Towards being signed
My memory is hazy around this period. I think we played a handful of gigs and developed the set.
The next major step was that Hugh Rawson and I took a copy of our demo, Parallax Avenue, Dust and Mars on Ice to John Peel. We waited outside the BBC one morning for him to arrive and handed over a copy of the cassette and a bottle of Rose for good measure. His first words were “It’s a bit early for mugging isn’t it lads?”
We had our first London gig in Kings Cross very shortly afterwards. By now Hugh had got a copy of the demo to a City Limits/Time Out journalist called Lucy O’Brien. We had augmented the demo with another song called White City Blues, it was Bill playing fretless bass with a slide, Hugh on mute trumpet and me singing over it, a modern lament on a Ballardian theme. Lucy O’Brien thought we sounded fantastic, gave us a glowing review and promoted the upcoming gig. In the review she mentioned that we came from “the same Deptford powerhouse that spawned Test Dept”, not entirely true, well Hugh happened to live in Deptford, but it was the start of the dreaded misleading comparisons.
Her article had attracted a lot of attention. We had the demos out to a few record labels and several turned up that night to Kings Cross, along with John Peel.
The following Sunday John Peel dedicated the whole of his newspaper column in The Observer to us, partly talking about the gig and partly the demo. He identified how we layered sounds and compared us in that respect to Faust. You couldn’t really get much better than Peel writing about you, let alone his whole column.
I think he recognised in us from the demos the experimentalism we were trying to bring, we weren’t trying to sound like anyone else and he got where we were coming from more than most people did.
A few days later we were signed to Ink Records to Dave Kitson.
It had all happened very fast, I seem to remember that we had only played 6 gigs in total, so there was a lot of growing up in public going on – which partly explains the changes in sound so often.
The first single Mars on Ice
Hugh was hunting us gigs in London and he did the college circuit, we got gigs at Goldsmiths, ULU, the LSE and maybe some others.
Whilst his work was admirable while he was going round talking to people to get the gigs he made one big error, he likened us to Chakk (who were an industrial funk band from Sheffield and very big in the NME at that moment, and therefore very trendy – didn’t stop us from blowing them to pieces at Goldsmiths College a while later heh heh). I remember being really dismayed about this Chakk comparison, it wasn’t what we were about at all, they were dour and northern and frankly pretty bloody dull. Bill and I had seen them and come away very unimpressed by all the fuss. We weren’t industrial bleedin funk, but we were tagged with that and it still sticks. Mars On Ice was not a bloody funk record.
Anyway we played at the LSE supporting A Certain Ratio. I can still see their faces standing their watching Bill soundcheck Mars On Ice. He was in some respects like the Hendrix of bass in his use of pedals. He blew people out of the water. And to me that was what we were supposed to be about, not white boy funk bollocks with jittery skittery guitars and oh lets do the hop white kids cmon git down – NO THANK YOU.
Bill plugged in and let rip, the whole fuggin hall stood still. Hello here we are people. We were big and shiny and a tad fuggin scary and we had superman on bass.
A superman who had taken the eraserhead haircut to a very carefully sculpted extreme. A superman who could do things with a bass no one had ever done before – unfortunately he’s never got the credit – and a superman who looked fuggin cool to boot. A later review would describe how we looked as if we had escaped from the Marseillaise – the French prison for nutters… ha ha thank you thank you
Anyway, ACR were a decent bunch and liked us. They were all older than us but I think they saw the rebellion in us and they also realised we had a certain entertainment factor. So they let us support them on a few gigs.
We recorded Mars On Ice in Livingston Studios in Wood Green in London. They put us in some shiny new building to test it out. The engineer was Tony Harris, a great man, who recorded some of the Smiths early stuff.
The plan had always been in Bill and my eyes to do Mars on Ice as single one, Parallax Avenue as single two and Oedipus T Rex as single 3.
For some reason that changed and we put Oedipus on the B side of Mars On Ice with another track called Painting the Forth Bridge.
We recorded and mixed all 3 tracks in 2 days. Done dusted. Seduced by technology and big bleedin studios. It never had the bollocks of the live version, it’s a great song with a mild recording, its very tame. The vocals are way too down in the mix and don’t cut through I sound like I’m in the fuggin toilet.
Supposedly you live and learn… I don’t think we did for quite some time.
It was the end of the beginning really. What had started as something very bold and alive was watering itself down rapidly, but I guess that is what you get with a band and different input from different people. Nevertheless we were moving away from where Bill and I had started off and that very first wall of noise gig.
First John Peel Session
We’d done a John Peel session around the time of recording Mars On Ice. We went in and did Mars On Ice, a toothless absolutely horrific and unlistenable version of Dust, so watered down as to be almost some jazzy bollocks of the original, god it shows how moderate we could be sometimes, Painting the Forth Bridge and a new song The Animals- which showed that we could push the barriers at the same time also.
Until you hear the original demos you wont see the pattern, but to me there is a very strong link in the originality of those first songs, Parallax Avenue, Dust, then The Animals and what happens later on the first album Descension – which most people considered to be such a leap. It was the attitude of those first songs that Descension continues – not the bollocks that came in between. It explains a lot about the variations in the sound of the band.
Excuse me chaps and fellow members here but I really felt I was struggling against mediocrity here... and the dreaded industrial funk comparisons…
Its interesting that while at the same time our set was honing itself and becoming more “band friendly” we could still veer off on my more chosen path of the extreme. Bill came up with the bass line for the Animals. It was on fretless bass with the tuning taken down to the A below low E. It rumbled.
I had always remembered wanting to use a train sound as a rhythm for a track. Paul’s lyrics about death camps was the perfect fit.
So we played The Animals on the Peel session. It would surface several times in our career in different guises.
Second Single Parallax Avenue
So we set about thinking about recording a second single. And who should come sniffing at the door but my good friend Dave Morris, a man for whom I have the greatest musical respect. I think he’d come to see a gig post Mars On Ice.
Now I had known Dave for longer than all the rest in fact since 1979 and I’d been in a couple of other tiny bands with him. So we had history, friendship wise and musically.
Dave was the best guitarist I knew, he could play classical guitar, he could sight read (I am a musical troglodyte – cant read music and know nothing about it – all I know is what sounds good and that I need to use different things to make those sounds, usually with no prior learning ha!), he could play loud, he could improvise, he could make one hell of a noise, he could play flamenco, he could play or work out any fuggin song you named but thank god he did not go widdly widdly and solo out of his arse. He was an incredibly talented musician – he just needed direction.
So Dave came a knockin and I opened the door. Who knows whether this was wise it’s a matter of perspective.
It broke my song writing axis with Bill, which is what Slab had been founded on, but it gave us another dimension – probably not seen until Descension.
So back to Livingston Studios we went to record Parallax Avenue, the shiny beast, the jewel of our early material, the song that defined us live in the early days. In the early days it was huge, fuzz bass slapped like Bootsy Collins (hence its first name of Bootsy), it rocked and reared and sparkled. It floored people and made em move at the same time.
We neutered it.
We strangled it at birth.
We took all the fuggin life out of it and turned it into some bloated nonsense, that I cant listen to at all. But fortuitously some people liked it and bought it.
I think we did a second Peel Session at this time, however even I don’t have a copy.
As far as I remember we recorded Parallax Avenue, Undriven Snow, Bloodflood and Mining Town In Lotus Land.
We’d been writing a few new tracks and developing our live set. We rehearsed between London and Salford where Bill was studying Acoustics with Neill Woodger our trombone player. We had become damn tight as a band. We were still very loud live not too mention fierce.
Undriven Snow was based around a guitar riff from Paul written in my flat. By now I was living in London in the worlds cheapest flat in Chiswick. I had moved to London about April of 1986.
Whilst living in Leamington Spa I got a phone call from the living legend that is Hugo Roberts. Hugo by all rights should have been a major cultural icon. He was tall, skinny, quiet, studious, wore foundation, had a coiffured mop of curley hair and looked like he shoulda been in the Velvets. Hugo was a god. He was a true goth ie not one at all - in a time when there were no goths apart from Siouxsie or the true Victorian Gothic of the Birthday Party. Hugo read Alain Robbe Grillet for breakfast. He was Huysmans.
He asked me if I wanted to come live in his flat. Of course I did, there was only Robin left living around Leamington, Hugh had gone to London, Paul had been there since 84, Bill was in Manchester. So did I want to live with a living god of course I did.
The flat in Chiswick was a shit hole. Paul had lived there previously sometime before. To get to the bathroom you had to go through Hugo’s room. The cooker was live- if you cooked on it you got a shock. I had no real income, a little from the band, but there was a lot of porridge being eaten and I still remember a healthy meal being some pasta, a tin of proceesed peas and a bit of mayonnaise.
So one Sunday afternoon Dave and Paul came round armed with their guitars.
Paul had ceased to just slay his guitar by hitting it, knitting needling it and tormenting it.
Now he was tuning every note to C to give an underlying drone sound.
Both Paul and I love Live 69 by the Velvets, particularly What Goes On. The C tuning was meant for us. We both like a bit of noise but we both like Love and Arthur Lee, Alex Chilton, Scott Walker, Tom Waits, ie people who could knock out a decent tune. The C tuning could work on a variety of levels for us.
Paul came up with the riff for Undriven Snow, probably the first song written away from Bill. I think Dave may have come up with the bass part for Smoke Rings at the same time.
It went into the set as did a bass heavy slap monster called Bloodflood, which used the lyrics of Gutter Busting. So named Bloodflood after Paul’s habit of his hands being covered in blood form assaulting his guitar by the end of each gig we played.
So both were recorded for the Peel Session. I think it all sounded pretty good and I wish I had a copy.