Music

The Lennon and McCartney of Drug Rock

Spiritualized, Spectrum, and Spacemen 3's Soul-Piercing Fallout

The Lennon and McCartney of Drug Rock

Mathias Nielsen

Jason Pierce and Pete Kember were insatiable druggies who were fucked up inside. Together in British psych-rock group Spacemen 3, they made some of the greatest rock of the 20th century. The reverberations from Spacemen 3's tenure and subsequent breakup in 1991 still resonate deeply and widely.

Pierce and Kember (aka Sonic Boom) were practically blood brothers in sound: Both were born on November 19, 1965, in Rugby, England. Dig this passage from The Secret Language of Birthdays: "Filled with a revolutionary spirit, those born on November 19 generally build from a starting point of change... November 19 people are often taken up with the consolidation and administration of power... They are extremely serious about how that power should be delegated and toward what ends."

Yo, astrology is truth. Scorpios Pierce and Kember's fruitful union seemingly was destined to end bitterly, and it did, as illustrated by their songs on S3's last album, Recurring, which were childishly separated by a cover of Mudhoney's "When Tomorrow Hits." No more "Walkin' with Jesus" arm-in-needle-poked-arm for these former BFFs.

Before they split, though, S3 took beaucoup drugs to make music to take drugs to. Under the influence of said substances, they issued four influential albums that alchemized their underground-rock inspirations (MC5, Stooges, Velvet Underground, 13th Floor Elevators, Red Krayola, JJ Cale, etc.) into gripping statements of transcendence and oblivion. People will be tripping to these records for as long as electricity exists.

Pierce went on to form the gospeldelic saviors Spiritualized in 1990, while Sonic embarked on a lonelier path of increasingly introspective and otherworldly electronic rock and deep-space ambient explorations with Spectrum and Experimental Audio Research. In general, Pierce embraced his soul-baring/help-me-Jesus/I'm-fixin'-to-die side while Sonic expressed his love for the comforts of water, space, Owsley (LSD manufacturer supreme), analog synthesizers, and BBC Radiophonic Workshop goddess Delia Derbyshire, with whom he collaborated.

It took a while for the two auteurs to really differentiate themselves, however. On Spiritualized's first three masterpieces—Lazer Guided Melodies, Pure Phase, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space—Pierce opened up a vein of veiled confessional songcraft that he inflated to grandiose proportions. For indelible evidence, check out the harrowing blues/free-jazz blowout of "Cop Shoot Cop." Through perfectionist studio wizardry, Pierce forged intimate-yet-immense tracks that made even staunch atheists reconsider their beliefs. On these works, he achieved a rare balance of accessible melodiousness, poised propulsion, and heavenly drone generation—a music of the spheres you could hum along to.

Sonic Boom's 1990 debut solo album, Spectrum, and his first two full-lengths as Spectrum, Soul Kiss (Glide Divine) and Highs, Lows and Heavenly Blows, bear similarities to Spiritualized's blissful space rock, interstellar blues meditations, and aqueous lullabies. But Kember's Suicide infatuation was more prominent, culminating in a cover of the NYC duo's "Rock 'n' Roll Is Killing My Life."

Another area Pierce and Kember diverge is bodily health. Although both were prodigious experimenters with myriad drugs, Pierce also drank to excess, while his ex-partner reputedly never indulged. Consequently, while Kember looks shockingly well preserved at 46, Pierce has nearly died twice in the past eight years, as documented on 2008's Songs in A&E (double pneumonia) and in the press leading up to the release of Spiritualized's latest opus, Sweet Heart, Sweet Light, (degenerative liver disease). The recent brush with death didn't kill Pierce's songwriting prowess, though. Sweet Heart is Spiritualized's best since 1997's Ladies and Gentlemen, as Pierce curbs his sometimes excessive sentimentality and recaptures a semblance of his robust early-'90s psychedelicness, especially on epic rave-up "Hey Jane."

Judging from this turn of events and the Sweet Heart inner-sleeve photo of Pierce looking corpselike, it appears that Spiritualized's main man has needed divine help more than Kember—with whom, by the way, Pierce hasn't spoken since 1991. And he's definitely leaned more heavily on Christy tropes for lyrics; if you took a swig of liquor every time he sang "Jesus," "God," or "Lord," you'd have your own liver issues.

But don't expect to see Pierce hallelujahing in church. In a Q&A with Interview, Pierce explained his lyrical obsession with higher powers. "[Rock 'n' roll is] where a lot of this language is coming from. Also... as soon as you start having a conversation with Jesus in a song, you know you're dealing with issues of morality and how fragile it is to be human. It's a shortcut to putting those ideas across. But like the [1997 Spiritualized] song, it's 'No God, Only Religion.' I like the fervor, I like the excitement of it, but there's no God in this music. Not in the kind of church sense of it."

That being said, Spiritualized shows—especially those from their '90s peak—have triggered the most exalted religious feelings I've ever experienced at a concert. Whether Pierce can still summon that holy rush after a close call with mortality makes Spiritualized the most intriguing act at Sasquatch! this year. recommended

This article has been updated since its original publication.

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Even though Spacemen 3 were on the outs by 1990, Sonic's Spectrum LP was released when the band was still together (as was Spiritualized's Anyway That You Want Me 12").
Posted by Valerie on May 23, 2012 at 12:31 PM · Report this

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