Prose

Number 28: Donoghue Jones and the Spaceman Tapes

25 February 2016

Music does not exist in a vacuum. Then again, there are very few songs about vacuums, so presumably there is a mutual agreement between the two.

The 1970s were a time of great innovation for music. Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, David Bowie – all took existing trends and pushed them in new and different directions. For the most part this was met with critical acclaim. But in the story of Donoghue Jones, experimentation took a very different turn.

Donoghue Jones was, by all accounts, a competent if mediocre musician. His solo acoustic work had a small following and was inoffensive enough to earn an income playing at supermarkets – the so­called “Sainsbury’s circuit”.

However, Jones was looking for more. He wanted “a different sound” for his next album, as recorded in his diary. Renting a studio in Shoreditch, Jones began to compose what he refers to repeatedly in his diary as his “magnum moped” – Spaceman. It was – as far as we can tell from Jones’ diaries – to have been a concept album drawing on science fiction themes that were prominent in the music of his contemporaries.

In 1975, Jones’ manager Benjamin Cleaver arrived at the studio, accompanied by the landlord, having heard nothing from the musician in several weeks. Finding a locked door and no sign of Jones, the pair summoned the police, who broke into the building. Their discovery is recorded in both a police statement and Cleaver’s autobiography:

Upon forcing an entry, I was confronted by the sight of the studio in disarray – scorched sheets of paper were everywhere, the recording equipment was sparking and instruments lay strewn across the room. In the recording booth was what I can only describe as the silhouette of Donoghue Jones – the shape of a man, filled in by a flickering light.

– Statement of DC Nicholas Edwards, first officer on the scene.

 

It was like someone had scrubbed him out with TV static. Same thing with the guitar slung across his chest. The microphone just hung there in front of this … nothing.

– Excerpt from One Foot in the Rave, best­selling autobiography of Benjamin Cleaver.

And that, however remarkable, should have been the end of it. But, against police instruction, Cleaver pocketed the cassette tapes of Jones’ earlier sessions, which had survived undamaged by whatever it was that had burnt the rest of the studio. Stopping at a newsagent on the way home, Cleaver’s car was broken into and his briefcase – containing the tapes – was stolen.

The police tracked the stolen briefcase to a student house in Dalston, but found nothing, save an empty cassette player and three unusually large yellow butterflies. There was no sign of the house’s three residents or the tapes. In early 1976, amateur musician Dan Lorne was sent to a private hospital after walking down the street naked, claiming he had seen the future and shouting, “Everyone’s a goddamn monkey!” to passers­by.

Constable Jane Burrows, who examined Lorne’s belongings, is reported to have wept tears of liquid chromium upon listening to one of three unmarked cassette tapes in Lorne’s collection. These tapes were sent to music critic Ferdinand Baxter, who took them with him on holiday to the United States.

There, on a scrap of notepaper in a Lower Manhattan hotel room, Baxter gave us the only insight into what Donoghue Jones had recorded for Spaceman:

confident guitar work 

unusual chord progression

can’t place the meter

electronic sounds?

A day later, police were called to the hotel. Baxter had been found lying on his bed, frozen under a layer of ice. His belongings were untouched, save for his cassette player, which was gone.

In 1977, six music students disappeared from a motel room, leaving only silhouettes scorched onto the walls. Musician Annie Tremble has kept her hands gloved since an alleged incident with the tapes in 1979. A Colorado radio station tried to play one of the recordings in 1982, by which point the Spaceman tapes had become something of an urban legend. Three seconds into the broadcast, the station’s transmitting antenna collapsed. Rushing outside, station attendants found a mass of gold lizards where the debris should have been. In 1990, patrons fled a Sunset Strip nightclub as it was engulfed in electric blue flames.

At the time of writing, the exact location of the Spaceman tapes is unknown. Perhaps they are in the hands of a collector or gathering dust in an archive. Perhaps some naïve listener is about to press ‘play’. Or perhaps they’ve disappeared, just like Donoghue Jones himself.

He took it all too far

But boy could he play guitar

– ‘Ziggy Stardust’, David Bowie.


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