How Did It Feel? Spacemen 3's Playing With Fire Revisited

“Thirty years? Fuck! Thirty years!” Jason Pierce, one half of the creative duo at the heart of Spacemen 3, is struggling to take in the fact that Playing With Fire is celebrating its Big Three-Oh. And, it seems, he’s also struggling to remember events from 1989.

“What were you doing 30 years ago?” he asks as he gathers his thoughts together.

Getting baked to Playing With Fire, your correspondent tells him. 

 

Pierce chuckles in response, but it’s an honest reply to his question, not least becausePlaying With Fire is that kind of an album: lay back, fire up and float on. But that’s to damn the record with faint and superficial praise for in truth, it’s so much more than that: Playing With Fire is an extraordinary album and its ramifications and reverberations are still being felt to this very day. Not only was it the moment that Spacemen 3 found themselves reaching a wider audience after years of indifference, but it was also one that saw them create a contemporary form of psychedelia that was ripe for the time and beyond. And in fairness to Pierce, three decades is a considerable period of time, so a re-acquaintance with Spacemen 3’s third album and the times in which it was made is called for. 

Looking back three decades is to be reminded of a time characterised by huge social, political and cultural upheavals. The year leading up to the album’s release had been marred by shocking levels of violence in and around Northern Ireland. Margaret Thatcher became the 20th century’s longest-serving Prime Minister at the turn of the year. The Local Government Act – featuring the notorious Section 28 preventing local authorities from “promoting homosexuality” – became law. And in a grotesque full stop to the year, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over the Scottish town of Lockerbie when a terrorist bomb went off on board, killing a total of 270 people.

Cultural changes were afoot. The first rumblings from the Pacific Northwest were beginning to make themselves felt, hip hop had taken bold steps forward thanks to groundbreaking records by Public Enemy, Eric B & Rakim and EPMD among others, while the likes of Sonic Youth, Pixies and R.E.M. were reaching far and wide. 

Closer to home, the psychedelic experience was in the process of taking an unexpected turn when British youth once again seized upon underground black American music and this time began to refine it into rave culture. The addition of MDMA to the existing menu of mind-altering substances inextricably linked the drug with the scene. If you want to track the seed of the best of the 90s and what followed, this is when it was planted.

And it was against this backdrop that Spacemen 3 unshackled psychedelic rock from its origins in the 60s to give it an updated and modern vernacular.

Driven by the partnership of Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember and Jason Pierce, Spacemen 3 had been ploughing their own unique and unfashionable furrow since their formation in 1982. From the fuzzed-up ramalama of their Stooges-indebted 1986 debut album, Sound Of Confusion, through to its follow-up a year later with the laid-back and medicated washes of The Perfect Prescription, Spacemen 3’s gradual reduction and minimalising of their sound would result in Playing With Fire. Opening a fresh chapter in the band’s evolution in the shape of new bassist Will Carruthers, the circumstances around the album’s creation helped precipitate the increasingly fractious relationship between Pete Kember and Jason Pierce.

Speaking to tQ from his Berlin home, Carruthers muses: “People always ask, ‘Why did the band split up?’ The more interesting question is, ‘Why did they stay together?’”

 

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