story, as best I recall: In the summer of 1988, Imaginary
Records, run by Porcupine Tree lyricist Alan Duffy and based
in the North of England, released the very first LP in what
was to quickly become a much maligned genre: the “tribute
album”. ‘Beyond the Wildwood – a Tribute to Syd Barrett’
(catalogue number ILLUSION001) featured the great and the
good of the psychedelic aeronauts of the time (or at least,
those which Imaginary weren’t saving in reserve for album
#2, a Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band tribute entitled
‘Fast and Bulbous’ which came out the following year)
performing cover songs of self-selected Syd Barrett songs.
Bands included Opal, Plasticland and SS20 from the USA, Fit
and Limo from Europe, and from Britain The Mock Turtles, the
T.V. Personalities and The Chemistry Set.
Chemistry Set were at the time one of those bands who seemed
to appear on every magazine cover-disc going. I can
certainly remember them being featured on flexis given away
with three magazines that I contributed to sporadically, ‘Freakbeat’,
‘Unhinged’ and ‘Bucketfull of Brains’, as well as with
‘Sound Affects’ over in Sweden. They actually did two with
the Bucketfull: a flexi-disc in 1989 featuring ‘Some People
Never Learn’ (from the unreleased Chemistry Set LP ‘Sounds
Like Painting’, about which more later), and a 4-track split
artist 7" vinyl single 'An Imaginary EP', which was given
away as a promotional freebie with Bucketfull of Brains
magazine issue 31, the Chemistry Set contributing a suitably
jangling number entitled ‘Telephone’.
Imaginary Records had originally evolved out of a cassette
tape label called Acid Tapes. Acid tapes had been started
by Alan Duffy during 1983, and released a kaleidoscopic
array of tapes and compilations featuring bands such as The
Cleaners from Venus, The Kitchen Cynics and The Modern Art
(who later became known as Sundial). With Imaginary Records
beginning to take off, (I have vague memories of this
coinciding with Alan Duffy packing in his day job in a
betting shop, but I could be wrong…) in 1988 Acid Tapes
changed hands and moved down to Wiltshire to be run by
musician and artist Steve Lines, who started out hoping to
find a home for his band the Stormclouds, and ended up
running the label himself.
there was a considerable amount of symbiosis between Acid
Tapes and Imaginary Records. In February 1989, Steve Lines
released the debut Chemistry Set album on Acid Tapes. The
band – consisting of Paul Lake (Lead Guitar, Vocals), David
Mclean (Drums, Vocals ), Henry Taprell (Bass - replaced by
Conrad Stephenson in 1991) and Ashley Wood ( Guitar, Vocals)
- nowadays refer to it as a demo tape, but cassettes have
always inhabited that strange nether region between being
considered ephemeral and bona fide releases. To me it
was an album, and a particularly fine one at that. Given a
catalogue numbed of TAB044 and self-titled, it featured a
fine collection of songs recorded on four track, all of them
classic pop-psych numbers with great melodies and hooks and
soaring harmonies. Elements of Syd, the Beatles and Buffalo
Springfield abound: I can still hum some of them today.
‘Sitting On Top Of The World’ , ‘Minas Tirith’, ‘The Postman
Rides His Bike’, ‘As Jane Arrived (Who Brought Us Here)’ and
‘You Make Me Feel Like I'm Sublime’.
Around this time I had become deeply engrossed in starting
up the Ptolemaic Terrascope, and I’m afraid I lost track
somewhat of The Chemistry Set’s subsequent career. There
was some talk of them being quite successful in Spain, where
a 12” entitled ‘Wake Up Sometime’ came out on the Romilar-D
label. There had also been talk of an unreleased LP entitled
‘Sounds like Painting’.
suddenly, earlier this year, up they popped again. I confess
I had to check to make sure it was the same Chemistry Set –
there’s been a few – but one listen to the new material was
enough to convince me. ‘Look To The Sky’ is classic
daisy-fuelled English psychedelic toy-shoppe whimsy,
everything I wanted to hear of the band. ‘If Rome Was Meant
To Fall’ and ‘Seeing Upside Down’ both have that Byrdsian
harmony jangle down pat, then each kicks in with a lead
guitar break, just like the Long Ryders used to do (bless ’em).
‘She’s Taking Me Down’ is arguably the strongest song on
here, featuring rich instrumentation, a gorgeous guitar
break and a memorable riff. The most ambitious though has to
be ‘Silver Birch’, which takes a leaf (arf!) straight out of
the Zombies songbook in terms of both production and
Hearing this new material prompted me to fire off a few
questions to the irrepressible Mr. Dave McLean.
PM: So tell us about ‘Sounds Like Painting’. Why was it
You don’t take any prisoners, do you?! You have just made me
have to go and make an appointment with my psychologist. I
thought I had recovered and now you go and mention ‘Sounds
Like Painting’. Noooo! The horror!
January 1989. Four boys go off to a residential 24-track
studio on a farm in Norwich and record what had been in
their heads for the last 12 months. Result: a reasonably
good record. Next thing was, we sent out a couple of hundred
promos to record companies, radio stations, fanzines and
magazines and get a fantastic response. A number of European
and American indie labels wanted to bite our hands off to
release it but… being young and big-headed we thought we
could get a bigger and better record deal.
guess what? A bigger deal never came along (a useful lesson
for all young bands to learn). We were stubborn and we
wanted to wait. But we waited too long. We did record and
release lots of other stuff but as time wore on, ‘Sounds
Like Painting’ just sat on the shelf. It’s a bit of a myth.
I had a re-listen to it recently and it sounds very dated
and distinctly 80's, and the drums sound truly appalling
(not the performance!). I appreciate that some people get
off on it and that people love an unreleased record, but the
new songs are ten times better.
How come the band broke up in the first place?
1991, Jim McGarry (Head of the Rainbow Quartz label) became
our US manager. This was before he set up the label. He was
desperately trying to get us signed by a US major. He
arranged for us to play at the prestigious CMJ music
festival in New York. Jim is a great guy and really tried to
help us. But we came back from the festival dejected and
Ashley decided he wanted to call it a day. Basically for him
it was the end of the road.
Three of us continued into ‘The Set’ and we were signed by
Polydor records. We released a couple of singles and then
entered into the studio to record an LP with Roger Bechirian
(who had worked with The Flaming Groovies, Dave Edmunds,
Nick Lowe, The Undertones, The Jam, Squeeze and Elvis
Having the luxury of plenty of time in the studio our psych
roots started to come spiralling out. The usual Chemistry
Set chaos ensued, chaos that saw the LP unreleased and
Polydor refusing to release a projected third single
‘Colossus’ because it was too weird! This was the song that
broke the camel (that was Polydor's) back.
What brought about this recent resurrection for the
February this year (2008), I tracked down Paul Lake again
and met him to discuss options. I took the ‘Sounds Like
Painting’ tapes into a studio but found they have
deteriorated drastically. They had to be baked in a clay
oven and transferred to digital. I then listened to the
mastertapes (digitally) and found that the drums have a
horrendous "gate" on them that has been recorded to tape and
cannot be EQ'd out. The drums were unusable and needed to be
Offers had come in from various record companies to release
‘Sounds Like Painting’ so I booked studio time in September
to repair the drums and give it a mix.
You were still receiving offers to release it?
during the last couple of years I regularly received phone
calls and e-mails from people saying, “Why don’t you get a
retrospective out?”. But ultimately we have the internet,
and specifically a gentleman called Valis, for The Chemistry
Set coming back together.
know him – a great enthusiast and a regular contributor to
the Terrascope’s discussion forums.
Right, well during the winter of 2007 I started exploring
psychedelic websites and generally discussing The Chemistry
Set and saying hello to the neo-psych community. A guy from
St Louis, MI USA named Valis made contact and wanted to
interview me for his psych blogspot (which I recommend, it
is called Trip Inside This House). We spent weeks doing an
interview. He is absolutely fanatical about us and started
spreading the word around the world. He has a huge network
of contacts and really encouraged me to do something.
the end of February 2008 Valis and I set up a MySpace site
for the Chemistry Set (www.myspace.com/thechemistrysetuk).
As of September 2008, we have already had over 14,000 hits
and over 2000 friends (including many bands you will know
Right, I was going to mention that. MySpace has proven to be
a tremendous boon for bands from the past wanting to let
people know they’re back out there again…
have people literally from all over the world as friends.
What pleases me is that a huge amount of our friends never
knew The Chemistry Set first time around and come from all
sorts of musical backgrounds and tastes, but of course we
are delighted to make some old acquaintances (Steve Lines
hello!). In fact it is a nice full circle, since when I
hooked up with Steve, I asked him to redo his classic
Chemistry Set butterfly logo for us.
It sounds a bit like when The Chemistry Set first started, I
seem to remember you used to send out tapes to all corners
of the globe!
the old days we would send tapes out but it is brilliant
that now you can send an Mp3 file to someone in Japan and
they can hear your music in minutes. So we have made good
use of this by reminding the world of The Chemistry Set by
sending our music to radio stations around the world, as a
result of which we have been played in loads of countries.
In Spain alone we have been played by over ten radio
stations, including being played several times by the most
important independent national radio show (Islas de
Robinson) which goes out between 8-10pm on Saturday &
remember you became quite successful in Spain – you had some
records released there, right?
Don’t get me started on Spain! All I will say is, the people
in Spain were the best to The Chemistry Set first time round
and are again this time.
You can’t just leave it at that….
Well, here’s a story for example: A top contemporary Spanish
club DJ (DJ Gato) made contact and it transpires that his
favourite record when he was young was ‘Don't Turn Away’
(the Romilar-D version). He bought it when he was fifteen in
1990. He loves the band and introduced us to his network of
DJ friends who get off on our music as well. He wants to
remix some of our music (at this very moment he has the
digital master files of the ‘Sounds Like Painting’ LP and is
remixing ‘Some People Never Learn’. The weird thing in Spain
is that in clubs DJ's will mix modern dance music with indie,
where in England it is one or the other, so basically they
are more open minded there.
Meanwhile, remixing ‘Sounds Like Painting’ has taken a back
seat to recording brand new material?
Right. Invigorated and encouraged by the MySpace site, Paul
and I started making demos (on cassette!) and sending them
to each other in the post. It is just like the old days and
soon we are thinking, hang on a second these songs sound
July, a Spanish indie producer, Manel Ibanez, made contact
and said he would love to work with us. His influences are
George Martin, Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett. I went on
holiday to Spain and it was then that the penny really
dropped.... it would make sense to use the studio time to
record new songs instead of remixing ‘Sounds Like Painting’.
and I agreed that we wanted to do a 5 track EP with 4
originals and one obscure cover. Manel is going to produce
the new EP.
Why a 5 track EP, any particular reason for that?
5 tracks it is manageable and you get quality control that
you do not get on an LP (sorry I still call them LPs). Let's
be honest, most LP's don't have 11 or 12 great tracks. Our
discipline with the EP is to ensure they are all great. We
really like the idea of an EP and want to do one or two 5
track EPs each year.
All originals, or will the EPs each include a cover song as
each EP we are going to do an obscure cover. On this one it
is a cover of a Del Shannon song from 1968 called ‘Silver
Birch’ from the LP ‘The Further Adventures of Charles
Westover’. That LP really moves us! It was recorded in 1968
with a load of cool session musicians in L.A. and sounds
like Del's interpretation of ‘Forever Changes’; it is really
eerie. Del Shannon meets the Electric Prunes.
cover versions we like to give it a twist, so for ‘Silver
Birch’ it goes into ‘Sanctus’ from The Electric Prunes/David
Axelrod LP ‘Mass in F Minor’. We had planned for a bit of
‘Fire’ from ‘Smile’ to go into one of our new songs but that
is a bit too obvious, and we have done that before with ‘See
Emily Play’ (using ‘Heroes and Villains’).
So does your own new material sound much like the original
Paul and I got back together earlier this year we talked
about setting parameters for the sounds we liked or wanted
to achieve. Our reference points were Strawberry Fields
Forever, Revolver, Buffalo Springfield Again, Electric
Prunes (particularly the ‘Mass in F Minor’ record, we love
David Axelrod), Moby Grape, the Del Shannon LP, ‘A Quick
One’ and ‘Sell Out’ era Who, Pink Floyd’s first LP. So I
think it sounds a bit like all of that.
the 4 originals, one of them is an update of a song from the
‘Acid Tapes’ demo album that should bring a great big smile
to the faces of our older fans. It’s very Syd Barrett, very
psychedelic - we have added Mellotron and the harpsichord
that was used in the introduction to ‘Lucy in the Sky with
Diamonds’. All of the songs have harmony, melody, jangle and
believe you are recording the EP in a studio on an island in
the middle of the River Thames?
it is a fantastic place near Hampton Court and gives a
really good vibe. We have vintage instruments but modern
recording techniques. It is a very creative setting and we
take lunch sitting by the Thames and watching the ducks
splashing about. We set up a harmony tank in one of the
studio corridors. The corridor is about 20 foot by 6 foot
and we put an old valve mike at one end and three of us all
sang harmonies together at the same time and we got a great
sound. We started off by doing some Gregorian chants and
really got into it. We are going to do every EP there.
What is the current line up?
this EP it is myself and Paul, we both play
guitar/bass/keyboards. I loved playing the Farfisa and the
violin bass. Also I play the drums and Paul plays lead
guitar. Conrad Stephenson, who replaced Henry on bass at the
end of the original Chemistry Set, does some harmonies.
Ashley Wood is still part of this. He could not make these
recording dates but we very much hope he will work with us
on the next EP. We already have 4 songs and another Del
cover for the next one.
Whatever happened to Henry Taprell?
introduced him to Spain in 1991 and he loved it so much he
moved out there. I think he is now in Girona.
Any plans for the new, revitalised Chemistry Set to perform
and I really do not want to get in the back of a Ford
Transit and travel up and down the country. We did that and
bought the t-shirt. We definitely want to do some one-off
shows but they must be a bit special. We hope to do some
European festivals next year.
we play in Europe we will play with Conrad on bass and
hopefully Ashley, but our producer is a great guitar and
keyboard player and singer so we have all the components.
You mentioned up there that offers had come in from various
record companies to release ‘Sounds Like Painting’ – are the
same people showing an interest in releasing the new
have a few offers on the table from some really good indies
for the UK & USA. We also want a separate agreement in Spain
because we love it there and they love us, so it is handy
that our producer has a lot of great contacts there. I hope
the EP comes out early next year. One thing I can say is
that we will not repeat our mistake of holding out too long
like we did with ‘Sounds Like Painting’.
Dave Mclean was interviewed by Phil McMullen © Terrascope
Online October 2008