Radioactive Sparrow – The Final Conflict (1986)
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.