Revolution – the story of a song

Spacemen 3’s links to MC5 were no secret. After the release of Sound Of Confusion, Pete Kember was contacted by fans who had noted the similarity between the album’s final track and an MC5 live favourite. In issue 14 of the US music magazine Forced Exposure, he said:

“I got a couple of letters, one from Byron Coley and one from Eddie Flowers – they both said simultaneously that this song [O.D. Catastrophe] was like Black to Comm and I’d never heard that song at the time. It was interesting that we’d tried to do a Stooges-type song and the MC5 had tried to do a Stooges-type song and it had come out almost the same. I think the MC5 did owe quite a bit to the Stooges, especially on Black to Comm.”

Obviously impressed by this, Spacemen 3 begun incorporating a cover of Black To Comm into their set. Pete is asked in the same Forced Exposure interview about a recent gig with Living In Texas, which was at the Hammersmith Clarendon on 1 August 1987, and he says “Well we did Starship straight into Black to Comm that night if I remember.” Over the course of the year, the song would become adapted into a new form that would become central to Spacemen 3’s rising profile.

As well as the musical influence from Black To Comm, the opening speech on MC5’s Kick Out The Jams also provided elements for Revolution, not least its title. That intro in full:

“Brothers and sisters, I wanna see a sea of hands out there. Let me see a sea of hands. I want everybody to kick up some noise. I wanna hear some revolution out there brothers. I wanna hear a little revolution. Brothers and sisters, the time has come for each and every one of you to decide whether you are going to be the problem or whether you are going to be the solution. That’s right. You must choose, brothers, you must choose. It takes five seconds. Five seconds of decision. Five seconds to realize your purpose here on the planet. It takes five seconds to realize that it’s time to move, it’s time to get down with it. Brothers, it’s time to testify, and I want to know, are you ready to testify? Are you ready? I give you a testimonial: the MC5.”

It is not clear when Revolution made its live debut. It is in the set for the 22 October 1987 gig at the Mean Fiddler, later released as the live album Revolution Or Heroin, but there had been at least ten gigs since the support with Living In Texas, so it is likely that it was played at some of these.

Most of the song is already in place, but the lyrics are clearly an early version, with a few of the lines that would end up in the recording yet to be added. A version from later in the year, 1 December at Northampton Arts Centre, is a little more developed, and shows that the bass flourishes are now in place (including a few more than in the recorded version). By the middle of December, at a Leeds all-dayer headlined by Hawkwind, the “Five seconds” part has found its way into the lyrics.

After a one-off gig at Dingwalls in Camden on 4 January, Spacemen 3 spent the first couple of months of 1988 touring Europe. Revolution was now a staple of the set. On 16 January, Pete wrote out the lyrics as they stood at that point. He has given the date as 1987, but that’s clearly not right – I expect he has done that thing that many of us do near to the start of a new year where we are not yet in the habit of getting the new year right.

The first couple of verses are reversed from the final version, and they were often sung in either order from gig to gig. There was a fair amount of improvisation going on, such as the 14 January gig in Hamburg where the end part was addressed directly to the audience – “I got a suggestion/For you all here tonight/I want you/To just spare me/Five seconds/Just five seconds/Just five seconds of your decision/To tell me/If you’re happy/With your life/Cos I ain’t happy with my life.” The above lyrics were written on the day of a gig at The Forum in Enger, Germany, a performance that included “And I don’t want/No part of your society/And no part/Of your government/Cos I don’t want nothin’ to do with your shit.” There doesn’t seem to be any performance from this time that includes the “complacency” part of the lyrics that Pete has written down.

Pete has added a piece near to the end in a different pen, a part that evolved in some live performances into “A little change/A solution/A little/Revolution.” This was probably done some time later, there’s no evidence that anything like this was sung on that tour, although Pete does finish the version from the last date of that tour on 9 February at the Ancienne Belgique in Brussels, Belgium, with the words “The revolution should be in your resolution.” The “Change/Solution” version was sometimes sung by mid-1989, there’s a good example of this on the fantastic recording of the 18 May gig at the New Morning, Geneva, Switzerland. Arab Strap used a form of these words in their cover of Revolution that appeared on Rocket Girl’s Tribute To Spacemen 3 album, singling them out as more than casual fans.

Revolution often followed Starship in Spacemen 3’s live set, either directly segued from it or straight in with the main chords after a short break. The 24 August gig at the Riverside, Hammersmith (Johnny Mattocks’ debut on drums) was an exception, a rare occasion where the song starts with the ascending chords familiar from the recorded version before the bass and drums kick in. It also includes the opening cry of “Look out!”, perhaps borrowed from The Stooge’s Loose. By the time of the ULU gig from 4 November (introduced by Jason, “This is our new single”), it is back to a heavy chord intro only, in a slower and heavier than usual performance.

It’s not until a few dates into the April/May 1989 European tour that Revolution starts being played twice per night, the second outing usually reserved for the final encore. Spacemen 3 had played the same song twice on the odd occasion before, notably their cover of MC5’s Come Together which bookended the first date of the 1988 European tour, and whose ascending chords may have informed the opening of the recorded version of Revolution. But from the 1 May 1989 gig at Markthalle, Hamburg, Germany, Revolution was played twice a night more often than not. This may have been a crowd-pleaser, but it wasn’t a popular move with Jason, who told Filter magazine in 2005: “And by the end, we were playing Revolution twice nightly… it just felt like we were done. We were producing music for the audience, when we should have kept producing music for ourselves.”

This wasn’t the only source of conflict between the main Spacemen with respect to this song. Tensions in the band had been growing for some time, with things coming to a head during a meeting in the Fire Records office while trying to settle on the songwriting credits for the Playing With Fire album. Jason was of the opinion that his contributions to How Does It Feel?, Revolution and Suicide were worthy of joint credit with Pete as a composer, which Pete strongly disagreed with. Pete eventually received sole credit for the first two songs, with Suicide being attributed to them both. In the case of Revolution, I think this is fair. Jason’s playing is excellent and lifts the track, but doesn’t fundamentally change the structure of the song. The Suicide call is also a good one, with Jason’s contribution in that case making a big difference to how the songs plays out. I’m less sure about How Does It Feel? – if Jason wrote the picked melody that comes in part way through, I think he had a strong case for a co-credit there as well.

There is another set of hand-written lyrics that Pete wrote up some time after the first version above. It matches the recorded version almost exactly, but then continues with ideas that could make up a couple more verses. Whether these were things that Pete was seriously considering adding to live or recorded versions, or just some general ideas that didn’t go anywhere, who can say. The bracketed part at the end is taken from John Lee Hooker’s Boogie Chillen.

Revolution was released as a single in November 1988, on 7”, 12” and CD. There were two CD singles, a 3” version that required an adapter, and a regular 5” version, both of which came in identical cases. A video was shot by Mike Mason, who has uploaded a couple of excerpts of raw footage to YouTube, and who says: “I shot it in Brixton at The Shakespeare Centre, for my no budget video for Fire Records. It gained the TV show ‘exclusive’ slot on The Chart Show anyone remember that? I then had the opportunity to direct Spiritualized videos and also go onto do lighting designs for their shows.”

Is Revolution a revolutionary song in the political sense? Many people have taken it to be, and there is a description of Spacemen 3 having “an overtly political left wing stance” in the promotional push for a gig at The Gardens, Morcombe. But these views are driven by a reading of Revolution stemming from its title only, lacking attention to the content of the song or the intentions of its composer.

The narrator’s problem with society is not motivated from inequality, injustice or persecution, not in the conventional sense of wanting to fight for the downtrodden. Rather, their problem is that they are not being left alone to take all of the drugs. The “change comin’ round the bend” is not that of the oppressed masses rising up, it is the first stirrings of wider drug use in the youth population due to the phenomenon that would become acid house. In an interview with Sounds, Pete said “It’s not about machine guns and bullets it’s, erm, about a revolution in people’s minds, and thinking about how they can change the world in their own small way… I’m not interested in politics. I know nothing about it. They’re just an ugly bunch of bad actors.” Pete even suggested in a Melody Maker interview that the country would be better off as a monarchy.

Revolution is the Spacemen 3 song most associated with the band by casual listeners, and it is easy to see why. It is a concise distillation of their heavier guitar-based side, a harsh, abrasive six minutes which is instantly exciting and captivating from its opening bars. Pete’s trademark mile-wide wall of fuzz serves as a near-constant backdrop, while Jason adds texture and ferocity throughout, dropping back at just the right times to give the illusion of relief before returning to the full-on assault. Will’s confident bass flourishes build on and refine those originated by Pete Bain in the song’s early days. Spacemen 3 were between drummers when Revolution was recorded, but the most basic of drum machines used here doesn’t distract from the song’s power, and if anything helps to keep things moving at a relentless pace. (Having said that, a real drummer was integral to the success of live versions, as can be seen from the superhuman effort put in by Johnny during a performance at The Forum in Enger on 6 May 1989 – this clip is Suicide rather than Revolution, but you get the point.)

Revolution was the first Spacemen 3 song I was aware of. In 1989, the NME put out a VHS tape in conjunction with CND called Carry On Disarming. Running for nearly two and a half hours, the tape includes promos from The House Of Love, New Order, The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, and many more. I remember watching it with a friend one evening in the autumn of that year. Spacemen 3 appear about three quarters of the way through, and it is fair to say that we were flagging by that point. But Revolution got our attention, with us both giving the other a nod of “Yeah, that was alright” after it had finished. Once I became a firm convert to Spacemen 3, its appeal began to diminish, but not because of any of its intrinsic qualities. It feels to me like Bohemian Rhapsody or Mr Blue Sky – songs that, if you like that sort of thing, are some of the best achievements of their respective originators, but which have been dulled by ubiquity and which it would be perfectly fine not to hear again for some long time. As a result, I find that Revolution is not a song I go to by choice. I feel that I know it too well, and slightly resent the way that it has become the Spacemen 3 go-to song of choice when there is so much more about them worthy of promotion.

But because of this, I find that when I do come across Revolution, perhaps as part of a listen to Playing With Fire, I have forgotten how striking and accomplished it is. It is still an absolute whirlwind with the power to amaze, and if it can continue to entice casual listeners to check out everything that Spacemen 3 have to offer, it will still be doing good work today. The importance of the song to the band is made clear by the fact that it was one of the three selected when many former members took the stage together for a benefit show for former drummer Natty Brooker in 2010.

A final tip for pub quiz bores… Revolution is a rare song that mentions its title only once, as its very last word.

With thanks to Mark Lascelles and Innes Dietze Crook.