I first heard The 3Ds live in early 1990. They were a four piece with three members who wrote songs and sang individually. I’d never heard anything like it before. At that point I rarely went to gigs, and it was so loud it seemed like an obnoxious noise. They were playing the songs from their first EP, Fish Tales and some which would find their way onto the follow up EP Swarthy Songs For Swabs. When I left the gig, with tinnitus in my ears, I remember being surprised to have registered a couple of catchy tunes in amongst the noise – in particular, one called “Sing Song.” And with the rush of discovering a new band, I was hanging out to buy something for the CD player.
I’d have to wait over a year for that. The CD was finally released in 1991 which brought together Fish Tales and Swarthy Songs For Swabs on one disc with a 15 track playlist. It was a hard listen though–the production was digitally raw and a bit harsh. So much better to hear these songs in their vinyl EP format where the thing doesn’t jumble together like one long cluttered and forked up wrecking yard. Here you can pick the songs out individually, a more bite-sized experience, and then rock out around your apartment playing air guitar and giving yourself whiplash. On later releases they would marry the fieriness of the Pixies to the odd-chord harmonies of Sonic Youth but lower-fi—very much a late 80s, early 90s alt-pop sound. Fish Tales does showcase all The 3Ds’ tricks and styles on one EP however, and they would improve on this aesthetic with their three 90s albums. On vocals, we have David Mitchell, Denise Roughan and David Saunders with Dominic Stones on drums. Okay, time to put on yer red and blue glasses Bumstead and cut that wax…
First Church… roars into action like a 500 cc engine revving at the start of a race, and the race begins with this solid melodic riff. We get Mitchell’s very weird wired vocals, singing something like, “I was born with the face of a priest … on fire / And walked around with the teeth of a man … / Nails from a dog … / And I lay down in First Church on fire / With my eyes nailed to the sky / And I watched as the skulls (something) one another / Higher, higher, higher, higher.” The song carries on in the same vein, that engine-revving riff, before smashing out. A strong, churning opener.
Dreams Of Herge… mixes grunge, a delicate noodly melodic lead guitar, with Roughan’s soft airy voice, a bit like Belinda Butcher’s inaudible vocals on Loveless. “Walking in the rain” is about the only line I can catch. This is a cool number though, the bass, guitars and drum all twining around one another for awesome contrast effect, mirroring a good tune. Herge is the creator of Tintin of course, and Tintin, Captain Haddock and Snowy would feature in a horrific scene on the cover of their next EP.
Evil Kid… is another grungy rocker with one of those clear electric riffs warbling psychotically for several bars before the song hits its brief chorus part and returns to the main thrust. Saunders on vocal this time, wailing far beneath the noise. He hears a demon burning a hole in his (something). This is all rhythmic rush and twisty lead guitar, piercing feedback and melodic thrash. It’s all over very quickly.
Fish Tales… another Roughan vocal, folk-like whimsy this time, with more of those oddball lead lines by Mitchell twining around the bass. Again, her voice is so high and soft that I can only catch the first words; things like “morning” and “shining” and “fish tales.” The drumming is this insistent double beat thing. The song makes me think of a summer seaside holiday but it’s raining and you can only watch the sea from the window. Aesthetically, it has a lot in common with early JPS Experience.
Evocation Of W.C. Fields… and this is another based around a wickedly wobbly stop-start rhythm, almost comically so (evoking the comedian in the title?) with Mitchell singing something like, “We wanna look / At W.C. Fields / Take his books / And burn ‘em up” (?). I’ve probably got that way wrong. The verse parts fuzz out into a much faster chorus section that has all sorts of dirty grungy notes thrust up against the rhythm section leading to some kind of freeform multi-part metallic howling.
Mud Sacrifice… is all heavy menace and eerie darkness, like a virgin-slaying midnight ritual song: “[Something] rises to a medieval sky,” while the “trees are all leaving” and “the sea is drowning … down on its knees.” Mitchell seems to be ripping his vocal chords out to bring us this gargled howl, some kind of semi-demonic yelping. As the song continues with its growling, lurching riff, he starts stretching out his words in these frighteningly agonizing tones, like a man pulling a knife out of his chest. Pretty freaky stuff.
Ball Of Purple Thread… less a song than a floaty piece of sound-crafting with a delicate lead guitar riff which seems to convey someone knitting thread. The rhythm is a low pulsing thing, distant, on the bass drum. The guitarist repeats the same thing over, while Roughan recites a story about a girl having a dream: “She saw a purple thread / It seemed to her that when she took it by the hand / And tried to draw it out there was no end to it / …She rolled it round and round and made a ball of it / The labour of doing this was so tiresome that she woke from her sleep and began to wonder what the meaning of the dream might be.” The piece is short, leaves you wondering what the meaning of the song might be, but only for a minute or so. Not entirely a satisfying ending.
As far as first EPs go, this is pretty far out stuff. It’s a pity you can’t really hear the lyrics because they’re probably quite entertaining. The music is all strangulated and coagulated, hard and sharp as horns and soft as cotton, frenzied and dreamy, poppy and deformed, all styles and ideas that would be further and better explored on 1991’s more exciting Swarthy Songs For Swabs.