This piece for treated trombone is a primitivist experiment that has its roots in my schoolboy doodlings of 10 years previously. It has been called bleak, and I suppose it is, for something that was originally inspired by Hotlegs and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.
Here’s an excellent video made by master editor Zekeland a while back. The observant viewer may spot a few frames of your devoted auteur, enjoying a relaxing smoke by a stagnant motel pool in Kingman, Arizona.
The Therapy album now takes a sharp turn down a bumpy road on a journey to the dark interior of the psyche, as represented by two pieces for treated instruments. The first, Instincticide, is a sound picture depicting a certain variety of panic, and includes the vocal debut of Thomas Conning (aka Verb T) at the mature age of a few weeks.
Jo Forty…what a talent. Here’s a ballad built entirely around a bass guitar part. You may think that a prettier bass guitar part exists, but I don’t believe it.
The lyrics, in complete contrast with the previous track, are about as soppy as I ever got, as I indulge the tender feelings engendered by fatherhood. The voice is rendered to a whisper though, and the rhythm section does the talking.
The single being in the can, we proceeded to record our album. After the vicissitudes of the previous winter the time at Blackwing felt something like rehab, hence the perhaps rather on-the-nose title of the album. What I like about Therapy though is the way it was written and recorded in a comparatively short space of time. It really is an accurate snapshot of where we were at in that tumultuous year of 1981.
Come Home sets the scene, as chaos abounds and military rule is threatened. Which wasn’t quite happening, but down there in a Southwark slum, with the shops boarded up against rioters, it certainly felt as if things could spiral that way, and with an infant to take care of I felt a kind of existential terror for the first time in my young life.
On Nerve Pylon we had used a drum machine for the first time, I think it was a Korg MiniPops. For Come Home we used gated and filtered white noise as a base rhythm, played on a Sequential Circuits Pro One (still a fave of mine) lent to us by good pal Brendan Beal.
For once we got OK reviews for Therapy. Even the NME gave us a fair shake, praising our production values, after pointing out that we were crap live. Must have seen us on an off night.
The Lines in our happy place, expertly captured.
It was a busy winter. We played more gigs during that season than at any other period. We also jettisoned most of our repertoire and wrote a new one. I became a father and was promptly evicted from my home and exiled from Stoke Newington, ending up with infant son Tom and his mother in a semi-derelict flat in Southwark. Soon after that the Brixton riots began.
A John Peel session from January 1981 catches us in transition between old set and new. One of the new songs was the appropriately titled Transit, which underwent something of a rewrite between January and its recording in April at our first session in Blackwing Studios, engineered by the estimable Eric Radcliffe and John Fryer, who were to curate most of our subsequent releases of that era.
All kinds of amazing music was being made at Blackwing by artists from the fledgling Mute and 4AD labels. One day we arrived at the studio to find Vince Clarke and Alison Moyet finishing up a song called Only You. Not the kind of thing you forget. The 4AD version of Song To The Siren sung by Liz Fraser was recorded there…gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. And I have previously mentioned my obsession with Dome, a project by Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert…my quest to discover their secrets led me to Eric, who schooled me in the art of the externally triggered noise gate.
Happy as we were with Blackwing, it has to be said that once again the John Peel version has a certain extra intensity. However I still feel that the rewrite is the better song. At the time, not everyone agreed with me.
Although Nerve Pylon took a further session at the Barge Studio to complete with engineer Andy Llewellyn, Over The Brow was recorded and mixed at Matrix with Tom O’Leary at the controls. A wondrous machine called an Eventide Ursa Major SST-282 Space Station was liberally used on this particular mix.
Matrix in Bloomsbury was a happening studio and I did a lot of mixing there later in the 80s. On this occasion I remember meeting legendary percussionist Rebop Kwaku Baah who was soon to vocalize on classic cut Masimba Bele by the Unknown Cases, shortly before his tragic death in 1983.
Sonnets…what’s that all about? Why fourteen lines? Why ten syllables? Who made those rules? And yet what amazing portals into human consciousness have been opened up within that structure.
I am no John Donne, senator, but Nerve Pylon was my attempt to produce a sonnet in song form. It even has its own metaphysical conceit: instead of stepping back to look at a problem, I do the opposite and perform a kind of Fantastic Voyage manoeuvre, zooming down to a sub-microscopic level to observe the nervous system and emotions as detachedly as one might observe power cables strung across a landscape.
Musically, it had a long evolution. The chorus chords required a retuning of the top two guitar strings to C so that they could chime while the lower strings modulated between F, C and G. Originally just these three chords going round and round in a somewhat motorik style, subsequently the ballad-style verse was spliced in. Nerve Pylon became by far our most dramatic and emotional song, and with the funny tuning, a real bugger to play live.
It was also, along with B-side Over The Brow, our one and only 24-track recording, as most subsequent sessions took place at the 16-track Blackwing Studio in Southwark. After the austerity of Cool Snap we were hungry for more of a musical feast, and the Matrix and Barge studios with their racks of delays and reverbs gave us every opportunity.
The sleeve was partly hand-printed, a massive operation that took over a couple of rooms at 21 Manor Road for a few days.
Reviews…ay! “Lax and addled” was the conclusion of the bloke at the NME , along with the usual comparisons to other people. More recently, though, folks have been kinder: in 2013 Nerve Pylon was included in the massive Cherry Red retrospective Scared To Get Happy and Alex Petridis at the Guardian singled it out as being “haunting”, like the man of taste and discernment that he undoubtedly is.