The Musical Vision of Spacemen 3
Where Musical Vision Met the Art Of Experiementation
Like extraterrestrial junkies from the planet Drone, Spacemen 3 set their controls for the heart of the ‘80s and virtually invented “spacerock” with a steady stream of timeless two-chord experiments in stereo sound and opiated Romantic vision. Formed in Rugby, England in 1982 when Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember (guitar, organ, vocals) and Jason “Spaceman” Pierce (guitar, organ, vocals) discovered a shared interest in the music of the Velvet Underground, Spacemen 3’s posthumous influence has greatly exceeded their commercial success as a functioning unit. However, in spite of the fact that they were making their music in the wrong place at the wrong time, the band still managed to attain a legendary status that few contemporary artists have so gracefully, and unconsciously, achieved. As the title of their 1986 bootleg debut suggests, Kember and Pierce were Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To. And with classic albums like The Perfect Prescription, Playing With Fire and their triumphant swan song, “Recurring,” Spacemen 3 earned their place in history as one of the most innovative and influential bands of the decade.
Still teenagers at the time, Kember and Pierce, both born on November 19, 1965, spent their first four years as Spacemen 3 rehearsing and jamming with bassist Pete “Bassman” Baines and drummer Natty “Rosco” Booker, before taking their stratospheric wall-of-sound to the stage. At home in Rugby, the band quickly developed a reputation for playing never ending sets that all but exploded in a quadraphonic wave of narcotic guitar noise, radioactive feedback and deep, hallucinogenic drones. But, as the band developed, so did their music and the softer side of Spacemen 3 became evident as the years progressed.
Under the influence of musical scientists like Lamont Young, The Red Crayola, the 13th Floor Elevators and the MC5, Spacemen 3 released their first official album, Sound of Confusion, in July of 1986, and laid the groundwork for a recording career that would produce some of the most hypnotic music the world has ever heard. With bizarre covers, like Glen Campbell’s “Mary Anne”, Iggy Pop’s “Little Doll” and the 13th Floor Elevators’ “Rollercoaster,” Sound of Confusion is a rough attempt at capturing the alien transmissions emanating from a couple of vintage Vox tube amps on 10. And, though the album did little to showcase the songwriting talents of the Kember/Pierce partnership, it did yield the signature Spacemen title track and the gospel-inspired “Hey Man” (sung as if it were “Amen”).
But it wasn’t until 1987’s The Perfect Prescription that Kember and Pierce came into their own as composers to create a beautifully cohesive testament to their intergalactic spiritual exploration. It was on this album that the duo solidified what would become “the Spacemen 3 sound,” a chaotically concocted blend of gospel, blues, psychedelia and fuzz, incorporating the sublime lyricism of the original “Lotus Eater,” Alfred Lord Tennyson. Like the Lou Reed classic “Heroin,” The Perfect Prescription mirrors the evolution of drug euphoria, from the promise of “Take Me to the Other Side” to the peak of “Feel So Good,” and on to the inevitable crash of “Call the Doctor,” a haunting, first-person account of a drug overdose. With classic tracks like “Walkin’ with Jesus” and the playfully poetic “Ode to Street Hassle,” the world’s first-ever “druggy” concept album found an audience in the American underground and quickly gained the band a modest, but hardcore, following worldwide.
After the critical and underground success of The Perfect Prescription, Spacemen 3 returned with the 1988 release of Performance, a low-fi live album recorded at a show in Melkweg, Amsterdam in June of that year. The album is a poorly recorded and, by the sound of it, poorly attended show that still manages to capture the sonic inebriation of the live Spacemen experience. And with beautifully intense versions of “Walkin’ with Jesus,” “O.D. Catastrophe” and the album’s only new offering, “Come Together,” Performance is a must for anyone looking to experience the band in all its untreated glory.
With the well-received live album behind them, Kember and Pierce returned to the studio in 1989 to record Playing With Fire, the work that many hail as their crowning achievement. Though Playing With Fire is sonically superior to its predecessors, the growing rift between the band;s key players is evident on songs like Kember’s guitar-driven call for drug legalization, “Revolution,” and Pierce’s plaintive, gospel-inspired masterpiece, “Lord Can You Hear Me?” As the first album to sever the Kember/Pierce partnership in its liner notes, Playing With Fire stands as Spacemen 3’s White Album, clearly defining the two distinct voices behind the band’s music. Where Kember’s contributions are rich with studio experimentation and heavy-duty guitar drones, Pierce’s compositions are simpler and more spiritually based. However, in spite of their growing musical differences, the album was hailed as a “masterpiece” by the press and it firmly rooted the band in the international underground.
Then, in 1990, Spacemen 3 released a second live album, entitled Dreamweapon: An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music, which favored sonic experimentation over traditional songwriting. This super-rare collection consists of the 45-minute title track, a 10-minute reworking of The Perfect Prescription’s “Ecstasy Symphony” (entitled “Ecstasy in Slow Motion”) and a 15-minute free-for-all, aptly referred to as “Spacemen Jam.” Recorded between 1987 and 1988, Dreamweapon offers a vivid glimpse at the direction Kember would later take with his post-Spacemen projects, Spectrum and E.A.R. (Experimental Audio Research), but its ambience is virtually dependent on a certain amount of drug intake on the part of the listener.
In 1991, Baines and Rosco (who left the group in early 1990 to form The Darkside), were replaced by Will Carruthers (bass), John Mattock (percussion) and Mark Refoy (guitar). But, despite the addition of some fresh faces, the band was beginning to fall apart as Kember and Pierce moved in difference directions and the former became increasingly dependent on his heroin addiction. Kember, who originally went under the moniker “The Mainliner,” was becoming increasingly obsessed with electronic music and drugs while Pierce was leaning more towards the softer side of spacerock, a la Pink Floyd. This division caused the band to break traditional studio protocol and record the two sides of the album separately with the same backing band. The two then added their parts to each other’s songs without ever being in the same room at the same time. The resulting album, 1991’s Recurring, is arguably their best, though it tragically exemplifies their need to call it quits and continue making music as two separate entities. With groove-friendly masterpieces like Kember’s “I Love You” and Pierce’s “Hyponized” and beautiful keyboard-based space-ballads like “Just To See You Smile” and “Sometimes,” Recurring is the perfect conclusion to a short, but brilliant musical career.
After disbanding in 1991, Kember went on to form Spectrum (his band proper) and E.A.R. (an experimental collaboration with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and member so the UK electronic band GOD). Pierce, along with Carruthers and Mattock, went on to form Spiritualized and has since enjoyed the lion’s share of both critical and commercial success in the post-Spacemen 3 universe. Though both remain musically active and justifiably revered among critics, colleagues and fans across the globe, the soft-spoken Pierce has ironically managed to more successfully capture the true essence of Spacemen 3 while the more outspoken Kember continues to suffer the inevitable trappings of experimentation for experimentation’s sake.
Regardless of what they’re up to now, if you’ve never heard the opening organ chords of “Walkin’ with Jesus,” you’ve never experienced the majestic minimalism of music at its most vulnerable. The translucent slipstream of sublime vision where anything is possible and the pure, liquid energy of sound transcend the three-dimensional confines of both time and space. With far less artistic pretension than experimental contemporaries like Sonic Youth, Spacemen 3 expressed their Lou Reed fascination though songs that more closely resembled the work of the Jesus & Mary Chain. And, like their peers, they existed solely for the sake of their musical vision, in spite of the world around them. In a contemporary society where most people prefer to look at music rather than listen to it, a band like Spacemen 3 seems like an almost impossible entity. Yet their catalog continues to sell and, with the recent re-release of many of their recordings on Taang! Records, proof as to the existence of aliens will forever remain magnetically fixed to the Ampex reels.