How We Live: Dry Land 30 Years On

How+We+Live+Dry+Land+554632Madchester aside, the late-’80s may be the least-heralded period of British pop, but the era also produced a surprising amount of intelligent, original bands that arguably never got their commercial due: Love And Money, Danny Wilson, The Bible, The Lilac Time, It Bites, Stump… The list of ‘under-achievers’ is long and varied.

But one name often forgotten is How We Live. Most famous for featuring a pre-Marillion Steve Hogarth on vocals and keyboards, the band emerged from the ashes of new-wave popsters The Europeans to release their one and only album Dry Land in 1987.

Originally appearing on CBS offshoot Portrait Records but now given a shiny new remaster by Esoteric/Cherry Red, the album certainly ticks lots of ‘quality 1980s pop’ boxes: it was recorded at Crescent Studios in Bath with XTC/Peter Gabriel producer David Lord and The The/Deacon Blue engineer Warne Livesey, and features Tears For Fears’ drummer Manny Elias on a few tracks. Peter Gabriel and XTC also get a thank-you on the inside cover.

Colin Woore and Steve Hogarth

Colin Woore and Steve Hogarth

Malcolm Dome’s incisive liner notes for this re-release outline the record-company shenanigans which dramatically shortened How We Live’s lifespan, whilst also acknowledging how Hogarth and fellow ex-European Colin Woore’s songwriting was very much informed by the other quality British pop of the time – Talk Talk, David Sylvian, Gabriel, Hue & Cry (Hogarth apparently being a big fan of Pat Kane’s vocals), Kate Bush.

And while it’s tempting to view Dry Land as the prelude to Marillion’s second phase, it’s pretty clear that Hogarth already had an extremely strong presence as a singer, songwriter and keyboard player long before he joined the Brit-prog behemoths.

Dry Land‘s opening 1-2-3 of ‘Working Girl’, ‘All The Time In The World’ and the title track (latter taken into the top 40 by Marillion) is pure dream-pop bliss. The latter benefits from a dramatic string arrangement, missing from the Marillion version, though connoisseurs might rue the big snare-drum sound.

‘Working Girl’ is simply a classic, with a haunting verse and swooning, truly uplifting chorus. How that and ‘All The Time’ didn’t crack the top 40 is still a mystery, though, according to manager Mark Thompson, CBS were spending most of their time and money trying to break Deacon Blue during this period.

Whilst the rest of Dry Land can’t quite maintain the quality of the first three tracks, there are plenty of other pleasures: ‘Games In Germany’ is a fine fusion of late-’80s PiL and Season’s End-era Marillion, a crashing new-wave groove with a fabulous, wrong-footing chorus. Classy ballad ‘Lost At Sea’ is somewhat reminiscent of David Sylvian’s work of the same period, while ‘In The City’ takes a left turn into jazzy pop with great aplomb; its shimmering synths, swinging groove and catchy trumpet melody bring to mind such late-’80s movie soundtracks as ‘The Big Blue’ and ‘Betty Blue’.

‘India’ is unfortunately a bit more Chris De Burgh than It Bites, though Dave ‘Taif’ Ball’s elegant fretless bass impresses, as it does throughout Dry Land. ‘The Rainbow Room’ is perhaps the most ‘prog’ track on the album, powered along by an intricate keyboard sequence and guitar motif.

Unfortunately Dry Land was a dead end for How We Live – it stalled outside the top 40, and, although there were some big gigs including a Munich show on the same bill as Eurythmics and Tina Turner in front of 100,000 people, they called it a day in late 1987. Hogarth was enquiring about becoming a milkman when he heard from his publisher that Marillion had been in touch. He was back in business, and remains so to this day – their politically-charged new album F.E.A.R (F*** Everybody And Run) is out on 23rd September. But Dry Land is a fascinating and worthwhile precursor.

Dry Land is out now on Esoteric/Cherry Red.

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13 Memorable B-Sides Of The 1980s

princeThere was definitely a ‘thing’ about B-sides in the 1980s. You never quite knew what you would find on the reverse of your favourite 7” or 12″ single – maybe a new direction, bold experiment, glorious failure, engaging curio, self-produced shocker or even the drummer’s long-awaited-by-nobody songwriting debut. Sometimes a single track encapsulated all of the above…

I was certainly never the biggest singles collector in the world, but I had to try and hear everything by Prince, Level 42 and It Bites during their peak years. Some B-sides took on a kind of mythic stature and weren’t easy to access: you’d have to cadge from your mates, record things from the radio or trawl the Record & Tape Exchange.

Here’s a motley parade of ’80s backsides, some long-sought-after, some intriguing, some exciting, some fairly random but all inexplicably etched upon my memory. I gave myself three rules: no remixes, live tracks or album tracks allowed…

13. David Bowie: ‘Crystal Japan’ (1981)

Though originally released as an A-side for the Japanese market, this charming instrumental later turned up as the B-side to the ‘Up The Hill Backwards’ single of March 1981. I’m still waiting for Jeff Beck’s cover version.

12. Peter Gabriel: ‘Curtains’ (1987)

Almost every time this ‘Big Time’ B-side rolls around, it produces a slight chill and sense of wonder. One of PG’s most disquieting pieces, it has to be said, but with a lovely melody and ambience.

11. Danny Wilson: ‘Monkey’s Shiny Day’ (1987)

The Dundonians are at their most sublimely Steely-ish on this ‘Mary’s Prayer’ B-side. The track’s lo-fi production and slightly low-budget horn section/backing vocals hinder it not one jot.

10. Prince: ‘Alexa De Paris’ (1986)

Prince had always threatened a full-on guitar instrumental and this ‘Mountains’ B-side delivered it. And boy was it worth the wait. Sheila E plays some fantastically unhinged drums (check out how she reacts to Prince’s guitar throughout) and Clare Fischer weighs in with a widescreen orchestral arrangement. The composition is reimagined as a solo piano piece in the movie ‘Under The Cherry Moon’.

9. It Bites: ‘Vampires’ (1989)

The B-side of ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, this glam-prog classic is notable for its crunching riff, catchiness and Francis Dunnery’s most extreme It Bites guitar solo (muso alert: was it stitched together from multiple takes?). It’s also one of many fine IB B-sides, of which more to come soon. Pet Shop Boys were definitely listening – this is even in the same key.

8. David Sylvian: ‘A Brief Conversation Ending In Divorce’ (1989)

The accompanying track to one-off 12” single ‘Pop Song’, you get the feeling this micro-tonal, improvised miniature featuring late great pianist John Taylor was far more up Sylvian’s street than the hits requested by Virgin Records.

7. Donna Summer: ‘Sometimes Like Butterflies’ (1982)

This B-side to ‘Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)’ is a bit of a guilty pleasure. But Summer’s exceptional performance transcends the schmaltz, as does a superb drum performance by…someone (Steve Gadd? Rick Marotta? Ed). Intriguingly, Dusty Springfield covered it in 1985.

6. Level 42: ‘The Return Of The Handsome Rugged Man’ (1982)

This irresistible B-side from the ‘Are You Hearing What I’m Hear’ 12” shows the lads in full-on Weather-Report-meets-Jeff-Beck mode. Drummer Phil Gould even gives Harvey Mason and Billy Cobham a run for their money.

5. Roxy Music: ‘Always Unknowing’ (1982)

This shimmering, beguiling Avalon outtake from the US single version of ‘More Than This’ was surely in competition with ‘While My Heart Is Still Beating’ and ‘Tara’ for an album spot. Beautiful playing from guitarist Neil Hubbard.

4. Donald Fagen: ‘Shanghai Confidential’ (1988)

This ‘Century’s End’ B-side is an intriguing slice of fuzak with lovely chord changes, some tasty Marcus Miller bass and a fine Steve Khan guitar solo. You can even feel Donald smirking slightly when he plays his synth motif.

3. Scritti Politti: ‘World Come Back To Life’ (1988)

The B-side of the ‘Boom There She Was’ 12-inch showcases all the charms of the Provision sound: intricate arrangements, pristine production, bittersweet lyrics and punchy vocals. For many fans, it’s better than a lot of stuff on the album.

2. China Crisis: ‘Animalistic’ (1985)

The Liverpudlians detour into minimalist jazz/funk with some success on this ‘Black Man Ray’ B-side. Gary Daly’s vocals have never been so wryly Lloyd Cole-esque (before Cole… Ed) and drummer Kevin Wilkinson is really in his element. Gorgeous synth sounds too.

1. Willy Finlayson: ‘After The Fall’ (1984)

We’ll close with something in the ‘fairly random’ category. The A-side, ‘On The Air Tonight’, was recently covered by The Zombies’ Colin Blunstone, but I’ve always had a soft spot for this B-side. Both tracks were written and produced by ex-Camel keyboardist Pete Bardens. Willy is still active on the (sadly ever-dwindling) West London gig scene.

Let me know your killer B’s below.

Jean-Baptiste ‘Toots’ Thielemans (1922-2016)

tootsIt is with a heavy heart that we hear of Toots’ passing.

Born in Brussels, he was one of the most brilliant multi-instrumentalists in music history, equally proficient on guitar and harmonica. His guitar/whistling combo was also a knockout. He worked with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Jaco Pastorius, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Elis Regina, Billy Joel, Peggy Lee and Stevie Wonder, and, thanks to his playing on the ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Midnight Cowboy’ themes, was probably the most-heard harmonica player of all time.

We present one of Toots’ great ’80s works with a smile and a tear.

Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Isidor Baron Thielemans, born 29th April 1922, died 22nd August 2016

Square Records in Fripp Country

squareI’m not much one for rock’n’roll pilgrimages (living in London, the whole place can sometimes feel like a music heritage site), but, during a recent trip down to Dorset, I couldn’t resist visiting one of my favourite muso backwaters: Square Records in Wimborne, a great shop with a deceptively rich history.

As I crept around the corner and spied Square just across the way from the majestic Minster, I was honestly just relieved it had survived for another year. It first came to my attention when it featured in a beautifully-made mid-’80s BBC documentary (see below) about fascinating King Crimson mainman and key Bowie/Gabriel/Eno/Sylvian collaborator Robert Fripp. Fripp was born and raised in Wimborne (before the music bug hit, he almost joined his dad in the family’s estate management firm…), and he perpetually returns to visit relatives and sometimes even rehearse there.

The documentary captures a fascinating time in Fripp’s career – we see him with Andy Summers in what looks like a little studio space above Square Records learning the tunes that would make up the Bewitched album, and also duetting on a little Django Reinhardt. We eavesdrop on Fripp’s presentation/pitch meeting with Polydor Records to discuss the marketing for King Crimson’s Three Of A Perfect Pair (‘we would like a new audience – this is what you can do for us’!), and see Fripp at a Square signing session, giving considered advice to some young Wimborne musos.

Fripp wanders around other fascinating local landmarks – Badbury Rings (probably my favourite spot), Knowlton Church, Horton Tower and the medieval hunting lodge where Crimson rehearsed Discipline – all the while discussing his career and spiritual beliefs (‘the top of my head blew off…I saw what it was to be a human being’). There’s even time for afternoon tea with Mother.

badbury rings

But back to Square in 2016. I found myself properly browsing CDs and vinyl for the first time in years, unsure what I’d find. I came across a rack titled something like ‘Local Bands’ but didn’t see any Fripp or Crimson in there, so grabbed In The Court Of The Crimson King from the K section and naughtily re-categorised it.

Taking my Siouxsie & The Banshees best-of (a steal at £4.99) to the counter, I admitted my crime to the friendly woman behind the counter. She ignored the transgression, cheerfully saying, ‘Oh, Robert used to live above the shop.’ Oh, right. Wow. I asked her about that BBC documentary. ‘Oh, I’m in that too. You can see me when Robert is doing the album signing.’

You can indeed. Long live Square. And Fripp.

Whatever Happened To Good Musicianship?

matt bass first ave gardenI’ve got a problem: 95% of the new songs I hear from the rock/pop world sound incredibly bland. Uninspired. Turn on the radio to check out some current music. Turn it off again. More Adele/Amy Winehouse/Kate Bush wannabes or Mumford & Sons knock-offs with those annoying ‘whoa-oh-oh’ bits. Or twee, fluffy singer-songwriters who sound like they’re auditioning for an Innocent ad campaign.

Natasha Khan AKA Bat For Lashes sounded off in The Sunday Times recently: ‘Music has been in decline since the 1980s or 1990s. There’s so much drivel to wade through, it’s overwhelming.’ Donald Fagen of Steely Dan said something similar in a Rolling Stone diary entry, identifying the young acts who shared his stage at the Coachella Festival last year as ‘in the circa 1965 Bob Dylanesque mode, minus genius or anything like that.’

But maybe a quick way of explaining the main problem with modern pop and rock music would be: lack of musicianship (jazz, metal and prog seem to have gone the other way, becoming way too technical). Of course I’m not claiming that being a good musician is essential to the creation of good music. But it doesn’t hurt.

Musicians in the pop/rock world these days seem to lack feel. Mostly they don’t even really have a style. Bands seldom get beyond loud/quiet dynamics and don’t groove particularly well together. Many musicians, especially drummers, have monstrous techniques, honed in their music rooms and demonstrated on YouTube – but they don’t play particularly well with other people and/or don’t contribute to the songwriting.

In the 1980s, we were spoilt for virtuoso players who existed only within bands. Where’s this generation’s Johnny Marr, Robert Cray, Mark King, Eddie Van Halen, Mick Karn, Robin Guthrie, Stewart Copeland, Chas Jankel, Tom Verlaine, Francis Dunnery, Vernon Reid, Reeves Gabrels? (Suggestions please…but I guess Matt Bellamy from Muse might just scrape into that company…) Or even Will Sergeant, Edge, Charlie Burchill or John McGeoch? Where are the great musicians who just happen to play in a band?

Then there’s the dearth of quality songwriting. These days, the world is full of songs that just about ‘work’. I mean, they sound like songs, have some kind of structure and the semblance of a melody. But you seldom hear much evidence of craft, magic, mystique, a lyric that jumps out at you or a chord change that pulls the rug from under your feet. These songs mostly go in one ear and out the other, not having any kind of hook, groove or melodic/lyrical grace note.

Part of the problem is that few of the current crop of songwriters sound like they have studied harmony to any extent. They’re still rigidly locked in to the kinds of simple major and minor chords which started to sound stale in the early ’70s.

In the pop world, Amy Winehouse was a big exception to this. She did her homework and her influences reached back before 1965. Her songs unleashed a blizzard of 6th, 7th, 9th and 11th chords which lend them a freshness despite many listens. Those sorts of chords would scream ‘jazz’ to most modern musicians, and thereby turn them off instantly, but it’s a snobbish attitude. Jazz harmony was always a big part of pop until about 30 years ago.

Another route out of the boredom might be embracing the kinds of great melodic and harmonic strides made by the likes of Joni Mitchell and John Martyn. By the early ’70s, both were quoted as saying that they were bored by standard guitar tuning, so they unlocked the instrument’s melodic potential by experimenting with drastic detuning, thereby increasing the range of their songwriting too. But these pioneering concepts have generally fallen on deaf ears. Maybe they were way ahead of their time (and, to be fair, neither exactly stormed the charts). You occasionally hear someone like Laura Marling using a non-standard tuning, but it’s seldom ear-bending, without enough harmonic movement.

And for all today’s supposed musical liberalism, where people are listening to their genre-less, colourblind, eclectic playlists and everyone is into everything, actually music has never been so divisive and ghettoized. Terrestrial TV music shows essentially stick to ‘edgy’ rock and singer-songwriters plus a bit of hip-hop or retro R’n’B/soul for the critics. If a jazz, fusion, funk, prog, metal, blues or roots musician gets on ‘Later…With Jools’, it’ll probably only be because of some kind of PR slant or book promotion.

It was different in the ’80s. You could turn on primetime telly and see great jazz players, rock players, funk players. Playing live. It seems to be different in America. There are still vestiges of respect for musicianship and craft. The drummers week on Letterman is just one of many examples – that could never have happened in Britain.

I’m glad I got into listening to/playing music in the late-’70s/early ‘80s because it was a time when bands produced great, loyal musicians, not a bunch of sessionheads (though yes, a lot of session musicians did great work in the era too). Say what you like about ABC, Japan, Madness, Light Of The World, Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Bow Wow Wow, Killing Joke, Simple Minds, Cocteau Twins, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Aswad, UB40, Scritti Politti, Talking Heads, Level 42, Aztec Camera, The Associates, Propaganda and even Duran Duran, but they all had good, easily identifiable players in their ranks who also contributed to the songwriting.

Anyway, that’s my two pennies’ worth. Next time: some jokes.

Three Angry 1980s Songs About Managers

Grey_Double-Buttoned_Suit_JacketManagers, eh? In 1997, David Bowie said, ‘They’re a species I really have nothing to do with’, an unsurprising position considering his disastrous earlier experiences with Tony Defries. By the late ’70s, he’d sworn off them forever.

But, in the rock and pop world, it’s almost a rite of passage to be ripped off by a manager. As the old music biz saying goes: where there’s a hit, there’s a writ.

There were certainly a number of dodgy characters hanging around in the 1980s, generally wearing cheap suits and deafening aftershave. Japan/Wham! manager Simon Napier-Bell knows where all the bodies are buried: he told all in ‘Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay’, his jaw-dropping account of record business skulduggery. And Giles Smith’s hilarious ’80s memoir ‘Lost In Music‘ outlined his doomed-to-fail attempts at pop stardom whilst being hamstrung every step of the way by chronically-inept ‘career adviser’ Pete The Bastard.

Basically, for every Bruce Findlay (Simple Minds), Ed Bicknell (Dire Straits) or Paul McGuinness (U2) – the nominal ‘fifth member of the band’ – there’s probably a Colonel Tom Parker or Defries in the wings.

Here are three prime 1980s acts who turned on their ex-managers in the best way they knew how.

3. XTC: ‘I Bought Myself A Liarbird’ (1984)

For many years, songwriter Andy Partridge was unable to discuss this song due to ‘legal issues’ with the band’s former manager Ian Reid (the sticking points seemed to be a huge unpaid VAT bill and also work/life balance, or lack of it…). Partridge delivers a pretty caustic portrait of the ‘starmaker machinery behind the popular song’, as Joni Mitchell called it. XTC settled out of court with Reid in 1989.

I bought myself a liarbird
He came with free drinks
Just to blur the lies falling out like rain
On an average English summer’s afternoon

I bought myself a new notebook
Sharpened my guitar and went to look
If this biz was just as bongo as the liarbird made out

All he would say is ‘I can make you famous’
All we would say: ‘Just like a household name’
Is all he would say

Methinks world is for you
Made of what you believe
If it’s false or it’s true
You can read it in your bible
Or on the back of this record sleeve

I bought myself a liarbird
Things got more and more absurd
It changed to a cuckoo
And expanded, filling up with all I gave

I bought myself a big mistake
He grew too greedy, bough will break
And then we will find that liarbirds
Are really flightless on their own

Methinks world is for you
There’s no handing it back
If it’s false or it’s true
You can read it in your prayer book
Or on the side of a cornflake pack

I gave away a liarbird
A couple less drinks
And now I’ve heard the truth shining out like sun
On an average English winter’s afternoon

2. John Martyn: ‘John Wayne’ (1986)

This Eastern-tinged, dramatic doom-ballad was initially written as a diatribe against Martyn’s early-’80s manager Sandy Roberton. The main problem seemed to be ‘cashflow’, judging from the lyric below… After a rewrite and the adding of a soupçon of humour (as well as some of John’s ‘strangled duck’ vocals, as he called them), it also became a cheeky portrait of the type of ball-busting, all-American bullyboy represented by Duke Wayne and Martyn’s old favourite Ronald Reagan. He even managed to include a classic Pinteresque euphemism: ‘I’ll measure you – fit you up!’

You know you’ve got it coming
I’ll tell it to you straight
I’m coming for you very soon
I’ll never hesitate
I’ll measure you
And fit you up

I am John Wayne
I do believe I’m John Wayne
I am John Wayne
Drink your milk!

Don’t you dare look behind you
You know I will be there
You’ll feel my breath on your neck
Turn, face me if you dare

I am John Wayne
I believe I’m John Wayne
Get on your horse!

You felt the money flowing
You watched the beast arrive
Watch the money going away
Time to skin the lamb alive

1. Prince: ‘Bob George’ (1987)

Black Album curio ‘Bob George’ was recorded at LA’s Sunset Sound as a present for Sheila E, and premièred at her Vertigo club birthday bash on 11th December 1986. Engineer Susan Rogers explained the genesis of this bizarre, self-mocking, X-rated piece: ‘Prince felt (Billboard music critic) Nelson George had become very critical of him all of a sudden, at a stage in his career where he needed all the help he could get. (Manager) Bob Cavallo also ticked him off.’ Roots of this discord may have lain in Prince’s wish to release the triple-album Crystal Ball as the follow-up to Parade, a wish that fell on deaf ears during negotiations with Prince’s record company Warner Bros. Maybe Prince felt that Cavallo hadn’t pushed hard enough on his behalf, terminally affecting their working relationship – Cavallo was given the push just after the release of the Batman album 18 months later. (Is ‘Bob George’ also a homage to/pastiche of Miles Davis? Ed.)