Crispy Ambulance \ Biography
During their original recording career between 1980 and 1982, Manchester band Crispy Ambulance were frequently dismissed as Joy Division copyists, and proof that Factory Records were fallible. The truth is very different, for as their Factory Benelux recordings prove, Crispy Ambulance were a bold, innovative and undervalued post-punk band whose catalogue had barely dated.
Crispy Ambulance initially came together as a duo in 1977 to perform covers of Magazine and Hawkwind material. Mainman Alan Hempsall, then fronting a Gong-influenced outfit called Aqua, had attended the first Sex Pistols gig in Manchester at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976, although this landmark show left him essentially unmoved. After a debut appearance at Spurley Hey Youth Centre on 1 January 1978, Alan and guitarist Robert Daveprt were joined by bassist Keith Darbyshire and drummer Gary Madeley. This line-up would not change, and by 1979 was playing regularly in the Greater Manchester area, often at Manchester Musicians' Collective gigs at the Band on the Wall and the Cyprus Tavern.
Hempsall: "The motivation for formation for me was a combination of seeing the Sex Pistols at their first Manchester gig in June 1976 in front of an audience of about 40, made up mainly of Bowie clones and hippies, and then seeing Magazine's first gig. The latter had a more immediate effect, with me forming Crispy Ambulance a mere six weeks after seeing Magazine. But none of our early tunes passed the test of time, mainly because it took about 18 months to find an identity."
"Joy Division stumbled upon us in July 1978 at a gig we played in Manchester, and they liked our approach, even if the material was a little weak, to say the least. They dragged Rob Gretton, their new manager, down to see us some months later, and as a result we did a gig with them at The Factory club in Hulme on 13 July, around the time that Unknown Pleasures was released."
The novel moniker was suggested by Graham Massey, later of Biting Tongues and 808 State. Hempsall: "People asked about the name and how it originated every time we did an interview. The answer is, I'm afraid, quite a boring one. It's simply that Graham thought it up. He has a way with words, and I thought it was such a nondescript name (silly too) that we decided on it. Also, at the time every other band was called 'The...' (fill in blank space), whereas our name gave nothing away with regard to image, musical style etc, but at the same time captured the imagination."
In August 1979 Crispy Ambulance entered the studio for the first time, recording several tracks at Graveyard in Prestwich with engineer Stuart Pickering. Motorway Boys, a meditation on adolescent drug ritual, would later surface on The Blue and Yellow of the Yacht Club, a cassette-only compilation of formative early material. In January 1980 the band returned to Graveyard to record their debut single, choosing From the Cradle to the Grave and Four Minutes From the Frontline as the strongest numbers in an ever-changing live set. The 7" was released in April as a double a-side on their own Aural Assault label.
Hempsall: "The idea for Aural Assault came from the fact that we'd already tried Rough Trade and Factory and they'd turned us down, but Rough Trade gave us loads of info and addresses for a do-it-yourself single, which Rob Gretton encouraged us to do. So I came up with the bank loan and the name. There was an initial pressing of 1,000, which sold quite quickly, and a repressing of 4000, half of which remained under my bed. Looking back, I recall how pissed off I was at having been turned down by all these local independent labels. But if I had my time over, I'd do the same again."
Following the untimely death of Ian Curtis in May 1980, Rob Gretton became a director at Factory Records, and in July persuaded Crispy Ambulance to release their next recording through the label. At the same time 4AD also expressed interest on the strength of the debut single. FAC 32 thus became one of Gretton's first projects as an A&R man. Hempsall: "We recorded the second single Unsightly and Serene in two days in July, with a day's rest in the middle. It was during this day's rest that I discovered Factory wanted us. We used Pickering and Graveyard again, because we had demoed with him in the early days. Also, he had been my old physics teacher at school. We wanted the second single to be a 12", but when it was mastered Tony Wilson just decided to do a 10", so it was out of our hands."
The Factory association had already been strengthened when Hempsall stood in for Ian Curtis at Joy Division's infamous 'riot' gig at Bury Derby Hall on 8 April 1980, performing Digital, Love Will Tear Us Apart and Sister Ray. Those seeking a full blow-by-blow account are directed to Shadowplayers, the Factory documentary film released in 2006. The amusing portrayal of the same event in the movie Control (2008) is highly fictionalised. Also worth noting is that Hempsall, in interviewing Joy Division for sci-fi magazine Extro, was responsible for one of the few truly enlightening band interviews to appear in print.
However, Factory foreman Wilson didn't share Gretton's enthusiasm for Crispy Ambulance. Hempsall: "Tony never liked us, but suffered us because Rob liked what we did. Since Rob had become a shareholder, Tony had no choice but to bite his lip. Tony later told me that Crispy Ambulance was the worst band name on Factory - until he signed Thick Pigeon."
As well as FAC 32, July 1980 also saw the band record a four song session for Piccadilly Radio. Although The Presence and Concorde Square were later re-recorded with Martin Hannett, neither Eastern Bloc and A Sense of Reason would make it onto subsequent records. Remarkably, the same fate befell all four tracks recorded for John Peel the following January, these being Come On, October 31st, Egypt and an impressive guitar tour de force, Drug User/Drug Pusher.
Although Hempsall's vocals on the Peel session were marred by a heavy cold, the quality of both radio sessions was confirmed by Tim Anstaett of the Offense Newsletter: "Drug User/Drug Pusher is one of the many tracks that gives irrefutable testimony to Crispy Ambulance's brilliance, but it's the one that presents the strongest arguments. Talk about a convincing sound. Just thinking now about the tune makes me shudder... Sense of Reason includes stream-of-vocal-consciousness, and Eastern Bloc is beautifully resigned... the Peel Session was highlighted by Come On (the most rock n' roll sounding they ever got) and October 31st, which is the only one that sounds like it would fit right in on The Plateau Phase."
But this is to jump ahead. In the summer of 1980 Hempsall declined an invitation to try out as vocalist in New Order, preferring instead to remain with his own band. In November, 5,000 copies of the single Unsightly and Serene were issued as FAC 32, with robust driving rocker Deaf standing out. Regrettably the lead track, Not What I expected, remains probably the weakest song the band committed to vinyl, while the gothic sleeve (borrowed from Dante's Inferno) edged into the realm of cliche. All of which was unfortunate, since unflattering comparisons between Joy Division and Crispy Ambulance now became commonplace, and would blight the Crispie's career long after they found their own sound and identity. Confusing form and substance, critics also found fault in the fact that not every Factory act was as visibly novel as A Certain Ratio or The Durutti Column. The result was doctrinaire reviews such as that which appeared in the NME following an appearance at the ICA Rock Week: "Crispy Ambulance were so uninspiring (and uninspired) that they do not deserve to waste any more of this space."
In truth, Crispy Ambulance tended to confound in the context of live performance. Hempsall: "On the whole we always kept gigs to a minimum because we found we could make each performance more unique with new material for each one, whereas on a tour the performances lose some of their individuality... Wepeferred the idea that by kepng gigs down we were giving the audience something special, and not to be repeated. This also meant that we enjoyed playing live even more, as the novelty never wore off."
"We loathe going to see a band and finding it within our capabilities to correctly predict their appearance, actions, encore etc. This will work fine until people begin to expect the unexpected from us - trapped! In a coffin of our own design. Being extremists is a risky business, but that's just what I like about it. For me there is no fun in safety... Wepesume the audience will expect one thing of us, so we do the opposite. It's a basic fear of typecasting."
"We have only a bare skeletal structure preconceived, leaving a vast amount of space for spontaneity onstage. Therefore our live performances become a reflection of how we feel at that point in time. This makes each performance unique, due to the fact that the same piece can - and does - turn out totally different to the previous rendering."
"When I go onstage I go WAAH!! I go absolutely crazy. Sometimes I look behind me and see the band and they're so good I just want to laugh or cry... Live it's like a visual drug. You get the audience out there epcting a regular Factory act and they discover that the singer's got long hair, the guitarist wears flares, the drummer's got a beard and the bassist has his overcoat on. We're always engineering things for an audience, never pandering to them."
Flares, long hair and beards notwithstanding, Crispy Ambulance found a champion in Sounds staffer Dave McCullough, who devoted two pages to them in the issue for 21 February 1981. While the article revealed little of substance, his initial impressions of Hempsall are worth repeating:
"The voice on the phone was friendly enough, though suspicious, but it didn't at all correpnd to what happened in broad daylight, on Piccadilly platform 4 where Alan Hempsall, vocalist and Crispy contact-point, proved not to be the staid young JD correlative that I perhaps expected, but, yes! - amazingly - a Lad! Alan wore baggy trousers (Madness-style!), laddish clothes in all, a huge forthcoming grin and a set of bones three sizes too big. A six foot five lad. I said hello. It started a flush of words, waving arms, good vibes. Not what I expected, the cruel catchphrase of Crispy's Factory debut rang true."
"But, there again, did I anticipate anything else? He out-talks Julian Cope! He out-talked me! He could out-talk anybody... Alan subconsciously adds to their tally of perverse contrasts when he rattled on about Throbbing Gristle (like Faust, another hero): 'TG are just brilliant. Going to see them is just breathtaking. It's like having a shit!"
After two promising if not quite landmark singles, the first real sign that Crispy Ambulance were more than just a weird name came with their third, Live On A Hot August Night. Not live, and recorded at Rochdale studio Cargo in January 1981, the session was produced by the legendary Martin Hannett, who achieved a superlative sound rated by many as one of his finest productions. The single featured two extended tracks, with Concorde Square uptempo and metallic, and The Presence a hypnotic ballad, drifting weightlessly above a soft electronic pulse and whiplash snare.
In common with many other groups, Crispy Ambulance found working with Hannett somewhat disconcerting. Hempsall: "Martin. turned up. We discovered that he wasn't going to be doing a great deal in terms of production, he just sat at the back. He did very little at all, and just let John Brierley do all the engineering. His input was nil. We were told in no uncertain terms that Martin didn't like his bands being there at the mix, he'd rather just get on with it, so we had to fight tooth and nail to have a presence in there at all. The drone at the end of Concorde Square was something I'd dreamt up, as I was listening to a lot of choral music at the time. The voices were very pure voices, and I'd done about six or seven overdubs in different tones over a full octave. I'd done quite a lot of hard work and was quite happy with that, but to my horror when we got to the mixdown at Britannia Row Hannett said he wasn't too sure, and pulled out this ARP 2600. It looked like a telephone exchange, and he was plugging in wires and plugging them out, feeding the signal, all for about two hours. By the end the thing was so twisted it sounded completely different. Do you follow the politics and say nothing? In my mind, at the time, I was horrified."
Although Factory agreed to shoot a video for The Presence, the mordant choral outro on Concorde Square helped trigger a free transfer to European sister label Factory Benelux, the single emerging as a 12" in July. Hempsall: "Hot August Night was the first time we actually went into the studio as a Factory band. As a matter of course Hannett was used as he was The Factory Producer... Tony craftily got us off his back by depositing us on Factory Benelux, which we didn't object to because Tony was only making things difficult for us whilst on Factory, whereas Michel Duval, boss of Factory's Belgian counterpart, genuinely liked us, and had an enthusiasm for the records almost as strong as our own. Rob Gretton was always more interested in tunes than anything else, so when we had six minutes of voices and piano on the end of Concorde Square he found this a bit strange. We began to move out of his field of understanding."
Comprehension was also found wanting amongst lazy, opinionated journalists in the music press. According to Melody Maker: "The best and worst of Martin Hannett and, as usual, you can forget about the band. The Presence illustrates his genius for that eerie, evocative snare-obsessed sound, cleverly maintaining interest in another Curtis clone crooning another doomy dodo of a tune. Concorde Square, however, is the most melodramatic manifestation yet of his frustrating feedback fetish, allowing the group a begrudgingly cursory run for their money before picking put a particularly rich resonance and toying with it into uncharted territories of tedium. One for earnest New Orderites and strict Samaritan-cases only."
At least the Maker had bothered to listen to the record - all 22 minutes - from beginning to end. According to NME: "After the power and the passion that was Joy Division, imitators like Crispy Ambulance just sound listless and unoriginal."
Although the switch to Factory Benelux smacked slightly of relegation, the move was Factory's loss, for the following year Crispy Ambulance delivered an album which many regard as a jewel in the genre crown. Recorded over eight days in September at Strawberry 2 with Chris Nagle, The Plateau Phase stands today as a bold, innovative record. Despite limited studio time, the scope, diversity and ambition of the ten songs still shine through. Wind Season and Bardo Plane offered direct modern rock, while Simon's Ghost (like the FBN 4 outro which so perplexed Rob Gretton) brought to mind Eno and Popol Vuh. Moreover the title track and Are You Ready? dared to hint at progressive rock, causing consternation amongst 'earnest New Orderites' who purchased the album on the strength of several disapproving comparative reviews.
Myself included. Aged sixteen, and in 1982 a relative latecomer to the sober, cold wave mysteries of the Factory genre, I purchased The Plateau Phase in the safe expectation of Known Pleasures. Putting the needle to the groove, however, my initial reaction was one of confusion, and even doctrinairepst-punk disdain. Are You Ready? kicked off side one with the sound of bells. Church bells? Alarm bells, more like, heralding the dark side of the Floyd. And what to make of the lycanthropic howling which presaged Chill? Or the whistling in Death From Above? Or the monolithic metal riffing of Federation?
I had no idea. If anything was certain, it was only that the album sounded nothing like the three singles which preceded it. True, I quickly came round, but even today I cannot easily epain what makes listening to Plateau Phase such a unique personal experience. The mood of the album is largely nocturnal, twilit, druggy, and the tone often claustrophobic or relentless. Think of Travel Time, its nagging guitar motif, like its narrative, "running away from an enemy that's pushing ever onwards". Or the title track, a creeping barrage of bass-heavy synthetics, the lyrics focused on thirst and drowning. There's more "falling back into the water" in Chill, and apparently no dawn following each dark night of the soul.
Only Bardo Plane and Wind Season fulfilled immediate cold wave expectations. The album sounded genuinely disconcerting in 1982, and utterly out of time. This the band encouraged, investing in the dirtiest-sounding ARP synth available in preference to the string models then in vogue. And like Magazine, Comsat Angels or Random Hold, Crispy Ambulance used the best of what artists such as Faust, Eno, Pink Floyd and Van Der Graaf Generator had offered a decade before, yet without stooping to outright plagiarism. In doing so (and without even realising it) the band actually looked forward, which is precisely why their music has aged so remarkably well, and makes far better sense three decades later.
Spotters may care to note that the album title refers to a stage in the female orgasm, while a further track (Rain Without Clouds) was dropped at the mixing stage. The Plateau Phase was released as FBN 12 in March 1982, arriving in an inferior lilac sleeve commissioned by Factory Benelux from noted Belgian designer Lucien De Roeck, whose best work was by then clearly behind him. The album peaked at #21 in the independent album charts, and according to Sounds was the best new album since Seven Songs by 23 Skidoo.
Ironically enough, sales were probably boosted by lazy comparisons with Joy Division. Although it should have been clear from the music that the charge was ny now redundant, the opinion of Mat Snow, writing in the NME, was typical: "I looked forward with some trepidation to reviewing this LP. The sleeve is offensively tasteful. Subdued lilac with the barest information inscribed in italic calligraphy. Song titles such as The Force and the Wisdom and We Move Through The Plateau Phase did nothing to alleviate my growing apprehension. But the record inside surpassed even my worst expectations. This is one of the most pretentious, turgid and tedious LPs I've ever heard. Slavish imitation of Joy Division doth not good music make. All the trade-marks are there - relentless inverted drumming, ominous bass lines, dramatic flanged guitar, bleak synth washes and a lone desperate voice. But whereas Joy Division were sincere and inspired in their depiction of obsession, loss and desolation, Crispy Ambulance are portentous, inane and very, very boring. Has Tony Wilson gone mad?"
Or had critics gone deaf? Interviewed in February 1983, Hempsall offered: "It was a combination of three factors that made us the media's favourite whipping boys: joining Factory, our early JD influence, and Ian's death. It would be stupid of me to deny that Joy Division had a considerable influence on our music around the time of our first single, and I see no shame in that. Prior to Ian's death people who were fans of JD appreciated what we were trying to do. We never set out the deliberately sound derivative. Then afterwards the same people became wrapped up in the romance of the whole unfortunate episode, and presto! - all of a sudden we were treading on sacred ground."
"Ironically the first single sounded more derivative than anything else, yet when it got reviewed there was not one mention of Joy Division. However, the more each record we released strayed from this, the more our critics dragged us through the sub-JD shelpedip. For these reasons that their criticisms ceased to worry me, because it's obvious that they can't really have listened to the music. The Plateau Phase is an album I'm very pleased with and have no doubts about, yet it got the worst reception of them all. the publicity we received in Europe was much more favourable, and responses at live performances far more enthusiastic than Britain on the whole."
In January 1982, prior to the release of the album, the band toured Europe in tandem with Section 25, then effectively reduced to a two-piece after the departure of original guitarist Paul Wiggin. Indeed drummer problems meant that Gary Madeley was obliged to step in to hepthe Cassidy brothers complete the shows. The tour was organised by Wally Van Middendorp (of Dutch labelmates Minny Pops) and comprised six dates in Holland, with one apiece in Germany (Bochum) and Belgium (Brussels). SXXV's soundman, Jon Hurst, was no conservative when it came to interpreting the aural assault produced by both bands onstage, and it is thanks to him that these superb performances were preserved on tape. On several dates the two groups took the stage for combined encore jams, which included skewed versions of The Beast, Girls Don't Count and Haunted. The latter, from Bochum, can be heard on the Section 25 archive set Live in America and Europe 1982.
The European tour would eventually result in two belated records. The first was a rushed studio single, Sexus, hurriedly recorded in Brussels and released a full two years later as a 12" on Factory Benelux (FBN 18). Sexus, a robust if slightly unfocused rocker, was backed by the more experimental Black Death (Life Is Knife), which, Despite sounding improvised, was performed several times on the tour. The group returned to Brussels to remix the tracks prior to release, but it remained a flawed recording.
Soundboard tapes taken from the European tour (as well as several UK dates, many also with Section 25) were later edited down for a cassette-only release, Open Gates of Fire. Together with the earlier Blue and Yellow cassette compilation, both sold well following a glowing review in Sounds in 1983. Open Gates of Fire contained roughly two-thirds unheard material, the sheer velocity of which - on Brutal and The Plateau Phase in particular - came as a surprise to those familiar only with the group's more measured studio output. Perhaps the biggest surprise was a strangely straight cover of United, Throbbing Gristle's paean to transcontinental postal correpndence recorded at the Circus, Soho, in December 1981. An ardent TG disciple, Hempsall on occasion donned their trademark combat gear onstage, and a full-blown version of the song had even been mooted as a single, although this idea was abandoned.
More interesting were two long sequencer-based tracks, Choral and The Poison. Both explored a style the band never took into the studio, not least because a more electronic musical direction failed to gain a unanimous vote of approval. Nevertheless both tracks offer a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been. So too do Rainforest Ritual, At the Sounding of the Klaxon and Nightfall Ends the Ceasefire, all three brooding and sinister pieces, with the latter providing a rare example of a rock instrumental which is more than an overlong intro in search of a song.
Reviewing both cassettes in Sounds, the ever-helpful Dave McCullough found time to repraise the maligned Factory Benelux album: "The Plateau Phase saw Crispy as the new Doors, there and waiting. The kind of raw energy it whipped up was only matched by the kind of non-response it received. It wasn't only ahead of its time, it seemed to have invented it's own time, which is a neat way of putting it, as Plateau was about Time... and still ranks as a monster of an album."
But by then the band were gone. Crispy Ambulance continued until November 1982, performing a few more gigs in London and the North of England before deciding that the project had run its course. Despite the fact that the matt textures of post-punk had by now given way to the gloss finish of new pop, their final live date, at Nottingham Adub Club on 13 October, featured only new material, including Cult, Say Shake and Lucifer Rising. The mission might have become untenable, but it had not been compromised.
Although the surreal brand name was retired, all four members continued playing under the name Ram Ram Kino (German slang for porn cinema) with an epnded line-up. EMI expressed interest and financed demo time, but their first and only single was released on Psychic TV's Tepe label, with Hempsall again exploring the TG connection. Advantage (Tantric Routines 1-4) contained four funk-based cuts, somewhat reminiscent of Shriekback and Chakk, and marked a conscious move towards the commercial zone. While worth seeking out by Crispy completists, both the record and the band lacked the eporatory ambition of Crispy Ambulance, and eventually folded in 1987.
In 1985 LTM released the core of the Open Gates of Fire cassette as a live album, Fin. Again drawing on the exceptional live tapes recorded by Jon Hurst during the winter of 1981/82, Fin reflected the fact that during this period the band had developed with astonishing speed. Had the band set down a second album in 1982 it might now stand as a classic. As it was, this collection of rough live takes served as a worthy substitute, and one which attracted some glowing (albeit posthumous) reviews, even from the NME: "Long before Manchester crawled back into flared trousers, bands such as Crispy Ambulance were busily painting their city black with urban mood music. The Crispies were doomed at the time by being compared to Joy Division, but as this record shows, they were much looser and far less serious than the mighty JD. Fin captures them in action onstage, lashing their audience with such songs as Lucifer Rising and a wild version of United. Too bad this fine band ended up in the casualty ward."
"Unlike the sequenced, formulaic English disco bands which trace their lineage to the Factory years, Crispy Ambulance took chances, playing almost entirely new material at every gig. Live, their songs typically featured extended synthesiser or guitar intros and distorted, often improvised vocals. The instrumentals included here - At the Sounding of the Klaxon, built around a disjointed melody interspersed with sound effects; Rainforest Ritual, a spacey guitar solo; and Nightfall Ends the Ceasefire, featuring shimmering drums, long synth chords, and hypnotic guitar picking - are some of the best jams this reviewer has ever heard from a band retrospectively cordoned off into the English new wave scene."
In 1990 both Fin and The Plateau Phase were remastered for CD, gaining extra tracks, favourable reviews and (for the Factory Benelux album) revised artwork. Both CDs emerged again on LTM in 1999, and the following year were joined by Frozen Blood, an archive CD including both sides of the Factory 10" as well as the eight studio tracks recorded for radio sessions, and further unheard live cuts. Hempsall: "The reason why so much of our stuff wasn't released on vinyl is because we wrote songs at quite a rate, so in between studio sessions whole sets of material would come and go. Hence the release of Blue and Yellow and Open Gates of Fire. Of all the material put out on record or tape there must be as much again that has never been heard. But three-fourths of that I would say was unsuitable as 'permanent' material."
Completists can also seek out A Factory Record, a 7" ep released in 1991 by Washington DC band Unrest on the Sub Pop label. Alongside covers of ESG, Miaow and Crawling Chaos, Unrest also took a run at Deaf, although without improving on the 1980 original. The group are also namechecked in Running Order Squabble Fest, a track by witty satirists Half Man Half Biscuit.
Against the odds, on 5 November 1999 all four original group members reconvened for a one-off live show at the Band on the Wall in Manchester. Intended to mark the reissue of Fin and The Plateau Phase on CD, months of intensive rehearsal prepared the ground for a fine live performance, attended by a partisan crowd and preserved for posterity on a live CD, Accessory After The Fact, mixed by Graham Massey.
Crispy Ambulance followed this success with two studio albums of new material, Scissorgun (2002) and Thepwder Blind Dream (2004). Both sets were produced by Graham Massey, and released by American indie label Darla in association with LTM. The group also played four dates on the East Coast of America in November 2002, exceps from which appeared on the free live CD, Atlantic Crossing, and also appeared with Biting Tongues at the ICA in London in May 2003. In December 2007 the group resumed activity for two further live shows, with a low-key warm-up in Manchester followed by the sold-out A Factory Night (Once Again) event at Plan K in Brussels, along with Section 25, The Names and Kevin Hewick. Most of the their set appeared on the subsequent DVD, and with vintage Crispy Ambulance tracks now regularly appearing on genre compilations, their cultural and critical stock continues to rise.
Go to Crispy Ambulance official website www.crispyambulance.com