In 1983, a 19 year old North Londoner Dan Goldstein started a job as sub-editing temp at the Cambridge-based music magazine Electronics and Music Makers. In a retrospective piece recalling his time at the magazine he described it as a war-zone in a decrepit building, one where the editors were forced to write everything by hand as they didn’t even have typewriters, let alone a computer. Four months after his short stint there the magazine was re-skinned and he was offered £100 a week to return as the editor. He fobbed off University and accepted the role. “Why read Geography when you can surround yourself with the latest in music technology, and get paid for writing about it? I wasn’t talented enough to be a rock star, a hit record producer or a professional DJ. But I could do this,’’ he wrote. From there he and his team, including music photographer Matthew (Maf) Vosburgh, laboured over the magazine and eventually transformed it into a thriving operation fuelled by their love of music.
Goldstein’s self-effacing, if not a little self-deprecating, resignation about his musical capabilities didn’t stop him from trying his hand in the DIY post-punk scene in the early ‘80s. Not long before he left London for Cambridge in ‘82, he and Vosburgh had just released their sci-fi inspired cassette Space Museum under the name Solid Space. A dreamy minimal wave jaunt of fuzzy synths, laced with references to their favourite sci-fi novels and comics, including ‘Thunderbirds’, ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Captain Scarlett’. They released it on cassette through InPhaze Records, the in-vogue label for nascent post-punk bands at the time – run by Pat Bermingham, and home to the now-seminal bubblegum-punk band Marine Girls. After the release of the album things fell a little to the wayside as the record failed to pick up steam, both Maf and Dan also became busy with their ‘real jobs’, and eventually Solid Space dissolved into obscurity.
Unbeknownst to Maf and Dan, their cassette had steadily gained notoriety as an extremely rare cult-classic – they only became aware of the interest around 2002 when reissue requests began to arrive from a slew of labels including James Murphy’s DFA Records, Genetic and VOD. An air of mystery had surrounded the cassette for years as it was deemed un-reissuable due to lost master tapes. This led to bewildered fans fuming over the latest bootleg that claimed to be an official reissue, but the record remained unattainable for another 17 years.
I came across a stream of the tape thanks to the divine intervention that is YouTube algorithms in 2013 and was immediately enamoured by its DIY post-punk electronics and jangly synth-pop melodies. But more so, it was the flaws, naivety and awkwardness that charmed me. The twinkling melody of opening-track ‘Afghan Dance’ clumsily stumbles over itself in the endearing hurry of someone under pressure trying to get-it-right-the-first-time. Despite the bleak minimalism and gloomy lyrics of evil cybermen and a hopeless future, tracks like ‘Destination Moon’ and ‘A Darkness in my Soul’ gush with a sweet warmth. The original tape is undeniably amatuer; cheap drum-machine sounds, awkward post-puberty vocals not yet fitting into their deadpan deliveries, angsty lyrics of escaping earthly woes and wobbly synth melodies interweaved with slightly-off guitar strumming. All these imperfect elements drift in and out of time, and tune, but are threaded together with oddly impeccable production. The result is something pure and honest; a perfectly imperfect piece of work.
As it later transpired, the original master tapes had been thrown out by Inphaze owner Pat Birmingham’s ex-wife during what seemed like a fairly acrimonious divorce, and by the time Maf and Dan found out in 2007 a reissue seemed impossible. At the centre of this was the concern of compromising the sound quality if reissued without those tapes. It was all put on the back-burner and the years slipped past, tip-offs about YouTube uploads and bootlegs became frequent and were casually shrugged off. But after one bunch of pirates put it up on Bandcamp with their own picture trying to swindle a bootlegged version as their own work, Maf and Dan said enough was enough and pursued a reissue.
Late last year the reissue powerhouse label Dark Entries released the first ever vinyl reissue of the album. Speaking to the label owner Josh Cheon, he told me he’d been trying to reissue the cassette for almost 10 years, even shedding a tear in sheer exaltation upon receiving the test pressing. As it turned out, Dan had found master copies of a few tracks tucked away at home and they managed to retrieve a second generation cassette copy of the original master to facilitate the reissue. With a little encouragement from Josh and along with the superb restorative work by George Horn at Fantasy Studios, Maf was finally happy to give the release a green light.
There’s something curious about how some music fails to resonate with a substantial number at its time, but at some point, even decades later, it manages to fulfil its life being handed around by DJs, collectors and listeners. Records such as Midori Tanaka’s ambient cult-classic Through the Looking Glass and Patrick Cowley’s sticky-synth porn soundtracks have been reissued in the past few years, and just like Space Museum, they have struck a chord with a new generation of listeners. But before these records were unearthed from the forgotten, there also came the crestfallen dreams of weary artists, the resignation and the change of paths, which are rarely stories we get to hear.
Wanting to find out the story behind the record I managed to get hold of Matthew Vosburgh, who has been living in Oakland, California since ‘98. Over the last twenty-plus years he has been working as a programmer, writing software for tech-giants such as Microsoft, Apple and Google, and more recently taking time out to take care of his young daughter. “I still have all the gear” he chirped, reaching for something beside him. “This is the Wasp synth,” he thrusted a small plastic synth excitedly in front of the camera, “that’s on the whole album, and I still have the same guitar,” he goes on. I started to recognise his voice from parts of Space Museum, boyish and charming, his words loosely swirled around his mouth as he giddily fixated on drum machines and stuttered through the details of their band days. Maf spoke at length about the technical aspects of Solid Space, breaking down their parts and rambling through the exact times, places and names as if it was yesterday.
The dynamic of the duo struck me when I eventually had a call with Dan Goldstein, who like Maf was living is the US. Dan had deeper reflections on the early ‘80s and Solid Space. He would pause after each question, considering it carefully, and offer more philosophical contemplations on the time. Even though three decades had passed since their Solid Space days, the pair were still fond of each other, often slipping in endearing praise. “Maf was definitely the more accomplished musician and he was technically more knowledgeable as well. I was definitely a more emotional performer and the back-and-forth between the two of us was important,” Dan asserted.
Maf and Dan met at WillIam Ellis school in North London when they were eleven. By the late ‘70s the UK was enduring a period of volatile economics under the Thatcher regime, resulting in staggering rises in unemployment, high inflation, industrial strife, and a decline in living standards. ‘‘It was a depressing time,’’ recalled Dan. “Almost everyone in our year at school was either in a band or trying to become a professional footballer because there didn’t seem to be much of a prospect of getting a job when you left school”.
The technological boom had welcomed computers into peoples homes and there was excitement about this new age of information and digital devices. At the same time bands like The Cure, Kraftwerk, Human League and artists like Gary Numan were climbing into the charts and popularising the synth-pop sounds of the future. When I asked Dan why he thought the record had struck a new chord today, he offered “I think it’s interesting that the ambivalence we were feeling about new technology at the time of recording Space Museum, has a parallel in the debate about data and online services today. In some ways this decade feels like a bit of an echo of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. There’s a global media narrative that the more ‘connected’ we are, the better our lives will be, but every time there’s another data breach, or fake news scandal, or cyber-attack, there’s this nagging feeling at the back of our minds that all is not as it should be. I think that edginess, that feeling of being on the brink of something either beautiful or terrible, is what we wanted to convey with Space Museum and maybe that uncertainty is the reason it is resonating at this new point in time.’’
The pair first started to play together when they formed the band Exhibit A along with Paul ‘Platypus’ and Andrew ‘Lunchbox’ Bynghall. By the age of 16, they’d already released two records. They paid for the pressing themselves at £50 per member, secured a distribution with Rough Trade and released through their own label, Irrelevant Wombat Records. The sound was a jolty brand of post-punk with a touch of new wave, at times reminiscent of punk-band X-Ray Spex and Wire, but made by 15-year-olds who couldn’t really play their instruments. “It sounds embarrassing and awful because I was fifteen and I couldn’t play,” Maf cringed.
The inception of Solid Space began when on Exhibit A’s second record, Distance. They decided to split the band up on the B-side; the guitars and drummer did one track and Maf (bass) and Dan (keyboards) created the track ‘Platform 6’, which features on Dark Entries reissue.‘’I was listening back to ‘Platform 6’ and marvelling over what a great lyricist Dan was at 16. They were really complex and dystopian (…) there’s a whole story in it,’’ Maf said sincerely praising his friend, which he did so often throughout our conversation. To record the EP they booked the cheapest 16-track studio they could find in London, described by Maf as “some weird hippy commune on the outskirts of London.” It happened to belong to the British composer Robert John Godfrey and his prog-rock band The Enid, and was cornered in the basement of their mansion studio. “There were some bemused hippies watching us do this weird Kraftwerk-y electronic music. They had this huge keyboard collection so Dan was going crazy using their keyboards,” Maf giggled.
But it wasn’t all peaches and cream being in Exhibit A. A growing rift in creative direction stirred tensions, but after Maf and Dan recorded ‘Platform Six’, a sort of musical chemistry was realised. Not long after recording the track the pair reached their peak with the turbulent dynamics and politics in Exhibit A and decided to break away and instead just work together.
“I’d go to Dan’s house on the bus and I’d bring my guitar and the Wasp synth in a laundry bag. Dan had a keyboard in his room and we’d just go up there and make music. We started making ambient songs with no lyrics or structure and eventually ended up the kind of songs you hear on the album,” Maf said holding up his cherished Wasp. With the spritely fearlessness of a teen he also decided to switch his bass for a guitar, ‘‘Space Museum is the sound of me learning how to play the guitar instead of bass, that’s why a lot of the playing sounds a bit odd.”
Space Museum’s lyrics are often poetically stark projecting alien landscapes and a forlorn sense of dejection with romantic melancholia, although Maf thinks it sounds more ‘‘cuddly’’ than anything negative. The boys were bonded by their escapist love of dystopic and surreal science-fiction and the album became an extension of their astral-affinities; ‘Destination Moon’ was inspired by Tin-Tin and ‘A Darkness in my Soul’ named after a sci-fi novel by Dean Koontz. In ways, it was an attempt to escape the precariousness and mundanity of the gloomy recessive society around them. As Dan puts it, “At the time we were nostalgic for our own childhood and wanted to find a way (…) to create this weird futuristic electronic music that you would hear if you walked into a nightclub on some weird and wonderful planet.” Although their sound is irrefutably ‘80s, the album still doesn’t feel jaded today. The brooding sense of urgency in tracks like ‘Destination Moon’ and ‘New Statue’ tease their nascent ability to create anthemic melodies that aren’t too far away from classic floor-fillers like Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ and The Cure’s ‘Just like Heaven’.
At the time of Space Museum’s conception, a young Pat Bermingham, who was working as a crane driver and in his spare time running InPhaze Records, had signed one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite bands, Marine Girls, along with Portion Control and The Legendary Pink Dots. After seeing Maf and Dan perform as Solid Space at The Basement in Covent Garden, he asked to record them. Pat had acquired Pink Floyd’s old eight-track and had turned his garden shed out in Essex into a modest studio appropriately called ‘The Shed’. “It was absolutely tiny (…) you couldn’t get more than four people into it. It wasn’t properly soundproof and there was a tape recorder that was literally the size of a large oven (…) with huge reels of tape that were eighty pounds each”, Dan remembered.
After school everyday they would haul their gear – a wasp synth, a few guitars, a casio keyboard, a roland CR-78 and a Dr Rhythm drum machine – across London on the tube to The Shed to record their album, racing against the clock to be home by their 11 PM curfew. One of the striking things about the record itself is the remarkably sharp and clever production, particularly on ‘New Statue’, where Pat adopted the Radiophonic Workshop technique of tape-splicing.
With limited resources, and given the unpredictability of analogue gear and recording, a lot of the production was down to the serendipitous moments of happy accidents. “You can’t be a perfectionist with analog. I think those imperfections are actually what gives the music a lot of its life, vibrance and energy,” Dan reflected. Maf on the other hand was a little less enamoured by the flaws. “There’s a lot of things I could do better now” he said a little regretfully. “The clarinet is out of tune on ‘Contemplation’ – well, the sad fact is that the clarinet is not out of tune; everything else is out of tune,” Maf said giggling a little sheepishly, “and Destination Moon doesn’t really have the right bassline (…) there should be a bass guitar on that not an acoustic guitar bass, but I didn’t have it with me on the day”. Even with the giggles he still seemed irked thinking about the mistakes, but it’s hard to imagine Space Museum without the ‘quirks’. Would it really be as charming? Similarly to when someone’s flaws can make them likeable and real, it’s the album’s crooked little smile and naivety that makes it unique; it tells a story that a perfectly-primed product couldn’t.
Maf still mulled over the mistakes and deliberated over whether to re-record the whole album again, however Dan believed its flaws were part of its innate character, “To me there was no way we should recreate that sound and time, it’s definitely a moment in time. It’s two kids of 17/18 in a garden shed in Romford in Essex (…), it’s a lot of spirit and lot of naivety and innocence. That is the charm, I was like let’s put it out, warts and all and see what the reaction is.”
Little happened after Pat released the cassette in ’82. They played a few gigs, but things never really kicked off. Even with tumbleweed sweeping across their otherworldly visions, there was a one-off rave review in the now iconic comic book 2000 AD, which helped them to shift many of the idle cassettes. Perhaps this marked the inception of their cult following. Soon after the album’s release, Dan accepted the job as editor of Electronics and Music Makers in Cambridge and left London. “It all just disappeared after that, we stopped playing and no one was calling me up at the time. We never had any more label interest, and Dan moved away and got a real job as an editor and I got busy with photography,” Maf said with an air of despondence, as if re-living the abrupt halt in their premature adventure.
For the duration of our conversation, Maf vividly told the story of Space Museum in zoom detail – it was a time he cherished. After Dan left for Cambridge, he felt it wasn’t right to continue Solid Space and he couldn’t gather the steam to get work done without his partner in crime. But for Dan, working as an editor in music technology got the better of his appetite to create it himself. “I had much easier access to the equipment than I’d had when I was in Solid Space, but part of that was being surrounded by it at work and I just needed to let off steam at pubs and clubs rather than be responsible for any of the entertainment” he recalled. At the same time Matthew had finished photography college and began working as a music photographer shooting rockstar cover-photos for the likes of Guitarist Magazine and E&MM. During a photo shoot at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, he casually showed the tech guy some mac software he’d been quietly writing as a hobby and he was offered a job. Ever since that day he’s been writing software.
Both Maf and Dan had veered onto different life paths, but both had been incredibly successful in their respective routes. Despite all their efforts in hauling gear across London, pouring their pocket money into DIY releases and grandeur visions of scoring music for the clubs of the future, the pair never resented the fact things didn’t necessarily go to plan. “I think we felt we were being quite innovative at the time, we weren’t just making music for the sake of it, we wanted to be successful and we wanted to reach a good size audience with it, but fate didn’t conspire for that to happen,” said Dan quite frankly. But despite their high hopes, his grounding realism and modesty pervaded. “I never resented the fact that it never took off because I honestly didn’t think it was that great! Maf and I were proud of the music we made but I’m not sure either of us really ever believed it would appeal to a mass audience.”
Solid Space was put to bed and while the duo were pleasantly surprised and flattered by the renewed interest as the years rolled on, they had both moved on with their lives. When I spoke to Dan first in February he still hadn’t listened to the reissue, he thought it would be a “weird experience”, perhaps avoiding the weird melancholia that comes when you dip into a past you rarely think about.
I wondered if, after all this, did they have any regrets or would they have changed the way things ended up? “I’m not sure, I definitely see a parallel universe where I didn’t become a journalist and Maf didn’t become a computer programmer, and we continued to bum around London for a few more years before taking our rightful place in the rave scene of the late ‘80s as a rival to The Orb, the Chemical Brothers and 808 State. But then I wake up and realise there was a reason that didn’t happen: we were actually much better-equipped as people to do the things we actually did!”, Dan mused humorously. Maf on the other hand had offered a sweet and simple reflection. “If we got commercial success, I guess we could have made more music, if it was fun… but I guess I had fun doing photography and doing programming and other stuff, so it all worked out ok.” He continued, “I’m just glad people like the music, it’s a shame that it didn’t get wider exposure at the time (…) and it’s a shame that Pat lost the master tape”.
Both their responses were emblematic of their sincerity and humility as people. Dan saw the dazzled projections of strobe-lit fame but accepted it wasn’t realistic. Maf, on the other hand, accepted the fleetingness of the time and was grateful for how it all turned out in the end.
In a world where feedback looms instantaneously over any form of expression, where we can, at any moment, go back, rethink, edit and perfect, it’s sometimes the naive, the ones who get it kind of wrong, who are the most affecting. There’s a certain type of magic that occurs when something is created from inherent instincts, unadulterated by what criticism might warrant, raw, telling, and more often than not flawed, and that’s where the humanity is.