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Date: 22/08/20

The Admirable Dr Phibes

In June 1991, I finally had the money - from having started work in the Depratment in the previous February - to buy myself a decent hi-fi.

My previous equipment for playing records had been - not to mince words - pretty basic. The first piece of kit for playing flat pieces of grooved plastic - or, rather, shellac - in our house had been (and I'm not kidding you with this) an old wind-up gramophone, steel needles and all, which meant that only the old 78 rpm platters were playable (such as the ones shown here, here and here).

In about 1968, this was replaced by my brother's hand-me-down Emisonic four-speed record player of about 1958 vintage (like this one, in green and cream). At least on that one could play those new-fangled 'microgroove' records which had only been around for about fifteen years or so by that time, although it was impossible to play any LPs without putting a 7" disc under them first, because if you didn't the edges of the album caught on the casing.

I had to share the Emisonic with my parents at first and - when plugging it in in my bedroom - it had to be connected via a bayonet plug to the light fitting, which meant that I couldn't use it after dark.

(You try telling this to these kids today; they just won't believe you).

When my old man got his second-hand Grundig radiogram (referred to in this piece), I had the Emisonic all to myself (and my old man - always a practical fellow - had managed to wire up proper wall sockets in the bedrooms by this time, so that I was no longer subject to a dusk-to-dawn curfew on its use), until the thing finally packed up in the summer of 1972 or thereabouts.

My next move was to a - gasp! - proper stereo system, with two separate speakers, no less! It was (and I can remember the name like an incantation even now) an Elizabethan LZ303 Stereophonic Record Player (a picture of which can be found here at the time of writing, although the turntable on mine didn't have that brushed aluminium circle on it, and I don't remember mine having the diameter selector on the upper right). This had one of those incredible floating BSR turntables (the floating screws which can be seen upper-left and lower-right could be tightened up to enable safe transit of the machine), and automatic operation (should you choose to, of course) including that friend to record collectors everywhere (I jest, of course), an autochanger. "What's one of them, Dad?" Well, my boy, if you wanted to play a number of singles ("What's a single, Dad?" Shut up, you little basket), you could stack them up one on top of the other (six on some models, eight on others) on the special spindle and they would drop down in turn. The problem being that sometimes the one which had just dropped down wouldn't grip on the one beneath it and you'd end up with a terrible slurring effect which meant that you had to abandon the whole enterprise.

To cut the story slightly shorter, the Elizabethan served me nobly through the rest of the 1970s (although the mains pilot light bulb went quite early on and I latterly had to fiddle about with the drive wheel underneath the turntable to get the speed right), finally packing up when the amplifier failed around Christmas 1981. I still have one of the speakers from it, though, with a blade-and-pin DIN plug on it.

Thereafter, I had a Stereosound (which didn't last too long as the speed selector switch had gammy contacts) and a Radio Shack model which didn't fare much better, although in this case it was the cartridge housing which went wonky on it).

And then, as I said several geological ages ago, came the early summer of 1991, when I decided to splash out on a proper system...

(For another time, I think, my catalogue of Radios And Cassette Players I Have Known).

...and so I hied me to my local branch of Rumbelows...

(So many of these names are as one with Nineveh and Tyre now. Depressing...)

...and brought home (with the assistance of a helpful minicab driver) a Panasonic SG-HM10L where the main unit consisted of the turntable, the tuner, the amplifier and the twin cassette deck and the CD player (model SL-PJ324A) could be mounted below the main unit so long as you screwed a couple of brackets (supplied) to the back of the CD player (hurray for integrated design).

(The two can be seen together here).

A small problem immediately emerged, in that - never having had a CD player before - I didn't have anything to play on it straight away and had to go up to my brother's to borrow one of his (Iron Maiden's Can I Play With Madness?, if I recall correctly).

It wasn't long before I started buying my own CDs, of course, and it is at this moment where the whole point of writing this bloody piece finally emerges bedraggled from the dense undergrowth of my technological reminiscences.

I remember that the first two discs I bought - from the much-missed Phase One Records of King Street, Wrexham - were yet another repackaging of the very first Genesis album (the one they made for Jonathan King where the material - which was pretty good for stuff written by a bunch of 17~18-year-old posh boys - was drowned out by over-egged string and brass arrangements) and The Fall's Shift-Work, probably their most accessible album.

I'm pretty sure that the next album I bought - from the same emporium - was what I wanted to talk about when I started all this.

As I mentioned yesterday, I used to tape John Peel's shows every night (three hour shows then, so two C90 cassettes on hand and hoping that nothing really interesting was playing at the changeover points) and dub any good tracks off onto another C90 kept for the purpose. This was possible because Peelie often didn't talk over either the beginning or end of a track, unlike those of his contemporaries and inferiors whose fanatical self-promotion justified the description of them by Anthony Burgess as being "the wriggling ponces of the spoken word".

One night - around about the point where I had bought the Panasonic, I think - he played a track by the curiously-named Dr Phibes And The House Of Wax Equations. It was an instrumental track, beginning with a lot of ambient sounds from which guitar effects emerged, eventually leading to a powerful combination of guitar, bass and drums which seemed to owe far more to the space-rock of an earlier time than the indie preciousness of the time.

It was beguiling stuff, and the track duly found its way onto the dub tape. For some reason - perhaps forgetfulness, perhaps because he had segued the track into the next one he played - John didn't back-announce the title of the piece, and so it went on the dub tape with a '?' for a title.

Browsing in Phase One not long after, I found a copy of the band's first album Whirlpool, which - after a few moments' dithering, as has always been my wont - I bought and took home.

Slotting it into the Panasonic, I found that what I had heard on the radio was in fact the lead-off track of the album, Eye Am The Sky. Here's what it sounds like (it cuts off suddenly at the end because it segues straight into the next track):



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(There are two tracks with that title on the album; the second one is a reworked reprise as the final track).

I listened on, through Marshmallow Madness, which continued on much the same musical theme, but now with the addition of vocals. These vocals ranged from a low moan to a high-pitched shout and, although lacking in what one might call 'technique', certainly had power in either register.

I'm not going to review the whole album, but the next track, Mr Phantasy, was the next real treat, beginning again with spacey ambience before launching into a fast-tempo rock-out, with lyrics which contain - in as much as the words may clearly be made out - quotes of everyday clichés such as "no artifical flavours or sweeteners" and "keep all medicines out of reach from curious children".

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a clip which plays only this track, so here's one (complete with vinyl clicks for a spurious authenticity) which also plays Mirrors, the instrumental which immediately follows it on the album, and which is more in the ambient/space rock mode:



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I'll give you one more track from Whirlpool before going on to talk about the band itself. This is Sugarblast, the track which segues into the reprise of Eye Am The Sky, and where the proficiency of the rhythm section really comes to the fore:



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So, who were these guys producing such remarkably off-kilter but accessible sounds?

Dr Phibes And The House Of Wax Equations was formed in the second half of the 1980s by students on a music course at South Cheshire College (as it then was) in Crewe. The band comprised Howard King Jr. (guitars and vocals), Lee Belsham (bass) and Keith York (drums), and released their first EP (a version of Sugarblast) on their own 50 Seel Street label in 1990. Whirlpool and a couple more singles/EPs followed before the release of their second album Hypnotwister in May 1993.

What is remarkable about these recordings is not merely the strength of the material but the sonic concepts and the virtuoso playing. Note, for example, that no keyboards or synths are credited on either album; the spacey ambience is produced entirely from Howard King's guitar with the assistance of various effects and pedals. Otherwise, his playing ranges from the delicate to the blow-you-off-the-stage powerful.

(And of course the English music press, global masters at the patronising, the glib, the indolent and the arrogant - often simultaneously - made comparisons with Hendrix because Howard King was black, as if the colour of his skin actually mattered when he could play like that).

The bass-playing of Lee Belsham displays a wide variety of styles, from Wobble-like dub to fusion-like emulations of the likes of Percy Jones or Jaco Pastorius. And the drumming of Keith York is equally at home with a standard rock shuffle (as on Sugarblast) or a full-pelt, almost metal, approach (such as in the closing minutes of Eye Am The Sky). Moreover, the sum of these parts exceeds the merits even of their component elements, to produce a coherent and powerful blend of styles and sonic landscapes.

The next track I'm going to point you at didn't appear on either album, and I'm not clear whether it was omitted from Whirlpool or was recorded during the Hypnotwister sessions (sessions which were interrupted after York drove away in the band's van not realising that Belsham was lying on the roof at the time). All I can say is that All The Way Through Eternity features all the attributes of the band, including that of composing a memorable melody:



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Whirlpool having been successful enough to top the indie album charts, Hypnotwister was always going to be that 'difficult second album', and so it proved, and it never gained the kudos of its predecessor. It is nonetheless a good album, but the tone is someone darker, with tracks which refer to racial prejudice (Burning Cross) and to violent relationships (Bearhug).

There are high points, however, and here are two examples. Firstly, the subtle - even sublime - Moment Of Truth, in which King's vocals (which, but for his race, one would not hesitate to describe as 'dark brown') match the ambience of the track perfectly:



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And, to round off, Lazy Hazy Hologram (the original version of which had appeared around the time of Whirlpool, which perhaps is nearer the sounds that other bands were producing at that time:



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Sadly, however, that was it for this remarkable band. Increasing tensions - caused primarily by Howard King's increasingly unstable psychiatric state - meant that the group had split by 1995.

Keith York became a lecturer, highly-regarded drum tutor and session/live drummer for a number of name acts such as Pitchshifter, Broadcast and The Orb.

Lee Belsham stayed on the fringes of music and died of cancer in May 2017 aged just 49.

And - most tragic of all - the enormously talented and inventive Howard King Jr. was convicted in early 1997 of murdering his mother at their home in Flintshire and given a life sentence. As far as anyone knows, he's still in there.

Some stars are fated to burn brightly but briefly, but that brightness remains in the mind's eye forever. Just like Dr Phibes And The House Of Wax Equations' music, which I revisited earlier in the week and which prompted me to write this.