A User's Guide to This Heat
There are bands who think about what they're doing, there are bands who think a lot about what they're doing and then there's This Heat. Drummer, keyboardist and singer Charles Hayward has described how, when they were planning out their second album, Deceit, the trio's daily "rehearsals" consisted at one point of discussing how each song should work — for six weeks straight, during which they didn't play a note. Unsurprisingly, they didn't write a lot of material during their 1976-1982 existence: barely two studio albums 'worth, not counting the tape experiments and textural improvisations that fill out their discography. What they did come up with, though, is incredibly dense and heady.
Hearing This Heat's records now, they sound like adventurous post-punk — along the lines of Colin Newman's A-Z or the Fall's Hex Enduction Hour — but even further out. In fact, they were at least a few years ahead of the late-'70s post-punk wave. Hayward had played with the prog-rock band Quiet Sun in the early '70s; This Heat played their first show in February 1976, and their first session on John Peel's BBC radio show was recorded in March 1977, the same week the Clash's first single came out. For most of its existence, the band also included guitarist Charles Bullen, who was also an accomplished musician, and bassist/organist Gareth Williams, who wasn't — at least when they started. Williams quickly figured out how to use a tape recorder as an onstage instrument, too, and all of the band's records involve heavily manipulated recordings of one kind or another.
Their first album, simply called This Heat, came out in 1979. It begins and ends with near-inaudible rewinding-tape-noise ripples called "Testcard," and the rest is split between composed songs (on which their low-mixed voices, sometimes singing in unison, seem to bleed together) and spacious, prickly tape pieces and improvisations that use Bullen's clarinet and viola for maximum friction. "24 Track Loop" is just that, a loop of percussion treated with electronic effects until it sounds like something off a decades-later drum 'n 'bass record. The band could play incredibly hard — the beginning of the instrumental "Horizontal Hold" is practically grind-metal — but most of the time they held back, suspending the crushing weight they knew they could summon.
The single that followed This Heat is their greatest recorded moment: the epic "Health & Efficiency" (named after a long-running British nudist magazine), which channels the intense cerebrality of their debut into something that's almost a bizarre kind of dance record. "Here's a song about the sunshine/ Dedicated to the sunshine," they sing. And then, two minutes in, the song catches on fire as if the sunshine has been focused on it through a magnifying glass. The band hits a clench-and-release groove, a single chord and a single rhythm, and stays with it for hundreds of repetitions, cranking up its intensity a little more each time and overlaying it with sounds from the world outside of music that's made by human intention. It sounds mechanical at first, but it's actually incredibly physical: music about the joy of having a body.
1981's Deceit, on the other hand, is about the fear of losing one's body. It's not often loud, but it's riddled with suffocating horror. Hayward's explained that most of the album is about the band's absolute conviction that they would soon perish in a nuclear war, and other themes that emerge from the lyrics are colonialism (singing text from the Declaration of Independence means something very different coming from a British band than it would from an American band), consumerism and false comfort. When Deceit was released, the band was already shuddering apart.
By then, though, the post-punk moment had given them more of a context than they'd had when they started: their rehearsal and recording space, a former meatpacking plant they named Cold Storage, had become headquarters to a loose aggregation of other adventurous London bands. The Cold Storage family tree included the Raincoats, the Flying Lizards, Family Fodder and the Homosexuals (whose "Soft South Africans (Slow)," incidentally, is one of the most amazing songs on all of eMusic).
Other This Heat-related artifacts have been trickling out for the last quarter-century, including Live 1980-1981 (which is unfortunately badly compromised by muddy audience-recorded sound) and Made Available (an excellent collection of their two John Peel sessions, named after the location of the BBC's studios in Maida Vale). Bullen also recorded with People in Control, whose superb single "When It's War" appears on the Crammed Global Soundclash 1980-89, Part 1 compilation; Hayward went on to the excellent band Camberwell Now, in which Stephen Rickard played a "tape switchboard," taking some of some of This Heat's ideas about incorporating musique concrète into composed songs even further. All of Camberwell Now's recordings are compiled on All's Well (try "Green Lantern" or the re-recorded This Heat piece "Greenfingers" for starters), and Hayward's continued to play in a variety of relatively low-profile projects. Williams mostly drifted away from public music-making after This Heat, and died in late 2001.
It's hard to hear much of This Heat in other people's music, although there's something of their conceptual density and fragmented sense of dread on the last few Radiohead and Mission of Burma albums. (Burma also share This Heat's tapes-as-instruments technique — a little retrograde in the age of easy digital sampling, although there's something much more physical about it.) Still, exerting an influence wasn't really what This Heat were trying to do. The point of all their arguing and woodshedding and sound-mangling was to distill and condense the historical moment they belonged to, with all its nuclear fear and noisy, bulky technology, into poetically evocative documents. We may not be here now, their records say, but we were here, and we were flesh and blood beneath the sunshine.