Spacemen 3 - Performance: Live At The Melkweg 6/2/88
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
A very quiet man says “Good evening. The first song we’re going to do for you tonight is called Mary Ann”. And they all start playing one riff. They won’t change it for four and a half minutes. The very quiet man tries to sing along, but you can’t really hear him. About halfway in you’ll notice that you can no longer hear the bass drum thumping away; the man and the drum struggle to be heard, but those guitars overwhelm and subsume everything. Fragments poke through—he wants to “do my thing and do it fast”, but the song is in no hurry. “Mary Ann” is a cover, but this performance gives no reason to think so; it’s been methodically pummeled into hamburger. Cue polite applause.
By the second track, “Come Together”, they’ve already descended into total incoherence. It’s more varied than “Mary Ann”, doesn’t clamp down around your brain like a migraine, Sonic Boom (the very quiet man) screaming “Oh God, I feel it closer / God, it’s so close!” while the band plays a completely different song below him. It is not a cover of the Beatles. One guitar spirals off into free jazz-like sounds (not for the last time), as the rhythm section swirls valiantly, trying to keep some control. At the end, the very quiet man says “Thank you! Come together”. More polite applause.
Finally, with “Things’ll Never Be” (the official version tacks on “The Same” to the title), they really cut loose. This band, all of their best riffs sound punishing, deadened, strangely oppressive, and here they pound it into your skull for over six minutes. Sonic is again shouting hoarsely over the riff, something about drugs, about putting “some love deep in your veins”. Every so often one of the guitars digresses, but the riff doesn’t even notice. By now your hand should have crept over to the volume dial several times and the noise should be like a living thing in the room, a pale reflection of how it must have been in 1988. They aren’t playing around, whatever the thin sound of Sound Of Confusion and The Perfect Prescription might have suggested. Even after the story ends, the riff continues. When it fades out you almost can’t believe it’s gone.
The next song introduces another, even better, repetition, and it’s beginning to get monochrome. So after a little gearing up and a few runs through the guitar part so we’re all on the same page, the bass drops down in this amazing plunging run and they really start to go. I think this is when Jason starts singing, but whoever it is only fights through the noise occasionally, so it’s hard to tell. The bass trick is so good they do it again and then someone is yelling “Take me to the other side!” like he doesn’t know we’re halfway there. They keep reining back in, building up tension; it almost doesn’t work, but then the bass drops again and it’s like we’re on a rollercoaster. This is the total fulfillment of the rough promise of “Mary Ann”, one of their own but brutalized and made glorious.
Speaking of rollercoasters, Roky Erikson’s is next. Of course, for all the difference it makes this might as well be another Spacemen 3 song. The music is just as relentless and inexorable as the rest, but this time the man bullies us too: “Come on, let it happen to you”. They beat you to the ground with those waves of sound, then ask you to like it. “You gotta open up your mind and let everything come through”. And then, at four minutes in, it does. Even though you’d swear they’ve been giving this music all they’ve got, just as he says “through” again everything doubles. Speed, bass, volume, intensity. It almost beggars belief that this isn’t the end. By now your hand should be on that volume dial, turning it up just short of pain. Or maybe further. This music is a headache, a nail being slowly driven through bone. Listen to the bass pound. Someone is doing something with a guitar behind it. They keep starting a riff, but they never finish it. The whole thing builds and builds and builds, faster faster faster… and then it stops. No release. Just cessation. Feedback whine dying down to hum.
“This song is, uh, a song we wrote for a friend of ours…” “Walking With Jesus” would almost be a relief, if not for the hectic kick drum thump at the start and jagged organ spiking through. You can hear Jason this time, though. But first they just luxuriate in the possibilities of organ and drum for a minute. And then? Years later, Jason would epically detonate this one at the Royal Albert Hall, rhapsodizing about “the sound of love.” But not here, not now. Just a single brief verse and then that queasy, spiky two-note organ and the unusually restrained guitar fiddle around for a while.
“Repeater,” “Starship” (by Sun Ra) and “Revolution” are all excellent, all distinct, but really deserve one track index between the three of them, one sixteen minute behemoth encompassing them all. “Repeater” has that crazed loop of something, endless circular up-and-down of fuzzy keyboard while the guitar ticks time for a couple of minutes; you can hear it shaking the bass drum with that shivery sound that means everything is too close together. Eventually like a sleeping giant the rest of the instruments loom into view; but the whole track is one big build to what’s next.
What’s next is feedback. After a while it resolves into some sort of deranged countdown to launch, Sonic sounding like some sort of villain from a cartoon as he booms out over it, echoing and billowing. He used to be so quiet you couldn’t make him out, now he’s so loud you can’t make him out. The countdown stops eventually so chaos can erupt (but only for a minute), the band slipping simultaneously out of synch with each other. Then they get it back together, just in case you felt safe while they weren’t all aimed in the same direction. This is the sound of a band intent on running you down and running you over. At the very end, Sonic comes back in, sounding like the guy at the end of 2001: “You know… sounds like… it sounds like… it’s-“
And the guitars go up, and then they play the greatest riff yet, the Riff. And you’ve been so knocked about by the band so far that this really has become an endurance test, if you’re listening to it at the proper volume. He’s sick and he’s tired and if you could just figure out what he’s sick and tired of you’d fix it so he’d stop yelling, but the Riff won’t let you. Is this music actually played by people? At this point, it’s hard to imagine mere guitars doing this. At some point (it’s hard getting your bearings) the bass does the opposite of what it did on “Take Me To The Other Side,” the same feeling of vertigo but up not down, and it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever heard. And this time, the applause is not as polite. But they’re not done yet. They’ve saved the best trick for last.
“This song is, uh, is dedicated to Alan Vega and Martin Rev. Suicide.”
It starts with echoed shakers (!?) and brutal drum thump before the organ Oneida and Clinic both eventually found in a landfill goes after your ears. A riff, choppier and more percussive than the rest, enters and doesn’t leave for nine minutes or so. It sure as hell doesn’t sound like Suicide, except it does. They just work that riff over, wringing out every excess of sound, until ten minutes have passed. It is, roughly, the experience of the rest of Performance in microcosm; at first you sort of get into the sheer brutality of the sound, and then it becomes headache inducing, and then it becomes numbing, and then it becomes… something else.
After “Suicide” dies off they graciously end it with three minutes of soft crowd noise, a short loop just at the edge of hearing. I always listen to it, not because I love the guy saying “Yeehaw!” but because my ears need the decompression.