To bake a mind-altering cake nowadays, you’ve got to smash a few sugarcubes. Unlike bands who get all cutesy with the pop trappings of ’60s acid-rock, Spacemen 3 are content to let the music be its own hallucinogen. At the outset, their records lay down a droning thick-pile carpet of over-driven guitar and mongoloid drumming; later on, they began exploring the equally unsettling powers of more tranquil waters. Not as selfconsciously arty as Sonic Youth or as decisively melodic as the Jesus and Mary Chain, Spacemen 3 follow both stylistic poles of the Velvet Underground with more wholehearted enthusiasm than most of the group’s self-appointed apostles.
Recorded as a quartet (including, for once, an on-board drummer), Sound of Confusion brings the psychedelic sound of Rugby (an industrial city near Birmingham) to bear on a mixture of bizarre covers (Iggy Pop’s “Little Doll,” the 13th Floor Elevators’ “Rollercoaster,” Juicy Lucy’s “Mary Anne”) and originals that all sound exactly the same. Except for the clever pun of “Hey Man” (sung as if it were the homonymic gospel assent) and the bonus dynamics of “2.35,” the album roars along on the precipice of monotony, with only the frequent appearance of vocals to ensure listener consciousness.
The Perfect Prescription finds Jason Pierce (guitar, organ, vocals), Sonic Boom (guitar, organ, vocals) and Pete Bassman (bass) abruptly reducing the dosage with lots of sonic space, varied instrumentation (acoustic guitar, violins, horns, keyboards) and very little percussion. Although things heat up towards the end, much of the album — like its quietly contemplative string- driven centerpiece, a cover of Red Crayola’s “Transparent Radiation” — is pretty and evocative, but hardly engrossing. (The Glass and Genius cassettes add 40 minutes of bonus material, including an endless version of “Rollercoaster” and a lengthy reworking of “Starship,” a Sun Ra adaptation from the first MC5 album; the Genius CD adds only those two tracks; the Fire CD skips that stuff and instead adds a pair of B-sides from the “Take Me to the Other Side” single.) Transparent Radiation contains two different renditions of the title track, a distended version of the album’s placid “Ecstasy Symphony,” “Starship” and one other item to counter the band’s tender tendencies.
Performance, recorded semi-loud and live in Amsterdam before — judging by the meager applause — an audience of three, recycles favorite covers (“Mary Anne,” “Rollercoaster,” “Starship” and the MC5’s “Come Together”) and puts forth three other songs, including “Take Me to the Other Side” and “Walkin’ With Jesus,” respectively the darker and lighter sides (and two of the best songs) from The Perfect Prescription. The Genius CD has two bonus tracks.
Playing With Fire is the trio’s crowning achievement, a perfectly integrated mixture of trippy pop, spaced-out poetry, acoustic romance and mind-boggling guitar devastation. The album starts out gentle (“Honey”), turns explosive (“Revolution”) and then settles into an obsessive drone (the tributary “Suicide”) that dominates Side 2. Throughout, the Spacemen exhibit solid songwriting and careful control of their art, modulating the album’s mood ring with the ease of experienced navigators. (The American vinyl edition is on colored wax; the CD (both UK and US issue) adds two live cuts. Additionally, two thousand copies of Spacemen 3, an untitled 12-inch — stock number THREEBIE 3 — containing 1988 live versions of “Revolution,” “Suicide” and “Repeater,” plus the uneventful drone-strumental “Live Intro Theme (Xtacy),” were distributed free to purchasers of the British album.)
As legally dubious as its title suggests, Taking Drugs, a document of the quartet’s prehistory (early 1986), resembles the first album (with which it overlaps three songs) except in the degree of sonic intensity and the sound quality. Besides songs that found their way intact onto S3 LPs, this neat artifact includes a developmental version of “Walkin’ With Jesus” entitled “Sound of Confusion” and the second album’s “Come Down Easy,” poppy proof that the group was capable of restraint from the very beginning.
With S3 nearing collapse (Jason Pierce launched his own band, Spiritualized, in mid-1990, with an enjoyably grandiose rendition of Chip Taylor’s “Anyway That You Want Me,” a ’66 hit for the Troggs), Sonic Boom (Peter Kember; on the first Spacemen LP he was billed as Peter Gunn) made Spectrum, an album more noteworthy for its ambitious adjustable (first presssing only) op-art sleeve than its content. With playing assists from Jason as well as the Jazz Butcher and members of the Perfect Disaster, Sonic stays inside the one-chord amelodic vamps of Spacemen country, tightening the stylistic bond to Suicide by covering the duo’s “Rock’n’Roll (Is Killing My Life).” But the album has a serious lack of vitality. Where Sonic ought to rev things up (a few real songs would have been nice), he turns nearly subliminal, and the instrumental portion of the doomy “If I Should Die,” which closes the album, floats away on strains of lighter-than-air atmosphere. (A 10-inch bonus record entitled Octaves and Tremelos was offered by mail to purchasers of Spectrum.)
Surprising fans who assumed they would never work together again, Jason and Sonic did reunite (only in the sense that each contributed a solo side) for another album. The buzzing guitars and shy organ that drone gently through Sonic Boom’s “Why Couldn’t I See?” — the second song on the narcotically relaxed Recurring — amount to sitar-free raga-rock, laying a poppy (poppie?) bed for the vibratoed and reverbed wispy vocals. Otherwise offering an undated adaptation of ’60s folky acid-rock with elements of the Beatles, Stones and others, the lullingly pleasant album — one of the most subtly retro-styled records of the current English scene — contains both sides of the Spacemen’s 1989 UK single (“Hypnotized” b/w “Just to See You Smile”), an incongruous sequencer-driven dance track (“Big City”), an ominous bluesy cover of Mudhoney’s “When Tomorrow Hits” (the record’s sole Jason/Boom collaboration) and such future flashbacks as “Set Me Free/I Got the Key,” the “Hang on Sloopy”-derived “I Love You” and “Feel So Sad.” (The Fire LP contains 10 cuts; the 78-minute Fire CD has 15; all formats of the Dedicated release have 11, but not all of those appear on the Fire LP.)
With superb annotation and deluxe packaging, Losing Touch With Your Mind is a collecton of alternate takes.