I was one of the co-founders of a physical theatre company, Three Women, touring UK and Europe with our shows ‘High Heels’, ‘Follies Berserk’ and ‘Wounds’.
I was living with boyfriend and friends in a rented house off the Wandsworth Bridge Road. That boho house in Fulham had a bead curtain instead of a bathroom door, and a wall phone (old-school handset with the classic coiled cord) beside the bath. There was a big green sofa in the living room, a blackboard on the kitchen wall and a spacious basement where we once held a party to which innovative pop hit-maker Joe Jackson came. We got to know him because he came to see ‘High Heels’. We brought him out of the audience to join in a ‘magic act’ (not realising at all who he was).
One of the household was musician Roy Nicolson*. He set up his piano and keyboard in the basement, where he worked long days writing electro-pop songs under the name of Michael Process.
We’d all gather to watch Top of The Pops** each Thursday night. We enjoyed seeing the art school-inspired pop artists and discussed the style innovations (e.g. Adam Ant’s post-punk/New Romantic transformation into a re-envisioned Dandy Highwayman via Vivienne Westwood).
I loved the pared-back percussive dissonance of ‘Money’ by the Flying Lizards and the vocalist’s deadpan delivery. And there was Nina Hagen. There was no Google back then to check the lyrics of ‘Unbeschreiblich Weiblich’ – it was only this year I realised the full scope of the bold originality of her lyrics.
Having checked out Hagen on YouTube for the writing of this piece, I noticed that the show makeup we wore in Three Women was similar to Nina’s. This was probably the contribution of Claudia, the German member in our touring company, as we crafted of a female version of the classic ‘everyman’ mime makeup. The 80’s was, in general, the era of pink eyeshadow, blue lips and lightening-bolt blusher.
Three Women created shows with a feminist twist. For one piece: ‘Business Men’, my friend Roy wrote an absurd, bouncy march for the start of the piece where the ‘men’ did a formation ‘parade’ with jackets on our heads and ties on our foreheads.
Maybe it was because of this that I felt bold enough to show Roy a few lyrics I had scrawled: ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ and ‘Boys Aren’t All Bad’ (which had arch delivery and rhythm inspired by the aforementioned ‘Money’). I also wrote a song called ‘I Am a Time Bomb’.
Fulham Broadway - as mentioned in Ian Dury’s ‘What a Waste’ - was the nearest tube station, a good 15 minutes’ walk from our house. It was a walk I always seemed to be doing alone in the damp and dark - an activity that required focus and vigilance. One evening there had been more than the usual amount of dodgy looks and cat calls: a group passed, enveloping and expelling me like an amoeba absorbing its food. Later, a car careered past and a lad leaned half his body out the window to shout at me: ‘VD, VD, VD!’ I was almost home when a small group coming the other way passed close and purely on reflex, I punched one of them in the ribs (I was jumpy, it was a dumb idea, never repeated). He broke away and gave chase for a bit and I ran all the way to the front door. No great trauma – but a thing.
The men who walk the dark
They mumble as I pass
They have me in their sights
But am I really dressed to kill?
The echoes of my feet, the shadows in the street, all stop when I stand still.
– ‘I Am a Time Bomb’
Building a song
The song took shape in a few sessions in the basement. I came with a rough suggestion of the vocal line and Roy (aka Michael) worked his talent, experience and craft on the song structure and musical choices. He liked the result of our collaboration enough to mention it to his producer.
When I got into the recording studio (with Andy Arthurs, Phil Chambon and Roy aka Michael) I was nervous, due to my lack of knowledge and modest vocal ability. The instrumentation of the piece was put in place. Compelling beats conveyed an alarmed heartbeat. I sang the verses and ‘Michael Process’ sang backup lines and then the producer said it needed something extra: a voiceover at the top, to set the context for the song. I wrote something and read it. I was asked to do it again in a breathy voice – I thought, hm, ok, fear can be breathy, right? Then a phrase was needed to punctuate and someone came up with ‘Or I’ll explode on you!’ It’s a logical extension of the Time Bomb metaphor, but I had misgivings - together with the breathy intro, wouldn’t this give the song a sexual slant? The studio clock is always ticking (whoops, a pun) and I couldn’t propose anything else that had as effective an impact for that moment of the song structure.
On the 45
The image for the sleeve of the 45 was shot in Elephant and Castle, at the entrance to a grimy pedestrian tunnel. I am looking back over my shoulder and carrying shoes to suggest a need to be fleet of foot. I wore my then most prized garment: a black patterned satin gentleman’s jacket, accessorized with a glittered pink scarf from the Kings Road and dangly earrings (the 80’s was ALL ABOUT EARRINGS). Over-plucked eyebrows, intense eye makeup and (god help me) permed, crimped hair completed the ‘look.’
I’m looking at the cover design now. Graphic designers then worked with Letraset – did some of the letters come adrift? Or was the uneven, drooping lettering a deliberate, if reserved, nod to punk design?
On the flip side was an instrumental track – the pompous, infectious, comical march Roy had written for ‘Business Men’.
We sold the records at our shows, with the ‘Business Men’ track (the ‘B side’) facing out. Yes, Three Women had merch! Pink t-shirts with our logo (a surreal line drawing of a shoe created by artist Tessa Schneideman). It was a strappy, high-heeled sandal with toes, but an absent foot
I put it behind me. Someone posted ‘Time Bomb’ on YouTube a number of years ago and a couple of my drama school students managed to discover it. ‘Great,’ I said to them. ‘My decades of (pre-digital) ground-breaking physical theatre work are undocumented … but this, you see!’
The past will rise up
In 2021, I received a Facebook message from someone compiling an album of 80’s electro-pop, wanting to include ‘Time Bomb’.
Brené Brown tells us to be vulnerable, to get comfortable with discomfort. Clown teaches us to view ‘failure’ as creative opportunity.
I contacted Roy who contacted the producer who okayed the rights for the track to go on the album. This unexpected resurfacing of ‘Time Bomb’ has had a wonderful outcome. I am working on a new mystery project and am once again, and more prolifically, collaborating with my talented musician friend. It is now decades later and we are working, not side by side in a basement in Fulham, but by email between two hemispheres.
Feminism today is more nuanced and I can’t help looking back critically as I listen to ‘Time Bomb’ again.***
Michael Process definitely made good music. It’s a catchy, well-crafted track, sounding of its era, yet satisfyingly fresh.
Flawed metaphor or not, ‘I Am a Time Bomb’ is still uncomfortably relevant.
I wonder what you might make of it?
Listen to 'I Am a Timebomb' - as randomly posted on YouTube in 2009.
* Among many other things, Roy Nicolson co-wrote and played on ‘I Eat Cannibals’ by Toto Coelo.
He also released records as Michael Process.
** On the subject of pop in general - a bit of tangential trivia/unnecessary namedrop: my 1982 wedding dress (a black Lois Lane affair with a pillbox hat) was made by Natasha Korniloff, who, as well as designing ‘Follies Berserk’ for Three Women, had designed the gorgeous White Clown costume for her then-lover David Bowie in the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ video.
*** ‘Don’t take me for a whore’ – was written before awareness of the importance of being an ally for sex-workers. A few lines were added under pressure of time in the studio: ‘The city is a warzone’ had the right argument, ‘I am a deadly weapon’ is misleading and ‘There’s gonna be a big explosion’ – is off target. My intention for the song was a critique of a real situation rather than a revenge fantasy.
Thanks to Kelly Burke for her invaluable assistance in reading and editing previous drafts of this blog post.