His early 1980s recording career amounted to just two EPs, but the story of Totnes synthpop trailblazer Spöön Fazer is rich in wild tales, and a treasure trove of his unreleased tracks has just been uncovered…

“I share the same birthday as Frank Zappa,” laughs Simon Patterson, “but that’s probably about as far as our similarities go.”

We’re exploring the origins of Patterson’s short-lived yet long-celebrated incarnation as synthpop pioneer Spöön Fazer during the early 1980s, and it transpires that a brace of Zappa gigs ended up playing an unexpectedly pivotal role in his musical evolution.

When Patterson hitch-hiked up from his native Totnes in Devon to the Hammersmith Odeon in 1977 and 1978 for the shows, he was the drummer in The Whippets From Nowhere, a local punk band with big aspirations. So what caused his change in direction?

“Zappa’s drummer, Terry Bozzio,” he says, chatting to us from a very organised study in his north London home.

“He was just so brilliant, and I thought, ‘I’m never going to be able to do what he does’.”

The seeds already sown, when The Whippets broke up, Patterson re-emerged as the maverick performer/songwriter Spöön Fazer. He played all the right shows – including the new romantic mecca, Blitz, in Covent Garden – and he knew all the faces. But fate ordained he would never quite make it to household-name status.

At least, not then. Because, although we’re now four decades on from his fleeting but spectacularly styled career, Spöön Fazer has got his first album out. ‘Alternative Regression Therapy’ cherry-picks singles and unreleased rarities, acting both as a reminder of a peculiarly fertile era when punk and electronics hit a crossroads, and as a showcase for the timelessness of Patterson’s innocent but bravely experimental approach.

With the phenomenon of cold wave still going strong, tracks like ‘Birthday’ and ‘Do Different Dances’ are not only on trend, they positively fizz with the excitement and possibilities afforded by the new technology of the early 1980s – an energy that simply can’t be replicated today.

“We were going to be stars,” laughs Patterson of his beginnings in The Whippets.

The band were unofficially mentored by a slightly older and – thanks to a best-selling ‘Lord Of The Rings’ poster he’d designed for Athena – considerably richer Totnes mover-and-shaker, one Jimmy Cauty, who owned the biggest PA system in the area and went on to form The KLF with Bill Drummond.

Cressida Bowyer, who later married Cauty and became creative director of KLF Communications, was the singer. Demo tapes were sent out, and with rumblings of interest from labels, The Whippets headed to London.

“We were squatting in Clapham and Brixton, which was great fun. We had Virgin and EMI showing interest, and Simon Napier-Bell produced our demo tape. It was amazing. But at 18 or 19 years old and without a proper manager, we didn’t stand much of a chance and we split up after six months.”

“It was amazing” is a phrase that regularly peppers Patterson’s recollections. Looking back on those events of some 40 years ago, he vacillates between a removed gentle bemusement, as if they had involved a complete stranger, and total immersion back in the moment.

He has certainly found himself in the right place at the right time more than once, whether growing up in Totnes surrounded by creatives (“it was full of hippies, musicians and actors, with an art school, a drama school and a music school”), or catching key punk and new romantic acts early in their careers, including the Sex Pistols, The Jam, Generation X and The Stranglers (playing to an audience of 10) when they ventured into Devon.

“One of The Whippets worked in a record shop in Totnes, and the owner also had a club called Woods in Plymouth,” he recalls. “So we’d get tickets for all these gigs the moment we heard.”

His regular trips to Plymouth’s nightclubs gave Patterson a window on the world of electronic music that was beginning to emerge from the maelstrom of punk.

“I saw acts like The Human League and OMD when they first started, and you were able to go and talk to them, you know. It was amazing. We were like, ‘Where’s the drummer?!’, because instead of a drum kit at the back, they were projecting slides. It was very creative and kind of liberating.”

The metamorphosis was well underway. Back in Totnes, The Whippets’ farewell show also saw the birth of Spöön Fazer, with Patterson appearing in his new persona as their support act. The back cover of ‘Alternative Regression Therapy’ shows him onstage, wearing a red Devo-style boiler suit and armed with four electronic drums. He’d borrowed thousands – a small fortune back then – and driven to St Albans to buy an electronic drum kit, a hugely futuristic object at the end of the 1970s.

“That night was my first solo performance with the Simmons drums,” he says. “They were made of wood – proper drum skins – but inside there was some silencing padding and a sensor, like a trigger. Although the sound was fairly primitive, it was revolutionary at the time. I had this idea I’d be able to play tunes on them, a bit like a glockenspiel. But it was just four sounds and that was it. Oh dear. I hadn’t got any money and I hadn’t got any synthesisers, so my early gigs were just me making noises with the drums and reciting poetry.”

Seeing Bowie at Earl’s Court in 1978 made a big impression on Patterson’s electronic music development, along with Kraftwerk and Eno albums such as ‘(No Pussyfooting)’ and ‘Discreet Music’, while the influence of glam rock and Ziggy Stardust saw him start to incorporate elaborate outfits into his live sets.

“I created something almost like a cabaret act, which people seemed to enjoy, and they asked me to come back. At first I wore different costumes and then I gradually introduced backing tapes. At the beginning of 1980, I moved back to London and got a part-time job. I’d bought a Wasp synth, and I started doing gigs and recording in Stockwell and Brixton.”

In London, Patterson took full advantage of what was a golden age of squatting, when the inner city was being abandoned in favour of the suburbs and local authorities had a much more relaxed attitude to informal occupancy than they do today.

“Lambeth was just crazy,” he says. “We all helped each other to break into an empty house. There was a street in Stockwell where most of the places were squats. When our next-door neighbour – who was 60 and had been born there – was moving out, she knocked at my door and said, ‘Do you want my key?’.”

Then there was the day Lambeth Council paid a visit.

“I was dressed in a pinstripe suit I’d bought in Oxfam, and winkle-pickers, and I’d dyed my hair silver that day for… well, actually, I don’t remember why. Anyway, there was a knock at the door, and it was a man from the council, who’d come to inspect the house. I told him, ‘Don’t worry, I’m looking after it’. We all behaved very civilly – we’d decorated and everything. He backed down the steps nervously, saying,

‘Good, good’, and we never heard from him again!”

The squatting community proved to be an incredibly creative environment for a young musician.

“Many of the other people living in the street were musicians or architects,” he recalls. “Just at the back of where we lived were David Marks and Julia Barfield, who worked with the award-winning architect Richard Rogers and went on to design the London Eye.”

Other neighbours in Stockwell’s squat-land included the Thompson Twins, who would later ask Patterson to become their drummer. It was an invitation he declined, not just because of that narrative-changing experience with Frank Zappa, but also because he had other plans.

“I had big dreams,” he says. “I’d sung in a choir since I was 10 and I’d played the piano a bit. I knew what I was going to do. I wanted to write songs.”

Patterson’s “big dreams” were for a 16-album series called ‘Music 2 Live 2 Is Music 4 Life’. The practicalities proved somewhat harder than the vision. Even so, in a relatively short space of time he played around 30 shows, aided by an unofficial mentor/guardian angel – a local promoter known as Tam. The venues included such illustrious spots as Heaven, Gossips and Battersea Arts Centre, as well as a Mind, Body & Soul show at Olympia. He even made it to Blitz (“I was told there were some pretty famous people at the bar when I played”).

‘Music 2 Dance 2’ – a self-financed, three-track, seven-inch EP – became his debut release in 1980. The Thompson Twins offered their help with production, but Patterson wanted to remain in control. He travelled to The Enid’s Hertfordshire studio, where programming and additional playing was undertaken by the prog band’s frontman Robert John Godfrey (“I was told not to mention it”), while Jimmy Cauty provided the distinctive artwork. Patterson still clearly remembers the shock of the van arriving at his squat with the finished stock.

“Suddenly there were hundreds of these singles,” he says. “Luckily, Rough Trade took some. I say that because, as it turned out, there wasn’t really any other way to get distributed.”

Music 2 Dance 2’ has become quite the collector’s item over the years, changing hands for as much as £75.

“I’ve never seen any of it, of course,” laughs Patterson. Star turn of the EP is the evocative ‘Music 4 Travelling (Motorway Amber Line)’, which inhabits the flip side and was inspired “partly by Kraftwerk and partly by staring at the motorway lights when I was travelling up from Devon to London on the train”.

There would be only one other outright Spöön Fazer release, a four-track 12-inch called ‘Sünset’ for Illuminated Records, which came out in 1982 and reflected Patterson’s increasing obsession with Japanese culture.

“It was supposed to look like Mount Fuji on the cover,” he admits of the sleeve. “But the designer printed it sideways.”

The title would prove prophetic. The record label took a far less enthusiastic view of his conversion to Far Eastern aesthetics than he did. An album was recorded but never released, despite Patterson blagging time on Curved Air keyboardist Francis Monkman’s Synclavier, an instrument he’d only ever heard once before on a record – Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.

The part-time marketing job he’d taken on to pay back loans for equipment and record pressing eventually led to him becoming a chartered psychologist and an international authority in market research – and, in a neat twist, he is also an adviser to a Japanese university.

But Spöön Fazer never quite left the consciousness of the record-buying public. The existing releases remained highly sought after, and in 2008 Anna Logue Records put out four previously unreleased tracks as the ‘Bam-Boo’ EP. Now ‘Alternative Regression Therapy’ collects 17 rare pieces together into what is effectively a debut album.

The idea for it came about when OM Swagger label boss Ian Shirley interviewed Patterson for his 2017 book, ‘Turn Up The Strobe: The KLF, The JAMs, The Timelords – A History’. Increasingly fascinated by the previously unearthed history of the Totnes scene, Shirley subsequently brought out an album by The Whippets From Nowhere, 2018’s ‘Concrete Academy’.

As for Simon Patterson, who has meticulously archived his music industry career… well, he seems to view this resurgence with a characteristic mix of pride and mild bewilderment, but he’s not about to turn off the tap if the demand is there.

“There’s lots more,” he says of unheard Spöön Fazer tracks. “If this one goes well, there might be another to follow next year.”

‘Alternative Regression Therapy’ is out on OM Swagger

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