. They agree on very little, whereas their manifestos should overlap. The ideal party would obviously be the best of both…”
But desiring a compromise surely couldn’t inspire a revolution?
“Yes! political systems are changing slowly. It requires impetus and pressure from people. Did you see that Prince Charles program the other week? He’s absolutely right about the buildings. I just f***ing wish this country was a monarchy, where the King ruled. I would just so much rather have that. Name me one politician as level-headed and reasonable as that. They might be wet or mild, but they’re usually pig-or bull-headed. It’s freak show!
“And look at the flak he’s had for standing up. But by doing it he’s roused other people, like myself, to putting our fivepennethworth. He’s so right, y’know?
“I don’t know, I f***ing hate politics! This is the first political song we’ve done, I don’t intend to turn into a political band. The politics of life, maybe.”
Sonic Boom is faintly naive to the extent that I know it’s not worth my saying – you do realise “Fergie’s sister’s divorce” totally blew away all the publicity Charles might have got for that? Or saying – ever visited Rumania? It’s horrible. Better Thatcher than Ceausescu anyday. Or saying – Gandhi lacked charisma, did he not? Or saying – wouldn’t the world lose a treasure chest of beauty if the Berlin Wall ever came down? Then again, it’s the young-at-spirit, the faintly naive, who generally do things rather than just think up a thousand watertight reasons not to. I say something like: Royal Family… used as stock-in-trade pill-sweetener… soap opera tabloids… anaesthetic… no revolution while all is cosy and smug under Di’s new hat…
“Think so? I think they’re just a quaint little idea to have. I’m not against them or for them. I wouldn’t get rid of them. In my ideal revolution we wouldn’t go and shoot the royal family at all, oh no no no no. They’ve inherited that money, that position, those houses – that’s fine.”
I kind of like Charles too, the old ponce. I kind of think “that’s fine” too, if only to wind up students. The biggest silent majority of all is the dead. Think about that one for a minute.
Who would you shoot?
“No one. It’s not about shooting. The violence is in the thought that needs to happen. Violently strong thinking. I’m not for shooting or hanging, much as I might find certain politicians highly distasteful, clearly Thatcher. But I don’t want her shot. We can silence her without shooting her.
“The youth of today has more power than a thousand machine guns. Despite the word ‘yuppie’, we are a fairly turned-on switched-on generation. Quite similar to the Sixties. More interesting in many ways. We haven’t just got Vietnam, we’ve got lots of wars and odd conflicts. The youth culture’s been a lot more varied than the Sixties. I’m very happy with this decade…”
At least admit it lacks figureheads, symbols, icons…
“Everything happens again and again, in cycles. They will emerge. They will emerge. The baby’s been born and it’s growing now at a massive rate. The Nineties are gonna be massive, y’know?”
“There’s just so much room for improvement.”
That doesn’t guarantee it will come.
“In the Nineties we can really turn this world into what it should be. Realise that we’ve peaked and we’ve gone over the top in destroying forests, pumping shit into the sea. The North Sea and the atmosphere have taken all they’re gonna take. Now is the time. The experiment is over. Now we can apply what we’ve learned.”
Please specify. How will we be different by 2000 AD?
“Right. Ideally – there’ll be a lot more freedom of thought and speech, which is still quite crassly restricted. You can’t print ‘f***’ in Melody Maker right?”
Correct. In the same newsagent you can buy a thousand books which do print it, next door there’s a cinema where you can hear it 50 times an hour, all around you are people who use it in every sentence, but in Melody Maker, often the home of today’s most vibrant writing, we are mocked, our genitals nailed to the floor, by asterisks, which as Kurt Vonnegut once pointed out, visually resemble nothing so much as “assholes”.
“Yet the last photo of us with the ‘f***’ tee-shirt was printed there. Stuff like that, little crass things help, y’know? And we’ve started to realise that the Russians are human beings, and they that we are…”
Yes, I suppose that’s nearly as significant…
“The world’s becoming a much smaller place all the time, which is fantastic. We can learn so much from other cultures and environments, from looking at the best of everything and applying it to ourselves. There’s a lot of potential for a nice smoothly-flowing pleasant-to-inhabit country…”
How much can music involve itself though?
You’re not cynical about that?
“I would say that to the people who buy our records we are more influential than Margaret Thatcher.”
Hey! Guess what I’ve just realised? That this is all pretty irrelevant once you hear Spacemen 3. The way Spacemen 3 sound is wild and free. Debate doesn’t come into it. You can lose yourself in Spacemen 3. You can forget everything else. They don’t incite; they arrest and then suggest. They remove the shackles of chronology and location.
As Sonic Boom plays me the entire Spacemen 3 back catalogue plus a hyper-secret preview of the new year’s surprisingly “mellow” new album “Playing With Fire”, he frequently closes his eyes for a period of time. I wonder if he’ll think me rude if I don’t.
What experience is most akin to this music’s effect?
“You mean like that feeling you get when you’re about to fall off a cliff?”
“It’s alright, I’m just taking the piss out of Loop. Erm… different drugs, I would say, and love. Well, the key words are Purity, Revolution, Accuracy, Love, Suicide. Most of the feelings we try to sum up are attained through cannabis or amphetamines or whatever. Or that really intense feeling of being close to someone you’re totally in love with and who’s totally in love with you. That intense oneness is very druglike. I mean – all these drugs are in our bodies anyway. There are ways of releasing them other than with chemicals.”
Are drugs necessary to relate to Spacemen 3?
“No no, I’m sure at least half of our audience is straight. In the end probably… ohh, 70 percent. The laws are incredibly silly and archaic. But if people can get the feeling of drugs through our music, without taking any, which I know they can, then great. It just takes concentration. Closing your eyes and listening.”
Um – who are the f***ed-up children of the world, exactly?
Am I one? Are you one?
“It’s people who feel slightly out of place, who feel that at the moment the world isn’t to their suiting…”
I’m one! I’m one! Yummy!
“But I wanna change it, so those people don’t feel outcast and alien, so they don’t feel they have to take their own lives…”
“Although I feel if people do wanna take their own life they should be able to. As they can now in Holland, with the new laws. They have to do it through a doctor, and all the rest of it, it takes several months of counselling, all this stuff, but that is the way to commit suicide. Not just jumping off a tower block in a rash moment, cos it’s illegal, cos you can’t go and talk to anyone about it, that YOU DO NOT LIKE THIS LIFE, you feel you’d be happier trying what’s next, what’s afterwards, than go on with this, for whatever reason. And there are a number of reasons which justify that, I think. Particularly stuff like paralysis and sudden illness and stuff.
“Having said that, when people do commit suicide through love, through drugs, it’s often to do with society, because they’re square pegs in round holes, this type of thing…”
Have you ever contemplated suicide?
“Yes, yes. Definitely. Uh – we’d better go to the chemist now or I’ll miss it.”
Right! Let’s go! I’ll just get my gloves!
“Lemme see if I can find that live Stooges track I was talking about…”
Something I can only pinpoint as Suicide interpreting Cliff Richard’s “Miss You Nights” crackles from the car stereo.
“Ah, here we are…”
In Boots the chemist I am dying for a wee. Sonic Boom is having a lot of hassle with the doxies at the prescription counter. An argument develops. Your on-the-spot reporter, however, has to scurry away and find a dark alley somewhere in Rugby town centre. This proves inordinately difficult. The quest reaches impressive levels of absurdity when your on-the-spot reporter is shooed away to another spot by an irate Halifax Building Society serf waving a broom. Some time later your on-the-spot reporter returns to Boots the chemist and Sonic Boom is now on the telephone behind the prescription counter, telling somebody very calmly that it their cock-up and therefore their problem not his. When we finally depart Sonic Boom has today’s methadone but some irritating complications with regards to tomorrow’s. I have a Twix and a small bottle of Lucozade.
“Shit, I could have made some beans on toast if you’d said…”
I feel a great warmth towards Sonic Boom at the time. We go back to the red room in the beautiful house.
About your being a former heroin addict, Pete – would you rather I played that down?
“It’s been in print several times, but I’ve only used it because – look, the only actually cure for heroin addicts is to give them heroin. Instead of methadone, which they don’t want, and which they sell. There is one doctor in London who gives his patients heroin and they live perfectly normal lives. The problems of heroin are blown out of all proportion, are totally mythical.”
Er… totally?? But do go on. I can handle it.
“The main problems really are overdosing, hygiene, and supply. If you can’t get it when you’re heavily addicted, you have strict withdrawals that can lead to death. All these basic things could be eliminated by having it prescribed by a doctor. Easily. It could be done now but it’d be blood from a stone. The only way they’re gonna cure the ‘problems’ is by making everything easily available so it’s not in the hands of the black market. Because doctors aren’t gonna sell bum gear, they’re not gonna cut it with shit, it’s not gonna be dirty, they’re gonna give you just enough to get you as high as you wanna be.
“Methadone’s not a cure. Cos when they stop the methadone they go back to heroin. It’s the nature of the drug. It’s so enjoyable. It makes life very pleasurable. It’s without a doubt less dangerous than alcohol, as any doctor will tell you. You can’t tell that a heroin addict is a heroin addict, really. Provided they are eating properly and looking after themselves, which they’re more likely to do if they’re not having to mix with Mafia-type characters in the black market.
“Very controversial subject. You tell people you think heroin should be decriminalised, they think it’s a really bad thing. But it is the solution. It’s part of the revolution!
“It sounds really careless, but – if it will help to change things – I know. Once an addict’s tried heroin, there’s very very few that are never gonna have it again. It’s like saying you’ll never have sex again. Except it’s even more unlikely than that, do you know what I mean? Most people rate sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. I think it goes drugs, sex, rock ‘n’ roll, in that order.”
All this lends an extra dimension to (astonishing) early Spacemen 3 tracks like “Losing Touch With My Mind” and “O.D. Catastrophe”. But sex? Is it sexy music?
“It is… beyond the point of orgasm… I think it’s a very good soundtrack to almost anything, y’know?”
1. Some don’t enter the rock ‘n’ roll myth at all, do they?
“Oh yeah, sure. Farmers and stuff.”
2. “I don’t say they’re following us as much as Loop but I know My Bloody Valentine did change massively after playing with us, after seeing us. Really we were ahead of the Mary Chain too…”
3. “Class structure’s a crazy thing, a supposed thing…”
4. “If you have desires to buy lots of things and you wanna work hard for it, that’s fine, that’s up to you, but it shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all. Everything’s run by accountants these days, isn’t it? From Nike and Adidas to Melody Maker. Poor f***ing parents, y’know? Kids whose parents are on the dole are gonna see all these toys flashed up on TV every five minutes, like 30 quid, 50 quid. To make kids want those and put their parents under such huge stress is totally wrong. Now that’s one of the bad side-effects of technology.”
5. Advertising is the durable new god.
“Yes I guess it is.”
6. Are you hippies?
“I know what you mean. The hippie types who’d like to buy a house in the Welsh valleys and get away from it all and grow their own stuff… yeah, we do appeal to that audience. But basically they’re just shoving their head up their arse and pretending it doesn’t exist. Rather than actively trying to change it. That’s very selfish.”
You’re not advocating “escape” then?
“Escape and getting out of your head and all this has got its’ time and its place, fine. But ideally everyone should be trying to change what it is they’re escaping from. So they can stay there without worrying about it.”
7. Chile. Brazil. Children, f***ed or not, are shot in the street. Torture. So what the hell are we moaning about?
“Sure, but everything’s relative, isn’t it? If they’ve got strong problems over there, they need a stronger revolution. In Chile they ought to get off their arses more.”
8. “There’s a whole section of society like ourselves, which we appeal to, and no one is documenting it. The nearest is the Press going on about ‘drugs’ – those articles are either false or stupidly extreme. We’re just trying to put a real perspective on it. We’re documenting our times.”
9. “I particularly like pop-art because it’s a very bold statement. If I was ever sent to prison it’d almost be a godsend cos I’d have the time to paint again. Being locked in a cell with a guitar and some paintbrushes would be fine.”
10. “Acid House is hype and bullshit. Acid makes you question things, the validity of things.”
11. “Purity. Alan Vega said to me: ‘You guys are as minimal as us. But man, minimal is maximal!’ And he’s right. The MC5 could make a one-chord song sound really complicated. Brian Wilson said: ‘The definition of genius is someone who makes something complicated sound simple.’ I think it works the other way too.”
12. “Just a band being a band, though I do actually enjoy it all, is not a good enough reason to be a band, like say Dinosaur Jnr.”
Not even for the sheer sonic hedonistic pleasure?
“Yeah, sure. Sorry, that was almost too obvious for me to say. It’s my life.”
A few ramshackle nights later I am spellbound by Spacemen 3 – pivots Sonic Boom and Jason – live at ULU. The arrogance of – not just the fact that they sit down but – the way they sit down. The slowburn tease of “Rollercoaster”. The whirlwind of “Suicide”. And the compelling drama and tension and release of “Revolution”. Some kids start bouncing about on stage at the crescendo, and they’re made to get off. I thought that was a shame. Anarchy brings out my sentimental side…
When Spacemen 3 indulge in their wispy slow air-rent ballads they’re just another band. But when they enter on one of their utterly hypnotic rotational guitar sound, simultaneously rigid and chaotic, they are truly something else.
Everyone is breaking their plastic mugs as they leave the gig, the place resounds with the clack of jackboot on beaker. But it’s not October, it’s November. It’s a miniscule gesture in the scheme of things. But – hey, kids! – it’s a gesture. Abort the analysis. Freedom is a tiny word for having nothing left to lose. Free your mind.
“Boredom is a relative thing too. You can always do something. You can always find a book; there’s always things you can do for free. From sex to painting to playing the guitar… the most beautiful things are… inexpensive…”
I have a sneaking suspicion some of us love our alienation really, cling on to it as a strange self-affirmation. And this might not facilitate the “coming together” Sonic Boom hopes for. In 1988, revolution per se, revolution by our definition is not very likely. But we can twist things about, sure. We can be irritating as f***. We can be as irritating as an asterisk.
Sonic Boom’s cigarette smoke kicks, rises, curls, evaporates. He has a dream.
“I’m a lot more optimistic about what the human race is capable of than most people. Most think it’s not worth it, it’s too much trouble. But our forefathers were planting trees they’d never see, building buildings which would last for a period in which their lifespan was inconsequential. They were building for the future, they were thinking about other people, not just about ‘us’ ‘now’.
“Everything now is treated as if it finishes within one lifetime, the world included. And that’s not good enough. We should be thinking ahead.”
Anyone doing that will have to embrace Spacemen 3.
“One famous progressive thinker, John Stuart Mill, had a nervous breakdown when he realised that he did not want to see his goals achieved, but merely wished to act as though he did.” – The Modern Century”
Can we be heroes??