This Heat - Biography
Rock and roll has 20/20 hindsight. Make no mistake about it: Nobody knew the Velvet Underground when they were an actual, extant band. Nobody. Neu!, Can, Iggy and the Stooges? They were so far outside of the purview of rock that they were considered novelty acts — when they were considered at all. The now critically lauded Tony Conrad with Faust LP? It sold approximately 150 copies upon its release in 1973 — and it was on Virgin. Despite what they may claim now, vast droves of white people were not listening to Funkadelic. There’s a long list of formerly obscure bands, all of which were completely ignored or marginalized during their physical existence, yet are now credited with having had an indelible influence on a bunch of subsequent, quality music.
How high up on that list is This Heat? They’re now discussed with the same hushed reverence reserved for Metal Box-era Public Image Ltd., Gang of Four, and Wire — the cream of the post-punk crowd. This Heat started in 1975. They were post-punk before there was punk. They made pioneering use of tape manipulation, electronics, and world music beats. In the 1980s, you couldn’t find a This Heat record if your life depended on it; when post-rock splashed down in the 1990s (post-punk wasn’t post-enough, Simon Reynolds?), you couldn’t find a band (starting with everything and everyone within three degrees of Jim O’Rourke) who didn’t cite them as a primary influence.
Formed in Brixton, London, in 1975, This Heat stands alone at a curious intersection of prog-rock, punk, and Krautrock. The politically charged themes and musical complexities set by members Charles Bullen (guitar, clarinet, viola, vocals, tapes), Charles Hayward (drums, keyboards, vocals, tapes), and Gareth Williams (keyboard, guitar, bass, vocals, tapes) take the torch from the UK prog-commies of the whole Henry Cow/Fred Frith/Art Bears/Rock in Opposition scene. Their driving, propulsive rhythms would be at home on any Can record; meanwhile, the arch ferocity of some of their work stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the catalogs of Wire and Mission of Burma.
Only two and a half records were released before the band’s break-up in 1982, but every last second of its seven-year existence was poured into those recordings. A relentlessly hard-working and self-critical bunch, they practically locked themselves in their studio, a former meatpacking plant dubbed Cold Storage, and meticulously worked, and reworked material; and when that was over, they reworked it some more. The result was a thoroughly unique sound — multi-faceted, atmospheric, angry, and often euphoric. Play This Heat for someone who’s uninitiated, then register the shock when you tell him that the band is from 1976. Their records could have been made yesterday.
The band spent over two and a half years recording their self-titled debut, This Heat (1977 Piano/Rough Trade), and it shows, in the breadth and variety of sound generated, and the self-confidence evident in the performances. It begins with “Testcard,” an extended, high-pitched electronic tone, full of foreboding, as if you’re about to receive a transmission from aliens. (“Attention, Humans. Look to the Skies.”) It then plunges into track two, “Horizontal Hold.” It’s a boisterous, extended instrumental, and presents a number of the band’s strengths as it cycles through several sections, introducing charging, one-chord guitar abuse; queasily distorted soloing; and damaged, homemade organs and synths.
What holds it all together — what holds almost all of This Heat’s material together — is Charles Hayward’s super-charged drumming. His has a marvelously dynamic, angular style, using askew time signatures and a looping, repetitive beat to fine effect. Sometimes he is looped; other times he plays alongside or against a loop. Whatever the combination, he remains — especially when under the combined influence of world, dub, and industrial musics — one of rock’s most distinctive drummers.
This Heat continues with the droning “Not Waving,” and its somewhat nauseating (in a good way) keys and warbling reeds and vocals. “Water” has a Tibetan influence that promptly deteriorates into Cagean cacophony. “Twilight Furniture” is more song oriented, as the occasional poisoned-dart guitar punctures muted, tribal percussion. “24 Track Loop” is solid, driving, distorto-core that could easily be mistaken for Faust Tapes-era Faust. “Diet of Worms” is a psychotic version of ambient music, Brian Eno in Eraserhead’s radiator. “The Fall of Saigon” is a gloomy, mysterious, song-based trudge through a steamy jungle of sound; “Testcard” returns to signal the end of the album.
This Heat’s debut is outstanding, but it is abrasive, more a series of aural collages. The follow-up must have blown folks away. In a move similar to the one that propelled Sonic Youth from really good status to iconic, they decided to take all of their avant textures and strategies, and apply them thoroughly to song. The EP, Health and Efficiency (1980 Rough Trade), is simply glorious. The title track is This Heat’s most accessible work, and a million miles from their debut. With pealing, shimmering guitars, and joyous, harmonizing vocals, they repeat: “This is a song about the sunshine; dedicated to the sunshine . . .”
And then they absolutely and completely go supernova. They hit a totally engaging, off-kilter beat, grab a single, nasty chord, and they ride it. All the way, like Slim Pickens on that atom bomb, whooping it up. It sounds as if they are emulating a fantastic, accidentally discovered groove from a skip on a scratched copy of U2’s first record. As it goes on and on and (gratefully) on, they pile on more and more: instrumentation; tape manipulation; field recordings. On the flipside, “Graphic/Varispeed,” they lay down an austere drone that would make La Monte Young shed his swami robes in joy.
The brilliance of the track “Health and Efficiency” paves the way for This Heat’s second and final LP, Deceit (1981 Rough Trade). It is a daring masterpiece; a replete, dizzyingly diverse collection of songs. The lead-off track is a revelation. “Sleep” is an achingly beautiful lullaby, full of coarse, avant texture, yet also, perfectly, multiple-part vocal harmonization. Sung in the first-person in the soothing, tick-tock guise of a hypnotist, it is a breathtakingly gorgeous, scathing critique of greed, gluttony, and consumerism run amok. “Sleep” sets the tone for the rest of the LP.
Hayward has stated that the band was convinced that they were scheduled for imminent death via nuclear holocaust (as were an awful lot of folks in the harrowing early innings of the Reagan/Thatcher double header). “S.P.Q.R.” is the band’s most blistering track. Full of furiously rocking guitars, and sophisticatedly deep layers of vocals, it re-imagines Britain as a second falling of the Roman Empire:
Amo amas amat amamis amatis amant
We are all Romans unconscious collective
We are all Romans we live to regret it
We are all Romans and we know all
About straight roads
Every straight road leads home,
Home to Rome
2 + 2 = 4
4 + 4 = 8
We organize via property as power
Slavehood and freedom imperial purple
Suckled by a she wolf,
We turn against our brother
Bella bella bella bellorum bellis bellis
Veni vidi vici I came I saw I conquered
Never, ever, has Latin rocked so hard.
“Shrink Wrap” is an avant/afro-influenced piece of trance inducement that should make David Byrne and Brian Eno pull the covers over their heads. In a whorl of loops, beats, and mondo-tracked vocals, consumerism takes another well-deserved bitch slapping. “Makeshift Swahili” is another jagged, menacing piece that circles the listener like a hungry panther, gnashing and growling, before lunging into a breakneck, hardcore, classic This Heat freak-out. It makes Chrome and Black Flag sound like barbershop quartets.
As the LP winds down, it continues to press its themes of opposition, alienation, and oppression. “Independence” utilizes a blatant South Asian theme to recite the Declaration of Independence. “A New Kind of Water” is the ultimate concordance of the band’s obsessions with vocal stratification, social discontent, and looping, explosive, aural themes. “Creature comforts,” they sneer. This Heat — the three guys who comprised the band — gave it everything they had, and more, over seven years.
After a UK tour in 1982 (fleshed out with two extra members), This Heat broke up. Charles Hayward went on to form Camberwell Now, and continues to record. Gareth Williams became a devotee of Indian culture, and, sadly, passed away in 2001. Charles Bullen also had a solo career, and occasionally performs with Hayward.
At first it seems like a crying shame that a band this good, having just hit its stride, would release a record like Deceit, then abruptly vanish. With that LP they struck a deep Mother Lode of conflicting and conjoined aesthetics, a perfect collection of consonances and dissonances that, in theory, could have been successfully mined for years. It is easy to imagine This Heat having a career with longevity comparable to that of Sonic Youth, or a series of accolade-laden resuscitations along the lines of Wire.
Oh well. Like the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. Maybe it’s good that, for a while, obscurity and exoticness wafted around them — they still ended up being a primary influence on a decade’s worth of smart, vivid, idiosyncratically good music.