Radioactive Sparrow – Skottland Escapement (1987)
1987 was the biggest year yet. Skottland Escapement (whose title was as lazily, arbitrarily and randomly assigned as the album’s ridiculously incomplete art work) ushered in a dramatic shift for Radioactive Sparrow who graduated from messing about in the garden shed, to consciously developing the skills to make up fully formed pop songs on the spot without any prior discussion. Their collective identity as ‘a band’ is even stressed by Bargefoot right at the start of this album before they launch into an abortive first attempt to get going (intro to ‘Grunge’).
So, this was the first great reunion following the acrimonious split upon completing The Final Conflict, whose brilliance apparently still hadn’t persuaded the band that they didn’t necessarily need a drummer, inviting Rory Redking for the second time to fill part of the gap left by Cox’s departure. Redking’s contribution here is more in tune with the Kak aesthetic than his previous appearance (1986’s Mystery Turd). The whole album is charged with an energetic joy in returning to (K)action after the lay-off and the temporary concession that the game was up. The group issue forth a report from the crux, gazing back at their already considerable self-attributed legend, whether making reference to early material (Boyes’s resuscitation of ‘Memories of Roman Times’ at the start of ‘Hally Hally Hally Ha-Haan,’ for example) or would-be tributes to Cox (‘Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fondle,’ ‘So Happy’). Cox had originally entered the fray by volunteering as a lyricist, much in the way that Bob Bailey’s mum had answered a call made by Elton John in the early 1980s to send him lyrics in the wake of his split from Bernie Taupin. He used to write out complete songs on the torn out centre-sheets of school exercise books. At one stage, having joined the band proper as a drummer, he had accumulated a whole exercise book’s worth of songs which he would pass on to members of the band as and when a new song was required. Around 1982 he penned an ecological-awareness lyric which featured the lines, ‘The trees and the grass is green/No other colour is allowed,’ which triggered an unfortunate bout of derisory piss-taking, not least from class mate Paul Burston (see below). The ensuing humiliation on Cox’s part not only led to his permanent retirement as resident Sparrow lyricist, but also the destruction of his collected songs – an obvious tragedy (some, the ones written for the never completed, fully composed Criminal Records, were partially remembered by Bargefoot and then reconstructed brilliantly by Tony Gage in 1990, ready for whenever the band feels like finally recording that album). The only surviving originals in Cox’s hand can be viewed HERE and HERE – these are the very first two songs, neither of them ever used. Nonetheless, this sorry turn of events and then Cox’s departure in 1986, meant that for some time (really until The Final Conflict) the band struggled to find a solid collective approach to generating vocals appropriate to the rest of what they were doing.
Each member of Radioactive Sparrow has had a different approach to making improvised lyrical content. The band’s original vocalist, Ozzy Oskins, tended to not improvise the words as such, but his penchant for improvising source material was little short of genius. At the legendary First (now-lost) session, he grabbed the pile of school exercise books from the table in Bargefoot’s bedroom, where they had installed themselves to conjure the mother of all Evental Sites. During the session he segued effortlessly between (badly done) translation exercises of Latin, French and German (‘Chariot Races,’ ‘Siggie’ etc.) and indifferently cobbled composition exercises on asinine themes such as the idea of robots and automatons taking over day-to-day production (‘Machines’). Bargefoot himself would develop perhaps the most recklessly unmeditated approach to vocal parts, almost always committed to blurting out whatever suggested itself in the full flow of performed committing, although often having a pre-determined chorus or theme usually the result of informal (usually pub) conversation, in-jokes, shared experiences etc. Gage would later operate in a similar fashion, although he started by bringing part-written lyrics to his first few sessions. Heaving Stews’s method, however, was much more hybrid and complex. While apparently preparing very little in concrete (i.e. written down) terms, he seemed to develop and carry around in his head fairly complete song templates that not only comprised the chorus lyric, but often verses to support it. Crucially, not being a musician in any conventionally recognized sense, the manner of these songs’ articulation, their phrasing, rhythm, tune, dynamic etc. would be conceived in the improvised moment along with everything else. Strangely, though, such cells seemed to remain in his head for years, ready to be seized on and re-deployed at any given point. This tendency first becomes apparent on Skottland Escapement, an album rich in morsels for the ardent Stews fan to savour. While most the songs comprise completely new content (whether purely improvised or via Bargefoot’s diaries – a new trick introduced on this album), in ‘Wishing Well’ he suddenly quotes lyrics from Oh Yeah, Oh Wow!’s ‘Chase Me Down the Corridor’: ‘I was sitting on an egg-cup timer/Waiting for the days to pass by/I was sitting in the mouth of a whale/Watching the waves go by,’ setting a trend for self-reference that saw him revisiting several disparate pin-points in Sparrow’s past (which will become apparent as and when they appear on this site).
The diaries thing: for a while, Bargefoot’s diaries from adolescence became a popular source of lyrics in a brilliant twist on Ozzy’s original homework-grabbing method. The idea had come from an earlier instance where Jason Davies read from diary entries during the studio sessions for 1985’s TC: The Collection – the absurd, ridiculous earnestness of Bargefoot’s intended privately personal observations had been duly noted for its joke potential. For the diaries’ inaugural outing proper, it’s the 1984 volume, the band’s final year at school, that is featured here, ‘Awful Day’ being the very first song to bring to life a particular day’s angst, in this instance the writer’s terror that his girlfriend might be pregnant. Later, during the excellently abstract ‘Hally Hally Hally Ha-Haan,’ Stews actually gets distracted by the page that the book happens to be open on and starts reading it silently to himself until he suddenly chimes, ‘The question remains: why did Will guess that Paul’s gay?’ ‘Paul’ was Paul Burston, author and oft-BBC gay issues pundit who had been a school mate of members of Radioactive Sparrow, sometimes acting as the band’s advisor and critic, and with whom Bargefoot shared an appreciation for the music of Kate Bush. He didn’t actually reveal his homosexuality till at least a couple of years after they had all left school, but apparently, according to a diary entry Stews had found, Bargefoot had already worked it out. Unfortunately all of the diaries (apart from 1982 diary, which gets plundered for lyrics later on) are now lost, so it’s not possible to trace this exact moment of lucidity on the part of the Kak diarist. Incidentally, it’s probably worth mentioning that ‘Hally Hally Hally Ha-Haan’ always seemed to be a reference to Clive (‘Mr.’) Hally who had been the band’s form tutor in the 3rd year (‘year 9’); more importantly, he had been Bargefoot’s O level art teacher, in which capacity he would deem it appropriate to physically hit pupils quite violently across the head or face if the work they presented showed an obvious lack of effort or inspiration – a brilliant ingredient to factor into the artistic development of anyone who ended up as a world leader in the field of Kak music.
Furthermore, ‘Hally Hally Hally Ha-Haan’ and ‘Wishing Well’ employ a brilliant technique that has yet to be revisited, but which is liable to produce hilarious musical gestures, wherein the bass player is also playing the kick drum, detached from the rest of the kit, as the only source of percussion or time-keeping.
One more piece of trivia: it’s funny how rarely any kind of wind instrument makes an appearance in Radioactive Sparrow, which is surely to be regretted. Everyone in the band would love a trombone, though. This album is the first to feature a saxophone (alto) and the only one where Bill Bargefoot is playing it. Having long wanted to learn the instrument, he got one cheap and second hand, but it reeked of urine; he felt well sorry for the girl whose Dad bought it for her for Christmas when it went up for sale in the local paper.
2. Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fondle
3. Smooch Nr. 1 (Sabotaged)
4. Awful Day
5. Maureen Lipman Imp
6. Stupid Fucking Society
8. Wishing Well
9. Hally Hally Hally Ha-Haan
10. So Happy
11. Smooch Nr. 2 (Flamingo)
12. Isn’t Strange?
Recorded in the Shed, Ewenny, May 1987