Don't quaestion everything…


NME – 4 May 1991

“More ‘Tea’ Bickers?”

Is TERRY BICKERS a few houses short of a street or what!? He wants his new band LEVITATION to be huge, but it’s going to take a while if he intends playing too many hippy kid’s birthday parties using solar power! ROGER MORTON charts Bickers’ tale of ordinary madness.

Can you buy lion’s milk? Is there sex after death? Does a three-year-old see with the eyes of an acid freak? Does time move through you, or do you move through time? Who puts the swirls into swirly wall coverings?

And does the arrival of Terry Bickers’ new band Levitation signal rock’s re-capturing of mind-blasting, free expression dynamics which unlock the doors of perception leading to new dimensions of experience? Or is it the return of hippy bullshit and Progressive Rock muso wank?

Levitation, in the spring of 1991, are a question mark sky-written in saffron. They are a disturbance in pop’s peripheral vision, performing upper-stratosphere musical acrobatics with the confidence of alien day-trippers out for a joyride. And there are those who claim that the central question behind the incense fog of Levitation’s budding, experimental rock, is this:

Is Terry Bickers bonkers?

First come the rumours. Terry, it is claimed, has been setting fire to his guitar on stage, and Terry, it is alleged, wants to be a guitar god superstar. This sounds promising. Then you get to the record. On the glossy sleeve, giant fungus spores explode out of a surreal, mountainous landscape, and a nightmare bird flaps over the still topography of a glassy lake. Inside, the four tracks on Levitation’s “Coppelia” EP are equally, erm, far out. It doesn’t sound a damn thing like any of the retro-rock of recent years, and although there are eerie echoes of Yes/Geneshits/ELP ‘70s prog rock twiddliness, there are also hints of genius more along the lines of early Syd Barrett period Pink Floyd. This too is promising.

Next, the video. If early videos mirror the collective fantasies of bands, then Levitation’s short blip-vid for “Nadine” is probably enough to get them locked up. In it they get back to nature with a vengeance, reverting to face-painted primitive man state, romping in a forest, and in the case of drummer Dave Francolini, writhing semi-naked on the ground, eating soil. This is the final confirmation that Levitation are going to be value for money.

On a cold and wet night in Norwich, Levitation are due to play one of their currently rare gigs at the Waterside club. Just down the road from the venue, a group of geriatric Buddhists are attending an aerobics class, moving creakily to a Tibetan jazz-tap tape. For a while I make the mistake of thinking this is Levitation’s soundcheck. When the confusion’s cleared up the experience of watching the real band live is no less bizarre.

It’s like God in a tin bucket. The not particularly full, and not particularly stadium-like Waterside is rent asunder by the band’s immense, polyrhythmic, multi-sectional cloud-power rock. Not content with terrifying the crowd (well, me at any rate) with song titles like “Arcs Of Light And Dew”, and “Squirrel”, they drive home their purple-acid-flash trickery with maniacal intensity.

By the final pinnacle on a peak on a summit of “Smile”, Bickers, resembling a sweat-soaked John “Duran” Taylor, is down on his knees, wringing the neck of his guitar like a man who’d forgotten the lighter fuel, but was determined to make the thing blow up anyway. It didn’t, but that was probably for the best. The gaggle of Norwich youth looked shell-shocked enough as it was.

It was a great show. As if a jellyfish full of hallucinogens had crawled in each ear and contracted. But there’s not much there if you want to go home whistling the tunes. Terry Bickers. The man half responsible for the exultant chimings on House Of Love top tunes like “Christine” and “Destroy The Heart”, has clearly gone a long way. But did he leave the picnic lunch behind?

“There was never anyone in House Of Love dressing rooms,” says Terry, surveying the crush of party people backstage at Norwich. “It used to just be the four of us sitting there, really tense. And now look at it. I don’t even know who half these people are.”

In amongst the babbling, beering throng, composed in part of Levitation’s two fellow Ultimate Records support bands, Belltower and The Honey Smugglers, the rest of the band are getting into serious relaxation mode. Dave Francolini, who paired up with Terry after meeting him as the sandwich-stealing drummer in Something Pretty Beautiful, is gibbering madly to anyone who’ll listen. Impish guitarist Bic Hayes is knocking back beer, impishly. Keyboardist Bob White and bassist Laurence O’Keefe apply themselves to the production line manufacture of herbal cigarettes.

Terry, meanwhile, is promising a throng of East Anglian hippy entrepreneurs that Levitation will come and play on the lawn at all of their children’s parties, in a tent, for no money. The Noddy-brained hippies look excited. Terry leans over to me and gleefully explains that this will be made possible by Levitation’s imminent purchase of a solar powered electric generator, which will allow them to roam the countryside, playing gigs in woods and dingley dell. He’s serious.

Then he starts to explain about the relevance of Edvard Munch’s ace expressionist woodcut “The Scream” to Levitation’s music. Then he draws a mysterious analogy between what Levitation do and James Fox’s acting as the hard man seduced into druggy decadence by Jagger, in Nick Roeg’s Performance. And then by fragrant magic carpet ride the entire party is wafted over to a twin-bed room in a back-street B&B. Someone lights some jossticks, and Guru Bickers continues his aromatic, associative explanations of that Levitation feeling.

“IT’S THE walkabout scenario,” says Terry. “Like the Bruce Chapman book Sunlines, where an aboriginal person will just hear these tunes in their head, and they just follow them, follow these maps that they make up from sounds that they hear, and they just follow the tunes across the land.
“So we’re on walkabout. We’re following a whole sound concept, a collective consciousness amongst the five of us. And it’s a really powerful thing, and we can’t judge it objectively. We’re just taking the very, very early steps.”

Do you think there’s a place for an excessive, Progressive Rock band?

Terry: “Well, we’re progressing rapidly.”

Bic: “That’s something we just started as a joke. We mentioned Progressive Rock, and it’s like “Ah! So that’s what they’re into!” Everyone can interpret it in their own way. There’s a lot of people who haven’t even heard of Progressive Rock, so they’re not going to even use that as a term. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being excessive. People seem to think self-indulgence is a bad thing, but I mean, everybody does it in private…You might as well do it in f-ing public.”
The bands who have been mentioned in connection with you are people like Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead and Hawkwind, all of whom have been more or less despised for years.
Bic: “I feel really brilliant about being compared to The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Hawkwind. It’s still relevant as classic music. I’d hate to be compared to Simple Minds.
Are you going to release quadruple concept albums with gatefold sleeves?
Laurence: “With Roger Dean doing the artwork? No, sorry, we all think that’s shit. Rush! Now they’re proper musos, if that’s what you’re saying. We’ve got about as much in common with them as a rabbi and a ham sandwich.
“This is very much a forward scene, and that’s what’s really exciting about it. All this retro nonsense, this regression, is crap. What we’re doing is far, far forward of that…What I want to do is to be in a car crash with Can and The Cocteau Twins, and Sonic Youth and Kraftwerk…No, that’s boring.”

WHEN GUY Chadwick finally got round to booting Terry Bickers out of the House Of Love tour van in 1989, a fairly well defined, and naturally unsubstantiated myth had grown up around Bickers. He was, according to legend, a fully-fledged, narcotically-fuelled, rock wildman, pretty-boy, guitar-god nutcase.
After his exit from the HOL, when Bickers’ name was mentioned, it was frequently in connection with some oddball story. Terry stealing fruit from the dressing rooms at Reading Festival so that he could go out and live in the woods. That sort of thing.
Amidst the celebrations in the B&B room he exudes the sort of zonked visionary charisma that anyone who’s seen Hendrix or Morrison burbling into microphones on the telly will recognize. The sort where it’s a fine line between profound truth, and total tripe.

Is Levitation just an excuse for you to be an axe-hero?

Terry: “No! No! I take it easy now. I lay back a bit more. I really want to sing…I want to sing like Nina Simone, to be as feeling as Nina Simone. I love that style, and the emotion she can tap into. That’s what I’m into.”

You set fire to your guitar one night.

Terry: “Yeah, I did. Just for the crack, really. And it looked great! It looked really good! We’re into it, you see, we’re into method acting, and method acting is just entertaining and performing to the best of your abilities. It seemed appropriate at the time. It was the end of the tour and it just felt good.”

Does the psychedelic aspect to Levitation relate, as is traditionally assumed, to drug experiences?

Terry: “I think it relates to life experiences really. Life can be very psychedelic without any drugs. When you’re three years old, the world is extremely psychedelic. Life is a strange place.”

By the end of your time with The House Of Love it was generally supposed that you’d turned into some sort of “lunatic”.

Terry: “No, I was just very depressed, and it came out in strange ways. It was a really really depressing time, and I came through that and I appreciated life much more after I’d had that time. I vowed never to allow myself to fall into self pity again, because it happens to a lot of people and it can last for years, and then people can end up being completely off the rails. It’s easy to get back on the rails, but a lot of people don’t choose to.”

How far do you want to go with Levitation?

Terry: “I think that events and time move through you, rather than you taking…You can’t plan past next Tuesday. We’ve not got any major plans. We don’t know what’s going to happen yet…We want to cover all areas…Like Bertolt Brecht. He had a job. He knew he had a job on, like we do. We’ve got a massive one. We’re going to be humoungously massive…All we want to be is like Irie…Lion…Just like lion juice…You can’t say more than that.”

Bic: “Everyone’s fed up with milkshake. They really are fed up with it. It starts to taste like ashtrays.”

Terry: “Lion milk. Yeah, lion’s milk. Can you buy lion’s milk?”

Do you enjoy your reputation for being mad?

Terry: “I enjoy everything that I do…Yeah…I try and enjoy myself every minute of the day in some way…Even if I’m dreaming.”

TEN MINUTES later Terry has crashed out on one of the twin beds in the dimly lit room, seemingly having renounced semi-consciousness for the rest of the night. Bic turns his attention to the swirly bits in the textured wall coating, wondering out loud who put them there, and why.

At this point Terry’s eyelids briefly flutter open and he delivers his final observation of the evening.
“Have you ever been to Manchester?” he says. “The houses there are so close together…They’re just…so…together…”

And then the purple haze comes down again.

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