Perfect Sound Forever

Tape Heads:
A Brief History of the Instant Automatons

Photo Courtesy of the Instant Automatons

by Wilson Neate

People laugh at me coz I like weird music
People just don't understand
Why pay £6 for an album when you can
Listen to a weird noise band?
"People Laugh at Me (Coz I Like Weird Music)"--The Instant Automatons

In 1980, Malcolm McLaren reinvented himself as a champion of cassette culture. His latest protégés, Bow Wow Wow, issued a rallying cry to home-tapers everywhere with the cassette single "C30, C60, C90, Go!"--much to the chagrin of their label (EMI) which like all major labels at the time, was trying to convince us that home taping was killing music. But while McLaren's flirtation with cassette culture amounted to little more than a fleeting marketing ploy, other distinctly unfashionable post-punks had been exploring the genuinely dissident and innovative possibilities of cassette-based music for some time. The Instant Automatons were one such band.

Although they toiled away in almost complete obscurity between 1977 and 1982, the Instant Automatons were pioneers of Bad Music, a British DIY movement whose adherents ignored the industry altogether, took over the means of production and distribution, and made their music available on cassette, for free. With the recent release of an Instant Automatons CD compilation (Not So Deep As A Well), now seems as good a time as any to rediscover the free-music innovators who came from nowhere and went straight back there.

Scunthorpe and Grimsby in South Humberside aren't exactly known as cultural capitals, but these frighteningly named towns in the northeast of England did give us Martin Neish and Mark Lancaster, the core of the Instant Automatons. Growing up in the mid-'70's, in what Lancaster calls "a cultural and geographical wasteland," the pair were "united in under-achievement" on the academic front and inept at sports, so they retreated to their school physics laboratory. This was the site of their earliest creative efforts as they experimented with the lab's limited electronic resources, "emulating spaceship noises," inspired by the likes of Hawkwind, Kraftwerk, and Faust.

German experimentalists, especially Faust, struck a chord with the pair. As Neish explains, "I didn't like The Faust Tapes much but I loved the idea of it. I think [it] gave us permission to not completely dismiss our first noises as irrelevant groundwork. Also Germany didn't have that capital city thing. No one went to Bonn to 'make it.' So those bands existed in the hinterland, just like us." Lancaster recalls that the release of The Faust Tapes for 50 pence "seemed to be an incredibly radical course of action and helped to plant the seeds of Free Music in our brains."

When punk hit, its Do-It-Yourself call was heard even across "the endless potato fields of South Humberside" and, like everybody else, Lancaster and Neish formed a band. Neish became Protag and Lancaster became Mark Automaton. Together they pursued punk's DIY ethic further than a lot of their peers, rigorously applying it to every aspect of their music, from the creation of their own instruments to totally independent recording and distribution.

Much of the band's gear was assembled by Protag (the resident electronics buff): rhythm boxes, effects pedals, and a synth from mail-ordered kits plus a bass that began life as a couple of floorboards. Lancaster was similarly resourceful. Inspired by Big Joe Williams, who had converted a six-string acoustic into a nine-string electric guitar, Lancaster operated on his second-hand Woolworths guitar with a drill and a hacksaw. He settled for eight strings.

While both fooled around with synthesizers, Protag played bass and Lancaster took care of vocals and guitar (another guitarist, Mic Woods, would join later on). The band's eclectic sound had links with the work of contemporaries like Joy Division, Cabaret Voltaire, the Fall, Alternative TV, and John Cooper Clarke. Lancaster's heavily ironic lyrics often fell somewhere between Cooper Clarke and Mark E. Smith.

When "lo-fi" was still just a twinkle in the eyes of people like Robert Pollard, the Instant Automatons' approach anticipated what would eventually be a hip indie genre. Looking back, though, Lancaster is ambivalent: "We were lo-fi out of necessity, or at least 'lo-fi by default'--partially because of the crap equipment we were using and partially because of the recording techniques that were available to us at the time. We didn't want our recordings to be drowning in tape-hiss; it was an unfortunate by-product of our sub-standard equipment and methods. I personally believe that people who rave about lo-fi recording techniques these days are just being willfully Luddite. I believe very firmly that the medium is not the message." But Protag actively rejects the idea that spending money would necessarily have made for better results, since "massive big-budget recordings could really be insufferably dull."

Despite originally being catalyzed by punk and what Protag calls "its surging agenda of change and renewal," the pair weren't convinced by its supposed rejection of previous musical traditions. The Automatons held on to their old records, and their sound never completely severed its ties to earlier, decidedly un-punk genres like traditional English folk and American blues. They also covered songs by Richard Thompson, Leonard Cohen, Janis Ian, and even Hendrix. As Protag says, "I took on [punk's] change and renewal and didn't much bother with the rejection."

The Instant Automatons mixed the experimental and the conventional, with relatively traditional song structures often lurking beneath the surface weirdness--unlike some of their post-punk contemporaries who deconstructed the concept of "the song" itself. Again, Lancaster attributes some of this to practical considerations: "We were only just learning to play our instruments and our equipment was deficient, so even our best efforts to play 'properly' sometimes turned out quite bizarre." The band was never short of skewed rock and pop oddities, most memorably "John's Vacuum Cleaner"--a weird tale of love, betrayal, appliances, obsessive housework, and suicide.

However, the Instant Automatons' most radical move was their decision never to attempt to make a profit, aligning themselves with the Free Music scene and hippie-punk hybrids like Here & Now. "If you do it for money you'll end up at some point not wanting to do it" was (and remains) Lancaster's position. In order to make a living off music, the pair felt they would ultimately have to aim for popular commercial appeal, rather than pursue their own less mainstream interests. So Protag stayed on at the local chemical plant and Lancaster continued his duties as a meat inspector. They launched Deleted Records ("The World's Most Unprofitable Record Company") and placed ads in national music papers and the International Times, offering their tunes in return for a blank tape and self-addressed, stamped envelope.

The Instant Automatons released four cassette albums on Deleted between 1978 and 1982: Radio Silence--The Art of Human Error, Eating People--Hints for the Housewife, Blues Masters of the Humber Delta, and Tape Transport. There was a fake compilation, Magnitizdat--The Least Worst of Deleted Records, on which they appeared under a number of inventive pseudonyms such as the Bores, the Dismals, and the Running Sores. Eventually, the Automatons also made several forays into budget-priced vinyl, most notably with the 1980 EP Peter Paints His Fence.

By 1980, bedroom auteurs and sundry weirdoes were making their presence felt across the UK, following the same tape-based MO. For instance, significant developments were taking place down in London as Fuck Off Records sprang up at Street Level Studios around kindred spirits like the Door and the Window, Danny and the Dressmakers, and the 012. Indeed, the Automatons made their first vinyl appearance on The Weird Noise EP, a Fuck Off release also featuring several Street Level bands.

After the Automatons' demise, Protag did stints with Alternative TV and Blyth Power, and he currently plays bass in Zounds. Lancaster continued to inspect meat but eventually moved into IT (Information Technology). His first solo CD, A Peck of Dirt, has just appeared. Although the duo have no plans for a reunion, Lancaster can't help wondering how different things might have been if the Instant Automatons had plied their DIY trade with today's tools: "Nowadays, with CD-Rs, graphics software, and affordable high-quality printers, you can take almost total control of the means of production. My god, if we'd had this technology 20 years ago, we would have ruled the world!"

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