Spacemen 3 - Playing With Fire - Review
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critics' view

Playing With Fire was a creative highpoint for the band: a moment where the combative psych-metal of the band’s earliest recordings had been replaced by more delicate, elliptical textures. If the early albums – Sound Of Confusion, The Perfect Prescription – channelled MC5, the 13th Floor Elevators and the Cramps, by the time they came to record Playing With Fire, Spacemen 3 were drawing from a more diverse, exploratory pool of influences including John Cage, Steve Reich, the Velvet Underground and Kraftwerk. Although the album satisfyingly hits a number of marks – the way guitars on “Honey” are processed to make them resemble synthesizers, the soft-focus melodies pillowing “Come Down Softly To My Soul”, the enveloping minimalism of “How Do You Feel?” and the 11-minute, two-chord guitar drones propelling “Suicide”.

Playing With Fire demonstrates the high standard of the work Kember and Pierce achieved – if not entirely collaboratively, then at least within close proximity of one another. Piece had some views on the way their songwriting processes during this period functioned.

“‘How Does It Feel?’ was originally called ‘Repeater’, which is the sound a Vox Starstreamer makes: you hit the guitar and that’s what comes out of it, it plays itself. Pete put down this long repeater thing and then I constructed a melody over the top, and his claim was that it was his song, because he’d put down the original track. I joked that if you owned the tape, you owned the first part, so you could make this claim that I own the silence that the Starstreamer is going on to. I mean, you can’t make songs with people who are putting flags in them – saying, that’s my bit, that was my melody. We wrote songs together – no, we wrote songs and then we shared the credit. It doesn’t matter whose song it was, or who did the greater or the lesser part of it, it was just that was what you did. Done.”

“On Playing With Fire, Jason’s songs were minimal – both the songwriting and the amount of sound on tape,” said Kember. “When he’s good, he’s fucking amazing; when he hits the mark, he really delivers. There’s songs on Playing With Fire like ‘Lord Can You Hear Me?’ which can make me cry.”

Spacemen 3 represented a particularly British kind of psychedelia. I don’t mean a Lewis Carroll-style whimsy, but something firmly rooted in Kember and Pierce’s experiences in the Midlands during Thatcher’s Eighties; a dank, urban misery marked by a withdrawal into drugs and a proclivity for inner flight. Accordingly, the band’s mesmerising effects, loops and drones felt just as mind-altering as the exploratory sounds of an earlier generation. Playing With Fire captures the moment where Spacemen 3 were at the top of their game: tuned in and, despite their pharmacopoeia of drug references, remarkably switched on.

Michael Bonner
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Est. 2007, Uncut magazine, trademarked as UNCUT, is a monthly publication based in London. It is available across the English-speaking world, and focuses on music, but also includes film and books sections. "The spiritual home of great rock music. Classic interviews, in-depth new album reviews, essential news stories, live reviews, films, DVDs and much more."
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