In the early 1980's, in the small town of Rugby in the centre of England, three teenagers began melding early blues with feedback, one chord drones, booming drums, smashing cymbals, gospel, Turkish saz and two note melodies. Natty Brooker, Pete Kember and Jason Pierce were Spacemen 3. On 3 August, 1985, they played a gig in the backroom of the Black Lion pub on St Giles Street in Northampton. It was the best gig I ever went to. And, it was the gig that led directly to their first ever record deal. Today marks the 30th anniversary of that performance.
As a teenager growing up in Rugby I saw Spacemen 3 play many pub backrooms. They were and remain an incredible band. Earlier in 2015, it occurred to me that, not only was this particular gig important historically, it was also the earliest Spacemen 3 gig for which a recording and photos still exist. Finally, after 30 years, and in one place for the first time are; the photographs from the gig, the unedited cassette recording of the entire performance, the memories of those who were there and related ephemera.
I tracked down members of Spacemen 3, the Jazz Butcher, who saw the band for the first time at this gig, and old friends in the small audience who, like me, paid £1 to enter that backroom in 1985. Very few people went to this gig. If you were one of the many who weren’t there, this is as close as you’ll get to being there now.
“Bliss it was in the early 80s to be alive, but to be in Northampton was very heaven. For a couple of years, there really was energy in Northampton,” said music journalist Andrew Collins.
Spacemen 3 formed in 1982. The early 80’s was an impossible era to be a one chord, gospel, feedback band from anywhere, let alone one from Rugby.
Neil Taylor, author of (to be released) C86 & All That: Indie 1983–86 explained it well, “It is hard now to explain just how dire the mainstream music scene was back in 1983. When synth-pop drivel flooded the charts. The biggest-selling acts of the year included Kajagoogoo, The Flying Pickets and Phil Collins.”
Things were not much better in ‘Indie music’. By the summer of 1985, the UK independent music scene was experiencing something of a lull. Punk, post-punk, gothic and the Postcard pop scene of Glasgow were all long over. The Smiths had broken into the mainstream. The Jesus and Mary Chain had not long screeched to everyone’s attention. However, for the most part, the scene was dominated by stalwarts; The Fall, Cocteau Twins, The Cult, New Order and The Pogues. It was “A Scene In Between” as the 80’s indie archivist and author Sam Knee later called it.
Spacemen 3 barely figured on the Rugby radar and were complete unknowns nationally. The Rugby scene of early 1985 consisted of; a sixties garage band called The Push, Total Contempt, who were a punk band, a ska effort called Russian Jazz, a sub-goth band and a few blues and folk efforts. Spacemen 3 were the runts of the litter. And, because of educational commitments and an ever-changing line-up, of all the bands in Rugby at that time, Spacemen 3 also played the least gigs.
Northampton was the nearest, most vibrant city to Rugby. Bauhaus formed there in 1978. When they split in 1983, the bass player, David J, joined fellow Northamptonians, The Jazz Butcher Group. The Jazz Butcher, otherwise known as Pat Fish, recorded for Glass Records. Pat was well-known locally and, at that time, was becoming renowned nationally and internationally.
Dave Barker, founder of Glass Records, signed a lot of bands from Northampton and the surrounding area in the early eighties. He included two of them, Where’s Lisse? and Religious Overdose, on the Northampton Under Glass compilation tape in 1981. All bands in the town gravitated towards the backroom at the Black Lion. It was only a matter of time before bands from Rugby discovered it too.
In 1985, Adam Gillison, his brother Chris and I regularly went to gigs together. We all grew up in Rugby. We went to different schools. But we had the same keen interest in punk, post-punk and indie music. We heard about gigs in local newspapers, on the radio, in the national music press, by word of mouth and from flyers and posters in Rugby record shops. Adam, Chris, Sean Cook, who would later play bass in Spiritualized, and myself got the train from Rugby on the evening of August 3 and made our way over to Northampton. A journey of twenty minutes or so.
“I probably heard about the Spacemen 3 gig that night via Convergence, a record shop in Rugby,” said Adam, who was seventeen years old in 1985 and studying for his ‘A’ Levels at Lawrence Sheriff Grammar School for Boys in Rugby. The same school that Jason Pierce and Will Carruthers, a future Spacemen 3 bass player, went to.
“There were three independent record shops at this time in Rugby,” said Adam. “Convergence on Regent Street being the one I visited most because of the wealth of independent, post-punk stuff they had, as well as the fact that they were so supportive of the local band scene. They probably had a poster up for the gig, or maybe Simon who ran the shop told us about it.”
Adam, Chris, myself and another friend produced a local fanzine called ‘Ear to the Ground’. In it, Adam had reviewed Spacemen 3's first demo tape. It was Spacemen 3's first review anywhere. “We used to review most stuff we went to see. And we’d already reviewed Spacemen 3's demo tape. We covered lots of local stuff, as well as bands from further afield who came to our area.”
“I have to say, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the demo tape,” said Adam’s brother, and future Art student, Chris. We were the same age. We had just finished our ‘O’ Levels. It was the summer before sixth form. The summer of the first Live Aid, of Phil Collins hopping from Wembley to JFK on Concorde, of ‘Frankie Says’ t-shirts, of Madonna ruling the charts, TV and airwaves.
“It was kind of a ‘swampy’ thing — kind of bluesy rock ‘n’ roll,” said Chris. “But, it wasn’t completely as if Spacemen 3 had dropped from the sky. There was quite a bit of rock ‘n’ roll/rockabilly tinged stuff around at that time. The Cramps had always been there, but you had the likes of Folk Devils, psychobilly stuff like The Meteors and Guana Batz, The Janitors, James King & The Lonewolves, even the Sid Presley Experience. They probably wouldn’t thank me for comparing them to those bands, and they were a lot looser and swampier than that. Around that time it felt like an increasing number of bands were looking back to the 50s and 60s for inspiration. Even the Jesus and Mary Chain, who were pretty big news around that time, had a very 60s inspired sound.”
“I know that Pete was, and is, very fond of the Cramps and the Folk Devils,” said Pat. “I was very into the Folk Devils myself at the time. But I didn’t really perceive the band along those lines. I think I got caught into a sort of Velvets/Mary Chain sort of thing, which, of course, left me wondering at the time why they didn’t play faster… Of course, when I spent time with them later, often in the front bar of the Black Lion, it was explained to me that, although they liked the Velvets, they were more drawing from a common well; Bo Diddley, Gospel, the Blues, than they were trying to ape the Velvets themselves.”
The Black Lion was a typical working men’s pub. It had character, but it would never have won any beauty awards. The backroom was bare bones. Underfoot, the blotchy red carpet felt like a damp bloody sponge. A claw of leathery nicotine stretched across the ceiling. The air was a jelly of spilt beer, weak dope and stale smoke. I’d been going to the Black Lion fairly regularly for about a year, having heard of the venue on BBC Radio Northampton’s Sunday music show, ‘The Pulse’. As a thirteen year old, I was a massive Bauhaus fan. Upon spotting David J in the backroom of the Black Lion one night in 1984 and, apparently calling upon my most fledgling journalistic instincts, I tried to collar the bassist for an interview. I failed.
Having been to very few gigs by my 15th and 16th birthdays, I had very little to compare the place to. Nonetheless, the Black Lion had quickly become my favourite gig venue. I’d often visit at the weekends on the off-chance of seeing a band, any band, play live. It was only a matter of time before Adam and Chris came with me.
“The Black Lion was a great place to see bands,” said Adam. “I think this was only the second time I’d been, having previously seen the Jazz Butcher there just a couple of weeks before. It felt like quite an important place for local bands, by which I mean bands from Rugby as well as Northampton.”
Spacemen 3 had only recently started playing at the venue. Pete Kember remembers how it used to work back then.
“It was the first place I remember us playing outside Rugby,” said Pete. “Not the easiest threshold to cross. As a label-less, unknown band. My memory is that Jason was booking all the shows at that point and that the landlord requested a demo tape, and for whatever reason gave us a show date. I suspect he might have been a Hawkwind fan , which was a point of reference people used to make back then.”
Pat Fish remembers the then owner of the Black Lion as a colourful, if rather unfortunate character.
“The landlord, Dave Turvey, was a lovely, peaceful chap,” said Pat. “He got very unlucky over the summer of 1986. Various unsavoury types from out of town would appear at the pub of a weekend. At times the pub would be swamped with out-of-town — and very indiscreet — dope pedlars. They didn’t just upset the regulars and their local connections, they were so boisterous about the whole affair that they attracted the attention of Old Bill as well.”
“I was away on tour in America when the inevitable police raid came. They turned the place over, searched Turvey’s flat for drugs (even though he didn’t use them) and generally acted malevolent about making an example of the nasty, scary hippie pub. They threw the book at Turvey and he did time in Bedford Prison, just like John Bunyan.”
“The phrase “Turvey is innocent” can probably still be seen sprayed on walls in Northampton today,” added Pat. “And it can be heard in Curtis E. Johnson’s rather lovely song ‘Improbably Northampton’. There wasn’t another venue in England like the Black Lion at the time.”
Local Northamptonshire musician, Mark Refoy, was also in the audience that night. This was to be his first ever encounter with Spacemen 3. It was an important evening for him. Mark played guitar and sang in a band called The Tell Tale Hearts. They went on to play on the same bill as Spacemen 3 many times. In 1989, Mark joined Spacemen 3 as a guitarist. He played on the Recurring album and was part of the first Spiritualized line-up.
“I heard about the gig from a guy called John Lucibello, a local musician,” said Mark. “He said he’d seen them at the Black Lion sometime previously. He said they were kids from out of town playing drone type psychedelic music and that I should check them out. I’d never heard of or seen Spacemen 3 before. The Black Lion at the time was THE place for bands to play in Northampton. It had been a venue for maverick types to come and and plug in and play for years, with sympathetic landlords and bar staff. Earlier on that year, the Old Grey Whistle Test had done a short film about the scene going down there.”
Watch the original report, broadcast on April 26, 1985, on BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test above. John Lucibello, whom Mark Refoy mentioned, is interviewed in the film. Presenter Mark Ellen shows you the tiny, elevated stage in the backroom of the town centre pub. The [awful] mural you can see in the photos throughout this feature was painted upon the back wall soon after this BBC report was filmed. To get into the backroom, you had to pass through an ancient, dank, brick alleyway that ran along one side of the building. Mark remembers it well.
“You would enter from an alley at the side of the pub which led to the backroom,” said Mark. “You’d normally have someone on the door taking money and giving you a stamp. In the case of Spacemen 3, I think Pete was on the door that night. I can’t remember how much it was, a pound maybe? The bar in the live room was on one of the sides, you could go to the main bar out front also which had a good time spit and sawdust atmosphere.”
Pat Fish recalls a rather night and day life for the backroom. It appears that a very different crowd stalked the floor on band nights.
“When I started playing the Lion I was new in town and I really didn’t know anybody,” said Pat. “I barely dared speak to Turvey. I think Dave Barker from Glass probably sorted our first few appearances there. In nuts and bolts terms, I really can’t remember how gigs used even to come to take place there, but somehow they did. Some gigs, like those by Mark Refoy’s then band Syndromes, would be absolutely heaving with young, fashionable kids. Very odd when one bears in mind that the backroom of the Lion spent most of the week as the preserve of scary, older blokes who chain-smoked reefer while they played pool. Many of whom I can now, after all these years, count as friends.”
The bar was little more than a hole in the wall on the right hand side as you faced the stage. Not that we had a huge amount of use for it at our age, as Adam points out.
“As for the bar, I don’t remember it much,” said Adam. “We wouldn’t have been old enough to be drinking in pubs, and so probably kept a low profile. We probably had some tins of Special Brew or Merrydown cider for the train or walk through town.”
Spacemen 3 did not hang out at the Black Lion much themselves. A visit to the Northampton pub was more about playing gigs.
“[We only visited the Black Lion ] when we were playing in all honesty,” said Pete. “None if us were big drinkers at the time. I used to hang with Pat & Alex from the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy a bunch, but it was more about smoking.”
Dinginess was part of its appeal. No matter where you stood in the audience, you were always very close to the band.
“At the risk of offending the then proprietor,” added Chris. “The Black Lion was a bit of a dive really, or at least the backroom was — I don’t think I ever went in the bar. I think it might’ve been a bit of a biker joint. The backroom had some slightly bizarre Egon Schiele-esque, vaguely soft porn murals of ladies with very few clothes on behind the stage. It was dark, smelly, pretty much your average pub backroom where unknown bands played. Decently high stage and low ceiling though, so the sound was okay, and you could see the bands — even if they were sitting down, as Spacemen 3 were a lot of the time.”
“Northampton had some good bands at the time ,” added Chris. “The Tell Tale Hearts, Jazz Butcher, Marabar Caves — all who played the Black Lion — and there was a bit of symbiosis going on between Rugby and Northampton bands. Northampton bands would play Rugby and vice versa.”
Some members of the audience had seen the band before. “I had seen Spacemen 3 once before, at the Pilgrim Club in the Sir Colin Campbell, Coventry,” said Adam referring to the upstairs club that ran once per week in the mid-eighties at the city centre pub, fourteen miles west of Rugby.
“That was a mid-week, psychedelic type club above the pub there,” added Adam. “There were photocopies of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe plastered on the wall.”
“I don’t know if that was the band or the club who did that,” said Adam. “But it definitely shared an aesthetic with the Reverberation Club that Spacemen 3 and the Cogs Of Tyme had in Rugby.
“I thought they were great,” said Adam. “I remember they played Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, and we were Bob Dylan nuts at the time.”
The Cogs of Tyme were another local Rugby band. They regularly played with Spacemen 3 in Rugby and further afield. Above is a recording of a song called ‘Cry Girl’ from a Cogs of Tyme gig supporting Spacemen 3 at the Black Lion on 25 October, 1985.
At the time, The Cogs of Tyme were more popular than Spacemen 3. The drummer, Tim Morris, had also been Spacemen 3's first ever drummer.
Chris also remembers seeing Spacemen 3 live once before. All be it, through a pub window in Rugby. “There’d been a bit of a buzz about Spacemen 3 in Rugby in 1984,” said Chris. “Or at least that’s when we heard about them. I think the first time I saw Spacemen 3 play was at a pub in Rugby called the Black Swan — that could even have been in 1984, I’m not sure.”
The Black Swan was known locally as “The Dirty Duck”. It was popular with young people in the mid-eighties. It had two rooms; a main bar area — all old wooden beams and nicotine stains — and a smaller, quieter lounge bar with sofas.
“We were watching them from outside through the window,” said Chris. “Possibly because I probably wouldn’t have got served in the pub anyway as I was 15/16 in 84/85. I just remember that the swampy bluesy sound had been replaced by distortion and feedback, they were sitting down, and basically playing one chord for about half an hour — I think it was ‘T.V. Catastrophe’ — later to become ‘O.D. Catastrophe’.”
“I remember thinking, “Whaaaaattt????” said Chris. “You can’t do that. Bands stand up to play. Only one chord????! It’s an outrage!!” Basically, perfect for a typical fifteen year old ‘know-it-all’ who took his music very seriously. It really felt like it was kicking against the pricks. We tried to see them as often as we could after that. Twice a week if we could”
Another Rugby band, called In the Outback, supported Spacemen 3 at the Black Lion on August 3. Bizarrely, for a support band, they ended up playing for far longer than Spacemen 3. None of us teenagers liked them.
“In the Outback were a slightly more gothically inclined band from what I remember,” said Adam. “Maybe a little like The Cult. They were quite popular in Rugby and probably went down the better of the two bands on the night. I think quite a few people had come principally to see them.”
“[In the Outback] were friends,” said Pete. “Jason had been in the band as lead guitarist before we formed Spacemen 3. They were patently a very different deal, but there wasn’t a lot of bands in the same vein & I suspect maybe The Push were unable to play. [The Push split up the previous month]. It might also have been down to equipment, but they were friends.”
The main memory I have of the support band was the drum kit. It was huge. So big, you couldn’t even see the drummer. It took an age to take down. So long to dismantle that we were worried we would miss most of the Spacemen 3 set. We’d have to leave soon after 11PM to get to catch the last train back to Rugby. And the train station was a good fifteen minute sprint away.
The difference between the support band’s hi-hats, tom-toms, cowbells, cymbals, snares, branded drumsticks and Natty’s sparse, stapled together kit said it all. Spacemen 3 had only what they needed. Nothing more.
“I think we were just happy to be out of Rugby,” said Pete. “Our shows in Rugby pre-Black Lion were a strange affair. We weren’t over-loved in Rugby at that point.”
As for the scene in Northampton at the time. Spacemen 3 were aware of it, but didn’t feel a part of it.
“The local scene?” added Pete. “We knew about the Jazz Butcher by name, and of course it was Bauhaus territory — it was pretty much what you’d expect for a smaller city at that time.”
Whilst In The Outback played far longer than any of us desired to listen, they did at least have the courtesy to introduce Spacemen 3 before the concluding song of their mammoth set. You can hear that introduction by clicking the file above.
I remember how the atmosphere changed as soon as the support band finished. Spacemen 3 put on their own mixtape. I was feeling a bit embarrassed. I had recently interviewed Pat Fish, a musician whom Adam, Chris and myself admired greatly, for our fanzine and I had encouraged him to come to the gig that night. Only now, we had collectively suffered an hour of new wave, goth nonsense. He must have been expecting the worst from this band I had talked up. The mixtape may have helped relieve any worries.
“I recall that the support act was tiresome,” said Pat. “Very attention-seeking new-wave twaddle with a rickety rhythm section is about the entirety of my recollection. My expectations for the Spacemen were high. I had been told they would blow my mind. I guess I expected something psychedelic but beyond that I didn’t really have any idea.”
I pressed record on the Sony Walkman TCM-12 as Suicide’s Rocket USA came on. I’d never heard it before, but I liked how it sounded. Then, there was No Fun by The Stooges, which we had already heard. I was in the habit of recording these snippets at gigs. At the time, it was a way of learning about music I didn’t know.
I used a cheap external Tandy microphone. I plugged it into the Walkman. The recorder sat in the inside pocket of my jacket. The microphone wire looped through the arm of my jacket and came out at the sleeve. In that way, I could hold the mic unobtrusively in the palm of my hand, point it at the stage and record. Or, if it was too hot to wear a jacket, I’d hold the jacket in front of me, the Walkman in a pocket, with the microphone poking out of the sleeve and still I was able to record.
From a 2015 perspective, this may sound rather paranoid behaviour, especially considering these were unknown bands at the time. But, some local bands did get upset about having their gigs recorded. However, Spacemen 3 were different in that regard. Quite the opposite, in fact. They even sought out our recordings. They seemed quite happy to have their gigs recorded and shared.
But, back to the mixtapes bands would play at gigs. The music before the band even started.
Mixtapes at gigs were important in the mid-eighties. The music was a message for the audience, “This is where we’re coming from. This is the music we listen to. This is our benchmark. If you like this music, you might like us. Or, if you like us, you might like the music on this mixtape.”
I learned a lot about music from Spacemen 3 mixtapes. The first time I ever heard Dream baby Dream by Suicide was before a Spacemen 3 gig in Rugby. I could immediately hear the connection between the two bands. Not in the sound necessarily, but in the feeling of the music. Same goes for Sad Song by Lou Reed which I first heard at another Spacemen 3 gig in 1985.
Regardless of the support band, we were pleased Pat Fish had heeded our young ears and turned up for the gig on this night. I vaguely remember telling him at a Jazz Butcher gig at the Black Lion some weeks before that Spacemen 3 were a bit like the Jesus and Mary Chain with the feedback thing. To which he responded that there was a glut of ‘feedback bands’ in the wake of the Reid brothers. I tried to explain that Spacemen 3 had different feedback. That they had Spacemen Feedback. And they were much more intense than the Mary Chain. Less pop, more blues, more out there. Not that I knew what ’out there’ meant.
Back then, anything with feedback in it sounded great to me. And that first Spacemen 3 demo tape had one ten minute long song full of feedback on it. We’d discovered the Velvet Underground, the Jesus and Mary Chain and the like during the previous school year. It was incredible to think a band that sounded similar to these bands could come from our tiny, little town.
The backroom was not full by any standards, but there was an atmosphere remembers Adam.
“There must have been a decent number of Northampton people there,” said Adam. “And there were a few from Rugby too. There were enough people there to give it a bit of atmosphere, definitely. The Black Lion usually just had a little bit of edge to it that you can’t define, really — something that lifted it above the average.”
Pat Fish had also heard about the band from Pete Bain, the on-off-on-again-off-again bass player with Spacemen 3, at a gig by his recently deceased band The Push.
“I’d been introduced to the Sound of Rugby Town about a month before by The Push,” said Pat. “With a gum-chewing Pete Bain playing a sparkly bass guitar and barking “Baby! Baby! Baby!” in a very authentically garage sort of way. I suppose if I had expectations of the Spacemen, they might have been shaped a little bit by that. But these were times when things were coming through that did strike us young ‘uns as genuinely new. It was two or three years, for example, before it was explained to me that the Jesus and Mary Chain was in fact like listening to The Byrds with the hairdryer on. So I was ready for something I hadn’t seen or heard before.”
“I think the audience consisted mainly of curious people like myself who’d come by word of mouth,” said Mark.
“There wasn’t many there, some Rugby people came too who I didn’t know at the time. The atmosphere was quite heavy due to the nature of the music and the attitude of Spacemen 3. They were amazing,” Mark added.
They began playing without any introductions. Spacemen 3 rarely spoke to the audience, especially in the very early days. They just set up and played. I knew the first song that night. It was ‘2:35’, from the demo tape. I didn’t know the second one. [It was ‘These things have got to be’. This song was later renamed as ‘Ode to Street Hassle’ on The Perfect Prescription album]. Unlike the album version, Jason Pierce sang it live. In fact, he always sang it live, even though Pete Kember wrote the song. I knew nothing about how to play a guitar at the time and I was utterly astonished at the racket their guitars made on both of those songs.
I clearly remember watching Pete Kember moving one finger between chord changes as he played ‘These things have got to be’. Just one. I can remember being astounded that such a tiny movement was all it took to make that incredible wall of sound. It was not too long after this gig that I bought a guitar and formed a band with Adam and Chris.
Kember smoked the whole way through that second song. He had his eyes closed. Whenever the chord changed, I noticed he would lift his head up as if he was in some kind of ecstatic state. The two photos here capture that movement. In truth, the Spacemen looked a bit out of it. I seem to remember Kember standing up after they played this song. He appeared completely shocked at how the world looked while standing on two feet. And he promptly sat back down again.
“The other strong, immediate impression was that they looked so insanely young,” said Pat. “Sonic, in particular, looked so neat and tidy. How could we have known? When I wrote a short piece on the band for ZigZag Magazine, I opened it along the lines of “Here come your girlfriend’s little brothers mates…””
During these early gigs, Spacemen 3 would break strings. A lot of strings. And there were long periods spent tuning up. This gig was no different.
“The other memory of Spacemen 3 gigs around this time was the incredible amount of time they would leave between songs,” said Chris. “Christ knows what they were doing. Part of it was tuning up, but we’re talking upwards of five minutes here. No attempt to engage the audience, or apologise for the intermission, or explain the hold up, you know, like other bands might do to try and look like a ‘professional’ outfit. Nothing. Of course, this just added to the feeling of ‘no compromise’ The whirring of the optokinetic light-show during these ‘breaks’ is a sound I’ll take to my grave.”
In part, the need to tune up was down to the playing style. In part, it was down to the equipment.
“[The Burns guitar] was kind of a beautiful looking thing,” said Pete. “but tuning wise, it was a hindrance for sure. But, until I could stretch to something better it was a sweet thing.”
“It was a good set, really good,” said Adam recalling the gig before having a chance to listen back to the tape thirty years later. “I think they played a fair while, with probably not that many songs, as most of their songs were fairly long, especially in these early stages.”
I also asked Pat to try and remember what they played before listening back to the tape.
“I’ve not heard a recording of the show since that night. I think I can remember them playing 2:35, Losing Touch With My Mind, Mary-Anne and possibly Rollercoaster,” he said. “Pete’s probably still got the bloody set list…” Pete Kember later gained a certain reputation for saving a lot of the band’s ephemera.
“The Spacemen 3 audience at that time was, I guess you’d say, the ‘usual suspects’,” said Chris. “Spacemen 3 and Cogs of Tyme ran a night called the Reverberation Club at The Blitz in Rugby, a pub just around the corner from where I lived. I remember going there with my brother and a couple of other mates and being slightly daunted by the whole thing — that crowd were a few years older than us, and listening to ‘strange’ music I’d not really heard before.”
“The people who went to the Spacemen gigs tended to be the same people, and I didn’t really know them,” continued Chris. “Being in Northampton, The Black Lion was slightly different. There was quite a lot of apathy and laziness in Rugby, so surprise, surprise, Spacemen 3 gigs at the Black Lion (or anywhere outside Rugby for that matter) tended to be considerably less well populated than those in Rugby, and this gig was no exception. So I think pretty much anyone who was there was from Rugby. As I said, I seem to remember The Black Lion was an old biker joint, so you used to get the odd guy with a knotted beard, barely able to stand hovering by the exit door, and then one or two other locals who were drinking in the bar wandering in, curious as to what the hell was going on. A first encounter with Spacemen 3 at that time tended to result in a certain amount of bemusement.”
It was just before a rather shambolic run through of The Stooges Little Doll that Spacemen 3 realised that their psychedelic optokinetic light show wasn’t visible. It was Kember who asked the barman to turn all of the lights out. You can hear the guitarist on the tape telling him “And that one” to turn the last of the lights out.
To which the barman replied, kind of shocked, “AND that one?” only to realise that when he did flick the switch off just how brilliant the backroom looked filled with the golds, purples, greens, blues of the light-show. You can hear the barman saying “Very pretty”. It’s a shame that those lights never came out in the photos. It definitely added to the atmosphere at the gig.
“They were different from other bands on stage as they were often seated, and their look was quite out-of-kilter and like a gang,” said Adam.
Everyone I interviewed who was at the gig remembered the band sitting down to play, but not all of the band did. As can been seen in the photographs, Jason Pierce stood up for much of the night at this gig. I must have seen Spacemen 3 play fifty times or more between 1985 and 1989. However, this is the only time I ever saw him stand up to play at a gig.
During the latter third of the eighties I was a student in London. I was on the tube one day. I had a white and black Spacemen 3 badge pinned to my jacket. Someone, who was sat opposite to me on the tube noticed it and, unusually for people on the tube in London, leaned forward to talk to me. His opening question, “Is it true that Spacemen 3 sit down when they play?”
“This early lineup was a little older than we were and I suppose I found them a bit intimidating to start with, even though they were a local band,” added Adam. “They were just a 3-piece at this stage as well, with no bass. We thought they were great — obviously something really different but which also had references to some of the bands that we were into like Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, some of the ‘60s punk stuff. Despite this, I remember thinking that they were unlikely to get anywhere — it seemed too far out, and I didn’t imagine they would have the necessary ambition. I’m glad I was wrong.”
“My most vivid memory is that Natty’s drum kit gradually disintegrated,” said Adam. “I think it started with a tear in the bass drum, but slowly imploded. Not in an overtly rock’n’roll, smash-up-your-kit way, just in a way that becomes inevitable if you keep pounding away at something that is broken. It was quite funny, in fact.”
“Natty really didn’t have a snare drum that night? I don’t remember that!” said Pat after being reminded of the fact. “He was obviously not your regular rock drummer, that was instantly clear. He didn’t quite have the Mo Tucker thing going on, though, either. I think I might have settled on Angus Maclise.”
“What struck me hard was that there was no bass player. That night there really were but Spacemen Three: Natty, Jason and Pete,” added Pat. “Of course, over the years we’ve seen a few no-bass combos make a brief name for themselves but back then it seemed extraordinary. I’m still not sure if that was a deliberate policy decision on the band’s behalf, or whether it was just a case of no one being available at the time. Remarkable, also, that they were sitting down. When I got to know them, Pete and Jason both made the very reasonable remark that it’s much easier to play guitar sitting down. These days, I play guitar sitting down.”
These three people on the stage in front of us looked completely normal. Even square. The fact that they were capable of making that utterly outrageous sound. Without the need for bad hair. Or bad clothes. In the back of a Northampton pub no less, was very inspiring to us teenagers. They seemed completely out of place and out of time. As a result, they were utterly mesmerising.
I can remember being stunned by how Natty drummed. How he had his drumsticks the wrong way around (or, the right way around for the Spacemen sound). And how he smashed at the cymbals. It was so simple, but so brilliant. Such an exotic sound. Like the great big crashing gong of an imagined house band playing an Ashram on the Great Silk Road… or… something… While Kember and Pierce were the monks with electric prayer wheels… and a lawnmower... or something. Natty Brooker was an exceptional artist as well as a pure musician. Arguably, he was the most creative of all the Spacemen. He was the one to introduce blues and gospel to Kember and Pierce. His work adorned Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized records and posters.
“We all thought Natty was the bomb,” remembered Pete. “He had an idiosyncratic way of doing everything. He did have a very cool take on drumming. The band were all pretty tuned to the same non-musician ‘do it our way ‘ kind of vibe. Except Jason, who was already a fairly natural and talented guitarist. But, we sort of did what we could and put the effort in where we knew it worked.”
Years later, I was sitting in a garden in Rugby with Natty. We ended up talking about band names. I said I thought Ho Chi Minh And The Revolution would be a great band name. Natty said he’d always wanted to have a band called Genghis Khan And The Flower Children.
Sometimes, I try to imagine what someone from America would make of this odd little band, from this odd little town and the odd music they created, based largely upon odd aspects of American music, but germinated, fertilised and matured in Merry Olde England. How could it possibly work? The truth is, without the likes of Natty, it would never have worked.
Natty, more than anyone I got to know in Rugby bands around that time, remained true to his own, free raggletaggle spirit. A spirit that Will Carruthers captured so well in his 2014 obituary to Natty.
“Considering the size of the crowd, the reception for both bands was pretty good,” said Chris. “I guess we were ‘the converted’ — people who were interested enough in the bands to travel to Northampton to see them. Plus, when gigs aren’t very well attended you tend to get an exaggerated response from those that are there, so there was plenty of cheering and shouting. The only other thing I remember is a couple of hippy girls in front of us dancing to Little Doll — hunched forwards with their arms wrapped round each others’ shoulders like a conjoined version of Rumpelstiltskin.” After an extensive search in various fan’s Spacemen 3 archives, no photos of the conjoined hippies are known to exist.
One thing we were all agreed upon was that this gig was something special. Something none of us had experienced before. Yes, we were young, but even so. It was a sound we’d end up chasing around the English Midlands and the rest of country for the remains of the decade.
From more gigs in more pubs in 1985, and getting booed off at a biker’s party in the backroom of the Imperial Hotel on Oxford Street, Rugby in early 1986.
In reality, most of the audience weren’t booing at all. They wanted the band to play on, but the ‘bikers’ at the back of the room won out. One sole punter, clearly a Spacemen 3 fan, can be heard on the tape recording telling the bikers to ‘Shut up and fucking listen you fascist bunch of fucking no-brain bastards’. However, the Biker party DJ was less than impressed by the insult and offered to take the chap ‘outside’. This was followed by a very embarrassed and very British silence and one last song — a rapid blast through ‘Walkin’ with Jesus’.
The band were then asked to leave the premises… But, they’d be back. Three years later, to be precise. To play a free ‘practice’ gig in the same back room. The second time around, it was standing room only, no ‘bikers’ were present and the booing was replaced by rapturous applause. This free gig — Freebie 3 — was just a few days before the band headed south to London to play their first, and last, headliner at the Kentish Town & Country Club.
Six singles, four studio albums, a live album and several European tours later… the band came a long way in the years that followed the gig at the Black Lion in 1985.
“This was obviously something different,” said Adam. “Even from stuff like the Jesus & Mary Chain, who shared some musical common ground but were already quite big. There were different influences, used in a different way. Also, they were from Rugby. Bands from small towns grow up in a greater degree of isolation than bands from big cities.”
“I remember being very impressed by the way they sounded and looked,” said Mark. Like Adam and Pat, I asked Mark to recall the gig without listening back to the tape beforehand. “It was very simple but powerful too. I think I remember them playing 2.35, Mary Anne and Things’ll Never Be The Same. I don’t know how many songs they played, maybe they played for 45 minutes — an hour? They looked like ordinary guys, concentrating hard on what they were playing. They sat down which was weird and they didn’t have a bass player. And they exuded an air of supreme confidence which they were right to have because they were brilliant. Some jealous people subsequently mistook this for mindless arrogance. The only reaction of anyone else I remember was Pat Fish. He was blown away, as I was too.”
Pete Kember remembers the meeting with the Jazz Butcher as a very important early connection for the band.
“Yes, it was an important meeting for us,” said Pete. “Mostly down to having another ‘musician’ be very taken by what we were doing. A lot of our friends were in bands in Rugby, and the attitude to us was mostly disappointment or maybe fear.”
“Pat Fish had had some hook up with The Cogs of Tyme who might’ve been still called The Push at that point, whom Pete Bain had left Spacemen 3 to join for a period around there.”
The Jazz Butcher played vastly different music to Spacemen 3, but his enthusiasm was decisive in building the band’s self-belief.
“It was very much a spur for us,” added Pete. “As he was relatively successful in getting his music & band heard, both in Europe and in the USA, so it gave us a lot of hope. He did a number of things for us early on that really made the difference I think. You might say, no Jazz Butcher no Spacemen 3.”
“We went on to organise a few swap gigs with Spacemen in Rugby and Northampton,” added Mark. “And several times Jason would call and ask me to book a date at the Black Lion for them. I think it’s fair to say that if I hadn’t gone to that gig that night then I might not have ended up playing with Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized.”
“The gig was pretty incomparable,” said Chris. “We’d had the goth thing — Bauhaus, Sex Gang Children, Sisters of Mercy — that petered out and there wasn’t really any particular musical ‘movement’ around 1985. As I said, there did seem to be an emergence of bands who sounded to be coming more from a 50s or 60s standpoint, but they were conventional bands. Spacemen 3 were a revelation. It felt like returning to Ground Zero. Everything revolved around one chord, the ‘hypno-monotony’ as they called it, they sat down, they didn’t talk, they didn’t have a bassist (for this gig, and for a while around this time), they didn’t even have a snare drum I don’t think. Natty played with a floor tom, a hi-hat with a tambourine on it, a crash symbol and a bass drum. That was the kit. Oh, and he played the odd bit of maracas. The lyrics had vaguely religious or spiritual connotations, and at the risk of sounding like an old hippy, it did feel extremely parred down, pure and spiritual, like they’d completely gone back to basics and meditated upon those basic things. And I’d certainly never seen anyone playing feedback as an ‘instrument’ as Pete Kember was doing, and doing to great effect. So yeah, one guitar, one feedback, one voice, and one very basic drum kit. For the mid 80s that was pretty different.”
I can remember thinking at the time that this was immensely naive, but also such an obvious and brilliant move too. It was only with the passage of time that it became clear that they were right all along. They had that confidence in their songs and their sound. However unformed their ideas were in 1984, they knew precisely where they slotted in to rock’s lineage; Garage. Gospel. Blues. Stooges. Velvets. Stones. In hindsight, that teenage conviction was borne out.
The last song they played at the Black Lion that night was ‘Somewhere in our hearts things won’t be the same’ [Later called just ‘Things’ll never be the same’]. It’s still one of my favorite Spacemen 3 songs.
We all thought it was a sitar Pete Kember was playing during this song on this night in Northampton. It was a few weeks later when someone told us it was an electric Turkish instrument called a saz. I only ever saw them play with the saz twice. It was stolen from a gig they played in the backroom of the Caldecott Arms pub in Long Lawford village at the end of August, 1985. “I still have one Saz,” said Kember. “But the electric saz was stolen at the Lawford show. I know who has it…”
The best version of ‘Things’ll never be the same’ I ever heard Spacemen 3 play was soon after Jason Pierce acquired a wah-wah pedal [and soon after my tape recorder stopped working]. They played a gig with The Shamen, long before that band became massively popular, upstairs at the Peacock pub on Newbold Road in Rugby in January, 1987.
It was the most electric blues I ever heard Spacemen 3 play. It was also the first time they played ‘Take me to the other side’ live. Before they’d given the song a title, or even had lyrics for it. They played it as an instrumental that night. It sounded like the early demo, minus the words.
However, the perfect version of ‘Things’ll never be the same’, to my mind, was never recorded. If it had been, it would have been a cross between the Black Lion rendition embedded later in this feature, with Sonic Boom’s saz drone running through it, and this Perfect Prescription era demo.
When asked whether the music came first in 1985, or the words, Pete said, “It varied. Sometimes [words and music] were pretty simultaneous, but often they were written separately and put together afterwards. Jason wrote those lyrics [to ‘Things’ll never be the same’] I dont think they’re about drugs particularly. Jason wrote some amazing lyrics.”
Sometime in 1986, I remember hearing a rumour that the band intended to put a version of ‘Things’ll never be the same’ on every album they would ever record. Such a brilliant idea. It’s a shame that they never followed through with it.
“Spacemen 3 was always a bunch of strong personalities,” said Kember. “Our music was based partly on that, I believe. But, we were pretty in sync at that juncture.”
On the tape, as the band finished playing and the final tremulous notes rang out of Kember’s saz, you can just make out an excited Mark Refoy asking Adam, Chris, Sean and myself if we were from Rugby and telling us that he thought Spacemen 3 were “fuckin’ brilliant.” He was so enthused, he talked to the band after the gig. He would later write about the gig on his Facebook page as part of a “most memorable rock shows” list. It sums the gig up very well.
“I’m about to sip a beer and Big Tim Sansom is saying something in my ear that I can’t remember……….. the beer doesn’t get to my lips because Spacemen 3 have just started playing and I’m totally and utterly transfixed……. I think they started with 2.35…….. Tim is still trying to tell me something, he obviously isn’t under the spell…….an electric sitar type drone starts up and Spacemen 3 are relentless…..there’s only 3 of them and they look about 17……..Pat Fish has stumbled to the front of the stage and is looking up in awe…….the drummer is pounding a rolling tribal tom tom and staring out in front……the guitarists are sitting down(!) staring at their guitars playing one note forever………These lot aren’t pissing about…..They’re hooked, and so am I………..”
“I approached Pete and spoke to him after the gig,” remembered Mark. “I wanted to get to know them, see what made them tick. I said something like ‘you’re the best band I’ve seen in town since Bauhaus’ But he wasn’t impressed by that and shrugged his shoulders and said he wasn’t really a fan of them. But we did swap numbers and I went on to put them in touch with a studio where they did a lot of recording.”
When I asked Pat Fish what he thought of the band, as Adam, Chris, Sean and myself got ready to make a speedy exit to the train station, he turned to me, with a slightly glazed, maybe shocked, look and said, “You know what I think.” I felt like he wasn’t really sure he knew what he’d seen, but whatever it was he knew it was very important. He’d been affected enough by the band to spend much of the gig stood alone at the front of that stage he knew so well. He leaned on the monitors, gazed up at the band and occasionally shook his head in disbelief. It was true what he said, I did know what he thought. Spacemen 3 were amazing.
I can remember bumping into Kember and Pierce in Rugby the weekend after the gig. I was sitting with Chris on the benches at the clock tower in the centre of town. We were probably talking about music.
I didn’t know any of Spacemen 3 at that time. However, they knew I had some photographs from the gig the previous weekend. The two of them walked over and asked about the photographs. I happened to have the black and white negatives that appear in this feature in my bag at that very moment. I showed them to Kember and Pierce.
I told them that I thought the gig the previous week was fantastic. I asked if they thought they might get a support slot with The Jazz Butcher as a result of their impressive performance. At that time, a support slot, was the obvious ‘next step’ for a band from a small town like Rugby. I remember Pierce smiled and replied, “I think he might be the one supporting us.”
That statement might have sounded arrogant to me at the time. But, like Mark Refoy mentioned earlier on, Spacemen 3 were simply very, very confident in their music, their words and their sound. And they didn’t care if it came across as arrogant or otherwise. They knew what they were doing.
At the very end of the tape recording, as Adam, Chris, Sean and myself exited the ancient, damp, brick walled, Black Lion tunnel and we reached the air of St Giles Street pavement, you can hear the 16 year old me say,
“One of the best concerts I’ve ever…”
And it still is. I never went to a better gig. Sure, you listen to the recording and it’s ropey. ‘Little Doll’, a song I never liked anyway, is a bit of a mess. ‘Things’ll never be the same’ is crude and raw, but that’s all part of why this gig was so powerful. It was rough and pure, free of ego, ramshackle and utterly brilliant. It’s a combination you cannot fake. And there was nothing fake about Spacemen 3. I pressed the big, black STOP button on the Walkman. The four of us raced through the Northampton streets to the railway station where we just managed to catch that last train back to Rugby.
Listen to the unedited recording of the gig below. It begins with the pre-gig mixtape playing. It also includes long gaps, some tuning up, teenage muttering and good music.
“I have no idea how many times I saw Spacemen 3,” said Chris. “It must be over 50. We were going to see them week in week out. We went to one in Birmingham, at The Mermaid, the week after the first LP, Sound of Confusion, came out and the audience was literally the four of us. The only other people there were the bands and people who’d travelled over in the van with them.”
I made a recording of that gig too. They were a four piece by this time. The room upstairs at the Mermaid was big, echoey and empty. Upon listening back to it, the forlorn clapping between songs that accompanied the optokinetic light-show in that room sounds quite sad.
During the inevitable broken strings and tuning up, any other band might have struck up some kind of conversation with such a small audience. An audience 100% of whom came from the same town as the band. A town 35 miles south east of Birmingham. But not Spacemen 3. Listen below. The optokinetic lights whirred. Jason and Bassman, possibly out of boredom, jammed ‘Street Hassle’ while Kember attended to the first broken string problem of the night. All this before they’d even started the second song.
After the gig, as they carried their gear to Kember’s red Mini Metro, it was only Kember who said thanks to us for coming. Chris also remembers more well attended gigs in Rugby over the next year, even as the band became more and more well-known further afield.
“’Christmas on Mars’ and ‘Easter Everywhere’ were two shows which ran like a ‘who’s who’ of bands in the Rugby/Northampton scene at the time,” said Chris.
“Maybe 5 bands played on each night. For music trivia fans, at least one of them was partly organised by a guy from Sheffield who went by the name of Ziggy. It was Mark Webber who later became guitarist in Pulp.”
“They supported Suicide in London — I think it was 1987, and I think it was the Town & Country Club. It was a pretty dream line up. Spacemen were good, Suicide were incredible,” added Chris.
“I also saw them headline at the Town & Country Club in London on 23rd July 1989, easily the biggest gig I saw them play. There was a rumour that one of the world’s best lighting technicians had personally asked to do a Spacemen 3 show and he did it. Whether that rumour is true or not, they, and the light-show were incredible. They started with Starship, couldn’t see the band for dry ice, with these millisecond little flashes of strobes going off at random moments in random locations — it really looked and sounded as if the whole place was about to take off! It was a powerful performance, in fact they even had the odd person getting up on stage and freaking out. What a long, long way from the Black Lion. Weirdly, I felt swollen with pride — despite having nothing to do with it! It felt like they’d ‘made it’ and the rest of the world was finally waking up to Spacemen 3. It was one of the last gigs they ever played.”
Adam Gillison interviewed Spacemen 3 a few months after the Black Lion gig for his newly titled fanzine, ‘From The Cradle To The Grave’.
Above, is the Black Lion as it looked in 1985. Notice the Black Lion statue above the alleyway entrance. The picture is a screengrab from the BBC Old Grey Whistle Test report. Below, is the Black Lion today. New name. New frontage. And a website.
The old alleyway on the left hand side has gone. The Black Lion statue above it remains. I wonder if the present day owners have any idea of what used to happen at the weekends in the back room of their pub…
Pete Kember went by the pseudonyms; The Mainliner, Peter Gunn, and then Sonic Boom. After Spacemen 3, he released records as Spectrum and EAR. He continues to record, play live, DJ, run the New Atlantis recording studio in Rugby and is a much sought after producer. He lives in Rugby. Watch and listen to Sonic work with Panda Bear.
Jason Pierce changed his name to Jason Spaceman. In 1990, he formed Spiritualized with the remnants of Spacemen 3. He continues to record as Spiritualized. Watch the band live in session at the BBC in 2012.
Natty Brooker played drums with Spacemen 3 for the first two records. He changed his name to Mr. Ugly and sang with The Guaranteed Ugly. He made a lot of art, including Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized record covers. Natty was later diagnosed with terminal cancer. In July, 2010, Will Carruthers, former Spacemen 3 bass player, organised a travelling show of Natty’s artwork and a benefit concert for Natty. Mark Refoy, Pat Fish, Will Carruthers and Pete Kember, among others, performed Spacemen 3 songs at that concert. Natty died in April, 2014. Will wrote this about his friend.
Mark Refoy’s band The Tell Tale Hearts released a 12" EP in 1985 and supported Spacemen 3 in Rugby and Northampton throughout 1985–1986. Mark joined Spacemen 3 and first played with the band at the ‘Freebie 3’ gig in the backroom of the Imperial Pub, Oxford Street, Rugby on 20 July, 1989. He played on the Recurring album. He then joined Spiritualized. And later went on to form Slipstream. He still lives in Northampton. Listen to Everything And Anything by Slipstream.
Pat Fish aka The Jazz Butcher introduced Spacemen 3 to Dave Barker at Glass Records. Spacemen 3 signed a three album deal with the label. Pat Fish has toured the world and made many records. He continues to perform as The Jazz Butcher. He lives in Northampton. Listen to She’s On Drugs by The Jazz Butcher.
Sean Cook played with the Cogs Of Tyme, Electrahead, The Guaranteed Ugly and later replaced Will Carruthers as the bass player for Spiritualized. He went on to form Lupine Howl. He lives in Bristol where he DJs, writes and records as The Flies. Listen to One Day My Baby Will Leave Me by The Flies.
Chris Gillison formed The Losers with brother Adam Gillison, Graham Holliday and Gary Cairney soon after this gig. Spacemen 3 gave the band their first gig as their support band at the Reverberation Club. The Losers made a flexidisc. John Peel played it twice. They later made an EP. In the mid-90's Chris joined a band with former Spacemen 3 drummer Rosco for a brief period. He lives and works in Brighton. Listen to You Said by The Losers from the Dalmatian Generation EP.
Adam Gillison went on to produce several fanzines and two compilation tapes with Chris and Graham. These were ‘The Holy Bible’, which featured a demo of Spacemen 3's ‘Losing Touch With My Mind’ and ‘Breaking Down The Walls Of Heartache’, which included Spacemen 3's rendition of ‘May The Circle Be Unbroken’. Adam played with his brother Chris in The Losers for several years. He now lives in Leeds and is the Manager of Jumbo Records.
Graham Holliday went on to form The Shift with Gavin Wissens, of The Cogs of Tyme and the Guaranteed Ugly, and another Rugby musician, Tim Lloyd. He wrote and recorded songs with Gavin and former Spacemen 3 members; Will, Natty and Rosco. Listen to Surfin’ Saves Soul by Graham, Gavin, Will and Natty. And the Spacemen 3 tinged bubblegum sitar song Hit the East with Rosco on drums. Graham is a writer and currently lives in Senegal.
All gig photos were taken by Sean Cook and Graham Holliday. Most were uploaded along with other Spacemen 3 photos to Graham Holliday’s Flickr account in 2003. The Spacemen 3 cassettes, photos, tickets, posters and other ephemera used in this feature were recently re-discovered in a shoebox in south-west France.
This article was written and assembled by Graham Holliday between March and July 2015 in Dakar, Seoul and Toulouse. It was first published at 2:35 in the afternoon on 3 August, 2015.