I got a “D” in my Psychology ‘A’ Level, and an “E” in Maths. I also completely fucked up Chemistry, again. My parents were both at work whilst I stared at the slip of paper which announced my doom. I helped myself to a stiff drink before calling them.
I was quite upset, I needed better grades to get to where I wanted to be (can’t remember what was in the running, but Leeds and Warwick were up there I think).
So I had to chance my arm with the “clearing” system – where you throw your hat in the ring and see if any college will take you. This seemed to take ages and was quite humiliating, but I just stayed focused and got on with it…
I eventually managed to secure myself a place at the Polytechnic of Central London to do a BSc in Psychology. But I still needed to find somewhere to live. PCL had a reputation for being radical, and my flat hunting confirmed that the students union was a haven for freaks, goths and layabouts. My search for a place to rest my head was exciting but ultimately fruitless.
I might have been desperate to move out of my parental home, but the rooms on offer at the students union only managed to cough up some real dives – places where you couldn’t even get the door open because they were so small. Or a room I’d have to share with a bloke who was monomaniacal with the excitement of being “out” in London.
Luckily one of the grebo freaks in the students union took me under his wing and I was offered a decent sized room in a house in Haringey. Everything else was detail. My awkwardness and fear dissolved into excitement. I’m sure my parents went through a similar process. There was time for one last gig before I hit the Big City on a full-time basis…
23 Foetus Interruptus, Tackhead Soundsystem. Town and Country Club, 20th September 1988.
I’d been waiting for two years for this gig and couldn’t quite believe it was happening. Peter Rehberg had done my mate Wal a C90 with “Hole” by Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel on one side and a bunch of 12″ with all sorts of mad names (You’ve Got Foetus On Your Breath, Foetus Art Terrorism, etc) on the other. Wal had duly copied it for me. We absolutely destroyed those tapes and I remember some really intense conversations in the school playground about what the fuck was going on with it all. Jim Thirlwell’s productions still sound amazing, he is definitely up there in my pantheon of sonic sorcerers. Legend has it that he was so driven he once barricaded himself in a studio when his time was up, emerging pallid and scurvied when the job had been done.
Foetus aka Clint Ruin aka Jim Thirlwell made Totalitarian Pop Music. “Hole” and its follow up “Nail” were precision-tooled pop records made by a psychopath. They distilled The Cramps‘ rockabilly, big band music from cartoons, James Brown funk, film noir soundtracks and jack-hammer industrial dance. Tracks like “Calamity Crush” sounded like a marching band of drum machines being conducted by some Hammer Horror mad scientist.
The lyrics jumbled up pop culture with a completely nihilist hodge podge of mass murder, sexual deviance and military atrocities. But they weren’t shocking, they were oddly catchy, darkly funny and manic.
When I finally saw the artwork for the records, I was blown away by Thirlwell’s graphics. Really bold, pop-art styles combined with Maoist propaganda – all riddled through with that sickness.
Foetus was a solo effort, and he never played live. Well, not really. Rumours abounded of live shows he’d done as part of The Immaculate Consumptives alongside Lydia Lunch, Nick Cave and Marc Almond. Supergroup or what? I think they played in London and New York – one-off gigs when I was still working up the courage to go and see Howard Jones.
I slowly amassed a Foetus collection, originally acquiring both “Hole” and “Nail” as official cassette releases that stayed glued to my Walkman. Then onto the vinyl, largely courtesy of the Rough Trade Shop in Ladbroke Grove. I think Wal did the same, so that C90 Peter dubbed us lead to about 30 royalty payments for Clint Ruin Incorporated, and good luck to him.
Foetus was a relentless collaborator, cropping up on records by Coil, Marc and The Mambas, The The, even Nurse With Wound. I grabbed a bunch of these (notably the latter’s incredible “Brained By Falling Masonry” 12″) and filled my life with Foetus. Most of these collaborations were fleeting, the odd track on an album or one-off twelve inch. One of the more enduring projects was Wiseblood – Foetus + Roli Mosimann from SWANS = bludgeoning percussion and even more twisted visions. I’d got into trouble playing their “Someone Drowned In My Pool” 12″ in the 6th form common room one breaktime. To me, it sounded entirely acceptable, a little light ballad about murder. Apparently this feeling was far from universal.
Just when I’d fully embraced the idea of never seeing this stuff live, Foetus Interruptus embarked on a European Tour. They were doing two nights at the Town and Country Club and I was sorely tempted to go to both. But I only managed one, and considered it to be something of a celebration of my successful escape plan.
The support was the Tackhead Soundsystem, i.e. Gary Clail on the mic and tapes whilst Adrian Sherwood made the floor vibrate. I seem to remember that they did this all from the mixing desk, there was nothing to see on the stage. There’s a lot more to be written about that, but I’ll have to leave On-U Sound for another time.
Foetus Interruptus was essentially Clint Ruin backed by most of SWANS. They rocked their way through a load of Foetus and Wiseblood material and it was great, but not amazing. I think my main disappointment was the impossibility of reproducing that studio wizardry on stage. And even the “I like the way you fill out your clothes” vocal sample introducing “Clothes Hoist” was squealed by Mr Foetus instead. None of this stopped me having the time of my life, however.
A couple of days later I moved down to London with the bare essentials. I’d already sorted out my first evening’s entertainment:
Aside from an unsuccessful attempt at suburban living in Leighton Buzzard in the mid nineties, I have pretty much lived in Haringey and Hackney ever since.
As I said at the outset of this story, these years saw me transform myself “from being a polite boy who toed the line, into a polite teenager with a head full of weird ideas. Who wasn’t quite so sure about that line he’d been toeing…”.
There are probably a million things I’d do differently if I had that time again, but looking back on it now I can see how all the fuck ups and the worrying in my bedroom and of course the obsessing over music has made me the well-rounded, sensitive and attractive man I have undoubtedly become.
It was intense, which is why I can remember it so well.