‘ANY WAY THAT YOU WANT ME’
(DEDICATED 12″, 1990)
Spiritualized are one of the first and last bands I really loved. I wasn’t into them from the off – I mean, I was only seven years old when ‘Any Way That You Want Me’, their debut single, was released – but they’ve been with me from an early age. They got to me before the cynicism and the jadedness set in, when I was young enough to believe absolutely in a band, in the mythos as well as the music. Spiritualized’s penchant for “big” emotion, their casual glamorization of drugs and firm grounding in rock’n’roll classicism appealed massively to my adolescent brain, and though I can’t really stand their recent output (Songs In A&E verges on self-parody), the impression they left on me in my early teens is huge and indelible.
By 1990 Jason Pierce had fallen out with his co-pilot in the seminal Spacemen 3, Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember, and left – along with most of the band – to form Spiritualized. Their recording career began, strangely enough, with a cover of The Troggs’ 1966 garage-pop gem ‘Any Way That You Want Me’. This song’s imploring, passive stance kind of sets the tone for everything the band would go onto record, but to call it anything more than willowy post-E indie-disco fodder would be overstating its importance; even with the benefit of hindsight it’s hard to square the band on display here with that which made Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. B-side ‘Step Into The Breeze’ held more promise, and would crop up again on the coming Lazer Guided Melodies.
LAZER GUIDED MELODIES
(DEDICATED LP, 1992)
This is a hugely impressive debut album, the chaotic 360-degree drug-haze of Spacemen 3 and ‘Any Way That You Want Me’ condensed into something altogether more linear and focussed (the title couldn’t be any more apt). The parts are smartly arranged, the production crystal-clear, the songwriting and the playing anything but sloppy. Even if Spiritualized had called it a day after this, their place in the space-rock pantheon would be assured.
Lead single ‘Run’ was the first Spiritualized track to feature new member Kate Radley on keyboards; she brings a synthetic, almost new-agey shimmer to proceedings, and her continuing contribution proved crucial to the continuing evolution of the band. ‘Run’ is based around lyrics from J.J. Cale’s ‘They Call Me The Breeze’, and along with the spectral ‘Shine A Light’ is the album’s towering highlight. This is the sound of Spiritualized emerging from the shadow of Spacemen 3, creating an airy, expansive and psychedelic soul music without compare.
It’s a common misconception that Ladies And Gentlemen was Spiritualized’s first significant work – not true. They had their shit together from a very early stage, and Lazer Guided Melodies is the jaw-dropping proof.
‘GOOD DOPE, GOOD FUN’
(GREENPEACE APS 7″, 1993)
Generally speaking, Jason Pierce navigates the whole drugs-religion-love thing with wit and grace, but sometimes subtlety goes out the window, hence song names like ‘Fucked Up Inside’ and, er, ‘Good Dope, Good Fun’. The latter was the title track of an unofficial rarities compilation I snaffled up at Beverley Market on a trip there with my mum circa ’97, but it first emerged on this charity single for Greenpeace, a split with Mercury Rev (back when they were still drugsick and messy-as-fuck, an American Spacemen 3). I’m not a big fan – even my teenage self found the “Gonna have me some good dope” lyrics a little absurd – but the whole thing is dignified by some amazing gospel backing vox and a mounting sense that Pierce’s most exciting creative phase is nigh.
(DEDICATED LP, 1995)
My first encounter with Spiritualized came in 1996 when I nicked a cassette from the bedroom shelf of my schoolfriend’s cool sister (god knows what I was doing in there, let alone what I thought gave me the right to pilfer her shit). The tape had been made for her by her boyfriend – I didn’t know this when I took it, and rest assured I returned it soon after – and was just glorious from start to finish. I’ve since bought pretty much every tune that was on the tape, every selection was paradigm-shifting incredible. Big up that boyfriend, whoever the hell he was.
Propping up the end of Side 1 was a song by Spiritualized called ‘Let It Flow’; I was absolutely smitten with it and soon got myself a copy of the album it was taken from, Pure Phase. Driven by an amazing female vocal refrain (“Woah-oh-oh-oh-oh”), ‘Let It Flow’ is one of Pierce’s most unambiguous drug songs (along with another Pure Phase highlight, ‘Medication’), boasting the lyrics “All I wanted was a taste / Enough to waste a day / Just enough to make me sick / I can’t get too much of it.”
That Pierce manages to make such platitudes sound vaguely profound is testament largely to the gravitas of the production and instrumentation: less stream-lined than Lazer Guided Melodies, Pierce and his team here build a modern-day wall of sound – heavy on the timpani and the cymbal-crashes – that pays open tribute to Phil Spector (Pierce has professed his admiration on a couple of occasions for Dion DeMucci’s exquisite, Spector-produced Born To Be With You, the title track of which is undoubtedly proto-Spiritualized in both its sheer sonic girth and its pungent lyrical themes of heartbreak, addiction and redemption).
The churchy atmospherics are elsewhere rather cloying – the clogged ‘All Of My Tears’ doesn’t really work, for instance – but I remain potty for the rangy six-string psychedelia of ‘Electric Mainline’, ‘‘Born Never Asked’ and the none-more-cosmic title track (of which more later).
05: SPIRITUALIZED ELECTRIC MAINLINE
PURE PHASE TONES FOR DJs
(SPACEMAN RECORDS, 1996)
Although Spiritualized are best-known for their kitchen sink gospel’n’orchestra shtick, one of the things that has always distinguished them is their command of sparse ambient sound and space. Nowhere is this more strongly evident than on ‘Pure Phase’, the title track to the band’s second album. An ethereal instrumental piece produced and written by Pierce, wrought out of Kate Radley’s FX-laden keyboards and organ, it’s a natural development of Spacemen 3’s infatuation with primitive radiophonics and drone. Less space-rock and more just, er, space. Pierce clearly considered ‘Pure Phase’ significant: not only did he name an album after it, he also assembled the 12″ release Pure Phase Tones For DJs, which featured 16 different versions of the track, in different keys, playable at both 33 and 45rpm. For the heads, naturally.
‘”THE X-FILES” THEME’
(from SUPPLEMENTARY DOSAGE, ARISTA CD (US), 1997)
This wouldn’t be an ‘Essential’ without a wee curio, and Spiritualized’s cover of Mark Snow’s X-Files theme fits the bill perfectly. It starts intriguingly enough, that immortal melody – easily as deserving of praise as those of the Doctor Who and Blade Runner themes– re-played on theremin and backed up with subtle organ stabs, strings and helicopter noise. The plinky-plonky piano denouement is disappointing, but whatever: it’s Spiritualized covering The X-Files theme.
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN WE ARE FLOATING IN SPACE
(DEDICATED LP, 1997)
When it was released in 1997, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space was instantly hailed as a classic, and with some confidence. Twelve years down the line and it remains untouchable.
It’s rather a schizophrenic record, juggling lovelorn sentimentality and a kind of nihilistic violence; one minute tenderly appealing to the heavens, the next crawling on all fours through the gutter. Opening with the prayer-like title track – a kind of smacked-out ‘Frère Jacques’ – Ladies And Gentlemen takes us on a journey into the very depths of Jason Pierce’s soul, a troubled zone where drugs, love and religion are interchangeable quantities. ‘Come Together’ is one of the all-time great rock songs, ‘Stay With Me’ is strung-out country blues delivered through synthesizer dry-ice, and ‘I Think I’m In Love’s depiction of the deluded addict’s sensibility – enacted in a wry sequence of call-and-response between Pierce and gospel choir – is inspired.
Self-reproach, and at times self-hatred, is the prevailing mood, and at least half of the songs erupt into head-bursting shitstorms of guitar feedback and horn skronk – most notably ‘Cop Shoot Cop’, dimestore drugsploitation noir writ large, with frickin’ Dr John tinkling the ivories. His relationship with Kate Radley in its dying throes, his heroin addiction at its most deeply-entrenched and pernicious, it’s genuinely amazing that Pierce had the strength and the presence of mind to envision, let alone bring to fruition, a record of Ladies And Gentlemen‘s momentous scale and quality.
Oh, and props to Farrow Design, whose amazing blister-pack packaging riffed on the songs’ pharmaceutical conceit to quite awesome effect – turning a great album into a fully-fledged gesamtkunstwerk.
ROYAL ALBERT HALL, OCTOBER 10, 1997 LIVE
I’m not a big fan of live albums, probably because most bands are shit live. Being shit live is a charge that could never be levelled at Spiritualized – one of the most sonically muscular and balanced acts ever to grace a stage – which of course accounts for why I hold this double-disc set so dear. The greatest Spiritualized gig I ever saw was a stripped-down five piece playing in the run-up to 2003’s Amazing Grace, but the spotlessly recorded Royal Albert Hall captures them at the height of their pomp, replete with orchestra and gospel choir.
For me, the versions of ‘Electricity’, ‘Broken Heart’ and ‘Shine A Light’ included here are basically definitive, while the “cover” of Spacemen 3’s ‘Walkin’ With Jesus’ is revelatory, and ‘Cop Shoot Cop’ sounds even more grubbily epic than on Ladies And Gentlemen. The concert – and the CD – closes with a gale-force version of gospel standard ‘Oh Happy Day’; on paper a bad idea, but in practice utterly sublime.
It’s also worth noting that this was the last album to feature the original Spiritualized line-up, before Pierce sacked ‘em all save multi-instrumentalist Thighpaulsandra and sax-man Ray Dickaty.
THE ABBEY ROAD EP
(DECONSTRUCTION 12″, 1998)
Ladies & Gentlemen’s ‘Come Together’ and ‘Broken Heart’ couldn’t be more different – one a grinding rock song, the other a delicate ballad – but they both rank among Jason Pierce’s most immense and affecting compositions. I assume that’s why he took the opportunity to re-record them at Abbey Road studios with extra instrumentation and not one, but two choirs. The new version of ‘Come Together’ sounds crisper and heavier than the original, but it’s ‘Broken Heart’ that really benefits from Abbey Road’s mammoth sound-board and legendary acoustics, not to mention subtle re-scoring by Pierce: appearing in both vocal and instrumental forms, it achieves such a pitch of emotion as to be almost unbearable listening.
LET IT COME DOWN
(SPACEMAN RECORDS LP, 2001)
Buoyed by the success of the Abbey Road EP and triumphant Albert Hall gig, Pierce decided to follow the symphonic psych splendour of Ladies And Gentlemen with an album even more ambitious and lavishly orchestrated, if less emotionally complex: Let It Come Down. Sad to say, it’s the last great record that the band recorded.
It features contributions from a staggering 115 session musicians, including the London Community Gospel Choir and a 42-piece orchestra. Pierce doesn’t read music, and so he wrote Let It Come Down‘s umpteen vocal, string, brass and reed parts by singing them into a portable tape recorder and then transcribing to piano – a painstaking process if ever there was one, and all the more remarkable for the fact that the resulting arrangements sound so pristine and well-considered.
Spector is once again an influence on Pierce’s towering wall-of-sound approach, but so too this time are Ray Charles, Scott Walker, Gil Evans, Jimmy Webb and Brian Wilson. This is music that strives to stir and swell in the finest tradition of 60s rock ‘n soul. And whereas Ladies And Gentlemen sounded very much steeped in the addiction and narcosis it took as its subject, Let It Come Down – for all its gestures of self-flagellation (‘I Didn’t Mean To Hurt You’) and relapse (‘Do It All Over Again) – is an album very much about cleaning up, healing, moving on. It comes across in the music, which for all its power lacks the fury, the confusion, the doped-up weirdness of its predecessor. Pierce is no longer dealing in psychedelia, at least not the kind which delights in its own bad trip.
The neo-gospel ballad ‘Stop Your Crying’ is an obvious highlight, though its anthemic simplicity soon secured its fate as de facto soundtrack music for montages of the England team crashing out of the World Cup and suchlike. ‘Anything More’ and ‘Out of Sight’ come closest to realizing Pierce’s vision of stately white boy soul, while the otherwise throwaway addiction-clinic diatribe ‘The Twelve Steps’ boasts a breakdown to die for, all disco-drama strings and wailing squad-car sirens.
Nine years on Let It Come Down feels almost like a eulogy for a time when pop music could be good and grandiose. For better or worse, it’s hard to imagine anyone – Jason Pierce included – ever again attempting, or being allowed to attempt, something so fantastically unwieldy as this.