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Radioactive Sparrow – The Complete Guide To Nothing (1985)

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Sits oddly in the continuity, this one, self-consciously dark and earnestly abrasive, quite unlike the albums either side, but as much a part of the true story as both. Like album 17, it features just Dai Cox and Bill Bargefoot and was originally conceived as a side project with the name ‘Bigga,’ hence the name emblazoned on the cover. But some time between  September (when this was recorded) and Christmas 1985, it was decided to count the album as part of the unfolding Kak saga after all, the precedent having already been set by Dai & Will Sessions, or even, in fact, B’Naal Emon Pip back in 1982. Bigga, incidentally, came from a bizarre piece of graffiti on a wall in Bridgend, a name writ large on a shabby wall not replicated anywhere else, apparently. For some reason Bargefoot liked it, and tried using it again in 1986 for the Gwilly Edmondez Laurie Anderson-imitating Geddy Numbers show at Chapter (album of which will appear here in due course); when booking that act, Frantz, the legendary bar-keeper asked if it was named after the Scottish Rugby player, Alexander Bigger. Answer was a disinterested ‘No,’ and the association with sporting heritage rather dulled its appeal.

Sitting between two ebulliently exuberant classics in Oh Yeah, Oh Wow and His Y-Fronts Are On The Music, one cool thing about this album is its insistent darkness, Cox and Bargefoot marrying sternly chiseled mood-riffs to the absurdly naïf-sounding bleeps of the Casio VL-1’s built-in beats. This derived from an earnestness with which the two approached the sessions, feeling duty-bound once more to forge new territories ready for the return of the band’s other half. Come December, however, the multi-coloured sprightliness would be back in full force.

The Complete Guide To Nothing also makes much use of collage, Bargefoot by this time being in receipt of Jason Davies’s cast off twin-deck tape machine, allowing very primitive 2-track dubbing to take place when editing down sessions. The bizarre array of sources includes: a recording of Cardiff’s Queen Street on a busy day; a Radio 4 documentary about Jean Rhys (Bargefoot was into her stuff) and her obsession with Jane Eyre; the B52’s ‘Toss That Beat’; and two Kak wives, Tracie-Ann and Maria.

Tracklisting
1.     Duck Shooting In Manchester
2.     Wide Sargasso Sea
3.     Frame That Picture O’ Me
4.     Dancing Queen
5.     Brother Jo
6.     Wank
7.     Biddih
8.     Uncle Nobody
9.     Subsidies (Play It Now)

Personnel

Dai Cox – all/any insts
Bill Bargefoot – all/any insts, tapes & voice

Recorded at the Old Mill, September 1985

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Written by Gustav Thomas

October 30, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Radioactive Sparrow – Oh Yeah, Oh Wow (1985)

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The Summer of 1985 was one of those adolescent peaks, the colour and intensity of shared experience making life seem almost too vividly brilliant and magical. With none of the band needing to earn (much) money during the holidays (this was in the days of government grants and signing on the dole for the summer) – except of course for Dai Cox, who had left school at 16 – the weeks unfolded in a joyous haze of recording sessions, festivals, impromptu after-pub dancing by the beach or on the common with a car (yellow Renault 4 with a ricketily fixed 10-band EQ fitted above the glove compartment) providing both the sound system and the light show, parties, gigs, awkwardly hazardous sex in bracken infiltrated by brambles and sleeping under leaky rooves with pigeons and bats. … The spirit of the time comes through so clearly on this album, the songs are characterized by a psychedelically impressionistic blurring set alight by an unbridled and irresistible energy.

Kak’s first masterpiece? Just about everything on the album makes (its own) sense. Unhinged polyrhythm and polyphony lurch to and fro with gay abandon while never crashing into each other except to affirm discord as the sweetest harmony – check the multiple soloing after the first full chorus of ‘C’Mon Baby Light My Fart’ or the gothic shambles wielded by ‘Last Piece of Cake’ and ‘Bad Breath.’ Or the extraordinary shadings of ‘King’s Crown,’ whose relatively ordinary pentatonic vamp is deliciously bruised and lacerated by Stews’s interventionist use of feedback for the backing vocals. Stews made a beautiful video on Super 8 for ‘King’s Crown’ which surely needs digitizing as a retroactive supplement to this post. Indeed, it’s him that’s the catalyst again here, having watched the band derail itself repeatedly since Not On My Balaclava, You Bastard (especially the botch-up at Bryn Menin, which, for all the cool endowed by 21st century hindsight, made them look unfit), once again called upon to urge the rest of the group forward when they would sooner gaze as their socks.

Stews’s star turn on ‘Chase Me Down the Corridor’ brings welcome poise, acting a deft framing balanced by ‘Jelly,’ the album’s all-out party anthem whose numerous re-mixes and re-edits frequently filled the dance-floors of middle class South Glamorgan student bashes over the summer. One such remix, along with a remix of ‘Striking Bird Lady,’ ‘Horse Race’ and ‘Teenage Scene,’ was included on a four-track demo passed around during the following autumn, one copy finding its way into the hands (ears and heart) of Chris Hartford during Bargefoot’s first (and only) term as a philosophy student at the Polytechnic of North London.

A close listen to the album will reveal that the title comes from the brief tendency Boyes and Bargefoot had at the time to react to the end of each ‘great’ song with Brooce saying, ‘Oh yeah!’ and Bill chiming in with, ‘Oh wow!’ Featuring Federico Fellini as the album’s cover star was completely random: the band didn’t even know it was him until it was mentioned by Bruco Lava some years later. The many bizarre continuities that this album either contains or contributes to includes the inexplicable use thrice of the crummy ‘swing’ beat on the Casio – ‘Whoopie Cans’ and ‘C’Mon Baby Light My Fart,’ and, in a pre-emption of Slowcore, impossibly ritardando for ‘Bad Breath.’

This post features as a [BONUS] bolus the Who Is Me EP made a few weeks after Oh Yeah, Oh Wow. It is squared off by two 8-minute tracks: the title track’s eponymous dramatic chorus actually comes from Bargefoot’s early misreading of the ‘Woe is me!’ gypsy chants in Asterix in Spain; ‘Skating On Thin Ice’ is Cox at his lyrically most jagged, scansion jettisoned for easy rhymes (‘What a lovely song we’re all playing here/I think I think I’ll write about my old dear’). Cox’s embrace of the Kak aesthetic is emphatic: singing much too close to the condenser mics, he is asked by Brooce to sing further back ‘Not quite so near!’), whereupon, apparently mishearing, he gets in even closer (‘Jon told me to get a little bit nearer/I think the price of coffee’s getting very dearer/Madeira cake/Like a snake…’) – classic Kak dynamics, ‘spoiling’ what might otherwise have been an almost respectable track.

Tracklisting for Oh Yeah, Oh Wow

1.     Japseye
2.     Whoopie Cans
3.     Forever
4.     Jelly
5.     C’Mon Baby Light My Fart
6.     King’s Crown
7.     Last Piece Of Cake
8.     Chase Me Down The Corridor
9.     Bad Breath

Personnel

Bill Bargefoot
Brooce Boyes
Heaving Stews
Dai Cox
plus David Hughes: Moog on ‘Forever’

Recorded at the Old Mill, Ewenny, August 1985

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Tracklisting for Who Is Me EP

1.     Who Is Me
2.     Church Head
3.     Demonstration Called Democracy
4.     Skating On Thin Ice

Personnel

Bill Bargefoot
Brooce Boyes
Heaving Stews
Dai Cox

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Written by Gustav Thomas

October 24, 2010 at 9:58 pm

Radioactive Sparrow – T.C. The Collection (1985)

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T.C. The Collection
was a step outside the pattern in that it featured (in Brooce Boyes’s absence) Jason ‘Jas’ Davies. Jason, a painter and printmaker (whose current work can be found at http://www.jasondprints.com and http://digitaldialogues.co.uk) was Bargefoot’s best mate; they drove about a lot between Cardiff, Bridgend, Porthcawl and Ogmore with music on the whole time, a steady rotation of the Fall, the Smiths, Joy Division, Ha Ha the Electorate/Grenade and (loads of) Radioactive Sparrow. There was never any thought that Jason was joining the band; his involvement here seems to have been a one-off experiment to make a bunch of material that was unique in the band’s overall output.

This album was the first of many that integrated studio recordings with live (concert) cuts. Radioactive Sparrow took a long time to feel comfortable gigging: it wasn’t until 1987 that they started transferring their in-house, spontaneous song-making skills to the concert setting. Before then they would turn up at wherever they were invited (not a frequent circumstance) and either bash through previous songs from memory or simply splurge chaos without retaining much structural consciousness while delivering. The latter kind is definitely what in evidence here, a concert given for Emma Davies’s birthday in Bryn-Menin, in the hills behind Bridgend, on the 2nd June. What’s remarkable now is how much it resembles so much noise music that has been made since the turn of the millennium; also, it’s quite special in the way the band seems to porously absorb elements (and the guests) of the party itself, vocalists, guitarists and drummers drifting in and out of songs, increasing the overall abstract nature of the recorded material. The stand-out track (in terms of conventional values, that is) is ‘Hayfever.’ The band played in the garden at the back of the house which overlooked a field of freshly cut grass; Jason suffered very badly from hay fever, and sang this from the balcony on the first floor, his face horribly swollen (his eyes almost forced shut), tears streaming down his face – what his lyrics describe, then, was real. The other live cuts are interesting for the way they foreshadow the avant attitude of much later (Gage-era) Sparrow, not least in strong performances by Stews.

Alongside the gig songs, the album is made up of a single session recorded the same day, before leaving, that features Jason as lead vocalist throughout (except for a brief cameo from his then-girlfriend Kate Taylor) where he reads from assorted texts (including Bargefoot’s diary, something the band would return to often in future). For no apparent reason, three miniatures also appear in the sequence which feature Bargefoot solo, cramming verse lyrics into the short time provided by a Casio VL-Tone 1’s memory function.

Tracklisting

1.     Village Bike
2.     I Gotta
3.     Fuck This, Fuck That
4.     Secrets
5.     Happy Birthday Emma
6.     Roundabouts
7.     Strokes of Love
8.     Quiet Please We’re Rollin’
9.     Futurist Wanker
10.  Spunky Glue
11.  Roll & Roll
12.  Hayfever
13.  Itchy
14.  Bok
15.  UNTS COW
16.  Bettws (Genital Flowers)
17.  Simon Is A Crimp
18.  Happy Birthday Emma (Two)
19.  37th Week
20.  Duvet

Personnel

Jas Davies
Bill Bargefoot
Heaving Stews
Dai Cox
Lee ‘Pixie’ Williams (‘Geddy’)
Kate Taylor
Vicky Moore

Recorded June 1985 at the Old Mill and Fox Hollows, Bryn Menin

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Written by Gustav Thomas

October 24, 2010 at 8:47 pm

Radioactive Sparrow – Dai & Will Sessions ’85 (1985)

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Kakutopia apologizes unreservedly for a shortcoming at this juncture. Unfortunately your continued understanding of how the music of Radioactive Sparrow is subject to a requirement on your part to make a small concession concerning the temporary absence of three songs. Since 1999, the entire recorded archive of Radioactive Sparrow and associated acts has lived in a cupboard built into the eaves of a Victorian terrace loft in York. The Kakutopia management oversaw the installation of this facility and personally built custom shelving on the inside of the partition that encloses this storage space. During this time, ancient cassettes have been removed and replaced as and when a particular moment in the saga was to be revisited, and by and large, perhaps even surprisingly, tapes have neither been lost nor broken. Except for the master edit of Dai & Will Sessions ’85, apparently. Even then, almost all the master tapes for the album have been located and (here, obviously) digitized. But there is one session missing! It’s not desperate, most of the album is here, not least the most significant and memorable tracks. But among the three missing is ‘Mimi,’ a particularly good song where Dai’s guitar sets new Kak standards, and boasts an uncommon rock & roll mention for taramasalata. [NB – this paragraph will be deleted as and when the fully restored version becomes uploadable – what follows is the sleeve note proper.]

During the Spring of 1985, Bill (here recast for the title as ‘Will,’ the more bandied diminutive of his British subjecthood) spent more and more time at home, having become increasingly disillusioned with the art college experience, instead setting up a makeshift painting studio in the loft of a barn across the road from his house. Since Dai Cox was still living in Bridgend (having left school at 16) the two were hanging out together a lot and filling the lengthening May evenings with bedroom sessions round Bill’s/Will’s. The late spring and summer of 1985 was very wet, otherwise they might’ve been playing tennis instead, I reckon.

This collection brings together a handful of sessions recorded in May, and, perhaps properly speaking, oughtn’t be deemed a Radioactive Sparrow album at all. But the band have always been greedy for catalogue extension, and at the time the duo felt that they were carrying on important work in the absence of Boyes and Stews. Which, of course, they were: what these sessions achieved was a significant step forward in terms of the band’s instrumental vocabulary, but also provided some serious teeth-sharpening for Cox who never had a music lesson in his life and, apart from the drum kit, had never owned or even been in possession of a musical instrument. For the first time there is a real intent to make sophisticated, post-punk structures from out of nowhere, rather than either joining in an invisible sing-song or blasting out chaos as its own reward. Cox’s exuberantly untutored bass lines form the back-bone for an exploration of pop song that would define the group’s aesthetic until his retirement in the autumn of 1986.

This new attitude is evident from the very start, Bargefoot’s terse count-in responded to by Cox’s impossibly pert bass ejections, the conventional rhythm section again being riveted down by the increasingly definitive combination of Synsonics and Casio (still Owen Powell’s lent posh keyb whose model number is not recalled – not the 403, which would arrive by the end of the year).

Dai & Will Sessions 85 also set the crooked precedent of receiving heavy rotation in cars wherein some passengers found its constant playing unbearable: fans were always to find themselves at loggerheads with the more trenchant victims of the plain.

Above all this album reveals that Dai Cox was probably a genius: what you have throughout is an instrumentalist who moves intuitively through musical narrative with real insight and guile, devoid of any conventional (tutored) logic, while his partner (Bargefoot) reciprocates with clumsy repartee caught half-way up Richard Scarry’s fire service ladder. That is to say, it’s not so much in evidence here, but it’s not hard to imagine that a few more years of this kind of behaviour and a true artist would’ve emerged. Looking back from 25 years on, one wonders if things might’ve been different – if one might’ve kept Cox from quitting (or being quit?) just over a year later. At the time, though, he became increasingly fixated on his real-world job, ‘standing on my own two feet’ a lyric that occurs several times, which was inevitable for obvious reasons like earning a living. Without the blessing of a quarter-century’s worth of hindsight, the parting was probably unavoidable at the time, given the variance of outlooks.

[It is, of course, not remotely obvious which one is Dai Cox on these tracks – there is a full, track-by-track personnel breakdown in the ‘info’ text file that comes in the download zip.]

Tracklisting

1.     Vestibule
2.     Play It Now
3.     Striking Bird Lady
4.     Paris Resistance 1943
5.     A Nasty Fall
6.     Mervyn Headstrong
7.     Newbridge Edges
8.     Hard-On Woman (Seventeen)
9.     Nobody Needs Your Help
10.  Blowjob
11.  Spike
12.  Eddih (Remix)

Personnel

Dai Cox – all insts & almost no vocal
Bill Bargefoot – all insts & most vocals
Plus Jason Davies and Kate Taylor – Synsonics on ‘Play It Now’

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Written by Gustav Thomas

October 24, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Radioactive Sparrow – Pros & Cons of a Popular Vicar (1985)

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(Bed, Beach & Bollocks Trilogy Part Three)

The Bed, Beach & Bollocks trilogy closes out with an album that is only slightly better than the trilogy’s opener, On Th Bed, purely by dint of there being quite a lot of vocals and lyrics and that. Or maybe not – since posting On Th Bed I’ve re-listened a few times and a makes a new, historic sense in the way that … Vicar doesn’t… The album consists of a track by Bargefoot and Cox (‘Eddih’) – the pair beginning to take control of aesthetic affairs ahead of their densely meditational duo séances later the same year – followed by six pieces recorded at Adamsdown from a session featuring Jas Davies and Dick James, half of the songs using tracks from On Th Bed as backing.

Who’s to say?

‘Eddih’ shows some discipline, spark and invention, while most of the rest of the album is indistinguishable from any random student-lounge plopping out to their misapprehension of all things social, political and environmental, perhaps best summed up by the opening fart test, tacked on to ‘Eddih’ from the Adamsdown tapes. Truly, it’s a mess: it’s stupid and lazy, like Kiss, one of the original Kak xeno-prods – and the avid Sparrow chronoholic will reach the carpet-staining close of ‘Love At Sundown’ with some genuine relief that the trilogy has been put to bed, beached and bollocked. Fear not, mind: the second trilogy, in 1987, more than compensates. And, indeed, the album that follows this, Dai & Will Sessions ’85 does more than enough to reclaim the saga’s momentum.

Tracklisting:

1.     Eddih
2.     Down On The Farm
3.     Freddie Jeans
4.     Once Upon An Alice
5.     Silence Is Golden and Sticky

6.     Sea Shore Shell Sore
7.     Love At Sundown

Personnel:

Dai Cox
Brooce Boyes
Bill Bargefoot
Jas Davies
Dick ‘Y’Can’t’ James

Recorded at the Old Mill & Adamsdown, April-May 1985

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Written by Gustav Thomas

October 1, 2010 at 10:09 am