In their 1973 occult cookbook The Third Mind, novelist William S. Burroughs and painter Brion Gysin discuss the notion that when two like-minded individuals are harmoniously tuned to the same creative task, a ghostly “third mind” will arise during the proceedings, almost independent of the original two participants and take everything to a higher level. It’s not just that two minds are better than one, they’re better than two minds, too:
“The third mind is the unseen collaborator, the superior mind constructed when two minds are put together.”
One plus one equals three in creative matters, in other words. It’s all very mathematical obviously and therefore cannot be disputed.
And so it was that one-time Jesus and Mary Chain drummer (and then absinthe importer) John Moore teamed up with the leader of the Auteurs, Luke Haines. Both were participating in a folk ensemble called Balloon—Haines on guitar, Moore on electric saw—and they decided to write some songs together. The initial results were promising and after the pair had composed a ditty titled “Girl Singing in the Wreckage” they needed a girl to sing it naturally and so enlisted another Balloon participant, vocalist Sarah Nixey.
Now Sarah Nixey happens to be the owner of one of the very, very best British female voices of all time (Nixey should be doing all of the voiceover work for British Airways and Jaguar. They ought to declare hers the official voice of Great Britain by royal decree or something, it’s just that perfectly English-sounding.) There is no one in pop—not one singer I can think of—who has her precise and exacting command over her instrument. Not only are her almost whispered gossamer vocals as resonant as Tibetan glass singing bowls, her diction is so astonishingly crisp and well-enunciated that it leaves her, frankly, without peer, as an archly ironic sprechgesang-singing posh girl rapper with one raised eyebrow.
With Nixey’s advantageous addition to what was already the working “trio” of Moore and Haines, this meant that the three of them together were now as good as seven or eight lone musicians, perhaps even an entire orchestra. Burroughs and Gysin never explained what came after two minds equalled three and math was never really my strong suit, but to be able to compose music knowing THAT VOICE would be interpreting your material must’ve spurred Moore and Haines to give it their all as songwriters. Writing to the strength of a chanteuse with the talents of Sarah Nixey would have an exponentially positive effect on any musical endeavor and thus was born Black Box Recorder, already greater than the sum of its thoroughbred parts before the project even gets out of the gate.
With Nixey fronting the group this meant that the two cynical bastards writing the music had to channel the perspective of a female of about her age (early twenties) in the lyrics she’d sing and so over the course of their three albums, a sort of morbid, spoiled, narcissistic Sloane Ranger character develops while the lush minimalism of the music reminds one of Air or Portishead. Black Box Recorder’s darker lyrical preoccupations—Ballardian musings on car crashes and “The English Motorway System,” police digging up bodies in a trendy neighborhood, swimming with the ghosts of murdered Victorian-era children—could be seen as representing evil Cousin Serena to Saint Etienne’s sunnier Samantha Stevens.
As a remarkably assured debut album England Made Me compares favorably to something like Please by the Pet Shop Boys: cynical, funny, intelligent with sonic invention and arrangements of the highest caliber. (England Made Me is also as perfect a soundtrack to the Tony Blair era as the PSB’s first album was for Thatcher’s final years in power. I fully expect that future filmmakers producing period pieces about pre and post millennial Britain will ransack BBR’s discography song by song.) Here’s their first single, “Child Psychology,” a catchy number about a world-weary six-year-old girl who simply stops talking:
“Child Psychology” was blacklisted for radio play by most UK stations and MTV and it was released as a single in America just one week after the Columbine massacre, ensuring its quick demise on the US pop charts as well. If you found yourself wondering “How did I miss this?” just watch the video and you’ll instantly know why. England Made Me‘s title track, in which the protagonist tells of a dream that she’s killed a man and left his body in a trunk, didn’t burn up the charts here or there either, but it’s also a damned good song:
It was with their classic all-killer-no-filler second album The Facts of Life in 2000 that saw BBR release their sole chart hit. “The Facts of Life,” an aerial view of the birds & the bees and DNA (“there’s no master plan”) went top 20 and the group was invited to perform on TV’s Top of the Pops. As told in the pages of Haines’ Post Everything: Outsider Rock and Roll his second memoir of life in the music business, aiming to create a hit record with the aid of science, he and Moore forensically autopsied and then back-engineered the Billie Piper earworm “Honey to the Bee” to come up with what they—and the public, for a few weeks at least—thought was an irresistibly catchy pop tune.
They were right about that:
And now fast forward to 2018. Moore and Nixey got married, had a daughter and then got divorced five years later. BBR have performed very sporadically since releasing their third album Passionoia in 2003. Haines has had a prolific solo career, written two books and is currently hosting an outstanding internet radio show called “Righteous in the Afternoon” on Boogaloo Radio. His latest concept album is I Sometimes Dream of Glue on Cherry Red Records. Moore’s solo album Knickerbocker Glory was recently released and Nixey’s upcoming solo album Night Walks sees release on October 5th via Black Lead Records. This seems as good a time as any for there to be a 20th anniversary BBR box set, this being the group’s actual 20th anniversary and all. Unsurprisingly there’s a record label that agrees and One Little Indian has collected (nearly) everything by BBR into one essential five-disc anthology.
Included in Life is Unfair are each of the three proper Black Box Recorder albums (England Made Me, The Facts of Life and Passionoia) along with “BBREXIT,” an odds-n-sods collection that’s similar to the US-only release The Worst of Black Box Recorder (but not identical) and a DVD that includes a live 2009 reunion gig and three of their music videos. It’s all housed in a black box that parodies those idiotic Katharine Hamnett “Choose Life” tee-shirts that were so ubiquitous in the mid-80s. If you are looking for “something new to listen to” then take it from someone who’s gotten utterly obsessed by BBR in only the past two years, that you need to look no further than the Life is Unfair box set. Of the three BBR albums, I’d rate the debut an 8/10—it’s great, but they still had room to grow—and the follow-up a 10/10 (The Facts of Life isn’t Abbey Road, no, but it IS one of the finest—and most criminally underrated—albums of the past two decades.) Their third outing, Passionoia, is a somewhat less-inspired affair, although it does contain some of their very best material, including what I’d consider to be a perfect pop masterpiece in the form of “Andrew Ridgley” (sic). The B-sides, rarities and BBC sessions are good—some of them are great—but it’s the first two albums that most people will return to. The music videos are nice to have as previously they’ve only been available as low resolution versions.
“Do You Believe in God?” live at the Luminaire Kilburn in 2009.
“The Facts of Life” on TOTP in 2000.
“Andrew Ridgley” (sic)