Spacemen 3 ‘Big City’

Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember talks us through the making of Spacemen 3’s 1991 showstopper ‘Big City’

Photo: Sam Tyson

“Two of my favourite songs ever are ‘Neon Lights’ by Kraftwerk, which I bought when it came out on luminous 12-inch vinyl, and ‘Heart Of Glass’ by Blondie, which I also bought around that time. There was a 12-inch disco remix of it, a kind of dubbed-out, trippy version. I loved those two records. They had different qualities but were both really evocative for me. I just had some instant connection to them.

“The Kraftwerk one was particularly awesome because you could charge up the luminous vinyl by putting it on top of a lamp for five minutes, then put it on the turntable, turn all the lights off and just watch the thing, with that song playing out of it and your own little piece of neon there.

“When the whole MDMA thing started happening in the late 70s and early 80s, bands would do these extended things for 12-inch, and it wouldn’t usually be done by any named remixer. It’d be done by the same person who did the mixing or the production on the original. But I really liked them. I like that era.

“So when it came to ‘Big City’, I thought I’d make something in that vein. Sort of an MDMA track with that ‘Neon Lights’ vibe, a bit like David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, where it’s… I don’t know, happy-sad. Nostalgically happy. I do like to do something every now and then where you’re projecting a real wellness-y vibe.

“It’s only me playing on it – it’s the only track on ‘Recurring’ that’s like that. It’s pretty robo. The machines were working overtime on that one. It got used recently on the show ‘Succession’, that kind of HBO, big-budget thing. That’s not my type of show, but when they used ‘Big City’ in ‘The Simpsons’… now that made my day!

“You can try and analyse ‘Big City’, but there’s almost nothing to it. It has lyrics that get repeated a lot – a few choice phrases that people can relate to. 

It’s also influenced by two other songs with the same name. The intro of it – “Big city / Bright lights / Cool cool people” – is from a song by Dandy Livingston called ‘Big City,’ which is totally different but had that intro. And I was like, ‘I’m going to fucking ref that’. The song is awesome. Dandy Livingston is fucking amazing.

“And then, there’s another song I love deeply, ‘Big City’ by the mid-60s psych band The Electric Prunes. When I heard the line, ‘Everybody I know can be found here’, in that song I was like, ‘Oh, my god, that’s so awesome’. It has such a resonance to it. So those bits came from those places. It was plundercore! The whole, ‘Yeah, I love you too’ line, and ‘Let the good times roll’ – all those things, if you’re on MDMA you’re just like, ‘Yes!’. I do think some of the biggest progressions in music usually are to do with drugs.

“The original beat used either the ‘Pop’ or the ‘Rock’ or the ‘Dance’ button on a Casio SK-1. It had a ‘Fill’ button, which I held so it was doing this skippy fill the whole time, and then I put that backwards. Sometimes you’re fucking around and you just get lucky. Some songs just generate their own certain life force.

“It’s strange… I guess everything I’ve ever done – certainly in Spacemen 3, but I think always – has been an attempt to keep a fairly minimal set of parameters. If you analyse most of my songs, they’re incredibly simple. Mostly an illusion, I would venture. I feel like one of my knacks is to take almost nothing and make it sound like something unusual or appealing. But if you work the chords out, actually analyse it, it won’t take you long. I like that accessibility.

“In Spacemen 3, we definitely wanted each record to be different. We wanted to keep those intrinsic parameters that we felt were part of it, but we didn’t try to make records that just sounded like the last. There was a thread between them, and some songs that spoke to other songs, but on the whole, each time we were trying to do something new.

“At the end, with ‘Recurring’, personally I felt that if the stuff had been more threaded together it would have made for an exceptional record. Because the strength of having two people like me or Jason Pierce in the band is that you keep it fresh and the whole thing keeps moving. It’s clearly sympathetic, but it stops it from sounding all the same on one side and then all the same on the other side, rather than having this more woven thing. For me, the way you put tracks together on an album is one of the most interesting parts of the whole process and the evolving flow is very important.

“But you know, as a band we were just collapsing horribly. We had been for a while, really. Without grinding my teeth too much about it, sadly that’s the way it was. In hindsight, I wish we’d dealt with things in another way. And, speaking for myself… I wish that we’d had some better guidance. Maybe that wouldn’t have been enough. Perhaps I just needed to be more mature! It’s a funny law that people in a certain type of band tend to be a little dysfunctional.

“When me and Jason first started doing stuff, the main bands we really loved only had three or four albums, like The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and MC5. They got to not leave a nasty sounding corpse. I do not celebrate the way it happened at all, but when we couldn’t figure it out we just needed to call it a day. So, I’m not unhappy about the whole thing. I always say, ‘I never wanted to make a lot of records, I just wanted to make good records’.”

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