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Do You Dare To Be Square?

An Appreciation Of Twelve Cubic Feet.

As a young teenager I was invited to join a pop group called The Apostles. This consisted of 2 middle class schoolboys from Hampstead and one middle class schoolboy from Islington. These were the sons of newspaper columnists, doctors and social workers; I never stood a chance, did I? Note to all you damned foreigners: class extremely important in Great Britain . It is imperative that we each know our place in society. That was my problem, you see? I refused to stay in my place – I ought to say that this was motivated by a trenchant desire to challenge the orthodoxy of the capitalist state and confront the oppression of the masses by a wealthy ruling elite and all that gubbins. Regrettably the truth is rather more mundane yet also heretical: I simply found most working class people boring. They liked football, the engines of cars, betting shops, pubs, tabloid newspapers and television soap operas. I liked cricket, astronomy, birds (the feathered variety), avant garde music, science fiction and political activism. What did working class ‘culture’ have to offer me then except boredom? By the end of the 1980s I had acquired a reputation as a staunch class warrior and was respected by Class War and various working class political activists. I doubt if these people realised how much the intervening years had modified my initial repudiation of my social origins.

So The Apostles were a welcome change from all that drudgery. Their guitarist was called Pete Bynghall. When I first went to his house, he introduced me to the work of Bertrand Russell. How many other 15 year olds possess and actually read books by Bertrand Russell? His older brother, Andrew, used to play drums for a pop group called Exhibit A (who had released 2 records of their own) and had recently (1981) formed a new pop group who rejoiced in the bizarre appellation of Twelve Cubic Feet. Both Pete and Andrew not only enjoyed cricket on radio and television (like myself) but they actually played the game. Pete in particular was an accomplished batsman. For that reason alone I was justifiably able to forgive him for his generally horrible tastes in music.


Exhibit A


Now I had already become absolutely disgusted with all the pseudo-political diatribes espoused by the anarcho-punk scene with their worship of Crass, Flux Of Pink Indians, Peace News and CND. The politics and lyrics of these people I found deeply offensive while the music was all such arrant nonsense that I stopped listening to music entirely for a few months apart from what we performed and recorded and I considered even that to be generally third rate at the time. So when I sent a letter to Andrew Bynghall with a postal order and asked him to record some of the music of his two groups for me, I think I’d have welcomed it no matter what bizarre cacophony he sent to me. Let’s face it, an elephant farting into a colander would have been preferable to the noisome racket made by punk bands at the time.


Indeed, it came close: the first record by Exhibit A was called No Elephants This Side Of Watford but it was rough and had a horrible guitar sound. However, the second record (Distance), the two tracks they included on the compilation album Thing From The Crypt and the various pieces on cassette were all quite splendid and I knew then I had found a viable alternative to commercial pop music without recourse to punk rockery. A slightly surreal sense of humour pervades most of the brief career of Exhibit A and yet it is for their more serious pure pop songs that they deserve most credit. The combination of crisp, bouncy drums, precise, sharp bass guitar, crystal clean guitar and smooth, sparkling keyboard provides sufficient substance to compensate for the rather weak, nasal tones of the vocalist (Dan Goldstein) who nevertheless sings in tune and in time with a clear, strident voice.


Two tracks were recorded at a rehearsal session shortly before or after the first record and they both appeared on various cassette compilations at the time, all of which vanished into obscurity. This was a fate typical of such items in the early 1980s, almost as if instant disposability was encouraged. Me & You is a simple love song that apparently has no discernible factors to merit remembrance and yet it remained with me long enough for me to find myself humming the tune the next day. In The Wilderness is an oddity: a lyric about the aftermath of nuclear devastation set to an austere accompaniment that perhaps The Apostles could have achieved but coming from this group, it sounds forced and contrived. However, this was no mere pose and certainly not an attempt to ingratiate themselves before the politically correct music press. By 1980 many people were convinced that some sort of nuclear war (assuming there is more than one sort of nuclear war – which, on second thoughts, is hardly likely) was a distinct possibility and thus we find even the most apolitical of poets and pop groups including references to it in their works.

No Elephants This Side Of Watford Gap (1979)


In The Night. Fame. Digital Age. Maniac Garden .


Not an auspicious debut for the group, this record is salvaged only by the sparkling keyboards and delightful lyrics. The muddy production is further spoiled by a horrible guitar sound that really does little justice to these otherwise infectious pop songs, of which Maniac Garden is easily the best. Its 6/8 metre and slightly more adventurous harmonic language bestow upon the lyric an extra dimension denied to the other songs here.


Distance (1980)


Distance. Bollards. Platform 6.


What a difference (and what a relief) is apparent by both the clean, clear and crisp production on this record with the transparent sound in which all the instruments and voices can be heard. The guitar is devoid of any extraneous effects, the keyboards are scintillating and the bass guitar playing (probably the best aspect of the entire record) scampers along like a bull terrier, light yet powerful. The vocals soar above this magic music for all they are worth. Although Distance was issued as the ‘a’ side of the single, it cannot be considered one of their best songs although the vocal harmonies and lyric are decent enough. Perhaps its brevity accounts for my impression that the song sounds unfinished. Bollards is the weakest of the tracks here and unfortunately the bass guitar is absent but, to compensate, we are treated to Andrew on xylophone! Platform 6 with its shared call and response vocals (Paul Rosen provides the other voice) is easily the best track on offer although, curiously, they opt for a drum machine rather than drum kit to provide the rhythm track. The lyric is plaintive and even suggests alienation. While Exhibit A were primarily a fun band, they were neither trivial nor superficial.


Thing From The Crypt (1981)


Echoes. Rain.


The two best tracks Exhibit A ever recorded are also the only memorable contributions to this generally dire compilation album (although, to be fair, The S Haters also make the grade – but only just). Echoes manages to provide a strange hybrid with its infusion of Tubeway Army and The Smiths only this song is vastly superior to any pop pap either of those outfits ever recorded. Rain is simply one of the best pure pop songs ever written, despite its delightfully naïve lyric. The keyboard and bass guitar are the smoothly flowing river of sound that carry crisp drums and spiky guitar along while Dan gives one of the best vocal performance of his recorded career. UNIT recorded a decent enough version of this but the original is still superior.


Twelve Cubic Feet


Now I heard from Andrew that the new group was to be more serious without being at all pompous or self important. Within a matter of weeks I also received letters from guitarist and vocalist Paul Rosen (who lived in Middlesex at the time) and from vocalist and keyboard player Freda Durrell who resided in Hampshire. Drummer Andrew dwelt in Hampstead and bass guitarist Matthew in Islington. I later received a letter from keyboard player Glenna who I discovered also lived miles away from the others. Guitarist Sally was the only member of the group with whom I never entered into any correspondence yet when I was sacked from The Apostles, she offered (via Paul) to assist on guitar duties should her services be required. Now that would have been interesting! Paul or Freda (I can’t recall which one now) sent me a cassette of 5 or 6 songs they recorded at a band rehearsal and, despite the atrocious sound quality, I could tell even from this abysmal recording that here was a group able to write and perform pop songs that were highly original without being pretentious or unnecessarily avant garde.

I knew of no other groups at this time who were sextets that consisted of 3 men and 3 women. What impressed me most about the group were their use of 4 different vocalists (Freda, Paul, Glenna and Matthew) and their use of counterpoint. When Sally plays the basic chords on her guitar, the bass guitar will dance around underneath that with its own melody while above that Paul will play a separate melodic fragment against yet another tune from one of the keyboards. It is not unusual to hear 4 separate melodies being played simultaneously in part of a song – but in most pop music that ability is not common. Abba did it. Both The Apostles and UNIT do it fairly regularly. After that, I have to think hard to find other pop groups (other than progressive rock outfits) who achieve this so effortlessly. Finally, there is nothing pompous or bombastic about 12FT3. This absence of pretension was occasionally mistaken for naïveté but during the 1980s there were so many industrial, electronic and punk bands with claims to profundity that were patently false or at least wildly contrived that the glorious simplicity of a group like 12FT3 came as a blessed relief.

I rarely go to pop concerts – since I generally have no interest in such music, there is no reason why I should. However, I made an exception for 12FT3 and I’m glad I did. I saw them play in front of barely 15 people at a private bar in Euston. I saw them play before nearly 200 perplexed punks at The Autonomy Centre in Wapping. I saw them play before an ecstatic audience of mixed trendies at The Africa Centre where they supported The Lemon Kittens. I saw them play to nearly 500 travellers, hippies and punks at the Centro Iberico in Westbourne Park . Finally I watched their antics during two memorable performances, both at the London Musicians Collective hall in Camden . Even though they played very similar sets of songs at all these concerts, the arrangements were frequently modified and augmented by additional pieces included purely for the particular event at which they performed.

So much that is effective in bebop derives from its highly creative use of dissonance. There were times (captured on recordings of rehearsal sessions) in the Charlie Parker band when the pianist, required to accompany a helter skelter of improvised melodic fragments, would hit incorrect chords and much of the time the band would stop and Parker, in a state of excitement, would first ask him what chord he’d just played and then implore him not to forget it. Far be it for me to dare to compare 12ft3 with The Bird himself but they, also, were not afraid to employ dissonance in their use of counterpoint. After all, if such a device is good enough for Johann Sebastian Bach and Charlie Parker then I reckon it’s good enough for the rest of us!

Straight Out Of The Fridge (1981)

Mary Has The Bug. Blob. Evercare. Tuesday Afternoon. Hello Howard. The Almshouse. Escaping Again.

Mary Has The Bug, by Matthew, is a homage to 1950s horror films and it displays the 1970s funk influence that was rarely far below the surface of many of their songs. Blob is a delightful spiteful assault on sexual conceit with exquisite sarcasm directed at the heterosexual male neurosis concerning genitalia. Freda provides one of the best lyrics ever written for the group and the ebullient accompaniment merely emphasises the satirical content. Evercare, by Glenna, is ostensibly one of the weaker contributions to the record although its gentle cadences are infectious; this is a song of nostalgia and whimsy that improves on repeated encounters with it. Tuesday Afternoon is a study of boredom and gentle frustration set to music that would be repetitive but for the sprightly arrangement whose subtle variations disguise the monotony. Hello Howard is the only 12FT3 song previously performed by Exhibit A. In fact the group would record a further 2 versions of this during the next year, so popular was it among band members and audiences. It boasts a clever, humorous lyric combined with a highly melodic structure devoid of the tedious riffs that afflict lower class pop songs. The Almshouse by Paul is somewhat repetitive and definitely the weakest song in the collection here. Despite fine playing by the ensemble and some interesting words, this really is much ado about nothing in particular. Escaping Again by Matthew is one of the best songs the group ever performed and certainly deserves repeated listens. The use of counterpoint is clearly evident here together with a stark, strangely disturbing lyric.

Between the first album and the second (albeit unreleased) album, 12FT3 worked on various ideas, none of which were developed further. Ultimately they chose to continue with the style and format in which they were most successful – pure melodic pop songs where simple harmonic progressions are enhanced by the use of counterpoint. Part Time Punks is a cover version of a piece by a band called The Television Personalities, about whom I know nothing. This song is poor and not worthy of the group who evidently agree with me since they never recorded this in a studio. With Communication Breakdown we may breathe a sigh of considerable relief for this is not the dreadful song by Led Zeppelin but a their own piece, a ballad from which memorable melodies are absent which probably accounts for it never being given a studio recording. Sybils’ Mother is an oddly repetitive piece that I first heard performed in an instrumental version live at The Autonomy Centre in Wapping. It sounds unfinished and despite its effective bass guitar melody, never survived into a recording studio. Wipe Out is the famous instrumental by The Surfaris and was only ever recorded live at The Autonomy Centre in Wapping. My only complaint is that neither of the keyboard players are featured on this. The band last entered a recording studio early in 1983 – Recession Studio, later used by The Apostles for five of their singles. Hello Howard was recorded yet again, this time with a clarinet replacing one of the keyboards. Although this song has been performed regularly at almost every concert from the time of Exhibit A to the final months of 12FT3, it has always been granted new and interesting arrangements. Besides, it boats this splendid couplet: “Diesel engines fill my head, they run on my one track mind – but they’re the only form of transport I can find.” A second attempt at Tiptoes was recorded at this same session but, while effective, is a variant rather than an improvement on the first version. Gone are the electronic sounds and crowd noises – in their place we have a strong jazz influence to the guitar and drum playing which really is most effective.

Through The Square Window (1982)


Tiptoes. Discord. Jaywalking. 2nd Ending. Amateur Driver. Arctic . Fireside. Straight Out Of The Fridge.

Tiptoes incorporates a tape of crowd and party noises by Philip Johnson that runs like a river behind the nervous jazz inflections of this oddly appealing song with its relentless repeated phrases. Discord provides further frantic scampering from the instruments over which the singers soar, backed by the inevitable Casio VL Tone, the instrument that was their trademark. Jaywalking features shared vocals by Paul and Freda over a gently warbling keyboard on its flute setting (the one most frequently adopted by the group) and is easily one of the best songs written by the group with its haunting lyric and infectious melodies. Freda sings in the lower part of her range for 2nd Ending. We are still in nervous, slightly frenetic mood here although the absence of memorable melodic fragments from the keyboards is unfortunate as the song is not one of their strongest and it requires an additional element to raise it to the high level of the other pieces in this set. The gentle juggernaut that is Amateur Driver adopts a 1960s soul rhythm over which the Casio and guitars playfully chase each other. Freda and Glenna here sing at the top of their range like ethereal beings commenting on the skittering frantic music below them. Arctic is in 3/4 time and remains one of their more unusual songs. A strangely haunting lyric is supported by growling swirls of sound that ultimately dissipate into a blizzard of notes with only the bass guitar left to repeat a rising phrase into oblivion. Fireside by Freda is one of the very best songs 12FT3 ever composed. A memorable keyboard melody, a whimsical lyric tinged with nostalgia, a guitar counterpoint and an insistent bass guitar accompaniment supported by scampering drums all combine to construct a perfect pop song. Straight Out Of The Fridge is, if possible, an even better song than Fireside. Freda and Paul gently sing their phrases over a bouncing, ebullient musical support that has all the ingredients responsible for making Fireside so memorable. Arctic , Fireside and Straight Out Of The Fridge are three of the very best pop songs ever written by any group in the history of pop music and it is a crying shame that this album was never officially released to the public. Regrettably the group disbanded before it was released so it has remained unheard by most people. The only extant recording of it was on a cassette tape of dubious quality. Myself and Luc Tran worked like mad in order to rescue the contents from oblivion; it was a renovation and restoration job of major proportions and I cannot pretend that the end result matches the recording quality you would expect from commercial discs today. However, it is now perfectly acceptable and thanks to BBP (see below) these splendid little songs can at last be heard.

In 1981 Paul Rosen teamed up with avant garde musician Philip Johnson to form Namedrop Records. Their entire catalogue consisted of just 4 records. There was Doof, a 10” album of avant garde nonsense that featured Paul himself with Freda Durrell and various others. There was a 12” album by Philip Johnson that was also dreadful. Then there was the 10” album by 12FT3 which easily outsold the previous records and rightly so. Finally there was a 7” single by Hornchurch rock group Cold War which, being highly regarded by all the punks who had attended their concerts at the Autonomy Centre in Wapping, became the most popular release. In fact, had this been the first release on the label, sufficient funds would probably have been raised to finance future records – but they elected instead to release first the two most difficult, trenchantly avant garde items (Doof and Philip Johnson), a decision that ruined them financially and effectively turned Namedrop Records into a business disaster. Thus do we live and learn!

I remember we offered a concert appearance at the Centro Iberico to the group and Paul replied that they were unable to perform on that day because his parents required his presence during Yom Kippur or some Jewish holy day at least. As a strident atheist, I had become convinced that no intelligent person could possibly be religious (I assumed that everyone I knew and met must also be an atheist) so, while I respected his explanation, I could not pretend to comprehend the reason for it. Then I recalled the Exhibit A singer who, with Daniel Goldstein for a name, must surely also have been Jewish. Of course, I appreciated (some time later) that while their parents may have harboured orthodox religious beliefs, that in itself did not imply their children also followed such strange, out-dated creeds. I realised that maybe Paul simply wanted to avoid causing any distress to his parents so he agreed to participate in this religious holy day. Even this possibility was an education to me since I absolutely despised my own parents and I would certainly never even consider going out of my way to appease any bizarre beliefs they might have held. On the contrary, if I ever caused them grief and distress then I would count that among my more significant achievements.


In one of the many letters Robert Dellar used to write to me, I learnt that Sally was an adept fencing student. This intrigued me since I had never met anyone previously who possessed such a skill. I was also informed that she and her room mate had plastered the walls of her digs in Cambridge university with pictures of Margaret Thatcher and union flags. Now this may be exaggerated or even apocryphal but I was highly amused at the tone of disgust and horror Robert adopted in his letter. Sally sounded like a most interesting young woman indeed! In the anarcho-punk scene it was automatically taken for granted that we all hated Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher – indeed, that anyone could ever find something positive or constructive to say about our prime minister was regarded as inconceivable. I was not immediately aware of this at first, however. In my naïveté I once stated (during a pre-concert meeting at The Autonomy Centre) that Thatcher at least deserved praise for her brave, bold confrontation of the unions and further merited commendation for being the first politician not only to stand up to them but also to actually divest them of their power which thus rescued the nation from their stranglehold. Did none of these punks remember the three-day week, the strikes and the hardship these socialist rat-bags had caused ordinary working class people? Had I urinated in a mosque, the response to my words would have been less intense and vituperative than what confronted me that afternoon.

Recently I purchased a compilation disc of various artists whose work had been released by Cherry Red, a record company who, during the 1980s, issued a variety of interesting and highly original records by people such as Eyeless In Gaza, The Lemon Kittens, Five Or Six and Lol Coxhill. Two tracks were included (both sides of a single) by a group called The Reflections. Among their personnel were Mark Perry on guitar and vocals (Alternative TV, The Good Missionaries), Karl Blake on drums (The Lemon Kittens, The Shock Headed Peters, Sol Invictus) and Paul Rosen on guitar. On reading the sleeve notes I discovered that he is now Doctor Paul Rosen of Durham university! That initially prompted me to discover the location of other 12FT3 members although ultimately I decided to restrict my search to Matthew Vosburgh since he was the only person to whom I could justify such detective work because UNIT had recorded his song Escaping Again. The errant bass guitarist had moved to America , become happily married and formed a successful business that involved computer software – I still don’t understand technology and I no longer even try to do so! To the best of my knowledge, every former member of the group went on to university after which I assume they entered into successful careers. Ah, how different are the lives of the wealthy elite to our own. I wonder if any one of them could possibly understand how or why, a couple of years after their group disbanded, I joined Class War and became one of its most vociferous champions for the next 2 decades?

There is a double disc set that features all the works by Exhibit A and Twelve Cubic Feet mentioned in this text. It is available from BBP, Box 45404 , London SE26 6WJ .

Andy Martin © 2009.




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