The Comsat Angels, C.S. Angels, The Headhunters, Dream Command...  All this & more
Stars On Ice - Sounds 2/10/82


Part 1: "A rose by any other name…"

Admittedly it wasn’t an inspired moment of blinding originality, but when The Comsat Angels chose the title of a JG Ballard short story as their name - and the British author seemed unperturbed by this move - they could hardly have imagined they would later be prevented from touring America on account of this.

Singing Angel Steve sits in my hotel room in Iceland and ponders the mis-fortunes that have befallen the band recently.

"Just as we were about to go over there, we got an urgent phone call from the promoter, saying that Communications Satellite Incorporated were going to injunct every individual promoter on the tour unless we changed our name. Things had got to such a point that we felt we still had to go, so we decided we had to change the name to CSA in order to…well just to be able to do it and play.

But this only affects us in America as yet, not Canada or the rest of the world. We signed an agreement in fact, and they allowed us to say "formerly The Comsat Angels" on the posters this time, but the problem is that they have the copyright on the word "Comsat" for the next 20 years!"

Didn’t Ballard have the same problem with his story then?

"No he didn’t, which is peculiar! Obviously they’re less likely to have heard of that since he’s English and so maybe it wasn’t published in America. Our main problem was that it would cost us $10,000 to bring a counter-action, which we couldn’t afford.

But if they decide to bring any action in England, we’ll fight it."

Did you get any good publicity from that in America?

"We did, actually, yeah, though its a shame it has to come through something like that - we did a TV interview which also showed us playing a few songs. It’s not as though we’re competing with them, but they said their reputation may be harmed by association with us.. we were willing to put on our records "we have nothing to do with Communications Satellite Incorporated", but they’re just so touchy about it all. They’ve got government connections, it’s all a bit strange."

Has it cost them much money?

"Nah - all they’ve done is send a few threatening letters! But even if it had, they can afford it! I don’t know if its important or not, but they were about to telephone each promoter on tour even before we had finalised all the details. I suppose if I was paranoid, I’d say it was down to wire-taps and stuff like that… I mean, they are a communications company!"

So how far did you get before the tour was called off due to the appendicitis attack suffered by bassist Kevin Bacon?

"We managed to do New York & some of Canada, and the saddest thing of all is that it was going so well… and they just went nuts! They were shouting out for sings, really screaming - no-one feels worse about it than Kev, but there’s nothing we can do about it now."

So you’ve got plans to go back?

"Oh certainly! At the beginning of next year, by which time we hope to have an American record company. The college radio stations are getting to be very influential - we were shown their playlists and we were placed at number one & number two in one - its astounding! It seems that a large number of kids in America are getting really fed up with Foreigner & Led Zeppelin & stuff, because honestly the FM radio is really that bad - we heard Stairway To Heaven four times in one day!"

Part II: Playing the game - and still hoping to win

Now 3 albums old, The Comsat's have developed a strong, healthy cult following… but that’s a long way off real commercial success. Would the band like to be more commercial?

"Commercial?" echoes Steve. "That’s such a difficult word! I want to sell more records, definitely! I like very accessible music - that’s my favourite type of music. I’ve always thought of our music as accessible, but that’s obviously not the case ..."

Does it surprise you that you don't sell more? Or does it surprise you that you sell even as many as you do?

"Neither! I never think about it - you only think about things like that when people say "This didn't sell too well". . but we don't think about it now, not after the first few singles weren't hits."

So why release singles?

"Because we'd like to have a hit! Every time a single comes out, we think "This is gonna do it" - we feel very good about its chances - then the reviews come out, which always sours it a bit. Then the sales figures, which sour it a little further and we tend to think "Oh, maybe it wasn't so good after all", which is a bit dangerous.

"That's why we don't play our last single It's History at the moment - I wanna do it, but the others don't. They think 'No, it was a failure, therefore, there's something wrong with it'. . . but I know it's good and want to do it! We'll get round to it eventually…

Can you imagine having a hit record though?

"I can, yeah! There's nothing I'd like better - that's probably because it's something that's eluded us! I really would like to have a hit, but I'm not desperate about it."

Is your lack of chart success made worse by the stardom of fellow Sheffield groups ABC and Human League?

"Oh well, there are groups having hits who come from all over the place! It's just coincidence they both come from Sheffield. I feel really pleased for them, proud even. There's a sense of Sheffield being proud of those groups!"

"But although I like the people in both of those groups, and although I like some of their stuff, the bulk of it doesn't move me at all!"

So where do the Comsat's rate in Sheffield now?

"It’s hard to tell. I wouldn't think very highly! People in Sheffield seem to accept you only after you've been accepted on a national scale. But respect in Sheffield isn't something that bothers me at all. I don't want respect in Sheffield. It's where I live, I'd rather be able to walk around unbothered, unknown."

Part III: Into style but out of fashion…

Do you get frustrated by how long it takes for original ideas to be recorded? Translated into songs on record?

"Yeah, I think everybody does. When we work on a song, we work on it for ages and if it’s not right, we just keep battering away - see, I think every song should have its own sound. I know that's not a popular view, but… a lot of groups seem to have a 'sound' and conform to that, but I think the content is more important than the form. The content should dictate the form and everything should work for that piece. Whatever instruments it takes to make it sound right."

But the Comsat Angels' songs seem to conform to a certain sound with the same instrumentation all the time!

"Yeah, well that's the outside view! The inside view is..well, there has to be some similarity between the songs, simply because it's the same people doing them, and we have a 'style' which is not apparent to us, but is obviously apparent to other people."

Why isn't it apparent to you?

"Well, because we’re actually doing it!"

Are you too close to it?

"Not too close, no! We're just close to it. We're there, doing it. So you tend to lose a bit of objectivity simply through the fact that you're doing it. We always try to make everything appropriate, but without throwing in orchestras and everything!"

But this new LP has a greater sense of subdued maturity, which almost makes it seem a less surprising music, don't you think?

"Less surprising! Well - that always happens. You get familiar with the way a group does something and that's the effect with every third LP by any group I've ever heard as well!"

Does if have to be like that?

"No it doesn't but you can't (pause) I dunno, I wouldn't want to chop and change for the sake of it, but neither would want to pursue something because it seemed to be working every time. It's like, songs just pop out and you try to catch them!"

What inspires you to write songs these days?

"Mainly just the urge to want across to write something really."

For posterity? To be acclaimed? .

"No - simply for satisfaction. There’s always something a little out of reach that you try to grab - and grabbing for that is satisfying."

Do you consider what you're doing?

"Oh yeah, all the time - I mean, you have to. you have to be responsible or try and be responsible! I don't mean to any particular moral code, but you have to be true to yourself to do the things you want."

Do you ever find you're too wrapped up in thinking about it?

"Yeah, but I know when that happens, and we know how to stop it we just go in and blast away, improvise for about four or five hours!"

Can you ever step back and look objectively at your music?

"Yeah when I’m drunk! Or when I hear it in an unexpected environment, like when I heard 'It's History' on Dutch radio as we were travelling in the car then you kinda hear it the way others must do."

Your earlier songs seemed to have a greater sense of clashing of instruments - with more frustration to exercise / exorcise - is that because you're less frustrated now?

The Comsat's in Iceland "Definitely, yeah! I feel a lot happier now mostly due to getting out the things that were bothering me into the songs, especially on the second album."

Did you lose your frustrations merely by expressing them?

"Not by expressing them, no - by identifying them!"
And it helps being in a successful pop group…

"I'm not in a successful group! I'm in an UNsuccessful group!"

Part IV. Travelogue.

THE BASTARDS!!! After picking up photographer Alison and myself from the prim, pleasant hotel in Iceland's capital of Reykjavik and taking us for a two-hour bus trip across desolate, blasted country side "The driver a good place for a photo session" The Comsat Angels led us through a natural assault course of mountain-climbing and river-wading (ooh that's cold!) that made me wish I'd stayed in my hotel room.

I mean, we were miles from anywhere! In fact, just about everything in Iceland seems to be miles from anywhere. I was cold and wet and miserable, weighed down by Alison's bag of camera equipment. And all the bloody Comsat's - the supposed bleak northerners - could do was frolic about under a waterfall screaming with laughter!

So what is there to say about going to Iceland with a rock band? The countryside consists mainly of solidified rock lava from the volcanoes, and contrary to popular misconception there is no ice. The people are infuriatingly polite and docile. Except on Friday nights when they get drunk, go to see a group like the visiting Comsat's, and steal your drinks from out of your hands.

Drummer Mik reckons he'd quite like to go back for a holiday sometime. Me, I never want to see the place again!

Part V. Sound advice.

What sort of songs did you like when you were younger?

"That's funny, because I was just thinking about that the other day - it was mainly songs which had sound in them that contributed to the feel of the thing. A tune can work musically, but then there’s also sounds within it that add to the picture. I can give you some example. There's Telstar with the beginning that always struck me as being very evocative - that 'kkkkchhhssshh' (does radio wave interference impression!) which faded out on the ‘b’ side as well - and even Messing About On The River - with the plopping noises!"

"And Back in the USSR by The Beatles - with that jet noise and at the end it turns into this
incredible wind noise swirling around. Oh, and Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell, which has gotta be about my all time favourite song You know at the end, where the strings are going 'de de-de-de' like Morse code brilliant!"

What about the megaphone on the fabulous Indiana Wants Me, I add.

"Oh yeah R. Dean Taylor, Gotta See Jane as well, with those windscreen wipers, that's really evocative, isn't it?"

Are you ever tempted to use such effects?

"Well. I think we do! Maybe not such literal sounds, but sometimes we figure a song needs something else, but not music - a sound. It's hard, because you’re working with things like synthesisers, which is an awful instrument, it hasn’t been at all exploited yet for its ability to make pure sound."

"But we tend not to use such literal sounds, we prefer to use things that we can reproduce when we're playing live. I mean, we just wouldn't record a jet taking off!"

Of course not! Angels have no need of such earth bound machines. Their music soars above the clouds and can take you places you never dreamed off. If you'll only let it. If only…



Alison: "So what’s Sheffield like? I've never been there"

Steve: "It's a bit like Iceland: but without the lava flow."

The CSA in Iceland Alison " Have you ever lived in London?"

Steve "No: I hate it! I don’t like accents like yours!"

Alison: "Bitch! I love that Northern sense of humour - it's very dry."

Steve "Only when it doesn't rain!"
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