Formed in: 1982, Rugby, England
Key Albums: The Perfect Prescription (1987), Playing with Fire (1989)
Spacemen 3 were an infamous English band of the 1980s, whose reputation for proud drug usage would, at times, overshadow their music. Taking influence from the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, and Suicide, Spacemen 3 made repetitious, idiosyncratic 'space-rock' which later drew from gospel music, the blues, and ethnomusical drone. By the time they broke up, in 1991, founding members Pete Kember (AKA: Sonic Boom) and Jason Pierce (AKA: J. Spaceman) hadn't spoken for two years.
Kember and Pierce met in 1981 at art-school in Rugby. Kember was a silver-spoon-fed private schoolboy, Pierce from a down-and-out single-mother household, but the two shared the same birthday —November 19, 1965— and musical loves. "Groups like Suicide or the MC5 are like my favorite stuff in the world," Kember told Conflict 48 in 1988. Pierce, in 1997, would recount, to Magnet: “When I was 14, I bought the Stooges’ Raw Power and I listened to nothing but that for a year."
Initial musical collaborations were put on hold for a year whilst Pierce attended art college, but on his return to Rugby in 1984, the pair form The Spacemen. Shortly thereafter, so as not to "sound like some kitsch R&B band from the '50s," they added the 3 after using it as visual motif on a gig poster asking: “are your dreams at night 3 sizes too big?”
Spacemen 3 wanted to make music that spoke of an altered, transcendental state. For Kember, this correlated to his confessed #1 passion, drugs. "When we started, around 1982, there was a massive surge of heroin addicts, which I s’pose we were part of," Kember recounted, to Melody Maker.
Initially working out covers by the Stooges, the 13th Floor Elevators, and the Red Krayola, Spacemen 3 first existed behind closed doors. “We could just sit in a room and play those songs," Pierce recounted, to Vox. "It seemed like this music was coming through the roof… It was like: 'what the f**k is this?' It wasn’t making some massive statement, the music was all around us.”
On stage, the budding Spacemen 3 (a quartet whose rhythm-section was a revolving-door) would replicate their rehearsals: sitting on stools, backs to the audience, the band would rarely talk between songs, play at hazardously-loud volume, and work songs into 20+ minute jams.
“We went out of our way to control our audience," Kember told me, in a 2008 interview. "We purposely, really wilfully made sure that we disenfranchised anyone who might’ve just stumbled upon us. We wanted to make sure, absolutely, that all those people who were there were actually there because they were gettin’ it.”
In 1986, Spacemen 3 issued their debut album, Sound of Confusion. The LP sets a blueprint that would last through the band's tenure, and even through Pierce's two decades of post-Spacemen work as Spiritualized: a Stooges cover, the use of the 'Lord'-centric blues/gospel language, and endless references to drugs.
"I find drugs to be very inspiring," Kember told Conflict 48. "All of our songs are about drugs or about our experiences while on drugs. Seriously, without drugs I don’t think I would be here today."
The second Spacemen 3 album, 1987's The Perfect Prescription, marked a serious artistic development, drawing deeper from gospel, ambient, and spiritual music, granting a serenity and depth to their spaced-out garage psychedelia. "Early on, we were listening to the Stooges, then came Suicide, then we’d start listening to Sun Ra, and pick up on all these lateral threads that ran between them,” Pierce told me, in 2008.
"What attracts us to gospel is the energy, the belief," Kember told Melody Maker, after the LP's release. "With us, it’s always been fuzz and feedback, guitar drones or whatever, but both reach the same destination... It’s almost a religious experience playing it because it captures the belief, the self-belief, the search for purity that we’re about. It’s like a drug, and gospel can be too when it’s ecstatic and dream-like, when it’s elated."
In 1989, Spacemen 3 released Playing with Fire, their most critically and commercially successful album. Yet, even as the band achieved modest success in the UK, their imminent demise is writ on the LP credits: where previous records attributed songwriting credit to Kember/Pierce, now each was solely in charge of his own songs.
"We’re pretty much set on the ideas in our heads," Pierce told Sounds. "We used to let each other work on each other’s pieces, but later on we both knew what [we] wanted."
By the time Spacemen 3 released their final album, 1991's Recurring, Pierce and Kember were no longer speaking. The divide first hinted at on Playing with Fire was now literal: each member working by themselves on each side of the LP (Kember Side A, Pierce Side B).
The two had already debuted their own projects, Kember as Spectrum, Pierce as Spiritualized (who, consisting of ex-SP3 members, would oft cover the old band's songs), and soon thereafter their personal animosity was made public. "One of the main reasons the band split was because I felt Jason was aping everything I was doing," Kember told Vox. "Any direction I made towards something different, he would just follow.”
Pierce, in response, would only say, to Sounds: "I don’t want to match him bitch for bitch, like trying to shout louder.”
Even when Spacemen 3 were in their day, Kember was speaking of their legacy, suggesting their peers My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain had drawn influence from them, and that Loop had blatantly "ripped [them] off completely."
In 1998, the band's legacy was effectively cemented with the release of the covers compilation A Tribute to Spacemen 3, in which those paying on-the-record homage included Mogwai, Low, Arab Strap, and Bardo Pond.
“Even now,” Kember eulogizes, “people go out of their way and write to me just to say ‘for my little span I get to joy-bang on this Earth, you guys have been a star in the sky, a light in my life’. That’s the way we felt about the music that influenced us, and that’s the way we felt about our music. So, that’s it for me, hearing that.”