STONE PREMONITIONS: THE PHOENIX TAPES, 1974-1994
The Stone Premonitions label/collective was founded in the early 90s, but its roots actually go back to 1974. Founder Tim Jones, and various other members of Stone Prem bands such as Body Full of Stars and The Rabbit's Hat, were involved in a number of other bands from the early 70s onwards. Stone Premonitions have released the definitive history of these pre-Stone Prem bands, in the form of a 7 volume CDR set entitled The Phoenix Tapes.
The first volume covers the years 1974-1979 and features the bands Eyes to the Sky and Whippet, as well as recordings by Tim Jones and Dave Blenkinsop, and Tim Jones and Martin Holder. Everything here is previously unreleased material, recorded live on 2-track tape at the bands' rehearsal space or at home. The music is more lo-fi than usual for Stone Prem then, but not problematically so.
Eyes to the Sky were just teenagers at the time, aged between 15 and 17, but had a surprisingly mature sound with some complex sounding guitar soloing. Theirs was a style of rock music very much of the early 70s, primarily a psych/prog thing with occasional elements of blues. Whilst this sort of music originated in the late 60s and early 70s, it has stood the test of time very well and continued to exist on an underground level ever since. In many ways then, Eyes to the Sky's music still sounds fresh even now. The five tracks by this band range from song-based material to an extended psychedelic instrumental jam session over 21 minutes long.
Whippet's Ghost Echo is best described as avant-garde psych. Combining multiple percussion instruments and ethereal flute, this is highly original stuff way ahead of its time. Not strongly melodic, but highly atmospheric and evocative, it is perhaps best seen as a kind of aural art rather than music in any traditional sense. After a while, guitar is added to provide more of a melody, as well as extra psychedelic atmosphere. Is It Me Or You? by Whippet dates from 1977 and some of that year's punk spirit has rubbed off onto the band. Musically it's proggy psych-rock, but the vocals have a definite punk snarl about them. This mix of styles may seem paradoxical, seeing as punk came about as a reaction against genres like prog, but Whippet show that such a mixture can be done and that it works well.
Tim Jones' collaborations with Dave Blenkinsop are instrumentals based on guitar and analogue synths. It's spacerock with quite an experimental quality and again sounds very ahead of its time. Tim Jones and Martin Holder appear here with three meandering psychedelic guitar instrumentals that have quite an improvisational feel whilst also being melodic.
Volume 2 is dated from 1980-1984. The first 12 tracks make up an unreleased album by Tim Jones (with full backing band), entitled A Delicate Talking Mechanism. The rest of the CD features Tim with various musicians, no band names given. A Delicate Talking Mechanism includes a diverse collection of sounds. Stand Out From The Crowd is catchy, melodic, guitar based pop with lyrics about non-conformity and individuality. It may be seen as ironic that Tim would choose regular song-structured pop to get across a message such as this, but it could also be argued that setting these words to some obviously rebellious or avant-garde genre would be rather more obvious, and by choosing pop, he is himself being rebellious. The title track that follows is part dissonant experimental music, part psychedelia, with spoken word vocals. My Town is an off-kilter mix of jazz, punk and quirky pop. The Empire Falls Flat is a spoof of The Empire Strikes Back, bizarre angular pop/prog with otherworldly speeded up vocals and humorous sci-fi lyrics like "Laser beams make your skin turn green/Laser guns, they will burn your bum"! Geoffrey combines sophisticated, 'serious' music with whimsical lyrics about a circus performer. Staring at Nothing is a brilliantly bizarre prog-pop-punk song about a statue; this was also recorded by Neon, another of Tim's bands from the late 70s. The overall feel of this album is of genre-hopping, wackiness and experimentation. Very original stuff and about as far outside the mainstream as you can get.
The next three tracks are fairly lo-fi live versions of three tracks from the album (including the excellent Staring at Nothing), recorded as rehearsals for a performance at the Domefest Free Music Festival. The quirkily titled Nick's Gnog and Tra La La are prog instrumentals. The next batch of tracks start to sound more 80s-ish; Prisoners of the Real World and Why We Do are funk-tinged rock/pop with some very 80s-ish synth and drum machine. The next two tracks are set to words by lyricist Dicon Peake; Ramehead is laid-back bluesy rock, but a little more off-centre than this sort of music often is, and Ruby is an atmospheric, echoey piece with intelligent, poetic lyrics.
Volume 3 (1984-1987) features Tim Jones solo and collaborating with various musicians. Soft Explosions of Fragments of Colour is over 7 minutes long and combines straightforward synthpop with more avant garde elements. Message from Beyond is ethereal and hypnotic, with mystical lyrics. I Object mixes heavy rock, 80s synth bleepery, and lyrics speaking out against social injustice, war and corruption, a theme that would later be an important one for The Rabbit's Hat. In the Wake of His Absence is an experimental track consisting of multi-layered vocals and sound effects. The Culture sets a nonconformist sociopolitical speech to sinister-sounding electronics. Hard Man is a heavy but melodic attack on yob mentality, with Tim playing all instruments. No band name is stated for tracks 11-17, but in fact the band is Somebody Famous, and the tracks also appear in a different order on the Stone Premonitions CD Somebody Famous on Vinyl. See this issue's More Album Reviews section for a full review of the Somebody Famous material.
Volume 4 (1987-1988) includes more Somebody Famous material from the album Somebody Famous on Vinyl (although again the band name does not appear in the credits), an alternative version of the Somebody Famous song Love Will Stay, a couple of tracks by Tim Jones and Paddi, two songs by Tongue, and a collection of songs primarily performed solely by Tim Jones, with the occasional guest appearance from other musicians. As Somebody Famous on Vinyl has already been reviewed elsewhere in this issue, I will concentrate on the latter part of this CD. In My Life by Tongue combines bluesy rock with punky backing music, whilst their song Get Out While You Can is heavy rock with some prog tendencies.
The Tongue and Somebody Famous material here tends to be quite straightforward song-based stuff, but the solo Tim Jones tracks introduce a more experimental, arty feeling. Tim teams up with a flute player called Snorky for the inventive piece Bron's Kite, which combines spoken word, ambient synth and atmospheric flute. Keys to the Kingdom begins as an instrumental based on tinkling, bell-like synth, before metamorphosing into a prog rock song with sophisticated songwriting, which then stops abruptly whilst Tim is singing in mid sentence, the remainder of the track being made up of drums being played backwards. It's Cheap But It All Adds Up is a creative track, part song, part spoken word, with Tim venting his spleen about banal mass media over a minimal guitar and floaty synth backdrop. The title Time Spent With A Resident's Eyeball pretty much gives it away that you're not going to be getting regular pop music - this starts off with a whole bunch of weird experimental vocal effects, before a speeded up voice narrates a surreal story. Voice on a Tape features more surreal vocal effects, this time combined with spaced-out psychedelic instrumental music.
Volume 5 (1988-1989) features the two tracks from Somebody Famous' 7" single, which also appear on Somebody Famous on Vinyl. Also here are lots of other Somebody Famous songs that are exclusive to this CD - 4-track recordings, live recordings, and instrumental versions of the 7" tracks Love Will Stay and New Day Tripper. Somebody Famous were all about well crafted rock/pop songs with strong tunes, sometimes with a punk kick, but no noise for noise's sake. Powers That Be returns to the anti-war/social injustice theme, a critique of various sociopolitical events current at the time. Somebody Famous Live Intro is traditional folk-rock - not a style usually associated with this band. Stop Playing is a live improvisation combining snippets of cover versions of You Really Got Me and Norwegian Wood, but played as heavy rock with shrieked vocals.
Volume 6 (1989-1991) introduces a band called Mosaic, which made instrumental music based on guitar, flute and Tibetan bells, and featured Tim Jones with classically trained flute player Mark Ericson. The 8 tracks by this band are very beautiful. Their music varied between electric folk and modern classical music, with occasional tinges of prog and jazz, and combined a strong sense of melody with a floaty, dreamlike atmosphere. Truly superb music, and what a shame they didn't record any other material, as I would have very much liked to have heard more by them.
The next batch of songs on this CD are solo Tim Jones recording on 4-track. The songs here are a kind of mini concept album full of barbed sociopolitical commentary, which is sometimes overt and sometimes more metaphorical. Tim uses a variety of styles to get his message across, from rock to pop to experimental, via wacky spoof country music with caterwauling vocals (The Candidate). The last lot of songs are Somebody Famous tracks from their album The Ship of Grandad's Day. This album has been reissued in its entirety in a double CD set along with Somebody Famous on Vinyl - see this issue's More Album Reviews page for a full write-up on The Ship of Grandad's Day.
Volume 7 covers the period from 1991-1994, featuring a further selection of tracks from The Ship of Grandad's Day and various other Somebody Famous tracks, two songs by The Permanent Haze, which consisted of Tim Jones, Terri-B, Finn Millar and Steve Sekrit, then a collection of tracks by The Rabbit's Hat, which brings us up to the point Stone Premonitions proper was actually formed.
This CD shows Somebody Famous moving further away from regular pop/rock and into more imaginative interpretations of those genres, eg Carousel and Hieronymus. That said, there are also songs like Love Reaction, a romantic song sounding influenced by late 80s mainstream guitar pop, and The Only Girl, an equally romantic and equally mainstreamish soft rock ballad. The thing about Tim Jones is that he simply loves music, of many genres, and his own songwriting reflects his diverse musical interests.
The Permanent Haze made acoustic rock (well, acoustic except for the occasional touch of keyboard) with a sophisticated atmosphere, featuring triple vocals from Tim, Terri and Finn. The Rabbit's Hat are a band I have known about since the 90s, and it's great to see that some of my particular favourite songs of theirs are featured here. Anytime Anyplace Anywhere, Bottles and I'm Only Little combine the angular nature of prog rock with the aggression of punk and the accessibility of pop. These are all songs that were previously recorded by Neon (about whom more in a moment). Feed Your Head and Sara Jane are catchy, well crafted melodic rock. The uptempo, cheerful exterior of Sara Jane masks a touching story of a deeply unhappy child ignored by her mother, whose only friend is the song's eponymous doll. Soap Opera Mentality Free Zone is powerful psych-rock, with lyrics attacking all doctrines and institutions that stifle freedom. Hello and How Are You? is off-kilter rock with optimistic, happy-go-lucky lyrics.
One glaring omission from this compilation is Neon, the band of Tim Jones, Mark Dunn, Paddi, and Martin Holder from the late 70s. They had a very exciting and innovative sound, best described as prog-punk, a term most would consider paradoxical. However Stone Premonitions did issue a compilation of their material back in 1999, and so probably saw no reason to reuse the songs here. Another omission is Punishment of Luxury. Two compilation albums of this band were put out by Overground Records in the 90s, but none of the material on these CDs features Tim Jones. Hopefully Stone Prem or some other label will at some point release the recordings made by Punishment of Luxury when Tim was in the band.
Despite the absence of those two bands, The Phoenix Tapes is otherwise an exhaustive collection of Tim Jones' pre-Stone Prem projects, plus early Rabbit's Hat. Anyone interested in discovering the roots of the Stone Premonitions collective really ought to check this out. More info on The Phoenix Tapes and Stone Premonitions in general at
UPDATE: I’ve just heard from Tim with some extra info. The reason why Neon are not included here is because their entire output has been professionally released by AUA Records in Italy. There are three Neon releases available from them, including a digital compilation of all Neon’s material from 1977-1979, which includes BBC radio sessions, outtakes, live and rehearsal recordings. The only Punilux recordings featuring Tim are cassette recordings of rehearsals for a 1980s tour, and Tim tells me “unfortunately, the quality is pretty terrible”. So, sadly, it doesn’t look like the Punilux material will ever be released, but the Neon compilation can be purchased from http://digital.auarecords.com/neon_collection.html - also see the sidebar for links to two other Neon releases available from them.
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