Archive for March, 2009

Live: Spectrum, the Freebutt, Brighton

March 1, 2009

 This was the set.

Mary (for the late Mary Hansen, of Stereolab). Transparent Radiation. How You Satisfy Me. Set Me Free. When Tomorrow Hits. Revolution.

Fucking Revolution.

I rest my case.

Oh. You want more? Okay. 

Spacemen 3 were one of the most important bands of the past 30 years. I don’t think that’s a particularly contentious statement. I think history will prove me right on this one. In fact, I’d kind of assumed that the status quo was already in agreement with me here; after all, most of the other major indie-rock bands of my ‘youth’ have already had posthumous respectability, if not quite sainthood, conferred on them by the Nick Hornbys, Alex Paphides and Mark Lawsons’ of this world. Everyone from Pixies to My Bloody Valentine, to The Jesus and Mary Chain and Dinosaur Jr; every last man jack of ’ems been subjected to acres of po-faced nostalgia masquerading as serious critical re-assessment in the broadsheet culture tomes, the glossy grown-up music mags and weighty volumes clogging the bookshelves of Borders. They’ve all been discussed at length on Radio 4 and have reformed to perform, grey-haired and portly, to gushing adulation on Later with Jools. And all this by people who, one suspects, were far too busy getting firsts in English at Oxbridge and clambering up the greasy pole of media success in the early nineties to have ever wasted their youth stagediving onto the snakebite-drenched floors of blackened firetrap venues and sleeping in bus shelters afterwards in order to actually properly experience this stuff, and throw away their life for it, at the time.

 And the thing is, yes, yer Valentines and yer Dinosaurs and yer Pixies were all very well, and we all loved them dearly, but for those of us pissing the last days of student grants up against the wall in, roughly, 87-92 or thereabouts, the band who were really spoken about in hushed tones of reverence at the time were Spacemen 3. The reasons are legion, and obvious even now from any one of their albums. They were effortlessly cool and enigmatic. They had the attitude and approach of the most experimental psychedelic voyagers of the long-lost ancient 1960s (which were, after all, twenty years gone by), but merged all their impeccable influences into a sound that, once fully developed, belonged exclusively to the present moment: a wall of noise, pure, uncompromising, unconcerned and elemental. Layers of violent guitars conspiring to create something of transcendent beauty, while never losing their threatening punk discordancy. It was both a sonic refusal of everything the Thatcher era expected us to aspire to, and a foreshadowing of the joys of hypnotic, repetitive minimalism that, through techno and acid house, would spread across boundaries and generations like a virus.

But you know and accept all of this. You also know that Spacemen 3 split in drug-fuelled acrimony in 1990, and that one of them, Jason Pierce, went on to form Spiritualised, an arguably watered-down and more traditionalist incarnation of his previous band’s vision, destined to do the business effectively at successive Glastonbury Festivals throughout the nineties and so eventually earn themselves a regular seat in each series of Later and widespread critical acceptance, even as their often enjoyable albums grew progressively less adventurous.  The other half of the partnership, Sonic Boom- the cooler one with the more aggressive songs, the harsher, stronger voice and, sadly, the more destructive drug habit- formed Spectrum.

And so here we are, in 2009, and Sonic Boom is onstage playing Spacemen 3 songs. Nostalgia it may be, but on the other hand if Syd Barrett walked out on stage and played Arnold Layne, See Emily Play and Lucifer Sam for an hour, you wouldn’t complain and demand new material, would you? And that’s kind of how this felt. Surely, if historical hindsight were at all even-handed, this would be, y’know, a big deal. With Mojo mag frothing at the corners and thousands of greying Mondeo men eager to conterfeit memories of a youth that passed them by at the time. But no. Spectrum play to a crowd of under 200 souls, many of whom are actually I suspect hearing these songs for the first time. Actually, that’s quite good, isn’t it?

 For one thing, Sonic himself seemed sober, healthy and happy onstage. He looked damn well for any man in his mid-forties actually, tall and skinny in a black polo shirt and an unassuming, boyish haircut, not even hiding behind shades but looking for all the world like an enthusiastic music fan just emerged from his Rugby bedroom. Beyond Sonic himself, Spectrum never really had a fixed line-up, so it was no surprise to see him backed by a bunch of younger lads on guitar, bass and drums, and very capable they were too. The analogy is closer to Warhol than Hendrix; Spacemen 3 / Spectrum were about the vision rather than incredible individual musicianship, and so in a sense it doesn’t matter who is playing so long as you have the original visionary at the helm. A point amusingly proved by the encore, which amounted to the band playing a lengthy generic Spacemen 3 instrumental piece while Sonic wandered around adjusting their amps and effects units to establish authenticity, than wandered offstage to leave them to it. And a point made even more clearly when all the players left the stage to their instruments feeding back exquisitely, a subtly modulating wail that continued for a good five or ten minutes, some of us still dancing, aware that this was as much a part of the performance as what had preceded it. You gotta repect the feedback.

The opening number was the only piece I wasn’t already familiar with; a keyboard-led instrumental that was equal parts Neu! and Delia Derbyshire, appropriately for a tribute to the deceased Stereolab guitarist. The rest of the set maybe lacked some of the aggression and volume of yore, but not by much. Sonic complained of a non-functioning monitor, and his microphone was distorted and cut out occasionally, but for me that just added to the raw energy of the event. Between songs he bantered good-naturedly with the audience. And, yes, ‘Revolution’ tore the roof off. More relevant than ever, and better than we had any right to hope for.

 ‘A most enjoyable visitation,’ as Robert Plant said after last year’s Led Zeppelin reunion. This was a trip back to the essential molten core, the primal om. And actually, I’m glad I was stood in a sweaty pub and not sat in the Royal Festival Hall with a load of Guardian readers. The revolution will not be televised. Still.