Over the course of two studio albums, several EPs, and live sessions, the UK group This Heat sought to decondition listeners to traditional song structures. Though the trio had superficial similarities to the post-punk bands that were emerging alongside them in late 1970’s London—spindly guitars, hypnotic vocals, and the studio-as-instrument techniques of dub—they never settled into a single approach to avant-rock deconstruction. Instead, they chose to continually experiment. Interrupting churning grooves with quiet or chaotic passages, their discography is speckled with sound collages, tape loops, and proto-techno trickery.
“There was this feeling that inspired us to pull the rug out from under listeners’ feet,” says drummer Charles Hayward. “I didn’t really feel that from other groups. They would find a process that was liberating, but then apply it time and time again. By nailing colors to the mast, we hoped to create a continuity of discontinuity.”
Prior to the formation of This Heat, Hayward had played with musically demanding groups like Gong, Phil Manzanera’s pre-Roxy Music outfit Quiet Sun, and even one gig with anarcho-punks Crass. “We were both playing outsider music and got on well, appreciating our differences,” he recalls. “I played it as functional and simple as I could.” Those outings sharpened his instrumental skills, but he wanted to be an equal partner in his own project, freed from creative boundaries.
Guitarist Charles Bullen’s formative experiences were similarly scattershot. Working as the entertainment manager of his high school, he booked his own teenage band (featuring drummer John “Brad” Bradbury of The Specials) to open for the jazz-fusion group Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express. Bullen’s third eye was opened to the possibilities of free-improvisation when he moved to London and saw performances from John Stevens’ Spontaneous Music Ensemble. When Hayward ran a musicians’ wanted ad in Melody Maker mentioning Soft Machine, Bullen responded, planting the seeds for their lifelong collaboration.
The duo was first called Dolphin Logic, and played improvised music that Hayward describes as, “emotional landscapes distinctly removed from jazz and rock.” It wasn’t until they met record store employee Gareth Williams that they coalesced into a trio named for the sweltering summer weather. This Heat’s live debut took place just three weeks after Williams joined the group, forcing him to learn the bass—the first instrument he ever tried to play. Adding these unstudied, instinctual decisions to his bandmates’ technical prowess became the missing link.
“It’s been talked about a lot how Gareth was a so-called non-musician,” says Bullen in a separate interview over WhatsApp. “That helped Charles and I throw away any last vestiges of chops, and to get more into pure sound, texture, and timbre. Gareth had a great ear, and quickly picked up a surprising level of ability.”
“We had songs there were never quite the same twice, even though Charles and I were ultra-rehearsed,” echoes Hayward. “Gareth was sort of like an element of chance, so we decided to introduce elements of order into the improvisation. The analogy for me was always thinking about our music like Piet Mondrian’s grids and Jackson Pollock’s action paintings layered on top of each other.”
This Heat established a base of operations in a disused meat pie factory they called Cold Storage—its unlit metal walls were covered in bloody dust. They spent over 50 hours per week in their sub-climate sonic laboratory, which allowed them to dive headfirst into whatever happy accidents occurred, always with the tape running.
The band would eventually capture the attention of both BBC DJ John Peel and Rough Trade Records, who released their second album, Deceit. The increased attention led to the transformation of Cold Storage into a more commercial studio, with Williams eventually bowing out to travel and co-author The Rough Guide to India. All three members would pursue post-This Heat projects, including Haywards’ Camberwell Now, Bullen’s Lifetones, and Williams’ recently reissued Flaming Tunes. (Sadly, Williams died of cancer in 2001.)
Over the last five years, Hayward and Bullen have honored Williams’ memory with a series of reunited performances as This Is Not This Heat. While that project has come to an end, they are now sharing digital versions of the most obscure items in their discography for the first time. Some of these were available on the 2006 Cold Storage CD box set, or Light in the Attic’s 2016 vinyl reissues, while others have been limited to extremely rare cassettes. To accompany the latest stage of their unvaulting, Hayward provides artistic insights and little known facts.
In the mid-’70s, Hayward lived in a large, squat building with 140 apartments housing punks, students, and others seeking refuge from difficult domestic situations. It was here that he met Ghanaian musician Mario Boyer Diekuuroh when he offered to share a meal from his home country in the days leading up to Christmas. Hayward invited Diekuuroh for a series of improvised recording sessions with This Heat, the second of which was released on a cassette by French magazine Tago Mago. Diekuuroh plays the balafon, a xylophone with conch shells for resonators and spider webs covering the holes to create a buzzing sound. He blends seamlessly with the members of This Heat, introducing a percussive pulse to accentuate their eerie ambience. “We went to this amazing parallel universe back down at the fundamentals of rhythm,” Hayward says. “Mario didn’t waver from being Mario. This Heat didn’t waver from being This Heat. All we did was listen to each other, and didn’t pretend or imitate.”
This Heat’s 1979 self-titled debut, known to fans as “the blue and yellow,” is the first hint at their collagist approach. After completing sessions with producers Anthony Moore (Slapp Happy) and David Cunningham (The Flying Lizards), they spliced in tapes from Hayward’s parents’ living room, their first show in 1976, and a 1977 Peel Session. The producers were initially unable to recognize what had been done to their studio recordings. “We just assumed that was what would happen,” laughs Hayward. “There was a certain attitude we had that allowed us to get to the most extreme places we could find.”
The album contains some of the band’s finest moments, from the explosive “Horizontal Hold” (later sampled by Danny Brown) to the haunting “Twilight Furniture” and the cyborgian beat-driven “24 Track Loop.” On “Music Like Escaping Gas,” Hayward channelled a vocal melody he had written on holiday as a teenager to create a terrifying invocation. While other experimental artists like Negativland or John Oswald repurposed familiar pieces of pop culture detritus, This Heat pulled from their own collective memories to create a patchwork of sounds and ideas across time.
Showcasing a dogged determination on par with Werner Herzog transporting a steamship up the Amazon, This Heat pushed beyond typical levels of human endurance to achieve their desired results. On their first of two Peel Sessions in 1977 (most notable for the shredding instrumental “Rimp Ramp Romp”), the BBC’s producer clocked out at 8 p.m., allowing This Heat to remain in the studio with a group of engineers to work overtime. This stretched until five o’clock the next morning when a caretaker attempting to turn off the electricity found them still inside working on mixes. “We had this attitude where we would take hold of a situation and make it do what we wanted,” says Hayward. “The three of us would mind-lock people. I had a headache for three days after trying to get those engineers to stay on board. It was a manic feeling while we were banging away, and quite intimidating to other people, I think.”
This Heat’s most relatively straightforward rock song, first released as a 45 rpm maxi-single, was written in response to the nihilism and negativity that was infecting their musical peers. It’s also loosely autobiographical: Throughout the band’s existence, Hayward cycled back and forth from Cold Storage, while maintaining his exercise regimen on tour. The song also served as a socialist political action to reclaim the idea of mental and physical strength after it had been co-opted by far right political groups. “We’re here to be strong and healthy so we’re not a burden on other people, and so that we can support those who need our help most,” says Hayward. “The squat I lived in had some negative people who had escaped hard situations, but the rest of us were quite positive. We created a good place and most of them stayed.”
The B-side of the “Health and Efficiency” single is this experiment in tonal minimalism, now available to hear at three different speeds replicating the turntable settings of 16, 33, and 78 rpm. Created on the same madcap day as “24 Track Loop,” the band used a sustained organ chord as the basis for the track, manipulating the speed so that it transforms dramatically throughout. At 78 rpm, “Graphic/Varispeed” pierces your brain, while at 16 rpm, its slow-pitched 30-minute duration is reminiscent of Éliane Radigue’s mournful drones. “If you go from one chord to another in orthodox tonality, the internal logic slightly changes,” says Hayward. “The most common way to think about it is that a minor might go to major. Moving from one speed to another created different pieces. Sounds were boosted or suppressed, and it’s almost like they were corrugated.”
One of the benefits of recording at Cold Storage is that This Heat were surrounded by studios rented by visual artists. Remnants of their projects littered the yard, waiting to be destroyed or reused. One day, the band members walked outside to discover an abandoned metallic sculpture, which they deftly played with mallets. This resulted in a sparse 23-minute group improvisation on non-instruments comparable to Richard Lerman’s Travelon Gamelon: Music For Bicycles. “It was like three of us trying to solve a Rubik’s cube to create what we described as beautiful,” says Hayward. “We had never played this metal sculpture before, because it wasn’t meant to be used like that. We all started in random spots and moved around playing things until it sounded right, and didn’t talk while we were doing it. To some people it might be ugly, but something about it is beautiful to us.”
This compilation of live recordings from a tour of Holland features songs from both This Heat’s self-titled album and Deceit, proving how the tracks continued to mutate with each performance. It also includes selections that would never receive the proper studio treatment, like a tantalizingly short pop song called “The Rough with the Smooth,” leading into quite possibly the band’s most harrowing version of “Makeshift Swahili.”
“Antonin Artuad had the idea that no text is complete,” says Hayward. “It was basically the endless rewrite. Songs would start out in one place, and then in four or five years they’d end up completely different. They were always growing, and would only come into place when the right situation caught them.”
This Heat’s second and final album is a landmark of post-apocalyptic post-punk. Structured like a dream within a dream, it invites listeners inside via the lulling sound of “Sleep,” with lyrics that resemble advertising slogans and false promises. The songs that follow depict the nightmarish realities of looming nuclear war, suggesting ways that humanity could organize in its wake.
Repurposing lyrics from unlikely sources—among them, the Roman Senate and the American Declaration of Independence—the lyrics fit the album’s cautionary themes. “Cenotaph” is especially effective in the way it highlights the way politicians use fundamentally empty language to justify violence: “A war to end all war/ And the war that came after that/ To keep freedom’s flag flying.”
The album careens to a close with “A New Kind of Water,” the only song with lyrics written by Bullen, which asks British citizens to imagine a deus ex machina while witnessing “New York, Moscow, Nairobi in flames.” The final melodica-laced instrumental “Hi Baku Shyo (Suffer Bomb Disease)” feels like you’re emerging into open air, until it suddenly cuts in on itself. “Inside the album are all of these references to deceptions and deceits,” says Hayward. “It pulls language to pieces and talks about the cliches of not being understood. One of the primary deceptions for me was that the three of us as rebel musicians were outside of the system more than anybody else.”