Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide
The story of Spaceman 3 is a cool, rock ‘n’ roll tale of drugs, revolution and eventual destruction. John Robb meets up with Sonic and Jason on the release of ‘Recurring’, an LP which is finally about to hit the shops two years after the Spacemen originally recorded it. Steve Double pieces the bits together.
It’s getting close to seven o’clock in a freezing London photography studio and the crumpled figure of Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember is shuffling into action. It’s time to split – fast.
His ex-partner Jason ‘Spaceman’ Pierce is due to arrive at any moment and, since the key pair of the recently disintegrated Spacemen 3 haven’t communicated beyond a grudging nod in the last two years, there’s an embarrassing scene to avoid.
For this is a cool rock ‘n’ roll tale of drugs, revolutions, sulks and a smattering of top pop gear – “all the clichés”, as Jason points out later on.
In a classic career bust-up, Spacemen 3 have finally imploded at the very moment when their ‘Recurring’ album (the bulk of which was originally conceived and recorded almost two years ago) is finally about to hit the shops.
The Spacemen 3 bust-up, which first went public with the two main movers’ solo projects last year, carries onto ‘Recurring’ (where they take a side each), through a series of whiney asides in the press and a war of nerves that this round of interviews will hopefully bury for good.
For the pair’s constant sniping threatens to bury the reason why we’re here in the first place: ‘Recurring’ is a fine album. Laid back to the point of bed sores, its hushed vocals, pulsing backbeats and warm walls of sound infuse an introverted beauty with a keen r’n’r understanding.
The two sides run on a similar vibe, although Jason’s is a tad more conventional, riding on vocal atmospherics and a dreamtime feel, while Sonic’s is sparser, pulling on a more disparate source of influences as shown on ‘Big City’, the LPs killer cut as well as the current fab single.
It seems that, despite their suicide, the Spacemen are set to haul in the moolah and become rock legends.
But is this enough for Sonic Boom, the lank-mopped guitar hero and slightly dazed car crasher? No way, Sonic is mad. Barkin’ mad. He’d chew the ratty carpet if he hadn’t had a few spliffs…
He hates the former Spaceman manager, Gerald Palmer. He hates the sound of his tracks on the album. He is not the biggest of chums with former Space cadet Jason. And he hates his former record company – “Fire were really good when we signed but when they got wind of us leaving they were bastards…”
Let’s face it, behind that well brought up demeanour, there beats a heart of a miffed artist.
The solo Sonic Boom project is currently seeking a name after its mooted Sun handle was dropped (because someone else had already got their mitts on that particular name). Jason’s already in action with Spiritualized, while former bassist Pete ‘Bassman’ Baines and drummer Rosco have got their own Darkside outfit on the circuit.
Formed in the backwater town of Rugby in ’83, the past eight years has seen the Spacemen honing their sound down to the brooding, controlled gear of ‘Recurring’ – a melting pot of MC5, Stooges, Velvets and late ‘60s garage that’s been updated, remoulded and given a very contemporary feel.
It’s a ‘90s currency best stated on their ‘Big City’ single, which was recorded a good 18 months back and saw the Spacemen shake a mop towards the dance scam without swallowing the whole thing.
The Spacemen have come a long way from the pale faced, f**ked-up children who stared blankly from their early record sleeves.
“I was first buying records just after the punk thing – stuff like Blondie or The Cars,” remembers Sonic.
Sonic’s parents swanky Northamptonshire pad, with its servants, gardener and swanky motors (“Not another interview about Pete’s house,” jokes Jason), has been well documented and Kember has come across like some rock brat straight out of a ‘60s pulp movie, drifting towards pop because he wanted to.
“The house I was in at school had practising facilities. I wanted to be in bands at school and there was always a place to rehearse, to mess about. The first songs I wrote were at school – ‘OD Catastrophe’ and one chord drones like that.”
Drifting towards Rugby Art College “to see if I could find any musicians to work with”, Sonic bumped into Jason, a sunken cheeked, shaggy mop from “the other side of town”, who was also biding his time at college and so the Spacemen began.
Born on the same day in November 1965, the piss thin pair hit it off immediately. They traded vinyl, with Jason turning Sonic onto the Stooges (he got into them because of the fab sleeve shot of Ig on ’Raw Power’ which, for him, personified rock ‘n’ roll) in return for a Cramps fix.
“The first Spacemen gig was Christmas 1982, it was a lot more Crampsy influenced then,” remembers Sonic. “I made a decision at this point to drop the Crampsy stuff as there was a lot of people doing very bad Cramps impersonations at the time.”
Their earliest recordings eventually leaked out on the other side of the Atlantic.
“We did some demos at the end of ’85, which ended up coming out on the ‘Taking Drugs’ bootleg put out by (cool US ‘zine) Forced Exposure.”
The project was masterminded by Exposure editor, Byron Coley, long term Spacefreak, who once claimed that he wouldn’t piss on any other UK band.
So was this the point that you got into your well documented drug adventure, Sonic?
“Yeah, I got my first joint when I was about 13. To be fair to the person who gave it to me, he was only doing it because he thought it would be quite funny to see a 13-year-old kid stoned… Erm, I smoked dope for a bit, got into speed… then I went to Amsterdam and got into coke and acid over there.”
What about smack?
“That was about ’84. I was just trying out any drugs.”
Are you ‘clean’ these days?
“I don’t do speed much anymore. I’m partial to a bit of coke now and then. A bit of smack. I like my dope. Maybe a good trip three or four times a year… perhaps an E now and then.”
Do you use drugs as some kind of crutch?
“No way – not in the way that people use alcohol. To use heroin as a crutch takes a hell of a lot of time, effort and money. Alcohol is far more dramatic and dangerous than heroin.”
Sonic has always been brutally honest about his chemicrazy ingestions. At one point he believed in a drugs revolution, but he always felt closer to the Mondays than the core acid house scene that he once dismissed as hype. It’s all gone quiet out there, man.
“Yeah, but that’s because people have realised that if you make a lot of noise about it parties get busted. You got to be careful,” he explains, as a man who’s been busted three times himself.
Jason has a markedly different attitude towards all that kind of talk.
“The only thing that really worries me is that it comes over as a boast. I can’t hold with that.”
Having spent the early ‘80s working their sound into shape “gigging every three months”, Spacemen 3 eventually picked up a deal on Glass Records – a permanently struggling indie run by Dave Barker, a man renowned for cool guitar taste.
“The deal came through the Jazz Butcher. He saw us playing the Black Lion in Northampton and sort of championed our cause. He didn’t really want to give Glass a tape, because he was having problems with them, but the tape got played on a tour bus and Dave heard it and got in touch,” remembers Sonic, a man already at war with the music business.
Glass put out the first three Spacemen singles ‘Walking With Jesus’, ‘Transparent Radiation’ and ‘Take Me To The Other Side’ and the first two albums, ‘86’s ‘Sound Of Confusion’ and ‘87’s ‘The Perfect Prescription’ – two mewling guitar exercises that still exhibited that cool, laconic, hands-on-the-reins approach that gives the Spacemen music its power and beauty.
Live, they were famous for their sat-on-the-stool axe technique and long slow songs in the era of a frantic, jarring missives. The Spacemen subsequently switched labels – leaving Glass for the better organised Fire, as Dave Barker remembers: “Sonic was very much the leader at the time. He was always doing the ringing up, but he does tend to rub people up the wrong way…”
On Fire, Spacemen made their first real break from playing to a motley bunch of pudding bowls stuck to beer stained club carpets, by releasing ‘Revolution’. They oozed danger with worn out MC5 gear, Suicide, the Velvets and the usual freaks and stalked the far out edge of the rockin’ universe.
But it was at this point of early triumph that the cracks began to appear. The first casualty was the songwriting credits, previously split between Kember/Pierce, Sonic had them credited apart. It was obviously a touchy situation.
“Jason would claim that he was playing on songs that he was only putting guitar on. I mean, I wrote ‘Suicide’, but to get that on the album and get the credits right for other tracks I compromised and let them put both names on.”
Problem number two, according to Sonic, was hooking up with Gerald Palmer, a local biz man who took over as the Spacemen’s manager.
“We trusted him at first,” spits Sonic. “We both sacked him ages ago, but he’s wheedled his way back in with Jason, and he’s trying to control the whole situation through Jason.
“I was the only member of the band that stood up to him.”
It’s a trad problem. Sonic comes over as a control freak, but maybe being “difficult to work with” is another way of describing a musician who knows exactly what he wants and is not scared to tread on a few toes to bulldoze his idea through to completion.
“Pete’s very single-minded and that can cause problems,” says Dave Bedford of Fire records. “But the main problem with the Spacemen was the general lack of communication between all the interested parties.”
Sonic, people say that you are unmanageable!
“I am unmanageable, because I don’t toe their line,” he spits.
Mind you with Alan McGee, who has a similar no-bullshit style, as his current manager, perhaps Sonic has sorted himself out. Their relationship actually goes back a few years to when Creation attempted to grab the Spacemen, but Fire managed to cement the deal (with the promise of a CD single).
Although Jason is more introverted than Pete, he is no pussycat.
“Yeah, both Pete and myself don’t take much musical advice. We’re pretty much set on the ideas in our heads. Some people can’t handle that. We used to let each other work on each other’s pieces, but later on we both knew what each other wanted.”
The album that followed in 1989, ‘Playing With Fire’, was the blow-out point as Jason and Sonic gradually withdrew into separate camps. Rumours of bone clattering brawls in the Fire offices abound.
“I stopped going round to his house and he never came round to mine either,” says Pete of Jason. “He was never really bothered with the business side, he would like only come in at the end of a deal and throw a spanner in the works. I wasn’t prepared to do all the work and just get spanners, so I stopped speaking to him so he could just see how much work I was doing.”
The final bust-up eventually came with last year’s solo projects. First off the mark was Sonic with his fab ‘Angel’ single and the ‘Spectrum’ album.
“I mean they knew about it – Jason even played on a couple of the tracks. There was resentment that I was doing a solo album.”
What do you think of Sonic’s album, Jason?
“It sounds unfinished, unresolved. It sounds like he really lost heart – I mean, he has got some really good tracks on it. I don’t really see any problem anyway, if you buy Pete’s album and you buy my mine you’ve got a Spacemen 3 album anyhow, by combining the two, you know.”
Pete seemed miffed that the remaining Spacemen, bassist Will and drummer John, who had both been his recruits, defected to Jason’s camp in Spiritualized. On paper, Spiritualized looked like the Spacemen reincarnate, even going as far as plastering their debt single – a neat cover of the Troggs’ ‘Anyway That You Want Me’ – with ex-Spacemen 3 stickers.
Spiritualized are currently in the studio working on an album which is due out in April. For Jason, Spiritualized was a space to breath after the suffocation and the nastiness of the last 18 months of Spacemen.
“I just wanted to get back on the road again and I also had songs that were not really for the ‘Recurring’ album. I mean, if you don’t get on too well there’s no point in doing the band. It would be like cheating to treat the Spacemen 3 as a marketable commodity. You could get passionate about the music but, if there’s a communication break down between the members, there’s no point in slogging through that.” reasons Jason.
Previously overshadowed by the far more media-friendly Sonic Boom in the press, Jason has only recently emerged onto the interview scene. What did you think of all the drugs and revolution talk, Jason?
“Does anyone read it? Does anyone really care? Pete always enjoyed doing the press, but I’m doing the interviews now as well because Pete can’t speak for the band anymore. But I don’t want to match him bitch for bitch, like trying to shout louder,” he virtually whispers in one of those softly spoken mutters that are not pitched for yer tape recorder.
So ‘Recurring’ has finally slipped out from behind a black cloud of bitterness, as the band collapses into two camps. There will be no more Spacemen 3.
Jason is glad to get out and pursue his Spiritualized axis, and Sonic is bitter but excited about his new as yet formally untitled project, who are still going out as Sonic Boom. The band includes Pale Saints’ producer Richard Formby, bass player Mike Stout (who played with The Wedding Present and once managed the Bachelor Pad) and the drummer from Beautiful Happiness.
So, Jason, what do you say when you bump into Sonic down at Woolworths in Rugby?
Jason smiles: “I don’t think Pete’s the sort of guy who goes into Woolworths. Huh! Huh!”
The trip is over.