Why Study Art When You Can Make It: The Strange World Of… This Heat

40 years after This Heat’s debut performance Charles Bullen and Charles Hayward are playing together for the first time since 1982 at London’s Café Oto. To celebrate we look at their fresh and forceful music that proved to be so far ahead of its time. All band photographs by Lesley Evans, courtesy of This Heat

Back in the mid-Seventies, unlike many of their contemporaries more comfortably bracketed by the emergent punk scene, This Heat’s Charles Hayward, Charles Bullen and Gareth Williams didn’t meet at an art college, and yet their highly creative approach was firmly that of true artists. The band’s minimal legacy of two albums and an EP strike an unrivalled balance between disciplined, highly experienced live musicianship and open-minded explorations of unchartered phenomena in recorded sound. At once their intense, idiosyncratic compositions are forged from a clash of the pure, ordered abstraction of Mondrian and the wild beauty of Pollock’s anarchic expressions.

Their strange but short-lived sound world saw them combine improvisation with tape music, exploit the broken irregularities of any sound-making devices they could muster, while rehearsing daily in an art studio otherwise filled with professional visual artists. This would then lead them on to an interrogation of the possibilities afforded by the range of studios and recording techniques at their disposal. Each stage of their compositional process was deeply invested in a confidence in creativity, an eschewing of conventions to proudly arrive at new forms, but done without ignoring the fervent powers burning within rock music.

Popular documentaries focussed on this time regularly tell us that punk punctured a bloating caused by prog, providing relief from the rich, self-indulgent players whose stagnant wind had become trapped in tricksy techniques and expensive technology. But This Heat’s story highlights the over-simplicity of this slant, while their music exemplifies the kind of DIY experimentation attributed to punk yet rarely displayed by its main players as they courted mainstream rock and pop. In this way, This Heat’s marvellously strange world is pre-punk and post-punk, somehow existing simultaneously in both, but belonging to neither.

Pre Heat

“This Heat was made out of the collective desire of its members not to be in any groups.”

Their story could be said to start in the Summer of 1976, one of the driest and hottest periods of the 20th Century that gave the band their name. It saw Charles Hayward walking through Lucas Park Gardens recording the baked, languid ambience that the band would later accompany upstairs at his parents’ house in Camberwell. There, the need to have the windows open – to keep the temperature down as well as to accommodate the limited playback volume of the recording – trained them to play extremely quietly, donating a sensitivity to contrast in volume that many peers would lack. The resultant track, ‘Aeriel Photography’, was originally known as ‘This Heat’ while the trio were going by the name of ‘Friendly Rifles’, before the band switched things around to distance themselves from the similarly named and recently launched Sex Pistols.

But by then This Heat had been simmering for several years. Having formed the complex fusion of Quiet Sun in 1970 with college friends Phil Manzanera and Bill MacCormick (later bass player for Matching Mole, Robert Wyatt’s post-Soft Machine group of 1971/72), along with David Jarrett on keys. But by the time Manzanera left to become guitarist for Roxy Music in 1972, Hayward was already gravitating towards the artier end of the Canterbury Scene where the likes of avant rockers Henry Cow and their Rock In Opposition collective overlapped and interconnected. At gigs Hayward would often bump into guitarist Charles Bullen, who had moved to London from the Midlands in 1973. Together, they started exploring pure improvisation as the duo, Dolphin Logic, inspired by the wayward manoeuvres of Derek Bailey, Evan Parker and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble.

Meanwhile, they noted how the manager of HMV Record Shop on Leicester Square had started to stock stranger and stranger records. Enter Gareth Williams, whose passion for unusual sounds piqued Charles and Charles interest in recruiting him even though Williams had never even thought about being a musician. This laid the foundation of the anti-technique approach Hayward and Bullen were hatching for This Heat.

This Technique

“All possible processes. All channels open. Twenty-four hours alert”

Quiet Sun briefly reformed to record an album in 1975 whose surprise skimming of the Top 30 gave rise to an opportunity to gig, but without Manzanera. Hayward naturally chose Bullen as successor but wanted to “stop it from being a heads-down jazz-rock group and turn it into something adventurous and out-reaching, with overtones of performance art. So I suggested Gareth" as he explained to Simon Reynolds in early 2001. They persuaded Williams to audition for singer "but Gareth and Bill MacCormick hated each others guts instantly. After four days, I hardly saw Bill again. And Gareth, Charles and I really hit it off.”

Although he would move from frontman to behind an electric keyboard of David Jarrett’s (who eventually donated it to the band after noting Williams’ blood encrusted on the keys due to energetic yet naive attempts at playing louder), Williams became the ‘out-reaching’ element they were looking for. His non-musician position helped Hayward and Bullen play with less recourse to music theory and more focus on physical reality – what sound feels like when unburdened by the technique that was stultifying the jazz and rock modes of the time.

Despite the Quiet Sun reform falling through and then Williams returning to study History of Art at Cambridge, the trio still had a gig offer to play at the 3 Horseshoes in Hampstead on February 13, 1976. Hayward swiftly wrote to Williams and successfully lured him back with the line “Why study art when you can be making it?” This was followed by six weeks of rehearsals to develop their set which included tracks that would later appear on their first LP (that was still two and half years away from being released) including ‘Fall Of Saigon’, an early version of ‘Horizontal Hold’ and ‘Rainforest’ whose version on the LP is actually taken from a recording of this first gig.

This Tape

Right from their earliest days as Dolphin Logic the band would always record every rehearsal. Initially used as a means of reviewing their spontaneous outputs, they then started to deploy the recordings into their compositions. This afforded them not just a multiplication – what they referred to as a ‘ground’ to play on – but many additional dimensions from edits, overdubs, changing speed and collage – basically playing with the very fabric of their sound in the tradition of the European avant garde and the UK’s Radiophonic Workshop. The combination of tape composition with free improvisation led to a praxis that relied on sound engineers not just to mix their recordings but also to manipulate tapes as they performed live.

Armed with loops of reel-to-reel tape and broken instruments like a Maestrovox organ that was impossible to tune, all plugged into an array of fuzzboxes and effects pedals along with their customary drums, guitar, clarinet, viola and keys, This Heat produced a demo tape. As David Cunningham (Flying Lizards), who became This Heat’s manager and co-produced and released their first album, recalled to Maggie Warwick in 2008 for Rewind “…they were very, very kind of mean about their tapes and very protective as opposed to everyone else who wanted to be heard. This Heat were ‘Hum I don’t know, you can’t have our demo tape it’s too good for you. You wouldn’t understand it’… this demo tape was hard to get, kind of legendary really.”

One person who did to get a copy was BBC Radio 1’s John Peel who, impressed with the demo, invited the band to record a session for his show which was broadcast in April of 1977.

By the end of the year they had been invited back to record a second. For the first time their potent blend of intense live rock and processed recordings had had the benefit of a fully equipped studio, the results clearly making their mark. Despite Bullen reporting how “there was a problem with our using tapes, because everything was supposed to be live – they couldn’t understand that we used tapes live,” the results put This Heat on the map with Peel subsequently commenting, “I get asked to play more music like This Heat, but to my knowledge there is no other music like This Heat.”

This Place

Around this time Cunningham had moved into a disused meat pie factory on Acre Lane, Brixton, that had been acquired by Acme Housing and Art Space Co-operative for subletting to professional artists.

He suggested This Heat should also apply for studio space there and they got offered what used to be one of the pie factory’s freezers. Without any windows, “trails of mist” and “blood in the dust”, it would be two weeks before the band could furnish the space with their instruments. In the booklet accompanying their 2006 box set of reissues on ReR Megacorp Hayward recalls the band "quite consciously had as a model" that of Can’s Inner Space", a self-built studio near Cologne where the jazz/rock band who also enjoyed incorporating tape into their improvisations rehearsed and recorded daily. This Heat mirrored this process by working in what they now referred to as ‘Cold Storage’ where they would turn up each and every day from late 1977 to late 1981, “recording everything on Paco the potter’s ghetto-blaster”.

Alongside Paco’s pottery, Acre Lane had This Heat rubbing shoulders with TV production company After Image, sculptors John Lewis and Charles Hewling and xerographic artist Laurie Rae Chamberlain whose artwork adorns the cover of the band’s second LP, Deceit). Over time the rehearsal room This Heat created out of the freezer space and shared with friends like the members of Henry Cow became a fully functioning professional studio, attending to the likes of Test Dept., Robert Wyatt and The Raincoats, but for now it became the focal point for realising their debut LP.

In fact, the majority of pieces that make up their debut LP, like most tracks across their other two releases, consists of collages. Blue And Yellow, their eponymous debut, so-called due to the sleeve design, stitches recordings made while still rehearsing at upstairs at Hayward’s parents’ house with Cold Storage sessions, alongside tapes of their gigs and sessions at The Workhouse, a professional 24-track studio they managed to blag access to from their new management, Blackhill, during the downtime available between more established acts.

Posthumously described as a product of “fear unspoken, unrationalised”, Blue And Yellow certainly has a sense of dread threaded throughout its wildly intense weave. It opens and closes with the clear warning of ‘Testcard’ – a needling alarm signal played solo on Maestrovox organ – it’s droning minimalism contrasting heavily with the anthemic choppy guitar and loping rhythms of neighbouring tracks ‘Horizontal Hold’ and ‘Fall Of Saigon’. ‘Not Waving’, an exquisitely sung Wyatt-esque lament, depressingly describes a drowning, but unlike Stevie Smith’s 1972 poem whose ‘larking’ protagonist also complains from his death bed that he is “drowning not waving”, This Heat invert the poem to describe a determined suicide. The sinking action is matched by the sinking speed of the recording, making its edgy, brooding, foghorn clarinet and organ plunge aquatically downwards.

This Loop

Following the immaculately measured ‘Twilight Furniture’, a haunted, dystopian future folk song about surveillance society, sits an incredibly innovative instrumental that portends the kind of studio techniques that would be adopted by drum & bass over a decade later. Typical of This Heat’s resourcefulness, Bullen’s guitar had been stolen and its absence was exploited as a creative opportunity. Setting up the reel-to-reel tape in the control room while Hayward and Williams sound checked, he hit record just as they were ending their 5-6 minute jam. “Only eight or nine phrases were captured” as Hayward explains in the sleeve notes from the recent vinyl reissues on Light In The Attic. "What to do? Add overdubs, choose the best two bars, loop the multi-track, mix for hours on end, edit the mixes into a shape." This shining example of the band’s painterly post-production approach involved processing the looping drums with a Harmonizer that lent Hayward’s superbly sinewy, circular rhythm a modulating tonal quality. Collaged with dense stabs of organ, the minimal ingredients conspire to build a Can vs Miles Davis dub mix that’s the spit of Carl Craig’s ‘Bug In The Bassbin’, the 12” that would ignite the UK jungle club scene almost twenty years into the future.

This Head

For some sessions they would hire the unusual Sennheiser Artificial Head which made binaural recordings – three-dimensional takes of live performance more akin to how we hear through our ears and skull – using what is to all intents and purposes a dummy head with a couple of microphones where its ears should be. Taking it outside Cold Storage into a yard filled with one of their co-habitor’s rejected metal sculptures, they affixed the dummy head’s microphone onto David Cunningham as they “circled around him playing polystyrene.”

The metal and polystyrene bashing was used to produce the 23-minute workout ‘Metal’ that wouldn’t see the light of day until 1993’s so-called “posthumous third album” Repeat. Its Gamelan-like percussion floats and loops, imaginatively panned to spread tones and textures around. Recorded in 1980 at the same time as Einstürzende Neubauten were configuring their own scrap yard, its delirious modern day ritual resembles the tribal industrial sounds that would sear through the ensuing decade.

This Health

“A Nation gets the clouds it deserves”

Following their first shows in Europe that gained them a reputation for being “scarily loud and intense” thanks in part to Jack Balchin’s sound engineering who went on to work a similar effect with Swans and Test Dept. the band had a “three-month layoff”. Although they would continue to meet each day at Cold Storage, no music was played and instead they would discuss their approach to following up to Blue And Yellow.

To generate some ‘ground tracks’ they decided to hire the Zipper Mobile, a 16-track mobile studio, and bring it into Acre Lane where they could plug in their instruments from within and without Cold Storage. This way they quickly came up with the basic tracks that would go on to become ‘Paper Hats’ and ‘New Kind Of Water’ on the new album, along with the A-side to its preceding EP – Health And Efficiency.

The eight-minute song was “dedicated to the sunshine”, a subject at odds with post punk’s strictly cold veneer. Its Futurist celebration was designed to deliberately offset punk dourism. It was "a radical idea to be happy, healthy, acknowledging the sun" Hayward explained for the 2006 reissue. “This Heat was about … cultural transgression, doing what was forbidden. All our contemporaries were telling us it was an Us and Them situation – punk bullshit… also [there was a] ridiculous ill-health aesthetic … rebellion as a pose.” They even placed a microphone over into the school next door at break time to capture the vitality of children at play. Being one of This Heat’s most monstrous rockers it could be a vigorous keep fit routine and, with odd percussive additions, it is strongly reminiscent of the angular post-hardcore of contemporary bands like Battles.

‘Health And Efficiency’s freneticism was thrown into sharp relief by the staticity of its B-side. ‘Graphic / Varispeed’, which took one of their drone recordings and processed the results live by playing with EQ and playback speed. This identified within the suspended organ tones an altering ambience, like subtle details within a time-frozen sun ray, as unexpected sibilant artefacts cluster, the filtering brightens, thickens and curls.

This Cold War

“This Heat was one of the best groups we have ever had on the label… rooted in real political movement – real people spending real time in their real lives talking about politics and participating – unlike punk, which was far more selfish.”
Geoff Travis of Rough Trade records commenting to Neil Taylor in Document And Eyewitness: An Intimate History of Rough Trade

The light-filled celebrations of Health And Efficiency wouldn’t extend into This Heat’s final release before they disbanded. Deceit, released by Rough Trade in 1981, brought the unspecified fear of their first album into focus, its definition now clearly a product of living in the cold war. The mutually assured destruction of Thatcher and Reagan’s foreign policies, particularly those that pointed towards Russia’s “evil empire”, cast Deceit as a fever dream brought on by a very real sense of imminent nuclear destruction.

Although still using loops, tape collage, broken instruments and live processing, the album’s tracks are more tightly structured as songs, lyrical surveys of contemporary life, with only one instrumental.

‘Sleep’ opens the first side with a lullaby on the distractions of consumerism, its hypnotic lyrics taken from TV adverts of the time (“Softness is a thing called comfort”, “It doesn’t cost much to keep in touch”, “A taste of paradise”, “Success on a plate for you”). In fact, both sides start by deliberately trying to confound the listener through using the same sounds at slightly different speeds, provoking questions of perception (Is it the same?) and process (I thought I had turned the record over).

The nightmarish intensities then spark and burn on ‘Paper Hats’, its intertwining guitars navigating over a riot of screams and falling objects. ‘Triumph’ affords a brief pause with a languid, lamenting look through “dirty net curtains”, before falling headlong into ‘S.P.Q.R.’’s power drill of an anthem that widens its focus to fall across history concluding, “We are all Romans … we organise via property as power, slavehood and freedom… we turn against our brother." ‘Cenotaph’’s chorus of oddly layered voices warns how “History repeats itself” and goes on to incorporate US President Wilson’s optimistic reference to World War I as “a war to end all war”, sardonically followed by “and the war that came after that”, as a dreamy confusion of reggae rhythms, metal clashes and dubby delay mask Hayward’s Maestrovox keyboard’s last emittance as it packs in during the recording.

By the end of the second side, ‘Hi Baku Shyo’ translated as ‘Suffer Bomb Disease’, places the listener back in the waking world of Brixton, its town hall clock chiming as maddened, disembodied cries fold in on a clear, sad airborne melodica: "We’d thought we’d evoked an apocalyptic post-nuclear landscape." This follows Deceit’s saddest of songs – ‘A New Kind of Water’ – bearing perhaps the most fearful lyric on the album, its delivery confident, critical and dismayed: “We have moved from A to Z, this nuclear state is our demise. Fly away Peter, hide away Paul, who can watch as the Earth burns, shatters and dies?” Beautifully sung over Williams’ emphatic bass line, Bullen’s polyrhythmic guitar and Hayward’s thunderous drums, it sees This Heat at their "most intense… ridiculously detailed”.

Over Heat

With recording of Deceit concluded Bullen and Hayward set about turning Cold Storage into a proper recording studio and rehearsal space, teaming up with Lora Logic (ex Essential Logic) and guitarist Phil Legg in August 1981. Meanwhile Williams seemed to be after something that contrasted more strongly with the recent past of daily rehearsal and recording and started planning to go to India for a year to study the ritual folk theatre of Kathakali and had already set off by the time Deceit was released. Not thinking the departure was final Hayward and Bullen recruited bass player Trefor Goronwy (who would continue to play with Hayward in his post-This Heat project Camberwell Now) and keyboardist Ian Hill for what would be their last appearances together – something both members now regard as “a mistake”. The band’s final concert was on May18, 1982 in London, ending Hayward and Bullen’s musical relationship of almost a decade.

There’s evidence that the band members stayed in touch after Williams returned to London where his travels had inspired him to study Indian culture leading to his co-authorship of the first Rough Guide To India. He released a collection of rudimentary songs with Mary Currie as Flaming Tunes in 1985 on which Bullen contributed a track, and he occasionally teamed up with Hayward for the odd performance or recording session throughout the nineties. Sadly, he passed away due to cancer just days after getting together once more with Hayward and Bullen in December 2001 to explore the possibilities of returning to the stage together. One can only wonder what the 21st Century would have made of This Heat’s unbridled creativity, in a post-digital age whose apparently limitless sonic possibilities risk denying the kind of resourcefulness Bullen, Hayward and Williams so artfully developed together.

This Heat, Health & Efficiency and Deceit have been reissued by Light In The Attic. This Is Not This Heat play Cafe Oto on February 12 and 13

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