by Andrew Jones (Option magazine, 1989)
Named after Aldous Huxley’s ode to pacifist integrity, the now-defunct British cult duo Eyeless In Gaza made music for the eighties that openly bared its soul. Firing away on all cylinders, Martyn Bates and Peter Becker nonetheless remained mercifully free of conventional or properly tuned instrumentation, stale arrangements, and the theatrical airs of many a British group surrounding them. Whispered, howled, or stammered, Bates’ flamboyantly romantic vocals and lyrics earmarked early efforts like Caught in Flux (1981) with abrupt, earnest freshness that eventually gave way to an expressive maturity on dusky albums such as Rust Red September (1983), where Eyeless In Gaza transcended the pop tune to grasp an elusive recollection, a particular season of memory.
Eyeless lasted for a good six years and as many albums for the Cherry Red label before calling it a day. While Peter Becker has since retired from the music business, Martyn Bates has been quietly unearthing his folk roots in his subsequent solo career. The disturbed pastoral psychedelia of his 1987 solo debut The Return of the Quiet and last year’s bittersweet Love Smashed on a Rock (both on Belgium’s Integrity label) firmly peg Bates as the latest enthusiastic patron of the Village Green Preservation Society. At his home in Nuneaton (a suburb of Coventry), Bates delighted in explaining his craft in a personal, rambling monologue.
“Punk was great, it really was a galvanizing force, but it didn’t make you want to join in until it started to get weird on everybody. That was the time I thought I could do something. I could contribute, make it worthwhile.” The time was early 1980, and Martyn Bates was in the middle of reading Eyeless In Gaza. Like Huxley’s intellectual protagonist, Anthony Beavis, Bates found himself at odds with the absurdity of life, and began to fight against it. Beavis’ struggle seemed to echo a lot of the musical ideas that were then plaguing Bates, who had fronted a succesion of local bands that went nowhere. All that changed when he went in the studio with Peter Becker.
“It was an accident, really. I was looking for a more conventional line-up; three or four pieces. But as soon as Pete and I started, I loved the whole intimacy of the thing, the immediacy, something that’s a key part of my character. I like to work quickly, and try and capture what’s there, rather than go over and over something. I think Eyeless initially probably took this idea to an illogical length. You must remember we were very much a product of the time – we were inspired by everything that happened around us. At the time we were very struck with Mark Perry’s group, ATV. This whole thing about doing stuff in one take. It’s wonderful. It’s really inspiring to think you could capture stuff like that, straight away and be fearless about it, and if it didn’t work, pass it by.”
On their first few releases, Eyeless In Gaza bravely captured a fascinating balance of open lyricism and creative dissonance.
“The basic blueprint that Pete and I worked together on was that I came up with the melody and the lyrics and Pete would be the springboard for the setting of the thing,” says Bates. “It was a nice kind of marriage. Maybe he’d have other ideas about the arrangement; it depended on what was required. The lyricism definitely came from me, but I wouldn’t say the dissonance came from Pete solely, because he’s got a cool jazz/R&B background. He’s covered a lot more workmanlike areas than I have. Musically, Pete and I shared the dissonance all the way.
Early snapshots of these opposing poles include the minor key ‘Transience Blues’ (where discordant synthesizers emulate bitter black rain) and the hushed invocation of ‘Lights of April’, both from Drumming the Beating Heart (1983). ‘Pencil Sketch’, from the same LP, goes one step further and combines the two into a jarring, uplifting whole, a portrait of the drone as poetry. Caught in flux, indeed.
Photographs play an important role in the Gaza canon. The jackets of Photographs as Memories (1980) and Caught in Flux feature pictures of Becker as a child, taken from his father’s massive collection. On the inner sleeves are Bates’ lyrics, polaroids of naked emotion, Kodak ghosts run amok, emulsions of past lives and silver seasons caught forever in a three-minute song.
“The process of song writing is a cathartic thing for me,” confesses Bates. “I have to write as a burst, to get it out of my system. People have often asked me how much of me is in the writing. And I wonder, sometimes, who that character is. Who’s expressing those sentiments, who’s saying those things? I can look at the words and say, ‘I’m not like that, that’s not me. I couldn’t possibly have thought that, I couldn’t possibly have acted that way or been that person,’ but it’s all there. It must be, because I can feel it, I can identify with it all. There’s a lot in D.H. Lawrence that I identify with; our backgrounds are similar in many ways. We spend our lives trying to break out of something that we were born into. For a similar reason, I identify with Dylan Thomas, who was trying to break out of his own skin. I don’t feel that nihilistic, but I’m sure we all identify with that. Sometimes I feel that sentiments are expressed so violently that I’m shocked, but I let it happen, I keep the work, because I think it’s valid. The critic in me doesn’t appear until a very late stage. The whole process of making music to me is one of employing intuition.”
Bates has often been criticized for the rhapsodic melancholy of Gaza’s material. An emotional mummer, a soul on thin ice, the poet who penned lines like “lightened of care/scarlet flushed grinning/your glow falling where/your sorrow is dimming.” Bates has harsh words for the insulated pop music audience.
“There comes a point where it doesn’t matter a shit what people think.” A long pause. “I say that, but it’s patently untrue. It matters the world to me. I would like my music to reach a wide audience. I think there’s something within it that communicates strongly. I think it has an individualistic style and strengths that other musics just don’t touch on. Particularly at the moment. I think we’re in some sort of wasteland. There’s very little to do with self-expression in the English charts; it all seems to be the product of some manufacturer. It’s like the machines have all gone wild and taken over. Which is part of the reason I’ve made this move to a more acoustic format, a more wooden, live feel … I just wanted to make a more human music.
As for my melancholia … People see it as introspection, as if that’s necessarily a bad thing, as if it’s wrong to be contemplating. My music’s never meant to be depressing or anti-life or negative, even if it seems evocative of that mood. There’s nothing the matter with expressing melancholia. There’s nothing to be ashamed of – there’s beauty in a sad song. Why shouldn’t there be? Maybe it’s just not what the eighties want. But that’s so shallow. Spirituality is such a neglected item nowadays.”
Eyeless In Gaza found itself at an end during the recording of the title cut from their farewell LP Back From the Rains (1985).
“Recording that song was one of my proudest moments with Gaza,” reflects Bates. “The track was just so wonderful it seemed to epitomize everything that Peter and I thought was wonderful about music. It was almost, ‘well, we’ve done it now, we can finish the group.’ It wasn’t intended that way, but it was a good, full stop.”
Four years on, the photographs that were Eyeless In Gaza soon became as hazy as memories, and Bates released two solo albums, the latest of which (Love Smashed on a Rock) put him on the map as a latter-day English tunesmith. While the ten cuts are haunted by the ghosts of Sandy Denny and Tim Buckley, these are songs first, moods second, and they remind us that folk music doesn’t necessarily have to be mandolins, capos and particular time signatures. Folk music should be more about storytelling craft, a minimal instrumental approach, and a barely controlled emotional core. With an ardent grasp on all three, Bates is busy mining England’s rich folk past and forging a new hybrid of folk music.
“I suppose I’ve been unconsciously striving towards making this kind of music all my life,” Bates admits. “It’s mad, you know. Since the finish of Eyeless I seem to have been going further and further back, investigating areas of pop rock and folk; stuff that I wouldn’t have touched with a barge pole back in 1983. I feel as if I’m drawing further and further back into my own personal introduction to music, which was in the early seventies when as a kid I was dragged around folk clubs by my uncle, who took me to see people like Martin Carthy. It was so wonderful, such an experience, such flamboyant passion and rich melodies. I heard that and then it was gone. One of my favourite groups ever was an American band – Buffalo Springfield. Now there’s something worth striving for, I thought, some iridescent quality.”
Touched by the hand of regret, the music on Loved Smashed on a Rock ultimately reaches Bates’ lofty, glowing ideal. From an austere and sad Durutti Column-like guitar solo in ‘You So Secret’ to the insistent urgency of ‘You’re the Spell (I Can’t Break)’ to the jazzy, Fairport feel of ‘Dar’s Chorus,’ Martyn’s mood has shifted away from the happiness of ‘Back From the Rains,’ and has shifted into bittersweet shadows and doubt.
“I was so close to Peter Becker emotionally it was like a marriage of a kind,” says Bates. “When all that finished – and it finished because these things have a natural life, I feel – I don’t know, maybe there’s still something there. The main thing is that a lot of really ‘up’ stuff on Back From the Rains is there because I hadn’t long got married. I’d written this stuff, these wonderful feelings that I wanted to put across, and the ’up’ songs were an expression of that. Of course with passing of time these things have a way of levelling out. Which is not to say I’ve got a bust marriage on my hands, not at all. Other strengths and kinds of happiness have come to the fore.”
These days, Bates is happy to be working again with Primitives producer Paul Sampson, whose sharp, crystalline production emphasizes the edges in Bates’ voice and songs while working them into more polished, delicate textures. Bates has known Sampson for years, having played with him in Nuneaton bands before Eyeless, and has long admired Sampson’s hands-on, instinctive approach.
“I like everything to be straightforward. Indeed it’s a constant all the way through Eyeless, even in the beginning when we wanted to do it live in the studio, with more or less minimal overdubs. Obviously I spend time on those things now, but I don’t want to lose sight of that spontaneity, that freshness. I think I’ve struck up something very good with Paul. I was very pleased with Love Smashed on a Rock, far more pleased than with The Return of the Quiet. That one’s more confused, I feel. I think we got close to the heart of what we’re trying to do this time, and I can see our relationship continuing, developing, blossoming.”
Bates will be blossoming on a European label from now on, as he parted ways with Cherry Red after his first solo LP in 1987.
“Total freedom to do exactly the music I wished was gradually being taken from me left, right and center working with English companies, even at an independent level. I just want to put across what I’m doing in the purest way I can without paying any attention to marketing ideas. In fact, I’m damn sure I’m my own worst enemy for all this; it’s put spanners in the works of many an opportunity that perhaps could have presented itself but hasn’t because I just let things go. Integrity allows me to work at my own pace, my own tempo. And if there’s anywhere my music can find a wider platform, it’s Europe. Culturally they have a better grip on the arts. So I guess I’m in a kind of exile.”
Bates rummages through a stack of cassettes, and unearths a selection of songs recently recorded in collaboration with the suave, continental sensibilities of Belgian crooner Louis Philippe. Originally intended to be an album of British folk songs for El records, inspired by the vocal harmonies of the Association and the Beach Boys, the project is unfortunately shelved for the moment. The fragments of song that follow – the Spectorish, multitracked voices of ‘Lucy Wan,’ the old village setting of ‘An Autumn in Town,’ and the haunting, medieval ‘Long Lankin’ – clearly reveal Bates’ love for the music he first heard as a child.
Bates brings out a piece of correspondence from North America, from the recipient of one of his recent records. The writer noted that the LP was really bent out of shape – “not because of the music, but because of Canada Post.” He laughs. “I think that figures, I think that’s a great phrase. Even though my music kind of speaks for itself, with other characteristics than bluster and gratuitous noise, it still has this fucked-up tension threading through it. I don’t think it’s easy to listen to, despite the fact a lot of it’s very quiet.”