Influenced: The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Sigur Ròs, Mercury Rev, Coldplay, Doves, Elbow, Muse, Death In Vegas, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Engineers, Arcade Fire
Influenced by: John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Sun Ra, Elvis Presley, The Velvet Underground, The Doors, Pink Floyd, The Stooges, MC5, Kraftwerk, Suicide, The Jesus & Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Spacemen 3, Stereolab
After the golden age of Britpop had faded away, the year of 1997 was a turning point for British guitar music as bands began to rediscover the principles of experimentation and progression after the retro revivalism of the previous four years. A significant number of sonically expansive records were released that seemed to signal a shift away from the laddish, reductive swagger of the immediate post-Oasis bands and towards complexity and intelligence once again. Radiohead’s OK Computer, Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point, even The Verve’s Urban Hymns were all well-received by the public and critics, but perhaps the most symbolic of this trend was Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, the third album by Spiritualized.
A truly epic album that utilises the full 70+ minute running time of the compact disc format, Ladies And Gentlemen… is a vast, forward-thinking and uniformly breathtaking vision for what rock music could sound like in the 1990s. Too intelligent and empathetic to be called merely hedonistic despite its copious drug references, too disciplined to be called psychedelic despite its lengthy, winding musical passages and complex musical architecture, its scope is simply enormous, covering traditional blues-based rock’n’roll, noise rock, drone rock, gospel and orchestral instrumentation.
Moving away from the comparatively simple drones and minimalist, mesmerizingly repetitive riffs that had characterised his work with Pete ‘Sonic Boom’ Kember in Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized’s own first two albums (1992’s Lazer Guided Melodies and 1995’s Pure Phase) and mixing those elements with gospel, freeform jazz, soul and traditional blues music, frontman Jason Pierce (aka. J Spaceman) created what felt like an entirely new musical compound, a spectral, cosmic and deeply moving force to which Spiritualized have been trying to come close for the subsequent two decades.
Ladies And Gentlemen… is inextricably linked with personal heartbreak. In large part written shortly after Pierce’s relationship with the band’s keyboard player Kate Radley had ended (she had secretly married The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft in 1995), production and recording were laboured, taking nearly two years and seven studios, with Pierce’s painstaking perfectionism dominating the process in order to bring his hugely ambitious vision to life. Furthermore, Pierce himself had gradually turned from a recreational drug user into a full-blown addict, a change which becomes laid bare in the lyrics.
The record’s unwieldy title comes from an excerpt of philosophical novel ‘Sophie’s World’ by Jostein Gaarder: “Only philosophers embark on this perilous expedition to the outermost reaches of language and existence. Some of them fall off, but others cling on desperately and yell at the people nestling deep in the snug softness, stuffing themselves with delicious food and drink. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ they yell, ‘we are floating in space!’ But none of the people down there care.”
This sentiment fits in nicely with the themes of Ladies And Gentlemen…, resonating with Pierce’s mission to explore the outer limits of rock’n’roll and actually, to reference The Doors, break on through to the other side – to take its transcendental elements to their logical extreme and, through that, try to understand the nature of existence. It sounds pretentious, but any scan of the British scene of the 1990s shows that very few artists were thinking on anything like this kind of scale, and ambition was something that was sorely missing by 1997.
Comparing the drug-taking experience to religious epiphany, Jason Pierce’s typical songwriting conceit has basically remained unchanged over his 30-year career dating back to his Spacemen 3 days, summarised by the credo “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to”. God = drugs is the central concept, but this idea was taken way, way further than anything Spiritualized had done before. An album of celestial narco-ballads, Ladies And Gentlemen… is an unresolved tangle of opposites, of conflict and pain that dwell within Jason Pierce himself. The twelve wildly different songs, ranging from just over one minute to nearly 20, flit between restraint and excess, attachment and isolation, love and hate.
“All I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away,” a pained, crestfallen Pierce sighs on the opening title track, a majestic and multi-layered tour de force that starts from the most intimate of diary-like confessions to an existential howl into the cosmos as the music and words stack up around him. The original version of this song featured a choir singing the words of Elvis Presley’s ‘I Can’t Help Falling In Love’, but Presley’s state initially blocked it before allowing it’s inclusion in the mix for the 2009 expanded re-issue. It’s worth tracking this definitive version down, as it adds something extraordinarily special to an already sumptuously beautiful song.
The staggering ‘Come Together’ is a torrential gale of drugged-up, fucked-up pain. Pierce lays his addictions and helplessness bare with couplets like “little J’s a fuckin’ mess / but when he’s offered just says yes”, as the band’s loose but disciplined performances often threatens to blow the speakers apart. The blinding squall of ‘Electricity’, all maxed-out rock’n’roll and feedback, has Pierce wishing for complete obliteration. Similarly, the short interlude ‘Home Of The Brave’ sees Pierce keening “sometimes have my breakfast right off of a mirror / and sometimes I have it right out of a bottle”. The freeform instrumentals ‘The Individual’ and ‘No God Only Religion’, though wordless, reflect the sense of Pierce as this helpless, solitary being who is dwarfed by the immovable object of his addictive impulses.
Pierce’s heartbreak is often more delicately touched upon. On ‘All Of My Thoughts’, Pierce is clearly in emotional agony, a man hit blindsided and numbed by sudden relationship breakdown, still attached to his partner but physically separated. “I just don’t know what to do on my own / All of my thoughts are with you” he sings calmly before the drums and pianos start to rage around him.
There can be fewer more spectacular and poignant examples of complete, utter emotional desolation than the beautiful ‘Broken Heart’. Driven purely by an orchestra that lends absolutely the right amount of gravitas and heft to Pierce’s heartache – no more and no less – it never once threatens to stray into self-importance. Here, not even drugs can mask the pain.
The striking, uplifting gospel of ‘Cool Waves’, the record’s penultimate track, sees Pierce defeated but at peace with his emotions for the first and only time on the album. Throughout the LP, but on this song specifically, it’s striking how he is able to express secular sentiments, about the non-existence of God, while speaking the language of religion and making grand, hymn-like music. It’s a trick that Pierce has used time and again throughout his lengthy career, but nowhere is it better executed than Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space.
However, the very best moments on Ladies And Gentlemen… come when the album’s twin forces of beauty and pain are slammed together within the same song. ‘I Think I’m In Love’ is one of the record’s key centrepieces, turning a droning, descending bass-line into a hypnotic call-and-response within a divided psyche, where Pierce is at one moment confident but the next caught by self-doubt (“Think I’m the heart and soul / probably just snorting” goes one example). The epic voodoo blues trance of 17-minute closer ‘Cop Shoot Cop…’ is the kind of thing that rock bands just don’t do on albums any more. At the end, realising that nothing can fill the void in his heartbroken soul except drugs, Pierce sings about the “hole in my arm where all the money goes”, but there’s still something thrillingly unresolved and ambiguous about the way the record ends.
Pierce’s ‘music as drugs’ theme, where pharmaceuticals are the only means to neutralise or reverse the emotional pain of heartbreak and loss, was made a physical reality with Ladies And Gentlemen…’s innovative packaging. Designed in conjunction with Mark Farrow, whose minimalist and award-winning concepts had adorned album covers by the likes of Manic Street Preachers and Pet Shop Boys, the entire package was designed to look like prescription medicine.
Initial pressings of the album contained the compact disc sealed in a foil blister pack, while limited editions contained each of the album’s 12 songs sealed in its own blister compartment like a course of medicine. The liner notes themselves took the form of lengthy instructions and technical specifications as you would find in any prescription medication – Q. “What is Spiritualized used for?” A. “Spiritualized is used to treat the heart and soul.”
It was a gigantic dimension jump in artistic terms for Pierce, but the circumstances of its creation would mean that it was the last album recorded by the original Spiritualized line-up. Following Kate Radley out of the door were drummer Damon Reece, bassist Sean Cook and guitarist John Coxon, though the latter was brought back in a couple of years later. For some fans, this purge tore the engine from Spiritualized and they’ve never been the same. This version of the band at the height of its powers can be heard on Live At The Royal Albert Hall, released the following year.
Since then, their output has been occasional at best, and in terms of quality has veered between treading water and vibrantly inspiring. 2001’s grandiose Let It Come Down attempted to go even further down the orchestral route that Ladies And Gentlemen… had often journeyed, with results that drastically split opinion. 2003’s Amazing Grace was a sharp reaction to those excesses, a stripped-down garage rock effort. 2008’s Songs In A&E has arguably been the best of Pierce’s subsequent records, recorded shortly after he narrowly avoided death from a dose of bilateral pneumonia that left him in a coma for weeks. 2012’s Sweet Heart Sweet Light was extremely uneven but occasionally achieved the blissful transcendence of Ladies And Gentlemen…
However, nothing has truly come even close to Spiritualized’s 1997 magnum opus, either by the group themselves or by other British rock artists. Like Radiohead’s OK Computer, it remarked the pitch for what the genre could do and sound like, by curiously few artists ever followed the path laid down by Ladies And Gentlemen… Come the turn of the millennium and the rise of Coldplay and The Libertines, most English guitar acts followed the garage-rock revival zeitgeist or made commercially friendly arena-rock that had the nominal scope of Spiritualized but was more sonically indebted to U2.
Ladies And Gentlemen… may have influenced few – the more lunatic fringes of Muse’s operatic space-rock and the most uplifting of Doves and Elbow’s anthems are probably the strongest evidence of their impact – but it has certainly touched the lives of many. For the heartbroken or beaten down, it has a strange healing power. Its fans, even if they don’t like any other Spiritualized records, often cite it as one of the finest albums of all time, never mind the 1990s. While Pierce’s utterances are often bleak, they are delivered in music that has a mystical and medicinal quality. As the packaging suggests, you can actually feel better after listening to Ladies And Gentlemen... It is there to pick you up when you fall down, comfort you in your darkest moments.
Simply, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space is one of the most emotionally ravaged records ever released, as well as one of the most sonically breathtaking.
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Tags: 20 years old, 20th anniversary, cult '90s, Damon Reece, Ed Biggs, J Spaceman, Jason Pierce, John Coxon, Kate Radley, Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, Sean Cook, Spiritualized
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