Radioactive Sparrow – Alright? Sparrow! (Live At Arty Sort Of Venues) (1987)
The encouragement Radioactive Sparrow garnered from the August show in which they improvised a whole set for the first time (which provided the live cuts on Gordon Bennett) led them to book their first proper public dates in Cardiff. The way bands booked shows in Cardiff (and elsewhere?) in those days was very different from now; if you were doing a gig, then you’d usually be the only act on the bill and you might do a full-on 60-90 minute set like the big touring bands did. This was born directly out of pub culture; it was the standard thing for people to go to the pub of a night at around 7 or 8 o’ clock and stay there, chatting, drinking and probably smoking (maybe the odd game of pool or darts) until closing time, which was strictly 11 o’ clock. After that, especially at the weekend, people would perhaps move on to a club. A big town like Cardiff would have maybe five or six clubs that stayed open till 2am, but no later (by law), and people tended to go there after the pub. So if you were doing a gig, it would be integrated into that structure: the band would set up and sound check, then people would turn up and drink and chat like any other night until about 9-9.30 when the band would get on stage and do their thing. The same pattern applied if you were playing at a college or arts centre – which is what this album is made of.
The first two dates the band played in Cardiff took place on a Thursday and its following Tuesday, either side of a weekend whose Saturday was Hallowe’en, 1987. The Thursday night show took place at Cardiff Art College (Howard Gardens) in the booming, vinyl-tiled space that was basically the extended refectory. For a crowd of about 150 students, the band did two 30-minute sets before the DJ saw out the rest of the night. Most the audience knew nothing about the group, who had been booked by Elaine, the Student Union entertainments secretary (a friend of Emma 100-Fingers who hadn’t yet joined, but was renting a room in Bargefoot’s house), and their attitude was one that grew from a gentle enthusiasm to mild bemusement and indifference over the course of the two sets. The most spirited efforts from that gig are included here, but the band also made the mistake of playing several previously recorded songs (e.g. ‘(Sh)Ah,’ ‘Ooh-Ah!’ and ‘Kak Face,’ all without rehearsal, of course) which came off a little flat due to the relative lack of spontaneity, as well as Ceri Davies’s tendency to fall back on the bog-standard kick-hat-snare eighth-note shuffle as a response to most riffs.
Davies, who had been in Bargefoot & Boyes’s last (ever) rehearsing outfit, had been drafted in as the utility drummer, the trio apparently feeling that the drum machine wouldn’t be sufficient for a full set in a ‘proper’ venue. Along with Davies, the singer-songwriter-stand-up-comic Chris Hartford, already a close friend of the group, was invited to play the interval and then join the group on guitar for the second set. Hartford had been a fan of Radioactive Sparrow ever since founding the Permissive Society at the Polytechnic of North London (where he and Bargefoot had briefly been fellow students in 1985) and being given a demo tape by Bargefoot who was looking for kindred spirits as much as opportunities to play. Hartford, who loved the likes of Swell Maps, the Pop Group, the Fall and Family Fodder, perhaps saw Sparrow as belonging to the same tradition of British alt-pop that gleefully side-stepped both reductionist professionalism and avant-esoteric austerity. The Howard Gardens gig marked the start of a long association that saw Hartford open for Sparrow many times (sometimes as canon fodder for especially unfriendly crowds – see album 39), usually also playing with them for the main set; he also recorded with them on several key albums.
Alright? Sparrow!, so named because that was how Bargefoot took to declaring the get-go, is not a great Kak album in itself (though it does unwittingly muster a fair parody of amateur art-rock). Rather it represented an important landmark for the group, giving them a foothold in the pursuit of a worthy Sparrow live act. What makes it slightly dull to listen to now is the workmanlike efficiency, and thus predictability, with which they deliver standard verse-chorus forms. The idea of Radioactive Sparrow was never to be an improv band in the manner hat has become more familiar since the 1980s; they would never, ever, announce the fact that they were making everything up on the spot without any prior discussion or rehearsal, even though that was absolutely crucial to their credo and methodology. Instead, they sought to play a subtle trick that would use total improvisation as the fastest, easiest, and most fun way to make pop music – most especially ‘albums,’ but the recognition that they would have to support this with public performances grew increasingly prevalent. It was paramount, then, that the majority of the audience were under the impression they were watching a regular rock & roll outfit, so that the madness of what total spontaneity made available to the performers would be accentuated by is incongruity to the presumed, or collectively understood, context. This is why they never subscribed to the notion of pursuing non-idiomatic ‘free’ improvisation, an aesthetic that they saw as hopelessly tautological and thus self-defeating (although they did come to admire the very best exponents of this approach). In order to achieve this, the music had to deliberately tap into a collective cultural cognitive lexicon of riffs, rhythms, lyrics and performative gestures and attitudes – if the audience thought they understood what was happening (i.e. there’s a riff, a beat, the singer is starting to tell us something on the vocals etc.), they would be drawn in to a duplicitous narrative web through which the band might expose the limits of the listeners’ cultural imagination and the extent of their incarceration within market constructs. More often than not, this led to antagonism and even pronounced aggression on the part of the audience, and this inevitably became a core component of the whole Sparrow concert experience.
A favourite tactic – and one that remains very provocatively irritating to conventional audiences to this day, for some reason – was the tendency to casually swap instruments, even if one member or other clearly didn’t know how to play. For instance, for ‘Ban Wan,’ Heaving Stews takes over the guitar and his complete lack of any knowledge of how to play it, reinforced by a clear disinterest in rectifying that, is evident from the opening strains; a pity, though, that his guitar wasn’t louder – if you listen closely, what he’s playing is really good. On countless concert recordings, you can frequently hear discussions about, ‘who wants to play drums? … I fancy playing keyboards on this one.’ etc. Perhaps the most interesting and worthy track on this album is ‘Best I Ever Saw,’ with which they closed out the Chapter set. For no explained reason, Ceri decided his job was done and sat out the last two songs, allowing the core trio of Bargefoot/Boyes/Stews to deliver the closing statements. Boyes plays drums, while Bargefoot and Stews front up on guitar and bass respectively, providing dual vocals that sound like nothing so much as the agonized final lowing of condemned cattle at an abattoir. Jason Davies described this piece as ‘feeling like a huge, enthralling canvas you’ve spent the last hour contemplating suddenly cascading down onto you.’ As much as anything, this sense of sudden disintegration must be credited to Stews’s extraordinary bass playing, whose resolute untutoredness and stubbornly heretic ante-musicality carves jagged trenches in the mock-professional rhetoric of square-rock jamming that most of the evening had comprised.
The Chapter gig possessed none of the tense antagonism of Howard Gardens; the audience of about 20 was made up almost entirely of people who had made the effort to come out on a Tuesday night to see the band, most of them knowing what to expect, some even calling out requests (amongst which ‘Jonny The Sheepshagger’ was, of course, the ultimate crowd-pleaser – for Christ knows what reason). Significantly, Tony Gage was in the audience, seeing the band for the first time, only a few months after the break-up of Grenade. In this exceptionally congenial situation, Gage expressed a surprised enthusiasm, asking to be sent a tape (Sparrow almost never carried with them product to give out or sell) and told the group to let him know whenever they’d be playing again. He only saw Radioactive Sparrow perform once more before his joining the group would reshape it almost beyond recognition; the second occasion (Clwb Ifor Bach, discussed in album 38) was marked by an almost complete lack of the congeniality that had blessed this Chapter debut.
The jovial atmosphere was lost, however, on the bar manager, a guy in his late 50s from Bridgend called Frantz whose presence within the Chapter administration remains a mystery since he clearly hated anything left field. Memorably, in 1986, he had approached Gwily Edmondez after his show Bigger Geddy Numbers, and puzzlingly snarled at him, ‘you’re all arrogance, aren’t you!’ When it came to booking Sparrow he made all kinds of excuses why he couldn’t put them on; but as they were walking out, dejected and disappointed, he called them back and said, with tears in his eyes, ‘Because you’re Bridgend boys…’ and offered them a date, reluctantly reneging on his better judgment for the sake of some nostalgic allegiance to a shared tribal provenance.
- I’m Normally A Virgin
- Whites Of Their Eyes
- Just Like They Did In The 50s
- Ban Wan
- You Are Tonite
- Jonny The Sheepshagger
- Blow Job Bob
- Identikit Student
- Bastard Postman
- The Best I Ever Saw
Recorded at Howard Gardens (Cardiff Art College) on Thursday 29 October 1987 & Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, on Tuesday 2 November 1987.
Ceri Davies (drums)
with Chris Hartford, second guitar on track 8