Of all the totemic psych bands that I unreservedly love, perhaps nobody strikes closer to the genre’s elemental core than Spacemen 3. It’s funny, then, that, for a band that so embodies psychedelia’s drug-addled core really operates on its traditional fringes. To elaborate: Jason Pierce and Sonic Boom eschewed the typical psychedelic path—maximalism, studio trickery, and an emphasis on “trippy” drugs like LSD & mushrooms—but nevertheless arrived at an arguably purer psych sound than most of the many other bands on the road-more-travelled.
That was a mouthful! Hope that made sense. One aesthetic Spacemen 3 makes a convincing case for punk-as-psych, of taking single-minded minimalism and a bald-faced fuck-you attitude and rendering it transcendently substance-worshipping. Hawkwind’s extended passages of interstellar, intramind travel seem fundamentally at odds with the three-chord, middle-finger blasts of the Sex Pistols until you hear “Revolution,” a typically hypnotic, repetitive, precision-blast of distorted snarl:
(Yes, yes, they look pretty damn corny with those bowl haircuts, but c’mon it’s 1989 and not a single person on the planet looked cool. Instead of focusing on their sunglasses, check out that shot of the band playing the deliciously simple chord progression that starts 44 seconds in. They’re just blatantly flaunting their songs’ simplicity.)
This attitude of defiant simplicity is all over the band’s work. Jason Pierce’s count-in at the beginning of “2:35,” off of Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, is a telling rallying cry. “One,” he says, in a disembodied, reverb-drenched voice. That’s all they fucking need. “One.” They revel in it.
If aggressively simple riffs ad nauseam was all Spacemen 3 did, their schtick would be a pretty good one, but there’s more:
Sweet, disembodied bliss! Sonic Boom’s ultra-hushed, heavily reverbed vocals wafting through a Velvets-on-codeine guitar figure, with that tremendous, meandering bass line anchoring the whole thing. This is the same repetitive, minimalist ethos, but through an introspective, contemplative lens, as opposed to the precise aggression of “Revolution.”
Note the lyrics, too: Spacemen 3 did love singing about (and doing) drugs, just not the ones you typically associate with Pink Floyd. Instead of traditional psychedelics, heroin through a needle was their choice. There’s another Velvets association there, which actually points toward a really fruitful path if you’re looking for antecedents to the Spacemen 3 sound. It’s a fitting one: Like their eventual followers, the Velvet Underground took defiantly anti-psychedelic musical constituents and somehow at something with remarkable affinities with and associations to psych.
(For the record, the studio version of this song, a richly hi-fi, horn-drenched cut off of 1987’s The Perfect Prescription, mercilessly blows this YouTube clip out of the goddamned water, but I gotta make do with what I’m given.)
Pierce and Boom released a handful of fantastic albums, notably the aforementioned The Perfect Prescription and 1989’s Playing With Fire, before imploding with predictably druggy messiness. Both emerged in their own concerns which took their original band’s aesthetic and bent it to serve new and (mostly) enjoyable ends, but nothing they’ve done alone—even Pierce’s best Spiritualized work—comes close to the bare-bones brilliance of Spacemen 3’s best stuff.
I guess that’s a matter of some debate. People do love their Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, and I have to count myself among them. Either way, they’re perhaps the quintessential Play One Note band, embodying Mark Hollis’s maxim better than anyone else.
You know the drill: Spacemen 3 album reviews to follow. I’ll definitely write about those two classics, and maybe I’ll get in on that Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs To, which is such an apt title I almost don’t even want to point out how fucking apt it is. Also, more Pram. Be well.