Radioactive Sparrow – Double-Top: Sheer Talent (1988)
Another unique moment in the Radioactive Sparrow story, there was never another occasion quite like the late-November weekend for which the band gathered to make their fortieth album. Sparrow membership has always been a nebulous attribution, but had you pressed the band to proffer a definitive line-up in the autumn of 1988, this quintet here would probably be it, even though Brooce Boyes was supposed to have taken part – at that time he drove a 70s Ford Capri that was more trouble than it was worth, and on this occasion it had failed to start, leaving him stranded in Plymouth. The album was recorded on the Saturday, working till late, then going to Southerndown beach on a moonless, pitch-black night, and walking towards the water’s edge on a very low tide, unable to see a thing, after which they probably made sure they got to the Three Golden Cups for last orders. On the Sunday they wrapped up proceedings by playing a set at Chapter’s Meltdown, a sort of open mic night that always featured a couple of headlining acts from around 10pm, but if you turned up before 7 you could usually get at least a 10-minute slot. This was the first of many occasions when Sparrow would record during the weekend then play a Meltdown set as if delivering a public report straight from the furthest frontiers of Kak, albeit to ignorant, indifferent ears. On this occasion, whoever was asked to look after the tape machine forgot to press record until half way through the last number, a stage conjuring of ‘Bile Vial,’ which they’d recorded the previous day. That 3-minute extract forms the last part of the complete 13- minute track on the album itself, closing out what used to be side one of the cassette. Even the glimpse offered here suggests that it was a amazing show, and the crowd’s wild enthusiasm is followed by the compère’s expressions of disbelief: ‘Radioactive Sparrow, c’mon! Who said we never have anything different? Good God!’ The lucidity, fluidity and sheer energy of the performance provides as good an account as any of the exceptionally sweet spirit of collectivity the group enjoyed at this moment in time. The party atmosphere had infused the whole weekend;afterwards, Emma 100-Fingers said it felt like Christmas. The final track on the album, ‘Back In The Van’ (released for the first time here), was recorded on the drive from Pontcanna to Roath where they ate at a Chinese restaurant after the Chapter gig. It features a lead vocal from Miss 100-Fingers who also contributes increasing amounts of backing vocal as the album progresses – clearly she was overcoming an initial shyness with the voice, and we’re left here with yet another tantalising might-have-been had she continued to play a part in Radioactive Sparrow over the ensuing years.
A lot of Radioactive Sparrow albums are made up of tracks from different sessions and organised into a continuity retrospectively, even though the initial intention has usually been to record the whole thing in one go, in its intended listening sequence – in other words, to the ideal means of production would be to experience the actual album as such while it was being made, not just improvising pieces one at a time then seeing what they had (like, say, Can) – Kak has always been very much about enjoying hearing music you want to hear for the first time while actually making it. In the end, relatively few albums came out like that, but this was one of them (as were soon-to-be-posted Old Fruit and Deathcunt). It should be born in mind, then, that the pacing of the album, its narrative peaks and climaxes, are something the band were conscious of while they were playing. ‘A Hate Of Great Twats,’ an excellent Stews opener, limbers up and scopes out the territory before Bargefoot kicks off ‘Spinning Bowl,’ a song about that old-school cylindrical fair ride which spins at increasingly high speed until they take the floor away so people are left pinned to the fucking wall by its centrifugal force. Bargefoot announces the riff for ‘Spinning Bowl’ before playing it: it had resided in his head since the age of about 7, when he originally made it up, in those days calling it ‘James Bond.’ One of its lasting charms is that it constantly spirals out of control, as if the wild force of the spinning bowl itself has interfered with the band’s earnest endeavours. This is in fact due to Bargefoot’s tendency to screw the meter and fall out of time at certain points due to heightened intensity, something that, along with Stews’s ante-musicality, would come to define Kak’s essence.
The shortcomings of Sparrow’s one-shot Panasonic capture of the full rock line-up in the Hut have already been mentioned (see You Keep A Rockin). The technique they used was to put the vocals through the old Zenta 10 watt amp and place it next to the tape machine if the vocalist wasn’t using the usual method of singing close to the condenser mics themselves. By the third song, however, it seems as though either the amp or the recorder got moved, because from then on the mic’d vocals are too low in the mix. So, just as they’d done for You Keep A Rockin, they got the 4-track out to overdub an additional voice part. Except this time, they sorted it out straight after the main session, with everyone present, so for Gage’s ‘St Patrick’s Caravan’ the whole group were joining in on the choruses like carol singing – on ‘Bike Vial’ this descends into a swirling chaos of vocals and random interjections. ‘Bile Vial’ had initially been made up on the spot during the Sheffield Take Two gig. Its premise – Bargefoot’s mildly tritone-tickling riff supported by Gage’s playfully scalic bass line – was one that was easy to strike up again. Here we get a long rendition in two parts from the Hut, with the exuberant live segment faded in at the end. During the many-gigging 1989, such germs would become a fall-back, the band often finishing up sets with ‘Spinning Bowl,’ ‘Flayed Alive By Lesbians’ and ‘Bile Vial’ as would-be standards, although this would never be planned or discussed, and certainly never rehearsed – it just seemed to feel right at the time to take a step back from what would otherwise usually be a wholly improvised show.
Both halves of the album’s title came from the annual coverage of the darts world championships on TV, a really special 70s/80s phenomenon in the UK when the sport briefly became a universally popular, for-all-the-family, prime-time spectator sport. Its superstars, the likes of Leighton Rees, Jocky Wilson, Eric Bristow and Cliff Lazarenko would be fantastically unfit, draping sizeable beer guts with comfort-fitting nylon short-sleeved shirts, stepping back from the oche to glug from what was an immoderate standing of pints and several ardent puffs on chain-smoked fags. To Radioactive Sparrow, the sport’s utterly anti-athletic ethos was brilliantly cacotopian and seemed to speak directly to their cultural sensibilities. For those who aren’t familiar with the game, ‘double-top’ is double-twenty (i.e. 40), the highest check-out double on the board; ‘sheer talent!’ was a hyperbolic exclamation by the sport’s iconic Geordie commentator Sid Waddell following some admirable feat such as consecutive maximums (one-hundred-and-EIGHTY) or a 161 checkout finishing with… double top; the cover star, raising his pint in a toast to Radioactive Sparrow’s great achievement, is Jim Bowen, a veteran UK stand-up comedian who used to host the sport’s highly popular and fantastically unslick spin-off gameshow, Bullseye, on channel 4.
Over the years, there was a tendency to have all kinds of texts lying around the Hut for a vocalist to grab whenever they felt in need of a spur – tabloid press, Reich’s Function Of The Orgasm, old letters, and Bargefoot’s old diaries, the latter frequently proving the most entertaining option. Stews was traditionally the one to select an entry, and this had something to do its their shared past, school rivalries and long-dormant gossips. On this occasion he simply picked the same date, November 29, from 1982, for a tack they’d already recorded for the purpose once they realised they would be needing overdubs anyway. ’27/11/82′ features the whole diary entry [pictured below] read out by each member of the band (except Miss 100-Fingers) in turn, Bargefoot’s voice sped up and Stews’s slowed down.
Ultimately, for all that it’s an uncharacteristically straight ahead set of songs, closer perhaps to what they sounded like in gigs at the time. Certainly there’d be nothing as rocky as this for a good while.
1. A Hate Of Great Twats
2. Spinning Bowl
3. Happy Herring
4. St. Patrick’s Caravan
5. Bile Vial
8. Flayed Alive By Lesbians
9. After Flayed
10. Mean Machine
11. Sound Of The Oppressed [previously unreleased]
12. Back In The Van [previously unreleased]
Recorded at the Hut, November 27 1988 & at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, November 28 1988