20 tracks from the man from Swell Maps, Television Personalities and various other intriguing combo’s…
(not strictly chronological, more a stream of consciousness)
1 Swell Maps: ‘Full Moon (Dub)’
I was astonished when the others in the band did a mix of ‘Full Moon’, originally our motorik rhythm-driven homage to Can, using the crazed vocal in isolation treated with heavy repeated echo, without the backing track. I would never have considered doing that! At first I was shocked, but it has a demented charm. It got the vote for the B-side of a single, and Viv Goldman, bless her, reviewed it well in a journal called Melody Maker. It marked us out as somewhat different to the rest of the punk scene!
2 Swell Maps: ‘Midget Submarines’
Check out the sound of the vacuum cleaner; that is one of my contributions on this track. I arrived late at the session, and the other fellows had already recorded the backing track, and instead of playing bass guitar, I felt that something different was in order!
3 Swell Maps: ‘Harmony In Your Bathroom’
We recorded an initial version at the BBC, which got us into some trouble at the time. Our drummer Epic and I rushed from the studio toilets with a bucket of water, so we could make bubbling sound effects with a straw, but in our excitement we splashed some drops of moisture onto an expensive microphone. The producer was livid! Bad lads….
4 Jowe Head ‘Cake Shop Girl’
This was originally recorded by Swell Maps, but I was not wholly satisfied with that version, so I re-recorded it at a faster tempo, without the usual Maps’ barrage of overdriven guitar chords, in an effort to create some space between the sounds. My first solo album ‘Pincer Movement’ was arranged with half of the tracks without any guitar parts at all! I was determined to make some music exploring other sounds. I also developed the sound of chimes played on empty cider bottles tuned with varying amounts of water, instead of the guitar harmonics that I used on the original version.
5 Soundtracks and Head ‘Rain, Rain, Rain’
This was a single released by Rough Trade after Swell Maps split. Epic and I decided to record a joint project together. We decided to do this using rhythm and space as vital elements. On this one we improvised a track using a scratchy rhythm guitar and drums, which we supplemented with added bass and piano. I tried a vocal but it didn’t sound great, so Epic came up with a phrase that he liked from a song by Gladys Knight, which went “maybe it’s raining all over the world”. We asked my friend from Manchester, Carmel, to sing on this. She was in the process of building a fine singing career which yielded a few chart hits later on.
6 Television Personalities ‘How I Learned To Love The Bomb’
Dan Treacy’s remarkable song is a satirical classic, based on the subtitle of the Kubrick film Doctor Strangelove, and it was released as a notable single. I am pleased with the nasty bass-line that I devised for this and I also added heavily echoed trumpet on the coda. To accompany this, we made a remarkable video, without any funding, with a pal directing without payment, for which I made some curious props, notably a replica cruise missile which I mounted on the roof-rack of my Mini Traveller. Our drummer Jeff Bloom, a large muscular gent, played a terrifyingly believable KGB officer in a furry hat and leather coat.
7 Jowe Head ‘Shy Town’ (from ‘Unhinged’)
This had an origin in another track that I did with Epic. He played a rhythm and I added a piano melody, which was later replaced with a melody of his, so I recycled my tune on this track for my ‘Unhinged’ album. I had in mind a vision of a sleepy provincial town with a sinister undercurrent, which I tried to evoke with a martial rhythm, multi-tracked brass band, crunching boots and surreal synth. This idea was inspired by Remembrance Day parades, and my time in the cadet corps at school. I was robed in itchy khaki uniform in the army corps, brandishing a Lee Enfield rifle, while my friend Adrian (aka Nikki Sudden) was in the Naval corps, clad in luxurious navy blue and white.
8 Househunters ‘Cuticles’ (from ‘Feeding Frenzy’)
This was recorded for Stephen Pastel’s label 53rd & 3rd based in Glasgow, continuing a long association with the scene in that city, which started when I befriended Stephen of The Pastels, and then Douglas of The BMX Bandits and Norman of Teenage Fanclub. I played in that city many times with Television Personalities in the 1980s, and helped with the production on a BMX Bandits EP. I persuaded my girlfriend at that time, Sue, to sing a duet with me, and we went on to form a strange band called Househunters, mainly using female musicians; we pretended we were from Finland for some reason! This is a curious song referring to the taboo of fetishism, partly inspired by Rita Heyworth tantalisingly stopping off her long satin gloves in her famous scene in Gilda.
9 Jowe Head ‘Paper Mache’ (from ‘Parallel Universe’)
I encountered this song on the B-side of an obscure single by Dionne Warwick. It’s written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, and it seems to be a satire on the insular, bourgeois American suburban lifestyle, where all the people that the narrator encounters are in denial to all that’s happening out there in the wider world. Given that it was evidently written in 1970, at the time of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of King and the Kennedys, and rioting in the streets of American cities, it was a time of great upheaval in the USA. I decided that it could be equally potent in the early 1980s in the UK, as it is indeed today, and benefitted from being re-interpreted in a more urgent psychedelic version with a male voice, backwards sound-effects and some overdriven distorted guitars thrown into the mix.
10 Jowe Head ‘Evil Island Home’ (from ‘Parallel Universe’)
Kevin Coyne’s original is so primitive and echoed that it’s almost impossible to make out the words, but they are marvellous lyrics, seemingly portraying a person contemplating the disintegration of his house and being threatened by the sinister elements outside. I took this to be a metaphor for his feelings towards his home nation, and I felt some sympathy towards these sentiments. I based the piece around a repeated motif played on m’bira – African thumb piano – with some phrases on the melodica, that melancholy instrument originally devised as a toy but popularised by reggae genius Augustus Pablo.
11 Angel Racing Food ‘Venus Big-Foot’
I wrote this for my band Angel Racing Food in the early 1990s. The band were named after a funny little shop on Hoxton Street in my adopted borough of Hackney, in north-east London; it sold special foodstuffs for racing greyhounds, to make them run faster presumably. The band’s name came from a different shop sign elsewhere in Hackney, combining the name of a dry-cleaning business and that of its neighbour, a cobbler. Sadly none of these three premises exist anymore, symbolic of the changing times in the borough that has been my home for the last 37 years. The song itself concerns a formidable female half-human creature combining the attributes of a Yeti and a Succubus. The chorus is derived from an expression in Company Of Wolves by Angela Carter: “hairy on the outside; hairy on the inside, too!”
12 Jowe Head With The Demi-Monde (pictured above) ‘I Hear A New World’/ ‘Enlightenment’
A meeting of Joe Meek and Sun Ra. I don’t suppose that the truculent Meek would have had much to chat about with the spaced-out Mister Ra, but I decided to combine these two songs to imagine them having a strange musical conversation. Meek’s song, now considered to be a classic by lovers of the exotic, languished in that purgatory in which unreleased gems languish for a few decades after his tragic death. He multi-tracked the vocals and manipulated them using the speed of the tape recorder, but this resulted in an almost comical effect like the puppets Tinga and Tucker, Pinky & Perky or the Chipmunks. I preferred to use four male and female voices (those of myself, Lee McFadden, Jane Ruby, Catherine Gerbrands), to try to make it more “natural”, but sort of exotic and cosmic at the same time. The end of ‘Enlightenment’ uses the highest of those voices (Catherine’s) to try reaching for the stars, intertwined with a Theremin.
13 Jowe Head ‘Chameleon’
The lyric on this track refers to bruises I suffered after an operation, and noticing the various colours that my skin went through until they gradually vanished. Psychedelic surgery indeed!
14 Olive’s Hairy Custard ‘Belly Of The Beast’
This was one of the strangest bands imaginable. On stage we were accustomed to wearing costumes designed and put together by our guitarist Heath Stanley (aka Les MIserable). These were disposable, and a different theme was chosen every time: Olympic swimmer, Lone Ranger, super-hero, and so on. Our music was a spiky discordant angsty shock to the senses, and marked my return to the joys of employing a loud distorted guitar, often with a metal slide.
15 Jowe Head With The Demi Monde ‘Imp Of The Perverse” (from ‘Diabolical Liberties’)
I wrote this in my sleep, and I scribbled it down as soon as I woke up. It is dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote the original short story, from where I got the title. The tune is adapted from a medieval hymn, which I found on an album of music called ‘Feast Of Fools’, this being a compendium of music from the early Mediaeval period, celebrating the notorious feast day when roles would be reversed in towns, letting the priests drunkenly run riot around the town and the congregation break into the church, to perform a travesty of a service with animal noises.
16 Jowe Head With The Demi Monde ‘Ophelia’ (from ‘Tales From A Twisted Tower’)
I nicked a bit of Shakespeare for this one, the person of the title being the crazy dame who features in Hamlet, and also a famous Pre-Raphaelite painting by John Millais. The coda refers to Lizzie Siddel, who was asked to pose as Ophelia for the picture by the painter, in winter, in a cold tub of water with a few candles under the tub to prevent the water freezing. Inevitably, she caught pneumonia and almost died. Understandably, Lizzie’s Pa was so angry that he threatened Millais with violence.
17 Jowe Head With The Demi Monde ‘Waltz For Kurt Schwitters’ (from ‘Visionaries’)
I wrote this with ex-Swell Maps colleague Phones Sportsman supplying the lyrics. I recently discovered that he appropriated one of the lines about his hat being worn on his feet from a poem by Schwitters about a character called Anna Blume, which seems to be a satire of a love poem. I hope that Kurt would approve of the resulting demented sound – I can imagine him enjoying a waltz!
18 Jowe Head ‘Rubbish Up The Messheads’
I set a lyric written by my late friend Lucy “Holey Ghost” Cameron to music. I have recently been playing bass for a remarkable band called Rude Mechanicals, so I asked the flamboyant singer Miss Roberts to duet on this with me. Her voice contains exactly the right amount of bile and spite to make this work! My old pal Rico Conning from The Lines mixed this very nicely.
19 Jowe Head With The Demi Monde ‘Felt And Fat’ (from ‘Visionaries’)
A homage to a German artist who devised an entire mythology around himself. As recounted in detail in the song, he claimed that he was a Luftwaffe plot who got shot down behind enemy lines in the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa. Rescued by some native people, he was saved from serious injury in the bleak winter by them wrapping him in lard and some kind of primitive fabric. The music is sound-poem / collage using guitar feedback and Theremin, channelling elements of Balkan folk music, Jimi Hendrix and Hawkwind, intending to evoke the bleak inhospitable Russian steppes in mid-winter.
20 Jowe Head ‘Half-Bike’ (unreleased)
I recorded this at home after writing the lyrics based on a passage from the novel The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien. I read this astonishing novel for the first time about 25 years ago, and it blew my mind. The passage in this case is about the character’s Atomic Theory, which maintains that if one uses an inanimate object for long enough, one shall exchange molecules with the thing. In this case, a man becomes half-bicycle, and a bike becomes half-human. Since we now live in an even more mechanised society than when the book was written, this is a terrifying thought, isn’t it? Especially when some people probably aspire to achieving this state. I use sounds made with my own bicycle on this recording. This is partly in homage to Flann O’Brienn, Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made assemblage and Frank Zappa’s early experiments on TV.
Most of these tracks are featured on a new compilation album: ‘Cabinet Of Curios’ released by Munster Records.