Pure sweetest ocean

“Have you heard The Telescopes? They’re a new band and they’re brilliant”. Nigel was as effusive as ever but it had to be said, it was quite late at night in August 1989 and he’d probably had a bit to drink. That’s why he doesn’t remember saying it, but that was the Summer I went teetotal so I remembered it perfectly. On the other hand I did absolutely nothing about it.

The first I actually heard of The Telescopes was when “The perfect needle” was at number 30 in that year’s Festive Fifty. It was a slow drone obviously indebted to the Velvet Underground with that viola chugging through it. However it wasn’t the song I kept going back to on that tape, it was interesting but not as good as what was at number 26, but that’s another tale.

Years pass, and in the Spring of 91 I’m watching “Snub TV” upstairs in my bedroom on an old portable black and white TV set by my bed. This odd video starts, looking very sixties and mod-ish and watching in black and white helped. The song is “Celeste” by The Telescopes. There’s a huge loping bassline, the swooning boy / girl harmonies, Farfisa organs swirling and it sounds really good and nothing like “The perfect needle”. I make a mental note to check the single out as and when I can.

In June 1991 I start a temporary job at BT in Cardiff where my father worked and having money does bad things for my bank account but good things for my record collection. Also working within walking distance of the four Cardiff record shops didn’t help. I had an hour’s lunch break and in that time could dash around Virgin, HMV, Our Price and Spillers. One of the first records I bought was that month was the CD single of “Celeste”. The title track was as good as I remembered it but the b-side was a two minute oceanic wash, then there was a 9 minute remix of the title track which soon ran out of steam. Later that summer, the band issued another EP called “Flying” which I bought on the day of release and was fabulous, then I heard nothing about them for ages – or so it seemed in that time-compressed era. There was a Peel session in late Autumn but still nothing, until Creation issued their eponymous album in late May ’92. I loved it and played it a lot, but the music press ignored it and so did the general public and the band quietly faded away. In the Autumn of 92 I found a CD of their debut album “Taste” and that was something else – I couldn’t understand how they went from this thrashy noisy monster to the beateous second album. Over the following two years I managed to pick up all of the singles surrounding the albums and started to get a clearer picture of the journey the band made, and it’s an intriguing story so are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

The Telescopes were formed in Burton-upon-Trent in 1987, a five piece of two guitars, bass, drums and vocals. Their first record was a split flexi with Loop issued in late 88 with the “Sowing seeds” fanzine. That should give you an indication of where they were coming from – Loop and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Their hard vinyl debut was “Kick the wall” on Cheree Records and I’ve never found a copy – a friend waved his copy under my nose once but refused to sell it. Next in April 89 came “7th # disaster” again on Cheree. This 12 inch EP is four songs of noise at different tempi with little melody to distinguish itself. They were clearly in the Loop / Spacemen 3 area, walls of noise guitars and feedback, but the screaming vocals were something else. There seemed to be real pain in Stephen Lawrie’s voice and the words – when you could make them out – bore this out.

Their next single was “The perfect needle” which gained them some attention, and I’m pretty sure it was this song that gained Nigel’s attention that summer. The five song EP is interesting as it shows their sound becoming clearer and more pronounced. Still walls of fuzz but nuanced walls, if such a thing exists. “Sadness pale” starts like a hailstorm of guitars then settles into a groove of chugging chords, the bass carrying the melody like a lot of MBV of this era. “SHC burns” and “You can not be sure” show more MBV influence, the stop start nature of the song structure, the almost swooning “glide guitar” effect. The untitled fifth song is an odd collection of noises. The label not only said Cheree but also What Goes on, a label that specialised in noisy music from around the world. The band got some press but it seemed to be a bit disparaging – as though they were late comers to the party, too obviously influenced by the “class of ’88” as the MM liked to say.

Around this time “Taste” was issued and to my ears in late 92, only knowing their later material, it was a shock. What was also a shock was how atrocious it sounded on CD. I’ve never seen it on vinyl but my CD sounds so murky and full of mid-range that it is painful to listen to, regardless of the musical content. Luckily whenever I play it I would chuck it through a graphic EQ with the treble on full just to make it half listenable. I know Cherry Red have reissued the album in recent years so I hope a new issue sounds better. But apart from the sound, the music itself was a shock

Opener “And let me drift away” lulled me into a false sense of security. A simple two chord ballad, gently strummed guitars, no drums, on each iteration another instrument added – piano, viola – to fill out the picture and Lawrie’s vocals not screaming. The song ends on a blue note to imply that something sinister is coming. From there it is unrelenting noise noise noise, guitars set to stun, sometimes through wah-wah pedals, the songs are mainly thrashing and fast, sometimes they stop for choruses, sometimes they pummel away regardless. The slower songs like “Violence” or “Silent water” are menacing and vicious. The closer “Suicide” hurtles towards its natural conclusion for seven minutes, after four minutes it turns into freeform feedback before abruptly cutting off.

And through it all Lawrie screams his heart out. In the right mood these songs touch nerves like little else, desperate for something but not knowing what, feeling selfish and needy and misunderstood, needing to connect but wanting to be alone, everything black and white, up or down, nothing in between. When I bought it the record resonated with things happening in my life so I could work through the sludge and enjoy it. Listening now it sounds very … teenage. Also listening with hindsight and reading the lyric sheet I can see what I saw in it, and also think it seems very ASD-like. But Lawrie sings like he means every word and he probably did. There’s not a lot of love or affection on the album, just wanting and needing.

1990 saw a lot of changes for the band. Their first EP of the year was issued in the winter and showed definite signs of progress. “To kill a slow girl walking” took their thrash and added clarity to the mix alongside strange highly reverbed female vocals during the “Heaven in your smile” chorus. “Treasure” was a slow trudge like “Violence” but included strings and horns for light and colour. “Forever now” was more speedy teenage angst – less than 90 seconds – but the final track on the EP was something else entirely.

“Pure sweetest ocean” starts with a minute or so of whalesong fed through reverb and echo before the band enter. This is unlike the band we know so far – an acoustic guitar maintains a 6/8 folksong swing, there’s still fuzz guitar but it is arpeggios rather than barre chords, and there’s a Hammond organ adding to the song. Lawrie sounds different too – there’s an edge in his voice but there’s almost a delicacy too, and a change in the lyrics too – it could almost be a love song, even the “drowning with me now” sounds inclusive where previously others were somewhere else and not to be touched. The song is almost oceanic in its scope, and once the song is finished there’s six more minutes of whalesong. It’s quite gorgeous and most unexpected.

However at this point their label went bust and even though they had recorded another EP they had no label to issue it on. Alan McGee stepped in and signed them to Creation and issued this new EP, entitled “Precious little”. The songs continue the band’s progression, the songs seem more considered, not so much hurtling to their ultimate destruction but meandering towards a good resolution. Tthere’s more use of dynamics on songs like “Never hurt you” and “Deep hole ends” and the guitars have an almost netallic gleam about them. There’s also hints of psychedelia in the reverse reverbed chorus of the title track. The final EP of the year was the first recorded specifically for Creation and it seemed like a total sea change had happened. Had some of Creation’s disco biscuits consuming indie-dance ‘pioneers’ Primal Scream slipped something into their tea? Who knows. “Everso” was an attempt at indie dance, and a bit lumpy in places. What is most noticeable is that suddenly the bass guitar isn’t just hitting root notes, it sounds untethered and freed and almost funky. There’s a baggy beat and boy girl harmonies and it sounds ok but not a perfect fit. The b-sides are also interesting – “Never learn not to love” is the Charles Manson song recorded by the Beach Boys and quite a decent photocopy, though they do extend the outro further than the original version. “Wish of you” barely stretches to past a minute and is an awe-struck love song on a bed of organ and lightly strummed guitar, the close rising to heaven. If that was their turning point, it wasn’t exactly auspicious.

The two ’91 singles refine the new style further. “Celeste” mixes everything up perfectly, I remember telling someone at the time it had the psychedelic wash of Spacemen 3, the rolling bass of the Stone Roses and the skykissing guitars of My Bloody Valentine all rolled into one. Maybe it’s not all those things but it’sw a perfect little single. The b-side was a truly oceanic wash with soaring guitar lines and huge reverbed harmonies. It ebbs and flows like the tides of the sea and is quite lovely. The “Flying” EP in the summer of 91 found the band almost in tune with the prevailingp trend and verged on shoegazing, but was more psychedelic than that. The deeply tremelo-d guitar on the title track seemed to indicate they’d been listening to the Electric Prunes. “Soul full of tears” was a tabla and drone fuelled freakout, “High on fire” was almost as good as “Flying” (and Peel played it more than “Flying”) while “The sleepwalk” was as fast as their old songs but with such a different vision you would think it was a different band. That EP was eleven minutes long, and was just long enough to soundtrack the walk from our house to the bar / restaurant on the seafront where I was now a regular, and also having a major crush on one of the barmaids. But that’s another story. The late autumn Peel session continued this psychedelic move and featured one song – “Please tell mother” – that sounded like it was being played on the edge of a cliff, if that can be made into a sound.

When the eponymous album finally came out in May it was a relief to have it, it had been a long winter and spring, my first time on the dole, and having so little money meant very few record purchases. I had finally got a job and was due to start working as a computer programmer for the Central Statistics Office (as it was then) in Newport. One of my friends was running an off licence in Newport and I was due to move in with him, and had a sofa bed delivered into his spare room when he found he was moving back to Penarth himself so all our plans were scrapped. “The Telescopes” soundtracked this particular piece of chaos, and was really quite serene about it. It’s that kind of album.

I don’t know how to talk about “The Telescopes” without sounding stupid, but that’s never stopped me before. The songs are leisurely paced, with acoustic rhythm guitars to the fore, alongside nicely effected electric lead work, the harmonies are exquisite, the songs are of an excellent standard, it’s a good chill out summer record. That tells you nothing about it really. There’s just so many moments of brilliance across the eleven songs, it’s like a culmination of everything they’ve done before. The rerecording of “High on fire” lost some of the original’s fury but fits into the album’s semi-acoustic vibe. Side one flows nicely, interspersed with the sounds of a lazy jam session, but side two is highlight after highlight. Kicking off with “Flying”, it bounds into the mid-tempo joy of “Yeah” which stops quite naturally at the end of the first chorus – the guitars decay naturally, a few seconds of silence pass, the lead guitar starts in and the whole band are back in. “Ocean drive” is as rocking as this album gets, but whereas before they would have a wall of distortion now the layers build up to the climax of jamming guitars and it works. “Please tell mother” is slower than the Peel version but just as good, a gentler sound with some lovely guitar work – and the sound of a Matchbox car pushed across the stereo spectrum. The album closes with the dreamy “To the shore” and the oceanic tendencies return.

I only saw one review of the album, in Melody Maker, which panned it completely as a pale imitator of “Screamadelica” – a comparison I never understood. There were one or two interviews to support the album and then nothing. I’m sure I read somewhere that their Creation album was one of the label’s lowest sellers ever. There was a small announcement that the band had split up and that some of them were now called Unisex, who issued a single on the Fat Tulips’ label Heaven Records in 95 – it was a Midlands connection. Lawrie also produced some songs for Antiseptic Beauty in 93 and they sounded just like the Telescopes. Nothing was heard again until Unisex issued an album “Stratosfear” in 2000. Some of it was weird, some of it was a bit bland, but when it was good – such as the song “Autopilot” – it was almost as good as prime ‘Scopes. After that, Lawrie reformed the Telescopes and they’re still out there making music but I’m not that interested in it. I’m perfectly happy with the journey I’ve made with them. From noise to bliss is enough for me.

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