Madchester 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 get a thank-you on the inside cover.
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. But Dry Land is a fascinating and worthwhile precursor.
Dry Land is out now on Esoteric/Cherry Red.