Spacemen 3’s crawl from obscurity to cult godz of the indie rock scene has been a slow one. Now, with a mesmeric new single ‘Hypnotised’, they are pushing their psychedelic rock upwards and onwards. Jack Barron took a trip to Rugby to discuss Acid House and the links the ‘80s have to the ‘60s. Pictures: Jayne Houghton.
The train to Rugby rattles down the track. On my lap lies an inch-thick collection of press on Spacemen 3. One quote in particular leaps out of the mundane morass of print: “Acid House is hype and bullshit. Acid makes you question things, the validity of things.”
Funny that. Last night I went to a(n) (Acid) House rave in Maidenhead. The 1000 or so people – more than Spacemen 3 pull at a gig I believe – who wigged out until the early hours at Studio Valbonne, and who carries on dancing on the local garage’s roof, in the streets, on top of vans and in fields would, no doubt, be surprised to learn that their favourite leisure activity is “hype and bullshit”.
Afterwards, back in London at the gaff of one of the night’s DJs, we talked about how good Spacemen 3’s new single, ‘Hypnotised’, is; how the band are growing ever more mesmeric and adept at their minimalist music. Now, however, as the train pulls in to Rugby, and I pack away the press cuttings, I’m beginning to think I’m about to meet a quartet who’re so well-balanced in their views that they must have chips on both shoulders.
As it happens, Spacemen 3 – like most indie kids who’re befuddled by the magnitude and cultural impact of the House scene – are talking about something they eventually admit they know very little about. Is there an element of paranoia at work here? An element of jealousy and fear of being left behind by the modern world?
“I think there’s a lot of truth in the quote that Acid House is all hype and bullshit,” maintains Sonic Boom, mainframe and mouth of Spacemen 3. Sonic – Peter Kember to his mum and dad – is tall, courteous, and speaks like he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth that has long rusted through excess. A self-confessed ex-heroin addict now on a methadone maintenance program, Pete reminds me of a slightly wacked out Jeremy Irons.
“Nobody would pin down Acid House as acid music, that’s just what it’s associated with. Compared to somebody like Suicide the sounds of Acid House are so unpsychedelic. I don’t believe it’s an irrelevant music form but I do believe there are people doing similar but better things – Happy Mondays and us.”
But Acid House was never about LSD in the first place!
“I don’t really know much about it, mate, to tell you the truth,” continues Peter. “I do know our single is vastly more psychedelic than any Acid House track I’ve heard. There again, the only Acid House record I’ve got is ‘Jack The Tab’, the Psychic TV-spawned thing. I wouldn’t even have that but they sent it to me.”
Soon as the Spacemen meet me at Rugby station and drive me to Pete’s parents’ abode, a modest mansion with a Rolls in the front drive and a garden the size of a small park in the back, it’s obvious that the band don’t have chips on both shoulders, though initially they do seem to be carrying the weight of the world on them.
Much has been made in the past of the Spacemen’s ability to live up to their name – mumbled conversations punctuated by stoned silences as the band let their minds drift off into other galaxies of thought, the sort of drug-induced communal hypnosis that they aurally scrawl so well over their current single.
But sitting in Pete’s bedroom with him, Jason (Happy Mondays T-shirt, vocals and guitar), Willie (a wasted cherub, bass) and drummer John, there is none of the blankness I’d been led to expect. Spacemen 3 just enjoy being on the other side of the wall that separates the start-trippers from the tripped out.
Despite the fact that Pete loads his electric red water-pistol soon as we enter his room, with its framed prints of Roy Lichtenstein’s Wham!, Warhol’s Marilyn, a Bo Diddley fantasy, VU and Panther Burns posters all giggling off the red walls, we just can’t be bothered to argue about music.
Why? Well, it’s obvious that there is more to be gained from information exchange than erecting the sorts of barriers that the Spacemen, on their last single, ‘Revolution’, would rather see pulled away like cataracts from a blind-man.
‘Revolution’, an abrasive and naïve (in many ways) call for a change of consciousness that buffets on a wave of crashing guitars, was the career moment for Spacemen 3 so far. They might have been operating since 1983, might have made several albums such as ‘The Sound Of Confusion’ and ‘Perfect Prescription’, and put out such askance singles as their cover of the 13th Floor Elevators’ ‘Transparent Radiation’, but ‘Revolution’ was the chest-tearing noise that propelled them from complete obscurity to the cultosphere of young indie rock godz.
On the way they’ve seen themselves out-blitzed by The Jesus And Mary Chain – contemporaries who they matched with ‘Walkin’ With Jesus’ – and burn-outs such as Loop.
This may account for their somewhat cynical perception of the music press but their tortoise crawl as opposed to speedy hare inroads into the Swizz hasn’t lessened their belief that a psychedelic attitude has gripped a nation’s youth like a chemical vice.
This is where we meet in ideas – the result isn’t Ecstasy but the topic is.
“Ecstasy, and how people we call casuals are getting into it, is partly what ‘Revolution’ was all about,” says Pete.
“What we see as a band is a new generation of people all really getting into and wanting to change old attitudes regarding psychedelic drugs. I really do think Ecstasy is a revolutionary drug as well. It gives you a mild psychedelic experience which isn’t heavy. I know that we’ve been on Ecstasy at our gigs and that if we’d been on acid we would have blown the gigs instead of playing them, and that we’ve talked afterwards to people we wouldn’t normally have five minutes for, and we’ve got up the next day feeling fine instead of a square egg.”
Don’t you feel irresponsible promoting Ecstasy when it’s claimed that it causes Parkinson’s disease?
“Oh that’s bullshit,” steams Peter. “The Parkinson’s disease story derives from a designer drug based on a heroin-type of drug. It was made in backstreet chemical labs in America and people who injected it froze. A new drug has been manufactured which can unfreeze the victims for a few hours but then they lapse. That’s where the Parkinson’s disease story comes from. It has got f— all to do with Ecstasy. All drugs are potentially dangerous if you buy them off the street, but the current scares over Ecstasy are similar to the ones over acid in the ‘60s. Where are all the genetic mutants that acid was meant to cause? Governments have spent fortunes for years trying to prove that cannabis does you harm. It’s the same old thing.”
We continue to chat about the nation’s current leisure drug of choice. Peter reckons E is only popular because it’s hip. Somehow this hipness is turning E into a bogus rather than an authentic experience, in Peter’s eyes, yet its wider cultural and article impact is only beginning to be felt.
I tell Spacemen 3 how the sudden stun-gun detonation in the media concerning Ecstasy and House in the past month was anything but stunning or unexpected. And how there are parallels with what happened in the ‘60s – namely, Ken Kesey rattling around America on his bus with Neal Cassady at the wheel ladling out LSD – is, in many ways similar to what’s occurring now.
Sonic takes this a step further.
“The ‘60s are, or were in many ways similar to what is happening now,” he continues, “particularly up to ’66 when the hippy-acid thing came in. The ‘60s, like now, were very high-tech and Yuppie, relatively speaking.
“If you see films from 1966 or so, you’ll see that the classic furnishings are really space-age and Yuppie. And I believe that whenever people are going through incredibly high-tech phases in society they eventually find that all the material gain is a mask for a very soul-less lifestyle, hence the need for alternative experiences and that’s where the use of psychedelics comes in.”
Peter gives another record the stylus. All afternoon he’s been explaining to me – via albums and singles – how Spacemen 3 are very much in a minimalistic tradition of music that can be traced from early African-blues chants, through John Lee Hooker, the VU and bits of Roxy Music, to Suicide.
Indeed, on the band’s latest album, ‘Playing With Fire’, there is a cut called ‘Suicide’ which is both an acknowledgement of S3’s roots and influences as well as a creepy evocation of the mental and emotional state that could lead one to talking their own life.
“Our music always tries to capture the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” continues Peter. “We always try to achieve a balance. We have songs which celebrate the highs that you can get off drugs and also songs that are foreboding about the dangers of drug use.”
Peter went to Rugby public school – the only member of the band who did – and has often been tarred as a well-intentioned chemical casualty who could afford to be ravaged due to his father’s fortune, (made selling knitting wool to the rest of the world).
“For me to drop out of school after my O-levels and drop out in general was the hardest thing I could possibly do,” reckons Peter. “You can’t imagine the expectations that my parents and others had of me. Everything is cool now but at the time I went through real problems. I wanted to go to art school because that’s where people classically met others who wanted to form bands. Sure enough, I met Jason there and we started Spacemen 3. Though art-school wasn’t the free kinda place I expected. It was as full of wankers as everywhere else.
“I believe now that if you take drugs and you don’t look after yourself you’re a fool. If you don’t eat or drink, or take care, you’ll f— yourself up and that’s the easiest thing to do in the world. It’s not smart, just a hangover from the punk ethic of trying to look as wasted as possible.”
Do you think that you’re moral people?
“No. Most morals are shit. Morals are for little people – that’s a Jenny Holzer line. Do you know her work? Her art is using clichés, slogans and everyday statements which she then inverts and fires back at people via billboards, hats, T-shirts and so on. And I agree with her – morals are for little people: they’re very much a busy-body sort of thing, I wanna interfere with your life and be nosey, that’s what morals are. And all of this has been filtered down through organised religions for centuries.
“We believe in ourselves, and Heaven and God, it’s just that we have access to those ideas and emotions through ways that organised religion puts down. You know, in the late ‘60s, 100 ordained priests were given LSD in an experiment. Some had been ordained for a short while, some had been ordained for over 40 years. The one thing they all could agree on afterwards was that LSD had given them the most important spiritual experience of their lives.
“When I read that, I was glad. Glad to think that in our own way were tapping into the same sort of religious experience.”