December 12, 2022

Honestly, you really could do worse than checking this album out. Really. Sure, it plays out like a demented day trip around the outer edges of your sanity, but there are probably worse places to visitSpeedvark. If they didn’t exist you’d have to invent them. But you might be too afraid to.

You might well ask ‘Speed Who?’ And you couldn’t be blamed for that, as this eccentric English act are a ‘household name’ in much the same sense as American inventor Eugene Polley. Which is to say, not at all, but as with the unsung Mr Polley, this fate is highly unwarranted. Polley, in fact, changed all of our lives when he invented the TV Remote Control in 1955. Not only that, his device, called the ‘Flash-matic’, not only looked like a ray gun, but also fired a visible beam of light at the TV in question, zapping the screen and changing channel. I think I speak for everybody reading this when I say ‘I want one of those, right now!’ In the same way as you never realised you wanted this great man’s Flash-matic in your life, you, like me, never realised until this moment that you might also want an album by Speedvark in your collection.

Now, the first thing to put into context here is that Speedvark are not an easily categorisable band. Except for the word ‘quirky’. If you look up ‘quirky’ in the dictionary, there should really be a picture of this album to easily define the word. If you think of the other bands which come to mind when thinking of that term, you’ll more than likely find an echo of them here. Stackridge, for example. The Cardiacs. Godley and Creme for sure. Frank Zappa in his more surreal and satirical moments. Gong would creep in there, as would their spiritual offshoot Here And Now. Throw in Kevin Ayers and Kevin Coyne to the mix as well. If you are intrigued by that particular list of rogues and reprobates, then you have come to the right place, and Speedvark will be only too happy to welcome you in and join you on your descent into madness.

The front cover here, fittingly, carries no mention of the album title. It is, however, painted in large brushstrokes right across the digipak gatefold. Pigeon Pop. There is, of course, no mention of pigeons to be found within, and nor is it ‘pop’ by any usual definition of the word. The original album contained 13 tracks, ranging from under a minute to over five. These are all here, with the addition of three newly unearthed ‘bonus tracks’, though it’s fair to say that few people would realise they are new. This is going to be undiscovered territory for a large number of people, but it is worth the exploration.

Some of the subject matter of the songs here steps right past ‘surreal’ and heads straight through the door marked ‘completely barking mad’. Black Fly, for example, concerns the demise of such an insect, but then moves into a quasi-theological debate, from the first person about whether the perpetrator of this dastardly deed will be turned away from the gates of heaven as a result of his action. It’s probably something you’ve never considered when reaching for a can of Raid or a rolled up newspaper, but luckily, Speedvark raise the issue so that you don’t have to. Panic, meanwhile, is one of the best pieces on the album in its vaguely menacing, propulsive yet slow-paced thrumming beat, like a sort of cross between Hawkwind and a Krautrock band like Amon Duul. It’s largely about the protagonist finding himself distressingly unable to pee in a public toilet. The album is full of that sort of insane yet marvellous non-sequiturs between music and subject matter, and it’s a large part of its unique – well, I was going to say ‘charm’, but I don’t think a charm offensive is what they were primarily shooting for here.

The oddly parenthesised (Market) Research Man is another highlight, the band’s prog influences being subtly displayed on a paean to the sort of crushingly tedious and average individual referred to in the title. It works on both fronts, and in a twisted sort of alternative world could have been a hit single. Then again, such a world would very possibly be populated by 18-foot fire-breathing millipedes as well, so swings and roundabouts there really. Opening track Singing Horses/Nervous (which contains no reference to horses, singing or otherwise, but is very pointedly about nervousness) is a jagged piece of mutant space-rock which would do Gong proud, while Private Eye Music mines a similar furrow in slightly more lo-fi form (lo-fi space rock may be a complete contradiction in terms, but Speedvark make it work). Plants is a bucolic little quasi-folk ditty concerning plants, told from the point of view of the plant, while Lava Lamp is an instrumental piece of psychedelic contemplative jazz guitar noodling, just in case you were wondering whatever happened to that particular genre. One of the most bizarre yet hilarious interludes here comes in the shape of the brief Ze Svingley Singers, a cruelly accurate parody of the vacuous ‘da-ba-da-ba’ acapella vocal music inflicted upon a hapless population in the 1970s by the likes of The Swingle Singers and, god help us, Swingle II, on seemingly every comedy or variety TV programme ever produced. If you remember them, it will simultaneously transport you back to a long-forgotten private hell while also making you laugh out loud. Which could describe a fair bit of this album I suppose, come to think of it.

Three bonus tracks (fanfare!) have been appended to this re-issue, though they aren’t on the physical CD which appears not to have been repressed. Whether this is an incentive to buy physical product to avoid them is unknown. The Rhino Song (annotated as an ‘unreleased live classic’) concerns that scenario, all too familiar to so many of us, when you find a rhinoceros has broken into your house, headed for the kitchen and is eating the food out of your freezer. Like mice, but the traps are bigger, I suppose. Mr Rat, meanwhile (noted helpfully as being ‘unreleased as Benny went a bit mental in the late 90’s’) is actually a rather splendid near-six minute late-’60s sounding psychedelic rock outing, a little akin to the Pretty Things after drinking some expired cough medicine, even complete with a small but perfectly formed guitar wig-out. On any other album this would surprise and confuse you. By Track 15 here it does neither of those things. The final track, Five More Minutes, is a lazy ode to what may simply be wanting five more minutes to lie in bed, but could well concern something far more odd. It is subtitled ‘unreleased, Pete was too frightened’, which may or may not make anything more explicable. Interestingly, when transferred onto my MP3 player, the title of this song appeared entirely made up of random Chinese characters, which is as good a way as anything to sum up this album in particular, and Speedvark in general.

If you should want to check out this treasure of questionable delights, it can be downloaded very reasonably from the band’s Bandcamp page, which also features such marketing delights as a T-shirt priced at a thousand pounds ‘or more’, accompanied by the comment ‘We’re pretty sure no-one will order it, which is a fucking relief as we haven’t made any yet’, which does make some warped sense. This non-existent garment can also, helpfully be ‘sent as a gift’. Ben, one of the band members, is also offered for sale. For 50p. He can also be sent as a gift. Honestly, you really could do worse than checking this album out. Really. Sure, it plays out like a demented day trip around the outer edges of your sanity, but there are probably worse places to visit.

Amazingly, Speedvark are still not only alive, but also kicking, playing a relatively uncommon live show at London’s Fiddlers Elbow on 19 December (2022, of course. If you’re reading this later than 2022, you’ve missed it). The band’s publicity for the show suggests that you ‘Bring your parents. Get them to bring their parents. Get their parents’ parents to bring all their mates. We’ve got wheelchair access, Ovaltine and ample coffin space.’ Well, you can’t say they haven’t thought of everything.

Speedvark. If they didn’t exist you’d have to invent them. But you might be too afraid to.