18 March 1989 – NME

Spacemen 3

Manchester Hacienda/Birmingham Burberries

Up on the stage of the Hacienda, the Spacemen 3 are doing their stuff. Or at least I think they are; it’s sometimes very hard to tell. In the moody near-darkness guitarists Sonic Boom and Jason Pierce (both seated, naturally, and hunched, unnaturally), bassist Willie and drummer Jon are huddled in a tight knot, as though protecting something precious from some unseen danger or a strong wind.

The only movement (the only clue that this is the source of the noise howling from the speakers) is the spidery progress of Willie’s fingers along the frets and the barely discernible flapping of the very extremes of Sonic’s fringe. My mind is troubled, overheating with the strain of trying to remember what and where this almost eerie scene reminds me of…

Then suddenly it clicks! Jon and Willie are Mary and Joseph, and below them Sonic and Jason are the ox and the ass. The tiny, protected, space between them is where the infant Jesus should be. When Andrew Lloyd Webber finally gets round to the rock version of the Nativity, this is how it will look.

On the audience side of the stage, however, there’s no sign of the wise men. This is the proverbial wet Monday evening in Manchester and the gathering, barely quarter filling the venue, is the usual indie legion of the damned. All lager and leather, black clothes and balefulness, the drizzle outside having reduced Mary Chain mops and gothic hair-spires to drowned rats-tails. Not a pretty sight.

And in front of them things are growing ugly too. The baby Jesus is having teething pains and kicking up a suitably unholy row. Spacemen song succeeds Spacemen song in a spiral of clenched-muscled, fractious noise. Of the cut-glass beauty and soaring melody that makes their new ‘Playing With Fire’ LP such a wonderment, there is precious little sign.

Afterwards the Spacies will plead that they haven’t the equipment to play the new, slower, quieter things live and that, in any case, audiences have so far equated a reduction in the volume levels with tedium.

But these rationales apart, tonight is also marred by an unmistakable smear of old-fashioned chaos. Sonic’s £40 Fisher Price sampler has arrived only seconds before showtime and needs to be fiddled with before each keyboard-driven effort. Sonic does this at maximum amble – the full Peter Fonda in Easy Rider number – so that some of the ‘twixt-song gaps ooze to fully 10 minutes. Hardly the stuff to keep All The F—ked Up Children Of This World (to whom the S3 profess to address themselves) at boiling point.

Indeed the only time this evening that All The Drowned Rats Of This World even simmer is during ‘Revolution’, Sonic’s apocalyptic countdown to something-or-other that’s become the Spacie’s anthem. Some primeval dancing was even observed.

Mostly, though, this was very much a case of wrong noise, wrong place, wrong time. The first Spacemen 3 LP was called ‘Sound Of Confusion’: this was the sound of shambles…

There is infinitely more order in the S3 tour mini-bus next day as we glide towards Birmingham, a city destroyed by the planners’ desire to pander to the internal combustion engine but which has, at least, never lost its love of rock guitars played very loud.

Sardined in with the technology are road manager/driver Rod, T-shirt floggers Dustbin and ‘Chicken Legs’ Henry, and in the back, the band and me. For the duration of this journey (and, in truth, most of the rest of the time as well) the four Spacemen chain-smoke something far more exotic than Silk Cut, a fact that may explain a great deal about this group and the music.

Like, for instance, an interview technique that consists of responding to questions with long periods of silence punctuated by bouts of giggling before someone, almost inevitably Sonic, ventures an answer. Your super soaraway NME, of course, is undeterred by such tactics…

What did you make of the wall-to-wall good reviews of ‘Playing With Fire’?

“We were surprised. Why? Because we’ve always had such shit reviews in the past… But we didn’t think it’s particularly special compared to our last one. ‘Perfect Prescription’ is a really fantastic album; people just missed it. I guess we’re amazed that people have caught onto us… it’s really weird…”

Your constant carping about Loop having nicked your sound has become almost self-defeating…

“But very relevant.”

…has the fact that your LP’s been raved over, while Loop’s ‘Fade Out’ has been critically scalded, given you particular pleasure?

“We always took the Loop thing as a bit of a laugh until people actually started saying that we sounded like them. Then the joke wore pretty thin. To work at something for seven years and then have people, people like you saying those sorts of things is very hard…”

The venom with which Sonic Boom pronounces the word ‘Loop’ (like someone recalling a cockroach at the bottom of their teacup) has to be heard to be believed. It’s only when he tells you how Loop mainman Robert used to work at their old record company, Glass, and was constantly quizzing them about their idiosyncratic mesh of (mis)treated guitars and madly echoing vocals, that the reason for the distaste become crystal. About other comparisons the Spacemen are more philosophical:

“It’s not just Loop. People compare us to Sonic Youth, the Mary Chain and others, but we’ve been at this since 1982; it’s useful for people to know that. We’ve been persevering for seven years… well, we have, haven’t we?”

Another thing you get attacked for is being ‘retrogressive’.

“That criticism is narrow-minded and cruel. We’ve sometimes admitted that the music is ‘nostalgic’ because people tell us it is. Sure, we do like things from the past, but then we’re hardly likely to like things from the future, are we?”

One of the several extraordinary things about the Spacemen 3’s new LP is the gospel feel of many of the songs – the quavering organs, the pleading vocals, the ‘lordy lordy’ lyrics. It’s like listening to prayers!

“That’s ‘cos they are… we are religious…”

Worshiping the MC5 and Suicide doesn’t count!

“Yes it does!… We’re not religious in the conventional sense, but we do believe strongly in certain things and try to carry those things into our daily lives. It all comes back to the words on the LP sleeve.”

Ah yes, the words ‘LOVE’, ‘PURITY’, ‘SUICIDE’, ‘REVOLUTION’ and ‘ACCURACY’. What the hell, in this context, does the latter one have to do with anything?

“There is, has to be, a certain undeniable accuracy of our songs which are mostly written around one chord. There is both a purity and accuracy involved in doing one chord songs, otherwise they’d just be free-form jazz… or Hawkwind!”

How much is the making, or reception, of this one-chord wonder dependent on, whisper it, drugs?

“Well, a lot of people are really into our stuff who’ve never taken drugs. Quite a lot of what we do duplicates the feelings that you get from doing drugs. You get those feelings from listening to it. It’s emotions, the emotions of drugs. Drugs… or love. There’s a lot of love songs on this LP. Love feels just like a drug and you can – what’s the word? – induce that state in people.”

Why has ‘Revolution’ become such a favourite with fans?

“Because,” Sonic transforms his giggle into a fully fledged laugh, “it’s got that Slade element! No, seriously, ‘Revolution’ really does sum up what a lot of people are thinking, And there is a revolution going on in this country, a drugs revolution. A lot of real casuals, y’know, smoothies and beeries, are taking Ecstasy. It’s a psychedelic drug, but it still allows you to go to work the next morning, which is more than can be said for acid or mushrooms. It’s changing people’s perceptions about drugs themselves… and about music…”

Do you think you’re sexy?

“The music must be sexy because people always ask us that question. Do you think we’re sexy then?”

My image of you is far more dour, more slate-grey and drizzle-spattered.

“We’re quite happy to be depicted like that – we’re the band that make Joy Division look raunchy!”

Hours later, the Spacemen 3 are making the JD look raunchy in Brum’s Burberries Club. And when I tell you that Burberries is a totally surreal place, it’s nothing to do with the fact that within its confines I got to speak to Stuart Maconie’s ‘hairdresser’, and to pat her faithful guide dog! The place is a fantasia of huge mirrors, twinkling lights, indoor trees and champagne cocktails. On the nights when it isn’t housing rock gigs, it is evidently the local bordello…

A place, in fact, where the Spacemen 3’s decidedly un-trouser-thrusting act could hardly look more inappropriate. Thank Sod’s Law then, that tonight the Spacies play an absolute stormer.

Perched between a pair of gigantic mirrored pillars, Mary, Joseph, Oxoland Neddy pummel the full-house throng with their full array of throbbings, pulsings, yowlings, reverbs, triple echoes and sheer whiplash volume. There’s still none of the subtle hues of the LP but at least all Sonic’s toys have batteries in, so that the barrage is seamless, merciless, without respite.

And the multitude, where they really ought to be alarmed, instead bask in it, bathe in it, surrender to it, pressing themselves ever nearer to the speakers and the certainty of damaged eardrums. ‘Revolution’ and ‘Take Me To The Other Side’ are particularly blissful pandemonia but the whole set is an awesome, thrilling busload of brilliance driven straight through the memory of last night’s debacle and firmly establishing the Spacemen as one of the great rock experiences (man) currently available to us.

Danny Kelly

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