Spiritualized are widely regarded as a preeminent space-rock band. Group leader Jason Pierce has guided the group through several lineup changes, but through them all he has maintained a singular aesthetic that ranks as one of the most ambitious in recent musical history. Despite his technical limitations as a guitarist and vocalist, Pierce has the uncanny ability to transmute the best qualities of psychedelic rock, pop, blues, jazz, gospel, soul, and minimalist composition into a unique sonic vision. Lyrically he explores the grueling struggle of the drug addict to get clean, the redemptive powers of love and spirituality, and how they can serve as transcendental experiences that are as powerful—and potentially as debilitating—as the most extreme drug highs. Pierce’s songs typically delve into life’s nadirs and zeniths, and his music reflects these oppositions with its passages of both serene minimalism and dense, chaotic noise. Jay Bab-cock described Spiritualized’s ability to fuse genres in LA Weekly: “[Pierce has] sought to encompass the fervor and uplift of gospel, the raw power of the Stooges, the cool ambient space of Brian Eno, the pathos and humor of country, the psychedelia of the 13th Floor Elevators and early Pink Floyd, the minimalism of Suicide and the grace of European classical music. And, incredibly, it worked.”
Spiritualized formed in Rugby, England, in 1990 while Pierce was still in Spacemen 3, the cult psychedelic band he led with longtime friend Peter “Sonic Boom” Kember. After Pierce and Kember became embroiled in an irreconcilable conflict over songwriting credits during the recording of Spacemen 3’s final album, Recurring, Pierce left the band to launch Spiritualized, in which he would have complete artistic control. Kember has since enjoyed a prolific if more obscure career than Pierce, exploring the more esoteric and psychedelic ends of analog electronica with Spectrum and Experimental Audio Research. Enlisting Spacemen 3 alumni such as guitarist Mark Refoy, bassist Willie B. Carruthers, and drummer Jon Mattock, Pierce indulged his love of orchestration and tuneful, minimalist rock on Spiritualized’s debut single, a cover of Chip Taylor’s “Anyway That You Want Me,” a 1966 song made famous by the Troggs. Soon after this, Spiritualized issued a series of strong EPs that marked them as important artists in the space-rock genre, which began with British bands such as Pink Floyd and Hawkwind in the late 1960s. Keyboardist Kate Radley—who became romantically involved with Pierce—joined Spiritualized in time to record the band’s 1992 debut fulllength, Lazer Guided Melodies.
The influence of seminal New York rockers Velvet Underground can be heard on three songs on Lazer Guided Melodies, while “Take Your Time” takes the chord progression from the Beach Boys’ “Do It Again” and instills it with portent, as Pierce drawls, “I’m sick
For the Record…
Members include Alexander Balanescu , violin; Kevin Bales , drums; Willie B. Carruthers
(left group, 1995), bass; B.J. Cole , pedal steel guitar; Clare Connors , violin; Sean Cook (group member, 1995-99), bass, harmonica; Ed Coxon (joined group, c. 1996), violin; John Coxon , guitar, keyboards, producer; Chris Davis , drums; Raymond Dickaty , saxophone; Doggen , guitar; Tom Edwards , percussion; Tim Lewis , keyboards; Roddy Lorimer , trumptet; Jon Mattock (group member, 1990-95), drums; Michael Mooney (left group, 1999), guitar; Jason Pierce (born on November 19, 1965; also known as J. Spaceman), guitar, vocals; Kate Radley (joined group, 1992), keyboards; Damon Reece (group member, 1997-99), drums; Mark Refoy (group member, 1990-95), guitar; Martin Schellard , bass; Thighpaulsandra , keyboards.
Group formed in Rugby, England, 1990; Lazer Guided Melodies released, 1992; limited-edition live CD F***ed Up Inside released, 1993; Pure Phase issued, 1995; released Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, 1997; live double CD Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997 issued, 1998; played Toronto’s CN Tower and New York’s World Trade Center, 1998; “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” used in a Volkswagen television commercial, 1999; Pierce fired three key band members, 1999; Pierce convenes 100 musicians to record Let It Come Down, released in 2001; collection of early singles, EPs, and rarities released as Complete Works, Volume 1, 2003.
and there’s not a thing I wanna do about it.” This dark cut is followed by what is arguably Spiritualized’s crowning achievement, “Shine a Light.” The first inkling of the group’s fascination with gospel (an interest Pierce carried over from his Spacemen 3 days), this is a ballad of incomparable poignancy, with Pierce’s supplicated voice phased for added pathos and accompanied by a sparse organ drone. The song gradually flowers into a resounding epiphany of guitar feedback and John Coltrane-like saxophone wails. “Shine a Light” remains a transporting highlight of Spiritualized’s live sets, as the versions on F***ed Up Inside and Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997 prove. Overall, Lazer Guided Melodies established Pierce’s modus operandi of using minimal means to achieve maximum ends.
Following the mail-order only F***ed Up Inside (issued in 1993, it’s now a collector’s item), a live album recorded on November 21, 1992, at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Palladium, Spiritualized spent much time conceiving their sophomore full-length album, Pure Phase, which surfaced in 1995. Bassist Sean Cook replaced Carruthers and brought soulful harmonica playing into the equation. The disc kicks off with another classic, “Medication,” which replicates the lull-and-rush structure of the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to stunning effect. In fact, all of Pure Phase moves with a hallucinogenic trajectory. Encompassing everything from profound tranquility (“The Slide Song,” “All of My Tears”) to overflowing exuberance (“Lay Back in the Sun,” “Let It Flow”) to horrifying chaos (“Electric Phase”), this work furthered Pierce’s reputation as a masterly producer and sonic conceptualist (the album is embellished by two distinct mixes in each stereo channel). In Rolling Stone, Greg Kot called Pure Phase a “soundtrack for an imaginary movie, [in which] the motion is cyclical rather than linear, the music floating in space…. It’s more like a loop unraveling than a series of songs.”
Between the completion of Pure Phase and the release of its 1997 follow-up, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, Pierce’s relationship with Radley ended; shortly thereafter, she went on to marry the Verve’s lead singer, Richard Ashcroft. Critics and fans noted the disc’s prevalent theme of lost love and the difficult aftermath of attempting to cope with it, and they assumed Pierce had written a heart-rending, autobiographical album. An intensely private individual, Pierce denied these allegations, but the evidence strongly suggests otherwise.
Whatever the case, Ladies and Gentlemen launched Spiritualized into a much higher level of popularity. The disc went gold in the United Kingdom, while the title track graced a Volkswagen television commercial in the United States. Recorded with new drummer Damon Reece as well as the avant-garde chamber group the Balanescu Quartet, a large brass section, and the London Community Gospel Choir, Ladies and Gentlemen takes Spiritualized’s sound to even higher planes of orchestral grandeur and accessibility. Lush, grandiose ballads dominate, and while some songs shed melodramatic tears, others peddle a self-deprecating sense of humor, especially the call-and-response R&B groover “I Think I’m in Love.” Deviations from this norm occur on the chaotic garage rocker “Electricity” and the ambient-free-jazz sprawl of “The Individual.” The album climaxes with the 17-minute “Cop Shoot Cop,” a nihilistic epic in which New Orleans keyboard legend Dr. John conjures the dark voodoo spirit that permeated his 1968 classic, Gris-Gris. Alternately tranquil and tumultuous, the song reaches apocalyptic levels of intensity with freeform freak-outs that recall Red Kray-ola’s 1967 masterpiece Parable of Arable Land. Stephen Thompson observed in the Onion: “What’s amazing about Floating in Space is how diversely melodic it is. Its 69 minutes are musically challenging, densely constructed, and constantly taking on ambitious new forms—yet shockingly hummable from start to finish.”
Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997 documents Spiritualized at one of England’s most prestigious venues. Unlike most live albums, this two-CD set is no mere stopgap between studio discs or a contractual obligation. Royal Albert Hall captures Spiritualized at the peak of their powers, touring behind Ladies and Gentlemen with a superbly honed six-piece group, and bolstered by string and horn quartets and the London Community Gospel Choir. This album highlights Spiri-tualized’s relish for psychedelic excess and liberating improvisational excursions in a live setting. An emotional roller-coaster ride, Royal ends with an unlikely one-two punch: the despairing tour de force “Cop Shoot Cop” and a euphoric rendition of Edwin Hawkins Singers’ inspirational 1969 gospel hit “Oh Happy Day.”
In 1999 Pierce fired his core group—Cook, Reece, and guitarist Michael Mooney—over a dispute about payment. The trio went on to form Lupine Howl and have released two albums combining psychedelia, soul, and kraut rock to little fanfare. Pierce spent the next two years painstakingly writing Spiritualized’s fourth studio album, Let It Come Down. He brought in a whole new band and sought to recreate the atmosphere of his favorite Gil Evans and Ray Charles LPs. To do so, Pierce believed he needed massive string and brass sections, as well as a battalion of backing vocalists and percussionists, in addition to the traditional rock-band lineup. “My main aim with this record,” Pierce told Daily Telegraph’s Andrew Perry, “was to lose the effects that made for the Spiritualized sound—the Farfisa organ drones, the tremolos and a lot of the reverbs that gave things that otherworldliness. The idea was to make music that had no back-up, nothing to hide behind, to connect the music very broadly and loosely to jazz and classical music, in that they both use instruments that sound like the instruments they are….”
Commonly viewed as his “rehab” album—which Pierce of course refuted—due to titles like “The Twelve Steps,” “Won’t Get to Heaven (The State I’m In),” and “The Straight and Narrow,” Let It Come Down features some of Pierce’s most clever wordplay, but also some of his tritest lyrics. Only “On Fire” and “The Twelve Steps” can be considered genuine rock songs; the rest of the album resides in bombastic gospel-pop mode, including a bloated remake of the Spacemen 3 chestnut, “Lord Can You Hear Me.” That said, Let It Come Down has generated many positive comments, including this one by John Mulvey on the Dotmusic website: “You could get lost for days in the depths of these arrangements, and still find something moving and transcendental at every gilded turn. It’s a towering achievement, and one that confirms, yet again, that Pierce is the greatest British bandleader of the past decade.”
Complete Works, Volume 1 collected 24 tracks from Spiritualized’s singles, EPs, and rare one-off releases from 1990–93; some of the songs appear on other albums, but many have been unavailable for years. More than just a guide to the group’s initial developments, Complete Works contains some of Spiritualized’s most sublime recordings. Disc one offers the debut single “Anyway That You Want Me,” a swaying, carefree cover of a Chip Taylor song, a blissed-out rendition of Lou Reed and John Cale’s “Why Don’t You Smile Now?” and the pathos-laden, 13-minute symphony of desolation, “Feel So Sad.” On the second disc, two versions of the trance-inducing “Electric Mainline” reveal Spiritualized at their most hypnotic, while “Good Dope/Good Fun”—a limited edition seven-inch—exposes their rarely heard rollicking side. Dorian Lynskey summarized Spiritualized’s essential qualities in England’s Guardian: “Their best songs … have a hymnal quality, hooked on the transcendence of repetition. They may be frequently avant-garde, but they make a primal connection.”
Anyway That You Want Me (EP), Dedicated, 1990.
Feel So Sad (EP), Dedicated, 1991.
Run, Dedicated (EP), 1991.
Smile/Sway (EP), Dedicated, 1991.
Lazer Guided Melodies, Dedicated/Arista, 1992.
Medication (EP), Dedicated, 1992.
Electric Mainline(EP), Dedicated, 1993.
F***ed Up Inside, Dedicated, 1993.
Pure Phase, Dedicated/Arista, 1995.
Pure Phase Tones for D.J.’s (EP), Spaceman/Dedicated, 1996.
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, Dedicated/Arista, 1997.
Abbey Road (EP), Dedicated/Spiritualized, 1998.
Royal Albert Hall October 10 1997, Deconstruction/BMG, 1998.
Lef It Come Down, Spaceman/Arista, 2001.
Complete Works, Volume 1, Arista, 2003.
Graff, Gary, and Daniel Durchholz, editors, MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Daily Telegraph, August 30, 2001.
Harper’s Bazaar, February 1999.
LA Weekly, November 9–15, 2001.
Rolling Stone, May 18, 1995.
“Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space,” Onion, http://www.theonionavclub.com (April 7, 2003).
“Let It Come Down,” Dotmusic, http://www.dotmusic.com (April 7, 2003).
“Spacemen 3,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (April 5, 2003).
“Spiritualized,” All Music Guide, http://www-allmusic.com (April 5, 2003).