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Anniversary

30 Years On: Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven By Love And Rockets
Ned Raggett , September 14th, 2015 07:39

Ned Raggett looks back at the British post Bauhaus three piece that made it (temporarily) big Stateside

“So this is for when you feel happy
And this is for when you feel sad
And this is for when you
Feee-eeeel
Nothing.”

Love and Rockets shouldn’t’ve existed, if everything had gone to vaguely initial plan. It was two years after the initial collapse of Bauhaus, after the Northampton band had gone from punk-inspired art-glam obscurity to inadvertant founders of goth rock to a final put-it-all-to-bed set of shows. Guitarist Daniel Ash had already been releasing work under the Tones On Tail name and made it a full band with drummer Kevin Haskins as well as Bauhaus roadie Glenn Campling. Meantime bassist David J had his own solo career going over two albums and a slew of singles, as well as a stint playing and recording with the Jazz Butcher. So when the three Bauhaus vets wondered about a possible restart with singer Peter Murphy, himself having briefly done the Dalis Car collaboration with Japan’s Mick Karn and still considering his own route forward, that could have been it. But Murphy wasn’t interested, the remaining three sensed they could work together handily still - they had already done that while recording Bauhaus’s Burning From The Inside when Murphy was sidelined by illness - and with a name borrowed from the already landmark US comic book series by Los Bros Hernandez, via J’s friend and music associate Alan Moore, Love And Rockets was born.

Marking thirty years since the debut release of the trio, Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven, is one of those slightly disorienting things. All three members as well as Pete Murphy have been living out a proverbial cat’s nine lives with their various musical endeavours in any number of forms across the globe since. Viewed through the lens of US musical history, Love And Rockets are the most successful combination of any of the four, thanks to a fluke Top 40 hit 'No New Tell To Tell' followed two years later by the almost chart-topping smash 'So Alive'. And above all, in their own way, they were one of the key bands to bring back psychedelia into rock & roll.

This claim is a bit overstated, of course. Certainly there was the freeze-dried sense of ‘psychedelia’ in the Western popular imagination, with the Beatles as overdetermined pinnacle, while the calcification of classic rock presented plenty of examples for other acts to clone or tip a hat to without getting deeper than a slightly different tuning. Meantime any number of full revivals, playful or otherwise, had already taken place; in the UK groups like Siouxsie And The Banshees, The Cure, XTC, The Cocteau Twins, The Teardrop Explodes and Echo And The Bunnymen were five among many taking some kind of delve into psych well before 1985. And that's not to mention the likes of LA’s ill-defined Paisley Underground, the Church hot-wiring impulses in Australia, and newly clamorous garage rock movements endlessly revisiting 1965 worldwide. Meanwhile, via the Jazz Butcher connection, indirect links were already forming with a group out of Rugby called Spacemen 3, who treated gospel music as a fusion of the Stooges, Kraftwerk and Suicide, while Robert Hampson’s Loop was soon to emerge in turn. Elsewhere, The Jesus And Mary Chain’s black howl of noise was already engulfing all before it - Ash himself would soon be paying explicit tribute on later Love And Rockets albums.

So singling out Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven as being unique or a flashpoint is seeming to claim too much. Except it isn’t - by taking the new direction they did, by placing themselves where they did, by working through the scene they’d unwittingly created and then by keeping those parts of their aesthetic they’d shown an increasing affinity for, Love And Rockets created a fusion that became more than the sum of its parts. Smack dab in the middle of the 1980s, having to create something from scratch all over again in terms of even the basics of name recognition, itself already muddied given the comic book source, Love And Rockets didn’t create psychedelic goth, or neo-psychedelia or whatever other term might be slapped onto them, but they did do something a little different. It’s all very English somehow, perhaps stereotypically so, but not in terms of toff accents or Carnaby Streetisms, more in the sense of contemplative rainy-day psychedelia, something that happens at home or in the studio, drifting off and meditating. And even then, sonically, they created something uniquely itself, so stamped via its creative sources it couldn’t be anything else.

That said, Seventh Dream is a starting point, not a culmination. Arguably the three albums that followed were the deepest successes, where they started playing around with the frameworks set up on Seventh Dream - creating more focused pop on the one hand, more sweeping elegance and fragmented experiments on the other. The album’s lead track and only formal single, 'If There’s A Heaven Above', is almost a scene setter, demonstrating what would characterize it as a whole: extremely precise playing, subtle electronic touches - percussion loops, extra elements quietly emerging and disappearing in the mix - and a separated, almost hollow sound in the mix, something very distinct from the near-tactile punch of Bauhaus, or even the separate efforts by Ash and J. The massed vocals and spiritually-inclined lyrics also set a mood - it’s very much a sense of a group effort with the occasional solo turn, with a thread of doubt and unsureness matched with a joint exuberance. The repeated chant of “Throw the world off your shoulders tonight, Mr. Smith!” is the kind of message-to-the-squares that definitely feels very late 60s, though the sense is more invitation than command. At the same time, it’s good without being great; in comparison the stand-alone single that soon followed, a cover of the Temptations’ classic 'Ball Of Confusion' that refracted the stirring urgency of the original into a mannered but still strong showcase, proved to be the low-key but still notable enough hit, almost an echo of how Bauhaus had covered T. Rex and especially David Bowie to make a wider mark.

But when 'A Private Future' sweeps into view as the second track, that’s when Seventh Dream starts to click in full. It’s as clear of a demonstration of continuity as anything else -- Ash’s acoustic guitar had started to surface in Bauhaus first as devastating accent (the dramatic break towards the end of 'Mask'), then there and and in Tones On Tail as stirring, mystic counterpoint to his own singing ('Slice Of Life', from Burning, 'Real Life' from Tones On Tail’s Pop, among other examples). Here, matched with a keyboard that could almost be a wind instrument - a much calmer hint of the later Jethro Tull break from 'No New Tale To Tell' perhaps, more sweetly controlled - it eases into Ash’s delivery just so, Marc Bolan in folk mode matched with a very polished reserve, while the J/Haskins rhythm section steps in steadily behind him. Then there’s an extended break, a slow but dramatic build, then these lyrics:

"So I'd need a million dollars
To sit on mountaintops
To see the stars surround you
Is to see an awful lot.”

Humour is a hard, hard thing in music, but humour was always the underrated secret weapon of Bauhaus and all its elements. They had the reputation of dramatic extremity and were labelled poseurs. The fact that the band clearly took themselves seriously as musicians (it’s helpful to remember again that they came out of the spaces that punk opened up, but their inspirations were elsewhere and they weren’t content to stay there) did not override their brand of humour that wasn’t knockabout hyuck hyuck, but was wry, dry, and delivered knowingly rather than openly. That quoted lyric is simultaneously dead-on, deep and, especially in Ash’s delivery, funny as hell, intentionally, even while further lyrics meditate on someone ‘drowning your sorrows/In whiskey and sin.” It’s only underscored by the further dramatics in the music, J varying up his basslines as Haskins does similarly with his drums, adding a deeper overall punch, all finally culminating in this overdubbed mass chant:

“Live the life you love
Use a god you trust
And don't take it all too seriously.”

I’ve honestly heard worse manifestos, and it’s less live-and-let-live as it is recognizing how conditional everything is. These days it might be seen as the indulgence of someone who doesn’t have to worry about being taken seriously in turn, perhaps, but I’ll take that over the unsmiling fanatics.

With that down, the album progresses steadily on - it’s seven songs over two sides, and all the songs tend towards the longer end, the shortest ones being five minutes long. Everything feels deliberate, caught somewhere between a relaxed confidence and a sometimes tortuous crawl that, again, feels totally intentional. 'The Dog-End Of A Day Gone By' - J’s one solo lyrical contribution here, much as 'A Private Future' was Ash’s - is a shambling but never once stumbling beast. Ash’s guitar is a thick feedback haze at points accentuated by crazed but not frenetic organ, Haskins’s drumming a full-bodied rumbling punch, J singing about religious street corner fanatics and drunks outside city restaurants while pondering a slow day’s close. It’s something for the late summer, suggesting heat and torpor, suffocating but not crushing, and with an extra guitar figure from Ash to help see things out. But even that seems sprightly compared to 'The Game', a back-and-forth nursery rhyme stretched out like a cycle of water torture. Again, its sheer deliberateness is part of the point. It is atmospheric and maddening like no tomorrow, making the occasional musical breaks in the pattern - even if it’s just another series of patterns created - sheer relief.

If the second side had been much the same, one could be forgiven for throwing up one’s hands and moving on. (And I say this while freely admitting to loving 'The Game' almost in spite of itself.) But almost as if there’d been an implicit bargain - get through the first half, win the second - things suddenly take a turn for the totally anthemic for the final three songs. The sense of careful pace and restraint remains key throughout - nothing really accelerates, the tempos remain slower, there’s a sense of vast space and careful construction - but in aiming bigger it all feels that much more majestic. It begins with the title track, something of a prequel or an alternate viewpoint to Bauhaus’s 'All We Ever Wanted'. There Murphy reflected on the initial days of the band as imaginative ancient history, struggling in British hinterlands and looking for kicks; here Ash and J trade off memories of being glam fanatics in even earlier days, making moments like “magic in the air on a Saturday night,” “so you tore off your old school tie” and “your leopard skin dream complete” suggest slightly forbidden scenes. The spartan arrangement, mostly J and Haskins with a distinctly un-glam rhythm has no swiftly frenetic drums, more of an industrial, minimal funk. This gets punctured by odd swirls and bubblings, with the big break being Ash’s e-bowed guitar - another one of his reliable approaches from earlier songs - delivering a series of keening, mysterious solos.

With that being the build-up, 'Haunted While The Minutes Drag' is the album’s high point, where with the longest song on it Love And Rockets delivers its most transcendent moment. Split, slightly unevenly, between J’s initial lyric about romantic obsession - the ‘haunted’ part, the word repeated at the end, then the start of each line like a mantra - and Ash’s detailing of specific moments and moods, as partially excerpted at the start of this piece. J’s section is generally calmer, closer, quietly tense: Haskins delivers a quick, quiet rhythm on his kit, Ash performs a compressed surf rock lick of sorts, J’s bass appears soon after as a steady pulsing throb. Ash joins him in the vocals when ‘haunted’ switches from line-ender to line-starter - there’s a wonderful moment when everything drops away for a second, then J and Ash jointly sing “Haunted by your SOUL!” - and it all breaks out, just enough. And then at just the right moment, signalled by a quick J flourish on bass, Ash’s acoustic guitar crisply rips into the mix - no thrashing, no explosions, keeping the same pace but strummed with a full-bodied punch that’s more felt than heard. J and Haskins follow the lead, both them varying up the parts at times without ever losing the flow, Haskins using both electronic and acoustic hits, J towards the end punctuating each line with a mini solo, all while a huge piano chord keeps regular time throughout, like a massive underwater chime. It’s not the ‘when will it end’ feeling of 'The Game', but an accounting of the space of seconds in minutes - a little more savage torpor perhaps, but all while caught in an obsessive grip.

With that, all that was left was sadness. Or rather “Saudade”, the untranslatable word from the Portuguese suggesting something of longing, of melancholy, of a lost past, something of all three, a sense that all that’s left is the memories. Perhaps nothing better could be used as an album closer, or a signifier of same. Eschewing lyrics entirely, it starts as a showcase for Ash’s acoustic guitar again, a beautiful progression that indeed sounds melancholic, yearning, whatever the word might be - something that makes one sigh and reflect. Electronic strings via the album’s producer John Rivers appear, distant electronic beats expand the scope of the song, and it all starts to feel like a closing them for a film as much as anything else - it’s not the post rock cliches of later times, but it’s as dramatic and emotional in its own way. After a gentle pause following a big synth build, the song concludes with, in an interesting switch, David J adding a few big chords on electric guitar, pumping up the drama but not crushing the arrangement in turn. Resembling nothing so much as some of the similarly windswept and vast moments of the Chameleons’ What Does Anything Mean? Basically, also from that year, it’s a striking way to conclude, with a burst of birdsong seeing it all off.

It’s important to see Seventh Dream Of Teenage Heaven as what it is - a ‘first’ album by a group of players who had already worked with each other for years, a consciously different approach from what they had tried before in various combinations, an album that did not signal what the rest of their work together would be and sound like so much as it demonstrated a particular path that they never quite pursued again. But it’s not an experiment or a blind alley, it’s its own thing, ruined elegance, sculpted beauty, sometimes sharp without being angry, often inspiring without being sappy, able to capture even slow dull moments in an attractive fashion. Every time I hear it, I’m glad it exists.

“So this is for when you’re feeling happy again
And this is for when you’re feeling sad
And this is for when you
Feeeee-eeeeeel
Something.”

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