Nine Songs: Sonic Boom
At first glance, Spacemen 3 aficionados might find the pivotal songs in Peter Kember’s life quite the surprise. Yet given his lifelong musical curiosity, the songs - which take in Dub, Pop, Soul and the power of hypnotic music - make perfect sense.
The band he formed with Jason Pierce initially drew their inspiration from the likes of Velvet Underground and The Stooges; taking their low slung, visceral guitar riffs and transporting them into a psychedelic romp via their very un-cosmic hometown of Rugby.
Neither of those artists feature here, but a glance at his alma mater’s back catalogue, where by their final album Recurring the guitars were dialled down as they embraced the emergence of Acid House, most notably on “Big City” tells part of the story. Jarvis Cocker recently picked “Big City” as part of his uplifting lockdown songs for The Guardian, which has proved to be a smash on his Domestic Discos.
Kember now lives in Sintra, just outside of Lisbon and has taken up gardening. He tells me he’s trying to create a “jungle” in which he can thrive in as potently as the nature he now surrounds himself with. The decision to release All Things Being Equal, his first since 1990’s Spectrum under his pseudonym Sonic Boom, was partly inspired by his new habitat and the solace he found in songs as a child.
“I wanted to get away from this urban, commercialised town that I lived in. Most of the northern hemisphere, the UK and the US - the so-called ‘developed countries’ - have this super commercialised vibe, where we are constantly being sold, bombarded or seduced into a greater obsolescence. So I moved into the wild. I wanted to make a record where I was questioning the final phase of our demise into toxifying the whole planet.
To refrain the insurrectionist call of ‘it takes just five seconds…” from Spacemen 3’s classic “Revolution”, he believes that even if All Things Being Equal helps to educate just one person on the damage humanity has wrought over the world, then his music can be as powerful as the songs that inspired him.
"I wanted to make a record, but I wanted it to make a difference to somebody, somewhere. There’s a lot of musicians who have been saying this for decades and it has a small impact every time it happens. I hope I can, in some small way, inspire people to aspire to want to do right for the planet and increase the chances that the human race will exist in three generations."
With his Nine Songs choices ranging from discovering the delights of Kraftwerk on glow in the dark vinyl to an Andy Williams song from his beloved Grandfather’s record collection, Kember has looked back on his musical upbringing and selected songs that made him the person and musician he is today, songs that like his ambition for All Things Being Equal, helped him to understand the world around him.
“I’ve always loved that song and six or seven years ago I sought out the LP that it’s from, which is also called Police and Thieves. The whole thing is a masterpiece and it’s one of Lee "Scratch" Perry’s (the record’s producer) great records. The production of it with Junior Murvin’s voice is brilliant.
“There’s something about his voice, it manages to have an instant contact with you through his singing. It’s like “Israelites” by Desmond Dekker, it has this sense that you’re really feeling what they’re feeling and they’re communicating and transmitting the vibe in a beautifully strong way.
“I think Lee Perry is one of those people that picking a specific song of his is always hard - if someone asked me again today, I probably wouldn’t pick the same song. I like the social commentary in a lot of Lee Perry’s stuff and he’s commenting on the social situation in Jamaica at that time. It’s really hard to mix politics and music, but he does it in a really cool way. Junior Murvin and Lee Perry, that’s 1977. It’s a really cool song.”
“I bought that single on glow in the dark vinyl when it came out. It was in the relatively early days of the 12” phenomena and it had a beautiful sleeve, with Kraftwerk in silhouette on the front with their names in neon at their feet.
“As a kid I remember charging it up to see it glow, and seeing that record glow with all the lights off and with that tune was one of the most beautiful, dreamy and vibey songs that Kraftwerk did. They did a hell of a lot, so that’s a little unfair, but “Neon Lights” is one of my favourite songs of theirs - the end of the track, when the arpeggiators and sequencers all start syncing and jiving, goes into what’s essentially a late ‘80s/early ‘90s rave workout.
“Kraftwerk were such an important band. They were uncompromising and successful and I like that element with lot of the bands I really like. You can tell that ultimately they had a dream they were following and were trying to portray that in their music. Kraftwerk were really, really successful at that.
“One of the first comments I saw about “Just Imagine” (from All Things Being Equal) was that it sounded like Kraftwerk on DMT. I’m not sure if that’s quite close to the truth but I’ve always been envious of their minimal succinctness, where they could use so few elements but all place them all in the right zone. They were always amazing at that distillation and finding out what the essence was. On “Just Imagine” I took every leaf out of their book. In terms of production they taught me about different ways to work and how to place elements within sound and I think about that a lot.
“That song has always been really dear to me and I’ve always loved it. I still have that original copy; it doesn’t glow quite as strongly as it used to but it still sounds amazing. It transports me to somewhere beautiful every time I play it. They were a massive influence on me and it’s a supreme compliment if anyone ever compares anything I do, even slightly, to Kraftwerk.”
“I don’t know how well known “Teenage Sonata” is. To my knowledge it’s not that well known a song of his and I can’t quite understand why. I guess it might be because it’s not so verse-chorusey as “Chain Gang” or something. I found it when I bought a complete Sam Cooke collection. It’s three long CDs and “Teenage Sonata” was one of the tracks on there.
“There’s something really special about him and this particular song is so deeply personal - we’re back to ‘You really believe him and you’re really transported straight away.’ I could have picked so many Sam Cooke songs, but this one is my fave of late.
“I always loved his hits, they were so beautifully vibey, positive and loving. I really like that side of soul music, there was an awesome expression in the music that happened that was less so in the white music of that era. I see more people talking about Sam Cooke lately, he seems to have entered a layer of zeitgeist and it’s really good.
“He’s a really special artist, not only for his music but also how he ran his business and his life. He tried to get away from the ever-crooked major labels, he wanted to set it up and do it right. Especially in those times, segregation was still rocking and rolling, and for a black guy to do that was awesome. He’s a great example for people.”
“I love The Who of that era, all their early singles and pretty much all of their early stuff. Probably up to Tommy is when I started tuning out. I thought they were amazing and the album that this is from, The Who Sell Out, is this funny, radio show LP where it’s meant to be like a Radio London show, with ads between the songs and little radio idents.
“The hit off it was “I Can See For Miles” and it’s a really strange song. It’s The Who at their most superpowered, it has an amphetamine glow to it, but without any real comedown. I really like the energy and the emotion they put into the instruments, just through trying to beat the shit out of everything.
“A lot of their songs are actually pretty weird when you listen to the lyrics, there’s usually a twist to them, but “I Can See For Miles” doesn’t have that. It’s got a kind of kid’s psych, visionary vibe to it. There’s something about it that sums up the way kids feel at that age - the punk rock that you really need. I’m lucky, I still feel I can enjoy that side of it.
“With the way the whole song is delivered - the chords, the drumming, the crescendos, and at the end it goes into this hypnotic trance of terror - it’s one of The Who’s masterworks. I’ve loved it since I was a kid. Every time I go back to their stuff from that era they were on a fantastic roll. Those dudes were really firing on four cylinders.”
“The Beach Boys put a whole lot of soul and beauty, Sam Cooke style, into their music, and for a bunch of white kids they were next level. This is from the Smiley Smile record, which I feel was always damned or cursed by faint praise because it wasn’t Smile. There was so much hype about Smile at the time, everyone was telling everyone else about it, but then it was ‘Oh, Smile’s cancelled, but we got this?’
“A lot of people didn’t get the depth of what they were doing on Smiley Smile. Of course, it has two of their biggest hits, “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains”, but the other songs are quite wistful and introspective. On “With Me Tonight” the vibe of the song is so strong; it’s everything that I aspire to in my own music. To have something so satisfying sounding, so simple and well arranged, and just to be able to communicate with people on that level.
“You can hear a call for help with some of the songs on that album, well, you can if everyone was paying attention, but I guess they weren’t. I don’t think you can make music without having experienced those depths. If you’re experiencing different levels of depression, uncertainty about the planet, or wondering what it’s all about and why, it’s really nice when people share that. It makes you feel that you’re not alone out there.
“With a lot of records, especially when I was growing up, that was part of the role they fulfilled in my life. They made me think; ‘There are other people that feel the way that I do and think the way I think. It’s not just me’. That might be one of the great things that music can do.”
“When I was a kid, with a lot of my friends - particularly the older kids, or people I would buy drugs from and the like - there were two records that you’d see a lot. One of them was the Changesonebowie compilation, which is a solid gold record and the other was Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English.
“Andrew from MGMT was over here for a couple of years and one day he wanted to go record shopping. I try not to buy too much stuff because I have a lot of records, but I was down for it. We went into the shop, I saw Broken English and I thought, ‘There’s been many records in my life where I’ve looked at them and thought about them for some time, and then eventually I know it’s the time to buy it.’
“I brought it home and I remembered her first from “Working Class Hero” but “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” was a song that I vaguely remembered being a hit, although I’d never really fully absorbed the whole song and what it was about. I read her autobiography ten or fifteen years ago and it was awesome, she was so brutally honest about herself. I’m thinking of her skagged out in some dead-end corner in Soho, and there’s a dream in “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”, about everything being better than it is. You can really hear the dreamer in her.
“Marianne Faithfull was a really strong woman and she had a very interesting life. There’s something magical about her.”
“This is another one I’ve known since I was a kid. I think it was the follow up to “Tainted Love”, I only had those two singles, but around ten to fifteen years ago I came across the album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. It’s really great album but it’s “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” in particular. It’s one of those happy/sad songs that I feel is about someone having trouble committing in a relationship, the experiences of teenage social learning and trying to figure out where you fit into everything.
“There’s so many great little vignettes and little pieces of things in it that presumably happened to him in different relationships he was in. It’s a really interesting social scene, and there’s a bit where he’s talking about when you’re being introduced to someone and you have to pretend you haven’t met before, because of whatever complications there might be. It’s a funny little twist to the whole song.
“Every time I listen to it, it takes me to this place where I want to laugh but also cry at the same time. If you can make someone feel like that from something you create, that’s a really beautiful thing.”
“The shocker in the pile, Andy Williams! I’ve got an Andy Williams LP I inherited when my Grandfather died. He had a stack of records and he had some taste that I always admired, he liked Roy Orbison and I used to think it was really cool he was into him. Jim Reeves would have been one of his jams and Johnny Cash too.
“I knew “Can’t Get Used To Losing You” from when I was a kid because The Beat had a hit with it, which actually sounds pretty similar to the original version. I love the simplicity and the form of it, and the cliffhanging moments where it drops. It’s a masterful musical arrangement, it’s very simple but it’s the way it all interweaves and where it takes you.
“I’ve always really liked the form of pop music; songs with choruses and verses that really resonate with you. It might be seen as being old fashioned these days, but it’s a tried and tested form and that’s why it works so well.”
“If I had to pick one version of this song it would be from a BBC session from twenty years ago, which had a red cover with white text on it, I’m not sure if it’s still in print. That song in general though - the single version or the whole thing - was one of the really, really great songs of that era. “French Disko” stood head and shoulders above anything else that was coming out at the time.
“The first time I saw them live in any form was on The Word, back in the day. The sound was always really good on that show, which was really unusual for TV, especially from that era, anything on TV always sounded like shit if it was live music. I remember seeing Stereolab play “French Disko” and they just destroyed it, it was really great.
“I played with them for a little while. Most of the shows I did with them were in the UK and they never did “French Disko” at those shows. It was their thing, because it was a hit they never wanted to play it, which was incredibly disappointing for everyone but them, but they did play it in the States when I did a show with them in Los Angeles.
“Playing those songs live, my job was to do some of the electronic stuff, which I think was mainly John McEntire’s (from Tortoise) work. They were some of the most enjoyable shows I’ve ever played, and I feel deeply privileged to be involved in that era of Emperor Tomato Ketchup. The album was an instant classic anyway, but I hope I learnt a little bit from Stereolab, a little bit from their sound and my time with them. I hope it shows on this record.”