July 2009 – Rock Sound

Revolutionaries

Rock Sound’s guide to the bands that we just couldn’t live without…

SPACEMEN 3

It’s somewhat inevitable that Spacemen 3 are primarily remembered as a drug band; they sang about them a fair bit, they talked about them even more and they consumed enough to floor entire herds of elephants. However, for main members Pete Kember (aka Sonic Boom) and Jason Pierce (J. Spaceman) it wasn’t just a case of mindless indulgence and decadence for the sake of it. The Rugby outfit’s adventures in the far reaches of human consciousness had a very definite point.

“We started during the Thatcher and Reagan era and I think we gelt that we needed to voice a difference voice to the ‘Just Say No’ attitude towards drugs,” remembers Kember, who remains as forthright on the subject as he was 25 years ago. “That actually escalated the number of drug addicts in the UK massively. When they did the ‘Heroin Screws You Up’ campaign [a brutal billboard campaign depicting emaciated heroin addicts], it made it appeal to people. If you say something’s illegal or you shouldn’t do it, it has the opposite effect. Kids don’t want to do what their parents want them to do.”

Not only did their embracing of drugs help them stand apart from the conservative social and political mindset of the time, it also made Spacemen 3 a truly unique musical force. By marrying blissful droning to a deliberately minimal take on rock ‘n’ roll, they created a new age of blisteringly powerful psychedelic music. Their unofficial modus operandi was ‘Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to’, but as Kember continues, this wasn’t music intended just for space cadets.

“One of our aims was to experience these altered states and then try and translate them into music so other people could experience something similar WITHOUT taking drugs. There are just as many non-drug-using Spacemen 3 fans as there are druggy fans.”

That said, Spacemen 3 were a cult pleasure during their existence. When they started out in the early 80s, Kember remembers playing to “anywhere between one and 10 people”. Gradually though, they found a receptive audience thanks to a string of acclaimed albums released in the second half of the decade – particularly 87s ‘The Perfect Prescription’ and 89s mesmerising ‘Playing With Fire’. However, personal and professional tension between the duo began to reach an irrecoverable point and culminated in the pair making their final album ‘Recurring’ (91) separately and dividing the record into two sides – one featuring songs composed by Kember and one by Pierce. These days of course, Pierce is widely celebrated for his work with Spiritualized while Kember plays to a far more modest audience with Spectrum. They both continue to perform Spacemen 3 songs live and almost 20 years since they acrimoniously split, it’s not hard to spot the effect they’ve had on the music world’s more experimental realms. Despite the passing of time and their continually growing influence, the old rifts don’t appear to have completely healed.

“Jason is all about Jason,” continues Kember. “He’s always had a game plan that he hasn’t necessarily let everyone know about. We refer to him as Jason Two-Face Man. I don’t bear him any grudges, although I am in a position where I could quite easily begrudge several things he did that were pretty shitty.”

Needless to say that Pierce’s account of the band’s demise would be markedly different but for his part at least, Kember remains as true to the ideals of Spacemen 3 as he ever was. “There was one guy who came up to me in 87 or 88, he pulled up his shirt and had a triangle with a ‘3’ in it like the Spacemen 3 logo. I could see we meant a lot to him and I was like, ‘I won’t let you down. I won’t turn into ABBA next week so that you’re going to be embarrassed about it’. Hopefully, I still haven’t let him down.”

Hardeep Phull

Roots: Bands like Suicide, The Stooges, The 13th Floor Elevators, Neu! and The Velvet Underground were the main starting point for Spacemen 3 – something that they were always very honest about.

Contemporaries: As the shoegaze scene came to fruition in the late 80s, Spacemen 3 were often lumped in by the press with bands like My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus And Mary Chain and also-rans like Loop and Chapterhouse. Peter Kember and Jason Pierce, however, saw themselves more akin to The Cramps and The Gun Club.

Influenced: If anything, Spacemen 3 were the godfathers of the shoegaze scene rather than just being another generic part of it, but their influence has reached much further than that. Kember claims that one of his first fan letters was from Michael Ivins of The Flaming Lips, while other bands that have name-checked Spacemen 3 include Mogwai, Low, The Icarus Line and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. More recently, MGMT invited Kember to play with them live in London and even San Diego garage-rockers The Soft Pack have been heard playing a pulsating version of ‘Walking With Jesus’.

Did you know? Peter Kember and Jason Pierce were born on the same day – November 19, 1965.

The Sound: Minimalism was always the key for Spacemen 3; they utilised as few chords as possible and their characteristic droning added a hypnotic texture. However, for all their jammed-out dynamics, both Kember and Pierce could write soulful and beautifully melodic songs too.

The Look: There’s no way to pussy foot around this one; Spacemen 3 always looked cool as fuck. Kember and Pierce were blessed with devilishly good looks and the pair of them could pull off the dark glasses / leather jacket combo better than just about anyone.

Where Did They Go Wrong? Although their final album, ‘Recurring’, was a cracker, the decision to record it separately put a wedge between Kember and Pierce that still hasn’t been removed. Don’t expect a reunion any time soon.

Where Do I Start? There are a number of compilations, live albums and unofficial releases out there, but Spacemen 3 only released four proper studio albums – the best of which are definitely ‘The Perfect Prescription’ and ‘Playing With Fire’.

What Are They Doing Right Now? Kember still tours incessantly with Spectrum and Pierce has found fame with Spiritualized.

Top Tracks To Download

  1. ‘Walking With Jesus’ from ‘The Perfect Prescription’
  2. ‘Transparent Radiation (Flashback)’ from ‘The Perfect Prescription’
  3. ‘Revolution’ from ‘Playing With Fire’
  4. ‘Suicide’ from ‘Playing With Fire’
  5. ‘Hypnotized’ from ‘Recurring’

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