Radioactive Sparrow – 39/Trans/Flied Piecatcher (1988)
This is a messy gluing together of various things recorded at Preswylfa, and from two gigs in June and September, between making 1730s (recorded in April) and Double-Top: Sheer Talent (October), a period which saw the beginning of Brooce’s withdrawal. It’s the first album to feature Tony Gage, but it’s not really his first Radioactive Sparrow album, partly because he’s not on all of it and where he is he’s not really him yet, quite. His joining the group came about because Bargefoot had booked the band to play at El Sico’s (later more famously known as TJ’s), Newport, and about two weeks before the show Brooce pulled out because of a dispute partly relating to the band not being paid (Stews was already otherwise engaged, so he couldn’t make it either). Bargefoot, Stews and Miss 100-Fingers looked around for a replacement, giving tapes to potential suitors – Radioactive Sparrow must be one of the few bands in history who needed to audition for potential recruits’ approval rather than the other way around. After a few knock-backs, they dared to ask Gage if might be up for it, though they imagined it was very unlikely. To their thrilled amazement he said yes, whereupon a warm-up session in the Hut was hastily arranged which would introduce him to the basic approach of Kak’s instantaneous song-craft (tracks 2, 3 & 12 on the album came from this session).
To the band’s horror, when they turned up for the gig, they were told by Trilby (Mr. Siccolo’s wife, the ‘TJ’ for whom the venue would later be renamed) that it was ‘Rock Nite’ to which most of Gwent’s biker fraternity generally turned up. In their panic, the band came up with a plan to try and sound as normal and rocky as possible, while urgently summoning Chris Hartford from London to come down and open for them, basically as canon fodder. Both plans were lamentable in their outright cowardice, for which Kakutopia now apologises to the history of human endeavour. It is a testament to Hartford’s sense of history and his commitment to it that, despite the fact that he was in the middle of his finals – and had just come out of one of an exam – he got on the next train, turning up literally just in time to go on. His set is included here, partly to give an indication of how the crowd responded, but also because it’s a vintage document of Ded Pan Chris (as he was known during that period) featuring all his classics like ‘Freaking Out On The Half-Past One Ferry To The Channel Islands’ and ‘Times Are Hard If You’re Just A Torso’ as well as more experimental pieces like ‘Summer ’17.’
Tracks 5, 9 & 13 come from the TJ’s performance. They’re pretty dull, by and large. They opened with ‘Memories Of Roman Times,’ the title track of the very first official, now lost, album, played and sung from memory by Bargefoot, improvising the verse lyrics (the refrain, ‘I tell you you’re a cow, but you won’t be in a couple of weeks in/Memories of Roman Times/Flashing through your brain…’ is preserved from the original). ‘Neighbours In Transit’ is revisited from the recent Skorpion Sundy Rising, while ‘Who Left The Gas On’ was totally improvised, the chorus referring to Emma 100-Fingers’s mondigreen of that year’s continental fave, ‘À Cause Des Garçons.’ The whole experience was terrifying, but the crowd of some 80-plus bikers were apparently in a lenient mood, preferring to heckle rather than throttle, their light touch more than likely suggesting that they thought the band really was just hopelessly shit in a pathetically tragic, but unthreatening way. The worst the band got was stuff like ‘that’s enough, now fuck off!’ and ‘they need a new guitarist.’ Although, bizarrely, Miss 100-Fingers did suffer heroically. She was playing keyboards at the side of the stage, where a group of biker chicks kept whacking her on the shoulders with their handbags, and that did leave several bruises. For which, eternal respect.
The remaining live cuts (6 & 10) come from a gig at Sheffield’s Take Two, some three months later, Heaving Stews restored to the front of the show, and introducing Guy Williams as Ceri Davies’s drumming replacement until Richard Bowers joined the band in the latter part of 1989, which represents the real beginning of Tony Gage in Radioactive Sparrow, in that it was a proper Sparrow gig, no messing. ‘Telephant’ revisits the acerbically confrontational one-note stamp of April’s Clwb Ifor Bach performance (see 1730s, album 38), Stews this time aiming his invective at the recent trend for British indie labels and promoters to favour Welsh language groups (following John Peel’s own enthusiasm for them), and its fancy for any ethnic otherness, something that was born out of a post-colonial arbitrary pluralism that (still now) tastefully drapes difference with unthreatening veils of equivalence (‘tolerance’ above engagement). ‘Telephant’ had been a 1970s children’s TV show that BBC Wales used to make kids watch instead of Swap Shop or whatever Hanna Barbera fare was on before it. No matter how laudable and worthy the Welsh language cause might have been, for kids growing up in parts of Wales heavily anglicised by heavy industry (e.g. Bridgend) switching on the telly Saturday mornings met by low-budget and apparently patronising kids’ entertainment routines in a foreign language was a bit of a bummer. The same cultural priorities would get the band’s goat in the 80s and early 90s when they’d find it so hard to get really decent opportunities to put stuff on because they were neither Welsh language nor overtly Gallo-centric. A good example of how absurd this could be was an instance where a friend (and fan) of the band was unavailable for a certain engagement one autumn because the Arts Council in Wales were sending his Welsh-language glam rock band on an all-expenses tour to the Southern states of America. Later on, Gage and Bargefoot took to provocatively wearing union jack t-shirts when playing at Chapter after being sickened by a cultural-exchange exhibition that paired South Wales and Soweto on the basis that the oppression suffered by both communities was indistinguishable. Just to underline how Deeply rooted this tendency was, especially for readers outside the UK, Dylan Thomas was someone that was almost never mentioned through any official cultural channels in 1980s Wales, being a poet of the English language and a US émigré, generally an inconvenience.
The rest of the album comprises a handful of mildly interesting duo tracks, the last ever recordings to come out of Preswylfa (dubbed ‘Preswylfa Sounds’ by Hartford, who recorded his multi-tracked album Dr. Fekkesh’s Case Book there in the Summer of 1988), recorded by Bargefoot and Stews. They already sound a lot more like 1989 Sparrow, with a certain incompleteness to them that would soon be rectified by Gage.
- I Couldn’t Get It Up Tonite
- Lyrict Apology
- Memories Of Roman Times
- Big Black Hearse
- Neighbours In Transit
- Keep The Faith Brother
- My 3 Abortions 2
- Who Left The Gas On?
- Already Dead
plus Ceri Davies (drums) on 2, 3, 5, 9, 11 & 13
and Guy Williams (drums) on 6, 10 & 11
Recorded in the Hut, Preswylfa, and in concert at El Sico’s, Newport and Take Two, Sheffield