David Sylvian: The Brilliant Trees Sessions

Sylvian’s modus operandi for the studio sessions that made up his classic 1984 debut album perfectly reflected its ‘anti-rock’ stance.

Steve Jansen’s drums and/or percussion were generally recorded first, usually followed by David’s rough keyboards/guitars and a guide vocal. After that he worked closely with guest musicians on a one-to-one basis.

And the latter aspect is the main focus of some fascinating, newly-released footage of the Hansa Studio sessions in Berlin, documented by Sylvian’s then-partner Yuka Fujii.

It’s an absolute treat for Brilliant Trees fans and a great chance to see what actually happened in most recording studios during the 1980s. In common with making movies, there’s a lot of waiting around, a fair bit of chewing the fat and then some pretty intense bursts of performance/concentration.

It’s fascinating watching Sylvian collaborating with his good friends Ryuichi Sakamoto and Holger Czukay. Sakamoto is a model of quiet concentration, quickly learning the chords to album outtake ‘Blue Of Noon’. Czukay is full of smiles and fun while tinkering with his Dictaphone and laying down a guitar solo on ‘Red Guitar’ which didn’t make the cut.

Elsewhere we finally get to hear what ball-of-energy guitarist Ronny Drayton actually plays on ‘Pulling Punches’, and Jon Hassell is every inch the NYC avant-garde auteur (in his excellent book ‘Cries And Whispers’, Anthony Reynolds reports that he did just one five-hour session for Brilliant Trees, asking for and getting $5,000 upfront plus co-writing credits for the two tracks he played on).

But who knew he recorded his solos sitting on the floor in the corner of a tiny studio, Sylvian at his elbow? For his part, Sylvo is generally smiley, quiet, engaged, charming, extremely professional and seems to have a good rapport with co-producer Steve Nye.

Sadly the short bit of footage that emerged recently (then rapidly disappeared) of bassist Wayne Braithwaite recording ‘Red Guitar’ is not reinstated here.

The clip is a vital addition to one’s enjoyment of Brilliant Trees – check it out (and I’ve included Sylvian’s own notes on the footage below) before it gets taken down.

This raw footage, shot on what’s now seen as a primitive camera but which was a top of the line consumer product at the time, a massive, unwieldy object, was documented by Yuka Fujii. I’ve put the material together in the order it was recorded to give a very general idea of the process of development. It’s been my practice to work closely with each individual musician since my earliest days with the band in an attempt to get the best results. I’ve always maintained the band prepared me for working with others, gave me the confidence to work with my peers, the ‘newcomers’ in the room all being older than myself (25). At this point in time Ryuichi’s English was very rudimentary (this was to change radically within the next ten years or so) so we had to communicate as economically as possible, or rather, 95% of the exchange was purely musical. Yuka and Peter Barakan would step in when greater explication was needed. Holger’s English remained consistent throughout the years i knew him. Again, subtleties could be lost so the dialogue was relatively basic. These sessions in Berlin were my first step in creating what would become ‘Brilliant Trees’ and my initial move away from the structure of the band. It was one of the happiest recording experiences I can recall while signed with a major label. Because of the success of having everyone meet in Berlin, a city native to no one involved, it felt like an adventure. People arrived with a spirit of openness and receptivity. I went on to repeat this process with albums such as ‘Secrets of the Beehive’, ‘Rain Tree Crow’, and ‘The First Day’ among others.

I’ve left a lot of Jon’s conversation in as it’s of interest. In one section he’s explaining the nature of raga and how he came to it by working with renowned Indian singer/teacher Pandit Pran Nath. He was also intimating that, as ‘Brilliant Trees’ asked that he play in the western tradition, ‘steps’ as he describers it, he didn’t see how his performance could be incorporated into the title track. I persevered. He returned to his hotel room that evening to work on it and, overnight, came up with something so beautiful and complimentary to the piece, that moved away from raga (outside of the coda), and gave us one of the rare, if not unique recordings, of Jon playing in the western tradition.

Besides the limited nature of my vocabulary, the paired down nature of our exchanges for the reasons given above, my only regret is that I didn’t use Holger’s guitar solo on ‘Red Guitar’. At the time I felt it a little lightweight compared to the mix Steve Nye was prepping. I would now mix it quite differently pushing the drums way back (from the mid 70s through the 80s, drums were often foregrounded, a trend I wasn’t fond of. I fought for a change of approach on ‘Beehive’ and that’s about the time when things began to resemble how I’d initially imagined the material. There are always exceptions of course, ‘Weathered Wall’, ‘Before the Bullfight’ are just two examples). I loved Holger dearly and wish I’d imortalised his solo in some capacity. If it still exists on multitrack, all is not lost.

I came away from Berlin with an incomplete album and preceded to write a few remaining pieces to complement the best of what I had. “The Ink in the Well’, ‘Nostalgia’ and ‘Backwaters’ were added, ‘Blue of Noon’, an alternate version of ‘Forbidden Colours’, and a new track composed with Ryuichi were, with the exception of the latter, to find a home elsewhere. ‘Blue of Noon’ was originally a vocal piece but I felt this version didn’t hold together and, in any case, was out of place in the context of the album. Virgin released a working rough mix of the track as the B-side of a single.

I hope the mutual respect and good humour of everyone involved comes across along with their seriousness and committed nature to the material. Rarely has this proved otherwise for me. In this respect I feel very fortunate. From this session I made lifelong friends, a trend that was to continue for many years to come.

david sylvian july 2021

It Bites: Thankyou And Goodnight 30 Years Old Today

There’s a secret history of bands/artists disowning their own albums before they’ve even been released.

Lee Mavers’ La’s, Prince and Chrissie Hynde’s Pretenders come to mind, and the brilliant Cumbrian four-piece It Bites can also be added to that list.

They even sent out a ‘please don’t buy our new album’ letter to their fan club. I still have it. Quote: ‘They feel Thankyou And Goodnight to be a complete rip-off on the part of Virgin Records…’ It didn’t work, of course. I bought it during its first week of release.

By summer 1991, a year after guitarist/lead vocalist Francis Dunnery had done a runner from the band (this interview gives intriguing hints as to his state of mind during spring 1990) while they were recording their never-to-be-released fourth studio album in Los Angeles, remaining members John Beck (keyboards), Dick Nolan (bass) and drummer Bob Dalton (then trying to make a go of it as Navajo Kiss, and later Sister Sarah) were less than thrilled to hear that Virgin intended to release an It Bites live album.

But it was out of their hands. They reluctantly helped with track selection/sequencing, approved the artwork and title and Thankyou And Goodnight summarily became the official au revoir to one of the finest British bands of the 1980s.  

One top 40 single (‘Calling All The Heroes’) was a pretty dire return for one of the most melodic acts of the era. Virgin should get some blame for that (were they generally better cheerleaders for their solo acts, apart from Genesis, Simple Minds and Culture Club?).

But you hear ‘Still Too Young To Remember’, ‘Underneath Your Pillow’, ‘Kiss Like Judas’ and ‘Midnight’ today and it’s inexplicable that they didn’t crack the charts.

In particular, their singular lack of mainstream success throughout 1988 seems to have been a huge shock for the band, especially off the back of an extraordinary sophomore album Once Around The World, sold-out UK tour and well-received Robert Plant support slot.

But back to Thank You And Goodnight. Visually, it’s a pretty shoddy package. The cover looks like it was knocked off by a reluctant Virgin designer after a long liquid lunch. There are no recording dates or technical personnel, save for mixing engineer Nick Davis (XTC, Marillion, Genesis, Phil Collins), whose surname is misspelt.

Then there are some cursory ‘history of the band’ liner notes, with an annoying addendum by a Virgin staffer: ‘We owe you a drink, Ian!’. Yeah, right…

And then there’s the track choice – it’s basically the audio from the televised June 1989 gig at London’s Town & Country Club, plus a few ringers: ‘Yellow Christian’ (recording date/venue unknown) and ‘You’ll Never Go To Heaven’ from London’s Marquee in 1987 (anyone know the date?), previously the B-side of ‘Midnight’.

A better bet for a live album would surely have been the whole T&C show, plus the whole Marquee 1987 show. It’s also surprising that both of their Hammersmith Odeon headliners (in December 1989 and April 1990) were not available for release (but both are allegedly audible on the privately-released Live In London box set, in which I’m yet to invest…watch this space…).

But it’s no surprise to report that most of the music on Thankyou And Goodnight is fantastic. Under Davis’s jurisdiction, Nolan’s bass and Dalton’s drums sound like a million dollars, at least on the T&C tracks. ‘Underneath Your Pillow’ is the standout, emerging as a superb pop song augmented by the extended, proggy ending, with Dunnery quoting from Holst’s Planet Suite (Venus, the Bringer of Peace).

‘The Ice Melts Into The Water’ and ‘Still Too Young To Remember’ (with its clever ‘Old Man & The Angel’ tag) are also superb, fitting reversions.

From memory, I saw It Bites live five times (Brunel University/Astoria 1988, T&C/Hammersmith 1989, Hammersmith 1990) and they were never less than sensational. Thankyou And Goodnight is not a great package but a decent-enough document of their late-career pomp.

What a shame they couldn’t have recorded one more studio album after 1989’s Eat Me In St Louis though and basked in some long-overdue success.

And one further mystery – Dunnery has obviously added some post-production vocals to ‘Ice Melts Into The Water’ – when and where? Maybe he was secretly in on the project after all…

 

Mose Allison: Middle Class White Boy

You’d be hard pressed to find a musician less likely to thrive in the 1980s, but hey – it’s a great pleasure to feature Mose Allison on this site.

A big influence on artists as varied as The Who, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman and Frank Black, the Tennessee-born pianist and songsmith, who died in 2016, wrote witty, brilliant standards such as ‘Parchman Farm’, ‘Your Mind’s On Vacation’, ‘Feel So Good’ and ‘Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy’.

His speciality was the medium-fast blues/jazz groove, with an extra bar or two thrown in and/or an unexpected modulation. He found endless interesting variations on this theme and his self-mocking, occasionally profound lyrics made one chuckle or think – sometimes both.

Mose toured relentlessly, mostly eschewing festivals in favour of nightclubs (the first time I saw him was during a long run at Pizza On The Park in Knightsbridge – don’t look for it, it’s not there any more…), and had a cadre of pick-up bassists and drummers all over the world who had to adhere to some pretty exacting rules – no egos, backbeats, cymbal crashes or excessive use of the kick drum.

1982’s Middle Class White Boy was Mose’s comeback album, his first for six years and debut for legendary jazz impresario Bruce Lundvall’s burgeoning Elektra Musician jazz label.

But it’s probably fair to say that neither Mose nor Lundvall got an album they were happy with. The terrible cover doesn’t bode well. It was recorded in just two days and sounds like it. Then there’s the fact that for some reason Mose mainly opted to use a tinny, badly-recorded electric piano on the date.

Also he arguably didn’t have enough decent original material – there are five cover versions, only Muddy Waters’ ‘Rolling Stone’ emerging with much distinction.

But on the plus side he’s helped by two formidable sidemen – Chess/George Benson legend Phil Upchurch on guitar and ex-Return To Forever man Joe Farrell on saxes and flute, both of whom get a lot of solo space and play excellently.

And the album benefits from not one but two absolute Mose classics: the title track and a new version of ‘Hello There Universe’. But otherwise it’s not a comfortable listen. It’s a big relief when he breaks out the acoustic piano on ‘When My Dreamboat Comes Home’, even if the song isn’t anything to write home about.

The Middle Class White Boy experience didn’t exactly make Mose rush back into a studio; he released one further album for Elektra, a live record from the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival featuring none other than Billy Cobham on drums (they had occasionally recorded together on Mose’s Atlantic sides).

Then there was another five-year hiatus before his 1987 Blue Note Records (where he rejoined Lundvall) debut Ever Since The World Ended (with its remarkably prescient title track, given these current times), a return to form.

Perhaps predictably, the 1980s were not particularly kind to Mose but there are still some gems to seek out.

Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays: As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls 40 Years On

‘A game of two halves’ is a common expression in football, but it can apply to albums too.

We all know albums which have one good side and one bad one (I’ll throw in The Seeds Of Love, Fulfingness’ First Finale, Music Of My Mind, The Colour Of Spring for your consideration…).

But another humdinger is As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls, released 40 years ago today.

The Cult Of Metheny has ensnared many, and puzzled just as many. But As Falls Wichita fell smack bang in my favourite era of Pat’s music (between American Garage and Song X), and represented a real change of scene.

Side one’s 20-minute title track delivered a full-on prog/fusion masterwork, ably assisted by Lyle Mays in classic-synth heaven (Prophet 5, various Oberheims, Roland CR-78 and Linn LM-1 drum machines), always totally recognisable, and at a time when polyphonic playing had just become possible. He was rapidly becoming a Joe Zawinul for the 1980s.

‘As Falls Wichita’ may be the most ‘rock’ music released on the ECM label during the 1980s, with the possible exception of David Torn’s 1987 record Cloud About Mercury. It also seems dangerously ambitious. Then again, the whole album was recorded in just three days! Lesser musicians could have taken a month to record this track alone.

Apparently chiefly written to play over the PA system before Metheny Group concerts, it’s pure headphone music. The enigmatic title (apparently nicked, with permission, from an unreleased Steve Swallow composition) and superb album cover certainly help.

The track plays out like a good movie (its working title was ‘Apocalypse When’). It’s more John Carpenter than Keith Jarrett. You might even describe it as cathartic, dammit.

(Another reason for its success may be the complete lack of instrumental solos. Pat doesn’t get any solo space at all – he just plays some unobtrusive bass, chiming 12-string electric and a little six-string. All sounds are textural and in the service of the whole piece.)

A superb live version was featured on the 1983 Metheny Group album Travels. And those who remember the Christian Dior ‘Fahrenheit’ adverts in the late 1980s may be familiar with a small excerpt of the track:

But back to that ‘album of two halves’ thing. Sadly, side two of As Falls Wichita is New-Age sludge. Ponderous and flabby, it’s fuel to Pat detractors, but probably loved by acolytes.

‘September Fifteenth’, a tribute to Bill Evans (named for the date of the great jazz pianist’s death in 1980) is the chief culprit. A closing, out-of-tune version of ‘Amazing Grace’ doesn’t help. It’s music for tired Apple executives, and sounds like it was recorded in the last afternoon of the three days.

But As Falls Wichita was an unexpected smash by ‘jazz’ standards: the album got to #1 on the Billboard Jazz Charts and quickly became Metheny’s biggest seller to date.

So happy 40th birthday to the classic title track. Pour yourself something tall, tune in, drop out, get the headphones on, lie on the floor and crank it up. It’s a trip, man…

Further reading: ‘Pat Metheny: The ECM Years’ by Mervyn Cooke

Grace Jones: Nightclubbing 40 Years On

Nightclubbing, which turns 40 this week, would be iconic even if it was only half as good, thanks to Jean-Paul Goude’s fantastic cover painting.

But drop the needle anywhere and it’s an all-time classic, one of the jewels in Island Records’ crown and hugely influential.

Arguably its mashup of new wave, reggae, synth pop, disco and Caribbean flavours blueprinted the sound all the key New Pop acts of 1982/1983 (Talking Heads, Kid Creole, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, ABC, The Associates, Simple Minds, Thompson Twins et al) sought.

Some, of course, went route one and employed Nightclubbing co-producer and movingtheriver.com favourite Alex Sadkin.

But you might also call Nightclubbing Grace’s covers album – it features not one but six classics, if you count ‘Libertango’ and the Marianne Faithfull’s previously-co-written-but-never-recorded ‘I’ve Done It Again’ (Sting lent her ‘Demolition Man’ before laying it down with The Police).

She revolutionises Flash & The Pan’s ‘Walking In The Rain’ (her androgynous alto freaked me out when I first heard it as kid, there was just no reference point…) and compare her funky, succinct ‘DM’ to The Police’s ponderous, overblown version.

On a good system Nightclubbing‘s sonic details delight: the tambourine commentary throughout ‘Use Me’, Sly Dunbar’s dub-delay cross-sticks on ‘Walking In The Rain’, Grace’s whispered chorus on ‘Art Groupie’.

The Compass Point All Stars, particularly man-of-the-match Wally Badarou on keys, are perfectly poised to provide such moments.

But there is a weird quirk – the mastering. The album seems to get quieter as it goes along, at least on the original CD version. ‘Demolition Man’ requires some serious crankage. I’m not sure if subsequent reissues have rectified that.

Nightclubbing was NME’s album of the year for 1981 and it got to #32 on the US Billboard chart, a certified crossover hit. You might even say that the 1980s Proper started here, and it helped make 1981 one of the greatest ever pop years.

And we haven’t even mentioned Grace’s electrifying One-Man-Show that accompanied the album, directed by Goude, taking place at London’s Drury Lane Theatre and New York City’s Savoy. It was surely a huge influence on everyone from Laurie Anderson to Annie Lennox.

Joni Mitchell: Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm

Intelligent pop was alive and well in summer 1988 with key albums from Prefab Sprout, It Bites, Scritti Politti, Prince, Thomas Dolby…and, would you believe it, Joni.

Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm was a few years in the making after the underperforming (but excellent) Dog Eat Dog, and she was feeling the pressure. ‘I could use a hit’, she confessed to Q magazine in a long interview (they also gave the album a glowing four-star review).

She also granted a long interview to the NME, and was rewarded with her highest charting album (#26) in the UK since Mingus, almost ten years earlier.

Stateside, off the back of a stinking, poorly-written Rolling Stone review, it reached a disappointing #45.

Released on 23 March 1988, Chalk Mark is based around a core band of Joni on keys, guitars and vocals, Larry Klein on bass and keys, Mike Landau on guitars and Manu Katche on drums. Larry and Joni co-produce.

There’s a real consistency to the sound, but, with its hermetically sealed nature, it seems almost critic-proof. There’s nothing to compare it too, apart from Joni’s own work.

Reviewers were generally confused by her choice to use the latest synth/sampling technology to illuminate anti-war, anti-advertising, anti-‘toxic crap’ (Joni’s words), pro-Native American songs. Well, that’s what’s known as ‘irony’…

Gorgeous opener and first single ‘My Secret Place’ was mostly recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Ashcombe House studio (he also offered her free studio time to make the demos for the album).

PG guests on vocals (though Joni plays all keyboards, including the memorable piano motif) while Katche delivers a superb, subtly-building performance with hints of Steve Gadd’s famous ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ groove.

As usual, musicians and singers were queuing up to appear on a Joni record. Steve Stevens, Billy idol and Tom Petty combine to memorable effect on ‘Dancin’ Clown’ (apparently one of Bob Dylan’s favourites), while Wendy & Lisa add their gossamer back-ups to sumptuous ‘The Tea Leaf Prophecy (Study War No More)’.

‘The Reoccurring Dream’ is a collage of advertising cliches over richly-chorded Joni vocals. The standout is possibly ‘Beat Of Black Wings’, a furious anti-war song with a stately, orchestral theme in an unusual 6/4 time.

Less effective are the plodding ‘Number One’, ‘Snakes And Ladders’ and ‘Cool Water’, despite some welcome guest vocals by Willie Nelson on the latter. All would probably have been more effective as solo, acoustic songs (she often promoted the album with solo versions of the former).

The album ends with Wayne Shorter’s hearty chuckle after his multi-tracked, soprano sax deluge on ‘A Bird That Whistles’ (apparently Joni’s only instruction to him in the studio was: ‘You’re the bird’!).

Joni was in a group of one in 1988, feeling no particular kinship with the female singer-songwriters making their way towards the end of the decade, the likes of Suzanne Vega, Julia Fordham, Jane Siberry, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Louise Goffin, Toni Childs and Tracy Chapman (the latter beating Joni to a Best Pop Vocal Performance Grammy in 1989).

She was still far ahead of the competition, but also painting herself into a corner. It was the end of an era. The acoustic guitar and ‘folky’ forms would re-emerge in time for the next album Night Ride Home; a logical, commercially-led move, but the end of a fascinating progression of sounds and styles during the ‘80s.