My favourite band ever is Joy Division, through them and Factory Records I discovered particular bands that all emerged roughly the same time from Manchester and area, bands like A Certain Ratio, Section 25, and the one I want to write about today, Crispy Ambulance.
This was all after the fact of course, it must have been about 1988, pre internet remember, that I set out to track down Crispy Ambulance records. Going to HMV or Virgin was not a good place to start for an out of print release by a band split up for about 6 years, who it may be fair to describe as ‘obscure’. My first find was in a used record store, the only official studio recorded album that they made, The Plateau Phase. A crap, cheap looking sleeve, with a Record & Tape Exchange sticker on it which left a permanent stain, housed a brilliant, arty, spacey, post punk rock album.
I cannot aptly describe listening to this vinyl record for the first time. The first song, Are You Ready? starts with an eerie bell ringing or clashing of metal pipes, like a tribal sound in the distance just before the drums kick in, then an old synth is layered over the top and the song builds and builds before singer, Alan Hempsall finally steps in, with a minimalist vocal, the song begins to fade, losing momentum and returning to the eerie bells. I can’t do it justice but it sets the listener up to realize this is interesting, this is original, this has got my fucking attention.
Released in March 1982, I know of only a couple of reviews, one that praised it but with tongue in cheek, the other tore it apart calling them Joy Division copyists, a trite and lazy critique that plagued Factory bands at the time, (although by this time Crispy Ambulance were on Factory Benelux), the music was not like Joy Division, and sadly it was perhaps a decade later before their name was mentioned again. The joy of the internet is that the fans came out of the darkness to celebrate this innovative and original band.
The Plateau Phase is a striking album, track two, Travel Time has a curiously dark guitar riff throughout, Hempsall’s voice and lyrics are beautifully mysterious, with a tight as fuck rhythm section. This is a set up that permeates the whole album throughout on tracks The Force and The Wisdom, The Wind Season (with a stand out bass line) and terrific old synth sounds. Side one ends with Death From Above, a drone like intro with muffled radio communications, and a whistled overdub that follows the bass line, ambient and hypnotic. Side two kicks off with We Move Through the Plateau Phase, more mysterious drones, before rhythmic Tom Toms kick in, that deep analog synth over top, jagged guitars and Hempsall’s vocal. The upbeat Bardo Plane follows impelled forward with a looping bass line. Next up is Chill, a dark bass synth like something from a soundtrack to an old sci-fi movie opens up, more layers build up the opening until the band kicks in. This album is rife with atmospherics, it’s mesmerizing and haunting. It has moments when it reminds me of Can, but with more melody, it’s Eno, it’s all this and more, Federation is next and the album finishes with the utterly beautiful Simons Ghost, simplistic, elegiac and moving. I have heard it called Prog rock, a genre of music I despise with every fibre of my body, I have heard prog rock and this does not remind of it at all. This is ART. This album is a piece of high art.
Crispy Ambulance were, Alan Hempsall – Vocals, Keith Darbyshire – Bass Guitar, Robert Davenport – Guitar, and Gary Madly – Drums. Formed in or around 1977, their first release was From the Cradle to the Grave B/W Four Minutes from the Frontline, released on Aural Assault Records in 1980.
It is possible from this release to see why the lazier music journalists got stuck in the rut of judging CA as Joy Division copyists. But it is clear, as you hear their rapid development that they left any such comparisons behind. They followed this with their only actual Factory Records release, a 10″ Vinyl called The Unsightly and the Serene, comprised of 2 songs, the masterful Deaf B/W Not What I Expected.
The switch to Factory Benelux was celebrated with the Single Live on a Hot August Night, a studio recording from Jan 1981, the songs were The Presence B/W Concorde Square, the later of which ended with a 4 minute long gregorian chant with fragile piano over top. A video was shot for the A side which you can see here
The Plateau Phase followed in 1982 and their last single was to be Sexus b/w Black Death (Life is Knife) released in 1984. (I recall being delighted to find this 12″ in a second hand record store in Camden Town). Recorded in 1982, Sexus still had that Crispy Ambulance sound, the urgency, that rhythm section, the melodic guitar, and howls and yelps of Hempsall’s vocal. It seemed to be sometime around here where the band ceased to be, they reemerged briefly as the same line up in a band called Ram Ram Kino who performed live and released one single. The Crispy ambulance story came to an end for now with one last album released in 1985, a live album called Fin.
Consisting of mostly unreleased material (including a cover of the Throbbing Gristle song, United) It was an album I was never able to track down. That is until in 1990 when it was reissued on CD with a new sleeve (the original was better in my opinion) and 5 extra tracks, mostly obscurities long out of print. The Plateau Phase was also reissued with a new sleeve and the Live on a Hot August Night tracks and Sexus as bonus material.
A testament to the creativity of this band was the discovery, with the aid of the web, that there were cassette only releases (The Blue and White of the Yacht Club is one example), that contained more unreleased material, they were a driven band that liked to play radically different sets when they played live, introducing an alarming amount of new material all the time. In 2000, the album Frozen Blood compiled 17 unreleased or out of print tracks, from Peel Sessions, Piccadilly Radio sessions, etc. A real treat for die hard fans. Prior to this though was the 1999 reunion of the band, first to perform some live shows and later to record a new album. One such show at Manchester’s Band on the Wall, was released as a live album called Accessory After the Fact in 2000. What a thrill to hear the band in such fine from performing live again. On line forums showed a real interest in the group as they went onto perform a few shows in the states, (sadly I was broke and living in Canada by the time this all happened and never got to see them).
In 2002 the reformed band released their first studio album in 20 years, Scissor Gun, it could have have gone either way, but astoundingly after all this time the chemistry was still there, each member of the group bringing their unique ‘thing’ that made them so special in the first place. Ten new songs including the beautifully titled instrumental, Even Now in Heaven, there are Angels Carrying Savage Weapons.
IN 2004, another new release The Powder Blind Dream, a worthy follow up and proof the band are as fresh as ever, I don’t think they sound like anyone else, they are still unique and hopefully no longer overlooked. The reviews of the rereleases certainly proved favourable, with fresh ears and almost a decade on, those slow to realize the bands genius finally took notice. Commercial success was not an option, I don’t think it was ever expected, they hardly screamed Top of the Pops, or Radio One, or anything mainstream come to think of it. But they are an inspiring band, who after a few years silence released an album, Compulsion, in 2014, comprising of songs that would likely have been on the follow up to The Plateau Phase, including an outtake from the original album, this was a limited vinyl release for Record Store Day, and was followed in 2016 by an entirely instrumental album called Random Textures.
I hope to hear more from them, but if I don’t they have an impressive body of work that they should be immensely proud of.