The Brown and Fuzzy Ascent of Spiritualized
For Britpop fanatics, 1997 was a year like none other. Oasis' Be Here Now immediately became one of the fastest-selling albums in U.K. history; as for their rivals, Blur's eponymous fifth record yielded "Song 2," a/k/a "That 'Woo-Hoo' Song." Meanwhile, Radiohead released OK Computer—enough said. And the Verve, led by a tall, dark, and sort of handsome Richard Ashcroft, offered up Urban Hymns, whose own hit single, "Bittersweet Symphony," would set the movie-montage gold standard for years to come.
It's that last guy who most fans connect with Spiritualized's own contribution to '97, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, their third and most revered album. Formed by Jason Pierce (a/k/a J. Spaceman) following the dissolution of '80s drone-psych crew Spaceman 3, Spiritualized initially featured Pierce's girlfriend at the time, keyboardist/vocalist Kate Radley. Who left Pierce for Ashcroft, roughly around 1995. Gentlemen folklore dictates that the album was born out of that separation, leaving Pierce frazzled, deeply depressed, and heavily sedated. "Home of the Brave" describes moments where he's having "breakfast right off a mirror." The slow, slide-guitar-heavy "Stay With Me" conjures a pleading man desperately clinging to his sanity. And the title track's crescendoing echoes—Pierce's request for a little something to "take the pain away," along with the assertions that he'll "love you till I die" and "float in space and drift in time"—are layered atop a gospel choir chanting the chorus to canonical lovelorn pop ballad "Can't Help Falling in Love."
It's a great story, but hard to swallow 13 years later. Gentlemen actually first took shape during sessions for 1995's Pure Phase, another psychedelic-yet-melodic dreamin' 'n' druggin' record. Radley was still very much in the band back then, when rough versions of "Stay With Me," "Come Together," "Electricity," and epic 17-minute closer "Cop Shoot Cop" worked their way into live sets. "Everyone in the band was involved to some extent in developing aspects of Jason's songs for Ladies and Gentlemen," says co-producer and multi-instrumentalist John Coxon. "As to the subject matter, the songs speak for themselves, though Kate was in the band all through this period. We were really good at the new material before we went to Moles Studio [in Bath, England] to record them."
Ask Pierce about time frames—where people were, who they were with—and it seems fuzzy in his brain and hard to recollect. Or else, he doesn't want to. Besides, his fascination with self-medication, love, and loss was a constant fixture throughout Spiritualized's first three albums. And speaking about Gentlemen now, he's more apt to dwell on the technical aspects: pulling something coherent out of countless demos, overdubs, and conflicting layers. "When you're making a record, it's the single most important thing in your world," he says. "I'm the same when I make any record—I'm all over the place. I haven't got a clue."
Coherency finally came, courtesy of a surprising guest: The one and only Dr. John contributed piano and vocals to "Cop Shoot Cop," breathing life into a closing track intended to mirror a cross-country journey from New York to L.A. "It never really made sense until Dr. John played into it," Pierce says. "The whole record changed when he started to get involved. Things started to really click."
Sometime after that—the details are murky—Pierce took a trip to Memphis, where he hooked up with another spiritual advisor of sorts in legendary producer Jim Dickinson. Gentlemen revealed, in heavy doses, that Pierce's interests went far beyond mere drones and atmospherics—he was a student of rock 'n' roll's origins, and Dickinson further guided and influenced him far more than even Radley did, a notion that's quite evident on the bluesy final mix of "Cop Shoot Cop" or the Stax-tinged "I Think I'm in Love."
"I don't think a whole lot of the sound was done with Jim, but I think he was a major part in the way that record ended up sounding," Pierce recalls. "He had all these great lines. He said one more important line, where rock 'n' roll has to be brown and fuzzy. And that record ended up being brown and fuzzy. It had the need to fulfill sounds that are rock 'n' roll to me. When he died, he held a lot of information about rock 'n' roll—about telling a story. Like a whole encyclopedia of it, and it kinda went with him."
At the request of Nick Cave, Spiritualized played an Australian iteration of the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in January 2009—there, sitting atop Mount Buller, ATP co-founder Barry Hogan asked Pierce if he'd consider doing Ladies and Gentlemen as a part of their "Don't Look Back" series, wherein influential bands perform their now-classic album live onstage from start to finish. As much as Pierce insists he lives in the moment, he decided to give it a go: "People come to the show already with their preconceived ideas about what that record means to them," he says. "Usually, when you're playing a show, it's about finding energy, finding this magic thing and pushing it around. But it could've been any record—it could've been Pure Phase, it could've been [2001's] Let It Come Down. But Gentlemen seems to be the one . . . that's a lot of people's first connection to Spiritualized."
As the years have gone by, we've seen the ill-fated dissolving—and uninspired reuniting—of Blur, Oasis, and the Verve. Revisiting those back catalogs, you start to see why Gentlemen made such a lasting impression: The bombastic, over-the-top, bigger-than-thou self-aggrandizing of '90s Britpop simply isn't there. Instead, the record is insular and spiritual and self-contained while still sounding sprawling and enormous, with Pierce himself reaching far beyond the grasp of his peers, meaning Albert Ayler and New York noise band Machine Gun had more influence on him than anything the Beatles might've done. "In a weird way, I think rock 'n' roll is dying," he says. "It's going to become 1920s flapper music, where it's going to get lost in this time, and people are going to look back and say, 'Hey, that's rock 'n' roll. And a lot of the information's there, but it's this intangible thing. It's brown and fuzzy and hard to hold onto."
Spiritualized perform Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space at Radio City Music Hall July 30
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