Pete Kember. You may not know the name, but you’ll know his sound. As the founding member of Spacemen 3, Kember – more commonly known by his solo stage name of Sonic Boom – is responsible for creating some of the most adventurous records of the 1980s and early 1990s. That’s to say nothing of his extensive output following the disbandment of Spacemen 3 in 1991. Since then, he’s recorded as Sonic Boom, Spectrum, and E.A.R (Experimental Audio Research). Here, we’ll be taking a look at six of Pete Kember’s greatest songs, spanning the breadth of his varied career.
Kember formed Spacemen 3 with his school friend Jason Pierce while they were attending Rugby Art College in Warwickshire. At that time, Pierce was performing with a group called Indian Scalp but, having formed a close friendship with Kember, quit the band to collaborate with the then 16-year-old. As two guitarists, they knew they weren’t going anywhere until they had found a drummer and a bassist, so they bought in Tim Morris (drums) and Pete Bain (bass). With something resembling a full line-up taking shape, they took on the name The Spacemen and started gigging in the winter of 1982/3.
By 1985, they were the biggest band on the scene, headlining local venues and playing to packed rooms. At the same time, they started putting on weekly club nights with another local band. ‘The Reverberation Club’ specialised in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s records and sat at the very centre of a rapidly expanding noise rock scene, acting as a space for Spacement 3 to put on their own gigs. One such concert was attended by Pat Fish of The Jazz Butcher, who would later sign to Creation Records in 1988. With the support of somebody with their foot in the industry, Spacemen 3 were away.
It is here that our selection begins.
Pete Kembers’ six definitive songs:
‘Hey Man’ from Sound Of Confusion, Spacemen 3 (1986)
From Spacemen 3’s 1986 debut album, Sound Of Confusion, ‘Hey Man’ already contains all the seeds of the pioneering shoegaze sound that would define their subsequent records. Most of the songs on the LP are covers and even those that aren’t, such as ‘Hey Man’, are largely drawn from pre-existing songs by the likes of Bukka White and, notably, The Stooges – to whom this song sounds like a very obvious tribute.
It’s a surprisingly successful record, especially considering Kember and the band were largely unsatisfied with it, having failed to get secure Pat Fish as the producer and getting stuck with Bob Lamb instead, who seemed remarkably out of touch with the sound Spacemen 3 were going for. Still, it won favourable reviews for its melding of ’60s garage rock and ambient, psychedelia.
‘Walkin’ With Jesus’ from The Perfect Prescription, Spacemen 3 (1987)
Spacemen 3’s second album saw them hit their stride. Having secured a deal by which the band would be given a huge amount of studio time to work on their new record in return for financing new studio equipment, Spacemen 3 spent eight months meticulously crafting the sound of The Perfect Prescription, experimented with and refining their material.
The process of recording the album represented a huge learning curve for Kember, Pierce and the like. In the liner notes to the reissue of The Perfect Prescription, released in 2009, Kember remembers how the band became obsessed with crafting the perfect record. “Mattresses were installed into the studio’s lounging space and our kaleidoscopic light show stayed on throughout the session,” he explained. “We spent several months…recording and re-working these pieces until we felt they were ready, slowly learning more about the studio and its techniques as we went.”
‘Help me Please’ from Spectrum, Sonic Boom, (1989)
In 1989, Kember was working on material from Spaceman 3’s third album Playing With Fire. He found himself with a surplus of songs and so sought another creative outlet in the form of his solo project, Sonic Boom.
The new indie label, Silvertone Records, picked up the project and offered to release Kember’s first solo album, Spectrum, in March 1989, shortly before Spacemen 3 embarked on their European tour. It truly is a phenomenal record, sounding just as fresh as it did all those years ago. Other highlights include ‘Angel’, a song that sees Kember channel the mournful sing-speak of Lou Reed in The Velvet Underground while saturated drones slowly rise out of the gloom, consuming everything in their path.
‘Lord Can You Hear Me?’ from Playing With Fire, Spacemen 3 (1989)
On release, Spacemen 3’s astonishing third record became one of the breakthrough albums of the year, making it their most critically acclaimed and commercially successful album to date. And a huge amount of that success was down to ‘Lord Can You Hear Me?’. A radio-friendly hit it is not, but it still managed to capture the imaginations of an entire generation of maudlin, duffle-coated teens.
However, Playing With Fire also marked the beginning of the end for Spacemen 3. Tensions within the group were becoming intolerable and, the very next year, the member’s would go their separate ways. In an exclusive interview with Far Out, Kember recalled that fractious period: “I could see it disintegrating slowly, but surely. We were kind of dysfunctional as a band. I probably didn’t even think we were dysfunctional at the time. I just thought we were a bunch of kids, silly kids. But now when I look back, and I’m like God we were so fucking dysfunctional.”
‘How You Satisfy Me’ from Soul Kiss (Glide Divine), Spectrum (1991)
Kember’s next musical venture following the demise of Spacemen 3 in 1990 saw him go back to his roots and evoke the sound of early 1960s psych bands combined with that uniquely gothic atmosphere he’d moved towards in The Perfect Prescription.
The project, for which Kember reunited with Richard Formby, who had played guitar and keyboards on Spacemen 3’s fourth and final album Recurring, came at the perfect time, rejuvenating Kember’s songcraft. As he told Far Out, variety has always been of the utmost importance. “I never wanted to make a lot of records and the idea of just making a new record every year, I just don’t feel that inspired to and I like to filter what I come up with.”
‘The Way That You Live’ from All Things Being Equal, Sonic Boom (2020)
In recent years, much of Kember’s work has been dedicated to collaborations. He’s released music with My Bloody Valentine‘s Kevin Shields, Stereolab, and Yo La Tengo to name but a few, with their influence making its way into his 2020 album All Things Being Equal.
Describing his motivations for releasing that 2020 album, Kember told Far Out: “It just felt right. There was also some perception, I think, from promoters, and maybe labels as well, that Spectrum wasn’t as well known as Sonic Boom because of the Spacemen 3 interest. On that level, it made sense too, and I just felt it was right.”