Spherical Objects \ Biography
Formed by Steve Solamar in 1978, Spherical Objects produced a unique brand of what early champion Paul Morley termed 'existentialist psychedelia'. Their first album, Past & Parcel, appeared in August 1978 on their own Object Music label, and predated releases on other Manchester post-punk labels such as Factory. Playing live only occasionally, the group preferred instead to concentrate on recording albums, releasing four in as many years. Both band and label ceased operations in 1981, after Solamar resolved a lifelong contradiction and became a woman. For the next three decades his music was rarely heard, and thus the Object(s) catalogue languished in undeserved obscurity.
Solamar was born in Gosport, Hampshire, in 1950. He took the name Sol Amar (two separate words) in 1975 when he formed the band Joe Panic, and later joined the two together as a new surname. However, he had joined his first band in 1964, at the tender age of fourteen. 'When I was about eleven I started to be drawn to music. Initially to Wagner and Grieg, but in 1963 I fell under the spell of the Beatles, followed by R&B with Manfred Mann, the Rolling Stones and Downliners Sect. Then my mind was blown by this chap I saw on Ready Steady Go!, John Lee Hooker, and I moved deeper and deeper into the blues. Also, in early 1965, I started to try to play the harmonica, but I had no teacher. In 1964/65 I sang in the Band of Three. I had been writing poetry, and I started to play guitar and write songs. I also loved - well, revered - John Coltrane's Meditations, which none of my friends liked, but which I still love. I also liked Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home, Jimi Hendrix (Electric Ladyland), Leon Thomas with Pharoah Sanders (Karma and Jewels of Thought), Alice Coltrane (especially Journey in Satchidananda) and Tim Buckley on Starsailor.'
Joe Panic were based in Manchester, where Solamar worked as a computer analyst. Between 1975 and 1976 the group played around various pubs and clubs, with Solamar on vocals and Steve Miro (nee Escott) on guitar. 'We were basically an improvisational group that was focused on many long solos and complete "reshapings" between the opening and closing verses of the songs. And also instant compositions where one member of the group would start with a spontaneous improvisation and the rest of the group would join in. I was aware that I then had an unusually low voice so I deliberately experimented with this. It was with Joe Panic that I first stated to experiment with 3 to 5 octave vocal jumps, which became a fairly individual aspect of my singing style.'
This idiosyncratic vocal style would became Solamar's hallmark in his next band, Spherical Objects. When Joe Panic split in late 1976, drummer Alan Robinson became the manager of the newly opened Electric Circus. At first a heavy metal venue, on 9 December 1976 the Circus hosted one of the few dates on the Sex Pistols' ill-fated Anarchy tour not cancelled by nervous local authorities, and hosted a return visit ten days later. Because Solamar owned some punk and reggae 45s, as well as Nuggets and the Stooges, he was invited as DJ on both nights. After the Circus organized a weekly Sunday punk night from the end of April 1977, he became the resident DJ until the venue closed in October, an event preserved on the Short Circuit compilation released by Virgin. The credits, incidentally, thank 'Steve for the sounds'.
During 1977, between working and DJ-ing, Solamar, spent all his spare time writing songs. At this time he and girlfriend Maggie were living in a flat in the infamous William Kent Crescent in Hulme, a fairly rough neighbourhood. 'In the flat we had no television but we had a stereo system with two large speakers. Looking out of the living room window of this fifth floor flat you could only see the back of the adjacent crescent. Other windows we kept boarded up for security.'
In these surroundings, Solamar wrote the songs that would appear on the first Spherical Objects album. Even though they were created on an acoustic guitar, he instinctively knew that these were group songs and not for solo performance. 'Many of the songs I wrote there were inspired by the love situation I was in with my partner, and of the contradictions that ensued. I had learned to live with certain "unsolvable" contradictions within me, but these became a more constant element of my life. Anyway, the songs with their contradictions just flowed out, and these weren't folk songs, as they were for a band.'
At the beginning of 1978 Solamar set about forming the new group. On his choice of the name Spherical Objects: 'Life was filled with contradictions for me. I chose the group's name because of the contradictory interpretations that could be drawn from it. While it could be crude, we all live on a spherical object, Planet Earth, and there are many other spherical objects in the universe.'
Although Solamar felt his personal life was fragmented, he was very focused both about his music and his concept for the group. 'I saw about 20 musicians until I found Fred Burrows. He was the key to the group, as his friend was Duncan Prestbury, and they both knew Roger Hilton. Fred's sister Inga knew John Bisset-Smith.'
In a contemporary NME interview Solamar told writer Paul Morley: 'I've been in bands long enough to know now what I want, and I've got reasonably strong ideas on how I want to present it. I found that musicians of my own age were very cliché-ridden so I looked for younger musicians where the chances of them being less spoilt were greater. Everyone in the band has freshness, they're all 20 or under, and they play effectively without in any way being virtuosos.'
Solomar wrote all the music for the first album and distributed it to the musicians in the form of a sequenced cassette even before their first gig. Then aged just seventeen, guitarist John Bisset-Smith recalls: 'The first album was complete at a very early stage. The songs and the running order were exactly the same as they were on Steve's cassette of acoustic guitar and voice. He conceived of albums rather like novels - he was a huge fan of Graham Green - with a shape that was self-contained and somehow necessary. With the tape was the complete set of song sheets. I sat with my cassettepayer night after night, playing along with the tape.'
Bisset-Smith was already a member of the Manchester Musicians' Collective, so the band became members too. Spherical Objects made their live debut on 28 May 1978 at the Band on the Wall on Swan Street, an MMC gig, and after just two further performances entered Indigo/Arrow Studio off Deansgate to record their debut album, as well as a single. Twelve tracks were recorded in a single ten hour session on 10 July, as live and in single takes, albeit with separate overdubs for the vocals. The result was the album Past & Parcel, and two further tracks (The Kill and The Knot) for later release on 7". Buzzcocks had recorded their landmark 1977 EP Spiral Scratch at Arrow, and like them Spherical Objects released their own record. £800 covered the recording costs, and a pressing of 1000 albums in a black and white sleeve.
It was the first time that any of the band had recorded in a professional studio. 'Arrow was a big studio in central Manchester,' recalls Bisset-Smith, 'big enough for us all to play live. Wept it all down and mixed it in one day. I was playing a guitar borrowed from Fred's kid brother. But I was never really happy with the album. Steve's original cassette had an eerie, histrionic scariness - enhanced by the stretching of the tape in places and the very lo-fi quality - which the records didn't capture. In particular, Situation Comedy was a demented, scratchy nugget of insanity.'
The pressing quality was also unsatisfactory, and after the initial 1000 copies sold out Past & Parcel was remastered and re-cut, with the reissue (in April 1979) stickered accordingly. The album (OBJ 001) was the first release on Object Music, a label set up by Solamar as a vehicle for Spherical Objects alone. The artwork was also kept in-house, as Bisset-Smith explains: 'My sister made the dolls for the album cover - a male one and a female one, nailed together through the palms. As with all the imagery of difficult male/female relationships, I thought Steve was expressing feelings about relationships, which generally puzzled me as he seemed to have such a good one with his girlfriend. They lived together and seemed very harmonious. Of course, later events made me read these images in a different light.'
Very much a creative auteur, Solamar was also the only member of the band able to drive. This kept him even more busy as regards gigs and recordings, and now as the owner of an independent record label. He recalls: 'When the album was done I had to pick up a Transit van, drive to the press ing plant in Slough or South London to pick up the records, then drive around a series of shops - Rough Trade, Virgin - to sell them. I then drove back to Manchester to unload the unsold records, return the van and go home. The pattern of that initial release day was afterwards repeated many times over. As I still had a job as a computer analyst/programmer, with only limited holiday time, two or three records were often released on the same day, and only occasionally would someone accompany me on these rides. In the early days in particular, with the release of records and live gigs, it was quite frantic.'
The single, combining The Knot and The Kill, neither of which appeared on the album, arrived in September as OM 01. Reviews were enthusiastic, with Paul Morley writing of the band in June 1979: 'The tightly structured music is hardly imitative or naive. By regulating distinctive influences - Love, Buckley, Reed are heavily discernible - alongside their own fully charged elegance the group achieves a music that is distinctly eclectic yet undeniably original and special. It is a very personal uncommon music, irregularly based with versatile, individual embellishments from Bisset-Smith's delicate introverted lead and Prestbury's subtle illuminative keyboards. The very curious Objects sound is totally unlike anything else anybody else is doing. Two rag dolls on the cover with a six-inch nail driven between their hands to crudely seal them together supplies a gentle symbolic clue to the ten songs' subject matter.'
The album quickly recouped its costs, and Solamar now decided to release records by other artists on Object, including Steve Miro, The Passage and Grow Up, the latter featuring John Bisset-Smith. At the same time, Solamar might not have refused a major deal for Spherical Objects, even though running his own label afforded him creative control. As he explained in the NME: 'There's two sides to signing a deal. The main problem is finance. I don't see any reason why, if we had a deal retaining artistic control, we couldn't put out music exactly as we want, advertising it how we want. Buzzcocks are a shining example. There's no chance of us going professional if we ignore the major labels and stick with Object. If we had control there would be no problem. I fully realise that if a company signed us they would attep to push us in certain directions, but I think the sound that we make is commercial as it is without us having to compromise in any way... But if we don't get a contract this year we will still release an album on Object in the autumn. We will carry on regardless.'
Although here Solamar referred to the group in collective terms, the reality was that Spherical Objects was very much a solo vehicle. Over the course of four albums in as many years, only one song was written by another member (It's So Good to be Alive Tonight by Duncan Prestbury), and the other musicians were treated to a great extent as session players. 'There was no development in rehearsal,' recalls Bisset-Smith, 'and I think I was the only member of the band who had any real freedom.'
Neither did they socialise in the way some bands do. Bisset-Smith in particular felt the others were outside of his age group, and did grown-up things. Individually, the members really only came together to work. 'They were all so much older than me! Only by a year, probably, but somehow utterly separate.'
On 16 December 1978 Spherical Objects were booked to support Magazine at the legendary Factory (aka Russell Club) in Hulme. Despite superficial similarities between the two quintets - cerebral frontmen, foreground keyboards - Spherical Objects were not well received by sections of the audience, as John Bisset-Smith recalls. 'A steady stream of spit bathed me throughout our set. Steve turned on the audience. I can't remember what he said, but he had a slightly headmasterish quality which amused me with its incongruity even in the middle of my dejection and revulsion.' Around the same time a Spherical Objects live cassette was made available in a limited edition of 100 copies. A planned London gig at the Music Machine was cancelled due to illness, but the band did manage one show outside Manchester, at Liverpool Eric's.
Despite Solamar's tight grip on his own musical creations, he was nothing if not generous musically and financially. With Object expanding, and profiled by NME as one of nine leading independents in September 1979, he outlined his ambitious plans for the coming year. 'What I plan is for there to be quite a lot of releases on Object this year. We're planning releases by three Manchester bands, who'll get 50 per cent of profits after costs have been deducted. What will probably happen is that after a lot of activity on Object this year it will either be wound down to a large degree next year, or we'll stop production to concentrate on wherever Spherical Objects have reached at that time. It may be possibly kept over to release things I find interesting.'
The year between late 1978 and late 1979 was frantic for Solamar, as he continued to do everything for everyone: arranging studios, overseeing printing and pressings, and also distribution, driving round to the shops himself. Spherical Objects aside, other releases on Object included The Passage, Steve Miro, Grow Up, Warriors and IQ Zero. Several compilations also appeared, including Indiscrete Music, a collection of early tracks by Solamar, Miro and others, and A Manchester Collection, featuring bands from the Manchester Musician's Collective. Solamar and Miro also collaborated on an experimental single as Alternomen Unlimited, released in April 1979.
After Past and Parcel was issued Solamar had begun writing for and planning the next Spherical Objects album, Elliptical Optimism. Ten of the songs were written during this busy period, while two were older songs and It's So Good To Be Alive (Tonight) was by Duncan Prestbury. Prestbury played it during a rehearsal, and Solamar decided to put it on the album, deciding that it fitted between I Should Have Left Him Years Ago and Lying Again. It's the only Objects song that Solamar did not play on, sing, or write.
The rehearsals leading up to the recording followed the same format as Past and Parcel, as John Bisset-Smith recalls. 'I think we followed the same process with Elliptical Optimism - learning from tapes and charts - then coming together to rehearse briefly and record.' In an unusual twist for Solamar, Comedians was designated as a disco track. To ensure that the band understood what was needed he sent a copy of a disco 45 as well as the usual acoustic tapes.
Elliptical Optimism was recorded at Pluto Studio over five days in July 1979, in tandem with The Best Thing, the debut album by Grow Up. Released in October, it retained Solamar's unique emotional undertow and mix of old and new styles, yet showed substantial progression from Past and Parcel. The album featured horns and synth on several tracks, and there were more interesting developments to be heard on the guitar than on the previous album. Certainly the first side is particularly strong, and Solamar was pleased with most of the musical arrangements: 'The title track had an unusual presentation as after the first verse and chorus there is an instrumental break without any soloing (more usual at that time), but as the second verse begins, a barrage of overdubs starts to erupt on the track featuring 'cacaphone' (actually a shawm) jaw harp and electronics.'
Solamar continues: 'When we were doing the overdubs, John asked to add his vocal to the chorus of Another Technique and to the first "hello day" on the song Elliptical Optimism, which work nicely. Lucy had been written many years earlier and was inspired by the Isle of Wight ghost legend of Lucy Lightfoot. On the fifth day, when both albums were being mixed, we couldn't locate the harmonica solos on I Remember You. So I had to drive to Hulme to fetch my harmonica, then return to the studio and re-play the parts.'
All things considered it was an impressive second album, but even before recording it the band knew that Roger Hilton was leaving to study in London. With John Bisset-Smith deciding to concentrate his musical energies on Grow Up, Fred Burrows and Duncan Prestbury also elected to leave. Indeed Prestbury had already formed the duo Contact with Tony Friel, formerly of The Fall and then still one-third of The Passage.
With Spherical Objects in limbo, Solamar resumed his musical collaboration with Steve Miro. Sessions at Graveyard between October 1979 and May 1980 resulted in enough material for an adventurous double album, Sheep From Goats, released as The Noyes Brothers in July (OBJ 009/010). Solamar: 'I enjoyed performing and recording more improvisational music, and these sessions were mostly with Steve Miro as The Noyes Brothers. For the double LP most of the studio time was booked for joint recordings and we had an equal amount of time for our solo work, but we used the time in very different ways. Steve Miro did a lot of overdubbing of songs whilst I did a lot of experimentation.'
Although Solamar enjoyed improvising, his real passion remained songwriting. As a result a new version of Spherical Objects was formed around guitarist Roger Blackburn, who was introduced to Solamar by John Bisset-Smith. Thepir were joined by some young musicians recruited through the Manchester Musicians' Collective. Tapes were handed out, and the band commenced rehearsals, also playing one live gig at which The Noyes Brothers performed live for the first and last time. Then in July the group went into Revolution Studios to record a third Spherical Objects album, Further Ellipses.
But there were problems. After the basic tracks had been recorded, producer/engineer Andy Macpherson took Solamar aside and pointed out that the bass and organ parts were not really working. Solamar therefore scrapped these tracks and had them re-recorded by two session musicians, who were friends of McPherson and associates of Sad Cafe. The rest of the album went ahead as planned, although there was an emergency call to the printers and all musicians' names were removed from the sleeve. Despite the problems, or perhaps because of them, it is an interesting album. The lyrics are again based around Solamar's obsessive theme of contradictions, but this time the relationship is 'objective' and the words are those of a psychiatrist and his/her patients. Musically there is a sea change from the mood of the first two albums. It is much more polished and the story unfolds into a mini-opera, which he uses as a device to put across his point of view. The last two tracks left the psychiatrists behind, and are based on gospel and blues, two of Solamar's declared loves: 'I fell in love with blues and gospel at the age of 13, but these two songs just came to me, even though on one I pinched and amended one of Fred McDowell's traditional lyrics, and they nicely complete the LP.'
Further Ellipses was released in September (OBJ 012). Almost immediately, another round of 'solo' recordings ensued, with tracks by Steve Solamar (Forewarned), Roger Blackburn (In Memory) and The Noyes Brothers (Good Question) all recorded before the end of 1980, and released on the experimental compilation album Do the Maru (OBJ 014) in February 1981.
That same month, Solamar came to the radical realisation that he should become a woman. 'Before my fourth birthday I realised that I was actually female. This caused me to have a breakdown, but when I was seven I knew I should have been in the girls' part of the school instead of with the boys. Finally in February 1981 I had a full realisation that I was female. My choice was either to commit suicide or correct my body and lifestyle, as I could not continue living a lie. The realisation resolved all of the problems and contradictions that my life had embraced and so during the pre- and post-realisation time many songs came through me.'
For the last Spherical Objects album, No Man's Land, Solamar retained Roger Blackburn (this time credited) on guitar, and arranged for Roger Hilton to come back to Manchester for a few days to rehearse and record in July. Solamar taught the rhythm parts and timings to a bass and rhythm guitarist, as on this final album he did not play guitar but concentrated instead on his vocals and (some) harmonica playing. The simple drums, bass and guitar format was quite stark and subtle, particularly by comparison to the previous album, but Blackburn's lead guitar is magical, evocative and highly individual. Solamar says he chose this format knowing that this was the end of the line.
Solamar: 'Even though I'd written enough songs for a double album, I decided only to record one. But it was an eventful time, and anyway I'd already come to a profound realisation. The album opens with a shrieking harmonica, just to let people know that this was not a comfortable time for me and the first track is the blues One Way Out, which on this CD nicely follows Set Free from the previous LP.'
The songs on this album were about the path Solamar was about to tread, and he wanted the album and its message to be clear and uncluttered. In fact at the start of the first track we find him clearly state, 'Made up my mind, just one-way out.' Indeed just before his realisation he had embarked upon a new heterosexual relationship. The lyrics in this his last album reflects the difficulty of his situation, and again the conflicting circumstances in which he found himself. Solamar felt that three tracks in particular - Wipe, Resting Place and No Man's Land - stood out as defining his transsexual situation. Elsewhere, The Cruellest Twist (of life's knife) laments the effect this had on his new relationship.
No Man's Land was released in July 1981 as OBJ 016, and was the last release on Object. 'I could not even continue being a studio musician,' recalls Solamar today, 'as for me to truly become me required my having the time and space in which to truly find and become myself.' To underline the point the album cover signed off with the message 'Special thanks to everyone who has supported us. Bye.'
Arguably the clues were in place from the outset, since the first track on Past & Parcel included the line 'Sometimes I think I should have been a woman', while the cover art featured a pair of male and female dolls with their hands nailed together. As part of this process of transformation Solamar even discarded his own master tapes. Having failed to find a successor to take on Object as a going concern, the label closed down, although Solamar did arrange for Steve Miro to record a third album, Trilemna, for the Glass label, and also financed the recording of a second Grow Up album, Without Wings. 41 Degrees were given Object references to provide credit for their self-released album Open Heart in 1982. However, Solamar's radical decision meant that Object Music was largely lost to history, and over the next 25 years just one Spherical Objects track would be reissued, when Sweet Tooth appeared on the Paul Morley-curated compilation North By North-West in 2006. Morley generously included the entirety of his long NME interview with Solamar and Witts in Joy Division: Piece By Piece, while noting that Spherical Objects had dropped off the cultural map by the end of 1979. Indeed neither band nor label even gained entries in the Virgin Encyclopedia of Indie and New Wave, a grave yet forgivable omission.
Today, the former Steve Solamar lives a quiet spiritual life, writing extensively, and recalls her past post-punk adventures in Manchester with detached affection. 'I'm amazed at how good a lot of it still sounds,' she admits, 'as I've not heard any of this music for nearly thirty years. Maybe I abandoned a musical paradise, but I had to take the path I then took. However music is still absolutely central to my life, and I hope you enjoy listening to these recordings.'
Louise Alderman July 2008
A founder member of the Manchester Musicians' Collective, Louise Alderman played in Manchester Mekon and Property Of., and during the MMC/Object period was the partner of Dick Witts (The Passage).