Caught by the River

Flying Saucer Attack: The Ballad of the Band

24th March 2016

As three of their records get the revival treatment David Pearce of Flying Saucer Attack tells it like it was:

It was a big week in the spring 1995 – the week of BBC’s “Sound City” visit to Bristol and the week Further came out, but the most important thing was that John Peel was there, actually there, on the Planet Records boat-trip, chugging around Bristol harbour one afternoon.

I’d spoken to him briefly once before, almost exactly ten years earlier. It was a spring night in 1985 when, right outside Broadcasting House, Mr Peel had had to gently explain that the Ha Ha Ha EP I’d furtively pressed into his unsuspecting hand at the same place a week earlier was essentially “just too shambolic for the radio”.

This time, though, I thought I was on somewhat stronger ground and so I approached Mr Peel and thanked him for having played the FSA records, thereby giving us (as he had so many, many before) both an essential lifeline and crucial nationwide exposure.

Almost immediately, however, I began to feel something of the reprobate I’d been ten years earlier as the conversation took on a familiar tone:

Mr Peel (gently, kindly, with a hint of bemusement / amusement): “actually I started playing your records on the radio because I wasn’t entirely sure if they were any good or not.”

Me (a child): “Er, well, er, I hope you’ve decided now.”

Mr Peel (now with mischievousness): “Well, I am still playing them…”

A lot has happened in the twenty years between then and now, not least the sad passing of Mr Peel himself, and yet here I find myself checking a fresh set of test pressings of those self-same-yet-now-about-to-be-reissued records… “still playing them”, and still not entirely sure if they’re any good or not.

I guess that’s not an uncommon thing – it’s partly the ambivalence built into nearly all musicians’ feelings about their own stuff and it’s probably also the mixed feelings anyone has about things they did when they were young. But then again, the FSA thing has always seemed to invite a lot of questions: is it really meant to sound like that? Who exactly are these people? Where are these people? And many less polite queries besides those.

FSA started in an era of bands where members had grown up in the punk or post-punk eras, where the idea of being in some way oppositional and of question things, of saying “no in some way”, no matter how quietly or loudly, still seemed an integral part of the functioning of a band. There were still some vestiges around of the idea that a new band should in some way sound, well, “new”, and whilst I believe we did, it also always seemed that we were somehow incapable of doing anything around the notion of the band in quite the accepted way, just because of the way we were as people.

I can only speak for myself, but although I’d always want to be doing music, making a racket, since I could remember, I always also felt totally unqualified for the job, even in the punk era – a central philosophical tenet of which was the idea that anyone could have a go at anything.

This probably had a lot to do with a chronic lack of self-esteem on my part but it also had a lot to do with the facts. I’d never looked right. My thick mop of unruly hair, the same mop that had caused endless amusement to others since I was about four years old, was never going to be fashioned into a mohican, however much at various times I wished it could have been. I was physically extremely clumsy. I certainly couldn’t dance. I couldn’t even begin to try and play guitar and jig around meaningfully at the same time. I had to wear glasses due to my appalling eyesight. I didn’t speak much.

Furthermore, I was approximately the third worst guitar player I’d ever met in my entire life, i had managed to write some songs but they mysteriously always seemed to contain the same six lines of lyrics, and i had long before vowed never, ever to set foot on stage again due to a series of inadvertent disasters leading all the way back to my time as a violin-wielding child. No way!

And yet, at the start of 1993, there we were, somehow the earthbound representatives of this thing that had just started to float around in the ether by the name of Flying Saucer Attack.

No matter how accidentally we had ended up in this situation, it would be a mistake to think we didn’t appreciate what we knew to be a rare opportunity that had been sent our way when it did finally emerge. Rachel had left for college in 1992 and I was still burrowed away in the dark corners of Bristol’s Revolver store but nevertheless something special was beginning to happen by the turn of that year.

In a way I’d been waiting all my life, plotting away, maybe more subconsciously than consciously. Really I’d thought music was the only thing I could ever do, even as I’d also felt that I was totally unsuited for it, and so it was with a bit of relief that Flying Saucer Attack came along at a time when I was beginning to think I was running out of places to turn in life.

The motivation was certainly there: A mixture of youthful energy, childlike enthusiasm, naivety and personal inexperience (on my part), as well as a certain amount of plain bloody mindedness, foolish youthful arrogance and a need to provoke all informed what we did in those early days. It really did feel to me in a way like we had a chance to try and stir things up and change things a bit. And, er, it really did feel at the time that there were some things that needed stirring up and changing.

Grunge was big at the time but it was American and seemed to me to have always been a sub-sect of the dreaded heavy metal. The nation seemed to have got over its flirtation with all things Manchester (and weren’t the non-functioning but still all-arrogance Stone Roses just the kind of people you always knew would turn out to be Man U fans?), Shoegaze had run its course, but then again it always seemed to be just the more sparkly and prettified end-game of the big strides forward that had been made circa 1988 by the likes of A. R. Kane, Loop, Dinosaur Jr., Talk Talk et al.

Dance was big over here but had hit the post-rave ambient come-down phase, which was all quite cerebral or maybe more likely quite stoned? Whatever, we were yet to see the explosion of dance-only euphoria that appeared nationwide a couple of years later. Drum’n’Bass was as yet unknown and Trip Hop was only just really getting started.

Strangely no-one seemed to be playing live much over here at that point. Aside from the occasional welcome visit from American Music Club, and the first sightings of emergent folk like Pavement, Stereolab, and Sebadoh, we had the excellence of Moonshake’s first line-up, and local rumblings from the Becketts/John Parrish/P.J. Harvey axis, but there just didn’t seem to be many gigs in Bristol.

There was a constant nagging feeling that the major labels may be about to group together and pounce with something potentially pretty horrible. They were already trying to take away our vinyl. There’d been the awful Smiths re-issues, and on Warner Bros. of all people. Suede were busy re-defining the “new” bit in “best new band in Britain”, and were on a label that seemed to have something to do with Sony, and there were a few other labels like that around, but in fact the nightmare full flourishing of all that was a couple of years yet to pass.

It was a kind of an open period for about two years, post-initial grunge explosion, and pre-fucking britpop.

So, you say, what did you lot do about it then?

Well, I really thought there did seem a need for a bit of out-and-out white noise, drone with guitars that were not playing rock riffs per se. And, dare I say it, could it be possible to openly use an acoustic guitar? And oh how our souls could really use the life-affirming properties of a dose of pure feedback…

…on and on we went like this, adding different sometimes clashing ideas to our palette, approaching everything with a policy of not knowing, not knowing what we were doing and of letting things happen.

It was a in a way contradictory approach – a very deliberate policy of relying on instinct, intuition and (hopefully) inspiration, a process of just going with what at the time “felt right”. For us, having no policy was the best policy.

What works best for the music or art however is not always best when it comes to “managing” a “career”, which for us didn’t always seem to work quite so well. Maybe that was the price to pay for the freedom we afforded ourselves in other ways but it did lead to a great number of fraught situations in this period, which I regret to this day.

We seemed to be saying something, but never stopped to try and work out exactly what it is we were saying. Maybe we were trying to avoid the trap of over-thinking things, maybe we were just afraid of thinking, but it definitely led to a lot of confusion from some quarters.

So, to these albums. All three come from that two year “open period” I mentioned above, a phase where it seemed we were given license to play (as in child-like play), before our initial wide-eyed idealism faded.

I have to say I was really surprised that I actually quite enjoyed hearing them again after all this time. In musical terms they were a bit more accomplished than I expected and my singing wasn’t quite as awful as I remembered it. Here are the primary things that came to mind playing them:

Distance: innocent.

Further: stronger.

Chorus: warm.

Also, they’re all kind of the same record over and over again, but then who’s records kind of aren’t?

Also, even though some of it’s pretty noisy, there’s always these “holes” in the sound that kind of let you in…

…but what came over so clearly to me while playing them was that there were actually a lot of people involved in the music during this period, and these records would have been nothing if it hadn’t been for the all their contributions. Rachel’s belief and sanity, Matt’s organising of the percussion collectives, acoustic Jon’s love of the songs over time, Rocker’s enthusiasm, Richard Amp’s support, Richard King’s enthusiam for, and support of, everyone, Simon and Bill and Laurence and Dan’s reassurance and motivation. And on and on. All mitigating factors against my frailties and insecurities I’d suggest.

Speaking for myself, all those feelings of “wanting to change things” I talked about earlier (and those of wanting to make a racket too) now clearly seem to me to really be about my own then neuroses, anger and confusion more than anything. Partly I think it was simply a version of the cry of the (inner) child trying to say “I’m here, I’m me, I exist” in a world that it doesn’t understand.

But partly also I had yet to gain any realisation that the important thing is that it’s actually not about changing the world, so much as about changing how you let the world make you feel.

We didn’t hang about, there were certainly quite a few records in a fairly quick period of time, but by the end part of 1995 something fundamental was gone. The real world, the pressures of a “career”, had started to intervene too much maybe. Brit Pop had arrived.

Y’know, I think we probably gave it as best a bash as we could. Others may disagree, but I don’t think we ever claimed to be anything we weren’t. And yes, the records are flawed, but to me they seem humanly flawed, with their diffusion, repetitions and contradictions. There’s an honesty in there. They are my flaws too.

Perhaps it’s best to end though with some more words from the sage figure we encountered at the start of this piece. Back in 1994, in a school project documentary film made by a bunch of sixth-formers including Rachel’s sister, there can be seen sitting in his radio studio one John Peel. He’s looking at the camera with a twinkle in his eye, and he’s saying:

“Now Flying Saucer Attack are highly amusing…”

And maybe that’s the best way to think about it all.

The Flying Saucer Attack reissues are out now on Domino.