In 2001, Time magazine published an story entitled “Bad Online Music.” Written by Lev Grossman, who has since become a bestselling fantasy author, the article discussed the advent of free downloadable music on mp3.com. But instead of reveling in techno-optimism, it focused on a few songs that Grossman considered especially mediocre.
It’s like watching a car crash–horrifying, yet you can’t tear yourself away.Lev Grossman, “Bad Music Online”
Two of the songs have since become cult artifacts, representing those early days of home-produced online music.
The first song selected for ridicule was “There’s Nothing in My Dreams” by Girls With Attitude, a cadre of peri-pubescent girls seemingly corralled by a parent keen on marketing them. The singing, lyrics, and musicianship are amateurish to the point of verging on avant-garde, approaching the outsider appeal of The Shaggs, reinvented for the digital generation.
To my knowledge, the members of Girls With Attitude have never resurfaced. A small record label named One Kind Favor pressed an unauthorized ‘reissue’ of their mp3.com tracks onto vinyl, limited to 27 copies, with each disc individually made using a lathe record cutter.
Another band targeted for vitriol in “Bad Online Music” was a UK act named Offwight Radiator, derided by Grossman as “inexplicable alterna-dirge.” Is that an accurate description? You be the judge:
Curious about the story of Offwight Radiator, I used archive.org to track down an old website attributed to them. That website was administered by James Hart, a member of the band who continues to have a web presence to this day. Reached via email, he was happy to tell me the story of Offwight Radiator, whose lone brush with fame was a derogatory article in North America’s most identifiable general-interest newsmagazine.
“The turn of the millennium was a strange one for me,” Hart explains. “After the intense excitement of the Y2K bug, involving late nights and travel across the east of the UK and the birth of our first child the previous August, the discovery of the mp3.com website — the first real ‘public access’ music site, a legal alternative to Napster and MusicMatch — was a real tonic to me.”
Hart, who learned guitar at age seventeen after buying a cheapie from a church sale (“it was like playing cheese wire”), is still making music to this day. “The bottom line is that I was, and remain, a mediocre musician, at best, and until fairly recently (before GarageBand and cheap multitracking software came along) just made do with what equipment I could get my hands on.”
Hart grew up in the eighties, when popular music in the UK was far more diverse than it is now. “How long is it since we could last see that the charts had pop, acid house, goth, heavy metal, indie and Status Quo in the top 40?” he remarks. “I knew that I would never be good enough to make it in any of them. The brilliant thing about discovering mp3.com was that it accepted everyone – possibly the first site of its kind, and the range of music available was frankly mind-blowing.
“Even better — and I wonder if it was the downfall of what was actually a service that was well ahead of its time, given the success of Spotify now — it offered a small amount of payment each time a song was played.”
At the time, mp3.com had a feature known as stations, which were playlists curated by users of the website. Hart came across an station called “The Worst of The Worst!,” among the site’s most popular pages.
“It was eye-opening, inspiring, and a joyful celebration of music that really, really wasn’t very good,” Hart says. “A world apart from the polished pop of the charts, and even more raw than the likes of grunge that had been and gone during the 1990s. I fully acknowledge that it could have been considered snarky or even cruel to knowingly exhibit these songs like musical freakshows, but I’ll be honest, I really felt like I had come home. “
Mp3.com was a goldmine when it came to outsider music. Sadly, the original website is now long gone, and whatever artifacts exist are those that have been preserved by individuals, most of them likely on decades-old hard drives. There are few physical remnants of the website’s enormous database. For a period of time, mp3.com offered a service known as Digital Automatic Music, in which they would burn CD-R copies of their mp3 albums, in jewel cases with artwork, for artists who wanted to make their music available for sale to fans. Those CD-Rs are now a fascinating time capsule.
Hart mentions that he purchased a few Digital Automatic Music CD-Rs from mp3.com, which serve as rare artifacts from this era of outsider music. He owns a coveted copy of Murder in the Recording Studio by PritStik, an old album recorded in 1987 and then uploaded to mp3.com in the nineties, sometimes considered the worst album of all time. Hart also identifies the mp3.com superstar Cyrus ‘The Slammer’ Sullivan as a key example. For awhile, Hart ran a fansite dedicated to this personality, an inept, self-aggrandizing singer/songwriter responsible for racy nuggets like “21 and Legal” and “Sex Worker (Stripper Mix).” (Sullivan has since become a bodybuilder, according to his Twitter account, and is not to be confused with a controversial figure with the same name who runs a website to shame carriers of sexually-transmitted diseases.)
Hart points out that there were some artists on the “Worst of the Worst” list that were consciously producing bad music, among them acts like Pizza Gratis and Doctor Orange. “And [there were also] those who had no idea, like Tammy Swindell and the wonderful Naomi Hall,” the latter of whom was featured on Irwin Chusid’s radio program, Incorrect Music, which specializes in outsider music. Hall, who continues to create music, is perhaps known for her track, “Nothing But Silence,” which is an unpolished yet catchy effort that she later issued on her album, Love Full of Punches. She continues to create music to this day, seemingly embracing her outsider status by promoting herself as “Hello Kitty meets Frank Zappa.”
It was into this cauldron of suspect music that Offwight Radiator entered. Hart tells me he has been creating music since he was old enough to “bellow into a cassette recorder.” Some of those compositions still exist, though he warns me they’re not so hot. But when he met a colleague who shared his enthusiasm for unusual music, they decided to start jamming together, pulling in a few other friends. “Including, oddly enough, my mother-in-law,” he tells me. “And thus, Offwight Radiator was born – a play on words from the faded paint on the heater in the small lounge room where we played, and the fact that we were nowhere near the Isle of Wight, where one of the band member’s ex-husband’s family now lives. Or something like that.” (Instead, they lived in Luton, an hour outside London).
He is careful to add: “We didn’t take drugs, nor, indeed, even drink alcohol when we were making the music – but that didn’t stop it being raw and as expressive as we could make it.”
Their goal was to end up on the “Worst of the Worst!” station. He remembers the night they recorded “Sent Fishing By Your Neighbour” vividly. “The only time we could ever really socialize was when my just-turned one-year-old son had finally settled for the night. We were living in a small two-bedroomed house, and had gathered for what had become a fairly regular ‘Monday night social,’ like an open house for friends, work colleagues and family to come and join us.”
“One week we decided that we wanted to make our contribution to the unusual music that I’d discovered on mp3.com. Those of us who had the equipment agreed to bring a few bits and pieces: three microphones, some kind of effects unit, a Windows PC (probably from work) that could record it, and a guitar.”
Risking waking Hart’s infant son, the band determined to record “something lo-fi and challenging,” bouncing ideas around. He doesn’t think they wrote any of their plans down, but once the concept was sorted, he recalls them all kneeling “in some perverse reverence” around their microphones.
At the start of the recording, you can hear that the gang still isn’t quite ready. “Well the numbers are going up, does that mean it’s recording?,” Suzanne asks.
“You’ve got to sing into the microphone,” Hart responds. “We’ve only got until 11.30 because then I have to take everybody home,” he reminds everyone.
The song itself is a short two minutes of atonal guitar strums, disembodied chanting, and the repeated, droning refrain: “sent fishing by your neighbour.” Think Velvet Underground meets Jandek. “We knew what the song’s basic structure was going to be, such that it was, but the performance was live, visceral and entirely improvised,” Hart explains. “I believe that, during the recording, Ed actually unscrewed the top of one of the microphones.”
Hart recalls submitting the now-legendary “Sent Fishing By Your Neighbour” to the “Worst of The Worst” station’s curator that night. “Like some peculiar audition,” Hart jokes. When the band heard back that Offwight Radiator was accepted to “Worst,” they were overjoyed. Apart from “Sent Fishing,” a few other songs were added to the station, including “Lucy and her Potbellied Pig,” which Hart says was “recorded on a cassette recorder for maximum lo-fi quality,” and “Hoover Guitar Solo,” which he reveals “was performed by my brother-in-law who had never touched an electric guitar before.”
Hart is careful to emphasize that “Sent Fishing” was not a cynical ploy for attention, and he distinguishes it from the likes of the British hit “Bring Me Edelweiss” by the band Edelweiss, which was created by carefully adhering to the tenets of The KLF’s The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way). Instead, he says the goal was to join the “Worst of the Worst!” party. “[It was] more to achieve that same sort of feeling one gets when one manages to go live on the air on a radio contest, or has a picture in the local newspaper. We wanted to be on mp3.com‘s ‘Worst of the Worst!’ And we were delighted when we were up there with the rest of them.”
“It just so happened that Time magazine picked up on the cult following that ‘The Worst of the Worst!’ had garnered in that time, and our ‘song’ was listed as an exemplar of the genre. That is the greatest musical success of my life. I have kept, and cherish the cheque for just a couple of dollars that OffWight Radiator made during its brief moment of (very limited) fame,” he says, before realizing he may have misplaced it.
“And then my baby son grew up, my music-loving colleague moved away to Devon, my mother-in-law doesn’t visit any more, and I learned the ukulele, which is a lot easier.” So ends the saga of Offwight Radiator.
Members of Offwight Radiator:
- James Hart: “I’m still in Luton (at the moment), and haven’t really done anything nearly as interesting since (…yet)”
- Ed: “A broadcast engineer and now IT company owner, working and living in Devon.”
- Suzanne: “I’m not sure where she is, but she’s now got a small son.”
- Beth: “She’s still married to me. Bafflingly.”
Thanks to James Hart for the interview. Visit his website here.
So that’s the potted history of OffWight Radiator. I’m happy to answer any questions; or, indeed, will understand if the whole thing is just too disappointing and you’d rather write about some of the other fine exponents of Incorrect Music from the Worst Of The Worst days.
Where are they now?Naomi Hall is on Twitter (last posted in 2018) and released an album in 2012Cyrus Sullivan is not the one who runs STDcarriers.com – in fact gocyrus.com links to his PayPal page.. Michael James posted a comment just a on the full upload of Prit Stik’s “Murder in the recording studio” album to YouTube – I’m hoping to get my copy of the CD signed.Tammy Swindell is – as far as I can tell – still producing Christian musicMP3.com is now a brightly-coloured (and long overdue an update) website about brightly-coloured pop musicMe? I’m still in Luton (at the moment), and haven’t really done anything nearly as interesting since (…yet)
All the best