How many versions of the Telescopes have there been? A glance at their timeline suggests that there have existed at least two. First there was the ragged gang of psychedelic vandals that Stephen Lawrie gathered up in Burton-upon-Trent (30 miles northeast of Birmingham, England) in 1987, and who held together for roughly five years – in hindsight, almost a surprisingly long time. After a decade out of sight, the Telescopes appeared again in 2002 with Third Wave, presenting a new, electronically grounded refraction of Lawrie’s heady vision.
Their first fleeting iteration – featuring Lawrie, guitarists Joanna Doran and David Fitzgerald, bassist Robert Brooks, and drummer Dominic Dillion — might be the frozen-in-time form that many remember them as, but the reincarnation has proven to be more sustainable. The Telescopes are now Lawrie and a rotating cast, and are also now on their eighth album, having released Hidden Fields this past summer via the Hamburg-based Tapete Records. Though the record was not a full-on return to their original sound, Hidden Fields did move away from the drone and ambient noise that Lawrie had made central to the Telescopes 2.0, landing somewhere more solid form but still plenty disorienting.
Two lives is one more than most bands ever get, but Splashdown: The Complete Creation Recordings 1990 – 1992 makes the case that there were actually three versions of the Telescopes. After the scraping, squalling Telescopes of debut LP Taste (and before that, the early calling card singles “To Kill a Slow Girl Walking” and “The Perfect Needle”) there came the more accessible, but no less virile, group they became during their brief spell on Alan McGee’s now legendary Creation Records. Their time on the label might have been limited, but it was remarkably productive. Between April 1990 and July 1991, the Telescopes put out four EPs — Precious Little, Everso, Celeste, and Flying — that folded their jagged corners into a more melodic psychedelia that jived with the E’d-up vibe of the era.
Jon Dale’s liner notes for Splashdown indicate this new direction was in part a creative compromise urged on by Creation, who were high on the chart placement and club credibility recently achieved by their tent pole artists Ride, Primal Scream, and My Bloody Valentine. Dale lets Lawrie tell his side: “Creation felt that with ‘Precious Little’ they had stood by and let us do things our way…but we still weren’t making any impact on the mainstream. They wanted catchier material. At that point everything changed. ‘Is it a hit?’ was their mantra. I’d never written anything with that in mind.”
For someone apparently so disinclined to aim for the rafters, the bigger, warmer energy that Lawrie struck seemed to come naturally. Even the Precious Little EP, where they had at first been able to ‘do things [their] way’, featured at its centered “Never Hurt You”, which builds from a simple spell-binding two-chord guitar strum (so simple to stumble on, in fact, that the band Sunny Day Real Estate later built a whole song around it as well) into a burning, soaring reverie. “Everso” was first sarcastically titled “Cathedrals” (i.e. ‘sonic cathedrals’) as a jab at the shoegaze trend the band were not entirely thrilled to find themselves being aligned with in the music press. All the same, it and the band’s next A-side, “Celeste”, are both stellar examples of that genre at its peak. Meanwhile, “Celestial”, the nine-minute dancefloor-wig-out expansion of “Celeste” functioned as the Telescopes’ very own “Soon”.
Two songs from the Flying EP, the title track and “High on Fire”, would end up on the album that would finally follow in May 1992. They were by no means the only standout tracks on the record, but they were the two that most connected the previous year’s Telescopes with this new looser, jazzier model. If Creation were hoping for a full length that would capitalize on the commercial direction of the EPs, it wasn’t going to be quite that simple. The band and label couldn’t even agree on a title. Lawrie wanted it to have no name at all, or be called “#”, while Creation suggested Untitled. Ultimately it came out appearing to be self-titled, and upon reissue in 2004 it was given the clumsy handle #Untitled Second, which it keeps here.
The record itself does not mirror that discord, though it is trickier to pin down than the EPs. The Telescopes were still willing to play to the shoegaze crowd, but would be courting them increasingly on their own terms. #Untitled Second reintroduces a free flowing, incense smudged psychedelia closer to the (im)purist spirit of Spaceman 3 and other paisley practitioners. Continuing to mellow out and move away from their early spiked confrontations, “You Set My Soul” and “And” were invitations to take a seat in the circle, pick up a djembe, and pass the spliff. Their fire hadn’t dimmed, though, as witnessed by more aggressive grooves like “Ocean Drive”, a precursor to the Dandy Warhols’ driving psych-pop.
Included here are four John Peel Session versions of #Untitled Second tracks recorded in the fall of 1991. It is telling how much more muscular, even at times faster, they are than their final counterparts. Splashdown is generously adorned with bonus tracks, including covers of the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says” and the Who’s “The Good’s Gone”, but the opportunity to revisit and reappraise the Telescopes’ elusive second album is perhaps this collection’s richest reward. As only Lawrie could put it, the record “started out as an abstract obsession with warmth and got stranger from there.” #Untitled Second is just as mercurial and bewitching as that description implies. Coupling it with the more pop-eared EPs, Splashdown flows almost surprisingly naturally, and gives this prolific period of the Telescopes’ history a sense of balance that few back in the day might have accused the band of having.