Spacemen 3 was formed by a group of Warwickshire boys dipped long in the avant-garde sound of The Velvet Underground and other dark-psychedelia groups of the 1960s and ’70s. The band started off in 1982 as a two-piece consisting of Peter Kember and Jason Pierce, known respectively under their pseudonyms Sonic Boom and J. Spaceman. The duo stood as the core creative force of the band, and they were supported by several line-up changes over the 1980s.
The group had a slow rise to popularity and appeared to peak in the late 1980s following the release of their most commercially and critically successful album, Playing With Fire, in 1989. Unfortunately, this peak wasn’t enjoyed for long before the group split up amid creative friction between Pierce and Kember. Pierce subsequently went on to form the successful cult group Spiritualized.
The “3” in the name, for those wondering, isn’t, as one might expect, connoting the number of “Spacemen” or band members. As Kember once explained: “The ‘3’ came about completely by mistake. We did a poster which was just for The Spacemen, which we were for a while,” he once explained. “But it was ‘The’ Spacemen, and I hated that, it sounded like a 50s rock ‘n’ roll group – that’s all very well, but we didn’t want to be imagined as…one of those surf bands. So we stuck the 3 on afterwards – that came about from a poster we did which had ‘Are Your Dreams at Night 3 Sizes Too Big?’ with a very big 3 on it, and it really worked as a logo, it just fell into place. It’s really for the third eye.”
The group’s name, relating to the third eye, was quite befitting of the band given their neo-psychedelia sound that, while mostly original and innovative, could be traced back to influences in punk and the more mellow and morose forms of psychedelic music of the previous two decades. The heavy guitar distortion and the slow blues-inspired rhythm and lead compositions made for a feel of 1960s hangover music.
The slow, laid back tempo and distortion is most obviously reminiscent of The Velvet Underground’s live performances. This prominent source of inspiration was confirmed in the group’s visual style and, of course, the early track ‘Ode To Street Hassle’, which pays a touching tribute to Lou Reed and his 1978 track ‘Street Hassle’.
The visual aspect of the group was important to them despite the darkness of their live shows. The minimalist light shows and shadowplay created an atmosphere to match the music. This early Pink Floyd throwback to budget psychedelic light shows can be seen in the video below.
Kember recalled the atmosphere of the group’s live performances in a 2008 interview with Anthony Carew, “We went out of our way to control our audience. 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 getting it.”
Below, we bring you some early footage of Spacemen 3 performing live during their European tour on April 13th, 1989, at the Willem 1 in Arnhem, Netherlands. The video was recorded by the promoter of the club at the time. He recalled the experience, “Before the soundcheck, I had to find Jason a fuzz pedal in town”. He continued, “during the show, I found myself with a camera in a psychedelic shadowplay, constantly searching for a little light in the darkness.”