Friday, March 30, 2007

A personal history of Levitation. Part 1

Hands up who remembers Levitation? Exactly. They were one of those early nineties bands, not even as popular as Cud, Kingmaker or Carter USM; and now all but forgotten. They released a couple of EPs and a less than successful album. Diminishing returns set in quickly. The singer left, the band struggled on; over and out. And yet. This was a band I'd loved with an intensity I've rarely managed subsequently, a sound-track to a brief phase hallucinogenic adventure; a band that, unlike previous obsessions like REM or The Cure, I can still listen to now and hear fresh things, detect in their quicksilver sound the seeds that grew into a later love for Radiohead, say, or Talk Talk, or Krautrock, or even for techno blissed-out soundworlds.

Levitation were launched in an era that seems impossibly remote to me now: 1990. (Stop sniggering). Here are some facts about Levitation that date them as completely as their dodgy hair-cuts. The Melody Maker raved about them. This places them at the dawn of the nineties not merely because the Melody Maker is now defunct but because the music press, ie. the NME, is now a market-tested corporate product giving the kids what they want by editorial fiat; the weird shit (i.e. black music) can go hang*. So yer Arctic Monkey’s albums get 10 out of 10 by diktat of the editor, and journalistic integrity is conspicuous by its absence. In our day (yes, it really were all green fields round here), the MM cover would be regularly hijacked by various writer’s current obsessions, hence atrocities like Romo. But the atrocities meant that something like love was still shaping the editorial agenda. The fact that Levitation could and did make the cover is a reminder that once upon a time, the popular music press had a mandate to lead, not to follow.

Before Britpop, and everything that’s flowed unstoppably forth ever since (like a torrent of stinking effluvia you say? I couldn’t possibly comment), there was shoe-gaze. Say what you like about this era, it was one of the last times, at least when it came to popular alternative guitar music, that the sound was paramount. No-one wanted to be bigger than The Beatles. No-one wanted to duet with Paul Weller. Instead, bands battled to outdo each other with the pulverizing originality of their music. Immersive and molten, glistening and asexual, this was the music that was waggishly described as a ‘sonic cathedrals of sound’. Grunge, the parallel movement in America, was, in its earliest forms, in thrall to similarly expansive sounds.

All this is by way of saying that when we first got into alternative music in a big way (and by ‘we’, I mostly mean Barrie and me. Barrie was the finest bass-player that Byron Way had ever produced; but popular success was elusive, and the band broke up, leaving only rumours of a demo tape, more whispered about than actually heard), the music we were hearing in the mainstream seemed far odder, far bolder, than music you could just happen across today. For instance, The Chart Show, ITV’s Saturday lunchtime music vid show, would regularly show outrageously bleary, homemade videos for oddly-named bands with songs that seemed to stretch the definition of 'song', such as My Bloody Valentine or Spacemen 3.

So into this came Levitation. I remember reading about the band twice in the MM. They got some startling press. Steve Sutherland had written two pieces that suggested that Levitation were the only band in the WORLD doing anything remotely relevant. A feature had pushed the notion that the band were heralds of something called the New Prog. A live review read like a dispatch from an early Stooges or Velvet Underground gig: barely controlled forces, tension in the air, a deranged frontman, anything could happen. The band plug in; everyone goes totally APESHIT.

But I still hadn’t heard them. I’m not going to pretend I was a commited listener to John Peel, God rest him, and I don’t recall listening to many other radio shows where I would have happened across them. No, this was the era of taking your pennies and then taking a punt on whatever had been recommended in that week's Melody Maker. Our local emporium was the Uxbridge Our Price, where you were allowed to test-drive the records before you bought them, and which turned out to be the site of a startling epiphany.

I’ve been out of the UK for four years now, so I’m not entirely sure what happened to Our Price – I think it was sold to Virgin and started selling mobile phones, but I could be wrong - but certainly it went more and more mainstream, selling more and more chart product and less and less back catalogue. Yet, back then, this particular branch (a time when the Uxbridge music hipperati worked there. I saw my first Nirvana t-shirt on a staff member, long before I heard any of their music) had been the site of several of spectacular discoveries. American Music Club’s Everclear. Swan’s Love Of Life (All on cassette, natch). I even remember Barrie buying his first Smiths album there. A big deal in other words. But the discovery of Levitation was something else again.

Our Price still had a large-ish section of 12” singles, soon to disappear, in which we found a copy of Levitation’s second EP, After Ever. We took it up to the counter and asked if we could have a listen. Track one, Firefly. We’re listening on the headphones, taking turns. It’s fairly humdrum guitar thing, something about ‘a sunrise child”. A bit disappointing, since we’re into Ride and feedback and the like. So when, at the 40 second mark, the music took a screaming handbreak turn into another dimension for a few white-hot seconds, before settling back down as if nothing had ever happened, we both practically shit ourselves. It’s the first time I felt the power of music to blindside, to drop your jaw, to make you giggle with sheer what-the-fuck delight.

So who on earth were they, and what did they think they were doing, messing with our heads so comprehensively? They were led by arch-mentalist Terry Bickers, erstwhile guitarist and refugee from the House Of Love. That band had imploded amid rumours of a biblical drug-fuelled animus between Terry and lead singer Guy Chadwick. The band had been round the block a bit, which meant they could play, and that they had taste. There was Can, Talk Talk, Talking Heads, King Crimson, all manner of art-punk, The Cardiacs, plenty of deeply uncool stuff like Steve Hillage and God knows how much prog rock. Yet they synthesized that into something quite brilliant, a bands by turns cacophonous and bewitching, rampaging and beguiling. The spiraling guitar work of Bickers and elfin sideman Bic Hayes, plus the pop-eyed octopoid frenzy of drummer Dave Francolini ensured there was nothing remotely mannered about their music.

But it was more than the music. The EP itself was a piece of art. So many of the Eps then looked exquisite. Ride’s Today EP, with its close-up detail of a shark – perhaps an oblique retort to their previous covers, which had featured such prototypically shoe-gazey images as flowers and penguins (awwww) – and Curve’s first singles, and not forgetting the gauzy dreamscapes of the Verve’s first singles. But first EP Coppelia was something else. A photomontage, it featured an overfeathered remnant of prehistory, a lyre bird crossed with a pelican, with a pair of scissors for a beak, lumbering across a Jurassic lake. The After Ever EP was similarly mind-blowing. It had a tree-frog with the head of a frilled lizard, with a pair of giant eyes staring at you from the ruff. The beast was clambering over a pile in mushrooms, in the middle of an endless dune sea. Both Eps were bordered with strange flora and lettering, typography from an imaginary grimoire or bestiary. Everything connected with Bickers’ aesthetic vision: a psychedelic embrace of the natural sublime.

Reading the above may cause some people be a little bit sick into their own mouths: It all sounds a bit too Kula Shaker for comfort. And it’s true that when you hear talk of the spiritual, you can be sure a torrent of bollocks is heading your way. But on the other hand, I’ve always felt that a belief in rationality and humanism needn't stand in opposition to an appreciation of the sublime. In fact, the proper reaction to the natural world is awe. That’s my spirituality, if we have to call it that. Energy fields and crystals and homeopathy are all obstacles to appreciating what Larkin called elsewhere the billion-petalled flower of existence. So I never felt Levitation were talking shit per se. I believed that. For what it's worth I still do.

Their single best song was Paid In Kind, the third track on Coppellia, and a terrific example of the way they could thrillingly accelerate mid-song, with sky-piercing riffs blazing away. Opening like an alien mantra with spectral harmonies and a febrile bassline, tha band builds pressure in each galloping verse, thanks to a claustrophobic beat. Then the chorus surges unstoppably forward on a wave of guitar. Then all the music falls away before Bickers intones: “How can I sleep when my heart’s on fire? How can I rest with the flames getting higher?” Then the most spine-tingling drawn-out build-up, before the light finally floods, the music surging free. It’s one of my all time favourite moments in music, and structurally identical to all those techno breakdowns that I’ve sought out so eagerly ever since.

The other strand of their shtick concerned the power of visionary drugs. Bickers in particular seemed to be a cheerleader for the mind-opening effects of psychedelics, as well a convert to the idea that mass ingestion would make society better by tuning it into the ancient rhythms of the earth. Moreover, a great deal of the music on the first two EPs sounds fizzily lysergic, a barely controlled storm of incandescent and delirous sound. Their signature song “Smile” has Bickers crooning “let the experience begin” as the see-saw riff stops bulldozing and is suddenly seen through a kaleidoscope, the song going in three ways at once. Or on “Rosemary Jones”, again from the Coppellia EP, a kind of acid trip mimesis, full of gaudy synaesthetic effects; hypermaniacal super-squiggly guitars and woozy stereoscopic effects. As the blood gets thicker and the trip comes on, Bickers speaks the listener’s mind: “You’re taking it all just a little too far this time”. His voice then liquefies into streams of multi-tracked “too far, too fars”, and the frenetic guitars start describing mazy curlicues in the quickening soundscape. We badly need a friendly face in the maelstrom. So when the chorus comes in, over exultant and mercifully composed major chords, the relief is sweet: “You know you’re with friends, so why be frightened?”

But the fact was, I found it all too possible to get frightened. The auditory hallucinations caused by LSD, an effect I'd initially found so entrancing, begun to be overwhelming. Any given chord, three notes say, might be said to exist in time - it starts here and ends there – and to have a particular depth – this is the lowest note, this is the highest note. Simple. But on acid, the psychophysics of the chord became Byzantine in their complexity. A chord no longer starts here and ends there; it begins before it even starts, it never really ends, it goes in all directions at once; and the simple harmony of three notes now becomes the harmony of three notes cubed and then squared again. One note would sound like Bach at his most polyphonic. So on a really strong trip, it becomes possible to spend an age being awe-struck at the sublime, poly-dimensional, architectonic sculptural magnificence of what would turn out to be just the tiny hum of static before the actual song has begun. This is problematic: there’s not much headspace left to get your head round the song when it really does kick off. It’s like breaking down in tears at the cosmic magnificence of a molehill; and then seeing Mt Everest. Catatonia is the only valid response.

This, as you might imagine, can be a terrifying experience. My final trip was too intense for precisely this reason. Listening to The Orb that last time, everything became simply too alien, music made by minds catastrophically different from our own, then by no minds at all, then not even music. The last thing I remember was a distressing vision of a cosmic centipede, writhing in time to the beats, bigger than galaxies. That I could just about live with. After that, the images become too distorted to recall. I don’t remember how long this went on for, but it was bad. I do remember that I had to remove the headphones and turn on the radio very quietly, in the desperate hope of hearing music so rigid and boring, so blandy mediocre, it would calm me down (silence definitely didn’t the trick. The sound of your own blood music turned into something supermassive and incomprehensible would be extremely frightening). Anything with even the faintest originality in sound or design would trigger a shattering billion-fold reflection that would prolong the trip. So I found a Cliff Richard song on a commercial station. I gradually came back into earth’s orbit. Cliff, I’m grateful. There, I’ve said it.

Coming soon: Part 2. The debut album; the live experience; watching it all fall apart.

*A sorry day – MM was the first ever music magazine I picked up, and for many years was clearly to be preferred to the NME. I can reliably date an interest in alternative music, as opposed to U2 etc, to picking up an issue in a newsagents in Newquay, Cornwall, reading in puzzlement reviews of Bossanova by the Pixies and of a band called Dred Zeppelin, who apparently peddled dub versions of Led Zeppelin with some kind of Elvis impersonator singing. Seventeen years later, the thought occurs that this might not be such a terrible idea, followed by the thought, what have I become?


Barrington said...

Wow. Liquid flashback.

PS Bassist-slash-producer, puhleaze. The rumour I started posits that Dave Fridmann was directly inspired by this example.

Anonymous said...

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Princess Stomper said...

Brilliant - so many memories! I'm listening to Levitation right now, and have just covered them on my blog ... :D

pinkpressthreat said...

Glad to be of help..regards,Cliff.P.S. don't forget to buy my Xmas single