Spacemen 3 Biography

L-R: Jason Pierce, Pete Kember, Natty Brooker, 1985 (photo by Steve Evans). Jason Pierce, Pete Bain, Pete Kember, Sterling Roswell, 1987 (photo by Greg Freeman). Pete Kember, Jason Pierce, Johnny Mattock, Will Carruthers, 1989 (photo by Steve Double).

Spiritually, the Spacemen 3 story began on 19th November 1965, with the near-simultaneous births of Peter Kember and Jason Pierce. More conventionally, the tale goes back to the early 80s, with the first meeting of Kember and Pierce at their local Rugby art college (Kember, who would adopt aliases including The Mainliner and Peter Gunn before settling with Sonic Boom, had specifically chosen art college for the sole reason of forming a band). Pierce was already in a group called Indian Scalp, but towards the end of their studies, the two decided to form their own band. They were an ideal combination; Kember with his Cramps fixation, and Pierce with his love of The Stooges (the first record he ever bought was “Raw Power”, which he then listened to exclusively for the next year).

With their heavy guitar and minimalist influences (as well as the aforementioned Cramps and Stooges, other favourites included The Velvet Underground, MC5 and Suicide), the Spacemen 3 sound finally delivered on their 1986 debut “Sound Of Confusion” comes as no surprise – a full on, fuzzed up drone of relentless guitar pounding. What is more interesting are the diversions that were taken on the way.

After effectively forming the band in Pierce’s bedroom in late 1982, and recruiting Tim Morris on drums and Pete Bain on bass (who had played together in local band Noise On Independent Street), the fledgling Spacemen played a series of infrequent gigs in the Rugby area. The band then stalled just as it had got going – Morris left to join another local band, The Push, and when Pierce went to art college in Maidstone, leaving the prospect of any further activity decidedly slim, Bain followed. Fortunately, this was only a temporary hiccup, and on Pierce’s return, things got serious. The Spacemen enlisted drummer Nicholas “Natty” Brooker, and in 1984, a demo tape was finally recorded. Showcasing a clearly embryonic band, the demo gives a fascinating glimpse into early versions of songs which would become Spacemen standards. In particular, a laid back, slide guitar take of ‘Walkin’ With Jesus’ reveals the strong blues influence which would not be revisited again as strongly until the band were all but finished. Named ‘For All The Fucked-Up Children Of This World We Give You Spacemen 3’, the demo was sold mail order and through Rugby record shop Convergence.

Pete Bain rejoined the band in 1985 after the breakup of The Push, and by the end of the year, Spacemen 3 were at the top of the local scene. Come 1986, they would progress to another level. In January of that year, a second demo tape was recorded in Northampton, by which time the band’s sound had crystallised into the intense, hypnotic, overloaded psychedelia which characterised their early output, and which would serve as a template for their live act throughout their existence. It was a copy of this tape that the band gave to Pat Fish of The Jazz Butcher when he professed himself a fan after a Northampton gig. The demos aroused the interest of David Barker of Glass records, to whom The Jazz Butcher were signed, after they became a JB tour bus favourite. These demos were later released on a bootleg LP on the U.S. Father Yod label as ‘Taking Drugs To Make Music To Take Drugs To’, a title which was once in the running as the name of the first regular Spacemen album, although the sleeve incorrectly identifies the recordings as rehearsals in Rugby.

Although Pat Fish’s experiences made him reluctant to recommend Glass, Spacemen 3 signed a two album, three year deal with the label, and immediately made plans to record their debut album proper (the stipulation that they would release an album first rather than a single being a condition of the deal). In order to keep the studio time to a minimum, the band rehearsed intensely before making the trip to Bob Lamb’s Birmingham studio. The plan had paid off – the recording and mixing of the album took a mere five days, and cost less than £800. The band found it hard working with Lamb; according to Kember, “He had no affinity with our type of music at all and was quite domineering.”

Despite this, the resulting ‘Sound Of Confusion’ album is something of an overlooked 80s psychedelic gem, if phenomenally unoriginal. Of its seven tracks, three are covers (of Stooges, Glen Campbell and Thirteenth Floor Elevators originals), while the Spacemen ‘originals’ are often heavily influenced from similar sources (most notably, ‘O.D. Catastrophe’, which bears more than a passing resemblance to The Stooge’s ‘T.V. Eye’). However, the Spacemen’s own mystery ingredient succeeds in turning what could have been a simple exercise in homage and plagiarism into something rather special. As Pierce later told Melody Maker, “We were all playing in the room, until something came through the roof, the sound we were hearing was like from some other planet or something. And that’s what Spacemen 3 was. We just found ourselves making this unearthly kind of sound that elevated us.” Using the album as a focal point for their various influences, Spacemen 3 built a platform that they, or anyone else who happened to be listening, could use as a launching pad to a multitude of destinations. The composition of the album was also largely pre-determined by the band’s decision to use it to release all of their “heavy” material, leaving the way clear for the more sedate songs that they were already writing.

Unperturbed by the lack of attention that their debut album had mustered, Spacemen 3 chose ‘Walkin’ With Jesus’ as their first single. Attempts were made to record a version during the ‘Sound Of Confusion’ sessions, but the results were unsatisfying; consequently, the Northampton demo was dusted off and given an official release. The band returned to Carlos Morrocco’s studio where the Northampton demos were recorded to lay down extra tracks for the single, including a seventeen minute version of ‘Rollercoaster’. More than anything, this was the move that polarised the potential Spacemen fanbase into “for” and “against”, it being seen as either the ultimate adherence to their “hypnomonotony” manifesto, or a stupendous example of overindulgence. John Peel began playing ‘Rollercoaster’ on one of his radio shows, before cutting to other records, popping back after each one to comment “It’s still going!”. However, the real treat on the single turned out to be ‘Feel So Good’, a gentle two chord strum which could hardly have been more different to the aural assault it followed. There was clearly a change coming around the bend.

Excerpt from the John Peel radio show, 3 December 1986.

After a change in personnel, with Sterling “Rosco” Roswell replacing Natty on drums, Spacemen 3 retreated to VHF Studios in Rugby to demo new material. The studio was looking to upgrade from 8 to 16 track, so a deal was struck – the Spacemen contributed £3,000 towards the desk in exchange for free studio time. VHF became a virtual second home to the band for the next six months, venturing out only occasionally to play a few live shows, including their first European trip. When the new material finally arrived, it was little short of a revelation.

The ‘Transparent Radiation’ EP built on the laid back atmosphere of ‘Feel So Good’, delivering two versions of the title song, the second of which in particular being a gorgeous, airy glide through sweeping violins and gentle, subtle guitars. Linking the two versions was the clearest evidence yet of the Spacemen’s unwillingness to compromise on their quest for the perfect hypnotic sound; ‘Ecstasy Symphony’ was a nine minute, electronic drone, a single note, multi tracked, phased and overlaid against itself. At once more serene and more powerful than anything they had recorded previously, the A side of the single clearly mapped out the band’s next phase. The EP’s other tracks formed a flipside in a philosophical as well as literal sense; ‘Things’ll Never Be The Same’ and the instrumental ‘Starship’ were retreads of the full-on guitar feedback of their earlier work, but with an extra, violent edge.

‘The Perfect Prescription’ continued the journey along the blissfully sedate path which ‘Transparent Radiation’ had begun. Mirroring the surprise transition from ‘White Light/White Heat’ to ‘The Velvet Underground’, the second Spacemen 3 album all but forewent the maximum rock ‘n’ roll of their debut, bar the opening ‘Take Me To The Other Side’ and ‘Things’ll Never Be The Same’ (slightly varispeeded here from it’s appearance on the ‘Tansparent Radiation’ single). The contrast is most evident in the re-recorded ‘Walkin’ With Jesus’; previously, guitar-laden, abrasive and arrogant, now, keyboard led, sombre and resigned. Describing the realities of a certain lifestyle in a decidedly honest and unromantic fashion, the album isn’t afraid to document the moments when chemicals can enrich life almost beyond description (‘Feel So Good’ again) and threaten to take that life from you (‘Call The Doctor’). Its real beauty, as ever, is in its simplicity; as Kember told Melody Maker, “…it’s very minimal, very simple, very primal – we actually went out of our way to show that four people who couldn’t play instruments could make a sound which could be really uplifting, could turn you on, and that anyone can do that.”

Rosco left the band after a particularly demanding tour of mainland Europe at the beginning of 1988, leaving the Spacemen without a full time drummer. A short U.K. tour followed, with drummers on loan from The Weather Prophets and The Perfect Disaster; shortly after, Pete Bain also quit. Down again to the essential core of Kember and Pierce, some regrouping occurred before Spacemen 3 would be seen again.

Ironically, Spacemen 3 were now receiving attention from larger independent labels. Eager to leave Glass, the band were frustrated to learn that, despite honouring the “two album” part of their contract, Glass were firmly sticking to the “three year” clause. A live recording from the European tour was offered as a contractual obligation get-out, and accepted; ‘Performance’ thus became the last Spacemen 3 album to be released by Glass (a final Glass single, a rather belated release of ‘Take Me To The Other Side’, appeared almost simultaneously, a full ten months after the album it was lifted from). Several of the participants have described the show, recorded at the Amsterdam Melkweg, to be far from the best of the tour, but it was the only show recorded on 16 track – if there had to be a live album, it was this or nothing. It must be said that if this genuinely is a substandard performance, then those attending the other gigs must have been witness to a rare treat; there is little to fault in the released concert, and the version of ‘Walkin’ With Jesus’ is sublime.

Despite the occasional live show in the preceding few months, the figurative rebirth of Spacemen 3 occurred, of all places, in the foyer of an arts centre. With new bass player Will Caruthers and temporary guitarist Steve Evans, the group played a revolutionary show consisting, essentially, of a single guitar drone, held for around an hour and a half. Against this unrelenting backdrop, glimpses would emerge of melodies and themes from as-yet unreleased songs, before being re-absorbed into the pulsating centrepiece. It is unlikely that any other band would have even conceived such a performance; that Spacemen 3 were able to go through with it, despite the apparently non-plussed reaction of the people who had come to the venue for more conventional purposes (Tannoy announcements for the evening’s film presentations are clearly audible throughout) is a testimony to their purity of vision.

With the release of ‘Revolution’, the first single for their new label Fire records (who had been chosen despite strong interest from Creation; indeed, the NME even reported a deal as having been done), Spacemen 3 were noticed in a big way. If it were not enough that the song itself was the most concise distillation of the heavier side of the Spacemen sound recorded up to that point, the round of accompanying interviews, outlining Kember’s shockingly frank opinions and attitudes towards drugs, were bound to attract attention. When the ‘Playing With Fire’ album arrived three months later, the band’s reputation as one of the leading innovators of the alternative scene was cemented. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive; Danny Kelly, writing in the NME, summed up the mood when he began his write up with the words “What we are dealing with here – and no other word will do – is a miracle.”

‘Playing With Fire’ manages to incorporate and further the different strands that had been spun on previous Spacemen records; as well as ‘Revolution’, the tribute to the band of the same name, ‘Suicide’, further explored hard and fast feedback and amplification, while elsewhere, tender melodies underpinned both pledges of love and pleas for redemption. The most obvious thematic divide, however, was between the songs separately authored by Kember and Pierce. The duo had contributed significantly to each other’s early work, although there had been occasional compositions which were no more joint ventures than those credited to Lennon/McCartney. The individual credits on ‘Playing With Fire’ confirmed and clarified the increasingly spiritual and gospel-influenced direction being taken by Pierce, and Kember’s predilection for purity through repetition.

With Johnny Mattock ensconced as the Spacemen’s new permanent drummer, a gruelling series of U.K. and European tours followed the release of ‘Playing With Fire’. Shortly after the recruitment of extra guitarist Mark Refoy, July saw the release of the beautiful new single, ‘Hypnotised’, which was followed by an appearance at the first re-invented Reading festival. Although no-one suspected it at the time, particularly the U.S. fans awaiting an already arranged tour, it was to be the last Spacemen 3 performance.

During the course of 1990, both Spacemen main men released solo offerings; Kember’s solo album ‘Spectrum’ was recorded with contributions from the other band members, as well as the Jazz Butcher, and Phil Parfitt and Josephine Wiggs of The Perfect Disaster, while Pierce’s debut Spiritualized single, a re-recording of ‘Any Way That You Want Me’, came as a surprise to Kember. Pierce had tired of waiting for Spacemen 3 to tour again, and organised his side project primarily for this reason. However, these factors all contributed to the general level of distrust in the band – Kember and Pierce had stopped talking to each other to any significant extent by this point – and with the release of the first Spiritualized single, Kember announced that he was leaving and that Spacemen 3 were consequently no more.

But by this time, there was already a fair amount of Spacemen 3 material taking shape (or indeed, already finished). Drawing on the same pool of musicians, Kember and Pierce recorded their tracks independently from each other, until the schizophrenic album ‘Recurring’ finally came together. Delayed again and again as mixes were perfected, ‘Recurring’ was eventually released in February 1991, trailed in January by the ‘Big City’/’Drive’ double A sided single. It is particularly ironic that ‘Big City’ saw the light of day well over a year after being recorded, as its acid house sensibilities, inspired by Kember’s glee witnessing the blissed-out audience at a Happy Mondays concert, were already dated by this point. This cannot hide the fact, however, that ‘Recurring’ is a remarkably coherent and accomplished record, embracing a wider variety of styles and influences than any other Spacemen release. Unlike ‘Playing With Fire’, no attempt was made to integrate the separate Kember and Pierce compositions, resulting in the ultimate album of two halves; side one Kember, side two Pierce. As well as further explorations of ethereal drone, especially in the feel-good haze of ‘Just To See You Smile’, Kember’s songs include the wonderful space-pop of ‘I Love You’ (heavily influenced by Bob Marley, it later transpired), strong evidence that only a small push would have been required for a major mainstream Spacemen 3 cross-over. Meanwhile, Pierce’s side saw him moving even further into blues territory with the most laid back Spacemen material to date, music so delicate and comforting that you can almost literally wrap yourself up in it for warmth.

The one thing that ‘Recurring’ makes abundantly clear is that, just sometimes, the age-old adage ‘musical differences’ is not always a euphemism. Certainly, both composers display a love of the minimal, which continues to characterise both of their outputs to the present day, and yes, their personal disputes had reached such an acrimonious stage that any further collaboration was practically impossible, but by this point their writing had diverged to the extent that neither was able or prepared to accommodate the other. The quality of their respective solo material is testament to the fact that both Kember and Pierce are perfectly able to deliver the goods independently; nevertheless, their joint work remains essential, at worst intriguing, at best elevating. For those who have had their souls touched by this most striking of music, things will indeed never be the same.

(This is a slightly edited version of an article I wrote for the May 2003 issue of Record Collector.)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *