The Good Missionaries Mk 2 were formed in Hastings in 1979 by David George, former guitarist in Mark Perry’s Alternative TV. Pylons is very much Dave’s record. He wrote and arranged all the songs, and dictated, Captain Beefheart-style, not just what the music would be, but how it would be played, experimenting with song structures and tunings. Sessions for the recordings featured Dave, Mark, saxophonist Hank Leafe, my long-term friend and collaborator David Kent and me.
Pylons was written at that time in British pop music between the demise of classic British punk and the emergence in the clubs of New Romantic at the beginning of the 1980s. It was a fertile period, and it didn’t last long. Once MTV was launched, a great deal of interesting music became marginalised by the new totalitarianism – blind faith in consumerism, obsession with celebrity, the tyranny of conformity – that continues to challenge true experimentation in the mainstream today.
Dave and I spent a lot of time immersing ourselves in the vibrant ‘alternative’ music from the time – roots dub and reggae, The Fall, early Human League, The Slits, Meet the Residents, Captain Beeefheart’s Shiny Beast, The Specials, Television’s Marquee Moon, PiL’s Metal Box, Delta 5, The Raincoats, The Bunnymen’s Heaven Up Here, Magazine, Throbbing Gristle, Pere Ubu, Wendy Carlos, The Pop Group, Bowie’s Heroes and Scary Monsters, Gang of Four, Delia Derbyshire, anything from the classic Can early period; and heroes from a former era – Nina Simone, Sun Ra, Miles Davis’s unfairly stigmatised 70’s ‘electric’ period, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, The Jazz Ensemble of Chicago. Pylons had the impatience and aggression of punk, but the wandering curiosity of experimental music of that time. The use of spoken word, free improv (all the basic tracks were recorded live, often in a single take) and free jazz sent it off in a direction few were going in. We never truly arrived, but the journey was fascinating. To say we weren’t always that well-received live is perhaps an understatement, but we were always just ourselves, doing what we hoped was valid and interesting, seeing how far out we could go without getting hopelessly lost. Pylons is the evidence left behind of that spirit of adventure.
One of the truisms of running a band is that finding the right drummer can be a challenge. As we were struggling to find one, Mark Perry agreed to play drums on five of the songs (4 of which are included on this LP), recorded in two sessions between December 1979 and February 1980, with Dennis Burns doubling on bass on two tracks. The heavy bass thrum that drives the brief surf-style instrumental that gives the album its title was achieved by Dennis and I playing in unison.
In Spring of 1980, with Nick Poulson – the drummer we eventually briefly found – already gone, Dave and I fell back and re-grouped, literally and metaphorically, with a second guitarist and bass player, Tom Hickmore and a new drummer, Pete Jefkins. This version of the band, which was more conventionally musicianly and something like a new wave rock band, recorded Bending a Border (about the Troubles in Northern Ireland) and Call to Arms, written about David’s relationship with Irish-American actress Roma Downey. On Protect and Survive Roma reads sections from the British government’s public information pamphlet of the same name. These risible instructions, distributed to every household in Britain, for survival in the event of nuclear war, also appeared on Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes 12” mixes (read by British actor Patrick Allen, recreating his work for the Protect and Survive public service films). Rehearsal tapes of this Good Missionaries Mk 3, later re-named The Cast (no relation to the band Cast, formed in 1992 by John Power) give an indication of the material we would have recorded, had we lasted. In timeless fashion, the band disintegrated due to personal differences and animosities, plays of ego, fragile mental health, and so on. We did a mini-tour with the Fall, and then split. The LP you are either holding or listening to (or not) captures a time and a spirit.
39 years later I listen to these songs and hear echoes of a Britain that is long gone. 1980 marked a transitional phase in all areas of British cultural and social life. It was a time of disenchantment among the young working-class, the rise of a new young aspirational class, inner city unrest, and political and social division across the country. Britain had built and lost an empire and had fought and won two world wars; and now there was a brief pause before the early onset of what would become political and economic globalisation and the age of information technology, and all that came with it. The 1980s saw mainstream Britain embrace an American-style aspirational culture that was brash and loud and colourful, but seemingly lacking much in depth, and there were early signs that men with guitars were doomed to increasing irrelevance – a fate finally sealed by the dreary plod of Oasis a mere 14 years later. Pylons was just one of many disparate attempts to make sense of that period.
The cassette tapes that this album is compiled from sat in a drawer for 38 years, with release often seeming a tantalising possibility, but unrealised till now, thanks to sterling support and encouragement from Gary Ramon and Color Tapes. Dave died in March 2017 after a period of illness. It’s a sad irony that he didn’t live to see this music finally get its release. After a confused split in 1981 we didn’t see each other that much, and when we did it was often strained. A few months before he died there was briefly some of the old sparkle with Dave; I didn’t realise – though he may have – that we were actually saying goodbye. What really stands out for me now is the strength of his vision, his unique guitar style, the pain at an early age of the loss of his father (Peter George, who wrote Dr Strangelove) to suicide, the literary heft of his lyrics, and his restless search for a new way to make rock music – if that’s what the music on this record is.
Pylons was recorded at Street Level Studios in Maida Vale by Grant Showbiz, assisted by Keith Dobson, between December 1979 and May 1980. (The studio was on the same street where Nik Turner lived – we often saw him, on the way to the studio – tinkering with his impressive motorcycle. We later supported Inner City Unit at the Falaise Hall in Hastings). Attitudes and Keep Going Backwards were released as a single in 1980 on Unnormality Records, Hastings’ first punk record label (and possibility its last). They acquired the ultimate accolade of being bootlegged for a Japanese CD. High praise indeed.
The Power and the Fog and Through My Window were from rehearsals and jam sessions recorded in the early Summer of 1981 in a municipal hall in Lewes, amidst the gentility of the Sussex county seat, and a few miles from Glyndebourne Opera House, where I was by this time working, together with John Gosling from Psychic TV. Strange but true. The saxophone on these tracks was played by Steve Pimlott. All I can recall about the drummer on these takes is that his first name was Simon. If you’re reading this now Simon – thanks, you were great.
This album is dedicated to the memory of David George, March 1st 1958 – 10th February 2017. RIP David.