Graded on a Curve: Spacemen 3, Playing
with Fire, Recurring, Dreamweapon, Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To

Emerging from the UK underground to increasing popularity across their lifespan, the drone-friendly psych mavens Spacemen 3 became hugely influential, to the point where it’s impossible to imagine large chunks of shoegaze, space-rock and neo-psychedelia without them. Since their breakup in 1991, they’ve maintained consistent cult status, and right now, it’s uncommonly easy to place a well-rounded dose of their work onto one’s shelf; the studio albums Playing with Fire and Recurring are available, as is the fascinating live document Dreamweapon. Additionally, the early demos collection Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To is scheduled to arrive on June 8. It’s all on vinyl courtesy of Superior Viaduct.

In the latter portion of the ’80s, Spacemen 3 seemed to reside in a class by themselves, eschewing the main currents in the British scene in favor of tough, drone-friendly psychedelia. In part for this very reason, they were championed by many u-ground rock fans and musicians in the USA, though a palpable Englishness kept them from ever connecting as adopted émigrés.

Other bands on both sides of the Atlantic (and Down Under) were digging into the soil of psychedelia and pulling up sweet turnips, but regarding the stamp of individualism, to these ears Spacemen 3 transcend the occasional (not-inappropriate) likening to Jesus and Mary Chain and fit pretty dang well with Galaxie 500. Along with shared psych (and Velvets) inflection and a rough dissolution, the Massachusetts band was as unique in the US musical landscape as the Spacemen were in the UK. Each also favored covers, with both tackling songs from the book of the Red Krayola.

But they sound alike hardly at all. To cop a line from Glengarry Glen Ross, what exactly is this comparison in aid of? Just to underscore that Spacemen 3 were not just distinct, but top-shelf. Formed in Rugby, Warwickshire by Pete Kember (aka Sonic Boom) and Jason Pierce (aka J. Spaceman) in 1982, it took them (plus bassist Pete Bain and drummer Nicholas Brooker) roughly four years to release their debut LP, one that still sometimes gets tagged as just a heavy psych garage trip with a considerable Stooges inclination.

The problem with the above isn’t in the description but the adverb, as Sound of Confusion is a splendid dose of hovering minimalist guitar burn that could inspire one to look at the then-current neo-’60s garage wave as a heaping plate of yesterday’s leftovers. However, in terms of increased range and deepening ambition, Sound of Confusion can’t help but take a back seat (or maybe shotgun) to ’87’s The Perfect Prescription, in part because this follow-up often gets categorized as a concept album (one pertaining to personal ups and downs with drug use).

The Perfect Prescription (with Brooker replaced by Rosco aka Sterling Roswell) is also probably the most creatively harmonious full-length in their discography (and the favorite of many), though upon the third LP’s arrival in ’89 (with yet another bassist in Will Carruthers plus a drum machine) there was no audible evidence the band was on the cusp of falling apart.

To the contrary, Playing with Fire ranks as their strongest studio effort, displaying continued growth alongside refinement that widened their fanbase (the record hit No. 1 on the UK indie chart) without alienating listeners who’d been into them since the beginning. Where the prior set began shedding light on their softer side, this development comes into full flower here; in fact, it’s not until the side-closing MC5 rip “Revolution” that their reliable distorted minimalist repetition rears up and lets loose.

It’s a savvy delay, largely because those gentler songs are so enjoyable, opening with the, well, combo-punch isn’t the word, but hopefully the point is clear, of “Honey” and “Come Down Softly to My Soul” (yes, the gospel influence first heard on the debut remains and is sharpened). “How Does It Feel?” combines the softness with some repeato-guitar action and things get truly sweet.

But Playing with Fire contains numerous rewarding facets, including the recurring varied use of organ that at times recalls 3rd album Velvets in a non-aping way, and also Suicide (side two’s tribute burner “Suicide” natch, but also “I Believe It”). Kember’s songs dominate the credits, but Pierce’s “Lord Can You Hear Me?” closes the record on a strikingly pretty, and again sanctified, note.

By the time of Recurring’s ’91 release, the band had split (though not officially at the time), for reasons that are now well-documented. For the LP, Kember and Pierce’s songs are corralled on opposing sides, with neither appearing on the other’s contributions (this pressing excludes the Mudhoney cover “When Tomorrow Hits” where they play together on record for reportedly the final time) as Carruthers, Mark Refoy, and John Mattock assist across the whole.

It’s correct to summarize the disc as a taste of what was to come in the solo projects of Kember (Spectrum) and Pierce (Spiritualized); viewed purely as Spacemen 3’s finale, it’s somewhat underwhelming, but only if one forgets that the band’s existence was one of constant evolution. And if fraught with acrimony, there’s nothing dysfunctional in the listening. In fact, Recurring holds Spacemen 3’s most successful single in Pierce’s “Hypnotized.”

The lightly psych-kissed electro motion of Kember’s opening “Big City” can be a shock to those smitten with “Transparent Radiation,” though not if also cognizant of Sonic Boom’s initial solo activities, which commenced prior to Recurring’s emergence. But the modus operandi isn’t radically different, and as side one progresses there are overt touches of the Spacemen feel, especially in “Set Me Free / I’ve Got the Key.”

It and Pierce’s “Sometimes” foreground the blues influence that’s always been an undercurrent in their bag, while “Feeling Just Fine (Head Full of Shit)” playfully toys with their core sound (adding hand drums) to a likeable result. Altogether, Recurring is much better than it has any right to be given the circumstances; it’s difficult to imagine many serious Spacemen heads not wanting it around.

But on the subject of fervent fandom, there are a few essentials, and Dreamweapon is one of them. In brief, it’s a record as good as it’s story. It finds them playing in the foyer of Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford, Middlesex on August 19, 1988 (billed as An Evening of Contemporary Sitar Music, but with no sitar in evidence) to an audience waiting to take their seats for a showing of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.

The consensus is that other than the Jazz Butcher’s Pat Fish (a longtime associate of the band) hardly anybody in attendance cared. On one hand, this is understandable, as it’s not what they paid to see. But on the other, Superior Viaduct’s likening to “Sweet Sister Ray” (the 40-minute live Velvet Underground piece that’s only ever been bootlegged) and La Monte Young is spot on; it’s enough to make a sympathetic mind forget all about ‘ol Wim, at least temporarily.

Dreamweapon is Spacemen 3 untethered from the requirements of rock, with the emphasis purely on the drone, and yet with an audible connection to Playing with Fire. The longer it plays, the more it’s apparent how far the undertaking is from the realms of folly, and not just from a standpoint of commitment; it also shows just how much these guys were impacted by their influences to anticipate the drone underground of the ’90s and beyond.

Initially released in 1990 as a single LP, it’s went through a few editions since. This one’s a double that wraps up with the truly spiff side-long Kember-Pierce dual guitar action of “Spacemen Jam.” It only underscores Dreamweapon as amongst the strongest entries in Spacemen 3’s output. And given that they never came close to issuing a bum record, that’s saying something.

Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To was first released as a single LP in 1990 (with numerous reissues since), but it spans back to the beginning of 1986, holding the Northampton demos cut in the home studio of Carlo Marocco that helped secure the band a contract with Glass Records (that label having originally put out both Sound of Confusion and The Perfect Prescription, plus the live album Performance and three key 12-inches).

The first record in Taking Drugs’ 2LP formation holds the seven Northampton demos, and many, including Kember and Pierce, have stated that they prefer its contents to the debut. It’s not hard to understand why, especially since they disliked working with Sound of Confusion’s producer Bob Lamb, though I doubt any fans, after absorbing the cumulative weight of the demos, traded in copies of the first record, in part because the contents of Taking Drugs (as is common with demos) aren’t as raw.

But this makes it easier to appreciate the pair’s songwriting skills at this early stage; it would seem folks partial to Playing with Fire will dig it. The second LP adds a bunch of additional, non-Northampton demo material, and even with a modicum of repetition across the four sides (three versions of “2:35,” two of “Hey Man”), there’s no way this set can be deemed as skippable by any major lover of the 3. This is partially due to a swank live “Things’ll Never Be the Same” and the organ version of “Transparent Radiation.”

Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To isn’t the earliest recorded work by Spacemen 3; that would be another demo, For All the Fucked-Up Children of This World We Give You Spacemen 3, which is slated to arrive on wax from Superior Viaduct later in June. Hopefully, it portends additional reissues on the horizon.

Playing with Fire:
A

Recurring:
B+

Dreamweapon:
A

Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To:
A-

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