Spacemen 3 – Playing With Fire

Not anywhere near as celebrated as it should be.

Not anywhere near as celebrated as it should be.

 

Ok, so it’s not ‘The Classic’. That not insubstantial honour would have to go –in the opinion of critics, fans and bandmembers alike– to The Perfect Prescription; an astonishing second album and the encapsulation of all that these revolutionaries from Rugby (somewhere crap in middle England – famous as the birthplace of egg-chasing) strived to represent. Namely: mesmeric, droning psychedelia of skyscraping ambition, thrashed out by barely-competent Stooges obsessives; better living through regular conversations with The Lord and even more regular transactions with drug dealers; titles like Ecstasy Symphony and Walking With Jesus.  It was the sound, in a country deep in the midst of a Thatcher-induced depression, of the self-styled Fucked Up Children Of The World opting out entirely and creating their own alternative universe. As Spacemen 3 themselves so eloquently put it in Come Down Easy: ‘It’s 1987/And all I wanna do is get stoned’.

 

And beautiful though it was, that, really, should’ve been that. The Spacemen were subsequently painted into a corner as both over-privileged, drug-addled babblers (every interview with the private-schooled Sonic Boom would descend into shockingly candid views on drugs) and sprawling, shoe-gazing bores (the late John Peel once played two records over the top of their eighteen minute Rollercoaster, returning after each to declare: ‘it’s still going!’). By this time, you were either for or against them, and the odds on Sonic Boom, Jason Pierce and their sporadic supporting cast embellishing their tried and tested template must have seemed slim. Perhaps this is why Playing With Fire – every bit the equal of its predecessor – remains an album, if not completely lost, then not anywhere near as celebrated as it should be.

 

For starters, it contains Revolution – a flaming, devastating, beautifully na├»ve MC5 pastiche that strives to bring down ‘the powers that be’.  Like much of this remarkable record, it creates something potent and envigorating out of what would, in the hands of a lesser band, be embarrassingly naff. ‘ I’m through with people who can’t get off their arse," sneers Sonic Boom. "To help themselves change this government and better this society. ‘Cos it’s shit." See? Reads like rubbish, doesn’t it?  But just you go listen to it – by the time the drums come back in, even the most jaded of cynics will be charging down to the frontline.

 

Indeed, the effortless transcendence of cliche is a trick that Sonic here manages to repeat time and time again. There’s How Does It Feel?, which repeats echo-laden LSD nonsense (‘We could make love and live as one/And burn our fingers on the sun’) over a lone, endlessly-rotating guitar chord and yet somehow – at the risk of descending into cliche myself – perfectly evokes those blissed out 5, 6 or 7 am moments. Y’know, lying there, surrounded by silent friends, paralysed and lost in some distant musical galaxy. In other words – aww, fuck it – almost religious.

 

Jason Pierce, meanwhile, is in a similarly devout place, although Playing With Fire highlights the varying paths that would eventually estrange these two Spacemen. For while Sonic favours repetitive drones and spoken word mantras, it’s here that we see the birth of the elements that would eventually characterise the sound of Jason’s new band. So the closing Lord, Can You Hear Me? and So Hot (All Of My Tears) are all gospel-inspired melodies, delicately-picked guitars and, indeed, regular inclusions in Spiritualized live sets to this day, having been re-recorded by Pierce and his new outfit. A testament to their beauty, perhaps, that their composer holds these songs in high enough regard for them to warrant a revisit a decade or so on.

 

That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of perfect synchronicity. The blissed out opening salvo of Sonic’s Honey and Jason’s Come Down Softly To My Soul finds two sonic gems that are clearly close cousins; the paranoid, instrumental claustrophobia of Suicide (meant ‘to evoke both the group and the act’) finds the duo reverting to their original formula of strung out, jagged psychedelia. I could go on, but as I said earlier – this is ain’t a record that works on paper. This is an album whose appeal is almost inexplicable. It’s minimal yet expansive, retrogressive yet futuristic and utterly, utterly beautiful. Spacemen 3 sum it up best themselves with the five words that decorate the cover: Purity, Innocence, Accuracy, Revolution and Love

 

And of course, it sounds loads better on drugs.