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Understanding The Impossibly Far-Reaching Influence Of This Heat

Members of This Heat — from left, Gareth Williams, Charles Bullen and Charles Hayward  — in Cold Storage.
Courtesy of the artist
Members of This Heat — from left, Gareth Williams, Charles Bullen and Charles Hayward — in Cold Storage.

This Heat has always had the uncanny ability to appear — and, then, after quietly disappearing, reappear — right on time.

In 1975, as the U.S. fled Saigon and Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party began its slow ascent, two multi-instrumental veterans of the London rock underground, Charles Hayward and Charles Bullen, recruited self-proclaimed "non-musician" Gareth Williams to start a defiant rock trio. Taking the name This Heat, the three decamped, ironically, to a once-refrigerated food locker in an abandoned meat pie factory, overrun by a confederation of zealous artists. This Heat called their home Cold Storage.

The sounds and ideas coming from Cold Storage defied easy conventions of genre. On two LPs and a single, This Heat, still reeling from the aftershocks of World War II, railed against nationalist dogmas, nuclear war and any view of humanity that might limit one's self-discovery. Operating under the credo "All possible processes. All channels open. Twenty-four hour alert," This Heat mined dub and Dada, prog-rock and politics, tape manipulation and tempestuously heavy rock. It could be loud and mean, eerie and apocalyptic, funny and catchy.

<em>This Heat</em>, 1979
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
This Heat, 1979

This Heat existed for less than seven years; the trio's very distinct personalities and penchant for endless debate steadily pulled it apart. Still, the group's extreme experimental impulses and magpie-like enthusiasm for disparate influences made this tiny catalog of music one of rock and roll's most low-key-influential.

/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

In fact, after LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy asks "Have you seen my records?" during his chronicle of cool, "Losing My Edge," This Heat is the first band he namechecks, long before Scott Walker, Gil Scott-Heron, or even Lou Reed. This Heat helped facilitate the ever-widening scope of indie rock, and predicted some of the thornier paths electronic music would pursue. You can hear This Heat's tension in post-punk and art-rock, from Women to Stereolab to Deerhunter, their frisson in noise-rock, their fluidity within interconnected improvisational scenes. More than four decades later, This Heat's music still feels radically free, unlimited in the shapes it can take.

/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

As with so many foundational cult favorites, This Heat's records have sometimes been hard to find, prompting a string of pointedly timely reissues. The band offered its catalog on CD in 1991, while the Gulf War erupted and the Soviet Union collapsed. It arrived again as the box set Out of Cold Storage in 2006, in part because Hayward was devastated it wasn't more accessible after 9/11 — nations had returned to war "to keep freedom's flag flying," just like he predicted on 1981's "Cenotaph."

Then, in early 2016, months before the Brexit vote and the subsequent election of Donald Trump, Seattle's Light in the Attic Records repressed much of This Heat's oeuvre into a definitive new vinyl edition. Those re-releases prompted a series of revelatory "reunion" shows under the name This Is Not This Heat, with ringers like Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Hot Chip's Alexis Taylor stepping in for the late Williams.

Now, amid the casualties and doubts of a global pandemic and civic unrest in so many corners of the world, This Heat are finally putting their music on streaming services.

"There's a weird inevitability to This Heat — it comes back at the times it needs to come back," says Hayward, from his home in London. "If we're going to be addressing the problems of the world through something that happened 40 years ago, now is another good time."

This is an introduction to This Heat's small but mighty digitized discography, so rich it suggests new avenues of exploration even now.

You can stream this playlist via Spotify.

Six to start

On two albums and an EP, there was revealed a vast landscape of musical possibilities. These six songs — some of the hits, if you will — put a frame around that range.

"Horizontal Hold"

Enormous, shout-out-loud choruses would soon become crucial to This Heat's compulsory weirdness, but not at the start. The band's first indispensable song, "Horizontal Hold," is a wordless wonder, as heavy and lithe as it is unpredictable and relentless. Written in early 1976 in preparation for a second gig, the song took shape from a series of improvisations over a groove that, much to Williams' chagrin, Hayward wouldn't stop playing. "Horizontal Hold" begins with this lumbering rhythm, swinging with the same barbed maul as Led Zeppelin's far more famous "Kashmir."

This Heat continually interrupt the beat with an unexpectedly long rest here or a wobbly organ interlude there, a weaponized noise squall now or a corkscrew guitar solo later. In this moment of early inspiration, This Heat suggests some unsung dub rhythm section, sequestered inside a bizarro studio built beneath a funhouse. (For a bonus, listen to the extended version recorded for BBC DJ John Peel at Maida Vale a year later, where the bass feels like a bludgeon and tape manipulation redoubles the vertigo.)

"Music Like Escaping Gas" (This Heat)

This Heat never intended to write mere songs — a few chords buttressing verses and a chorus, lined up in a row. Instead, the three wrestled with conceptual frameworks, hoping to distill reflections on high art and hard society into something profound. "Music Like Escaping Gas" epitomizes this audacious process: The song combines a condensed take on a half-hour-long improvisation, a mutated chord from an earlier tune, a melody Hayward wrote when he was 14, a suspicion of what greedy nations were doing to a shared planet, and the concept of "The Cloud Pump," lifted from a Dadaist poetry collection written by sculptor Jean Arp nearly 60 years earlier. As though delighting in building luxury cars from scrap heaps, This Heat thrived on endless recombination.

Alessandro Achilli / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

The resulting four minutes are, frankly, terrifying — a post-industrial wasteland bleak enough to render Orwell queasy. An oppressive drone hovers throughout the track, the inescapable hum of modern anxiety. An acoustic guitar misses every "right" note by a semitone, making its riff feel dejected and sad, like a child playing with a broken toy on Christmas morning. Warped drums and electronics hiss and wheeze, conjuring Arp's "Cloud Pump" as it puffs out its noxious atmosphere. Finally, two disembodied voices narrate the scene like a teasing Greek chorus, reminding us that we've lobbied for this ruin through dollars and votes. "A nation gets the clouds it deserves," the voices croak in matter-of-fact ridicule. "Give me carbon monoxide."

"Twilight Furniture" (This Heat)

No, you're not listening to Radiohead in 2003 or Liars in 2006, but it's understandable if the obvious influence of This Heat circa 1977 makes you do a double-take. "Twilight Furniture," the most bewitching song on the band's self-titled debut, mines the same pattern of deceptive simplicity that would give their apostles hits decades later — hypnotic drums, enigmatic voices, elliptical guitars, background textures so faint and peculiar you wonder if you've conjured them out of whole cloth. Written in part on piano but recorded without it, the song seems to linger in the haze created by a piano's decaying notes, as if the world were always about to fade away.

Hayward's rhythm for "Twilight Furniture" is so seductive you might be tempted to stay here forever — it's like Sufi trance music, slowed and tempered. But the song's eerie vision of imminent apocalypse, and the belief that we've brought ourselves to this abyssal edge, creates one of This Heat's most uneasy spaces. Above a guitar line that sweeps back and forth like a prison's searchlight, Hayward sings of state control and the self-deception that modern convenience inspires. "Nuclear fission, our friend," he offers, too exhausted by anxiety to sneer. "We must shake him by the hands."

"Health and Efficiency" (Health and Efficiency)

Did This Heat write... a jock jam? At least for a bit, yes. After a hearty year of touring, Bullen, Hayward and Williams returned to Cold Storage to commence the follow-up to their debut, when Williams teased Hayward for riding his bike to practice. "Health and efficiency!" Williams quipped at the unexpected sight. Those words never actually appear during this eight-minute anthem, the A-side to a two-song single that's driven by a riff as incisive as anything from Television's then-new Marquee Moon.

It is, instead, an ode to sunshine, energy, and "momentum over stasis," feeling at first like walk-up music for some major-league slugger. But the would-be hit coils during the second half into the sort of discordant angularity Battles later made its stock-in-trade. You're left to wonder about the sincerity of these people's enthusiasm for fitness. "Health and Efficiency" feels now like a cut-up collage of Goop catchphrases, brilliantly built into a jingle that breaks down like an aging body. Hayward understands the feeling: "We're being sold our bodies back to ourselves," he says, "and being turned into a meat market."

"S.P.Q.R." (Deceit)

One of rock and roll's great wartime philippics, "S.P.Q.R." lampoons the unchecked groupthink that empowers collective human atrocities — nationalism, genocide, atomic weapons, fighting at all. Dual photographs from different-if-not-distant German eras inspired Hayward to consider the way shared patriotism corrupts individual morality — one shot of Hitler's army marching down the autobahn, bound for battle, and a subsequent one of tourists on the same stretch, bound for vacation. Are we that easy to fool?

This Heat answers that question affirmatively here, jeering Rome's origin story of fratricide and its rampant inequality. "We are all Romans, and we know all about straight roads," squealed in lockstep above the wallop. "Every straight road leads home, home to Rome." It's an imagined credo of Roman pride and a reminder that assumptions of invincibility can kill us. Notice how the drums lag behind the shards of guitar and synchronized vocals. The whole affair is one tenuous connection from collapsing – as with any over-extended empire or brutal regime. Perhaps a new wave of white supremacists, inexplicably brandishing the title's Roman abbreviation, need an unintentionally ironic theme?

"Makeshift Swahili" (Made Available: John Peel Sessions)

Nearly a quarter-century after releasing Deceit in 1981, This Heat was still not satisfied with the version of "Makeshift Swahili" that serves as the album's blunderbuss and arguable climax. Cobbled together from three studio sessions, the finished product is indeed a glorious mess — ghastly drones, tessellated riffs, corrosive metal, absurdist poetry, screamed bedlam, a brief but delightful pop-rock burst that sounds salvaged from Sgt. Pepper's, all squeezed into four breathless minutes. "Makeshift Swahili" is a symphony of assorted cacophonies.

But three years before releasing Deceit, the band had actually captured a more powerful and nuanced take during their second visit with John Peel. It was slowed down, letting the song unfurl dramatically, from The Velvet Underground-like smear that offers the tense invocation to the manic screams and grinding noise that obliterate the end. The Peel iteration of "Makeshift Swahili'' is overstuffed with backwards guitars, drunken piano, and competing rhythms — fitting for a song about the death of language, foreshadowing our context-free social media age. This Heat conveys the woes of uncommunicative madness as loudly as possible, as if stuck in a crowded room where everyone speaks over everyone else.

Two pairs to compare

So many This Heat songs share musical parts or lyrical ideas, tracks growing out of and back into one another like some colossal system of underground roots. These sets illustrate the process.

/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

"24 Track Loop" b/w "Graphic/Varispeed" (This Heat, Health and Efficiency)

Perhaps no two tracks better capture This Heat's "all possible processes" dogma than these forever-linked instrumentals, both accidents. After capturing an electrifying drum-and-organ jam on tape, This Heat decided to loop the snippet again and again, speeding it up or slowing it down each time. They mixed those warped results while the loops played back in the studio, creating what feels like a live band working through especially demented techno. "24 Track Loop" is a thrilling, three-dimensional round of Snakes and Ladders, some randomized surprise appearing with every turn. (Bonus: Look for an even wilder, longer rendition of "24 Track Loop" called "Repeat," finally finished by the band in the early '90s.)

During the tedious and electrifying process, This Heat paused to do something similar with a glowing keyboard-and-viola fragment they'd recently recorded at practice. That's the sound you hear at the beginning of "24 Track Loop," a hiccuping drone that suggests the three are still powering up. It's also the sound you hear — albeit sped up and slowed down — throughout "Graphic/Varispeed," the wobbly hum of a B-side for "Health and Efficiency." The band suggested playing it at 16, 33, 45, or 78 RPM, designing a little game of chance John Cage might have admired.

"Fall of Saigon" b/w "Independence" (This Heat, Deceit)

What do the Fall of Saigon, the Declaration of Independence, and a whiskey-drunk cat named Soda have in common? Guess. From the music to the subject matter, This Heat explored most every inspiration it could find, including Hayward's love-hate obsession with television. One night, while watching the news in 1975, the broadcast pivoted from helicopters dramatically fleeing Saigon to Soda, a lovably inebriated cat. The juxtaposition provided a lesson in the arbitrary nature of pain and pleasure, or the way suffering and celebration are forever but a news segment apart. That's the tension inside "Fall of Saigon" — This Heat invokes absolute anguish through a sort of gothic Gamelan orchestra, while drolly harmonizing a bit of Soda fan-fiction. "I know all about cats and their heavy vibes."

While recording "Fall of Saigon," an engineer accidentally played the vocals backwards. The band loved the mistake so much they asked for a tape, which Hayward remembered when he needed a melody for a new groove. Scouring a battered encyclopedia for lyrical conceits, he spotted the United States' Declaration of Independence — perfect fodder for the backward melody and Williams' Wild West pan-pipe lines. The result, "Independence," is a menacing taunt, with rubbery bass and wearily chanted vocals that already sound exhausted by the United States' aspirations. By weaponizing this country's most sacrosanct text of rebellion, This Heat built a transatlantic protest anthem for unfulfilled promises.

Because of This Heat's very brief lifespan as a band, almost all of its finished songs — exactly two-dozen — are on the albums and EP. If you feel inspired, you can track down bootlegs (and there are lots), pay mightily for a 1982 split cassette, or trace the trio's members through multiple post-This Heat projects.

But the fastest and cheapest way to imagine what else it might have been is to listen to "Aerial Photography," a five-minute onstage improvisation for guitar, melodica and keys, found on Live 80/81. The band drifts around an implied rhythm, wisps of dissonance curling upward like smoke. It's easy to picture Charles and Charles and Gareth taking the jam back to Cold Storage, where they'd argue about it until shaping some delightfully obtuse attack on early-'80s global conservatism. In the end, though, the song goes nowhere while suggesting it could go anywhere — much like This Heat, start to finish.

Still curious? Don't know where to begin with K-pop, or queer punk? Head here for more Starter Kits.

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