China Crisis: Diary Of A Hollow Horse 30 Years Old Today

‘File under: Victims Of A Cruel Medical Experiment’. That was Q magazine’s memorable verdict on What Price Paradise, CC’s 1986 studio album. They had a point – it was producer team Langer & Winstanley’s unfathomable attempt to turn the Liverpudlians into Madness.

But when Steely Dan co-founder/co-songwriter Walter Becker came back onboard for ’89’s Diary Of A Hollow Horse, released 30 years ago today, normal service was resumed. It now sounds like a perfect follow-up to the 1985 classic Flaunt The Imperfection.

Becker was reluctant to record in England so persuaded the band to convene at George Benson’s Lahaina studio in Maui, Hawaii, just down the road from Becker’s home. He brought engineer Roger Nichols along for the sessions too, famous for his painstaking work on Steely Dan’s Aja and Gaucho. Nichols apparently taught all of the band how to scuba dive during their time off.

It’s hard to know what sort of expectations Virgin Records had for this album. What they ended up with is a kind of chamber pop, mainly the sound of a great, super-tight band playing live in the studio. The only concessions to ’80s music are the teeniest bit of reverb on the drums and the occasional synth overdub, to add colour in lieu of a horn section.

Becker’s real contribution seems to be on the arrangement side (the tasty modulation for the guitar solo in ‘Sweet Charity In Adoration’ is a case in point), and he also brings in great backing singers Maxine Waters, Myrna Matthews and Linda Harmon, saxist Jim Horn, guitarist (and Countdown To Ecstasy engineer) Tim Weston and percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, who presumably used up most of the recording budget.

Virgin obviously computed the ‘hits’ as ‘Red Letter Day’ and ‘St Saviour Square’, summarily canning Becker’s versions of the songs and bringing in Mike Thorne to ‘re-produce’ them (the ploy didn’t work – the singles stiffed at #84 and #81 respectively). You can listen to all of the versions on YouTube.

Hollow Horse also didn’t work commercially, only reaching #58 in the UK album charts. But this was a period when some great pop/rock by the likes of Danny Wilson, It Bites, Love & Money and David Sylvian (all Virgin acts except for one… hint, hint…) also failed to find a big audience. CC’s album sales diminished as the quality of their work increased – the game was up in terms of major-label support, but amongst fans of quality ’80s pop Hollow Horse has only gained status over the years.

The lads reproduced the album perfectly at London’s Dominion Theatre in spring 1989, a gig whose details elude me apart from the late Kevin Wilkinson’s superb drumming (and ahead-of-its-time, side-on kit placement) and vocalist Gary Daly proudly saying ‘That’s a good one, tha’!’ after ‘Day After Day’. He had good reason to feel chuffed – Diary Of A Hollow Horse still sounds like a minor classic 30 years on.

10 thoughts on “China Crisis: Diary Of A Hollow Horse 30 Years Old Today

  1. This was my introduction to this fantastic and unfairly-overlooked band, and it’s still my favorite 3 decades later. I like a lot of what came before & after but this was the perfect entry point for me as a lifelong Steely Dan fan. Also, I’m always happy to see Danny Wilson referenced in the blogosphere. That would have been a great double-bill back in ’89.

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  2. I adore this album and remember reading an interview around the release of the 2013 expanded edition with the engineer of the demo versions, who was furious and claimed that the album proper mainly consisted of the demos he recorded for CC prior to Walter Becker adding the odd bit of EQ and running away with the producer credit. Compared to Flaunt, his role felt somewhat diminished.

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    • Thanks Chris. Interesting stuff. The album in the main certainly seems pretty ‘under-produced’ by ’80s standards, and the Becker tracks are also mastered really quietly. Maybe he did use a lot of the ‘demo’ takes but I would say the album’s all the better for that. It mainly just sounds like a great band playing live in the studio with hardly any post-production at all (apart from Thorne’s re-versions). A few tracks definitely have Becker’s arrangement hallmarks though which might put that engineer’s story in doubt, especially the title track, ‘Stranger By Nature’ and ‘Sweet Charity In Adoration’.

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