by Phil McMullen


The story, as best I recall: In the summer of 1988, Imaginary Records, run by Porcupine Tree lyricist Alan Duffy and based in the North of England, released the very first LP in what was to quickly become a much maligned genre: the “tribute album”.  ‘Beyond the Wildwood – a Tribute to Syd Barrett’ (catalogue number ILLUSION001) featured the great and the good of the psychedelic aeronauts of the time (or at least, those which Imaginary weren’t saving in reserve for album #2, a Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band tribute entitled ‘Fast and Bulbous’ which came out the following year) performing cover songs of self-selected Syd Barrett songs. Bands included Opal, Plasticland and SS20 from the USA, Fit and Limo from Europe, and from Britain The Mock Turtles, the T.V. Personalities and The Chemistry Set.


The Chemistry Set were at the time one of those bands who seemed to appear on every magazine cover-disc going. I can certainly remember them being featured on flexis given away with three magazines that I contributed to sporadically, ‘Freakbeat’, ‘Unhinged’ and ‘Bucketfull of Brains’, as well as with ‘Sound Affects’ over in Sweden. They actually did two with the Bucketfull: a flexi-disc in 1989 featuring ‘Some People Never Learn’ (from the unreleased Chemistry Set LP ‘Sounds Like Painting’, about which more later), and a 4-track split artist 7" vinyl single 'An Imaginary EP', which was given away as a promotional freebie with Bucketfull of Brains magazine issue 31, the Chemistry Set contributing a suitably jangling number entitled ‘Telephone’.


Now, Imaginary Records had originally evolved out of a cassette tape label called Acid Tapes.  Acid tapes had been started by Alan Duffy during 1983, and released a kaleidoscopic array of tapes and compilations featuring bands such as The Cleaners from Venus, The Kitchen Cynics and The Modern Art (who later became known as Sundial). With Imaginary Records beginning to take off, (I have vague memories of this coinciding with Alan Duffy packing in his day job in a betting shop, but I could be wrong…) in 1988 Acid Tapes changed hands and moved down to Wiltshire to be run by musician and artist Steve Lines, who started out hoping to find a home for his band the Stormclouds, and ended up running the label himself.


Thus there was a considerable amount of symbiosis between Acid Tapes and Imaginary Records.  In February 1989, Steve Lines released the debut Chemistry Set album on Acid Tapes. The band – consisting of Paul Lake (Lead Guitar, Vocals), David Mclean (Drums, Vocals ), Henry Taprell (Bass -  replaced by Conrad Stephenson in 1991) and Ashley Wood ( Guitar, Vocals) - nowadays refer to it as a demo tape, but cassettes have always inhabited that strange nether region between being considered ephemeral and bona fide releases. To me it was an album, and a particularly fine one at that. Given a catalogue numbed of TAB044 and self-titled, it featured a fine collection of songs recorded on four track, all of them classic pop-psych numbers with great melodies and hooks and soaring harmonies. Elements of Syd, the Beatles and Buffalo Springfield abound: I can still hum some of them today. ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’ , ‘Minas Tirith’, ‘The Postman Rides His Bike’, ‘As Jane Arrived (Who Brought Us Here)’ and ‘You Make Me Feel Like I'm Sublime’.  


Around this time I had become deeply engrossed in starting up the Ptolemaic Terrascope, and I’m afraid I lost track somewhat of The Chemistry Set’s subsequent career.  There was some talk of them being quite successful in Spain, where a 12” entitled ‘Wake Up Sometime’ came out on the Romilar-D label. There had also been talk of an unreleased LP entitled ‘Sounds like Painting’.


Then suddenly, earlier this year, up they popped again. I confess I had to check to make sure it was the same Chemistry Set – there’s been a few – but one listen to the new material was enough to convince me.  ‘Look To The Sky’ is classic daisy-fuelled English psychedelic toy-shoppe whimsy, everything I wanted to hear of the band. ‘If Rome Was Meant To Fall’ and ‘Seeing Upside Down’ both have that Byrdsian harmony jangle down pat, then each kicks in with a lead guitar break, just like the Long Ryders used to do (bless ’em).  ‘She’s Taking Me Down’ is arguably the strongest song on here, featuring rich instrumentation, a gorgeous guitar break and a memorable riff. The most ambitious though has to be ‘Silver Birch’, which takes a leaf (arf!) straight out of the Zombies songbook in terms of both production and delivery.


Hearing this new material prompted me to fire off a few questions to the irrepressible Mr. Dave McLean.


PM: So tell us about ‘Sounds Like Painting’. Why was it never released?


DM: You don’t take any prisoners, do you?! You have just made me have to go and make an appointment with my psychologist. I thought I had recovered and now you go and mention ‘Sounds Like Painting’. Noooo! The horror!


It’s January 1989. Four boys go off to a residential 24-track studio on a farm in Norwich and record what had been in their heads for the last 12 months. Result: a reasonably good record. Next thing was, we sent out a couple of hundred promos to record companies, radio stations, fanzines and magazines and get a fantastic response. A number of European and American indie labels wanted to bite our hands off to release it but… being young and big-headed we thought we could get a bigger and better record deal.


But guess what? A bigger deal never came along (a useful lesson for all young bands to learn). We were stubborn and we wanted to wait. But we waited too long. We did record and release lots of other stuff but as time wore on, ‘Sounds Like Painting’ just sat on the shelf. It’s a bit of a myth. I had a re-listen to it recently and it sounds very dated and distinctly 80's, and the drums sound truly appalling (not the performance!). I appreciate that some people get off on it and that people love an unreleased record, but the new songs are ten times better.


How come the band broke up in the first place?


In 1991, Jim McGarry (Head of the Rainbow Quartz label) became our US manager. This was before he set up the label. He was desperately trying to get us signed by a US major. He arranged for us to play at the prestigious CMJ music festival in New York. Jim is a great guy and really tried to help us. But we came back from the festival dejected and Ashley decided he wanted to call it a day. Basically for him it was the end of the road.


Three of us continued into ‘The Set’ and we were signed by Polydor records. We released a couple of singles and then entered into the studio to record an LP with Roger Bechirian (who had worked with The Flaming Groovies, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, The Undertones, The Jam, Squeeze and Elvis Costello).


Having the luxury of plenty of time in the studio our psych roots started to come spiralling out. The usual Chemistry Set chaos ensued, chaos that saw the LP unreleased and Polydor refusing to release a projected third single ‘Colossus’ because it was too weird! This was the song that broke the camel (that was Polydor's) back.



What brought about this recent resurrection for the Chemistry Set?


In February this year (2008), I tracked down Paul Lake again and met him to discuss options. I took the ‘Sounds Like Painting’ tapes into a studio but found they have deteriorated drastically. They had to be baked in a clay oven and transferred to digital. I then listened to the mastertapes (digitally) and found that the drums have a horrendous "gate" on them that has been recorded to tape and cannot be EQ'd out. The drums were unusable and needed to be replaced.


Offers had come in from various record companies to release ‘Sounds Like Painting’ so I booked studio time in September to repair the drums and give it a mix.


You were still receiving offers to release it?


Yes, during the last couple of years I regularly received phone calls and e-mails from people saying, “Why don’t you get a retrospective out?”.  But ultimately we have the internet, and specifically a gentleman called Valis, for The Chemistry Set coming back together.


I know him – a great enthusiast and a regular contributor to the Terrascope’s discussion forums.


Right, well during the winter of 2007 I started exploring psychedelic websites and generally discussing The Chemistry Set and saying hello to the neo-psych community. A guy from St Louis, MI USA named Valis made contact and wanted to interview me for his psych blogspot (which I recommend, it is called Trip Inside This House). We spent weeks doing an interview. He is absolutely fanatical about us and started spreading the word around the world. He has a huge network of contacts and really encouraged me to do something.


At the end of February 2008 Valis and I set up a MySpace site for the Chemistry Set ( As of September 2008, we have already had over 14,000 hits and over 2000 friends (including many bands you will know and love).


Right, I was going to mention that. MySpace has proven to be a tremendous boon for bands from the past wanting to let people know they’re back out there again…


We have people literally from all over the world as friends. What pleases me is that a huge amount of our friends never knew The Chemistry Set first time around and come from all sorts of musical backgrounds and tastes, but of course we are delighted to make some old acquaintances (Steve Lines hello!). In fact it is a nice full circle, since when I hooked up with Steve, I asked him to redo his classic Chemistry Set butterfly logo for us.


It sounds a bit like when The Chemistry Set first started, I seem to remember you used to send out tapes to all corners of the globe!


In the old days we would send tapes out but it is brilliant that now you can send an Mp3 file to someone in Japan and they can hear your music in minutes. So we have made good use of this by reminding the world of The Chemistry Set by sending our music to radio stations around the world, as a result of which we have been played in loads of countries. In Spain alone we have been played by over ten radio stations, including being played several times by the most important independent national radio show (Islas de Robinson) which goes out between 8-10pm on Saturday & Sunday.


I remember you became quite successful in Spain – you had some records released there, right?


Don’t get me started on Spain! All I will say is, the people in Spain were the best to The Chemistry Set first time round and are again this time.


You can’t just leave it at that….


Well, here’s a story for example: A top contemporary Spanish club DJ (DJ Gato) made contact and it transpires that his favourite record when he was young was ‘Don't Turn Away’ (the Romilar-D version). He bought it when he was fifteen in 1990. He loves the band and introduced us to his network of DJ friends who get off on our music as well. He wants to remix some of our music (at this very moment he has the digital master files of the ‘Sounds Like Painting’ LP and is remixing ‘Some People Never Learn’. The weird thing in Spain is that in clubs DJ's will mix modern dance music with indie, where in England it is one or the other, so basically they are more open minded there.


Meanwhile, remixing ‘Sounds Like Painting’ has taken a back seat to recording brand new material?


Right. Invigorated and encouraged by the MySpace site, Paul and I started making demos (on cassette!) and sending them to each other in the post. It is just like the old days and soon we are thinking, hang on a second these songs sound good!


In July, a Spanish indie producer, Manel Ibanez, made contact and said he would love to work with us. His influences are George Martin, Brian Wilson and Syd Barrett. I went on holiday to Spain and it was then that the penny really dropped.... it would make sense to use the studio time to record new songs instead of remixing ‘Sounds Like Painting’.


Paul and I agreed that we wanted to do a 5 track EP with 4 originals and one obscure cover. Manel is going to produce the new EP.


Why a 5 track EP, any particular reason for that?


With 5 tracks it is manageable and you get quality control that you do not get on an LP (sorry I still call them LPs). Let's be honest, most LP's don't have 11 or 12 great tracks. Our discipline with the EP is to ensure they are all great. We really like the idea of an EP and want to do one or two 5 track EPs each year.


All originals, or will the EPs each include a cover song as well?


For each EP we are going to do an obscure cover. On this one it is a cover of a Del Shannon song from 1968 called ‘Silver Birch’ from the LP ‘The Further Adventures of Charles Westover’. That LP really moves us! It was recorded in 1968 with a load of cool session musicians in L.A. and sounds like Del's interpretation of ‘Forever Changes’; it is really eerie. Del Shannon meets the Electric Prunes.


With cover versions we like to give it a twist, so for ‘Silver Birch’ it goes into ‘Sanctus’ from The Electric Prunes/David Axelrod LP ‘Mass in F Minor’. We had planned for a bit of ‘Fire’ from ‘Smile’ to go into one of our new songs but that is a bit too obvious, and we have done that before with ‘See Emily Play’ (using ‘Heroes and Villains’).


So does your own new material sound much like the original Chemistry Set?


When Paul and I got back together earlier this year we talked about setting parameters for the sounds we liked or wanted to achieve. Our reference points were Strawberry Fields Forever, Revolver, Buffalo Springfield Again, Electric Prunes (particularly the ‘Mass in F Minor’ record, we love David Axelrod), Moby Grape, the  Del Shannon LP, ‘A Quick One’ and ‘Sell Out’ era Who, Pink Floyd’s first LP. So I think it sounds a bit like all of that.


Of the 4 originals, one of them is an update of a song from the ‘Acid Tapes’ demo album that should bring a great big smile to the faces of our older fans. It’s very Syd Barrett, very psychedelic - we have added Mellotron and the harpsichord that was used in the introduction to ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. All of the songs have harmony, melody, jangle and harmonies.


I believe you are recording the EP in a studio on an island in the middle of the River Thames?


Yes it is a fantastic place near Hampton Court and gives a really good vibe. We have vintage instruments but modern recording techniques.  It is a very creative setting and we take lunch sitting by the Thames and watching the ducks splashing about. We set up a harmony tank in one of the studio corridors. The corridor is about 20 foot by 6 foot and we put an old valve mike at one end and three of us all sang harmonies together at the same time and we got a great sound. We started off by doing some Gregorian chants and really got into it. We are going to do every EP there.


What is the current line up?


On this EP it is myself and Paul, we both play guitar/bass/keyboards. I loved playing the Farfisa and the violin bass. Also I play the drums and Paul plays lead guitar. Conrad Stephenson, who replaced Henry on bass at the end of the original Chemistry Set, does some harmonies.


Ashley Wood is still part of this. He could not make these recording dates but we very much hope he will work with us on the next EP. We already have 4 songs and another Del cover for the next one.


Whatever happened to Henry Taprell?


I introduced him to Spain in 1991 and he loved it so much he moved out there. I think he is now in Girona.


Any plans for the new, revitalised Chemistry Set to perform live?


Paul and I really do not want to get in the back of a Ford Transit and travel up and down the country. We did that and bought the t-shirt. We definitely want to do some one-off shows but they must be a bit special. We hope to do some European festivals next year.


If we play in Europe we will play with Conrad on bass and hopefully Ashley, but our producer is a great guitar and keyboard player and singer so we have all the components.


You mentioned up there that offers had come in from various record companies to release ‘Sounds Like Painting’ – are the same people showing an interest in releasing the new material?


We have a few offers on the table from some really good indies for the UK & USA. We also want a separate agreement in Spain because we love it there and they love us, so it is handy that our producer has a lot of great contacts there. I hope the EP comes out early next year. One thing I can say is that we will not repeat our mistake of holding out too long like we did with ‘Sounds Like Painting’.



Dave Mclean was interviewed by Phil McMullen © Terrascope Online October 2008