Archive for November 2010
The last ever Radioactive Sparrow album! That’s what it says in the original cassette inlay because the band split up immediately after the recording session (hence also the album’s title, of course). Bargefoot had got into a massive strop with Boyes and Stews because they were taking the piss out of some (actually stupidly pretentious) ideas he and Jason Davies had been discussing for avant garde theatre pieces where they would do things like walk on stage naked except for cowboy gun holsters and say things like, ‘Alright, mate?’ Three days after the recording date they came to collect their freshly edited and art-worked copies, whereupon Bargefoot threw the master tape at them and told them to fuck off.
… But he had held onto a version of the album, and proceeded to listen to it. A lot, because it was really good. Nearly five months later, in May, Bargefoot tentatively made contact with the other two (they were living in the same house in Plymouth at this point), who turned out to have also really gotten into the album and were constantly quoting lyrics to each other etc. That is, of course, where the story for the next album, Skottland Escapement, begins.
It’s not just the split that marks this album out as a significant turning point in the group’s history. It is an album of several firsts: the first without Dai Cox; the first where nobody cared about what material resources were available in terms of instruments and amps and just got on with it; the first album made from a genuine collective improvisation where all the players are fully involved in the shaping of content (rather than just ‘being the drummer, the bassist etc.), all three singing on almost every track – resulting in an approach where each instrument is much more concerned with what kind of sound and texture is being generated rather than following conventionally musical semantics: very much a prototype for the extremely informal and intimate albums of the 90s and beyond (e.g. Holy Tip, Sometime Music Can Be So Modern…, and Can You Tell What It Is Yet, You Twat?)
The album gets off to a bumpy start, the first three tracks (really just two songs) seem to cover relatively old ground, although quite what the hell ‘Aeroplanogue’ is actually about remains a mystery. With ‘Ooh-Ah!’ however, the collective spirit plunges in deep, the song driven by an almost Gabba-like relentless beat (courtesy of the Synsonics’ glorious return) accompanied only by some subtle Moog worms, Boyes’s cymbal slamming and Stews’s amazing bottleneck guitar – the rest of the texture is filled out by the band chanting an understated, matter-of-fact chorus of ‘Ooh-ah, ooh-ah, ooh-ah, ooh-ah…’ punctuated thrice by some a capella faux-delirium that evenutually descends into cackles (what Hartford always called ‘Kak laughs,’ citing the phenomenon as a key stylistic ingredient of the band’s self-invented genre). By the time the song ends with one of Boyes’s tape-collage interventions (here messing with ‘White Christmas’), which frame the album and appear at certain points throughout, the group is totally in the zone, and what follows is basically a masterpiece.
A key moment comes at what was the end of the old C60’s side A, where Bargefoot has curiously blundered into oddly similar territory to Cox’s ‘Jaffrey’ from the previous album, but this time directing his ire at the as yet untraced killer of 15-year-old Dawn Ashworth. Bargefoot had learned about the murder from watching Crimewatch UK, but clearly mixed up the facts, because the first two victims of the murderer (who turned out to be one Colin Pitchfork) had been found, respectively, in isolated spots locals called ‘The Black Pad’ and ‘Ten Pound Lane.’ ‘Black Pad Lane’ is therefore a conjunction of both. For a band who always upheld the prerogative of the authorless text, thereby inhabiting imaginary ulterior mindsets from which to issue pronouncements in lyrical content, the song is an almost unique occasion where one of its members gets personally emotional. The spell is broken, however, upon Bargefoot’s noticing the little button on the Panasonic radio-cassette recorder (endowed with excellent condenser mics, and which remained their means of recording everything until 1990, when it was jettisoned out the back of the tour van in a head-on collision) that allowed you to switch between mono and stereo recording modes. Of course they wanted everything in stereo because that was more cool (or something) so the sudden realization and immediate correction, while audibly becoming stereo in the process, brings the band abruptly back to the materialist focus and ironic distance of their ritual endeavour. Thus Sparrow’s brief flirt with emotional representation (through which they might’ve ended up like Radiohead instead of continuing to be Radioactive Sparrow) is dismissed pretty much forever. The resulting song, the 6½-minute ‘Mono,’ is an absolute dream and remains both one of Sparrow’s finest moments and a benchmark in Kak, if not avant-retard idiomatic improv as a whole.
‘Mono’ steered the trio into an as yet unclaimed bounty of collective song-making that yielded two more great tracks in ‘Hoover’ and the extraordinary, 15-minute ‘Cowboys,’ in which Stews fully arrives as the band’s lead singer designate/elect (from now on he would traditionally lead the charge from the front both in concerts and recording dates), his capacity to shape distinct vocal sonorities finally in full evidence after increasingly insistent hints on previous releases (not least the bizarre, proto-Black Metal squawking on Kak Serec).
Aside from the mono/stereo button, diverse technologies define this album in several other ways: the near-impossibility of getting a workable sound out of the absurdly warped, ‘bow-and-arrow’ acoustic guitar; the almost continuous noodling of the Micromoog, making its first proper appearance here; the constant wheezing and guffing of the harmonium which was always in the Hut (see the opening of ‘Cowboys’ for instance); and the automated kick-drum click of the Synsonics which, quite ridiculously, remains switched on for most of the album – apparently no one cared to switch it off at any point.
The Final Conflict, although certainly marking the ‘end’ of an era, is also the beginning of an incredibly fertile period in which the group remain as the three-piece of Bargefoot/Boyes/Stews almost throughout and become unassailable masters in improvising fully ‘composed’ pop songs without any preparation or discussion. 1987 was to be the most prolific year yet and would produce at least six enduring albums still worth bothering with today. The end of the beginning indeed…
1. Aeroplanogue (1)
3. Aeroplanogue (2)
5. Down Cow
6. Black Pad Lane
Recorded in the Hut, Ewenny, December 1986
Last Ever Album!
… Until May 1987, anyway.
Unless you really want to know every detail of the Sparrow saga, don’t bother downloading this one. No, really – save your broadband usage, spare yourself the ordeal. It’s not even accidentally ‘good’ despite itself. Its only worth is in illustrating how incredibly low the group could sink only months after the triumph that was They Don’t Really Mind the Pubes. With Mystery Turd the irrepressible joy with which the session was conducted had sort of let them off the hook, but here there’s no redeeming feature at all.
If there is actually one song that is almost OK it is ‘I Can See Nothing But Sex,’ in which Heaving Stews, as he does throughout the album, excels, but here, for once he is given the space to show his class. Quite how he came up with the insane vocal sound he uses here is impossible to determine – it is quite visionary. His lyrics here are also as sexually depraved as Bargefoot’s elsewhere, whose wanton immaturity is woefully exposed, Stews showing he is several classes ahead of the rest of the group, something none of them were even able to begin to appreciate at the time.
And, of course, it is Dai Cox’s last appearance (except for a very brief cameo on 1987’s Gordon Bennett). Quite why Radioactive Sparrow and Dai Cox parted company is now unclear: certainly it was a period where Cox was becoming much more serious about his career, and late 1986 revealed plans to go and work for Powersport (his Bridgend employers since leaving tech) in the USA. Apparently, the American trip never happened, but the parting it lathered among the band’s members seems to have precipitated a permanent split. In terms of his bowing out of Kak, let Cox’s swansong be embodied in the heights he reached with the two previous albums – even though Mystery Turd is no classic, his performance on it is every bit as classy as previous outings. He completely baffled his band mates (and to some extent, bemused them, through an overt homophobia) with his only vocal on the album, ‘Jaffrey,’ which suddenly, and quite out of character and out of keeping with the overall spirit, is a vitriolic and paranoid outpouring against an invented paedophile, Jeffrey. The song’s lyric starts as a bizarre depiction of Jeffrey which appears to show some sympathy for a psychological condition beyond the his control, before descending into an all-out damning with ‘You’re just a fucking POOFTAH!’ More the shame because the song has some of the best music on the album, Bargefoot’s keyboard apparently imagining the kind of celebratory tone Cox exhibits on … Turd, sparring with some truly impressive use of bottle neck and whammy bar by Stews on the Kak guitar.
The immanent sexual tensions and repressions finally overflow in the last song, ‘Perfect Fanny/Up The Stairs’ in which Cox and Bargefoot set off on a tour around the house and front drive, riffing some crap refrains while almost impressively improvising with found resources such as the car roof and a coffee grinder.
Like the Soviet resistance at the siege of Stalingrad, the band ultimately prevail in epic style with The Final Conflict, a reclaiming of lost aesthetic ground that would change the course of Kak history forever.
Random extras: this was the first album to be recorded entirely at Heaving Stews’s house (something that wouldn’t happen again until 1999 with Sometimes Music Can Be So Modern It’s Almost Unbearable); here again, as with the previous two albums, it was deemed necessary to replace a missing member with a guest, in this case Stews’s brother David. On the original credits, his name is followed by ‘not much help’ in brackets.
1. I Am Man
4. I Never Loved No One But Me
5. I Can See Nothing But Sex
6. Perfect Fanny/Up The Stairs
David Hughes (not much help)
Recorded at Heaving Stews’s house, 16th August 19
This album (and the one that follows it) from the Summer of 1986 has always been regarded as a relatively unworthy outing by the band. But listening now, nearly 25 years later, it doesn’t sound too bad. The boundless joy that pervades so much of Sparrow’s music-making is certainly in abundance here. However, what the album seriously lacked (as far as Stews and Bargefoot were concerned) was that spontaneous-composition-of-fully-formed-pop-songs element that the group was otherwise developing an unassailable expertise in (see They Don’t Really Mind the Pubes, or The Final Conflict, or any of 1987’s albums, for examples). ‘Recoast’ is a good example, where the spuriously random shifts in focus start to undermine credibility, such as exists for a band like this. Interestingly, where there is some coherence, it comes from a reliance on easy-to-follow I-IV-V progressions, like on ‘Nothing Better In This Life’ and ‘Happy,’ a procedure much more in keeping with the lousy and vastly inferior practice of jamming.
A major problem was the fact that Rory Redking, Bargefoot’s cousin roped in to try and make up for Brooce’s absence, would tend to get bored with songs and allow his playing to dawdle off into random fills, pauses and beat changes. Which is all fine, of course, being very much part of the aesthetic – or is it? (Redking was to make several, far more impressive appearances in the coming years). All of which is useful in how it reveals (because it’s not in evidence here) that Radioactive Sparrow have, throughout most of their history, relied on immanent telepathies between two or more members – at this stage it was between Boyes and Bargefoot (Stews was to attain this level by the end of 1986), and later, most significantly between Bargefoot and Tony Gage.
Mystery Turd seems mildly concerned with class. The band’s members had been variously working-class, lower middle-class, straight-up 8-ball middle-c-ass, with Bargefoot ever the exception in that he was decidedly (at least) upper middle class, if not worse. They all, originally, had gone to the same comprehensive, Brynteg, which also spawned JPR Williams, Gavin Henson and others. Consequently, then, Bill had childhood and adolescent contact with some very posh types and ludicrous caricatures of landed gentry, some of them very sorry specimens indeed. One such was a certain Charles Knight: on what was the last time they ever hooked up, Knight had dropped round to pick up Bargefoot for a pint or whatever, and Bargefoot was watching the video for Sting’s solo debut single, ‘If You Love Someone, Set Them Free.’ For reasons not immediately apparent, Knight kept asking for the video to be replayed, staring with a drilling gaze at the two black female backing singers that cool Sting had adorned the would-be performance ecology with. Eventually, after the third or fourth repeat, he remarked, in some surprise, ‘Amazing… The first spade I’ve ever liked, ever fancied…’ A sordidly lamentable moment, worthy of the most virulent paedophile, a wake-up call to those present which precipitated the second song here, ‘The First Spade,’ whose repeated refrain seeks to carve the nuances of Knight’s public-school accent into an Americanate rock chorus. Quite why Bargefoot renames Knight ‘Sideways Jacksmith’ is not remotely evident, and the attempt to posh up the chorus seems to be the source of much amusement during its performance. Besides that, Stews’ ‘Jumping up and down on the monarchy,’ from ‘Nothing Better In This Life,’ responds to the royal wedding hype contemporaneously being guffed out of the media at the union of Prince Andrew and Ferg-Hue, while the title of the album’s opener, ‘Forklift (St. Tropez),’ nestles a much nattier juxtaposition than the actual song rewards it with.
One of the stand-out tracks, ‘Nature’s Crest,’ also represents two significant firsts: the Kak a capella, a structurally anarchic collective bellowing, was to become a popular vehicle over the ensuing years; as was the use of Bargefoot’s old diaries as a source of lyrics – here the choir reads from an old bird-watching notebook whose language hilariously (and without irony) apes the style of (supposedly) Edith Holden’s A Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady (indeed, not the last time this ridiculous book is referenced).
1. Forklift (St. Tropez)
2. The First Space
3. Nothing Better In This Life
4. Mary Taylor
7. Will’s Such A Contradictory Bastard
8. Interlude (Cox Keyb Solo)
9. Nature’s Crest
Recorded in the Hut, Ewenny, 16th August 1986
In a way, Heaving Stews has always retained his initial role within the group as a kind of stylistic catalyst and aesthetic mentor. Certainly, it’s true that had Boyes, Cox and Bargefoot been left to their own devices in the first 5 years, they’d have not been nearly as interesting or worth revisiting today. So, despite his absence from its recording, he considered They Don’t Really Mind the Pubes to be the band’s pinnacle for some time, serving as a blueprint for how subsequent Kak should sound. What impressed him, probably, was the post-Beefheartian counterpoint of the guitars, paring down their interplay to single-line riffing whose angularity was rounded by a Spartan sensuality; or perhaps the rugged and raw rock-band configuration bashing out music that sounds composed but whose total improvisation renders it fluid, bled and anarchic.
Leaving the bedroom and moving back into the Hut (garden shed) for the first time since Festive Sex saw the reintroduction of the drum-kit and conventional amplification. The return was largely due to the fact that Bargefoot and Boyes were concurrently resuscitating the idea of a rehearsing band (Will & Dr. Edwards) – which would meet its crushing Waterloo at the much-hyped Central Hotel gig in August – thus all the gear for a normal band was set up, ready to use.
‘Pube,’ like most vocabulary to do with sex, is a stupid and clumsy word. However, its phonetic proximity to (rhyming with) ‘tube’ is interesting – on close inspection pubes tend to reveal an almost tubular character in their greasy translucence. But its inclusion in the title, and this awkward sense of it, is apt. For all the puerility of Sparrow’s habitual scatology and pornographic humour, this album is far more gritty and grimy in handling sex-related subject matter. ‘Spitfire Jenkins’ features some bizarre lyrical content (‘Put the tubes down your tube/Drinkin’ Coke out like a straw of your fanny’) from Bargefoot after he accidentally came upon a video belonging to ‘a relative,’ called Pussy Talk. It was among several other titles that would be classed as far softer – mostly the Electric Blue series that pornlord Paul Raymond flooded the nascent video-rental market with in the early 80s. Pussy Talk, a hardcore US import, apparently illicit in its lack of certified packaging, departed from the Electric Blue sketch/tableau/set-piece model by acting like a feature film; set in a hospital, the storyline seemed less guided by opportunities to flesh out fantasy with graphic depiction of copulators, than by the pursuit of extremes that fell short of, and side-stepped, coprophilia or golden weather (no shit). Hence one memorable scene where a doctor experiments with the mingling of various popular sodas (Coke, 7Up etc.) with naturally secreted pudendic fluids by pouring the drink directly into the vulva into which a rubber tube has already been inserted, and through which he then ingests the mixed results. Boyes and Bargefoot found the movie tough to watch, for the most part, its cringeability a key device, obviously, and its vibe translates into the album’s content with similarly mixed results. The imagery in ‘Spitfire Jenkins’ translates quite well into an off-the-wall rock lyric, but Boyes’s recounting of love-at-first-sight as ignited by the first glimpse of an anal sphincter, or worse, Bargefoot/Boyes’s scatological caper ‘The 69 That Went Wrong,’ which closes out the album, are simply base.
They Don’t Really Mind the Pubes is a rare case in the Sparrow output where the master tape was lost (got broken) very quickly after recording. What survives was originally Bargefoot’s first edit to dish out to the fellow band members while he concentrated on a more complete and definitive version. Consequently there are some bizarre edits on several songs (most notably ‘Glass With Care’) where content was cut for reasons now impossible to recall (although periodic, excessive microphone feedback might have been a factor). Also, using Jason’s double-cassette machine to run off the master, Bargefoot casually and randomly dubbed material over the top at various points throughout the album: mostly, he used a letter tape from painter Lee ‘Pixie’ Williams (‘Geddy’) that mostly recounts real or imagined sexual adventures undertaken while studying fine art at Birmingham. The tape was for a long time a source of collage material and inspiration for the band, and also forms the core of a Laurie Anderson-style stage show that Gwilly Edmondez mounted with Ceri Davies and Jane Powell in the Autumn of 1986 called Bigger Geddy Numbers, where it is used alongside, among other things, Michael Tippett on Desert Island Discs. The album document of this project will be posted here shortly, because it’s quite interesting, some of it even ‘good.’
The departure of Cox by the end of the Summer to which this was Spring, while not yet remotely sensed or suspected, is retrospectively more sorry given the defining performance he turns in here. ‘Glass With Care’ is among his best performances as an improvising lyricist; his bass playing on ‘Shit-Hook Woman’ and ‘New Purple Dress’ is nothing short of masterful genius – listen out especially for how the uses he flanger in ‘Shit-Hook Woman.’
This was the first album to feature Bargefoot’s brother, Niklus, the original inventor of Kak’s basic methodology, in private, during the late 70s, even taking up the lead singer role for ‘Shit-Hook Woman.’ The end of ‘The 69 That Went Wrong’ has a short burst from a demo tape by a band called The Iconoclast Largeactilites, which Bargefoot had been taping over to make the edit. At the time of recording, Bargefoot had dropped out of PNL, but was living in Finsbury Park (4, Prah Road) and working as a porter in the sterilizing unit of the Ear, Nose & Throat hospital on Grays Inn Road, which is where the word ‘rhinoplasty’ was first encountered, although the song doesn’t in anyway refer to nose jobs.
1. Glass With Care
2. Same Note For Half-an-Hour
4. Shit-Hook Woman
5. One Day In The Park
6. Spitfire Jenkins
7. New Purple Dress
8. The 69 That Went Wrong
Recorded in the Hut, April 1986
Radioactive Sparrow reached an all-time high with this album, which remained their highest seller (30+ copies on cassette!) until 1989’s Rockin’ On The Portoman. Although its status as a ‘hit’ album had almost nothing to do with ‘sales,’ since most of the copies were given away, delighted as the band were that anyone might even ask to own one. Many of those copies were distributed among students at the Polytechnic of North London (PNL) in Kentish Town, where Bargefoot spent a term (before dropping out) as a German & Philosophy student, in the academic year following all the protests about NF infiltrator Patrick Harrington. The SWP were a major presence at PNL, but nothing here would seem to reflect that. Instead, Bargefoot was busy with Chris Hartford, Mark Hill and others founding the Permissive Society, a student organization funded by the Students’ Union to put on music events devoted to, essentially, the Kak aesthetic. One of the guitarists out of Senseless Things was a member.
A major factor in the band’s shift for Y-Fronts… was the introduction of the Casiotone 403, once again courtesy of drummer Ceri Davies. The keyboard was conceived as a backward-looking instrument aimed at the integrated Hammond organist fraternity, a lightweight alternative that could be easily carried around. Consequently it had these lovely, warm and rounded drum sounds and earnestly configured Latin beats, the likes of which the band hadn’t heard before (real or replicated), filled out with friendly organ sounds. And, of course, the ‘Frog’ sound which features in countless Sparrow songs forever after, not least the album’s opener, ‘I’m Not Sebastian Coe.’
Another addition was the first of many ‘Kak’ guitars, originally available in Woolworths and Boots in the 1970s, which by the mid-80s could be bought for 20 quid in seedy second-hand stores in Roath, Cardiff. This one, a sort of Telecaster shape with the standard issue excessive whammy bar, ended up as the legendary ‘Cat-Puke’ guitar during the Hut years, when gear was habitually left for months in the shed among the hundreds of soggy fag-ends and pissed-filled beer cans, and which cats would often retreat to when needing to chunder, apparently. By 1990, Radioactive Sparrow had 11 Kak guitars, all of them different, all bizarre, sounding way better than any brand approved by professionalists.
Rounding off their biggest year to date, Radioactive Sparrow were starting to show signs of the collective telepathy that would come to characterize the great albums of 1987. The whole set was spun out pretty much as quickly as it’s heard – no discussion, no hesitation – each song seeming to drop fully formed out of nowhere, the enjoyment of which wasn’t lost on the band at the time. It would come off as even more impressive today were it not (mercifully) for the base puerility that would continue to vein the calf beneath the garters for many more years yet.
The album contains many memorable tracks: ‘I’m Not Sebastian Coe,’ a perennial favourite, is one of those songs which momentarily seemed to connect with the ‘real’ underground – Heaving Stews used to have a video of a band called Stump, performing on The Tube, whose sound was very close to it. ‘Outspan Grapefruit’ was the ‘single,’ Cox’s self-assured vocal combined with a kind of 60s-pop, Latin cabaret ambiance in the bass and keys. The intensive duo sessions between Bargefoot and Cox pay off on this album, too: especially Cox’s endlessly infectious bass lines on ‘… Sebastian Coe,’ ‘… Long Faces’ and ‘Sugargreen Lady.’ Cox also provides a thumbnail manifesto for the Kak aesthetic on ‘In The Summer Lime’ – ‘We just pick up the gear/And play anything/Anything that comes into our head.’
1. I’m Not Sebastian Coe
2. Why Do We Have Long Faces?
3. Outspan Grapefruit
4. Are You Elephant, Boy-Boy?
5. Sugargreen Lady
6. In The Summer Lime
7. Pussy-Pussy Doggy-Loo
9. Rocki’ Xmas
(& Jason Davies on ‘Are You Elephant, Boy-Boy?’)
Recorded at the Old Mill (Tracks 1-4 & 9) and The Retreat (5-8), 19th & 30th December 1985.